Like a moth to a flame, our senior canyoneer followed a tattered treasure map straight to the case of Budweiser dutifully cached beside the Colorado River by a sympathetic boatman. Our group of ten weary hikers toasted the midway point of a ten-day Grand Canyon Field Institute odyssey during a well-deserved happy hour. Reclining beside the emerald wave train at the mouth of Lava Creek (river mile 65.5), I savored a rare moment of non-marching reflection.
It seemed a lifetime had passed since our merry band, a wilderness skills class led by Ken Walters, bonded over our first meal together at the Marble Canyon Lodge. Snail-paced service at the greasy spoon proved to be the initial test of both our patience and sense of humor—two traits that we’d be drawing upon continually in the days that followed.
Our journey into the forbidding backcountry began on the North Rim’s Nankoweap Trail; an appropriate route to wean the group off the established trails we wouldn’t see again for a week. I found it hard to imagine that 19th-century horse thieves led their pilfered ponies down the narrow ledges and crumbling shelves of this treacherous path en route to unsuspecting buyers on the far side of the canyon. The thigh-pummeling trail, originally built for geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell, grudgingly yielded to our first night’s camp beneath the rustling cottonwood trees of Nankoweap Creek.
As consecutive days passed, memories of the rugged Nankoweap Trail grew fonder as we found ourselves negotiating jagged slopes, flesh-eating shrubs, and unexpected drop-offs scattered along the eastern Grand Canyon’s Butte Fault. The only apparent thing in full bloom within our drought-stricken dreamscape was a love/hate relationship with the challenging terrain of this unparalleled corner of the canyon. Luring us on were mesmerizing miles of rock strata, twisting evidence of the massive fault, and the occasional riparian oasis born of the infrequent gurgling stream. The ice-cold brew arranged by Don, our Cajun delegate who unfortunately had bowed out of the trip a day earlier, was no less incentive. Last call was implied as Ken strapped up his boots and we grudgingly peeled ourselves from the soothing dunes. I stole one more glance at the river as we plodded up Lava Canyon to our home for the night. The next time I would cool my feet in the Colorado’s 45-degree waters I’d have scratched a dozen more virgin miles off my topo map (and a layer or two of skin on tomorrow’s shrubs and boulders).
We began the next day with a heart-pumping climb to an unnamed pinnacle shown on our maps solely by its elevation (although “5226’s” deceivingly difficult access gave birth to a few four-lettered suggestions). Our opinions of this anonymous ridge changed quickly as we confronted our first sweeping view of the South Rim’s familiar features. After a leisurely lunch and a series of map and compass exercises, we rejoined the battle with renewed spirit.
Contouring a near-vertical slope that would make a mountain goat wince, we dropped into Basalt Canyon and quickly covered its mile-long grind to the rejuvenating river. A splashy respite was all time would allow and soon we were pushing on to Unkar Delta under a full moon. Trudging through camps of river parties at the tail end of our twelve-hour day, we wearily accepted beer and cake on the trot from a gauntlet of amazed onlookers.
The next few days were spent on the broad desert terraces of the Tonto Platform. Awestruck and reverent, we wended around Vishnu and Shiva temples, Rama and Krishna shrines, and Hall, Hawkins, and Howlands buttes. Brushing past these stoic giants, heretofore admired from the cozy overlooks of the South Rim, was akin to meeting blood relatives for the first time. Learning the backcountry skills that would make future reunions possible made the experience even more gratifying.
Our confidence grew daily as we embraced the rhythms of the Canyon’s wilderness. Waking hours were spent amidst a kaleidoscope of scree slopes, false summits, little victories, ominous saddles, splendid creeks, yawning chasms, precarious cliffs, and priceless vistas. Nights passed in a deathlike slumber that was inevitably an hour or two on the short side.
A final barrier lie in wait at the end of our 50 miles of trailblazing. Clear Creek was a sight to behold as it gurgled and frolicked below. Even more alluring was the siren calling from the far bank. Our collective memory seemed to recognize this tidy, well-marked feature as a trail; the first in a network that would lead us the twenty miles home. The problem? We were viewing this Garden of Eden from our perch on the lip of a 150-foot dry pour off, short on water, shorter on daylight, and seemingly cliffed-out in the craggy Vishnu Schist. The class that promised to reward participants with “freedom of the hills” was about to be put to the test. Slowly inching our way across a tenuous game trail that hugged a boot-wide ledge, we mined a week’s worth of concentration and determination. Parched and exhilarated we reached the creek to a congratulatory chorus of frogs.
First light found us on the Clear Creek Trail in a relative sprint for Phantom Ranch. No sooner had we arrived at the historic, inner-canyon tourist destination, than tales of our epic adventure spread amongst the overnight mule riders. Fortunately for everyone concerned, a solo hiker doing the length of the Canyon (three times our distance) joined us in the cantina just before our egos put the rafters to the test.
Ascending the Bright Angel Trail on our final day was like a slow rise from a deep dive. Chatter and commotion increased with our elevation as we encountered growing numbers of day hikers. By the time we reached the top we had re-pressurized to the hustle and bustle of life on the rim. An elderly couple who caught wind of our feat asked for a recap of our route on my battered map. Try as I might to recreate our journey, the thin ink contours bore false witness to the struggles and trials still fresh in my mind. As I folded my map, their well-meaning adulation fell on distracted ears, for my mind wandered towards the solo hiker we had left behind at Phantom. “Length of the Canyon, huh?” I wondered, glancing back at the Canyon over the loud objections of two very blistered feet.