There and Back Again
The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice in joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those who are frightened: be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you."
-- Isaiah 35:1-4
I was stuffed with Navajo tacos and beer as we left the old Cameron Trading Post and jumped in my buddy's Ford pick-up truck.
A warm wind buffeted my face through the passenger window as we rumbled over Tanner's Crossing, a one-lane swayback suspension bridge spanning that stretch of the Little Colorado River. I could feel the side-to-side movement of the bridge while squinting at the river 100's of feet below. Never one for man-made heights, I was ill at ease. Fortunately I was fine with natural heights, because we were on our way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to hike miles of steep terrain to the Colorado River far below.
Past Bitter Springs, Marble Canyon and Jacob Lake, a long series of primitive forest roads wound their way southwest through pristine alpine wilderness to the Bill Hall trailhead at the edge of the North Rim. We arrived an hour or so before sunset, so had plenty of time to set up camp and enjoy the spectacular views of the Canyon. Another half dozen in our expedition arrived a short time later, set up their tents, and joined us for steaks, beans and beer.
It was early September, so I had only packed my sleeping bag and left the tent at home. As the other guys zipped themselves into their tents for the night, I tried to unsuccessfully to relax while gazing up through the pine tree canopy at the uncountable stars twinkling in the heavens above. Considering that I was in the full fury of a major storm in my life, being able to relax seemed virtually impossible.
I awoke before sunrise, stirred by the gentle rustling of branches. I squinted in the dim light through crusty eyes at the surrounding forest. There were plentiful elk and deer within a stone's throw, but it was the sight of my sleeping bag covered in a thick layer of frost that really caught my attention. It was also as stiff as a board. Naturally I was shivering, so quickly popped up and got busy with preparations for the hike.
Tents or not, the other guys were subjected to the same cold snap as I was, so took my lead and got busy with breaking camp and securing their large packs. Thirty minutes later we were dropping down steep switchbacks that clung to 1500 feet of vertical rock face. In spite of the meticulous planning, packing and repacking of my gear prior, I spent the first hour or so wondering how I could have possibly overburdened myself with so much weight.
In sharp contrast to the cool alpine at the top of the rim, the Canyon's desert terrain blasted us with 100+ degree temperatures. I did my best to cache extra water for the trip out, but was getting a bit worried at the rate I was consuming my limited supply. We were making for the Esplanade above Thunder River Falls which would take us most of the day. I would have to start conserving water if I was going to make it there to fill up.
I was 25 years younger at the time, and in pretty decent shape, but the long hot stretches and heavy pack was taking its toll. Even so, that provided a practical excuse to avoid a lot of chatter with the other guys, which was fine as far as I was concerned. I was still struggling to relax and feeling mostly alone in my personal storm.
Seven miles in, my thoughts did start to quiet a bit, the internal chatter slowly giving way to the crunching rhythm of my boots on granite, the occasional breeze ruffling desert brush, a hawk's call overhead... until a sudden ruckus from my buddies broke the peace. A large rattler coiled up under a mesquite bush was the culprit.
Well, I didn't want any part of that, so continued on down the trail after the briefest of glances. I already had enough on my mind without risking another venomous bite. It's kind of interesting to recall that now, because that rattler was the only one I've ever seen in the desert wilderness. Considering the amount of desert hiking I've done in the years since, I just consider that another blessing.
If nothing else, I'll credit the encounter with that old snake for snapping me out of some pointless, brooding thoughts. The Esplanade was just a couple more miles ahead and looked like it would be an adequate place to rest and camp for the night. Early the next morning, I'd make for Thunder River Falls.
The next day found me stretching out the last of my water supply with a relentless heat pummeling my aching body and wavering will power which was stretched to the limit. I was out in the lead, my buddy just behind, and the rest of our group straining about a mile further behind. We were dropping down yet another set of switchbacks, but at least the falls were in reach because I could see them about a half mile away off to my left.