Conde Naste Traveler - November 2006

cnt_11.06

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH

THE DEEPER INTO THE GRAND CANYON YOU GET, THE MORE YOU APPRECIATE WHAT A TRUE WONDER IT IS—AND WHAT A GREAT ADVENTURE IT OFFERS. ALISON HUMES RIDES THE COLORADO RIVER, WHERE CLUES TO AN EPIC PAST COMBINE WITH FEARS FOR THE FUTURE

I HAVE NEVER BEEN AN OUTDOORSY PERSON. Oh, I like walks in the woods, swimming in the Caribbean, and garden parties, but for me, the great outdoors is a scary place, with unpredictable insects and animals, prickly and slimy things, where I often feel too hot or too cold. But at an early age, my son Aidan became very interested in the idea and existence of the Four Corners, which led to a discussion of Arizona and the Grand Canyon; he wanted to go see it, and I promised him we would. As the mother of two boys, I find that spending time with them has become like an unrequited love affair. As they eagerly grow more autonomous, I work hard to out-wit them by devising vacations together that will not only hold their interest but channel their abundant energy in a positive direction.

The Grand Canyon has been attracting tourists for just over a hundred years; it is the quintessential American family vacation, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, The source of creation in the mythology of a number of Indian tribes, it was discovered and abandoned by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. John Wesley Powell, a one-armed geologist, finally put it on the map when he made his way down the Colorado River with eight other men in fast wooden rowboats in 1869. A visit to the Grand Canyon, the showstopper of the United States, is a true adventure all can enjoy. And this is as it should be: Teddy Roosevelt, the president who named the canyon a national monument in 1908, exhorted us, "Keep it for your children and your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, must see."

There are many ways to explore the canyon. The South and North rims have very different styles (the South has a convenient village and nearby airport, several hotels, gift shops, and a range of restaurants; the North, cooler and greener, is more rustic, with cabins and fewer people. You can spend time along the South Rim going on ranger programs and taking the shuttle bus to all the various viewpoints, or you can backpack way off the beaten track, as far as you can walk and climb, where you will see no one. You can hike down to the bottom and back up, from one side to the other. You can ride a mule or fly over in a helicopter. You can run the Colorado River, which snakes through the bottom of the canyon, and its famous rapids—there are many different ways of doing that, too. You can take a motorized launch or raft, as sixty-five percent of those who travel the river do. If you are very lucky and/or persistent and patient, you can make the trip downriver on your own, paddling a big or little raft or a kayak. Or you can go in a dory with a commercial outfit like Grand Canyon Dories. The dories, delicate-looking double-ended flat-bottomed boats with high flared sides, have a certain kind of magic about them. Each elegant seventeen-foot vessel is rowed by a boatman who maneuvers it to float over waves and dance in the water. This seems the closest approximation to what Powell himself did, although these boats are smaller and much more agile and comfortable than the ones he used. This is the experience that seems the most seductive: I won’t have to row myself, but the rapids will be exciting and the noise will be natural.

A trip like this through the canyon takes two weeks because the boats can get in and out of the river only before it enters the canyon, in Lees Ferry, or after it comes out. And it costs a fortune; to save money, I decide that we will join the expedition for the second half only, a distance of 135 miles, by hiking down from the South Rim to the river, where we will meet the boats as they arrive at Phantom Ranch.

The course of development of the canyon infrastructure over the past century shows how our ideas have changed about what a destination should be and how best to interact with nature, and this history is still visible along the South Rim. At the turn of the twentieth century, entrepreneurial miners started businesses catering to visitors who in 1901 began arriving via the Grand Canyon Railway; their success, along with the enthusiasm of Teddy Roosevelt, led to the area's being declared a national park in 1919. Through the mid-1930s, Mary Colter and others developed a Western rustic architecture that meshed with the landscape, echoing that era's progressive ideals of manliness, freedom, and the rugged outdoors. These buildings remain—Hopi House; Bright Angel Lodge, with its Buckey O'Neill cabin along with the "modern" facilities of the motor-lodge era. Our room on the rim is in the renovated but undistinguished Kachina Lodge, built in 1968, when the idea of a great trip still meant being able to drive right up and park at the view.

As the twentieth century came to a close, a coalition of park officials, environmentalists, and politicians pushed through a plan to consolidate the park's land holdings and to relieve congestion and pollution, largely by moving cars out of the park. Among the projects was the creation of a forty-five-mile greenway along the rim; the building of a $100 million light-rail system to ferry people from parking lots to the rim (cutting vehicular traffic by eighty percent); the upgrading of visitor-support facilities, including the construction of a staffed information center; and a "Heritage Education Campus" comprising nine architecturally significant buildings of rustic design. The information center was built, the greenway was started. Then, a dip in park attendance (perhaps owing to the conditions the plan was meant to alleviate), combined with a new Republican administration, led to Congress's pulling the plug in 2001. Exploring the rim on the day before our hike, we eventually find the center, meant to greet visitors as they stepped off the light-rail system-sitting off by itself, accessible by shuttle bus but isolated from foot traffic, material evidence that our yearned-for enlightened relationship with Arcadia became mired in bureaucratic squabbles and was finally sacrificed—a spoil of political victory.

There are only two ways to get to the river from the rim, and those are to walk on your own two feet or to ride a mule. At first, bearing in mind that the hike down to Phantom Ranch is 9.7 miles, I consider the mules, but I am persuaded that this just means trading footsore for buttsore. Nonetheless, all the warnings about the trek down are daunting. Walking downhill turns out to be harder on the knees than walking uphill. In order to avoid midday exposure in a shadeless desert environment where the temperature often rises to 105 degrees or higher, we are advised to set out as early as we can and to take lots of food and water. (Thankfully, the mules are going to carry our duffels.)

We, my two city boys, Ciaran, fourteen, Aidan, twelve, and I, get up before dawn to head out. Amazingly, there are people on Bright Angel Trail at 4:30 on a June morning; more amazing, a guy out for a run passes us going down and then, a couple of hours later, going up. We have chosen the Bright Angel route over the shorter (6.5-mile) South Kaibab Trail, which, according to some, offers better views because it has water and bathrooms about a third of the way down as well as some shade, and because it is patrolled by rangers looking for people in trouble. Signs up top have certainly put the fear of God in me; they depict healthy young guys in their twenties passed out along the trail and in cardiac arrest from dehydration. Perhaps knowing the risks, people are very friendly as they pass going up or down, either because they're proud to be in better shape or commiserating as they puff their way up carrying enormous backpacks. One man generously points out a fist-sized sand-colored scorpion he has noticed by the side of the trail; a young woman hiking up pauses to tell me how much she likes my red sneakers.

We stop at Indian Garden—where Havasuapi, the original native inhabitants, grew their crops until they were forcibly removed in the early 1900s—to take off our shoes and soak our feet in a stream, eat, and drink. We see a couple of deer. I'm ready to dawdle, but we aren't even halfway down, and my boys are still enthusiastic about the journey. A few moments later, Aidan, who is leading the way, jumps and runs back toward me. "There's a rattlesnake," he says. It is clearly as unhappy to see us as we are to see it. Now what? A young woman is hiking up from the other direction. "Do you know anything about rattlesnakes?" I call out to her. "Because there's one right in front of you."

I point.

She steps forward and leans over. She stops. "Oh, yeah, that's a rattlesnake," she says, stepping backward. We all just stand there, several feet apart, on either side of the snake, which is poised with its head up but not moving. We wait. She picks up a pebble and throws it in the snake's direction. Uncurling to three or four feet, it slithers across the path and into the bushes on the other side. Still, I let her walk past first.

By 9 A.M., it's starting to get hot, and soon we are in the Devil's Corkscrew, a series of tight, steep switchbacks drilling down through ancient (as in 1.7 billion years old) Vishnu schist. It makes me think of the path to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The overall experience of the harsh beauty of the rock and scrub, the heat, and the ache of my knees and shoulders is literally stunning.

It's odd how something so big creeps up on you. At first, the canyon is just hugely vast, endless and deep. It's not even clear how you would get into it. It looks lifeless, like a lot of rocks, and I thought it was beautiful but in a kind of abstract, unknowable way. Walking down into the canyon, you start to understand some of the shapes, and then you see the scorpion and the snake and the different colors of each layer of sedimentary rock and the blossoms on the plants, and even the vistas start to make more sense.

As the land flattens out toward the bottom and the path starts to intertwine with small Garden Creek, I'm getting hot and tired and cranky, wanting to stop and sit while the boys are eager to press on and put this hike behind them. Then we are rescued by Iris and Katie, two sisters from Oregon, who have come up the trail to find us. They have already spent a week with the group we are about to join, who put in at Lees Ferry, just below Glen Canyon Dam. They lead us down to a small beach on the river, where everyone else is waiting.

A little shell-shocked from the heat and from meeting and trying to understand the roles of twenty new people, we are fed and watered. The water—having been sterilized, presumably with iodine—doesn't taste very good. We are urged to drink a lot of it, nevertheless. The desert heat is deceptive. Because it's so dry, you don't feel yourself sweating, and it's easy to become dangerously dehydrated. Kirsten, one of the guides, starts the instructions by volunteering that if you find yourself feeling crabby and irritable, what you need is an attitude adjustment: "Just jump in the river and that adjusts your attitude." I wonder whether she might be talking about herself.

Not quite ready for immersion—the water is bloody cold—I splash my face, head, neck, arms, and legs. We are then fitted snugly into our life jackets, which we will come to recognize by name. Aidan, strapped into "Egret," is starting to look both extremely focused and a little pale as Ote, who's clearly in charge, explains that we are about to head into some of the Colorado's biggest rapids—Horn Creek, Granite, and Hermit—and that we need to listen closely and follow instructions.

We are in very good hands: Our four guides are all from one clan, the famous river-running Dales. Ote is the trip leader. She is married to Regan, famed among river runners, who rarely comes out on commercial trips anymore and who, with his big bushy beard, looks like a mountain man from a Gold Rush daguerreotype. Ms. Dale, as Regan sometimes addresses Ote, is clearly a creature of the West, long-limbed, tanned, a naturally age-burnished beauty with hooded blue eyes and sun-bleached hair. Their twenty-six-year-old son, Duffy, bearded like his dad but with a thick blond ponytail, is in charge of Paria, the dory he built. Our other guide is Duffy's incredibly buff wife, Kirsten, with her own three-foot mane of blond hair. Ote and Regan have been running the Colorado for decades; each has done the river more than two hundred times and has been guiding for more than thirty years.

We get into Ote’s dory. She puts Ciaran and her nephew, Dennis, up front, and me and Aidan in the back, pushing us closer together (fine by me because I'm just as nervous as he looks, and I want him within reach), stabilizing our weight all around. She shows us the lashed ropes and handles to hold onto. If she tells us to "high-side" it means to immediately lean your weight into the wave so the boat doesn't get swamped on the other end. If you are tossed or fall out of the boat, first try to get back into the boat, and if you can't, float downstream on your back with your feet pointed out in front of you. Meanwhile, she's looking ahead and steering us out into the center of the river. She stands up to assess what's coming—reading the whorls, waves, and foam. "It's a hey diddle diddle," yells Ote, in her big hat, her sinewy brown arms trailing the fifteen-foot oars. "Take it right down the middle."

Entering a rapid is the smoothest, easiest thing in the world. The boat moves swiftly as the water—as unruffled and sleek as caramel-colored glass—slides down in a vee, called the tongue. Then things start to happen fast. The waves are moving in all directions, and some of them smack the boat hard. You're going up and down, leaning into the waves and keeping an eye out for the water that might be coming at you from the side or the back. Then there are big holes in the water that you want to avoid because they can swallow you and chew you up before spitting you out. It's scary, but even for me, who loathes roller coasters and any sort of suspense, really fun—in part because the guides are so incredibly skilled that they make it look easy to get through in one piece. After one particularly hairy ride, when Ote has managed to steer us out of a collision with a slick rock wall, she hoots and shouts, "I love that rapid, I love that rapid!"

At first, the river is red, befitting its name and as it used to be all the time. It is full of silt because, mysteriously, it is running unusually low, below three thousand cubic feet per second. Generally, Glen Canyon Dam keeps the flow of the Colorado into the Grand Canyon between eight thousand and twenty thousand cubic feet per second. Assessing the volume and speed of the river is critical for river runners: Very low water exposes rocks and boulders in the riverbed, while very high means a bigger and rougher ride. On the Colorado, there's no communicating with the outside world; what happens is sort of like the weather, the whim of the gods. The mix of motorized and human-powered craft means trips move at different speeds. From the guides of passing trips we hear that there is a huge forest fire north of Phoenix. Rumor has it that a transformer is down, forcing the dam to cut energy output. But ultimately, there is no way to know why the flow has been reduced. Out here the dam is as inscrutable and unsympathetic as Kafka's castle.

The building of Glen Canyon Dam, which was completed in 1963, was a watershed in the modern environmental movement, and today there is significant support for its decommission. The dam's main purposes, as mandated in 1968, are to make sure that the states in the Colorado River's Lower Basin (below the dam) get the full amount of water they are legally entitled to, and to store water for the Colorado River's Upper Basin. The production of power is incidental. As a result, it is a "cash register" dam, meaning the power it generates subsidizes otherwise economically unviable water projects upstream. Any excess is marketed and sold, to be used when demand peaks. The interests of those in the water and power business, however, have come to dominate, and flows have generally been regulated to maximize power production and revenue.

The dam has profoundly changed the ecology of the river as it runs through the Grand Canyon. Because silt backs up behind the dam, the river runs clear except when it is very low, and because the flow has been regulated for consistent power generation, there is serious erosion of the canyon's beaches and rampant growth of newly arrived opportunistic plant life. Before the dam, the Colorado's flow through the canyon ranged in temperature from near freezing to about eighty-five degrees; now, because the water pouring through the dam comes from the middle of Lake Powell, it is uniformly cold. The mean temperature of releases in July 2005 was fifty-six degrees. By the time we run Lava Falls, one of the biggest and meanest rapids on the river, the water is back up to seven thousand cubic feet per second, still low but now green. When I asked Joseph Alston, the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, whom I interviewed on the South Rim, whether the rapids of the Colorado were wilder in one season or another, he said that these days the only experience of wild river "comes when the people in Las Vegas or Phoenix turn on their air conditioners."

I quickly get really sick of the sand. It's everywhere—in the tent, in the sleeping bags, in the duffels, in the zipper of the tent, which now won't close, on the rim of my coffee cup, and, my my teeth tell me in the last sip of coffee. The sand is powdery soft, not rough, mixed with lots of river silt. At our first camp the boys and I are wasted from the hike down and choose to stay put rather than follow the excursion up a side canyon. The others are still strangers, so in a way I'm just as glad they're gone. But the wind picks up and continues to pick up, and before I fully realize what’s happening, the sand is blowing around and whipping into everything, stinging our ears and eyes. We try to protect our faces while chasing belongings that are flying around—hats, sleeping mats, the towels I spread out to rest on. For the next couple of days, until Aidan gets up the courage to take a bath in the river and wash his hair, whenever he leans against me, he, like Pig-Pen, leaves a puff of fine dust granules behind him as he walks off.

Traveling the river with the Dale family feels a lot like hanging out in their backyard. Besides the rapids and the canyons, we pass Ote's Rock, named when she crashed a boat into it, and Duffy's Crack, a vent on a cliff face that spews hot air from deep underground, which Duffy found on one of his explorations. As we come upon other commercial trips on the river, they invariably pull up to say hello to the Dales, to exchange information and gossip about the neighborhood.

In the canyon, in the absence of technology, the forces of nature prevail. There is always a lot of discussion about the weather—from Kirsten's rehydrating "attitude-adjustment" technique to what is causing the forest fires that start to burn in earnest about halfway through our trip. Everything that happens is related to the weather, and indeed, I am surprised to find it fascinating—powerful, complex, to be respected. The sandstorm is out of the ordinary for June, Ote says; more like July and August, when thunderstorms come every day. And in fact, thunderstorms do follow, which means a fair amount of cooling rain. It is too soon for me to really appreciate this. Instead, I focus on whether I'll be able to set up the waterproof fly over my tent.

Over the days spent on the river, I try to grasp the concept of geologic time. The deeper you go in the canyon, the older the rock, with the deepest bits almost two billion years old. The six hours or so we spent walking down Bright Angel Trail to meet the boats were literally a stroll through the rock of ages. Now, as we row along the bottom looking up and out, the shapes, colors, and forms of the elemental metamorphic rock—Vishnu schist, gneiss, granite, marble-make clear what inspires the sets for theme park roller coasters, much of Western architecture, and even our concepts about the West and the planet. That the Hopi and other native peoples locate their creation right here makes a lot of sense. The combination of the vastness and the detail—the play of light on a particular rock, an osprey gliding down from cliff to cliff, an intensely orange or scarlet cactus bloom—illuminates and integrates the surroundings into familiar patterns of unmarked time. The days run into one another as fluidly as the river itself, governed by weather, water, and earth.

Life on the river starts to feel comfortable. Every day we stop to explore some natural wonderland: a side canyon with waterfalls and pools to play in, nooks in the rocks where you can sit in the shade and read and nap. These places bring you inside the texture of the earth. At Elves Chasm, the adventurous among us climb through chutes that have been carved out by water. Appearing twenty feet up the cliff, where a waterfall pours from the face of the rock, they jump into the pool below. Investigating Deer Creek means climbing over boulders and under tree branches, through sharp acacia (cat claw) and mesquite (which looks a lot like acacia to me). We have to inch carefully along a tiny path on the very edge of a steep cliff. Across the ravine, on the opposite cliff face, protected by a small overhang, are several Paiute handprints. How the Paiutes got up there to paint them several centuries ago is a total mystery. We come to a place where the rock is flat and worn, and we hang out, sit in the sun, and play in the stream under a waterfall. Ote fashions a little animal from a split twig and gives it to Aidan. It looks just like the ones that were made by a people known as the Archaics, who foraged in the canyon three thousand years ago.

Besides what is for me the indescribable glory of the place, hanging out with Ote is my favorite part of the trip. One day, I am following in her path as she walks through the tall grass. She has her arms extended like a ballerina's, playfully waving them up and down, rustling the fronds and the feathery heads of the grass. Then I watch her bound up over rocks, encouraging and helping those behind. She stops on the trail and, with a naughty giggle, hands me a piece of odora, a spindly, threadlike plant that she has crushed in her fingers. It smells like lemon verbena and cilantro, a desert fragrance. I have a huge crush on her. She is unbelievably strong, rowing for hours a day. I ask her whether she works out in the wintertime, whether she goes to a gym. She pauses and laughs as though the thought never occurred to her. "No," she says, then offers, "I go walking in the mountains with my dog."

The boys, however, are smitten with Duffy and are eager to entertain him. He enters their pantheon when he throws Ciaran overboard for being fresh to me. Toward the end of the trip, there are a couple of lazy days on the river, when the water is calm for long stretches and the few rapids are mild. The boys and girls use the bailers to start water fights, attacking the other boats, but particularly Duffy and Matt, a young guy from Flagstaff who's in charge of one of the supply rafts. When Ciaran tells Duffy that rowing a dory is "mad easy," Duffy gives him the oars, patiently watching as Ciaran immediately rows into an eddy and the boat starts moving backward. By the end of the trip Ciaran is boasting that Duffy threw him over eleven times.

The evenings are full of sitting around, telling stories after dinner. Regan is the master. His tales are often presaged by his bellowing, "Cannonball!" and bringing out a bottle of Damiana for everyone to swig. He tells us stories about being on the river in 1983, when Glen Canyon Dam risked flooding, and explains much about the politics of the river, the park, and the dam. Everything comes down to water and power. In the desert, it's easy to appreciate the value of water when every bit that we drink has to be cleaned, when the washing-up tubs are filled in an orderly procession from hot to cold, when I occasionally feel desperate to find relief from the heat. Watching the force of the river's movement, its ability to sweep you away if you're not careful, the way it whorls around in the eddies and smacks you in the boat, the bighorn lambs and wasps that gather to drink at its edge, I understand that the river is really alive.

We will leave the Colorado when we disembark at Diamond Creek, on the Hualapai Reservation. That's tomorrow, I realize abruptly; we've been on the river for seven days, which seems much too short. Regan says that going much farther is too depressing: As you get closer to Lake Mead, what you see is the river being murdered.

The evenings are full of sitting around, telling stories after dinner. Regan is the master. His tales are often presaged by his bellowing, "Cannonball!" and bringing out a bottle of Damiana for everyone to swig. He tells us stories about being on the river in 1983, when Glen Canyon Dam risked flooding, and explains much about the politics of the river, the park, and the dam. Everything comes down to water and power, In the desert, it's easy to appreciate the value of water when every bit that we drink has to be cleaned, when the washing-up tubs are filled in an orderly procession from hot to cold, when I occasionally feel desperate to find relief from the heat. Watching the force of the river's movement, its ability to sweep you away if you're not careful, the way it whorls around in the eddies and smacks you in the boat, the bighorn lambs and wasps that gather to drink at its edge, I understand that the river is really alive.

We will leave the Colorado when we disembark at Diamond Creek, on the Hualapai Reservation. That's tomorrow, I realize abruptly; we've been on the river for seven days, which seems much too short. Regan says that going much farther is too depressing: As you get closer to Lake Mead, what you see is the river being murdered.

We arrive just before 7 A.M. and have to wait a while, hanging out on the river while those there ahead of us unload. The scene is a little noisy and, I guess because it's the end, a little sad. The tribe has motor rafts going out for the day, and some young men ostentatiously gun their engines and fish-tail their boats, creating a lot of wake, while they wait for their passengers to arrive. I notice that they are not wearing life jackets.

After saying good-bye, we head back to Las Vegas, where we'll catch our flight home. Our duffels full of soiled and reeking clothes, we spend the night lapping up the conspicuous luxury at the Wynn hotel. The cool elegance of the flower arrangements adorning the reception area is impressive, as is the exuberant casino decor, saturated with color and adorned with extravagantly fanciful parasols hanging overhead. The boys are gaga over the flat-panel TVs (one in the bathroom, even) and the floor-to-ceiling glass window that looks out over the electrified web of down-town. The hotel is packed, and everything is shockingly over-the-top. Around the pool are upholstered cabanas, like lemon-and-white Moorish tents. Waitresses in white leotards and sheer gauze skirts serve party drinks. But the most impressive thing of all is the water flowing with abandon. Not just swimming pools, a waterfall, and plashing fountains but above all the cabana doorways, even the empty ones-perforated running pipes spewing continuous cooling mist into the desert air. The river doesn't stand a chance.