The Grand Staircase, Part Ten
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Saturday 
Click Here for Part One

On our final day, we drove out of Zion through two long tunnels carved into cliffs. We passed a herd of big horn sheep and pulled over. Since my point-and-shoot camera can’t zoom in any closer than the naked eye, I slowly moved toward them for a picture. The largest and clearly dominant male never averted his eyes away from me. A stare I didn’t want to get too close to. I got back into the car and we went to Bryce Canyon to finish our Grand Staircase tour, but first we stopped for breakfast at Ruby’s Inn, a western diner near the entrance of the park.

The waiter covered our table with plates of mouth-watering breakfast foods. After eating, we stopped at the Sunrise point trailhead and filled our hydration packs for a long hike into Bryce Canyon. 

The early settler, Ebenezer Bryce, called it “a helluva place to lose a cow.” He was right. It certainly would be. We wandered through a labyrinth of multi-hued and impossibly thin pillars of rock called hoodoos. Some of which, it seems, a stiff breeze could knock over.  

We meandered over miles of curling trails slowly towards the canyon floor. Storm clouds moved in an out. For a short time, cold raindrops came down and a chilly breeze forced me to put on a sweatshirt. Quickly as it came, the rains were gone and it warmed back up. 

Shadows and colors at Bryce change between sunrise and sunset, making it look a little different every hour of the day. It was so beautiful that no matter where your camera pointed, you could get a great shot. This meant I had a hard time putting my camera away, taking well over three hundred pictures on this day alone.

We hiked a few miles back out of the canyon, then along the rim to the car. Number 131, Hike at Bryce Canyon, was off the list. I successfully crossed off all six of the plan items on this trip, a very productive nine days. We began our drive north to Salt Lake, neither of us ready to see it end. My plane would leave in the early afternoon the following day.

Sunday 

Randy dropped me off at the SLC airport in the late morning. It was busier and more chaotic than my arrival, but everything went smoothly. As my plane lifted me out of the Salt Lake Valley and back towards home, I again stared out at the view from above. As usual with these trips, no part of me was ready to be leaving. I hadn’t been away from Indiana long enough to care to see it again so soon. 

I have to find a way to have more weeks like this one. We did a lot, in such a short number of days, yet I still have over a hundred things to experience on my list. We walked down the Vegas strip and saw one of the great engineering marvels in all of human history, but as impressive as those enormous human endeavors are, they pale in comparison to the things created by nature. You only have to think of how you feel in both places to know what I mean.

The action and thrill of Vegas can’t compare with the feeling you get perched on the edge of the Grand Canyon gaping at a forever-long landscape, stumbling upon wildlife on a trail, looking up dizzying cliff walls from the canyon floor, or to the thrill of riding on top of a powerful uncompromising river.

We knew our planned destinations would be incredible, so we had certain expectations on the trip. One of the best things about it, however, was all the small details we hadn’t really thought of. The early morning drives passed sunrises, a bumpy ride into an infamous canyon in an old elementary school bus, a beaver dam holding back the emerald waters of a canyon sculpting river, waking up under bright starlight to a silent and peaceful night, the delicious food at never before seen restaurants, experiencing the day in the life of interesting strangers, laughing and conversing with an old friend, and just seeing anything, no matter what it was, for the first time. 

The Grand Staircase, Part Nine
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Friday 
Click Here for Part One

We rose to our final full day at Zion. We agreed on a hike to Observation Point, high on the east rim, 2,148 feet above the canyon floor. First, we got off the shuttle at Zion Lodge and crossed the street to hike to the Emerald Pools, three small ponds that reflected emerald green with trickling waterfalls.

The trail to Observation point begins near Weeping Rock, an eroded cliff face where water seeps out nourishing hanging mosses, ferns, and wildflowers. The path is steep, gaining elevation quickly, making it one of the most strenuous of the popular hikes in the park. Most of the trail is on carved slickrock in full sun.

Every few minutes of hiking, we’d look around at a gradually higher view, slowly increasing in magnificence with each step. The trail was nearly always gaining in elevation. Knowing of Randy’s exhaustion, I told him I thought we were getting close. I wasn’t positive but it seemed like we had to be nearing the end of the 4-mile hike up. Soon I came to a sign that said 2 miles to Observation Point. I thought about not telling Randy, but I did, and he proceeded to shit a brick (his words). 

The trail flattened out through Echo Canyon, probably the most beautiful section on the trail. That is saying a lot when you consider where we were. The trail coiled around ensuring we’d see every angle.

Much too soon, we were leaving Echo and winding our way up once again. When stopping for a break, a fit middle-aged woman was hiking passed me at a quick pace, breathing heavily. “We’re almost there,” I said thinking she’d be relieved. “I wish we weren’t,” she said, reminding me that the journey, not the destination, is where we find happiness; effectively putting me in my philosophical place. We reached the top at Mount Baldy, the trail flattened out on an outcrop of land with shear drop offs on three sides overhanging the canyon. 

The view up here rivaled any other in the country, even those seen just days ago at the Grand Canyon. Angel’s Landing was visible at a distance and six or seven hundred feet lower in elevation. We sat on the deep-red rocky ground near the edge, looking straight down Zion Canyon, feet dangling 2,148 feet above its thin winding creator below, the Virgin River.

After dozens of photos, we both found a spot to pull out our packed lunches. We ate while gaping at one of the best panoramas we’ve ever seen. Zion is my favorite place that I’ve ever been to, I decided while sitting atop this, another scratch in the blue cue ball’s surface.

The four miles back, going downhill, was much less strenuous. I hoped to get a photo of observation point from the canyon floor before the sun went down but I was running out of time. I went on ahead, jogging down the trail, and got my photo with only a sliver of sunlight still shining on it. 

At the end of the trail, a mother Mule Deer was leading her young around, as we waited for the next shuttle. We got off at an area with scattered picnic tables called, the grotto. Randy was ready to call it a day, so he went back to camp and headed into town for another pack of Nathan’s hot dogs for later that night. After realizing we forgot another hiking pole at the grotto, I got on another shuttle heading back north to retrieve it and to hopefully get one last hike in before sundown. I was happy to see the shuttle heading south to pick me up, was Jim’s.

< Part Eight | Part Ten >


The Grand Staircase, Part Eight
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Thursday 
Click Here for Part One

After breakfast, we went to the base of Angel’s Landing. Switchbacks snaked their way up hundreds of feet, foretelling a strenuous hike ahead. I wasn’t used to the altitude, Randy wasn’t used to hiking this much, but we made it without any complications. The steep but straightforward section of trail ended and the final ½-mile push to the top was along a narrow scramble with nearly 1,500-foot vertical drops on either side. Randy decided to stay behind. A chain bolted into the rock helped people get to the top without a terrifying freefall. I very much appreciated this addition.

At a far distance, this narrow ½-mile section to the top resembles a rocky serrated dorsal fin, with people hiking along its edge. Some steep sections required all fours to traverse safely. It wasn’t too difficult, with the help of the chain, unless you have a fear of heights. A couple of times, I had to duck under and move to the other side of the chain, millimeters from a lethal drop, to make room for oncoming traffic. As long as the chain held, and I didn’t do anything stupid, I would be fine. Even though most people could make this hike if they felt motivated, I still felt a feeling of accomplishment when I got to the top. 

The 360-degree view was spectacular. A few people scattered around on the cream-colored smooth stone surface. A girl sat a few feet up on a rock to write in a journal. An older couple sat on the ground too weak in the knees to stand. They asked a person they didn’t know to take their picture. He backed up slowly to frame them in, nearing the edge, which added some drama to the simple picture taking. Another girl in clothes displaying her college’s initials stood at the edge and looked out at the view. The canyon road and Virgin River were now thin wavy lines surrounded by mammoth jagged red cliffs topped with forested mesas. 

I captured several photos myself and made my way back down about twenty minutes later. I loved every step. A ranger was hiking close behind me. I decided to let him pass. “I’m going to let you go around me since you’re faster and know the way better than I do.” A minute later he started to go one way, changed his mind, and chose a different route. “See I’m glad I let you lead,” I said. “Oh no you can go that way if you want. It’s just that a guy fell to his death over there a little over a year ago, and I wanted to avoid it,” he said in the same tone he’d use if he saw a pile of dog shit and was telling me to watch my step. “Oh, does that happen often?” I asked. “Uhh, we had three die in the past year or so, one was from a heart attack. But, you know, that’s out of tens of thousands of visitors a year.” 

The unfortunate hiker was fifty-three year old Barry Goldstein of St. Louis. Hiking up Angel’s Landing with a family wedding party, he accidently fell to his death in June of 2007. Rangers estimated that he fell about 1,000 feet. An eyewitness who called 911 said, “It was a sheer drop-off. There were no second chances when he went off. We could see him fall…. Just like that, he was gone.”

Just days before, a canyoneer fell to his death around Upper Emerald Pools. The park received a lot of press with such an upsetting week, but this didn’t stop the flow of day-hikers aspiring to reach the top. I’m glad I didn’t hear these stories before beginning my hike up. Fear tends to generate boring lives. I’d rather not know. 

After making my way back down, I found Randy and we started down the long switchback decent to wait for the next shuttle. At Zion Lodge, we decided to get a sandwich at the Lodge restaurant, before going back to camp. Few things in life are better than a nice fattening cheeseburger after a grueling hike. 

After finishing our meals, I saw taps for natural Zion spring water on the side of the restaurant. All day we had been drinking bad tasting well water from a spigot near camp. We promptly dumped our hydration packs and filled them with the refreshing cold spring water, free of aftertaste. 

Once back, we got in the car and drove to the adjacent town of Springdale for firewood. At the campsite, we again got a campfire crackling and sat at the picnic table, talking and playing poker with headlamps on for the remainder of the night.

< Part Seven | Part Nine >

The Grand Staircase, Part Seven
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Wednesday
Click Here for Part One

Alarm buzzing, the snooze bar within reach was a challenging temptation. If the park was full, we had to make sure we could get there early enough to get a backcountry permit or the next available campsite. “No Vacancy” remained posted, but we could clearly see a sparsely filled campground. There was a small spot, not too close to other campers, with a picnic table, fire pit, access to a river, and a spectacular view of the 6500-foot high Watchman cliff side. We pulled out our tents and staked them into a hard dusty red ground that coated our shoes.

Zion in Hebrew means sanctuary, a perfect name for this walled desert oasis carved by the Virgin River. The river took 13 million years to sculpt its masterpiece, molding the Colorado Plateau into cliffs and towers. All while giving life to numerous plants and providing water and food to diverse wildlife. All the life in this safe-haven, including us tourists who enjoy it, owe it all to this unaware but persistent river.

Zion Canyon Road, recently repaved to match the red hue of the canyon, is accessible only by shuttle. Stop at one of several bus stops and in less than 7 minutes, they will be there to pick you up. This has done wonders for the park. Traffic jams are now due only to the abundance of wildlife that has returned since the shuttle program started. Plants and wildlife can more easily take shelter and flourish in the park.

We waited for our approaching ride to the Zion Narrows, my most anticipated region in the park. After a screech of the breaks, the doors opened. We climbed aboard the shuttle, captained by Jim.

Other passengers filled the seats so I remained in the aisle standing in a Y holding onto two rings for stability. Jim, a man in his early to mid sixties, drove us up through the red forested canyon toward our destination. He spoke in a loud assertive whisper, reminiscent of Jack Boyer or Clint Eastwood. It had a weight that demanded your full attention. It worked on me. I listened to every word.

“The other drivers will just play the same recording over the speakers,” he said holding a microphone to his mouth, steering with the other hand. “It’s called an M-P-3 player. They do it because it’s easy, but then you hear the same thing on every shuttle all day every day. Not me, I want to try to give you something unique.”

The Virgin River came into clear view from the shuttle windows. “Some people ask how this tiny river can form this big canyon,” he said, displeased with anyone who might speak ill of his beloved river. “It looks small now, but when storms strike, flash floods will flow down the river blasting out log jams and hurtling boulders. Trust me. The Virgin River is no pup.”

My steadying grip tightened on every turn, as we winded up the canyon. “Rain water from thousands of years ago soaked through the sandstone cliffs and is used after all those years by these plants today. That’s why even in the middle of the desert you see Fir, Cottonwood, aspen trees, and… the Ponderosa Pine,” finishing with emphasis and a lower tone on the last one in that Jack Bower voice that Randy and I couldn’t stop mimicking on our whole trip. Actually as I write this, I’m saying “Ponderosa Pine” in my best assertive whispered Jim voice.

“Right here on your left, you see that slope? A flash flood from the Virgin River caused a massive mudslide that dammed up the river and washed out the only access road, trapping a couple hundred visitors at the Zion Lodge. Like I said, the Virgin River is no pup.”

“All the major news networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News,” he read in quick rehearsed succession, “for some reason had reporters here for a month. Probably because they never seen this place and wanted a paid business trip. The headlines said ‘200 People Trapped at Zion Lodge’. Trapped? Hmmph. They got a free night’s stay in the park at a beautiful lodge with food and drinks paid for.” He lowered his voice slightly and scoffed, “I’m sure it was horrible for them,”.

Jim’s shuttle arrived at the Temple of Sinawava. We walked down the short paved Riverside Walk that ended at the river. Here the canyon converges into the 16-mile long Narrows formed by the Virgin River. The trail actually is the river, nearly running canyon wall to canyon wall at all times. With our aqua shoes on, we sloshed into the 57-degree water.

Some of the hike was along the sandy shorelines, but most was through water ankle to knee deep. That is, if it’s clear enough to see where you’re stepping. Fortunately, today the water was clear. The deep sections were clearly visible as a darker emerald green. If storms upstream dirtied the river, hikers might suddenly find themselves swimming in several feet of water.

Our legs soon acclimated to the cold temperature as we made our way through the narrowing cliff walls. The trail was, at first, crowded. Barefoot people posed for photos with long hiking sticks in hand.

The narrows are unlike any place I’ve been. The cliff walls loom over you, soaring 2,000 feet overhead and come together as close as thirty feet apart. Water weeps out of red-hued sandstone giving life to hanging gardens of moss, ferns, grasses, and wild flowers. Deep emerald water flows around fallen boulders, getting louder in spots, as water channels through narrower spaces, causing white caps to surge though. This is undoubtedly one of the most stunning places on earth.

Once again, the further we hiked, the less we saw other people. “I feel like a kid at Christmas, every turn reveals another unknown gift,” Randy said as we neared a sharp bend in the trail. We hiked within an arm’s reach to the walls, on sand bordering the river’s edge, and over slick algae-covered boulders. Our path zigzagged back and forth, as we looked for the best place to make our next step. Swift flowing water occasionally made crossing difficult.

We climbed on top of a large boulder to have lunch. Other hikers sloshed by below us. This trip (like this blog post) seems to have lasted forever. It was hard to believe it had only been five days. Months after the trip I still sometimes close my eyes and try to imagine being back at this spot. I so desperately want to go back.

At what looked like a sizable beaver dam about five miles in, we stood for a few minutes, admired the view, and made the hard decision to head back before nightfall. Surprisingly, the hike in the other direction wasn’t very familiar. The new angle made it a new trail.

Less than a mile from the Riverside Walk, we passed a young family of four. “I wish we could keep going, but it’s getting late. Are we going to miss anything great if we turn around now?” the mother asked us. “Well, more of this,” I said. “So… yes,” Randy added.

The Zion Narrows still stands as my favorite hike. It’s conceivable that I’ll be lucky enough to find one that can even come close, but this will be hard to top. Number 130, “Hike Zion Narrows”, was technically off my list, but I hope to return one day when I have more time to hike the other two-thirds that we missed.

We arrived at the bus stop and were happy to see Jim’s shuttle waiting there. I put my hiking poles in the crack between the seats, slid out of my pack, and sat down. Jim passed the time with stories about the park’s wild turkeys, in that Eastwood whisper. “Come back here at about eight o’clock and you’ll see the wild turkeys all turning in for the night. They fly to the same tree, in the same order, one at a time, the alpha male always going first. Turkey’s can’t control themselves when they are in the air. If another turkey gets in their way, they’ll just crash into each other and hit the ground hard, so they go one at a time. They get to that tree there and then one at a time will fly to other trees where they will stay for the night.” Suddenly he stopped the shuttle. A Blue Herron stood tall by the river. Jim made sure everyone got a look.

As we slowed for the next stop, Jim said, “If you want to see a mountain lion, this spot is your best bet. I’m not guaranteeing you’ll see one but your chances are better if you come back here… after sunset… and come alone.” After a second pause, everyone laughed.

Jim reminded everyone when they got off, to not leave anything on his shuttle. “If you do, I have to take it to the front office at the end of my shift. When I park the bus, I can either, walk 50 feet to my car, or 300 yards to the office to fill out paper work. How many of you think I’m gonna do that? No, it’s going in my trunk. I’ll look at it in the morning and see if it’s worth keepin’. If not I’ll get rid of it… eBay.” When it was our turn to get off, I left behind my hiking poles still standing between the seats anyway. The next day I went to the visitor center’s lost and found, but Jim kept his promise.

Back at camp, we marveled at the view, got a fire crackling, prepared dinner, and played poker by the light of headlamps until retreating to our tents. The sky was clear. Billions of stars were out. Other than muffled voices from nearby campsites, the night was quiet. I shimmied into my sleeping bag and pulled out my camera to look at photos from today. I scrawled a few sentences about the day in my journal and put everything away in the tent’s pockets next to my headt. With ease, I feel asleep.

My subconscious projector lit up to replay a familiar dream. Often my dreams are disturbing in ways only David Fincher could direct, but none are more mentally exhausting as ones that put me back to my old closed-down pet store. The store is always dark and I struggle trying to find a way to get the lights on as customers flood back in. They were intensely stressful years that I’m thrilled to have behind me. In the dream, however, I’m led me to believe that all the hard work successfully getting out from under those years is the dream. The retail aggravation is back, only confusing, dark, and noisier.

Lying in my tent, I forcibly jolted myself awake. A million specks of starlight comfort me overhead. Blue moonlight scatters onto the ground and across the Watchman cliff sides. The frustration of the dream melts away, as though reality dunked my head into pool of cool blue water, instantly silencing the noise.

I thought about how glad I am to have that all behind me. To be in a location I could only daydream about a few years ago. This moment helps justify that stressful past. Without it, would I know the luxury of silence, the value in being able to leave thoughts of work at the office, and the importance of unruffled simplicity?

I tried to force attentiveness, to make this time last, but was too tired and eventually succumbed to heavy eyelids. The next morning I woke up and continued admiring the view of the Watchman until I could hear that Randy was also awake.

< Part Six | Part Eight >

The Grand Staircase, Part Six
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Tuesday
Click Here for Part One

The next morning we went to tour the Hoover Dam. A car accident had a quarter-mile line of vehicles sitting in park, and the line was quickly growing. For no apparent reason, I had the Who song “Behind Blue Eyes” stuck in my head and kept singing it. “No one knows what it’s like… to be the bad man… to be the sad man… behind blue eyes.” Sitting in traffic with me singing the same song repeatedly could turn annoying fast. Randy turned on his XM.

The thought of turning around to head to the next destination on our list was starting to enter our minds, but we decided to wait it out. Neither of us minded sitting there listening to music and talking. The song on the radio ended. The next one started, Behind Blue Eyes, by The Who. I couldn’t believe it. Fortunately, the traffic soon picked up.

When we arrived, we got in line for tickets. “You going on the Dam Tour?” the girl asked with slight emphasis on the word dam. “Yeah, one please,” I said. “Ok, one for theDam Tour.” She really enjoyed saying that. “She must be new,” I thought.

A group of us herded into a theatre for a 20-minute video about the dam’s construction. With plenty of time to kill afterwards, we went outside to peer over the dam’s edge and look around at the interesting art deco architecture and various exhibits, until it was time for our tour.

Some elevator doors closed and a group of people descended deep underground. “Shoot, I forgot to tell those people that there isn’t a restroom down there. Oh well they’ll figure it out. If you have to use the restroom you better go now.”

They flooded us with the typical “damn” jokes, I assumed because it was better than having to hear every damtourists make the same dam jokes as though they were the first to come up with them. “I’ve been a Dam tour guide for 30 years now…” “Ok, now let’s all squeeze into the Dam Elevator…” Thousands overhear it all day, every day.

We got in line. The group ahead of us was now dropping a couple hundred feet below. “Shoot, I forgot to tell those people that there isn’t a restroom down there. Oh well they’ll figure it out. If you have to use the restroom you better go now.” The people not here long enough, to have already heard the jokes, chuckled.

The Hoover Dam is truly one of the greatest engineering marvels of the 20th century. It was absolutely worth going to, even with the delay. We went into its depths, walked through tunnels hundreds of feet deep, and peered out a window half way up the smooth dam wall.

After getting back on the road, we stopped to eat at the overhyped In-and-Out burger, and then back through Vegas towards Zion National Park. We waited in more traffic from another accident, but by then I was unconscious in the passenger seat. By the time we got to the beautiful city of St. George, Utah, we were again ready to stop to eat.

We arrived at Zion after nightfall. It’s grandeur was hidden, but you could almost sense something massive just behind the darkness. An engraved wooden sign at the gate said, “No Vacancy.” We drove back out of the park until our cell phone had some bars and called a hotel. Only one had a room available, and it was their only one. It cost more than the stay in Vegas but it beat sleeping in the car. The room was a typical cheap hotel room, but huge. A small wooden table with four chairs sat in the middle surrounded by three beds, with their headboards up against the walls. We pulled everything out of the car, scattered it over scratchy cheap hotel comforters, and repacked it to get organized.

On the TV, Obama and McCain campaign press conferences warned us of a looming economy-sized recession. We couldn’t really care any less. Only the next few days mattered. I turned it to South Park, and we made our plans for tomorrow’s hike.

< Part Five | Part Seven >

The Grand Staircase, Part Five
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Monday Night
Click Here for Part One

We got back to the car, pulled onto Route 66, and headed to Las Vegas. We aren’t Vegas-type people, as anyone that knows us would assume, but we were this close to it. I’ve wanted to see what it was like and it was on my list. Besides, it was a nice way to split up our week with showers and real beds.

We drove down the strip. I stared up at all the familiar buildings and lights like a 6-month old staring at a ceiling fan. We got to the Luxor and checked in.

“To get to your room make a left at that Starbucks right down there and go straight until you get to the next Starbucks and make a right and you’ll see the elevators,” said the girl at the front desk. I am not making that up.

We dropped off our stuff and started down the 4-mile Las Vegas strip, the world capital of gambling, chapels and cheap buffets. We didn’t have a lot in mind to do. We just walked. I wanted to see all the famous casinos and maybe a few chemically imbalanced people.

I found slot machines extraordinarily boring, but I could say gambling in Vegas was officially off my list (number 111). I wanted to play a few just to get the feel of pulling down the handle and hearing the jingling change pouring out. To my disappointment, they got rid of the handle, in place of a monotonous little button. I quickly turned ten dollars into fifteen, but my winnings printed out on a little receipt. Where’s the excitement in that? Can I get some jiggling change over here please?

Neither of us felt our gambling skills were sufficient to sit at the $15 or higher per bet tables, and the cheaper tables were always full. When playing the Caesar’s Palace Nintendo game I cleaned up, but when faced with the real Caesar’s Palace, suddenly I couldn’t even remember how to play craps anymore. Nor did I have confidence in my Texas Hold ‘Em skills. It was probably for the best. I only lost enough money to buy dinner for two from a fast food value menu. I think I’ll recover.

I had more solicitations for prostitution than dollars lost to gambling actually. Randy warned me of this before getting to Vegas. I always knew about it, but there was more of it than I imagined. Everywhere we went someone is there flipping a card at us with some woman’s image. I didn’t take any, but I assumed they were something like prostitute trading cards. (Collect them all! Trade them with friends!) I wondered if they would have stats on the back, but I didn’t want to know enough to acknowledge their existence.

“Eh, just look forward and pretend they’re not there,” Randy reminded me. I wanted to bring a few souvenirs home with me but I didn’t want one to be an STD. If I’m looking for a souvenir that will last a lifetime, I’d just assume have one of those pressed pennies inscribed with “Viva Las Vegas” than herpes.

We stopped for drinks and a great meal, and continued down the strip, going into every casino whose name I recognized. All of them, on the inside, looked the same to me, like fancy Chuck E. Cheese’s for adults. If only they had adult-sized ball pits and skee ball. If I could gamble on skee ball, I’d be a rich man.

We took a few photos, hung out in a few more casinos, decided I would be ok if I never went to Vegas again, and made it back to the hotel around 4:00 am. We flipped on the TV, but I crashed and fell asleep in no time.

< Part Four | Part Six >

The Grand Staircase, Part Four
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Monday
Click Here for Part One

We woke well before dawn, at 3:30. We packed our tents and drove to Peach Springs, the Hualapai Tribe Capital, via Route 66. There was no traffic. Wild flowers and mountain ranges ran parallel to the infamous highway. The timing of the drive coincided with the sunrise. Rays foreshadowed its arrival from behind the rocky horizon.

We drove though lofty sprawling views of open undeveloped land. Fields of green cacti filled in the flat areas between immense red cliffs. At times, we could look up at the cliffs on one side of the road and down toward the canyon floor on the other side.

The Hualapai Native Americans own a 100-mile stretch of western Grand Canyon. The small town of 600 used to have a steady flow of visitors, until Interstate 40 overshadowed Route 66. The traffic now directed away from town. At a quick glance, it seemed the only thing here was the Hualapai Lodge, the meeting place for our Colorado River rafting trip.

We went into the Lodge diner to have breakfast. As I ate the best scrambled eggs that have ever existed, I glanced around at the other people and wondered who would also be on our trip. Would I have stories about any of them by this afternoon? Those who wore shorts and sandals on this chilly morning gave away who they might be.

We finished our breakfast and went to the front desk to register. “We’ll start getting on the bus in a half hour so you’ll need to be back here at 8 o’clock,” said a heavy-set Native American girl behind the counter that reminded me of Marilyn on Northern Exposure. We showed her our IDs and signed the obligatory its-not-our-fault-if-you-die insurance forms.

An old school bus pulled up and waited outside. I haven’t been on a school bus for 14 years. “Is there anything you ever wanted to do on a school bus but wasn’t allowed as a kid, like stick your arm out the window or anything,” I asked Randy as we walked out to the bus. “Ha ha, uh, no,” he said, less excited about it than me.

The driver back then told us about a kid whose arm got cut off by sticking it out the window. Enough to keep me in line at the time, but I’m an adult now. I know about scare tactics. I’m not letting such devices control me anymore. It’s just the principle of the matter. I don’t like all this manipulation and lying by our country’s school bus drivers. Let me live damnit!

In addition, I was sitting towards the back like one of the cool kids. I climbed up the bus’s steps and could smell the familiar plastic school bus seats. Most of the people already on the bus were in the front (i.e. losers). We moved to a few rows behind them and sat on opposite sides. I sat sideways with my legs up on the seat, feet hanging into the aisle. Obviously, throwing caution to the wind. How you like me now bus driver?

I imagined the retired Kingman Elementary school bus was in heaven as it bounced down the only road into the Grand Canyon. It screeched, rattled and ground its brakes around every bend. Heads of passengers in front of me sprang toward the ceiling with every hard bump. 

The views of Arizona cliff sides were incredible at every moment. As we snaked our way toward the Colorado River, the road became less discernable as it merged with Diamond Creek, until it was more creek than road. The bus splashed through the water then shrieked to a halt near the edge of the infamous river. Most human retirements aren’t this good.

Several powder blue motorized rafts bobbed up and down at the edge of the “Willie Wonka chocolate river brown” Colorado. The boats had been loaded with gear, ready to continue our journey. We put on life jackets and climbed aboard. “Ok, now we are going to go upstream a little bit, jump in, and test the life jackets for defects,” said a stout Hualapai river guide with dark sunglasses and a chubby cheeked smile on his face. His name was Louis.

Louis secured all of the supplies then laid down a blue foam mat on the floor at the bow. “When we get to the rapids one of you kneel down and hold onto the front like this.” He knelt down and grabbed hold of the front edge of the raft. “This is the best view of the rapids. I guarantee it.” I wasn’t completely sure if he was serious, or just wanted to entertain himself by seeing if we’d do something stupid. “I’m serious, I’ll tell you when to get down there,” he said reading the thoughts in my face’s expression.

On an adjacent boat, another river guide was talking to his passengers, “Ok there has been a recall on these life jackets so we’re going to go up the river a bit and jump in to test them out before we go.” This was Louis’s son Randy. Clearly, he’s learned a lot from his father, even his wit.

The first rapids were just a few yards ahead. “Is that camera waterproof?” Louis asked me. I was even starting to annoy him with my camera. I took one last shot before stowing it in my waterproof case. I volunteered first to kneel down on the blue foam mat. Louis had, what seemed to me to be, an arbitrary system of telling us the speed of the rapids up ahead. He classified them from one to ten. The first rapids were about a three. We’d be going over some sevens later in the morning, he said. The boat started to pick up speed.

I’ve never been on even class I rapids so I was stunned when the frigid 45-degree water crashed over us. No part of me was dry. The cold made it hard to take in a breath so I gasped. The Colorado doesn’t taste too bad. I turned and saw everyone else thrilled and laughing. “Hey, this vapor-wicking shirt isn’t working!” Randy said completely soaked and dripping.

The current took us straight toward a canyon wall. I assumed Louis knew what he was doing and wouldn’t let us actually hit it. I turned back and saw him bent down not paying attention. “Hey!” I yelled out, but he didn’t hear me. Some others on the boat got his attention and he steered us towards the clear.

“I’ve been running this river for 30 years right next to these loud motors so I’m a little deaf. You’ll hafta yell louder.” Louis said. “Sorry ’bout that. The backup motor wasn’t tied down. That was my first priority. We don’t wanna lose that.”

By the time he secured the motor the other boats were ahead of us and out of sight. This was fine with me. This made the trip even better. He didn’t bother so much with catching up, but instead told us stories about both the geology of the canyon and his own life as a river guide.

“My son’s first river trip was when he was four or five.” Louis stood in the back of the raft and spoke loud over the motors, “I couldn’t find a babysitter so he stood right next to me here. He runs his own boat now. His name is Randy. He turned over a boat a couple years ago dumping all the passengers into the river.”

I once heard a river guide say the more rough a trip was, the more people would enjoy it and tell their friends. So, if the river was slow, he would intentionally dump someone in, guaranteeing good reviews. This wasn’t the case with Louis’s son; it was an accident that the other river guides still cracked jokes about. Louis pointed to him on the first boat we eventually approached. “That’s him there. Everyone say hi Randy,” he requested. “Hi Randy,” we said in unison.

Short calm moments on the river were broken up by moments of speed, adrenaline, and being tossed around as if weightless. Each one came right after drying just enough to start warming up, reminding us how cold the water was. Louis cautioned us that the rapids coming up were about a six or seven. Stephen, a Canadian passenger sitting with his girlfriend across from us, decided to be the next to kneel down up front. The approaching rapids were massive.

A raft out in front of us disappeared for a second behind walls of splashing water. Our boat was next. The bow shot up at steep angle and splashed back down. The water crashed on us hard. I gasped for air. More water up my nose and down my throat. We laughed and howled, again stunned from the cold. The river’s power was intimidating. I couldn’t remember a time I’ve had more fun.

Stephen moved back to his seat, battered by the Colorado. Blood smeared across his face and dripped from his nose. “You alright?” Louis asked. “Yeah I’m fine,” he replied. “You got clean blood? If you don’t got clean blood we’re running the next rapids backwards!”

The water calmed for a bit. We stopped for a short hike to a waterfall that flowed out of a cavern in the side of a canyon wall. We used knotted ropes and a wooden rope ladder to climb up to the cave entrance. The view could have been pulled straight from the cover of one of my backpacking magazines. We were the last to return to the raft due to my diligent picture taking.

When we got back on the river, we were hurtled over more rapids. Half way through a swift section, that Louis rated a five, he did a U-turn and slowly pushed upstream to park the boat next to a rocky shore. “I thought we’d stop here for lunch, unless you guys wanna catch up to the others and eat with them.” None of us did. This spot was perfect and he knew we’d love it. He passed out sandwiches and we scattered near the river, sitting on and around large warm boulders like iguanas soaking up the sun.

I couldn’t believe the trip so far. It just kept getting better. Here we were having lunch by the Colorado River, absorbed in the sound of white water with a view deep inside the Grand Canyon, cliffs towering hundreds of feet above our heads. Three days ago, I was in a beige fabric-lined cubicle, sitting at my desk, eating a banana, while my lean cuisine was warming up in the microwave.

The sound of the river blocked out all others. It was incredibly peaceful. We finished our meals and just sat for a while. Randy tapped me on the shoulder, “Look”. He pointed at Louis still in the boat. He was lying relaxed in the back eating a sandwich looking around at the view. Even after 30 years, he was enjoying this moment every bit as much as us, as if he too had spent the previous weekdays wasting life away in an uninteresting, soul-numbing, beige cube.

The final swift section approached. “How fast are these,” someone asked. “Uh about 6 or 7, but I’ll make it a 10,” Louis said with confidence. I took my final opportunity to get in position on the front of the raft. The river tossed me around like a rag doll. My left hand slipped off the edge and my body flew off the blue mat. Only the weakening grip of my right hand on the slippery boat kept me from floating down river. I’ve never held onto anything tighter.

The river had finally calmed down for good and the final one and a half hours of the trip was with the less violent side of the Colorado’s split personality. Many layers of rock formations surrounded us at imposing heights, as much as a half-mile above our heads. Each layer at different distances slowly slid past us like stone curtains; an enchanting effect that no still photo could ever capture.

Everyone relaxed. A cool mist blew over us from the front of the boat, cancelling the sun’s heat, now high in the cloudless sky. The rays reflected off immense canyon walls in many shades of brown and red. Our familiar world didn’t enter our minds down here. I can honestly say I didn’t think about my regular days or work much at all on this trip. That world existed somewhere over that rim and miles away.

“This is my office,” Louis said. Four simple words that could make anyone question the course of their own life. I suspect he doesn’t care that radiologists make more money.

Louis zigzagged across the river to show us a variety of interesting geological features. He pulled up close to a dark section of canyon wall smoothed to a shiny glaze by millennia of swirling water. “The river flows past the rock, spinning back on itself like small whirlpools, creating tall patterns of curled rock. Reach out, touch it, and feel how smooth it is. You’re touching one of the oldest rocks in the canyon, 1.3 billion years old. We call that sculpture rock.”

He pointed out areas where workers came to survey and mine in the canyon. We got out of the boat to hike up on a hill where evidence of their time here still existed. “Run up there and take a look. Watch where you step, there are snakes up there,” Louis said, always seeming to make things more exciting or dangerous than what they were. Maybe all river guides knew about increasing the sense of danger to ensure we’d have more fun and more stories to tell others.

I hiked up and saw an old gas stove and other pieces of rusted metal that I couldn’t identify. I hiked a little further up to check out the view. I made my way down when I noticed I was one of the few not back at the boats. My picture taking almost caused another delay.

“Around this corner is the surprise spot. That’s what we called it,” Louis pointed up ahead. “Surprise, surprise, surprise,” he said like Gomer Pyle. To our right we saw a narrow canyon a few yards wide. “When I was in high school we’d come down here to party.”

This river wasn’t just a job for him; this was his home, his backyard, where he grew up, and where he raised his son. It was his life. I hope he never wakes in the morning without realizing he’s the luckiest man alive. I should send him a photo of me in my cubicle just in case he doesn’t. He could look at it every morning and start his day instantly happy to be Louis the Hualapai River Guide.

When I say, “This is my office,” the effect isn’t quite the same. The response would be more like, “This is great, Ryan, but all this depressing beige is making me constipated where can I get some coffee?”

Our 8-hour journey was ending. The final attraction that he brought to our attention was the canyon where Robbie Knievel made his famous motorcycle jump. Soon we could see helicopters as we neared the Hualapai’s airport. Another half-mile or so down river some waited for us on landing pads to take us out of the canyon. We have seen the canyon from the rim, from deep inside the gorge on the Colorado River, and we’ll finish our visit seeing it from the sky. Few days in my life have been so remarkable.

Even though I didn’t envision doing this on a motorized raft, as day-long paddling trips are not offered anywhere on the Colorado at the Grand Canyon, I’m satisfied enough to cross number 47, “Raft on the Colorado River”, off the list.

A short flight later, we landed at the airport and boarded another school bus heading back to Peach Springs. We bounced around in the seats from another bumpy dirt road, through two hours of the Dr. Seuss-like panorama of hundreds of Joshua Trees. The bus occasionally filled with clouds of dirt. Randy tried to catch up on much needed sleep. I should have, but used the time mostly for writing in my journal and trying unsuccessfully to get good photos of Joshua Trees, while holding my camera out the window. My arm was never severed from my body (Stupid bus drivers and their lies!).

The Grand Staircase, Part Three
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Sunday
Click Here for Part One

My alarm went off just after sunrise; my goal of seeing the sun rise over the canyon ruined by not adjusting for the different time zone. We got up anyway, unpacked our food onto the picnic table, and made breakfast burritos over camp stoves.

“I think seeing the Grand Canyon is kind of like seeing a famous actress, who you’ve only seen on screen, and realizing they are much better looking in person,” I said. “I saw that old white haired dude from Jurassic Park in person,” Randy replied. “Was he hotter in perso…?” “No.” he said straight-faced and without hesitation.

We finished our breakfast and hiked a half mile down the Bright Angel Trail. I badly wanted to continue hiking until reaching the inner gorge but didn’t prepare for that, it’s a two day trip. We only had the day, so we only planned to hike the South Rim Trail. The mostly paved trail was hardly demanding but the constant view made up for it. For the rest of the day, no matter where we were on the south rim, I could still see the bright angel trail below, far from noisy tourists, calling me. I later added ‘Hike the Bright Angel trail to Phantom Ranch’ to my life list, number 151.

We passed a priest giving a sermon in front of the Grand Canyon backdrop. I couldn’t help but think that in the presence of such a view, a preacher shouldn’t need to tell a religious person about God. It seems you‘re looking too hard, or in the wrong place. In my opinion, the priest would have done them a greater service by silently handing them each a pair of hiking boots.

The priest wasn’t the only person to stand out among the tourists. When we weren’t constantly looking toward the canyon and exploring various pillars and ledges, there were plenty of people around to steal our attention. A middle-aged woman dressed in a tight leopard print leotard twisted her body into a Cique De Solei shape as a tall eccentric gray-haired man took her picture.

The reptilian part of my brain reacted quick and instinctually saying, “Oh my God Ryan, you gotta get a picture of… whatever the hell is going on here!” My hand went for my camera. Then, the more evolved reasoning part of my brain thought it would be weird and convinced me not to. I didn’t get my picture, but God knows the mental images will forever remain intact.

We hiked an easy 10 miles. The crowds were only in areas within a short distance to a parking lot, moving no more than from their car to the rim and back to their car. The further we hiked from parking spots, the fewer people we saw. One man stopped us, pointed to my hiking pole, and asked what it was. I don’t relate to or understand most people.

That night, to save time, we loaded anything we didn’t need into the car. We’d be leaving very early for a trip to the Colorado River.

< Part Two | Part Four >

The Grand Staircase, Part Two
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Saturday
Click Here for Part One

We rushed through the morning on almost no sleep, but got on the road feeling excited and fully conscious. Randy grabbed his MP3 player with tangled cables out of the console and began to hook it up to his car stereo.

The scenery was never dull on the drive south through Utah. I’m from Northern Indiana. I rarely see mountains. Even a decent sized hill or abandoned rock quarry passes as a good view back home. One way I convince myself living in Indiana is ok, is that when I visit other states I can enjoy them that much more, like how winter makes me appreciate spring. I know this because bored-faced people were on their repetitive commute without cameras hanging out their windows, as mine always seemed to be.

It felt good to be on the highway, heading toward our long-anticipated adventure, at 70 miles per hour. I was glad Randy didn’t mind driving. Not having to watch the road ahead gave me plenty of time to admire the constantly changing view.

“Man, I have not looked at the road in a while,” Randy said, finally getting the MP3 player untangled and playing, after who knows how long.

“Let’s pull over so I can get a picture.” I said probably too often. We also stopped a few times for food and things we realized we should have packed. We had lunch somewhere near Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, both worthy of the trip themselves. As we neared our destination, small canyons with reddish hued cliff walls and dry desert fauna, emblematic of photos I’ve seen of the southwest, came into view.

As we got closer, signs began to display the mileage between us and the Grand Canyon. “Is that it?” There was a comical giddiness to Randy’s voice as he pointed towards a canyon beginning to open up the otherwise flat ground. It wasn’t it, but on any other day, it would be worthy of a photo op. We were too close to make another stop.

At last, our gate approached. We pulled into the first overlook, the Watch Tower, parked the car, and grabbed our cameras. Suspense built in the minute long hike to the canyon. When we neared the edge, we spoke at first in only Ws and vowels. “Aww, wow.” “Woah.” We stood there for a few minutes, then split up, took photos, sat on the ground, but rarely said a word.

“I love this silence,” Randy noted. There were several people nearby but the canyon seemed to absorb the sound. It was a silence of reverence. Any noise would have been an insult, like a loud boisterous laugh at a funeral.

I’ve seen dozens of photos, but everyone says pictures don’t do it justice, so I didn’t know what to expect. They are right. I've heard countless times that there are no adjectives in the English language to describe it, but we've been using the only appropriate one all along, Grand.

On the drive down, Randy and I talked about something we learned in a recent Phil Plait article. When you see the Earth from space, it looks like a sphere as smooth as a blue cue ball, but if you shrunk it down to the size of a cue ball, it would actually be smoother. I couldn’t help but think of this when standing at the edge. I felt insignificant (which I maintain is a good feeling). It’s a massive canyon, eons deep, but only a scratch in the cue ball’s surface, and us, only amoebas standing at the edge looking down.

A passing ranger gathered people together to tell stories about early expeditions to the canyon. We joined the group, hiked a bit to a secluded spot under a tree, and scattered on the shaded ground. The ranger stood between the canyon and us. They were interesting stories of survival, frustrating expeditions and the American expansion into the West, but I found it hard to sit there and pay attention. I wanted to be hiking.

After lots of gazing and photographing at the canyon’s edge, we found a place to setup camp in the Grand Canyon’s primitive campground. We each picked clear flat spots and assembled our tents. We went back to the south rim to hike a couple miles and witness the sun setting over the canyon.

Two billion years for the Grand Canyon had passed. It began its formation around the time complex cells began to form. Every single event, in that incredibly long planetary history, had come together and settled on this exceedingly complicated, yet deceptively simple moment. Those complex cells had at last caught up to finally appreciate and admire a most spectacular event. If the only meaning to life’s four billion year history is that, then in my opinion, it’s all been worth it.

For me personally, it meant number 27, “See the Grand Canyon”, was off my list.

The air was taking on an evening chill. We hiked back to the campsite and started a fire. I couldn’t wait for the following days and wondered how they would measure up to the first. Once the fire was steady, Randy opened hot dogs and we searched the area for sticks to use as skewers. We found nothing, not a single stick. We resorted to using tent stakes instead. We learned something else of great significance that night that I’d like to pass on to you: Tent stakes short, fire hot.


The Grand Staircase, Part One
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

Friday

I don’t love flying, not that I would call it a phobia. I’m not like B.A. Barrakas from the A-Team or anything, but if there was a scale from one to ten (one being as fearless of flying as a duck, and ten being, the only way you’re getting on a plane is if Murdoch distracts you while Hannibal injects a sedative into your bloodstream), I’m at about seven.

I sat at the Indianapolis airport stuffing airport cuisine into my mouth, hand cupped under my chin to keep a messy sandwich off the floor. I waited for my flight to Salt Lake City to meet up with Randy, a friend of about 18 years.

“Grand Canyon, September?” This instant message from Randy popped up on my computer screen July of 2008. A couple months passed since my last trip, but I was already itching for the next one. I knew I wanted to go west, just not sure where. This would definitely work.

“Sure,” I replied. That was that, the planning began.

Over the next few weeks, we brainstormed and settled on a tour of the Grand Staircase: the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon with a stop in Las Vegas. The name "Grand Staircase" comes from the topography of the region. The rim at the Grand Canyon is at the height of the canyon floor at Zion, the rim above Zion is at the height of the floor of Bryce Canyon, sort of creating stair steps. If all went as planned, I would cross off six items from my list.

I flipped through the latest Backpacker magazine with my backpack on the floor between my feet. “We are now boarding flight 1023 to Minneapolis…,” said a voice over the intercom. That was me. I slid the magazine into the backpack and grabbed my ticket.

Soon speeding down the runway, I stared out the window as the land shrank below me and disappeared under a blanket of clouds. I turned off my overhead light as the sun began to set. Above the clouds, the sky was the deep blue you see in that narrow window between sunset and the black of night. A clearing opened in the middle of the white fluffy terrain revealing a fiery red sky below. When squinting I could imagine it to be a sweltering lake of fire and lava. A vision perhaps skewed by a tinge of irrational fear.

I pulled a book from my pack and tried reading. My mind wandered over the same page over and over. I tried sleeping, but couldn’t. I scribbled a few things in my journal and put it away. I leaned my temple next to the window and surveyed the sky, as I approached my layover at the St. Paul/Minneapolis airport.

The fasten seatbelts sign lit up and we began our decent. City lights came into view. Vehicle taillights flowed like red blood cells through veins of street light. Moonlight reflected off dozens of Minnesota lakes with a silvery glow. In general, the world hustles and bustles, but from up here, it seems to creep along like a slug. Tiny cars and ant-sized people inch forward deliberately, peaceful and affable. My view on humanity evidently improves, relative to my distance from it. Even a big-box store with glowing skylights fascinates me from this height. If I ever get to go into outer space (number 106 on my life list) my joyful brain will explode.

The plane landed with a soft jolt and screech. Feeling hungry again already, I moved toward the food court. All of my diet and nutrition rules go out the window when I’m on a backpacking trip. Calories are your friend when toting around thirty pounds of gear over hills and through valleys several miles every day. It is one of the many reasons I love doing it, but this trip wouldn’t involve calorie-demanding backpacking. “I’ll have a number two,” I said to the cashier at the airport McDonald’s. I gave in anyway.

I don’t mind layovers. It’s nearly impossible to not eavesdrop on the people coming and going: an elderly saleswoman endorsing a super antioxidant snake oil to a young college student, whose face snarled when the woman said the words “Big Pharma”, a confident looking young woman with long red hair and formal black and white dress traveling alone. An African-American man in desert-brown camo saying, “Yeah, I’m on the ground now baby, I’ll be home soon”, into a cell phone. There is a story everywhere you look.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” a man asked a boy of about ten, pausing a moment from flirting with the boy’s mother. “Well, I’ve been thinking lately that I’d really like to become an astronomer,” he said more intelligently than his age. “Since when?” his mother asked. “You’re going to be a radiologist, remember? There’s a lot more money in that.” Carl Sagan sighed and turned in his grave, I know it.

I wanted to tell him how fortunate and rare it was to know what you want to do with your life at such a young age, or any age for that matter. I wanted to tell him to ignore those that cloud decisions with thoughts of money and that astronomers rarely starve from the lack of it. I knew deep down I should be saying that to myself as well.

They began boarding passengers for my flight to Salt Lake. Minutes later, we were back in the sky. I buried my face in a book and tried to appear as if I wasn’t hearing the conversation beside me. I couldn’t help it. I tried to determine if the guy worked at a mental hospital, or was temporarily out on leave. I really couldn’t tell. I only got about three pages into the book in about an hour of pretend reading when he said, “You know, I think Sarah Palin is the most qualified person to be president, I really do.” I had my answer.

Randy picked me up at the SLC airport. Number 93, “Visit Randy in Utah”, could officially be scratched from my list. We made a midnight grocery store run and filled the cart with easy camping meals, along with an impulse-buy deck of cards at the checkout counter. We unloaded everything back at his house. Brand new gear and food filled the room: backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, hydration packs, enough food for three, and vapor-wicking clothing.

Sweaty clothing and cool temperatures don’t mix. Randy learned the importance of vapor-wicking non-cotton clothing the previous year when hiking in cold temperatures. He didn’t have much gear so had to purchase it all for this trip. It can be expensive, but the memories that will come from using it will be priceless. I absolutely guarantee it. Even if I had to repurchase it every year, it would still be worth it.

After taking the time to set aside all the things we didn’t really need to take, we packed it all into the car anyway. Randy handed me some blankets and showed me where I could sleep. In two hours, we would be heading to the Grand Canyon.

Part Two >