“Over that ridge, around the creek, up that slope—no problem,” surmised, my wisecracking cousin Dan. Yeah, right. As we peered down upon our intended route from the Lipan Point guardrail, experience (not to mention common sense) told me our 35-mile Tanner-to-New Hance Trail backpack would prove a tad more difficult to the feet than to the eyes—even without factoring in the scant three days we were devoting to the endeavor.
This was wisdom I lacked ten years earlier during my first glance into Grand Canyon from this very spot, with the same hiking partner. “How do we get down?” I remember asking Dan nervously, my eyes darting to and from the imposing sheer walls in every direction. “Oh, I don’t know, we’ll find a way,” he chirped over his shoulder as he jumped the rail and disappeared in the cliffs below. It was only after a few audible swallows and some serious soul-searching on my part that he reappeared and led us to the real trail—a less-ominous route to the east. Now older and wiser, I couldn’t pass up the chance to repay Dan’s rail-hopping stunt for old times’ sake. My strap-adjusting comrade barely noticed as I bounded over the barrier, though I did manage to elicit a collective gasp from a wide-eyed gaggle of foreign tourists.
The mood turned serious shortly thereafter as we lumbered towards the trailhead. The sound of traffic and the multi-lingual chatter was replaced by wind rustling through the junipers and the squeaking of overburdened packs. The Tanner Trail follows a fortuitous break in the cliff-forming rock layers of the upper canyon. It has been the route of choice for inner-canyon pedestrians for hundreds if not thousands of years. The Hopi used the route to access sacred sites; turn-of-the-century horse thieves ran their four-legged bounty up the trail after a harrowing trans-canyon odyssey; bootleggers used it to transport hooch to Grand Canyon Village during prohibition. Dan and I both had a keen interest in our Puebloan predecessors. We would smell no better than horses for most of the trip and would no doubt be plucking 40-proof cherries out of our plastic jar of Palisades Punch before day’s end, so we determined that we were keeping any number of proud traditions alive.
Heavy breathing replaces puns and wisecracks early on most Grand Canyon trails, and the Tanner is no exception. We stopped to catch our breath at the Seventy-Five Mile saddle in the Supai Formation, some 1300 feet below the rim, where the view of the inner canyon unfolds to the west in dramatic form. A sweeping vista anchored by Angels Gate and Wotans Throne shimmered in the hazy distance and shook away lingering obsessions over petty details of work, family, and other topics of no real concern to our 5-million-year-old host. We circumnavigated Cardenas and Escalante Buttes and quietly sank into the rhythm of our descent. Repetition consumed the morning as our efforts filtered down to a series of repetitive motions—step, look down, step, look around, pause, swig water, step, look down, step, look around. On paper it looks tedious if not downright sadistic. In practice it proves cleansing at worst, transforming at best.
We “cleansed” our way to the river without encountering another soul and caught our breath alongside thundering Tanner Rapids. The sand dunes that pinched out near the shoreline were off limits to hikers, in the hope of restoring vegetation in the heavily-impacted area. The fruits of this policy were apparent in the tamarisk, gnarled mesquite, and grasses that peppered the sandy mounds like a bad shave. We didn’t linger, and soon we zigzagged through a maze of cobbled stones that blanketed the downstream delta. We picked up the Escalante Route, a 15-mile inner-canyon thoroughfare that connects Tanner and Hance Rapids, about the same time a light cloud cover lifted and the June heat became oppressive. We picked our campsite in a dry wash feeding the larger river. A stone’s throw to the west lay the riparian breeding habitat of the Flycatcher swallow—delightful little birds that seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their little slice of paradise. Hypnotized by their pointed maneuvering I fell into a deep slumber. Hearing was the first of my senses to be restored as I became aware of the melodic rush of the nearby river. Sleep had been so sound that I was oblivious to my whereabouts, and I resisted the urge to open my eyes. The river spray landed on my lips, mingled with sweat and dirt, and then trickled down my throat. A cool breeze carried the scent of a nearby acacia, the buzz of the cicadas and the encroaching sounds of…Frenchmen?
“Bonjour!” yelled the first of seven Parisian kayakers paddling past my perch to play on a standing swell nearby. Soon I was joined on shore by a boatman or two who were rowing support rafts for the frolicking Gauls. They made amends for disturbing my peace with hard canyon currency (beer). The river runners left after a barrel roll or two, and the crickets announced the onset of darkness.
We woke at first light to a gale-force wind heralding an extreme change in the weather. Collecting our gear, we fingered the sand out of our ears and pressed on with a mild sense of urgency. Our route led us high above the river, to the lip of a five-hundred-foot cliff that overlooked the remains of the once-thriving prehistoric Puebloan village on the far shore. The stone walls of this ancient community were scattered across present-day Unkar Delta and hinted at a hand-to-mouth existence nearly unimaginable to those of us enslaved by creature comforts. I spied the most obvious route these hearty souls negotiated from the river to the towering North Rim, a trek they routinely made on a seasonal basis (no small feat—with or without sandals fashioned from yucca fibers). Leaving our perch above this abandoned oasis behind, we soon found ourselves at the base of Butchart’s Notch a few miles up the trail. Dan chose to scramble up to a sawtooth ridge of Tapeats Sandstone and down to Escalante Creek on the far side. I stayed on the trail and contoured on a steep slope, mesmerized by the unfolding beauty, which included a glimpse of Angels Window, a natural bridge on the distant North Rim. We rendezvoused as planned and pushed on under the threat of gathering clouds. The rumble of distant thunder arrived just in time for our rappel down a 15-foot pour off into a claustrophobic slot canyon cradling a bone-dry Seventy-Five Mile creek. Wending through the twisting chasm was an anxious endeavor as the thunder grew closer and shook the high walls, scarcely an arms-length apart. A stillness pierced only by audible heartbeats was shattered sporadically by a deafening roar of wind. Fearing that the rush of air might be replaced by a wall of water if the heavy clouds were to release their load, we hightailed it to the sandy confluence with the Colorado River. We reached Hance Rapid after picking our way over a tricky outcropping of rock at the mouth of Papago Creek and found a river party scouting the frothy whitewater. Already a feared rapid, the intense wind was reducing an already slim margin of error for the anxious river runners. Huge columns of spray were being lifted from the thundering current and transported in swirling spirals to the heavens above.
The lead boatman, a hundred-trip Grand Canyon veteran named Drifter, said he had never seen it this windy, and worried about losing someone overboard and not being able to paddle through the tempest to their rescue. His distraction with the deteriorating weather was evident when he missed the best zinger of the trip (I wondered aloud how a potential employer might ask “So, Drifter, where do you see yourself in five years?”). After a bit of hand-wringing they decided to go for it, and they passed through the foamy chaos of Hance Rapid without incident, leaving the bullet-like windblown sand to Dan and I. The night was too windy even for the voracious mice of Hance Beach, who have been known to defeat even the most dutifully hung food bag. We woke up, half-buried in sand, to an eerie calmness and wasted no time guzzling our espresso and taking our first steps up the 10-mile-long New Hance Trail. The rain began in the Redwall Limestone, and turned to sleet by the Hermit Shale. This we took in stride. It was the snowstorm that greeted us in the Supai, three miles from the top, that filled us with puzzlement and concern. Clad only in shorts and T-shirts we hunkered down beneath an imposing boulder. How long could this last? Our fear of exposure was quickly replaced by the fear of contracting Hantavirus when we realized our shelter doubled as a mouse latrine. “Came for the heat exhaustion, stayed for the hypothermia,” mused my unflappable partner as we put heads down and pressed on. We topped out in a peculiar winter wonderland, which vaporized in the blink of an eye when the sun broke through minutes later. Our biggest challenge now was overcoming our shabby appearance and thumbing a ride back to the Tanner Trailhead . A vacationing family from Missouri with a spotless conversion van was brave enough to take us aboard. We took a final look back into the canyon from Lipan Point. “Where were you,” asked the precocious daughter from the “Show Me” state. ” Over that ridge, around the creek, up that slope,” I said, just loud enough for my cousin to overhear. “Why?” she asked. I fumbled with an explanation bound to elude her. I redirected her question to the canyon—and the answer came back as a ray of sunlight penetrated the swirling clouds and set Vishnu Temple afire.