"Don't try to fight it. Just settle into the saddle and let the mule take care of things."
The mule guide was trying to calm a pale, nervous companion who was obviously on her first mule ride and on her first journey out of Grand Canyon. It was just the two of them on the South Kaibab Trail. The guide was a rugged young woman with long, blonde hair, topped with a cream-colored Stetson hat. Fit and trim, her face showed slight signs of damage from the canyon's sun. This only added to her allure. She was strong and straight in the saddle and rode with confidence. Her voice had hints of the Southwestern twang that matched her hat.
The Boucher Trail had lived up to its expectations. It was steep, precarious, and exhilarating. But, even though now at Yuma Point, we weren't quite done with it. There was another leg of the trail to be negotiated on the next day—a long traverse to Dripping Springs Trail and then up to the rim on the Hermit. The grand loop would then be complete.
Water. Survival in Grand Canyon requires an obsession with it. And survival in Grand Canyon means that you must carry enough of it. Unfortunately, just as nature made water a necessity, it also made it very heavy. As our third night in the canyon came to an end, our fourth day would be lead us away from our water sources and up the canyon towards the rim. Making sure we had enough water would be our primary goal.
The Tonto Trail meanders along the Tonto Platform which is the one, relatively flat and wide formation of the canyon. Some 70 miles long, it is the longest trail in the canyon. Covered in green, broken shale, the platform follows the course of the river and sits above the plunging cut of the inner gorge. The Tonto Trail is where the entire canyon reveals itself. It is where this enormous container of space and time can be seen for its grandness, all while you're being contained by it. Because of this, the Tonto is my favorite trail. Its majesty has moved me to tears more than once.
It takes at least two days for me to detach my brain and soul from our wired world. The first night in the canyon is often one of withdrawal. There are no distractions, no phones, no Internet, no books, no television, no nothing. There's only everything that the heavens have to offer—that is if the night is clear. On this first canyon night it wasn't. But the full moon was glowing and trying to assert itself behind an eerie and stubborn mist.
Hermit Rapids was right there, close enough to feel the spray of its froth. We walked along the sandy beach of the Colorado River. The river was roaring, churning and angry—looking more like boiling milk chocolate than water. Our packs and clothes were heavy with sweat and rainwater though my spirit had lightened considerably since leaving Hermit Creek Canyon. I'd been all but certain that a river of boulders, trees, and mud would have buried me alive back there. But all the mud did was benignly attach itself to just about every part of me and my belongings. Even my camera was covered with muck due to the third and last somersault I'd taken just moments before.
There were more slides on the Hermit Trail than I cared to count. I actually did try to count them for awhile but decided to keep track of my foothold instead. I lost track at around the ninth slide—which was a big one. I heard myself groan as I climbed over the massive boulder field that constituted the slide. It cut off the trail at an almost-perfect perpendicular angle. The trail continued on the other side but my attention was to my left where everything dropped off into nothingness. The nothingness continued for about 1000 feet straight down where it ended in another boulder field. "It's all academic," I muttered to myself. "It would only take a fall of about twenty feet to kill me anyway. The rest just adds drama to the story." The next noise I made was another grunt as I safely landed on the other side of the sl
Knock! Knock! Knock!
It was time. Karl and Tom were outside my door, whispering and restless. I went through my mental list one more time before I opened the door.
The first afternoon and early evening on the South Rim was tempestuous. The Arizona skies were heavy and swirling. This is never a good sign in the monsoon season of early September, especially for a hiker about to descend into the enormous gash that is Grand Canyon. When stimulated, monsoon season means a heavy diet of rain, wind, thunder, and lightning. It means clear skies that turn to into an apocalyptic fury that can curdle the blood of the most fearless of campers. One look at the sky upon our arrival and I knew it was going to be an interesting week.