“Home sweet home,” mused my acquaintance as we peered into the centuries-old stone and mortar structure, most recently dubbed Beamer’s Cabin. Sweet, yes, if one desires a dusty, ten-by-ten dwelling without plumbing. Though I have to admit, the lack of amenities was a small price to pay for the spectacular view. The prehistoric-Puebloan-shelter-turned-miner’s-cabin crouched beneath a Tapeats Sandstone overhang in the belly of the canyon at the glorious junction of the Little Colorado River and the main channel—sixty-one miles downstream from the canyon’s humble beginning at Lees Ferry.
I arrived at this oasis on a day hike after backpacking down the precipitous Tanner and Beamer Trails. The former is a ten-mile rim-to-river tumble from the South Rim’s Lipan Point named after nineteenth century Mormon pioneer Seth Tanner. The latter, equal in length, was named after prospector Ben Beamer, and paralleled the river across a series of creepy ledges. Greeting me upon my arrival was a haggard, heavily bearded solo hiker from Vermont. Buck could have doubled as crusty Seth Tanner himself (save for the Teva water sandals), or one-armed Colonel John Wesley Powell who camped at this very spot in 1869, fretting the Great Unknown.
Considering my own early start from the nearest legal campsite, I deduced that my trailmate had camped nearby on the sly. Instinctively I chose to sidestep the issue. As with any prickly encounter in the backcountry, adopting a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy is the safest course of action. My suspicions were confirmed when he offered that he had visited the not-to-distant Sipapu the day before. The Hopi regard the Sipapu as their sacred place of emergence into this, the Fourth World. For years I had resisted the urge to visit this effervescent spring in deference to the native people who hold it dear. In this spirit, I talked Buck out of adding the nearby Hopi Salt Mines, an equally sacred site deemed off limits by the park service, to his list of destinations.
The spring-fed LCR, as the Little Colorado is affectionately known, was flowing a milky turquoise on this late-October day. It wouldn’t run brown again until it drained the snow melt form Arizona’s White Mountains come spring. At such times enough silt is deposited into the artificially clear (read “dam-fed”) Colorado to cloud it all the way to Lake Mead. This paradise is a must-stop for the river running community, as the LCR is warm enough to swim and frolic in while the Colorado is dangerously cold. In a tourist Mecca such as this I felt blessed to have the Confluence to my lonesome. Well, almost. “Think I’ll take a bath,” warned my fellow canyoneer. That was my cue to call it a day.
Retracing my steps, I was soon back on the Beamer and climbing into the terraced cliffs. I glanced across the river to the unnamed canyon at the base of Chuar Butte where I had once discovered a tire left by the 1956 mid-air plane collision. On this peaceful afternoon, in the absence of any competition for the sound of my own breathing, I found it difficult to imagine the fiery crash that took 128 lives.
A mile or two later I found myself directly across river from sinuous Carbon Canyon. At this juncture the Beamer Trail pinches off disturbingly close to a 500-foot drop to the water below. Several boats came into view, likely the last few of the 20,000-plus commercial river runners of the season. Even their whispers lifted on the calm breeze to my perch high above. They were completely unaware of my presence. I imagined myself a desert Bighorn, perfectly camouflaged, amused by the brightly colored flotilla that ferried these visitors through my domain. How many creatures in the course of their journey would silently study them from the cliffs and cobble? How many were spying me at this very moment? We are never alone. Not even in the apparent solitude in the grandest of canyons.
I negotiated a steep series of switchbacks, and then strolled along the swift-moving river. The icy green current seemed to be picking up speed before making its geologically-puzzling swing to the west several miles downstream. Arriving at my sandy campsite well below Lava Chuar Rapid I inspected my dutifully hung food bag. Once again it had foiled both raven and ringtail. Enjoying a hot cup of cocoa I leaned back against one of the ubiquitous tamarisk trees—a Middle Eastern transplant despised by riparian purists. The way it couched my sweaty back made amends for countless ecological sins.
A rising turkey vulture drew my attention to a craggy saddle—or low point—on the jagged horizon to the west. Years earlier I had looked down from that vantage upon this, my favorite sandbar, during the throes of a brutal ten-day backpack beneath the towering North Rim. What a privilege it was to have logged so many miles in this rock-strewn wonderland. Feeling once at home, and in a foreign land, the paradox of hiking Grand Canyon was thrown into stark relief. The more you see, the more there is to see. Familiarity, in this case, breeds clarity, rather than contempt.
The setting sun, out of view behind this same mountain of rock before me, set the top of Temple Butte ablaze. The visual feast was repeated by way of reflection in each of a dozen pools left stranded in the wet sand by a slowly dropping river. The beloved little brown bats made their appearance. With high-pitched chirps they went about their bug-eating business, making my tent-free lifestyle possible.
I spread out my bedroll in a fortuitous depression between the windblown dunes. From my reclined position the near-vertical Palisades of the Desert, forming the eastern wall of the canyon, rose with such authority that they appeared to curve back over me. Beyond their sharp summit Navajo shepherds tended their sheep, pinion jays flocked for winter, love struck elk enjoyed their seasonal trysts, and cars clipped along lonely 89 en route to Lake Powell, Monument Valley, and the Painted Desert.
Cradled in the canyon’s bosom, life on top seemed miles away. My feet reminded me that this was a literal observation—thirteen miles to be precise. All to be trammeled by this time tomorrow, one step at a time.