This post concludes On the Edge, the story of hiking Grand Canyon's most difficult trail. I'd like to thank all the readers who have followed the tale, made comments, and sent me emails. I so much appreciate your support. – Mark Lindsay
The edge of Nankoweap was coming to an end. We'd hiked along the red-rock traverse until there was no more of it. We were at the end of the side canyon. The only way to go was up a short distance and then out of the canyon. Nankoweap is tenacious and its last grip is filled with boulders and gravel and gnarly brush. But, any final surge out of the canyon is aided with a healthy dose of adrenaline. Soon we were released from the canyon and its exhausting edge.
What was left was a cool, shady, alpine forest and a bump of an incline called Saddle Mountain. On the other side of the incline was Karl's white truck. And after that was a hot shower and a steak dinner at Grand Canyon Lodge. We had about three miles to go. "Baked potato, I thought to myself. I'm dying for a baked potato."
Coming down this trail four days previously was something of a blur. Everything preliminary to Nankoweap proper was a blur. This was now Saddle Mountain Trail 57 in Kaibab National Forest. Even though we'd hiked it going in, I didn't remember a bit of it. I particularly didn't remember the steepness of the inclines. Of course, four days ago we were hiking down it with fresh legs. Now we were going up after four days of Nankoweap.
"I figure we still have 1300 feet to climb up," Karl said after consulting his GPS unit. A 1300 foot climb is a vigorous jaunt for a cool day back home (sea level) with fresh legs. A 1300 foot climb at high altitude after Nankoweap is just short of insanity. Perhaps I forgot this part of the hike out of self-preservation.
We went straight up. And then up some more. I groaned, panted, and swore at the trail. I swore at Karl's GPS unit for predicting this torture. I swore at my backpack that was now digging fiercely into my back and finding every bone along the way.
"Hey Karl, I don't remember this. Are we sure that we're going the right way?" Karl is a very strong hiker and was now way ahead of me. His distant figure was a taunt to my fragile state, reminding me that I had to eventually get way up to where he was. And when I would finally get to that spot he'd be even further, still going up and up. "Karl, are we going the RIGHT WAY?" I hate it when I whine.
Every so often he'd stand up there on some damned perch and wait for me. Gasping for air that wasn't there, I'd catch up. The air was getting thinner by the minute. "Are we...going...straight...up...this goddamn...#*!&$#@...mountain?" I asked him.
Karl was going faster than I but was in no better mood. "Yes," he said with a grunt. He allowed me to catch my breath and then proceeded to get way ahead of me again.
"I don't recognize any of this," I shouted up to him.
"Our footprints going the other way are right here,” he answered.
"They are not,” I said.
"They are too,” he responded.
I slammed my foot into the dust and compared it to one of the footprints going the other way. It wasn't a match.
"Damn it Karl, these are waffle soles coming down, they don't match our shoes," I said in a louder voice because he was getting further ahead of me.
Karl stopped and looked down at me. "Look, one of us had waffle soles. One of us had to have waffle soles. Maybe the waffles wore off of them."
"I assure you that I never had waffles and you never had waffles. Soles don't wear down that way. You don't have waffles one minute and not have waffles the next!"
"Bah!" he said (or something to that effect).
It was good that we kept walking during the waffle argument because the sun was sinking fast. We got to the top of Saddle Mountain, fully expecting the truck to be waiting for us. It wasn't.
"This is wrong," I said. "I don't remember any of it."
"It's not wrong," he replied. "We're going to descend again another 500 feet and then go up that hill way over there."
"That's preposterous," I said. "Who designed this trail? I don't believe it."
"Well, do you want me to go all the way and then shout back to you that it's okay for you to come?"
Sarcasm. Just what I needed. "No," I said. I figured that this silly conversation had finally run its course. Either we were on the right trail or we weren't. Either the truck would be on the top of that next hill or it wouldn't be. Either I'd get my steak and baked potato or not. At this miserable point it was starting not to matter.
"Let's go," I said between my teeth, in a Clint Eastwood kind of way.
Down the hill and up the next hill we went. It had become absurd. I was now groaning out loud. Since Karl was so far ahead of me I figured it didn't matter. The last 500 feet took forever. Karl had now disappeared completely. I figured as long as he didn't come back down, cursing and screaming, it was a good sign. Then I heard a truck gate slam, the sound echoing around the mountain and canyon. I knew he was at the truck.
There he was, legs dangling from the truck gate. I reached the top of the hill and it was, indeed, the very same parking lot that we'd departed from four days previously. The white truck shone in the waning light like a white unicorn. Karl was sitting on the truck bed with a gigantic bag of potato chips in his hand. Crumbs were flying as he savored the greasy treat.
"I forgot that I had these," he said between handfuls.
I said nothing as I sat on the bed. I grabbed some chips and one of the warm Cokes sitting next to the chip bag. The combination tasted good, very good. I dangled my legs to restore them. I stretched my neck to revive it.
We, the conquerors of Nankoweap, just sat and contemplated our journey. We said little. There is really nothing to say at the end of Nankoweap. It takes a long time for the experience to catch up to the part of the brain that makes up words. I wouldn't have much to say for quite awhile. Now the words are starting to catch up to the experience...the experience of the Nankoweap Trail and being on the edge. But part of it can never be put down into words. Part of the mystery of Grand Canyon resides in the soul and in the heart.
Words don't live there but Grand Canyon and its Nankoweap Trail do.