Urban Ambles Travels Part 2- Into The Great Unknown

Part 2 of this year’s Roadtrip takes us to the Grand Canyon. I had been there once before , but this journey would be different. My friend Mark and I would hike all the way to the bottom of the Colorado River, spend the night there in cabins at Phantom Ranch, and then make the long climb up the following day. The classic route is a steep 8 mile hike down, and a slightly longer, and slightly more gradual 10 mile slog back up.

For much of the 19th century, very little was known of this stretch of the Colorado River. Typically on maps this area was simply labeled “Unknown”And then in 1869, this gentleman, the one-armed John Wesley Powell, led a band of 10 men on an extraordinary journey down through the Colorado and the canyon, the first Europeans to see it. (I see 2 arms?)

So, here we were. It didn’t take a great leap to look at the trip as a metaphor of sorts; a map of my life would probably have me currently navigating  a region that could be labeled “unknown”.  Like the River and Canyon, these last 18 months have held plenty of strange new realities,  navigating this new world of employment and opportunity is sometimes treacherous, definitely unpredictable, with the bends and twists not allowing one much opportunity to plan ahead. Currently, I have been waiting to hear on a job, I have been on pins and needles for a while,  I even wondered if I should go away (what if they call tomorrow ?). Well, I took the trip and came back, and I am still waiting; maybe the canyon ends around the next bend, maybe this is the week…………not yet…….maybe next.?

Some visitors will occasionally opine that they were slightly disappointed with the Canyon, after all the build up, just one more spectacular desert vista. I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s impossible to take in the full depth of the canyon from the primary viewing points, you can only see down about halfway, the river lies much deeper, mysterious and out of sight. Speaking of the visitors, there seemed to be 3 types at the canyon, those that stop off and peer down into the canyon, those that attempt to hike down a some distance and back, and those headed to the bottom; and part of the trip’s interest (or bane) is the mixing with all three groups. Like the vivid strata that marks your descent in geological time, so to,  particularly upon return, we would see the same strata in the people. So, on a beautiful Friday morning, we headed down the canyon, and this was the view:

While easier I suppose, the descent down has more opportunity to leave lasting marks on your body via the constant stress on the lower legs and feet. For 8 miles and 4 hours, one is constantly resisting the urge to simply fall down the cliff. Mile after mile , one descends, as the stress on the legs, and in my case, my toes, increased. Here’s a view of the trail going down.

The South Kaibab Trail heading down

About halfway down, one finally can see the Colorado River, and one also realizes how far there still is to go down. In some respects its actually a canyon within a canyon, the narrow gorge of the river within the broader “grand” canyon.

The River appears

Further still , we catch our first glimpse of the old suspension bridge which will take us across the river and into Phantom Ranch:

And finally , we reached Phantom Ranch and the river. Phantom Ranch is a small outpost of cabins. It can be reached only by foot, by mule, or by raft. You can spend the night in a cabin, and they serve supper and breakfast, so you don’t have to bring much. It is the only place in the United States that still gets mail delivery by mule. In fact, anything that they need, or dispose of, goes in and out of the canyon via mule, as we will see later. It brought to mind old boy scout camps of my youth- they served us dinner in the canteen (though much better fare than the spam sandwiches and bug juice of my youth), and the local ranger regaled us with  folksy tales of the river’s exploration. Many people from all over the country and world were here, including one fellow from near where I grew up, ahh, a fellow upstate New Yorker I thought. He turned out to be an insufferable windbag who had memorized every little factoid about the canyon, and when he wasn’t boring us with that, prattled on  about a 9 day cross-country (and back!) car trip he made, “I once drove across the country and back in 9 days”, only stopped twice…….. the elevation here is 2,165 feet…….as the bird flies, its 18.2 miles to…….”blah.blah.blah.”In the end, it was fun, but my legs were howling, and several of my toes were screaming. We made our way to the water, and I dipped my toes in, and they were soothed by the frigid waters. We had made it, and I thought, yeah, tomorrow’s the tough part. And we wouldn’t have long to get going- breakfast in the chow hall was 5:00am.

Toe relief

As has been often the case, when I know I have to get up extra early, I can’t sleep. And between that and my pounding toes, I couldn’t, despite my exhaustion. The knock on our sweaty little cabin filled with 10 men came at 4:30am- I’d slept maybe an hour. I forced down some food, and we groggily  headed off at 6am. Oh god, this was going to be a bitch:

Umm- up that?

I was exhausted, and wondered how my  rescue would unfold. I would fall behind, and fall down into a ravine. I would later be found by a stray mule, who would simply take my things and head up the hill without me:

A mule with someone's pants

Wow, I really was hallucinating. But as we began to ascend, I realized how resilient we can be. Faced with the challenge, I came to, adrenalin kicked in, and as we began to see progress, we became engrossed with the day’s challenge. Many times during the past 18 months, amidst the many great things that have happened, there have dark moments; an interview cancelled with a couple of hours notice the day before Thanksgiving (“we lost the project- sorry for the 2 weeks you took preparing, we won’t interview you anyway, and have a great holiday!”),a 5-month process that I mentioned previously to reduce a field of 150 to 2, another job that had 300 candidates, not to mention the  many other smaller opportunities that are talked of, then wilt.  And yes, after some moments feeling(and looking) a bit like by our mule friend above, you  step forward yet again. Onward and upward.

But I was getting off the task at hand, because here come the mules!! They have the right of way, so the hikers need to move to one side, and sometimes, this is no easy feat. The mules bring food down to the ranch, and then come back up with garbage, which makes you really think about what you throw out, poor things. Nonetheless, stemming from my early hallucination, I eyed them verrrrrrry closely, and held on to my pants.

As one ascends higher there are some rest stops. These small shelters, provide water and a place for hikers to commiserate and rest. They are spaced closer together as you near the top. We made it to this stop, 3 miles from the top, exhausted. In the distance, I could hear, wait, that sounds familiar- “I once drove across the country in 9 days”, only stopped twice,…….. the elevation here is 5,265 feet….as the bird flies, its 18.2 miles to…….”- the New Yorker! He had gotten an extra early start, and we HAD to pass him here, simply couldn’t hear that story again. We did.

As we moved up through the strata of geological eras, we also moved up through the strata of the visitors. First one encounters the serious day hiker, down halfway and back, then some semi- prepared hikers going down a couple of miles, and then  hordes who clearly don’t know what their in for, people in flip-flops carrying milk jugs of water and babies. I believe the latter indicated we had moved into the late-americanidol-izoic period. But none of that mattered, because we could now see the top, and no mule was going to steal my pants…………..we were going to make it:

And there it was, the end, the top, out of my way parents and babies. Why, I could even see a car! And then the top. Oh, great glorious feeling , oh  canyon tamed, ohhhhh………ohhh……….ohhhhhhh…. I need to sit down. So here we are, Mark and I, commemorating reaching the top. This was one day later, and by then, I was having trouble scaling 6″ steps

This was a tremendous experience few get to have, and I was proud of us both. And at the risk of sounding a bit trite, I suppose it brings to mind the adage about it always being darkest before the dawn. laying in my bunk at 4:30am , exhausted with a sore foot, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to make it up to the top. But we did it, and the payoff was tremendous. While 2009 was productive and enlightening, 2010 has been more of a grind- definitely darker at times. I can only hope I find my own summit, and daylight, soon.


The remaining time was spent exploring the canyon rim, with a newfound appreciation of the Canyon’s majesty. It was now not hard to understand why this park, perhaps more than any other, is held up as America’s greatest, and most well-known National Park. And given that, as one can imagine, the park strains with visitors. It has expanded over the years , and added shuttle busses to reduce the cars, but it’s really a small city at the top. What’s surprising, is that in some ways, the facilities and design aren’t what you’d expect of America’s greatest National park. The El Tovar Hotel is a handsome example of the timbered lodge,  but I’ve seen better at Yosemite and Glacier parks.  The new Visitor’s Center was a disappointment, oddly had few displays, and in a place that screams for a high quality scale model, had a very mediocre one. Finally,  because of the growth and additions, the whole area is confusing , signage lacking,  not coordinated to previous iterations, and the whole layout too spread out. In short, while mesmerized by the natural, we were decidedly underwhelmed by the man-made. In some ways, the most compelling little spot is out at Desert View, far to the east, and our trip wrapped up there, where one finally can see the whole canyon, top to bottom, as well as farther pinnacles, cliffs, and the lands of the Navajo and Hopi.

And that’s a good place to leave off on this segment of the trip, setting us up for Part 3, a further rumination of the man-made in the desert- a visit to Las Vegas and its surroundings. Now where did I put my lucky gambling visor– damn you mule!!!!

3 thoughts on “Urban Ambles Travels Part 2- Into The Great Unknown

  1. What a great adventure for Urban Ambles! Just as you conquered the Grand Canyon I’m sure you will conquer the San Francisco job market.

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