02 December, 2010


backdate: 1 December

A guy with an archetypal Arizona prospector's beard - brown shirt, darker vest, cowboy hat and clear gaze - shares a table with a kid in a grey hoodie A couple days ago, i saw young folk with rat-tail braids, while a guy in head-to-toe hunter's camo sat two tables away. The sign out front, a bather relaxing in a steaming coffee cup and surrounded by trees and hills, reads "Macys European Coffeehouse". 

The coffee here is great, the menu boards written in deliberate chalk and peppered with sayings from the Baha'u'llah; the owner of Macy's is a skilled photographer, his work displayed in the cafe, and by all appearances Baha'i as well. "Ye are all the leaves of one tree, and all the fruits of one branch," it reads, a foot or so below "avocado BLT, made with tempeh bacon". Which was rather tasty. 

In search of an ATM, i wander across the street to Biff's Bagels. Brightly sunlit, the place isn't nearly as funky; there are no rich wood tones, instead framed photographs of patrons' dogs on (it seems) every square foot of wall. It's wonderfully welcoming in its own way, and i want to soak in some of that sun instead of languishing in dark walnut-colored wood - but i'm already set up at Macys, and can only afford to drink so much coffee. 

Again this morning i wonder how worthwhile it is to spend this time writing, when what i write is at times as devoid of meaningful nourishment as a croissant. Like a croissant or Danish - which the Danes call a variety of names, so let's say - spandauer, i suppose it has a place. With mocha, something indulgent. Still, i wonder what it would be like to write something as concentrated and intent on meaning as, say, Gibran's "The Prophet", instead of crafting sentences as worthless as "I think it's a new reality in Washington, and everybody knows that," which i just heard on some news-talk show in the airport. Words beckon from the margins of my notebook. The only thing i am sure of is that this daily practice serves as mental calisthenics, a stretching, a seeing whether the words fit together quite right, whether they are ready for motion. That to a practicing writer, no sentence is wasted. Writing this blog is a way to put my thoughts into some half-publishable order. 

Still, that i continue to question the worth of keeping a blog signals that perhaps it's time to practice writing to different ends, to invest my writing time in new ways. A long hiatus may follow. 

01 December, 2010

A souvenir shop at the end of the universe

backdate: 29 November

Hiking up out of the canyon is an odd juxtaposition of present and future. Still quite unlike descending from a mountain - since it's not a coming down to everyday life, it's a struggle upward. And it's odd knowing that at the top, toilets and coffee await. It puts the "park" in national park. At Santa Maria spring, there is an inch of ice atop the water trough. Here we meet the only other hiker we see (it's Monday), a sun-weathered woman who has hiked all the park's marked trails at least once.

 Cathedral Stairs, one of the steepest bits of Hermit Trail

At the juncture with Dripping Springs trail, the terrain changes abruptly. In a small saddle, juniper becomes the dominant plant species. The last 1.6 miles are the most turtuous; ending three days of hiking with seven ascending miles, steepest near the end, works the legs in completely new ways. And as the distance to the rim shrinks, each meter feels longer. As you begin to hear the whoosh of wind through the needles of pinyon pine, you forget the stillness below; the canyon - a state of being - evaporates. Where, halfway up, it seemed so immediate, as though you could just reach out (and never quite touch it), in afternoon shadows the canyon's "garden of the gods" retreats, some matte painting in the hazy backdrop of a sci-fi film.

Hermit Creek canyon seen from ~4400 ft

Snickers bars were buy 3-get 3 free at Safeway, and luckily we bought a dozen for the hike. When Kara has a major blood sugar drop a few hundred feet below the rim, we find the last Snickers stashed in my pack. Finally at the top after six hours, we notice the sign that said "eat twice as many calories as usual". Good rule.

Packs off, we relax by the hearth in Hermit's Rest. One of several structures in the park designed by architect Mary Eliabeth Jane Coulter to meet rising demands for tourist infrastructure in the 1920s, the building houses a souvenir shop and snack bar, late on a Monday afternoon there are few visitors. We sit beneath a domed ceiling of rough rocks, gazing out the windowed front. It's a unique architectural perspective, and Joe finds explanation in one of the shop's souvenir books: Coulter tried to design the building "as if it were constructed by an untrained mountain man." Outside, we note the deliberately off-kilter chimney - "An untrained mountain man who was really good at constructing inner domes," Marcus quips. Ah, early 20th-century pretensions.


A handful of elk cross in front of the truck. Three thousand feet below we can see Monument Creek canyon, and purple shades of dusk color the rock.

One feeling that stuck with me far beyond the last gaze, and was echoed by others i talked to, was how seeing the canyon from its rim had little impact. We'd seen the same view hundreds of times in books and magazines, and perhaps it is just too big to feel. Yet to see the canyon with your feet, to feel its enormity by descent - that's when it sinks in. Three tortuous hours to get halfway down, and the river winds for miles. I'll leave the last words to someone who speaks with authority on that matter: John Wesley Powell.

You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.

If you don't have months, at least give it a few days.

Down to Rio Colorado!

backdate: 28/29 November

With our packs safely stashed by the bank of Hermit Creek, we set off to the Colorado. Hermit Creek canyon is certainly worth exploring. Two pools would be excellent places to cool off in summer. Sandstone layers become more visible, and minerals seep from between them like too much jelly squeezed edgewise from a peanut butter sandwich. Further downstream, huge chunks of sandstone that fell from cliffsides lie on edge, testament to the ever-changing nature of this stone.

The trail crossed the creek so many times i lost count, and Marcus leaped nimbly across stepping stones to avoid soaking his socks (he made the trip wearing sandals). We took turns pointing out things - a damselfly clinging to a trailside shrub, unique colors in the rock. 

At last the 1.3 mile trail grew indistinct in a network of sandy dry stream-paths, rushes, and tamarisk shrubs. We could hear its rush close by, then over a tangle of boulders it was visible. Marcus and i settled on separate rocks to wait our companions and mull on things a while. Somehow the river's roar over Hermit Rapids, so loud all around me, vanishes in a daydream, in a certain clarity. Reaching the bottom of the Grand Canyon - a place i hadn't dreamed of visiting in the near future; in fact, never really planned to see, let alone experience in this way - lent a new sense of life's possibility. And while the reflection had a certain distance to it, while dreaming big no longer seemed so preposterous, there was an intimacy to the space, a sense of wild solitude that drew me inward rather than out. Against all of which the occasional airliner streaking silver overhead seemed an odd non-sequitur.  

image © Marcus Collado (used by permission)

We passed a quieter, though chillier night at Hermit Creek, savoring beans, sausages, and after washing dishes in the creek, a round of powdered apple cider. Not bad stuff actually; in the morning ever-inventive Marcus used some to add an apple-raisin twist to his instant oatmeal.

Speaking of Marcus, in addition to thanking him fo his friendship and for the permission to use some of his pictures from the hike, i should take a moment to point out his blog, Nature is the Teacher


backdate: 28 November

An enormous rock garden

On a more immediate, less controversial time scale, changes in elevation and microclimatic variation yield differences in bloom and maturity for plants along a vertical gradient. About halfway down we observe the first blooming flowers; though most plant species have mature seed structures, a few are still blooming. Marcus observes that century plant capsules are less mature at the bottom of the canyon, though variations in plant growth are discontinuous; in addition to elevation, more locally variable factors such as shade, airflow, and moisture availability also shape the microclimates plants experience.

Without time to do a whole lot of research and writing on those plant communities, i shall simply present some images of them. Common in the canyon (but absent here, for lack of a good photo) is Quercus turbinella, which looks deceptively like a holly, until you find its acorns.

We awoke at a juncture of epochs...

backdate: 28 November

Monument Creek "G" campsite
image © Marcus Collado (used by permission)

One perk of hiking in the dark is that morning reveals a new and surprising landscape. Down to the creek to wash breakfast dishes we trod the narrow trail a fourth time; only now could we see what lay around us. Where a seam of mica had caught Kara's headlamp the night before, the glittering mineral lay within granite, marking an important geologic transition. 

The campsites at Monument Creek, named for a stone pinnacle perhaps a hundred feet tall, lie just above the boundary where tapeats sandstone, dated at 545 million years old, meets a layer of crystalline (metamorphic) rock dated 1.7 billion years old. The pinnacle itself showcases this juxtaposition. 

image © Marcus Collado (used by permission)

In many ways, it feels as though descent into the Grand Canyon is a form of time travel, a form most grueling for the legs. I'm sorry if this is offensive to Biblical literalists and young-earth creationists, but the canyon brings up a concept i can't quite contain. It certainly evokes an awe at the majesty of Creation, and for me it evokes a sense of immensity of both spatial and temporal scale. Seeing layer after layer of rock formations on our descent made concepts of the canyon's age inescapable; it lent geologic time a certain immediacy difficult to put into words. Imaging, if you will the time it takes to form a single layer of sandstone, compressed from ancient sea-floor sediments, in turn weathered from still older mountains. Now imagine that red sandstone as the second in a series of nine or more layers, laid down one by one, each process resting on the process before. Feeling tiny yet? 

When i was young, i used to believe in ex nihilo creationism - specifically the idea that a supreme being spoke the earth into existence in six days, around 6,000 years ago - and studiously censor natural history books (which i otherwise devoured) with a black Sharpie. One explanation for the apparent age of earth - an explanation hauled out by young-earth creationists staring at these layers of rock - is that God created earth to appear old, a test of faith for some, a damning untruth for those not chosen and called to faith. These days i think more critically. What God would create apparent evidence of his absence, damning those who believed the apparent? What God would deliberately lie to his creatures? The intellectual contortions necessary for me to believe six-day creationism make me think such a God-concept is, like all concepts, a flawed and imperfect construction of the human psyche - unlike this canyon, a construction and manifestation of supreme Being (no a, an, or the) perfect in its immanent transcendence. 

I just want to crawl into a hole and …sleep.

backdate: 27/28 November

The trail to the Monument Creek campsites (elev. 2995) skirted its canyon, an edge unsettlingly close in the dusk. I could see Joe's headlamp far ahead; then it disappeared. Marcus, Kara, and i made the final meters of descent over loose rock together. 

Unoccupied G campsite was the first we came upon. It lay beneath a sandstone cliff, the edge of which hung perhaps a hundred feet overhead. Huge flat-sided boulders edged the sandy site, and one of them made a perfect kitchen table. As Marcus pitched his tent, Joe cut slices of summer sausage and boiled water for mac&cheese. Kara and i followed the path toward the sound of water, and as we washed dishes in the creek i felt a sudden wave of exhaustion. Nine miles of hiking, pushing through the dusk, and we couldn't climb into sleeping bags soon enough. But there was time to wait for iodine to work its magic on the creek water, teeth to brush, time to lie on a slab of sandstone and look up at the sky as cloud began to obscure the stars. The laughter and glimmering headlamps of two dozen hikers camped upstream gradually died away. 

A ranger had said this was the best campsite in case of rain, but looking upward i couldn't help but wonder how often rock slabs fell from that overhang; no matter how close our tents were pitched to the cliff base, leaving the circle of rockfall a wide berth, the thought of being shattered and flattened in our sleep nagged at me. Rock was not the problem. Wind was. All through the night it rushed down the narrow canyon, our tent fly fluttering loudly, a disconcerting sound drowning out the creek's lullaby. The cliff continued to overhang my thoughts. 

"The descent beckons..."

backdate: 27 November

Our Friday visit to South Kaibab trail left us worried about packed snow and ice. On the precipitous edges, one slip could be the difference between a good hike and a rather bad day - yet the slick surfaces weren't thick enough for crampons. Kara and Joe, who'd signed his name as trip leader on the backcountry camping permit, had the solution: screwing 3/8-inch carriage bolts into our soles to bite into slick surfaces. On the hour and a half ride north i struggled with them; Vibram soles are tough to get a screw into. 

Of course, reaching the trailhead (elev. 6,640 feet) we found that compared to icy South Kaibab several miles east, Hermit was bone dry. Noon. We passed encouragement to hiker after ascending hiker short on breath, then as we passed Santa Maria spring we found ourselves alone on the narrow trail. It wound over rockslides barely marked with red sandstone cairns and along steep edges. At Cathedral Stairs (4422 feet), a trio of ravens displayed tight aerialism, spiralling down like black rocks, spilling air loudly from their feathers as they disappeared below the precipice and emerged in level flight far below. Then it was quiet again. 

Besides being only my second time carrying a full pack into the backcountry, this hike is different from any other i've done. The simplest i can explain it, mountain climbing is foremost a matter of ascent; the objective lies above. Entering the canyon, things are reversed; though no less spiritual a journey, it has a different resonance. More life-like, it strikes me, where the most substantial experiences begin by entering depths - of reflection, of memory, of trauma - and finding a way back to the level plain. "The descent," to echo a line from William Carlos Williams, "beckons / as the ascent beckoned." 

Beginning a hike with downward steps provokes a different sort of reflection, and gives Williams's poem new context for me. Heights are ephemeral; depths leave you changed. As i sit typing up this post in a cafe days later, i cannot find the same perspective. There are two separate thoughts here, hard to separate. Something that made so much sense inside the canyon becomes hard to explain.  On the last mile before the trail junction, Marcus sees two mule deer. The animals blend so completely into the eroded rock and shrub that i miss them completely. 

Just past the junction of Hermit and West Tonto trails (on the Tonto Platform, elev. 3389) we crest a low rise to see the river emerge nearly a mile distant and still a thousand feet below. The trail wound in and out around each crease and wash. Dusk fell quickly, clouds wisping yellow and orange over the canyon west. We made the last mile to Monument Creek by headlamps, pushing through massive clumps of beargrass as rock periodically gave way to sand beneath our feet.