Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tiny Echoes From Hermit's Rest

Doris and I woke up at 6am yesterday to hike the Grand Canyon. I was far too tired to stretch out. Thankfully making coffee requires no flexibility or warm muscles. I filled up the travel doodad the Chaser gifted me from the REI store in Washington state when she was falling in love with me. The Grand Canyon is ninety minutes by car from Flagstaff. The hike in question was one Doris had heard a lot about. It was reportedly a strenuous one and only advisable for seasoned hikers, of which Doris certainly was one. However brittle, I’m reasonably fit and drink a lot of milk. 

We listened to the radio in the car. When we lost reception I put on the CD that introduced me to Dungen via Mark Ibold during his DJ set at the Worker's Club Pavement reformation weekend, Melbourne 2010. Doris likes the Swedish band, partly for having lived a sizable chunk of her existence there. She hadn’t heard this CD because when I moved to Flagstaff there was only a case. When I returned to Portland over Christmas I found the disc and returned it to its rightful home.

Once in the park, we would need to hop a shuttle to the furthest point called Hermit’s Rest. There were families and foreigners galore and it would only get worse, we thought. I didn’t realize a shuttle was needed and I hate to go anywhere without something to read, so I went into the bookshop and came out with what I was looking for: Edwards Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, his ode to the Southwestern landscape depicting his time as a ranger in Moab, Utah. I was healthily distracted with that as we reached our stop thirty minutes later.

The temperature varies a lot at the Grand Canyon. At the plateau it might be 80 and warm. Down on the river, however, you might as well be in the hells of Phoenix, you’re at that level anyway. Expect it to be thirty degrees warmer. The sign said 108. Perusing the literature there seemed to be some discrepancy with the variations in elevation until we realized we hike down and then up again to reach Dripping Springs. According to a ranger, who moved into our conversation while we topped up our water, the Springs aren’t dripping at all, they are dry and there is no water on the trail. There was also a wild variation in the time given to complete the hike. Newspaper said 6-9 hours, while guidebook said 3-7.

We started at 9.45am and weren’t ten minutes into the hike when my left knee started to ache and I couldn’t work out what the problem was for this was my good knee. Doris was far ahead of me, but this was no concern, she is fast and leaving me in the dust comes naturally. I finally caught up with her, or rather she waited and I told her how sore my knee was and if only I had stretched out before making the steep descent and it really was steep and full of hard rock surfaces that couldn’t have been less absorbent. My knee felt a bit better after I stretched it and didn’t bother me at all hiking, up or on flat ground; it was just the downhill bits and they would soon taper off as we reached halfway down the canyon.

The views were spectacular: huge rifts in the canyon and curved camel-colored rockfaces catching shadow and light, thousands of feet tall, enveloping us. There were juniper trees speckling the landscape. If you put your hot breath on them, they smelled like a dry landscape after a much-needed rain — Chaser showed me that one. Doris said we should make gin and I was like yes, we’ll build the distillery right here! 

We only heard birds and the occasional flight plane. No people just us, remarkable for how crowded the shuttles were. Doris thought maybe everyone was just being sensible not to hike the canyon in the middle of July. The sweat was pouring off us and I had my shirt buttoned half way down. It looked sleazy, but felt practical. We were pretty much exposed to the sun the entire time, so thankfully we were well-lathered in sun-block, but we were drinking all of our water. As we stood on the path at the edge of a stark cliff that tapered into a shadowy crease of red, black shadow and finally the green of the Colorado River, I yelled, it seemed like perfect conditions to echo, but I heard nothing and wondered aloud why that was. Doris thought she heard a tiny echo and said, didn’t you write a story about a guy at the Grand Canyon. I was pleased she remembered as I had forgotten. It was the story about a Hollywood writer who gets frustrated and moves to Flagstaff to write the great Southwestern U.S. novel and ends up throwing himself into the Grand Canyon. Doris though the story should end with a tiny echo or perhaps no echo at all. I thought this a wonderful idea. 

By this point we did not know how far we’d come for neither of us had brought a watch. I had recently bought an elastic metal watchband for my old Casio and it was too new for me to take out on a sweat-laden expedition such as this. Doris talked about getting a Nike watch that does GPS for you in addition to testing your heart at full throttle, but it was not something she wanted to think about after spending a lot of money on the dentist and a new car battery last week. The heat was starting to get to us. I told her I wasn’t too concerned, it was when we began to speak in tongues, or I have unbuttoned my Hawaiian shirt all the way that we should worry. Mispronouncing words is a good sign of impending madness. Hiked Humphrey’s Peak last week and we were well into it when I picked up some dog tags off a rock and said, “look, robbies vaccinations.” Jeff grabbed the tag and said, “it’s pronounced rabies.”

Finally we came to a sign, Dripping Springs, then we came to a large tree with a wide canopy, selling us on its considerable attributes, namely shade. The trail seemed to end not long after. We went back to the tree — that’s where Doris parked herself. I leaned against a rock opposite her. It was an idyllic location and put me in the mind of the final scene of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. I ransacked my backpack eager to devour the sandwich I made. Pastrami, lettuce and tomato on buttered Italian bread with horseradish and sharp cheddar. First I was going to eat the high fiber oats bar I brought that contained tons of salt. Took me about three bites. I drank some water and assessed that I had drunk half my water supply. I knew there would be a steep long climb on the way back but thought it was fine because my knee really only gave me fits on the downhill stretches and there would be less of those on the return, to hell with the water concerns. I bit into my sandwich with great gusto. After I swallowed the first bite I told Doris that my favorite part of hiking was the beer and the food you reward yourself with afterwards and the second best part was the sandwich that you eat once you reach your destination. She laughed and thought I was funny because what I was saying was so true!

Not ones to muck around we identified Dripping Springs by the water stains on the cliff face behind us, and contemplated for a brief moment the sensation of reaching it when there was water rushing off of it and sticking our heads at the bottom of the falls. We were feeling lively . We were back on the trail soon and moving fast, taking in the views from different perspectives that made the visual experience exciting and new again. But that soon faded along with a lot of our energy. My knee was feeling worse, a sharp stabbing pain with every step down and there were more step-downs than I remembered there being step-ups on the way there. Doris explained why this hike was far superior than the others she had done at the Grand Canyon, but I can’t remember why, apart from the fact it was just us on the trail. My exhaustion was such that I could only concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I was suddenly down to half a water bottle. I recall one pleasant stop we made where I finished some cherries that I had brought and seemed to recoup a lot of the energy that I had lost. On our next stop, I looked over at how far we’d come and thought that I could see Dripping Springs way way over yonder and then I looked up at the plateau we had to reach — what an insurmountable sight for sore eyes that was. My mouth was so dry, not a trace of saliva. Even Doris complained of a headache. I noticed she had a sip of water left and who really knew how far we had to go. I began to wonder, rather obsess over how prepared I had been. Did that pastrami sandwich give me enough sustenance and how much water was my body burning through anyways? Would it take much more for a breakage to occur in my brain? 

All my interesting thoughts about the future had been waylaid by the thoughts of the present, or more specifically, my imminent demise. The past was an emptied porta-loo, no business even dwelling on glories, of which there were none to speak of anyways, only the good times and my oh my, there were plenty of those. Who you are is no longer important when all you can think about is your survival. I considered how eager I was to see Chase next week and how unlikely that would be if I fell over the edge or collapsed from the heat and had a wicked stroke. Out of necessity, my shirt was unbuttoned all the way and a fresh-looking couple passed us on the path. The guy looked at me and said rather cheekily, “Are you hot?” “Oh, a little,” I replied. Amazingly, my understated sense of humor was still intact. 

We had to walk through the covered entry to the gift shop and a ream of smartly-dressed tourists who must have thought I had returned from the bowels of hell in an irrevocable state. Doris and I headed for the spring water and what we couldn’t do at Dripping springs, we did here, drowning ourselves like pigs in a sty. I shoved a woman out the way to get in and she, having took sight of me, casually backed away and simply said, “I understand.” 

Back at the snack window we ordered the most delicious bottle of Gatorade and a fruit bar. We scared a lot of people though who were there to smell nice and enjoy the view, not get smashed by a couple who smelled, whose minds were fried and bodies wrecked. A Swedish couple and child spoke in their native Sverige that Doris was able to interpret. After looking us up and down, the child says to his father, “Daddy, what’s with them?” He solemnly replied. “I think they went on a hike.” 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was very interesting, like reading a book! I wondered if you would survive but then realized you did since you wrote this! Hope your knee is better!