A terrible wind ravaged us at night and flung sand and grit into our quilts. I weighted down my lighter items and found them still the next morning. The air was cold again. I cooked a hot breakfast of granola and milk with a coffee packet added. Then, I began to undust. I shook out as much pink dust as possible. I managed feebly so. The wind blew so hard the punk grit is in our skin cells. Every morning out here is a waking dream. Bliss continues from sleep to the first simple step. We walked on bulbous rims that fell straight down to the river. I could make out the muddy vein weaving through a tall corridor. I scanned for rafters. There were none. My knuckles got cold and dry and I walked in with my gloves, the wind still occasionally biting me.
The day was uneventfully meandering. The temps stayed cool and we were content with the walking, slow and steady. We have to mind time out here. We undulate in and around and over and under massive canyons, although these canyons are minor tributaries to the big ditch below. Nonetheless, each one is an obstacle that we have to take the consideration of travel-through. Each one is a puzzle. We must take a minute to plan the way. Huge ribs of limestone rubble interject the smooth slickrock with complicated obstacles. We plot and plod. We move slow and steady. We make progress and solve problems. We are content. We hiked 18 more or less miles today. We feel accomplished in this Esplanade terrain.
Luna is finally back out in the low western horizon. She is crescent, thin and wispy, replenished. I spotted her over the Dome. I shouted out her presence. I ate my dinner staring up at skyscrapers of cliffs refulgent In alpenglow. I watched the screen of rock morph with the fragments of light. I was entertained by the giant screen. I turned around to gaze at Luna. Next to her, as the last slivers of light fell a contrail from a rocket or a fighter jet illuminated an odd glow adjacent to Luna. The corkscrew luminescence glowed fluorescently and changed color as the light completely faded. The moon glowed too. She showed her darker half in the shadows. I took one last look at her and closed my eyes.
The night falls quickly and the day rises even quicker. One second I am looking at a movie screen of cliffs shining with alpenglow, the next thing I am observing is the Milky Way. One minute I am wiping the grogginess from my eyes and noticing the shifting of the stars, namely Orion and Canis Majoris, and that it is time to get up, the next moment my gear is packed up and we are moving under a canopy of morning light. The sky is my rooftop, the Esplanade my front porch. This is the genuine way of watching the world go by.
The condition of our gear is a concern. Katie has already had a leak in her sleeping pad. A water bladder of mine leaks. Our shoes are mulching away. Will my fucking shoes make it. Then, on a basic rock hop and scramble Katie stepped on a loose rock and tumbled over onto a beaver tail cactus. The tumble snapped her trekking pole. We pulled out the thorns from her leg and hand, the middle finger feeling tender to her. We continued on, our minds majorly concerned with our gear. Every step matters out here.Harshness and beauty; that’s a guarantee, that is what is out here. Ain’t like there’s an inch of ugly out here in this canyon universe. Yet, it’ll eat you up and spit you out without you blinking an eye. It’s how you bounce back that matters, become consumed by the harshness, the rigors. Let it take you, but not all of you. You have to show your grit right back. Harshness and beauty, that’s guaranteed. We don’t have an inch of ugly in us. Nothing but grit. Nothing but rigor.
We cut off of the Esplanade to get into Tuckup Canyon. We had heard a pictograph panel was tucked up under a bulging giant boulder protected from the sun. As we walked up canyon, I was reminded of my dream of the night before. I was in a circle with Indians, a fire, a deep dark sky, and we were communicating. I cannot recall the words, only gestures make sense. ‘Lead me,’ I thought. A couple minutes later, I scanned under a massive perch. I could spot the scribbles and drawings. We climbed up onto the perch and observed just thrilling beauty. Such clear shapes and outlines of bucks and rams, snakes too, of colored suns, of various figures adorned with headdresses and body armor; arms were raised in the air and the hands were outlined in red. The hands were small and plump, almost squatty. I shadowed my hands over it. I thought, ‘Guide me.’
We dawdled there on the perch under the canopy. A frog hopped with intent from the Shamans Panel directly towards us. The frog must have had someplace to go. The frog sprang in earnest. It bolted under the boulder I sat upon and went under a tiny hole in a tiny overhang. Then, the frog continued onward in that straight line hop of his, turquoise spots and red warts and all going who knows where. Maybe he stopped by the Shamans to converse.
At the basalt narrows, an alien landscape within a landscape so strange. So strange yet so the same. All the layers, so congruous, so predictable and I still cannot pick out the rhythm in chaos. I say this while I love the sound of jazz. At the basalt narrows, a tube of polished lava holds icy cold water. I climb down a chute and clean up finally, my left butt cheek caressed by the smooth and cold basalt. We tank up on water and leave replenished from our alien world, back to the world of rock and out of the lava.
Really good trail and tread ensues along the Tuckup Trail. We flourish and feel giddy. Just a tad easier on the body. We still continue to contour but it’s less brain consuming. We scan the wiggle of trail from so far out. Our eyes are trained for this particular thing. We cruise along and slow roll it into camp. 19 to 20 miles today that felt like not much work. It is less cold tonight but I’ll still bundle up just to stave off the shivers. The Milky Way and the rest of the billions of stars are out again. I will, however, take the shivers of the sparkling galaxy any time. This is endless, forever endless. I can see forever. I can feel forever.
The sky lit ablaze filtered through long clouds. I watched the sunrise creep up slowly with a paintbrush from some godlike hand and side swish away the whole damn sky. I had a hard time walking because of it. The canyon look long and narrow, a kaleidoscope twirling with all the dawn colors. The Dome donned its chocolate dew drop hat while the Coconino cliffs tantalized and danced with the morning light creating a reflective spectacle. And, then it was gone. Impermanence is a genuine ideal out here.
The pink sandstone appeared soft and crumbly, even malleable. The rock held porous pockets as if coral was exposed on an empty seabed that had been drained. Chutes and narrows with rail thin steps and dugouts careened playfully down to the bigger drainage. Bubbles looked frozen in time with circular pockmarks dotting occasional slabs. Some were so porous and coral-like I could spy a skeleton’s rib cage or an eerie organ played by some melting demon. We walked along the Esplanade that felt like walking in a drained inland sea. Everywhere around us showed the scarring of water. I don’t mean erosion either. Certainly, that is the main culprit out here. But, you can clearly see this big old tub filled up with water at some point in time.
Soon Tuckup Canyon was gone, the Dome too, even Powell Plateau so many miles east and upriver. Powell Plateau we spotted a week ago. It took us nearly three days to enter and exit Tuckup, all the while twirling around the Dome like a spindled top. I woke up every night to unravel my quilt because of this circuitous panorama. We rounded Big Point and entered Big Cove. We would see no more of the formations I just mentioned. To the west, Vulcan’s Throne rounded conically into our path of sight. Pinyons and junipers seemed to love this area and the plateau across the river to the south too. I wondered what animals would reside here if tree-life was present. No gradual introduction either. Just a sudden sprouting of a forest. I am not sure why and this mesmerizes me. Songbirds are about more and they tweetle us into camp.
We sleep on pink slabs of slickrock again. We watch the sun fall and the silhouetted cliffs of the plateau become a dark square mass above us, except for the cliffs lit up by the moon. She is out, slightly more than crescent. A little bit of her goes a long way out here. I can see my shadow, although it is so incredibly dark. She hangs like a chandelier. In some sense I want her to go down so I can sleep. She’s too bright. I love her anyhow. So, I eat a last filling meal before arriving to our cache tomorrow. Tonight is ‘hiking partner appreciation day,’ so we regale each other in niceties. Under a cloak of moonlight I snore myself to sleep.
About an hour later after I shuttered my eyelids and the words I typed out above, Katie called out to me in a serious tone so unlike her.
‘Yea?’ I blurted out sensing her tone.
‘There’s a big cat near me,’ matter of fact absolutely.
I stood up immediately and asked her where.
‘What? Show me with your light.’ I needed to be between her and the cat.
I fumbled with my headlamp and took off one glove to negotiate the fitting. The moon still casted shadows and still showed objects clearly. I clicked my light on. Sitting like a giant house cat behind a shrub was a mountain lion. At first I thought I was looking at a bobcat. Then, an image etched in my memory I will absolutely never forget, the mountain lion slunk and weaved in between some shrubs, the body lurking, the hinds legs pumping smoothly, the haunches cranking slowly, and the incredibly long tail floating behind it. Like a shadowy figure above you in the depths of water, the lion looked like a shark prowling. I walking sternly over to Katie and shined my light back on the cat, now under the side canopy of a juniper. We both began yelling aggressively. The cat remained slunk to the ground, low and poised, its eyes glowing ominously yellow against our headlamps.
The cat was huge, at least 150 pounds. I had to shake my amazement and shock. Katie shook her clanging stove. I grabbed a rock and threw it at the cat’s direction. The cat scuffed the ground and lurched forward in a pouncing position. I muttered, ‘oh fuck, oh fuck.’ Katie said something but I couldn’t discern what she said. I thought to myself: bring it, this is it, oh fuck this is really happening. I was scared and not scared. The cat remained silent, no audibles growls or screeches, just those glowing eyes and that head and that pouncing position. We asked each other why the cat was acting this way. We hurriedly pieced together a scenario. Clearly he wasn’t hunting Katie or else she would’ve been a goner. She had felt the cat coming towards her silently on the slickrock after she had heard a rock move. She then had sat up and saw the massive body move away from her, just feet away. That’s when she yelled out. So, we deduced the cougar was on a recon mission or maybe the cougar had a lair nearby or, possible, she had kittens nearby. We listened for meows. Nothing. The big cat moved away from the juniper and vanished into the darkness over a slight rise. We scanned the darkness with our lights. I saw a lurking blue eyes off towards the ravine up-gulch, reminiscent of a raccoon slouching off. We both thought that was odd. We hadn’t seen raccoons at all out here, no sign whatsoever.
Her eyes popped up again. ‘GO AWAY!’ I yelled. We had a pile of rocks nearby, our trekking poles, our lights, and our bodies trying to look even bigger with those lights. We yelled continuously. So strange how he was acting, we thought. I shined my light back down in the ravine and the blues eyes were there. Cannot be a raccoon. Nothing else but a kitten. The big cat meandered back and forth along the small ruse. This cougar was a she, had to be. We would spot her and she would disappear again.
We decided her behavior was strange, no growling or screeches, no attacking other than a defensive posture, and she just seemed to have an uncanny sense of curiosity about her, like she just wanted to see what we were and got caught doing so. We couldn’t leave the area. No trail, terrible terrain, a ravine behind us with a long drop to the bottom. We needed to hunker down here and set up a shelter and convince the big cat we were not an easy take down. I went and grabbed some big tie off rocks for Katie’s guylines. This area where I got the rocks split the rise and the ravine. The cat moved over into some thick shrubs near where I had gathered the big rocks. I stood lookout while Katie got her shelter up. The cougar neared slowly and I could see the glowing yellow eyes narrow, no blinking. I threw another rock. This time she scurried up some dirt and got into that leaping and pouncing position. I whistled as loud as I could. Everything just echoing chaos. Katie yelled so loud. We were right there! I stood taken aback, here we go again, this is it, oh fuck, let’s do it, oh fuck, here we go….
She backed off and vanished into the blackness, for the moon now had set. I think the moon had set, I should say. I had tunnel vision, certainly. We were swallowed up by the blackness and the fright. After what seemed like a dead silent 20 minutes, we felt like the situation had subsided. The dark air was calm. I scanned the area again and still saw the glowing blue eyes of the kitten. The kitten blinked and was gone.
We got into Katie’s tent figuring we had to pal up under such unknowing and uncertain circumstances. As quiet as it had gotten, we both thought the night’s events were not over. But, I felt safe in there hunkered down even though that big lion could’ve done whatever she wanted. I slowly dozed off but not without having two mountain lion dreams. In them, the lion is magic, invincible, deadly and respected, a fantastical ninja. I know for certain we could not wait for daylight some 9 hours later.
And morning came, not without us waiting for a full light to cast onto the landscape. We didn’t make coffee under the stars. We waited for the cover of night to be vanquished by the sun. And so, no more lion around. We got up and started our day like all the others. We went all the way into Big Cove that held such deep charms. We picked and picked our way until we stood above the northwest chasm of Big Cove and beheld such steep drops to make me squeamish. And then, we made quick work of the day. We found a large pothole and washed up and cooled off. And sure enough, we got to our cache at Toroweap and found a large juniper that carried a big shadow and laid about hidden from the world. We ate and laid around some more and got our 11 days worth of food ready. The landscape to the west looked different and the same. Mount Trumball and the undulating skyline were not flat like the plateaus and rims we have been walking by. Darker volcanic rock loomed from our vista. We perused our maps, checked in with folks expecting to hear from us, ate a jar of almond butter between the two of us, read our notes, got a weather update, and thought no way in hell are we fitting all this food into our tiny packs. We’ll muster strength and find a way. We have to. This is the best experience I have ever had in my entire life.
The morning was dry and cold, a brittle nip to start the day. We cleaned up our cache area and tried to fit 11 days worth of food and 6 liters of water into our 55L frameless packs. We managed a tight fit. After lingering in camp boiling hot drinks to warm ourselves we ventured for the lava fields. That first couple miles my shoulders really felt tight with the pressure and weight of the 11 days worth of food. Just uncomfortable I felt, like my pinch points were being constantly pinched. Fortunately for us, we made quick work over the lava fields. We didn’t have to dodge cactus and the terrain was more open and rolling. Then, we met open stands of creosote and I realized we were in a desert zone shift. We were less in the Sonoran Desert and now we were more in the Mojave Desert. The soil and compacted dirt, the plants, the alluvial fans, and the volcanic rock felt very familiar to me having grown up near the Mojave.
A less entertaining day ensued. We had the packs to occupy our gait, our minds, and our bodies. One chip at a time, slow and steady, this must be the credo. We did find a water catchment that had me enthralled. The concrete catchment was tucked up in a slickrock bowl and had hundreds of gallons of slightly green and partly clear water in it. On the concrete slab lining the top of the dam, names had been carved into the cement. Back in May of ‘13, some of the clan of Bundy’s constructed and refurbished the catchment. I have been intrigued about the Bundy history and their involvement with public versus private lands issues and conflicts with the government, from the Bundyville Standoff to the Mahluer Refuge Takeover. A hardscrabble life they live out here. I can see fighting for that. Just some parts turn me off.
On a turn, Katie and I have become hardscrabble from this adventure we chose. We are weathered and hardened, tired and dirty, sunburnt and sun drenched, purely ravenous, and a little bit more in tune with the language of the Grand Canyon. We speak it more. We understand it more. We feel more a part of this landscape even though we have only touched the surface. There’s more secrets to feel and learn. We understand this.