Many hikers describe Grand Canyon as majestic and spectacular. I’ve seen several stunning views from the rim, but never more than a thousand feet below it. Would’ve helped in 2010, when I’d written “The Azurite Encounter,” about a high school field trip into the Grand Canyon. In my novel, students descended the steep seven-mile South Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Camp-grounds. I had used books, photos and blogs to describe their trip. But I always wondered if my descriptions were accurate.
My chance to find out came this past February, when I joined an eight-women hike to the Phantom Ranch—just a pebble toss from the Bright Angel Campground. While packing for my rookie trek, curiosity overwhelmed me. Had I accurately described creek gurgles and cricket chirps in my novel? I had written about a character sitting on a tree log, sketching the river rock-constructed Phantom Ranch Cantina. I hoped these sounds and sights were accurate, and that my upcoming hike would be, as quoted by the late great Yogi Berra, “Déjà vu all over again.”
The day before the descent, our hike group spent the morning checking equipment and stuffing dufflebags for this mule-assisted hike. I chose this hike because I could pack toiletries, clothes, batteries, chargers, and extra food on the mule instead of my back. The forecast called for six to twelve inches of snow, and I wanted extra supplies in case of emergency. In my novel I describe a late winter storm flooding the canyon, and a main character getting cut off from her campsite. This is one déjà vu I don’t want for my hike!
The morning of our descent the sun had already risen, but storm clouds allowed only streaks of orange-red light to hit some canyon walls. What a spectacular visual send-off for our hike! I caught photos worthy of an Arizona Highways magazine cover!
My zipper-pull thermometer read 20°F, agreeing with the frosty feeling on my face. My windbreaker and underlying layers of clothing protected me from the cold. View of the snow-crusted switchback trail below convinced me to pull on my ice crampons. Our group descended, canyon walls echoing the crunch of snow pack. We fought against gravity and slippage. Thankfully the cliffs blocked the subfreezing breezes. I focused on the trail for fear of sliding off it!
At Cedar Ridge, a thousand feet down, red-tan ice replaced the snow-covered trail. Warm from exertion, I shed my windbreaker. Parts of Cedar Ridge jut out, exposing the trail to a harsh, but warm wind. During heavy gusts, the flapping of wind pants joined the crackling of ice. One gust blew our tour guide’s crampon bag over a cliff. She found a calm and flat area to stop for water, food and picture taking. I turned back to view the majestic cliffs dotted by junipers and snowfields, making our arduous descent worth the trouble!
My thermometer read a balmy 40°F. Dry earth replaced mud, so I removed my crampons. Feelings of awe replaced my fear of death, and I couldn’t help rubbernecking at the bright green bristle bush, agave, and yucca popping out of the deep red rock. The view reminded me of desert mountain slopes after a morning rain.
Arriving at the Bright Angel Shale level, multitudes of lush green-gray bristle bush seemed to erupt from pale green rock—like a fairy-tale desert oasis. A sun ray ran across yellow-and red-lined peaks above us like a moving picture show—better than any Weather Channel video! We passed groups of volunteers filling in mule-made divots. My footsteps felt softer and gentler than before, and I thanked every single volunteer I passed.
After five hours of descent we reached the basement rock level—about a thousand feet above the river. Dark green rock marbled with ribbons of orange-pink dominated our view. We could hear the Colorado River rushing over rocks as indicated by white caps. Two motion picture shows entertained us! Yucca plants and prickly pear cactus began to line our trail, some growing out of cracks of granite. Made me appreciate the heartiness of this desert shrubbery!
When we reached the river level, prickly pear, fishhook, and pincushion cacti carpeted the area. My thermometer read over 50°F, so I found a prickle-free area to shed my wind pants. I couldn’t believe the multitudes of blooming shrubs! Only thing I saw dormant were cottonwood trees, their bare tan bark contrasting with the dark basement rock.
After six hours we traveled through a tunnel and over the river to the North Kaibab Trail, arriving at a narrow trail where some hedgehog cactus seemed to welcome us with spouting fuchsia blossoms. Spring arrived early here!
We paralleled a gurgling Bright Angel creek, passing the mule ranch and the ranger station. At Bright Angel Campgrounds we found a few tents, probably pitched by the trail workers. Amidst several small green-roofed cabins rose a tall building, its green-vaulted roof crowning the river rock walls. That had to be the Phantom Ranch Cantina!
With a burst of energy, I circled the building, looking for logs—like one my character sat on the morning after her descent. Luckily I found several logs suitable for sitting to sketch the historical cantina.
I never heard chirping crickets, so my novel was not entirely accurate. But the high school field trip happened later in Spring—perhaps warm enough for crickets to chirp. I was also wrong about the canyon flooding. Though a snowstorm raged on the rim, we only got a few snowflakes at the bottom.
|Jane Ruby at the Grand Canyon|
I’m glad my first hike into the Grand Canyon wasn’t completely “déjà vu all over again.” My only regret was not taking this hike before publishing my novel—I’d have added more majestic and spectacular descriptions of the descent.