I awakened to the uproarious brays of the burros from across the river. The burros are seemingly worlds away across this giant chasm. I think about them fondly, like an astronaut thinking of his pet dog back on Earth. Luckily, as I laid there hearing the echoes of the brays, I saw a couple shooting stars in a few short minutes. I stayed groggily awake for a bit stargazing. The moon had set. I wonder if astronauts see shooting stars the way we do down here on Earth.
Our first task of the day was to find water in Gneiss Canyon. We descended the canyon smoothly. Once in the canyon we went down the canyon to begin our search. About 3/4 mile in we found a small pothole. We went further down to the granite chutes to no avail. We actually ran into a 100ft pour off. We opted to snag what we could out of the tiny pothole we had found. I was able to fetch a gallon out of the pothole. We were pleased, a much better feeling than the uneasiness I had felt searching for the water. Out of Gneiss Canyon, we continued the precarious traverses just atop the Tapeats rim. The drops we worse than yesterday’s. The talus slope above would bulge steeply onto the rim, in which hung sheer drops of hundreds of feet. I remember eyeing the first sketchy one from across the bay wondering how in the hell were we going to get across that. We rounded the drainage and continued on our very faint sheep trail. We tiptoed across concentrating every single step and every breath. We controlled our vision and stayed focused. In some places we could look directly down to the river below, some 600ft straight down. Some talus bulges bulged really far out. Some had sharp limestone boulders, some had a slurry of sandstone rocks, and some slopes had blue shale. This stuff, the blue shale, is slippery and loose. When it appeared on these thin lines we had to take extra caution. In the bulges, we followed the sheep trail that angled higher onto a slightly leveler slope. I thought to myself: Even the sheep are like ‘fuck that!’
After hours of contouring along the weaving rims we descended into Separation Canyon. We could see the creek flowing below, sparkling in the warm sun. We hadn’t seen an actually flowing creek in some time, so we indulged a bit. The water tasted great, so damn refreshing. We even got to wash up our clothes and bodies a bit. On the ledges above on our way back out towards the river I noticed the straightness of Separation Canyon. The canyon across the river was smaller but shot up just as straight. I found this so odd that in this Grand Canyon, some mega-place where water has shaped and carved everything in utter chaos, there lay a canyon etched in a straight line. Every single other canyon we have seen has been more or less a corkscrew.
Separation Canyon is where Powell and three of his crew split up. The ones that left perished and were never heard from again. The others finished running the Colorado River and exited the Grand Canyon two days later. As we rounded the point of Separation Canyon, the sun tucked behind an enormous monolith. The long shadow calved the point right in half. I felt like the day suddenly ended even though we were in such a vast and open space. The rays of the sun highlighted the ridge line way the heck above that emanated a crowning glow, almost heavenly. We walked in a giant net of shadows the rest of the day. Dusk barely felt different. Yet, we beat the curtain of dusk closing the day to find camp on a flat and broad shelf. We inventoried our food and estimated our mileage left. We had another big day today. We need more days like this to finish in 4.5 days. Really, we can. We can stretch our food. We just need our shoes to hold up. I got holes in the heel part of my soles. I just need them to hold up a little longer.
The moon is nearly full. She makes it difficult to sleep. But, I pray to her. I lay on my back and simply look up at the tantalizing ceiling above me. All the tremendous cliffs are aglow, refulgent barriers of rock, the stalwarts of the Grand Canyon.
Little gnats have been buzzing in our ears the past couple nights making it difficult to lay in peace. They are a frustrating little nuisance. We lay here under the dark and starry sky for nearly 12 hours, so hopefully we can get enough shut eye. The moon set at 4am. I hurriedly tried to take a nap before we got moving. Out here the sun rises and sets fast. One second I am slurping up some breakfast, the next minute I am packing up and we are off. Just a matter of minutes, even the sunsets too. One second you are dazzled by a magnificent display of light, the next minute the moon is rising. As big as this place is you can blink and you would still miss something.
Early on we found a deep pothole. Frogs hopped out and away from me. The frogs are little pebbles with tiny springy legs. The frogs tuck up into creases in the sandstone. I filled the bottles up and the water was bright green. I wondered why the frogs were not bright green. The pool didn’t look too algae filled, so I was tickled about the color. It was like having a new flavor out there. The Mountain Dew green without the Mountain Dew.
We have learned to speak sheep with our vision, our feet, and our steely nerve. We follow their lead in scratch. Scratch is the term I use for faint trail, that technical discoloration of the rock, where the dirt and rock have been scraped, or scratched. This marking is like a scent to me. We push through catclaw without a flinch. We avoid the worst spiny plants and shrubs like the bighorn. Most thorns are imperceptible to us. Frequently, we find spines lodged in our leg. We have no idea for how long the spines had been lodged in.
Then, we saw a band of bighorn sheep, five to be exact with two big rams. We wouldn’t know the actual number because they are nearly impossible to spot. Unless they are moving or galloping atop boulders, we are liable to pass many during the day. We see prints everywhere and sheep shit. We know they are here, most definitely, these ghosts of the canyon. We watch them prance across the boulders and slopes with ease. And, I realize we have not yet learned to speak sheep.
The whole day felt like walking a tight rope along cliff edges. I tired under the stranglehold of focus after hours upon hours of walking the thin line above sheer fall offs and certain death. The concentration is arresting, exhausting. However, most importantly, this focus is engaging. We rounded a big bend in the river today and entered a new monumental hallway. The western part of the canyon is so empty and wild, almost feels untouched. This is as faraway a place I have been, so very desolate. There’s not very many names on the maps save for major side canyons. Towers and mega-buttes hover above and would be cherished in other National Parks. Out here though, the towers and buttes are just a speck in the Big Ditch. Just another stacked pile of rock.
At lunch, we noticed some dusty haze up high. The forecasted wind must have brought in some particulate matter of loose and dusty grit. The temps had been warm and the haze brought on a shadow that provided some relief from the blaring sun. The haze began to sink and brought an eerie and foggy atmosphere similar to a cove along the ocean shoreline. Quite the opposite, though, for this deep desert and canyon landscape. We descended down into Surprise Canyon, another running creek, only this one is bigger. We filled up on water and rinsed off and left out of the lush waterway and back up onto the Tonto.
The rough going kept going rough, yet we kept our slow and steady pace, each step dropped with intent. The haze brought on an oozing grayness, even the cliffs look sad. We hit a flat and properly sat. The clouds had smeared the sky above the dusty haze as the sun was setting. A pink and purple sunset dazzled our hearts and eyeballs which felt one and the same. I looked up at all the bright colors through the lens of the dusty haze, like I was watching the sun set from underwater. Mesmerized, we both oohed and aahed. Then, in an instant the beautiful scene was gone. We set up camp as the moon was shining behind the monuments, the miles of cliffs above us now showing a happy red under the tremendous moonlight. Am I hallucinating? Is this real? Maybe I am high. Yea, that's it. I am high.
No gnats and cloud cover; better sleep. All we had were the squeaks of bats that sporadically chirped through the night air. But, they are cute enough to not wake us up. Low stratus clouds rolled in with squared creases like tiles. Because of this the full moon barely shown through. By the time I was getting ready for breakfast, her great and full illumination poked through a moving cloud break. Her showing was brief, maybe 15 seconds, but her fullness excited me. I could see the moon falling on the other side of a massive wall. When she vanished the sun poked up over an eastern wall. What synchronicity to witness the setting moon and the rising sun.
We were eager to get going. Rain is in the forecast for the afternoon and we needed this particular day for crucial miles in regards to our food supply, gear, and our lift out of here. We needed to make a dent in the remaining 56 miles or so left so we wouldn’t walk the whole day Friday. Our packs were incredibly light with so little food, so any extra water wouldn’t weigh us down. We moved swiftly and intently yet, as is our mantra, slow and steady.
The past couple of days I have been walking gingerly, tiptoeing with intent. Every foot placement matters with the condition of my shoes. I feel every single rock. And, the rock has been gruesome. Whether loose and unstable, sharp and gritty, steep surfaces and angles, rocks and boulders just strewn about everywhere, you name it, we have seen it all. The worst is the limestone. I swear it is evil and carnivorous. You can barely touch it with your hands or it’ll lacerate your palm. You can’t sit on a block because it’ll shred your shorts. We encounter slopes and slopes of the limestone menace. Yet today the walking has been a little bit softer on the feet. Maybe the cooler temps and cloud cover helped a bit too. My feet just didn’t burn today like the past couple days. We also had less side hilling today. We are seeing less and less major side canyons on the north side of the river. We had pretty damn good sheep trail today, as well. I noticed that the limestone just wasn’t as omnipresent as the previous days. We are slightly lower on elevation on the Tonto, but I am not sure if that had anything to do with it though. The surface we are hiking on today has had a lot less of the carnivorous limestone. My feet felt glee and brings a little hope that my shoes will make it. My hopeful ramble ends.
We made it to Salt Canyon and found a cairn on our entry point. We hadn’t seen one in days, a cairn. We both signaled it a moment like ‘we are humans and here is a sign that other humans are out there.’ After a short jaunt in the creek bed, we improvised a way out and scaled up a crumbly steep talus slope and up the Tapeats cliff band using the bulky blocks and ledges. I really enjoy when Katie gets her eyeballs on a cliff band. She can see the way up and through like reverse Tetris.
The vastness of this place is mind boggling. It is so empty out here, just extreme isolation. We have not seen a rafting party since Diamond Creek five days ago. I had heard most rafting parties in the Fall time forego the Lower Granite Gorge and put out at Diamond Creek rather than Pearce Ferry. This is because there’s just not as many rapids in that lower stretch, just a lot more rowing. But I thought for sure we would see one or two. Here I was about a week ago thinking that could be a bailout option, a hitch on a raft if shit went to hell. Such a novice out here in regards to the actual river and what rafters do. Nonetheless, as fate would have it, as we rounded a bend and the Burnt Canyon monolith loomed ahead, we heard a plague of helicopters. That’s what I’m calling them. They are like locusts. We watched them land onto some helicopter pads across the river at the same level as our Tonto platform. Suddenly, the skies were invaded by locusts and people. Alas, I am aware that I am as much of a visitor as they are. I am a locust, as well, out here walking through.
The rain began to fall and dapple our dusty skin and varnished clothes. We were close to Burnt Canyon. We pressed on. We found camp on a saddle beneath a knob that overlooked the river. I sidled down the dirt cliffs to retrieve water from the river, which was surprisingly clear. Then, we set up our shelters as the rain came in. I felt relaxed in my shelter, dry and content from a good day. We got in early after one of our longest days yet. I think we are close to 39 miles left. Tomorrow we have a nasty bushwhack across Burnt Canyon. It’ll be fun thrashing our way through a wet thicket filled with tamarisks, catclaw, and mesquite.
Unfortunately, Katie broke her trekking pole tip as she was setting up her shelter. A nasty wind gust toppled it out of position and snapped the tip. She is on a nub now with that as her only pole to boot. My two poles are functional but I have two worn out nubs as well, both victims to the menacing and voracious limestone. I cannot wait to replenish our bellies and our gear in a couple days.
in a tumbling storm
rain in sheets, the wind ferocious;
crashing like waves
I held my pole as a mast on a ship
in a torrent at sea
the wind ravaged our shelters
a whipping maelstrom
we are throttled and lashed
the roar and terror for hours; it finally let up.
the roar returned
Burnt Canyon flashed
and is flashing.
pink waters churning
flowing like spewed blood.
we wait for the eye to pass.
then we walk
warm and clammy
and learn from previous mistakes
go around the tangle,
I held suspense;
is there a way through?
not soggy or cold,
a way through.
the helicopters chirped nonstop
they are ignored now
and part of the soundscape.
yet the canyon is changing
looser and more fragile rock
100ft silt bluffs
sand bars, or silt flats, as long as airstrips
only shafts and stalks of dead tamarisks
remnants of an invasive species.
walked all day thinking about food
that song that’s been playing
in my head
for the past week
only food now.
the canyon is changing
black desert patina stains the dreary walls
the limestone is different
sadder, gloomier, as if weeping
the towers and terraces look haunted
an island fortress of lairs and caves.
our bodies are famished
not as sharp as this limestone
but only a crumb
and not a lot
for we are still desert tough.
we sleep under our black canopy dappled with twinkling stars
the bats squeak and chirp.
I saw a light on a high point
thousands of feet up and miles away
just makes me dream of faraway places.
we are adrift in a black and dark sea
ships in the night
for the moon to rise
under chilly and clear skies
yearning to reach ashore.
It was in the middle of the night. I thought I heard a dog bark from the distance. I thought maybe it had possibly come from the plateau where I saw that light the night before. I poked my head out of my quilt. The barking happened again, only closer. The cliffs and walls were reflective in the bright moonlight. More barking occurred, closer. Then, I realized it was the honking of a goose. A couple more honks and I realized a couple geese were flying by in the middle of the night. I giggled and turned under my quilt.
The Redwall looks less intimidating, only a mere couple hundred feet thick, almost feeble and penetrable, even all the other layers appear to be shrinking. The appearance of the rock layers resemble a melting candle, oozing and dripping, almost sagging. The river is slow and wide, a giant mud puddle that drifts very slowly down canyon the width of a football field. A river crossing is seemingly possible except one would have to find a way to scale the 100ft silty and sandy cliffs buffeting the river banks.
About 5 mornings ago, I woke up and put on my shoes. A piece of my sole fell into my hand. From that point on, I vowed not to inspect my shoes. I refrained from trying to fix the shoes. I understood it was impossible. I didn’t want the pieces to fall out if I was to inspect the shoes. The thought alone to inspect just wasn’t worth it to the psyche. I had to put my faith in the rubber, consciously step with intent and scrutinize every foot placement. We are so close. We barge through the dead tamarisks fields, where once Lake Mead had flooded to. These silt flats are huge and…flat. Once the lake was drained a bit, tamarisk invaded the flats. The dead branches must be the eradication effort. Travel wasn’t so bad, just tedious. Still, I had to watch where the heel cup of my shoe landed. I had to make a full print step rather than the usual forefoot plant while climbing or side hilling. Interestingly enough, and luckily, if not for my inserts I would be feeling the ground, rocks, and tamarisks with my heel. The inserts are equivalent to the metal whiskey flask lodged with a bullet in the vest pocket of a drunk. He started the fight, woke up not knowing what had happened, feels his chest. He feels pain yet still reaches for the whiskey. He finds the bullet wedged in, his vice his saving grace. He takes a whiskey slug with a slug for a plug. I cannot believe the shoes are going to make it.
‘Well shit.’ That is what one says when they see the end in sight that is simply not as grand as what we’ve been walking through. Just like that…the Grand Canyon ends. From a distance the Grand Wash Cliffs angle into and through the river splicing all the layers of the canyon and forming Pearce Canyon and other various washes. These cliffs put an obstacle for the north side to forge through. The river changes direction here. The terrain changes instantaneously. The Mojave Desert shimmers. From afar, it is astounding. Everything just opens wide. The Grand Canyon almost melts away. Yet, I was surprised to see the enormous cliffs vanish. We had been submerged for so long I had believed the canyon went on forever. Yet, the exit, the ending of a passageway and into a portal. We scampered down some knobby granular hills and I found a couple potholes in a limestone chute. An amalgamated rock worn down to a smooth surface held wonderful and clear water from the last storm event. The water sparkled, shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. These pools feel miraculous. I sat down and filled a gallon for each of us. The act alone felt so ritualistic that I felt I was praying with the pouring of the water. I paid my gratitude, my eyes watered, and we ambled towards the portal.
At the last Colorado River water access site, we climbed down some shale bluffs to spend a couple minutes with these magical waters. We were baptized by the movement of time and water, the riffles wrinkled like desert skin, the river channeling at an harmonious angle revealing the singing nature of the land. All of this, just feels like something created this. The river is so magical, so powerful, and so precious. We sat in silence, our feet dangling into the muddy red waters, the surface gleaming with the rays of sun, my face basking in the warmth.
Into the Mojave Desert, the great wide open, I looked back at the portal one last time. The gates had fallen yet I could still see into that other world, the world of the Grand Canyon. We have come out a different person. We are carved, eroded, and layered. I feel it when I look out over the Mojave from a hardscrabble hill top. The great wide open is beckoning. We have been released through that portal. She has released us and set us free at the same time. I just feel completely eroded and am now floating down a river. Time simply doesn’t matter.
We found a gravelly campsite on a low hill to lay upon. The Big Dipper sat low on the horizon to the north, the moonlight hid behind the horizon to east, Las Vegas emanated from the west, and utter blackness silhouetted spires and towers to the south of the mouth of the canyon along the Grand Wash Cliffs. So strange when our horizon has been the walls and cliffs of the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon the past month. We have some loose ends to tie up in Marble Canyon, which we hope to in a couple days. This, right now, feels so right, just feels like the end. But, we have a gap to fill. I, personally, have some atonement to pursue. I wouldn’t mind whatsoever to be submerged again in the great chasm.