Day Six: 10 August 2007

Day Two on Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon. Miles hiked: 4.9

Miles to Go: 14.9

I opened my eyes at 4:30 a.m. and saw a deer picking her way carefully through the campground next to my head. She turned and looked at me, then kept walking. Wow.

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Good morning from Meghan, me, and the squirrel-hunting spear

We packed up our junk. I always had trouble rolling my sleeping bag up just enough to fit it in its sleeve, then rolled my ground mat up and tied it under my pack, secured my journal and water bottles, and put my hat away. Today, in the excessive dry heat, I was going to wear my bandanna, so that I could keep my head cool. So I tied my eagle bandanna from my dad on my head and changed back into my hiking clothes again–same peach tank top, same khaki shorts–and put my “sleeping” clothes in my pack. I had everything, and I stuck the tent poles in as a last touch. We were ready to go.

Bright Angel Trail, besides following a fault line, also follows a guesstimated route that Native Americans may have used. Indeed, Indian Gardens was named because the Native American tribes used this “oasis” for millenniums. In the picture below, our trail is that poof of green bushes in the crack-in-the-land. It goes down, down, down, between and below Plateau Point.

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Today, we would be hiking about 5 miles. This second stretch of trail, Christophe alerted us, would follow Pipe Creek out of Indian Gardens, down to the Colorado River, and we would walk next to the River for the rest of the way before crossing a bridge into Phantom Ranch, a campground built along Bright Angel Creek at the bottom of the Canyon. Yes–THE bottom!

Below Indian Garden, the trail follows a creek through a meandering gully of water-sculpted stone and shimmering cottonwood trees. The trail becomes steep once again where this gully empties into the broad, bowl-shaped Pipe Creek drainage. This section of trail, affectionately referred to as the Devil’s Corkscrew, is brutally hot during the summer months and should therefore only be attempted during the early morning or late evening hours. There are no potable water sources between Indian Garden and Bright Angel Campground.

Thanks again, National Park Service!

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I took a picture of the above trail because, besides a particular part later on in the day, it was my absolute least favorite part–both going down, and coming back up. We walked down, down, down. We walked below Plateau Point and wound along a steep Canyon wall before coming to a very steep and dangerous set of switchbacks: The Devil’s Corkscrew. Why is it named that? Because it looks like this:

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As we gazed into the abyss, and the abyss gazed back at us, we spotted some tiny figures below who waved and shouted hello. It was Group 1! Group 1 was hiking to the South Rim from the North Rim, a different world entirely. We spent a few great moments laughing and exchanging stories with Group 1, but soon it was time to continue on the trail.

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Look very closely at the bottommost part of the trail and you’ll see some tiny figures…our Group 1!

Once we got down the very tricky Devil’s Corkscrew, we were really, really at the bottom. It was almost frightening how trapped we were beneath the shade of mile-high stone walls–they were jagged, enormous, uncaring. The rocks were reddish black, seared for millions of years by the sun and seemed to taunt us: this could happen to you, if you don’t watch your step. We knew that nothing much stopped us from becoming a pile of bleached bones mixed into the rocks. We picked our way with care.

Christophe allowed us to take turns leading the group now that we were “seasoned.” I’d get my chance another day, but as we continued at the bottom, we picked our way single-file through tall grasses and mud. Every once in awhile, I’d take my bandanna off my head and dip it in a passing dribble of water–either from a waterfall (a slow trickle out of a cave) or thin stream, and let out a big ol’ ahhhhhhhh of gratitude when I felt the cool water against my head. Within too short a time, of course, my bandanna was dry again–all the life sucked out by the desert’s insatiable dry heat.

Christophe's pack in the shade of the Canyon
Christophe’s pack in the shade of the Canyon…and some interesting swirled rocks.

We stopped for frequent breaks, in the shade of an overhang that was part of a desert tower that stretched a mile into the air–a twisted skyscraper–or along Pipe Creek, which had reappeared beside us. We splashed ourselves and kept cool for as long as we could, ate a snack, and stared at the wooden sign ahead, warning us of the dangers of the Colorado River, but also of the sweet, sweet refuge that was just over two miles down the trail.

Under no circumstances could we swim, drink, or even go near the water. It was full of rapids, it was quick, it was freezing cold, and the water ran wild and clay-red, so that if we went under, we would not be seen.

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Getting ready to venture into the sun alongside the river

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I’ve read stories of those who’ve died on the river. There are those who are killed in rapids and drown. There are those who die from the cold temperatures–hypothermia. There are those who are dying of thirst and heatstroke, and just need to make it to the river…and they don’t make it.

The river is a big, fat “who, me?” From far away, it’s peaceful. It slowly winds its way as it always has, through the gorges, slowly cutting the Canyon even deeper. Close-up, it rushes, and its tempting–really tempting. When one is under the hot sun for so long–and on these trails, the “two miles!” to Phantom was really about a two or more hour trek–one slowly starts to lose focus. All you can focus on is how hot it is, and how you want to horde your water. You don’t want to drink yet, not until you really need it. And all the while, that full, playful and quick-moving river is reminding you of just how much you want to splash some of it on your face…get in, cool off.

And here we follow my story into the last part of the second day and the worst experience on the trail: leaving Pipe Creek and walking along that god-forsaken river.

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You get a sense of the strength of the sun through the pictures. I didn’t know how hot it was, but I could guess–if it was, on average, 80 to 90 degrees in the shade in Indian Gardens, it was certainly hotter than that now that we were officially at the base of the Canyon. It was well over a hundred degrees. The sun came down, warmed up the rocks, burned into our skulls, and reflected off the Canyon walls over, over, over, churning and getting stronger and stronger. It was entirely too bright and too hot.

I was exhausted and grouchy. I wasn’t talking much at this point, and all my focus was on keeping cool…getting out of the sun…drinking water when I could. The other part of me was mechanical: keep one foot in front of the other. Keep moving forward. If you can make it ten more steps. If you can make it twenty more steps. You’re now thirty steps closer. If you can keep moving. Closer, closer, closer. Each step was a separate heartbreak. I was feeling defeated. The entire group was of the same mind–we weren’t feeling victorious today. There was no lighthearted banter, no singing, no jokes. It was plodding, and surviving. Even though we were far from dying (or were we?), we were already zoned in on getting somewhere safe. Getting out of the heat.

I remember crashing down in a pile of sun-burnt black rocks, the shade not much relief, and my friends taking a picture of me. I felt like someone had set me on fire and I was slowly trying to lower its ferocity to embers. I didn’t even bother taking off my pack. I just unbuckled the front and rested against it. Thirty pounds was starting to feel heavy. Very, very, burdensome. You can pretty much see the exact same expression on Carley and Alison. Exhaustion.

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The place where we rested was full of these geometric chunks of black rock. Giant chunks. I rested amongst the boulders, which hummed with their own heat, trying to feel better. I was getting that sickening feeling that something was not quite right. I was nervous that it would turn to nausea, or worse. I drank water slowly.

I nicknamed the place Mordor, because it was bleak, lifeless, and black. Everywhere I looked, it was rocks and canyon walls. We were trapped down here in this furnace beside a river we couldn’t use. It was truly Hell on Earth.

But we were almost there–maybe a mile left. We spotted a thin metal bridge in the distance, Silver Bridge, and a black one not far behind it. Black Bridge. We trodded forward. I looked down at my boots, now stained red from the iron-rich dust below us. The river raged to our lefts. Ah…if only I could just take a quick detour and wet my bandanna…I took another swig of water while walking.

We approached the bridge, my eyes mostly on the backpack in front of me and down on the trail to watch footing, and because the sun glinting off the Colorado was so bright. The bridge was massive, and the bottom was thin and see-through.The river churned under our feet and I felt dizzier than I had before. We focused on holding the rails and crossing. But of course, this was a great time for a photo opportunity!

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But once we crossed the river, we were there, essentially– Phantom Ranch. We passed a few of those “campground bulletin boards” with posters, flyers, and warnings behind glass, and I saw the temperature was 111 degrees. Ouch. We refilled our water bottles and wandered to our newest campground, number 32, a stone alcove built into a Canyon Wall. We were in the heart of the Grand Canyon. The bottom. We had made it, and now it was time for rest and cards, and lots and lots of water.

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The flies plagued us all that week, because of some recent rain (HAHAHAHAHAHHA) the Canyon had. In fact, I mentioned flies many times in my journal–how they made it impossible to nap or lie still because they were incessantly buzzing and flitting around my ears, eyes, and landing on my legs.

We played UNO instead to pass the time. I, of course, updated my journal, and I apparently, to quote my journal, “ate a snack of Ritz crackers.” What an epic moment of victory. Of course, I was just happy to relax, pour some cool water on my bandanna and sit down.

Christophe led us through the grassy oasis, under the trees, to the Phantom Ranch Lodge (AIR CONDITIONING!) where we got Lemmy Lemonade, a frozen treat not too far off from Rita’s, and I wrote two postcards home, which would be carried by mule out of the Canyon before reaching a post office. We stayed inside to play a few rounds of a card game, “Signs,” in which you try and get a hand of four-of-a-kind and signal to your partner without anyone else noticing. If the other players call you out while you do your sign, you lose, but if you’re successful, you obviously win. A sign can be anything subtle–a particular hand gesture, sweeping your hair out of your face, scratching your nose, etc. The pressure was on! Carley and Meghan made a joke out of the game with “ARE YOU READY TO DO THE SIGN?” Most of our games ended up as us just goofing off anyway.

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And it was around this time that Meghan started talking about “runcible spoons,” which the rest of the world knows as “sporks,” but she refused to call it a spork.  We all had runcible spoons in our mess kits, so she would only call it “runcible spoon” and do it as many times as possible until we threw our heads back and groaned.

We also received stickers that said “I’VE BEEN DOWN! PHANTOM RANCH, GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA.” We all agreed these stickers were of utmost importance because they proved we hiked to the bottom, and would (hopefully) hike out again.

We took some time to pet the mules, who were tethered outside. Around the small grove, there were also cabins, built over 100 years ago. I was fairly certain I’d read somewhere that Teddy Roosevelt had spent some time at Phantom Ranch.

To beat the heat, there was no option besides dabbling in the creek. We sat down in our hiking clothes in the water and waded up and down. Like going to the beach, it was the perfect combination of cool water and hot sun. When my friends started a mud fight, however, hurling chunks of mud at one another from the bottom of the creek, relaxation turned to shrieks. It was insanely fun, until someone came up from behind me and smeared mud all inside my mouth (by accident). Gross.

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It didn’t take long under 111 degrees of sizzling sun to dry off, and we spent the rest of the afternoon playing UNO at our picnic table until dinnertime. After a macaroni and cheese dinner, Christophe wanted to take us on a short hike to the River and Black Bridge, and then to a Ranger presentation about California Condors, and after THAT, we wanted to become Phantom Ranch Junior Rangers. Not kidding. Christophe gave us each a passport-looking booklet of activities for us to complete in order to get our Junior Ranger badges. The activities covered items such as the geology of the Canyon, survival techniques, species of animals, and the history of exploration. I kept mine, because it was full of interesting facts.

Christophe, Alison, Kathryn, Meghan, Melanie and I hiked to Black Bridge through the brush and a tunnel. There were some old– specificially, 900-year-old — Native American stone dwellings by the river. That part of the river was dubbed “Cremation Canyon,” because the Indians used it as a cremation site. We didn’t have time to go farther down the trail, and headed back for our lecture.

Ranger Matt, a college-age kid (I think) with a ponytail, gave the interactive lecture on California Condors, which are huge, vulture-like birds that were reintroduced to the Grand Canyon in the 1980s after being in danger of extinction. Though still endangered (as of 2007 when we went to this lecture), they are making a good comeback. We might have seen some flying overhead–condors like to make their nests in shallow caves and nooks along the Canyon Walls. To show us just how large these birds are, Ranger Matt selected Carley (the smallest of us) as volunteer to help hold up a model of a California Condor, made of felt. They held out the wings and it really gave a sense of their power and majesty, even if they were scavengers.

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We, after the lecture, went on a scorpion hunt with Ranger Matt. His black light flashlight would show us where any scorpions were. He also said we’d find some in less than three minutes…

Matt was right. We found five scorpions in about a minute. They glowed under the black light because of a chemical in their exoskeleton. It glows even when they aren’t alive anymore!

I still talk about those scorpions today. And I bought a dead one as a souvenir for my brother. It does, actually, still glow under a black light.

Because of our attempted stargazing at Indian Gardens, we asked Matt if he could identify constellations and teach us to find them ourselves.

Matt showed us how the Horoscope constellations move low in the sky and “set” under where the sun sets. We got to see Jupiter and even one of its moons from earth, as well as the Summer Triangle: The North Star, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, and Scorpio.

We presented Matt with our passports and received our Phantom Ranch Junior Ranger badges, which has a pink rattlesnake on the front and “Phantom Ranch” on the bottom. It was a moment of pride for us. I still have my badge; it’s hot-glued to the cover of my scrapbook.

Alison, Meghan, Carley, Kathryn, Melanie and I wanted to go back to the Canteen, so we played a game of Scrabble before heading back and getting ready for bed.

We had a shocking surprise when we went to use the restrooms and discovered that a swarm of scorpions was hanging around inside the door. According to Matt, the deadliest ones are the smallest. They all seemed pretty small to us…We kept our distance.

The scorpions were very small, about the size of my big toe, and they were everywhere we went…even at the campsite too, so we set up our tent and kept our boots inside, just in case. When we reached our campsite, we saw a ringtailed cat! It was neat, really small, squirrel-size, with a long bushy white and black ringed tail like a lemur.

According to my journal, we set up the tents and went right to sleep. However, I know I leaned out of the tent more than once to shake out my boots and had nightmares of scorpions sneaking in at night.

You just never know.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four