November 7, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
The plane took off to the east out of Denver, banked steeply right, and came round on a southwest heading: over Pike’s Peak, the Sangre de Christo Mountains, and the Great Sand Dunes National Monument; across the San Luis Valley, the upper Rio Grande, and the San Juan Mountains; over Chaco Canyon, with a view of Shiprock Peak and the Chuska Mountains to the west; over Gallup, New Mexico, and on across the Painted Desert and the Little Colorado River winding northwest from the White Mountains toward its confluence with the big Colorado below Marble Canyon; over the Mogollon Rim with its dusting of snow, the Salt River winding in its steepsided gorge, and the Superstition Mountains clawing at the belly of the jet on its approach into Phoenix. At Sky Harbor I transferred to an America West De Haviland and continued the journey north, above Camp Verde, Cottonwood, and Sedona (with a salute to Colonel Jeff Cooper in Paulden) off the left wing.
Tom Sheeley awaited me at Pulliam Field in Flagstaff. We shared an abbrazo inside the terminal and I felt the grizzly-sized hump of muscle below the neck from the training he’d been doing all winter. Tom hoisted the expandable softsided suitcase containing my backpack, camp equipment, and clothing, and preceded me through the door and into the parking lot. “We’re going to Chili’s,” he said. “Bet you can’t handle one of those thirty-ounce beers.”
We took a seat at a table in the bar and waited for Cory to spot us. When she came in her black Chili’s shirt with the menus, I stood to give her a bearhug. “Are you excited?” she wanted to know. “People ask me what I’m doing over spring break, and when I tell them I’m going hiking in the Grand Canyon for nine days, they’re like, ‘You mean you sleep on the ground?’–What do you want to eat, D?” Tom and I ordered two plates of spicey chicken wings with the beer and settled down to earnest political conversation, deploring the Axis of Evil and pounding the table-top like Germans to express our enthusiasm for military tribunals, Attorney General Ashcroft, war on Iraq, and National Greatness Conservatism.
Next morning, a little under the influence still of the chicken wings, we went shopping downtown for the last-minute incidentals, including four half-pints of rum and the crampons Tom insisted were necessary in the event of ice on the trail. We drank non-alcoholic beer with our supper and everyone was in bed by nine o’clock, to be up at five when our ride arrived to deliver us to the jumping-off place on the Havasupai Indian Reservation. I rode with Dave Pederson, a guitar student of Tom’s at Northern Arizona University, following the Sheeleys in The Gold Pony (pronounce with a strong Navajo accent) on the way up to the Canyon.
Black rainclouds swirled about the San Francisco Mountains as we departed Flagstaff, and a sweeping blizzard whited out the South Rim when we arrived at Tusayan for the Sixteenth Annual Spring Break Marathon. Tom parked the pickup near the backcountry office. He and Cory, with their packs, climbed into the Jeep with David and me, and the four of us started out under clearing skies along the snowy dirt track skirting the canyon rim westward thirty-five miles across the pinyon-juniper forest to the head of the South Bass Trail.
The Indian standing guard at the Havasupai boundary to exact the customary twenty-five dollar toll was away from his post. The Jeep rolled across without halt, and half an hour later Tom, Cory, and I were telling David goodbye as we started down South Bass, an old Indian trail developed in the 1920s by William Wallace Bass: a prospector and miner who for some years operated a mine in Copper Canyon and maintained a small farm across river he irrigated with water from Shinumo Creek. The Bass Trail, one of the roughest in the Grand Canyon, lies west of the heavily used part of the South Rim and is maintained only by the boots of the relatively few hikers to venture on it.
I’d sworn for years I’d never get under a backpack like a damn burro, and now (for the second time in less than a year) I was carrying sixty-five pounds on my shoulders-twenty accounted for by the two and a half deadweight gallons of water Tom had determined each of us should bring to last two days, if necessary-down a steep northwest aspect of the Grand Canyon, over rocks treacherously covered with a skim of ice too thin for crampons to grip. Tom in the lead, and Cory behind me, were whistling cheerfully. But not me. Already, we’d dropped a few hundred feet down the face of the buff-colored Coconino Formation-too far to scramble back up and catch Dave before he got started along the two-track for Flagstaff, comfortably powered by internal combustion engine. It took ninety minutes to climb only a mile and a half down to the Esplanade that rests above the Supai Formation, where Tom called a halt among the twisted trees standing around potholes filled with water deposited by the early storm.
“We’re fat,” he said, admiring the potholes as he chewed a stick of jerked beef. “There has to be water at Serpentine tomorrow night. That means we won’t have to carry all this water with us from camp to camp.”
That was very good news indeed, I agreed. Already the pack straps seemed to have sawed halfway through the shoulderbones, while my cocyx felt pounded to jelly by the water bottles nestled at the bottom of the pack.
“Hiking the Grand Canyon’s like playing football without the coach to yell at you,” Tom suggested. “You just keep on taking it until you’re exhausted, then you go ahead and take it some more. I love it, man!”
We climbed from the Supai through a notch in the rock, skirted the head of Bass Canyon, then dropped down the Redwall toward the Tonto Platform by a series of rubble-filled switchbacks which straightened out in a brushy defile choked with acacia and sawgrass before contouring above Bass Creek to an overhang of rock above the Tapeats, where we made camp. Corey and Tom had their tent halfraised already as I strolled up with my bare legs bleeding from the catclaw and bristling with tiny thorns, my wind still good and my knees strong beneath the pack that had become as punishing and oppressive as the True Cross carried for five miles and as many hours, up Mt. Arrarat and down the other side. “Hel-lo,” Cory told me with a mischievous smile. There’s nothing like finding a pretty girl in camp at the end of the trail-almost nothing, anyway. “Take this,” Tom said, offering me the blessed cylinder from his pack. A miraculous can of Icehouse beer, slightly chill to the touch yet.
We went to bed with the sun and rose with it next morning after a full twelve hours in the sleeping bags. Doves called from upcanyon as we drank our morning coffee sweetened with Ybarra chocolate, struck camp, and stowed it away in the packs for the six-mile hike over to Ruby Canyon.
“Kicking Butt on the Tonto” is the Sheeleyism appropriate to the effort. Neophyte hikers, amateurs, fools, or those who have never actually set foot on it often describe the Tonto Plateau above the inner gorge of the Colorado River as “flat.” In fact, the topography of the Tonto is rolling, and the Tonto Trail itself an up-and-down affair as it heads each long canyon in turn as far back as the intersection of the drainage with the Tapeats Formation on which the plateau rests, contours along the opposite side to the end of the Redwall, rounds it on an uphill grade followed by a downhill one across desert hardpan thickly covered with blackbrush and cactus, then heads the next canyon behind the Redwall. Three-quarters or more of the distance along the Tonto is thus accounted for by the diversion around the Tapeats- which is where the trail becomes brutal as it traverses steep washes and precarious rock slides on its way down to the creek, and up again on the other side. To anticipate flatness on the Tonto in planning a hike is similar to anticipating warmth in the Grand Canyon-or any other desert-simply because it is a desert. And as dangerous.
Tramp, tramp, tramp..The marching music in my head is Mozart’s Piano Sonata Number 11 in A Major–in particular the initial statement with its measured cords like footfalls–played over and over again. If it weren’t for the sixty-five pound incubus squatting on my shoulders, this adventure into the stony bowels of the earth would be a heavenly excursion; as it is, the experience is more like Hell on earth. Tramp, tramp..I think of Ed Abbey on his 120-mile walk across the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge in the 1980s. My legs, though hurting, are strong and will grow stronger, my wind superb (with every step I prayerfully commend myself for my religious devotion to the swimming pool-a mile a day, five miles a week for the past twenty-six years). This is what it feels like to be sixty pounds overweight: How does anyone stand even twenty or thirty? Setting your feet under such a load over loose rocks and boulders, up and down steep and crumbling trail, is like learning to walk again, with a handicap. Twenty years of reading trail from the saddle, guiding a horse over so much bad footing, helps, though the mental strain is considerable. (Now I know how he feels.) But the pack is torture, whether because my deltoids are undeveloped or the internal-frame pack doesn’t fit properly I have too little experience to tell. Tom and Cory swear by external-frame models; they’re a quarter- to a half-mile out ahead now, hardly pausing to consider the next step in even the roughest places. Tramp, tramp, tramp.. I’m never out of breath, yet this shoulder pain is killing me anyway. No choice but to go on, though-drawing hard on the tube coming around from the camelback, not from thirst but because it’s easier to carry the water weight in my belly than on my back. You got yourself down here, Williamson, you’ll have to get yourself out in the same way. To hell with the discomfort, to hell with the pain. They’re ignorable, finally, with the help of Mozart and the huge outrageous scenery beneath the whirling Van Gogh sun. No one can help you but yourself-or hinder, either. That’s why, even in so much misery, I’m loving it down here. A pair of bighorn rams, bounding across the trail behind our advance guard, are surprised by the trailer and redouble their efforts in the direction of the talus piled at the base of the end wall of Serpentine Canyon.
At Serpentine there was water! Not much, but something–enough. The Sheeleys awaited me beside the meagre pool, their packs resting beside them on the rock ledge. I unbuckled mine and shed it like a great unwieldy carapace atop a boulder: Relieved of the dread weight I felt instantly transformed, like a spirit rid of the burden of corrupt mortality. All too soon, on the march again to Ruby, I was under saddle once more, one of the souls imagined by pagan philosophers as being condemned to an eternal alternation between the coexistence of body and spirit, and the spirit’s detachment from the corporeal self.
We made nine miles that day, ate the hearty supper (an astounding pasta) prepared by Tom as if out of thin air, and were in the bags by a quarter to seven, watching the light fade through the nylon tent and feeling the muscles in the calves of the legs cramp slowly.
Day three established a routine as we worked eastward above the river, in and out of the Jewels–Ruby, Turquoise, and Agate Canyons-hiking between six and nine miles a day. Everywhere we found water, pumping the quart and liter bottles full for drinking, cooking, and use
around camp. The loads lightened as we ate down on our supplies, until I was carrying not very much above the equivalent of a magnum rifle, ammunition, and a comprehensive survival pack, plus two or three liters of water. At Turquoise, Tom recovered the first of four caches he had left over the past three weeks, and there was beer again to go with the monster bloody steaks we’d packed down from Tom’s butcher in Flag. We spent a layover day sunning among the rocks and continued on to Slate Creek, where Chris Mandrick arrived after dark at the end of a fifteen-mile hike down from Hermit’s Rest, bringing more provisions and mail posted by Barbara Sheeley in Flagstaff. The Slate Creek cache, deposited by Tom in the course of a one-day, 27-mile marathon, contained a 1.75-liter bottle of Gilbey’s gin and so we had a party on the second layover day at Slate, culminating in a diversity dance on top of a mescal pit built a milleniumn ago by Anasazi Indians.
From Slate Creek it was an easy five miles over to Boucher Creek, and down the watercourse another mile to Boucher Rapids on the Colorado River. After the tents were up, Tom, Cory, Chris, and I sat crosslegged on the beach, working our toes into sand that was warm less than an inch below the surface and passing a fifth of Bushmill’s between us as we gazed at the green water thundering between walls of primeval Vishnu Schist (black as night and 1.5 billion years old, the oldest exposed rock in the world) that a hundred and thirty-three years before had borne the one-armed John Wesley Powell downstream, seated in his armchair perilously secured to the deck of his little boat. From the beach, the notch where the Boucher Trail-the steepest in the Grand Canyon, hand over hand in places-cuts through on its way up to the top of the Redwall was visible two thousand feet above: the first leg of our return route to the upper world.
“Work and play are really one and the same thing,” Tom said. “They ought to be, anyway.”
“Won’t it feel good to be climbing uphill again tomorrow?” Cory asked.
In fact, it felt much better than that.