Close Encounter of the Unexpected Kind in Grand Canyon

It's 1988 and my life was in a state of limbo. My wife and my 1-year old son had moved to Sweden and I was still in California, waiting for the Swedish government to sort out my immigration paperwork. The Universal Immigration Purgatory. What was promised to take a month, eventually took six months. I'd vacated my apartment in Studio City, temporarily moved in with friends, and all I could do was patiently wait. Staying with friends was okay for a short time, but not for months. After a while the arrangement became a pain in the ass for everyone concerned, so I packed my belongings into my trusty Volvo station wagon and embarked on a road trip through the Southwest. It was exhilirating to have that kind of freedom. I had no deadlines, no specific plan, no ties to anything. Money was a bit tight so I usually camped for three days or so then I'd rejoin civilization and modern plumbing and check into a motel for a night or two to take care of personal hygiene and other creature comforts. I wandered through the arid and sparcely inhabited lands of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. I hiked a bit and explored, picnicked out of ice chests, drank Franzia White Zinfandel out of a cardboard box and read a lot of non-fiction books. Sometimes I'd jot down little pearls of wisdom or observations that later turned out to be utterly unreadable. Maybe it was the Franzia Zin.

Sometime in February, as I was passing through Las Vegas, I decided to finally visit the geological and mind-blowing gem of the Southwest; the Grand Canyon, only a few hours drive East. I drove to Flagstaff, a ramshackle town built entirely around railroad sidings, and as I came closer, it started to snow. Not just a few wayward flakes but real, persistent and hardy snow. Not something one associates with Arizona. But Flagstaff lies at 7,000 feet (2,100 m) elevation and snow is quite common. Unable to drive any further, I checked into a motel and spent the evening in a cowboy bar being waited on hand-and-foot by submissive and obedient serving wenches. They all looked like extras from "Little House on the Prairie".

"Well, hi, ho-ney, is there any-thang ehls ah kin git fer yoo?".
"Fuu-uuck meee, ho-ney!"

The cheerfulness and eagerness to please was almost too much, cloying and pretentious like a lap dance without any body contact. I guess it's all part of the cowboy machismo culture.

The following day I drove the remaining 70 miles or so through the chapparal covered plateau that ends abruptly at South Rim. I found a decent camping place; this was not the high season for Grand Canyon and the campground was almost empty. The night-time temperature was close to freezing and it snowed a bit. Never mind. I had woollen socks and thermal underwear. The National Park campgrounds are always very well laid out and each camping spot includes a picnic table and a barbecue. Very civilized.

After a quiet and uneventful night I fortified myself with a hearty breakfast at the El Tovar Hotel, a stunning period building right on the edge of the Canyon. Coincidentally, the trailhead for the Bright Angel trail that leads all the way down the canyon was nearby. My plan was breathtakingly simple. I'd go down the trail just a bit to get the flavor of the canyon. I'd bought one of these leather water horns, a bladder that had a capacity of just over a liter of water, filled it up and started down the trail. It was around 10 am and about 36 degrees Fahrenheit. The Bright Angel trail is well maintained with packed dirt, a step here and there and constantly changing views. It's one switchback after another and it's easy to pick up speed. I practically hopped, skipped and jumped my way down. It was so easy that my plan changed. I decided to go to what appeared to be a halfway point, a plateau called Indian Gardens.

I rested a while there, but a serious problem developed. I was running out of water and there was none to be had. The pipeline was being repaired. There was a phone there and I thought for a brief moment about calling the El Tovar room service and begging. I was reluctant to start the climb back up without some hydration. Where could I find water? At the river about 1,500 feet (500 m) down!

I started down at about one in the afternoon. The geology changed again and soon I was in a tight side canyon (aptly called the Devil's Corkscrew) descending rapidly. It was also getting hot. I reached the river, bathed my swollen feet in the cool, fast moving waters and filled my water bladder with the greenish liquid from the river. When I looked up the rim was impossibly high and the thought of starting back up the trail was very daunting. Yet there was no option; I'd had no food since breakfast and had nothing for an overnight bivouac.

It was tough going from the start. I managed to establish a slow, yet steady rhythm and started to focus on milestones I wanted to reach without stopping. A bush, a bend in the trail, a weird looking rock; these milestones became my best friends as I clawed my way upward. When I got to Indian Gardens, the view of the trail before me looked as though I had made no progress at all and the worst was still before me. It was. I had slightly less than 5 miles to go with 3,000 feet elevation. Doesn't sound too bad? It was fucking desperate!

By then it was late afternoon and I was almost out of water. As I reached the steep portion of the trail it was back to imaginary milestones and head down determination. I kept moving but each step was difficult and my breathing became labored. At 1,500 feet from the rim I made a series of convoluted deals with God; an entity whose existence I normally consider unlikely. At 1,200 feet I mortgaged my soul to the Devil in return for bringing the rim closer; a simple task that God failed to accomplish. At 1,000 feet I implored the Holy Trinity, all other known gods, Siegfried and Roy and other charlatans with supernatural powers to please help me out in some way. Lo and behold, my prayers were finally answered. A few switchbacks ahead I saw a pair of bright, gnarly green shorts in slow motion. They became my new milestone and salvation and I knew I had to catch up to those shorts and whoever occupied them. As I got closer, I saw it was a girl, hiking as lightly as I; no water, no gear. So I followed her bright green butt. She became MY Bright Angel. Some 600 feet below the rim, I caught up with her and halting we exchanged a few words between gasps for air. Her name was Tilda. She was probably in her early twenties, said she was from Texas and worked in the El Tovar gift shop. This was her day off. From that point on we walked together, grateful when the other stopped to rest. At that point I was in agony. Thighs were burning, feet were covered in dusty, oozing blisters and my mouth felt like a haunted quarry.

We made it to the rim in darkness at around 8 pm, some ten hours after I'd set off on this ill-conceived hike. I still remember the heavenly relief I felt when we were a few steps from the top. I dragged myself to my camp, drank gallons of water and crashed.

The following day I could barely walk. I hobbled to the El Tovar Gift Shop (actually called "The Curio Shop") to see how Tilda was doing. It was also the first time I had a good look at her. Tilda was a pretty blonde with freckles under her eyes and across her perky nose and she seemed to be doing quite well. While we were talking she was trying on some new jewelry from the display case: "Do you think these earrings would look good on me"? she kept asking. We decided to meet for a drink that evening in the comfortably rustic El Tovar Bar.

I spent the day exploring the Canyon from the sedentary comfort of my car, stopping here and there to check out the view. Everything that has been written and all the pictures I've ever seen of the Canyon do not do it justice. I found it mesmerizing and spent hours sitting on the rim, my be-sandaled feet a-dangle above a 1,000 foot deep abyss, just taking in the vista like watching a movie. Wherever you looked, the view was always different.

Late in the afternoon, I returned to my camp, cleaned up and groomed in the communal camp shower and headed to the El Tovar. Tilda was already waiting and she welcomed me with open arms like an old friend. We had drinks and she snuggled next to me on the massive sofa by the equally massive fireplace. It was very pleasant, but odd. I was in my late thirties, a tad overweight, salt-n-pepper hair and after traveling for a few months I looked a bit unkept. Now suddenly there was this young thing acting all bubbly and friendly.

After a couple of drinks, Tilda suggested we go up to her room, but she wanted to stop at the "Curio Shop" and would I please, please buy those earrings for her and she also could use a couple of hundred dollars in cold cash if I wouldn't mind. Tilda was not an angel, she was a part-time hooker. Later I realized what an ideal set-up she had. She'd meet her potential clients in the "Curio Shop", earn a bit of extra money and selflessly provide another hotel amenity. I politely declined the invitation and we went our separate ways. I never saw her again.

Today, the official Grand Canyon National Park website features dire warnings about attempting to complete the trip in one day. It also lists a number of essential items a wannabe hiker should carry. A condom is not one of them.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions