by Jeffe Aronson
The Grand Canyon is no place to be sick, lost, and alone.
I glance back uphill at the slowly disappearing shape of Alan, where I left him perched on an overhanging rock ledge, sketching the remote and incomprehensible landscape visible from the tip of Great Thumb Mesa. Part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. It’s June, which is really a stupid time to be hiking in the desert, but I need some solitude, some exercise, some adventure.
The deep azure, cloudless sky is held aloft by an infinite procession of descending plateaus, which disappear into a subterranean ribbon of shadow and promise–the river’s inner gorge. I am looking down upon this magic staircase from an even higher rim nearly eight thousand feet above the mighty pulsing sea somewhere off to my left. There’s a hell of a lot of rock out there shimmering in the heat.
I’ve been working too hard, and the usual politics are driving me crazy, which means I’m probably driving everyone around me crazy, too. So, I’m off for however long it takes to cleanse my soul yet again, ten days’ worth of food on my back, more if I need to stretch things, aiming for a remote and difficult route I’d been hearing about from knowledgeable sources. Crazy sons-a-bitches, like me.
I am about thirty or forty miles due west, as the crow flies, from Grand Canyon Village, where around five million visitors annually drive carefully to their appointed parking spots and gaze over the railings. However, unless you do have wings, to get from there to here is about six hours or more of tortuous gravel and four-wheel-drive, bone-rattling tracks. It is waterless—some hand-painted, weather-beaten plywood signs advise that all this foreboding sand and twisted juniper is owned by the local natives. A few bony Indian cattle straggling through the scrub seek an elusive blade of dead grass. At least it’s theirs. Needless to say, there are no signs of recent traffic. The Great Thumb Mesa is an enormous peninsula of South Rim country that forces the Mighty Colorado River to flow north in a forty-five-mile detour around its four-thousand-foot descending scarps. Where it is finally allowed to flow west, then south again, the magical gouges of Stone Creek Canyon, Tapeats Creek Canyon, and Deer Creek Canyon face the tip of the Thumb from across the river, each side canyon deserving its own special notation in this vast geography.
I’ve hiked several routes here before, though none solo, and none in June. All have presented wild difficulties of impassable cliff, plunge pool, barely-cemented scree, and dizzying exposure. All have also offered up evidence of the Hisatsinom, as the Hopi Tribe call their ancient ancestors, or, as the Navajo Tribe call these same people, Anasazi, their “ancient enemies.” Flaked flint and points, rock art, “Moki steps” that appear to the initiated in unlikely vertical cliff faces. I’d deliberately only scanned the maps, wanting to find my own way, needing the taste of being the first person in a long time to pass this way.
I wave to Alan, who doesn’t respond—he’s engrossed in somehow capturing a sense of this enormity on his canvas. He’ll return the way we came, in my beat-up Datsun four-by-four pickup, bouncing crazily along the track, sometimes right on the edge of space, a fifteen-hundred-foot drop to the Esplanade plateau below. Not many people venture here, even fewer drop into the abyss, following old Indian trails, which in turn follow fault zones, which offer up the few opportunities to descend towards the river for the two-hundred-and-eighty-mile length of the Grand Canyon.
My goal, this time, is not to reach the river itself, but to traverse the heads of some rather remote and beautiful side canyons within the main Canyon. My stroll is only eleven miles as the crow flies—probably over thirty-five as the human stumbles. I’ve floated by the mouths of these same canyons along the Colorado, hiked half of them, wondering what was around the next bend (another itch I must scratch). The relentless vertical element will also add another few miles to the journey, up and down, down and up, one way or the other. Another typical hike in The Canyon. One Hundred and Forty Mile, Olo, Matkatamiba, Sinyala, thence to Cataract Canyon, otherwise known as Havasu Canyon, and out and up through Havasu back to the rim, where my truck will, I hope, be waiting. Ten days seems more than enough for this distance. Anywhere else, a fit person might make that kind of mileage in just a few days. Here, however, treacherous obstacles are simply part of the seductive tension. Heading out miles-long canyons to get to the opposite side—to which you could have almost thrown a stone hours before—is not unusual. Mistakenly planning to eat lunch at a waterhole noted on the map might turn into a bit of an ordeal as you are stopped short at a three-hundred-foot cliff face. A good trick here in the “Big Ditch” is to take two maps, one topographic, one geologic. If you know the rock layers well, as I do, you can double-check your exact location, including elevation. You can, with care, also figure out what cliffs might come between you and your can of tuna.
There are rumored to be several natural bridges along this route, one of which is actually on the map. Plenty of water holes and springs have been inked onto my maps, and routes along fault lines through seemingly vertical cliff faces of Redwall and Muave Limestone layers are noted simply with a tentative jotted line. I’m going light: no tent, no stove, no fuel, minimal sleeping bag and pad. I’ll simply camp under an overhang if the weather moves in, an unlikely event during the pre-monsoon season. And knowing I’m on the Res, I’m not concerned about Park rules prohibiting open fires. I’m not all that great at following rules, anyway.
As I hit the bottom of the steep scree slope, the angle mellows a bit to meet the Esplanade. I’m feeling tired and hot. I drop my pack and lean down to grab my water bottle, and as I stand back upright, I become momentarily dizzy. Dehydration, my worst enemy, is tentatively knocking. I scan the horizon far above me; no sign of Alan, probably long gone. Not a soul for many days in any direction, including rafting parties, separated from me by miles of unscalable cliffs, even if they had an inkling I was here. I drink my Gatorade, thinking to myself to take it slow and easy the first couple of days until I’m back in shape. Been doing too much rowing a desk around lately.
The hours drift away as I pick my way around house-sized boulders, down short, broken cliff walls, checking my maps to be sure I’m descending into the correct canyon to reach water, and tomorrow, Keyhole Natural Bridge. It’s rough going in the hundred-and-fifteen-degree heat, but I’ve been there before. You have to push through and beyond the sweat, the heat dragging at your heels, feeling like you’re baking in a convection oven. Somehow, you have to twist your mind and spirit into sucking in the heat, inhaling the burning rock, shrinking your presence into your sombrero and sunglasses and worn running shoes. Going beyond insane into primal, focused intensity. Keep drinking, more than you want, enough to make your belly uncomfortably full. Don’t hold out and drink little slurps, hoping to defer the inevitable empty bottle, or you will dehydrate inch by inch until delirium sets in. Drink up, lads, and to hell with the consequences. That way, if you run out before you reach the next water source, the slow but inexorable decline will have been somewhat delayed. Perhaps the sun will descend to a reasonable angle before the full effect starts to hit you. Then, if need be—and if the terrain allows—proceed by flashlight till you hear the frogs. Dip your hands into the pool and bring the cool, sensual water dripping through your fingers, over your face, and combing through your hair and into your mouth like a gift from a harsh and insatiable lover.
Deep below some red sandstone Esplanade cliffs, in a narrow cleft, I hear them. I see the enchanting shimmers on the eastern wall as the descending sun reflects off of the pool. I’m not feeling too good at all, which is confusing—usually, I’d have overcome the barrier by now. I have plenty of food, so I decide to take tomorrow off, base camp here and day hike to the Bridge and back, read a little of A Farewell to Arms. Acclimatize.
I drink from the pool all night long, piss frequently on a nearby rock, splattering my bare feet. I dip Suzanne’s flowered Southwestern pattern bandana—her now-frayed gift to me—in the water and tie it around my neck once again. It keeps me cool, more or less. No need for the sleeping bag tonight.
I awake from bizarre dreams to the early solstice dawn, intending to start early and be back in the shade near the pool by midday. I still don’t feel so good. My urine is clear, and I wonder aloud, “Can’t be dehydrated. Hmmm, maybe it’s the opposite, and I’m drinking too much water?” I start off anyway, slowly, towards the intended geologic feature. It is well worth the effort.
The Bridge is a hidden treasure within other treasures—a fanciful passage created by water for its own delight. Descended from a crack or weakness from when this rock was formed eons ago, in the perfect place. The land rises, water flows—catastrophically from time to time—eating away at this promise until it breaks through, while leaving the more solid rock above in place. Each sculpted opening unique, sensuous—like finding a rainbow frozen in the earth. I take it in from various angles, exploring for artifacts under boulders and in small caves. I ponder its immensity, keeping in mind how small and insignificant it really is in the unimaginable context of The Canyon. Back at camp, I try to lose my worry in the book, to no avail. Something’s wrong, and I don’t know what it is. Dehydration? The flu? Too much water? Not enough? What? Alan won’t send out a search party for nearly two weeks, and that’s enough room to die in. I hadn’t counted on this.
To those unfamiliar with this desert canyon world, it might seem a trifle melodramatic to talk of death at this point. It is difficult to describe the terrible realities of this unforgiving ecology, more so to explain why one would even want to be in it in the first place. Withering heat and dryness; tiny, ephemeral, well-hidden water sources; impenetrable cliff barriers at every hand, accessible only via barely discernible flaws hewn from solid rock a million years before, or along breathtakingly steep, jumbled fault lines. Human visitors since that time can be counted on one hand, perhaps two. Indescribable beauty and solitude, every step a discovery, a challenge not only to body but to spirit and will. A twisted ankle, a blocked path, and you’re on your own to solve the puzzle or perish.
Nothing to do but press on. The way I’m feeling, I’d never make it back up to the rim. Wouldn’t matter, anyway; only ravens and buzzards up there. It’s closer—and easier, I hope—to carry on towards Havasu. Slowly, achingly, I step from boulder to boulder, following uphill the dry stream course that has carved itself over the millennia by infrequent floods along the cracked stone of the fault line. It takes forever. Finally, after an excruciating climb, I reach the next saddle and rest. The view is dazzling, and thankfully it fills my senses for a time. I check my maps, slowly labor onwards. Down the mirror image drainage, following the Sinyala fault line on the map, down into the head of Olo Canyon. Here it is only six or seven feet wide, but over a hundred feet deep. It is tempting to try and save time by leaping across, but I refrain from that recklessness. Instead I turn left and head up-canyon a mile or so, then return to the fault line, my highway.
Drinking sparingly and seeking water in every pothole, trying to decide whether I need to drink more, or less, I head up the other side and towards my next destination: Matkatamiba.
The largest drainage off the Thumb itself, I’ve never seen “Matkat’s” head. This giant, named after a Supai chief, drains into one of the most delightful playgrounds in The Canyon at its mouth, where it joins the Colorado. A turbulent eddy, encircled by vertical cliffs at the head of a rapid, deters some. Those who persist, however, get to scramble up a smooth, marble-like slot, watered by a dancing trickle of spring water, to an amphitheater that manages to humble and hush. Further up-canyon, however, is no-man’s-land.
I’m feeling worse, moving slower. I finally reach the saddle overlooking Matkat, in dwindling light. The view makes me reel—it’s too big, too powerful. Mount Sinyala absorbs the rays of the brilliant Arizona orange-red sunset, cleaving the light in two and throwing shadows into the depths below. I lie down right there, my bed a spacious flat slab of sandstone left by some ancient sea, the only furnishing the perfect backrest of a sole, smooth boulder. Reserved seating. I’m too tired and ill to sleep, so I read on well into the shortest night of the year by headlamp, finishing as the stars begin to fade.
I also finish the last of my water.
I pack up in the growing light, leaving A Farewell to Arms under the boulder. I need to drop unneeded weight. This is crazy—it’s only day four and already trouble is manifest. It’s too quick for trouble. I’m too alone for trouble.
It comes anyway.
I continue down along the fault towards the floor of Matkatamiba. The mouth of Matkat is a usual stop for rafting parties. Unfortunately, it is several miles and over a thousand vertical feet down to the upper valley floor, and then several more untracked miles and hundreds more feet of descent over crazy terrain, paved with house-sized boulders and jump-offs, to where boaters would be. I know there’s a trip due down there tomorrow, with my girlfriend Kendall guiding and her folks riding along. I hiked the lower part of the canyon from the river up to the fault years ago, and know it goes. If I can just make the bottom, I can simply head downhill and down-canyon until I hit the river, and await help. I can hitch a ride to the mouth of Havasu with them, or with any river party, really. Overnight on the river with good nutrition and perhaps a doctor. If I recover, I can hike out highly visited Havasu to the rim. If not, I can veg out on the raft and get a free ride out to the trucks at the take-out—Diamond Creek, a few days downstream. Under control.
An impassable cliff shocks me out of my reverie. The fault hasn’t broken a route through here. I begin to sweat early this day, and not because of the heat. I re-check my maps. Carelessly, I hadn’t closely inspected the fault lines drawn on this section of the map. The fault line changes to a dashed line here, meaning it goes underground for a distance. A curiosity, perhaps, to a geologist, but to me? No surface fault; no broken-up ground. No broken-up ground; no route through the Redwall. I’ve already descended nearly a thousand feet to get to this layer, and for the whole way I was surrounded by fortress-like barriers on either side. No way out but back, and up. I look back, shake my head, and begin the backtrack. Choices are few.
By the time I reach last night’s camp, it’s hot—really hot. I haven’t had a drink of water for hours, and I haven’t seen any sign of a spring. I’m trying to focus on the maps, make a decision while I still have the sense to make a good one. Considering my current record, maybe it’s too late. I scan the terrain, looking for a sign, but find nothing concrete. Finally, I decide to head up towards the head of the main canyon. It seems like the contour lines on the map are far enough apart in fits and starts to allow me access to Matkat’s bottomlands in that direction. Trouble is, the canyon is long. Very. About five miles extra, up and down steep scree, gaining and losing hundreds of feet at a time, with no marked water holes. Still, it seems my best option. I haven’t been that far up-canyon from the mouth, and don’t know if I can make the river. Once down there, I surely won’t have the strength to climb against gravity if I get cliffed out again. No choice. No turning back. Thus I lean, not eagerly, in that direction, keeping an eye out for signs of water.
In the Arizona deserts, like all deserts, if one knows the signs, one can find water—even in the driest months. This desert is not a Sahara moonscape. It has plants, scattered amongst the sand and rock, each plant taking just enough space to survive. Some of these plants need more moisture than others. The delicate and sinuous redbud bush for one. The cottonwood tree, with its tinkling applause for the welcome and gentle breeze, another. I may not be able to smell water like an animal can, but I can watch for these plants, perhaps hidden under a shady overhang or in a narrow cleft.
Time passes as I put one foot in front of the other, reciting to myself epic Robert Service poems about freezing in the Yukon winter while searching for gold. I’ll settle for water. I come upon another side canyon. It looks promising. Decision time.
Do I take the much longer route along more open territory, with less chance of deep potholes hidden from the desiccating heat, but more likely to access the bottomlands? Or, do I take the chance that this side canyon harbors a hidden route through, has some shade, and possibly a speck of water? I glance down. I can get into this little niche, but it will mean sliding down a steeply inclined boulder and jumping the last few feet to the gravel bottom. Once in, I’m not sure I could climb back out. Normally, I wouldn’t even consider taking a route I wasn’t sure I could backtrack, wasn’t sure led to an exit. But I’m getting a little close to desperate, and not thinking all that straight, besides.
I throw my pack to the gravel below. Committed. Then I slide and jump down, the clean gravel sounding like jamming champagne bottles into a cooler full of ice. I then heft the pack back on, and proceed towards my fate.
A half mile of twisting slot canyon brings the answer. My daze is interrupted by the absence of the sound of gravel crunching beneath my feet. A slate-clean, washed, flat rock surface leads around the next hidden bend. My bones comprehend its significance. The floodwater, which has carved this insignificant slot over the millennia, occurring maybe once every decade or century, but potentially torrential when it comes, carries these gravels and boulders along with it as it rushes into Matkat, joining countless other floods, thence to muddy the Colorado River. The gravels are deposited where the power of the current lessens, as in a slow-moving section or a plunge pool. They are swept away where the power increases, as at the top of a rapid, or, perchance, a waterfall.
Yup—waterfall. Dry, of course, but about six hundred feet high. Probably pretty spectacular when it’s running red after a storm. It is incised into vertical cliffs that continue up on either side of the notch for another four hundred feet, back up to the Esplanade. Far below but only maybe a half mile away in direct line of sight, in this same drainage, is a brilliantly lit pool lined with scattered cottonwoods. A taunt. The sun is coincidentally shining just at the perfect angle, making the pool look like a hole in the earth, with a blindingly bright sun shining back up at me from Hades.
I half-sit, half-collapse at the brink. It’s all over now. How embarrassing, I think—me, a longtime Grand Canyon guide, who should know better than to make all these stupid mistakes, lost, then found, mummified in the dry heat, eyes picked by ravens. Then, I remember my signal mirror. I could flash a plane. But I haven’t heard any planes. Maybe the flash will reach commercial airliners at thirty thousand feet? Oh, sure. I recall the other time I had to be flown out by chopper, years ago with my friend Drifter, on another multi-day fault-line hike. It was pneumonia, that time. If twice rescued, I’d be catching up with Elwanger, a guide who’s been airlifted out three times. Rumor has it one involved a steak knife, a bottle of whiskey, and a gluteus maximus. He’s the current record-holder. I’d like it to stay that way. Shit, I hope my ranger friend, Kim Crumbo, doesn’t find out. He’ll laugh his head off.
Okay. That’s it. I’m really going off my head now. Childish ramblings. Think, man, think. No direct sun here, cooler, but no chance to flash the signal mirror either. Stay here, find a comfortable nook, muse over your inconsequential life, sleep for eternity. Or, get off your fat ass and heave the pack on and continue on up and try to make it out or die in the attempt. At least that option offers some hope of salvation. Helps you retain just a little self-respect.
I will myself to arise and begin, once again, the backtrack, scanning the cliffs on either side of me, searching for a crack that possibly will lead out. I’m dizzy, confused. I feel apathetic and leaden. I’m sick to my stomach. Pathetic.
As I’m dragging myself along, searching for an escape—and a tomorrow—I notice a broken crack up the vertical cliff face to my right. I can’t get back far enough, or high enough, to see where it leads, but it looks like it goes, at least through the vertical part, about a hundred fifty feet or so.
Don’t let go with a hand until both feet are solid. Don’t move a foot from one hold to the next unless both hands are set. This is the ideal in climbing, one that is lost as the difficulty increases. Never lunge—well, unless there’s no other choice. Test your holds before depending on them, in case one breaks off, especially on sandstone or limestone, which breaks more easily. This is sandstone. Trail your pack on a rope, so it doesn’t pull you off the face.
I move slowly, deliberately upwards, jamming my hands and feet into the crack, watching for rattlesnakes cooling in its shade. I haven’t climbed much for years, since my belly operations required a time-out, and then I discovered white water. Somehow, though, my fingers and toes respond to primitive memory, and I inch along. I stop on a miniscule ledge and turn around to find myself scarily high. Exhilarating exposure, terrifying possibilities. I quickly bury my face in the rock, shake away the cobwebs, resolve not to do that again. I continue the climb. Before I’m aware of it, I’m scrambling up a narrow notch, the horizon above me lying back with each step to a reasonable angle.
I breathe deeply of this glorious world.
Then, in my peripheral vision—green! Not the dusty gray-green of the open desert, but a cool, crisp luscious green. A few steps to the left, and a twisted redbud comes into view beneath a dark, overhanging ceiling. Oh God, let it be above ground.
When I reach the bush and its overhanging, black-streaked ceiling, shady and cool, I hear the dripping. A solitary and meager blessing, emanating hesitantly from the unreachable ceiling above, striking a large triangular rock and evaporating in the heat almost immediately. This is going to take a while. I open my thankfully wide-mouthed water bottle, arrange some rocks at its base to form a reasonably flat platform for this chalice, and collapse into semi-consciousness next to it.
I awake sometime later to the dripping sound, about one every couple of seconds, now slightly echoing. I glance over to find a pint of water in the bottle and gulp it down in an instant. Replacing the bottle on its sacred pedestal, I fall back again, comatose. This goes on for several hours in the long, long day, until I’m finally able to think a bit straighter.
Had I the sense to do my homework before embarking, I might have read this description from a previous traveler: “If you stay on the Esplanade and go around Matkat, expect the nastiest country you have ever seen. The rock garden valleys on either side of Mount Akaba are a nightmare. Stay low on the sandstone and avoid the shale at all costs.”
I proceed to the shale.
A mile of stumbling later, in this more open terrain, I see a contrail high in the sky and try to flash it. I can’t even see the plane, how the hell am I going to know if the flash hit them, or whether they’ve seen it? Then, as if by magic, a Red Tail tourist plane touring Havasu Canyon, some miles distant, hits the far ridge and follows it back toward the rim. I reflexively flash, and this time I can see the light strike the fuselage. The plane continues on and disappears over the rim.
I can’t go on. I’ve scrambled over and around innumerable boulders, going for at least a few miles towards the head of Matkat. I awoke from sleepwalking to find myself on impossibly steep scree slopes of loose rubble, clinging to apartment-sized boulders that in turn were themselves barely clinging to the slope. I floundered up and down ravines, washes, moraines.
I’m out of water again, worn out again. I can’t concentrate on anything but my next footstep. I find a tiny overhanging flake in the middle of a vast slope of rubble, just wide enough and high enough for me to squeeze underneath it, lying down, and get some shade. I lie here for a while, and drift off into childish fantasies of old comrades finding my body, shaking their heads at how I’d finally lost it. Lead flows molten through my veins— sitting on my chest, oppressive, radiant as a solar flare, even in this speck of blistering shade.
Then, another plane drones into my consciousness. Unmoving, I roll my head and blink to see another Red Tail tourist flight over the opposite ridge. I overcome the lead, stumble out of my gravesite, fumble with the mirror. Flash, flash, flash. In an instant, the plane miraculously tilts its wings in my direction, banking into a steep turn and heading right at me. I keep flashing for a bit, then realize I might be blinding the pilot, so I stop and just stand there, dumbly. He passes right overhead, not fifty feet off the deck. I wave my arms frantically. He disappears over the cliffs behind, and is gone.
Okay, I’ve been spotted. Nothing to do now but wait for the chopper. I think now not of the ultimate embarrassment of a desert guide being found dead in the desert, but the explaining I’ll to have to do about being alone in June in such remote and insane terrain. The embarrassment of having to call for help. Oh, well, I suppose it’s the better of the two options.
I wait, and I wait. The sun descends, yet there’s still no relief from the relentless heat. Hours pass, still no sign, and no more planes. My mind wanders again, more lost than its owner. Did they really see me? Of course they did, they detoured right over your head, dipshit. But why isn’t there help by now? Is there some other, more important emergency? Did the chopper crash? Did the pilot forget to call it in?
Finally, I decide I’d better not stay there any longer. My thirst, and the resultant desiccation of my brain have gone too far. If they don’t come after all, I’m screwed. I head off down-slope, angling towards the bottomlands of Matkatamiba, maybe a broken mile away. There’s a small side notch ahead that might get me into the main canyon. From there, it’s all downhill, assuming that the extra few miles I’ve come up-canyon don’t contain any more obstacles in the drainage. I hit the notch and head down.
My mouth set, blinking back eternity, I proceed dumbly in a labyrinth of stone concealing my future beyond each faltering step. Another corner, then, a vision of loveliness. Sheep poop. Spoor. Scat. Caca. Bighorn droppings, right there at my feet. The first in four days. Music to my eyes.
In all the treks I’ve done in The Canyon, my companions and I always seek the poop. Sheep are incredible climbers, leaping and scraping up and down seemingly impassible cliffs. They just love dizzying exposure, playful when on the edge. But, after all, these animals have hooves, not fingers and boots, and a human can pretty much be assured that they, and their lambs, will not be going somewhere we can’t. If you see their scat, you’re on a route that goes somewhere they figured was important, somehow.
The tracks grow more numerous, converging on an overhang just ahead. I smile to myself. Whatever it was that had me, it’s letting me go. I arrive to a muddy mess, not ten feet in diameter, teeth marks scraping the water-laden moss off the ceiling just five feet off the ground. Water seeps—just trickles, really, but more than sufficient—dribble down the back wall. It’s cool in here from evaporation and shade. The day is waning. I drop my pack, leave my bottle to fill in one of the dribbles, and head off downstream to see if I can reach the bottom of Matkat. I find the main exit easily, in just a few hundred yards. I return to drink and consider.
Lying there in the blessed mud, quenching my insatiable thirst, blissfully gulping iridescent green pollywog soup, I ponder the next move. I could wait here and see if a chopper does, at last, arrive. I could stay the night with this water and see if my condition improves. I could drink my fill, and head off down Matkat by moon and flashlight, hope there are no real obstacles between me and my destination, try to reach the Colorado tomorrow before the heat, and hitch a ride on a raft.
These musings are interrupted by the whopwhopwhop of a chopper. Very close. I poke my head out from under the overhang to glimpse the retreating tail of the Park chopper disappearing over the far wall. Hmmm….too late? I am now ambivalent about being rescued, having made it so far. Will they return this way before departing for good? Now that I appear to be over the worst, shall I continue, hope for the best and avoid the embarrassment of rescue? As I frantically try to make my mind cooperate in this decision-making process, I fumble for the mirror. Got it. Step out into the last of the sun in this slot canyon just as the chopper passes overhead on its last run. No need for the mirror—our eyes meet. It’s Mark Law. No shit, that’s really his name. Damn.
Mark is the kind of ranger people love to hate. He epitomizes the dramatic shift of ranger-hood from the friendly, helpful guy in the big green hat to the wannabe cop. The nazi with a gun and an attitude who shouldn’t be in a position to be helping either hardened outdoors-people or even dumb tourists in high heels. Once upon a time, the river rangers for the park, my friend Kim Crumbo among them, were respected boatmen. They had once been commercial guides themselves. They knew the ropes. They’d travel along with us, sharing our adventures and meals. They might gently but firmly suggest we strain the dishwater, wash our hands, pass the whiskey. The rules were there in the background, not shoved in your face as an excuse to release frustration or aggression. Times, unfortunately, have changed. During a recent public meeting, the new Park Superintendent angrily rebutted the notion that his rangers were nazis. It was at that moment I realized that indeed they were, or he wouldn’t have so violently disputed it.
I’ve known ol’ Mark since he got to the Park a few years ago. His actions had resulted in the firing of some guide friends of mine, for infractions without consequence. Things could’ve been worked out differently. Mark had been reported hiding in his boat in an eddy behind a cliff wall, taking down boat descriptions and guide names—guides who would later get tickets in the mail. No communication, no second chances.
Just the man I want to see.
The chopper’s motor, close but just out of sight beyond the rim of my little side-canyon spa, drops to idle. Clearly they’ve landed. A uniformed figure appears in a gully above, scrambles easily down. Mark saunters over, half smiles.
“How ya doing?”
“I’m sick, I think, and dehydrated.”
“Was that you who flashed Red Tail?”
“Can you walk?”
“Let’s get outta here. Chopper’s nearly empty.”
Nice to see you, too.
I grab my pack and bottle and hop in. Mark adjusts my seat belt and we’re off, instantly and effortlessly above my personal trail of tears. I spot the gravesite, the dead-end canyon. Last night’s camp, with Ernest sitting under the rock, grabbing some much appreciated shade. Then we’re instantly over flatter ground, now just fifty feet below instead of a few thousand, having rimmed out in a split second.
Over the microphone, Mark asks where I came from, what my route was, what happened. I retell the tale, best I can. Offhandedly, he asks if I had a permit to hike here.
“No. I was on the Res. Mostly.”
He asks where I want them to take me, after they check me out back at the hangar.
“I’ll give you the number of a friend or two. Maybe they can come out from Flagstaff and pick me up. Just do me a favor. Don’t tell Kim. He’ll laugh his ass off.”
We arrive at the chopper hangar in Grand Canyon Village not long thereafter. The paramedic checks me out, announces I’m dehydrated. No shit. I have a fever, too. Some fluid in the lungs. It looks like the flu or something. Mark is in the background, making phone calls. I overhear him behind the paramedic.
“Hi. Yeah, got a buddy of yours here. Not too good a shape. Needs a place to stay for the night and a ride….Okay, here he is…”
He hands over the phone. Crumbo says, “What the fuck have you gotten yourself into this time, Aronson?” and starts to chuckle.
I recover from what turned out to be the flu in two days at home. Three weeks later, I receive a present from the Park Service: a three-hundred-and-fifty-dollar bill for the chopper, and a fifty-dollar ticket for hiking in the Park without a permit.
Not long after, out come the maps again. I’ve always wanted to see upper Tuckup, and autumn will soon be here.
Jeffe Aronson’s “Sinyala Fault” was the Bad Trip Gold Award winner in the Fifth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.