I had been camping down here since Christmas day. For the last eighteen years I have taken my Christmas vacation here, in the zone known to the National Park Service Backcountry Office as BJ9, Cremation Canyon... Well, one year back in the Eighties it did snow so hard that I stood on Lipan Point, in full pack at the Tanner trailhead and could not find the beginning of the trail. Just knee-deep snow and a big drop-off. A ranger eventually came along and threatened, quite properly, to cite me for foolishness, then sent me back to my truck. I spent that New Year's Day in Death Valley, where it was warmer. And then there was that year in the early Nineties, when the budget squabble in Washington DC closed the Park on the very day I arrived. A German tourist I met in Grand Canyon Village was mystified. He asked "Why don't you just throw the lot of them out and call new elections?" Maybe there is something to be said for the parliamentary system, after all. I spent that Christmas in the newly upgraded Mojave National Preserve.
But all the others I have spent here. Cremation Canyon is a "primitive" zone, with no campground and no water. Every day a party or two will pass quickly along the piece of the Tonto Trail that crosses it, from the seasonal spring in Lone Tree Canyon to the South Kaibab Trail. No one ever stops, unless it gets dark or they give out.
This new year I got up at seven-forty-five. Cool breeze, cloudless sky. Warm in the sun. T-shirt weather in January! "I'm only going to the river and back. I'll be back before dark, easy. I won't take the parka. Too heavy. A useless load on the long, tired climb out." At nine o'clock I was off across the Tonto Plateau. I didn't take my jacket. "We'll see..."
At The Tipoff, where the South Kaibab Trail goes over the rim of the plateau down toward the river, I met a woman coming up. Now, I come to the Canyon for things like solitude and introspection. I guess this year I had achieved it, for here was the first person I had seen in days, and I felt awkward, almost confused. (How often have you passed more than twenty four hours without speaking a single word?) I overcame my vow of silence, my shyness, my urban-defensive aloofness long enough to offer a greeting. The novelty of human interaction kept me from fully realizing, until much later, the surprising subject of her conversation. She told me of how she had visited the site on the North Kaibab Trail where her brother had died of a heart attack doing the rim-to-rim run. It was peaceful, and she had gotten some little bit of closure. There wasn't much I could say. She asked where I was camped and I gave her the rap on Cremation Canyon; lonely, unspoiled, big horn sheep, petroglyphs, Indian caves, plenty of water if you knew where to look. She was interested. By way of parting, she said "Next year." I hiked on down the trail to the river all alone. I met only a string of freight mules with one skinner.
I got down to Phantom Ranch at eleven-fifteen. It was still cool, and still breezy, under the cloudless sky. My return to civilization came when I first went into the Phantom cookhouse. I stood bemused before the food counter. The helper there was a young Frenchwoman. She asked very sweetly what I might want.
I said "I see cocoa on the menu."
"What's the drill?" And instead of handing me the packet and a cup, as I later saw her do to others, she opened it, mixed it herself and daintily handed the tiny cup to me. We chatted for a bit about working at Phantom, and about camping. Then I went to sip my ambrosia out in the sun, and she back to the kitchen to hobnob with the crew. Later, before I left, I went back in and bought a gigantic glass of lemonade. It was good, but mostly I bought it so I could bask again in her kindness, and her smile, which were warmer than the sunshine outside.
While walking around the camp, I thought again "Some day I'll be too old to carry all my gear back up to the rim. I want to find out what it's like to stay here at the Ranch, to which one can walk down unencumbered by tent and sleeping gear." So, I introduced myself to a family from New York. They gave me a tour of one of the Phantom Ranch cabins in which they were staying. A bit dark, but comfortable, and warm.
Then it was noon, and I was sitting on a bench by Bright Angel Creek, boots off, eating a can of tuna. Finally, the painful moment could no longer be postponed. I put on my socks, then my boots, and I started up the trail, with tired feet and feeling sorry for myself. I had doubts about the big climb out tomorrow. Can I really carry all that stuff back up to the rim? Up and up I marched, thinking just my day pack heavy indeed.
As it has so many times before, the Canyon now began to hand me an unsought lesson on the subject of endurance. Where did it start? Just before the Tipoff, I met a woman coming down. She looked around sixty years old; short, slight, carrying a big frame pack but no sleeping bag. Obviously cabin bound. There was something about her that made me uneasy; her red face, an anxious look. She, too was tired, but was moving along rapidly, with obvious reserves still stored. As she passed, she asked "Isn't there a building around here?"
I showed her the ranch, far below. I asked her if she needed food, or water. Out here that question is usually just a cordial formality. This time it turned out differently.
Just when you think you're lame, or done in, the Canyon deals a trump. Sometimes it plays the card itself, and trumps you. Like last year, as I finally came up over the top of the Redwall switchbacks. I was completely done in. I looked exhausted, and felt every year of my forty-seven. Just then, coming down the trail, I saw an ancient man, seventy if he was a day, tall and gaunt, with white hair and what looked like a slightly addled expression. He carried a pack as big as mine, and walked unsteadily by using a long pilgrim's staff like a third leg. I knew I had to get him to turn back, to warn him off for his own good. I asked him with as little condescension as possible if he had done this before. Boy, was I surprised! Yes, like me he did this every year! Unlike me, he didn't stop on the Tonto Plateau. His permit was made out for Phantom tonight, and Cottonwood tomorrow. He assured me with confidence, even with exuberance, that day after tomorrow he would be back over there on the North Rim again, just like he always had. I could see clearly now not only that he would make it, but also that his "addled" look was really the glow of ecstasy. And I thought I was getting too old. I swore to myself that I would never complain like that again. Trumped!
And then sometimes when you're done in, the Canyon deals the trump card to you. You have to play it and you are called to do much more than you had planned.
So I asked her if she needed anything , and she said "No, I'm OK, but there's a man on the trail above who needs some help." Her story came out in little pieces. His name was John North. Sixty-five. She couldn't argue him out of carrying the big pack. Diabetic. Hurt ankle. Exhausted. She was going down to the Ranch, where she would dump her pack and come back up to carry his!
"Good plan," I said. "I'll go find him and keep an eye on him. May I make a suggestion?"
"When you get down there, recruit some young, strong ones to come back with you to tote the pack. There are a lot of them, and some would be glad to come."
So, tired as I was, I had been handed the trump card, and I laid it down on myself. I set off for the Tonto, wondering where I would meet him. Though I expected to find him in the care of others, I picked up my pace anyway. Funny, how I seemed energized. I marveled at that, and at myself, as I came over the plateau rim at the Tipoff. I spotted the emergency phone, just in case, then I spotted him. A couple of hundred yards up the first incline an old man stopped walking and sat, collapsed, almost fell into the dusty trough that is the trail along there. I saw four of the young, strong ones see this, speak to him in passing, and walk on! Cold, even if he did deny problems or refuse help. They could at least take a break and observe unobtrusively. It was a resting place, complete with the last toilet, a threeholer helicoptered down three or four years ago. I hurried along as best I could. In my mind I had planned to swap packs with him, escort him down until his woman came up with help (perhaps halfway, at most) and still make camp, exhausted, just after dark, say, around six or six-thirty.
He was sitting up when I got to him.
"Good afternoon. Mr. North?"
"I met a woman down below who said you might not be the worse for some company." I had carefully refined this, and the next line, and many alternatives, so as to enable him to take the maximum help with the minimum loss of pride.
He was struggling to get up. He looked glazed.
"No. I would like the company. I'm feeling really tired. I hurt my ankle." He pointed to his right foot. He was wearing shoes. Kind of like modern Hush Puppies. Not boots, or even running shoes. Just smooth-soled shoes.
"Please don't take this amiss," I said, "but it strikes me we might get along down better if I were to carry your pack. Perhaps we could swap loads."
"Yes, that sounds like a good idea."
I put my day pack down and hefted his Kelty frame. It was lighter than my day pack! He tugged at my ancient Caribou, dismayed. As I quickly backpedaled by saying "My pack is really heavy," I snatched it back over to my side of the trail. Apologetically, I said "I carry enough emergency gear to rescue an army." True. After that time on Tin Mountain in Death Valley, I always take enough to barely survive an unplanned night out. "I'll lash my pack to your frame, and carry the lot."
How was I to accomplish this? I had no strapping. I had not lashed my coat on top of my pack today. I had done so on previous hikes, and it was just dead weight. Too warm, this trip, even at night. And I had even left the extra long straps, which I usually carry as emergency gear, to save weight on what I expected to be a grueling hike. Stupidly, I thought about using my boot laces. But then I felt the hand of providence. He said "I have a lot of straps." and pointed to a zippered side pouch.
So I lashed my brick onto his frame. He fished out his water bottle, took a swig, and then I hoisted the rig, and we were off. It probably didn't total more than 45 pounds, nothing for a frame as well suspended as his new Kelty. I usually carry 60 - 65 pounds. The recommended maximum is one third of your body weight.
He walked ahead of me. At first he seemed to walk OK. Slow, but OK. But he looked very, very tired. As we walked, I got a good look at him. At least the view from behind. About sixty-five. Medium height. Strong build. Tough, when younger. (I thought of my future.) Reminded me of ex-Marine sergeant Bill MacDonald who lived next door to me, only thinner and trim, not gone to seed. When I saw his face as we made a turn, it was gray with fatigue. But he kept on.
We walked together for a good two hours. That's not really bad time for that descent. We talked. I tried to keep it light-hearted and optimistic. We exchanged a small bit of biography. He was a retired farmer from Indiana. His wife of thirty-five years had died three years ago and he had taken up with Mary Marston, whom I had met below. They lived with one of his teenage grandsons. I told him of San Francisco, of my jobs with computers (he had a PC, used for word processing,) of my love of writing, of my love, and my hopes (going lightly on the divorce part). Cars we had owned, teenage insurance rates. But finally we started to swap mountain climbing stories.
Some of his sounded a mite tall (some of mine were a sight tall,) but when he spoke of trails and peaks that I know, his stories had the ring of truth. Devil's Postpile, the John Muir Trail, Mt. Whitney, various Grand Canyon places, the Rockies, Denali (but only to the fresh snow line. He was solo, and careful).
I told of Death Valley, Cremation Canyon, my Whitney face burn. We were swapping gear and techniques. He asked about my choice of food. I told him about Tasty Bite, and he told his only whopper of the day, and as good and succinct a tale as ever I have heard. Coming off some peak in Alaska, he mixed a four person bag of hellfire chili, ate the whole thing, and as he put it "I floated down on a trail of fire! It kept the bears awake for two nights."
We walked on. He looked in really bad shape. Beyond tired. He rested every ten minutes. His ankle got floppy. He quit even trying to avoid the mule dung which those who have hiked the South Kaibib Trail will remember so well. He fell twice. Once a complete header, ending on his back in the dust. He got up, and I brushed him off. The second time I caught him before totality.
But he kept on walking. I hope I could have done as much. I don't know. I just don't know.
We got to the suspension bridge over the Colorado River at dusk. Before crossing it we rested again. I thought he had lost it, maybe passed out, when he said "Look there." He pointed up the slope right above us and there stood a young bighorn sheep, horns just beginning to curl. He was more awake and aware than I. I got out the camera in time to capture the animal's profile silhouetted against the last of the dark blue sky.
I followed John North into Phantom Ranch just after dark, around six-thirty. He had survived his physical ordeal. Now came the social trials.
Of course the after hours guest registration window was on the back side of the cookhouse, the last building on the far side of the ranch. When we got there, I crashed on a picnic bench. It was a while before I could muster the wherewithal to take off the two packs. Mr. North went to the window, where they told him that his reservation for two was not for tonight, but for tomorrow!
And so it came down like this: Mary had made it down, and they had put her straight into bed, in the last available bunk in the dormitory. They told Mr. North that they had no more beds tonight. The standard thing was to go the Ranger station, where they would loan him a sleeping bag and write an emergency camping permit for the night. He listened to all of this, then sat down at the picnic table across from me. We both slumped there for a while, our heads laying on our arms.
I toyed for a minute with the idea of doing the same, borrowing a bag from the ranger and sleeping down here. But it wouldn't work. My permit expired tomorrow morning. I had to be back up on the South Rim by nightfall. If I slept here tonight, it meant tomorrow climbing back up to camp, packing, and climbing out with the gear, all in one short winter's day. No way! I had no real choice but to make a night march back up to and across the Tonto Plateau to my tent, and get dinner and what was left of a good night's sleep there. To the river and back twice in a day, and the big climb tomorrow.....
He roused himself first.
"What do I owe you?"
"Nothing. I was a Boy Scout. You don't take money for good deeds."
"I was a Cubmaster for a long time."
I ventured out on uncertain ground. "Are you religious?"
A long pause..... I have since wondered what, in these days of controversy and political correctness, did he consider before he replied "Yes."
"Pray for me. Say: 'And Thy servant Wayne.' "
"What's your last name, Wayne?"
"Wayne Curtis..." There was another long silence as I separated our packs and adjusted my Caribou. He started up again. "What's your favorite charity?"
My pause this time...
"If you insist on giving something, give it to your favorite charity in my name. But pray for me. That's my favorite charity. Well, I'm off. It's been an honour meeting you."
"Thank you for everything."
A handshake. It was seven o'clock, pitch dark, and I left.
On my way to the river, I stopped at the ranger station. The light was on, and the night duty ranger looked reluctantly toward the door as I knocked. The photograph that I took of myself later that night shows that I must have looked scruffy, dirty and wild-eyed. I was so tired I was almost incoherent.
"It's not an emergency. There's an old man up by the cookhouse. He hurt his ankle on the way down here this afternoon. His wife came on ahead. There was a reservation mix-up. They had room for her, but not him. They said you would provide a sleeping bag. He's not walking straight. He made it down, 'cause he's game, but he's hurt and beat. I don't think he can walk back over here tonight to get that bag. I've got to go, but maybe you... He made it down all right, but I carried his pack."
"That's really good of you."
I'm a little annoyed. I wanted to snap something about the new Park Service video they send to all prospective Canyon hikers, about how it says they can't rescue everybody, that you must self-rescue, and how the old man did self-rescue, but all that came out was "It might be me tomorrow. That's how it's supposed to work, isn't it?"
"Well, I've got to go. I'm camped on the Plateau and my permit runs out tomorrow. I've got to climb out."
"Oh, I'll get back. I'm game, too. But he's not well. He needed three rest stops between here and the Ranch. Yeah, maybe he brought it on himself, but he's old. We'll all be old, someday. If there's anything you can do..."
By now he is galvanized to action, getting up. "Sure. I'm on my way."
I have made night marches before, but none like that night. A thousand foot wall on one side, a thousand foot drop on the other. Pitch black trail in the shadow of the canyon, the galaxy shining overhead. My little "C" cell flashlight picking out the Tonto Trail, faint in there among the bushes.
I got back to the tent at nine.