Grand Canyon

For whatever reason, I was not awed or overcome by the scale and natural beauty of the Grand Canyon upon first seeing it. Maybe I was too saturated by all the other wonders we’d encountered so quickly during the 3,000 mile journey that brought us to what is considered one of the preeminent wonders of the natural world. It could certainly have had something to do with the fact that Carly Rae had slept well at the hooghan the night before, and was joined by Lady Gaga during the drive to the South Rim. The pair even heckled us, or rather me, at intervals down the canyon footpath, and my hopes that the both had died on the journey back up were dashed after we recovered at the top. Alas, the power pop duo had only been conserving their breath.

I like pop music as much as anyone – alright that’s not true, but I’ve been known to sing along to Lady Gaga, Aqua, even Cascada at somewhat more appropriate times. Pardon my harsh critical judgment, but I hardly think any of today’s pop music is a fitting sound track for a backcountry hike into a place like the Grand Canyon, where to one willing to listen and look the power and beauty of nature is on display in nearly unparalleled scale in every direction. Mike and Johnny could have at least chosen a hard rock anthem. Death metal screaming would have been preferable.

But anyway, the quiet moments were great, particularly late at night when we made camp and early the next morning. The Grand Canyon is not something that can be grasped from a photo, or even from looking out at it in person. You don’t get it until you go in. We walked about four and a half miles to Indian Garden campground, a little less than two miles from Phantom Ranch beside the river at the very bottom. Even had we made it to the bottom, we would have traversed only a very narrow cross section of the winding 277 mile course cut through the Arizona highlands over millions of years chiefly by the Colorado River, among other forces.

The vertical one mile elevation change from rim to bottom combined with the presence and absence of water in so extreme an environment produces several distinct ecosystems throughout the canyon, each with their own average temperatures, flora and fauna. Even the rock layers distinctly change color and substance as a traveler winds his way down to the river. Ninety-seven percent of this massive park is managed as wilderness, preserving a rugged and lethal beauty that few ever really experience.

I slept under the stars on my inflatable sleeping pad, having swiftly abandoned my attempt to sleep directly on the hardpack at the campsite in a bid to have some kind of idiomatic empathy with the natives and cowboys who once farmed and watered at the aptly named Indian Garden oasis. It took a long time for darkness to fully fall, as the canyon walls block the setting sun’s direct light long before the invisible horizon obscures the last refracted rays reaching the canyon floor. Every so often in the evening a strong gust of wind would blow through the canyon for only a few seconds, kicking up clouds of fast-moving dust and bending tree limbs before receding as quickly as it arrived, leaving silence and stillness in its wake. The wind also left dried salt, dust and blood from an earlier nosebleed – a welcoming gift from the arid Southwestern climate – on my chest while my back sweated a small pond onto the perfectly unbreathable air mattress.

As the temperature gradually cooled to just below eighty degrees, I watched the stars slowly appear. The big dipper was perfectly framed between the eastern canyon wall and the gently rustling cottonwood tree reaching over my head before I drifted off to sleep. Awakening in the middle of the night, perhaps to another gust of wind, I found the big dipper had been swallowed up by armies of stars billowing across the night sky as though part of a mass of intergalactic clouds. I remember thinking I had no idea what this place was like. I had only scratched the surface of the substance of the vast cradle of life which for a single night was content to suffer my presence, and even to tease me in my drowsy delirium with a small taste of its secrets on display in the night sky.

Red Rock

To the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen, we rattled up the last stretch of the fifty plus miles of poorly maintained dirt roads that had abused my 17-year-old Volkswagen’s ailing struts on and off that day since the turn-off to El Chaco in New Mexico. As incredible Arizona red rock monoliths loomed and disappeared in our dust trail I cringed in the back seat, seething inwardly until the last karaoke stanza of “Call Me Maybe” trailed off and relative silence returned. Unwilling to let go of my indignation just yet, I suppressed a smile. This wasn’t what I imagined Arizona would sound like. Suddenly Gwen Stefani steps into the spotlight, then any trace of a smile vanished as Akon’s in-house backups began yodeling, “WEEHOO . . . WEEYOO!”

My contemplative idiom entirely shattered, an eyelid twitched as I shrank into myself and prayed for strength. Eventually, we arrived.

After driving on the Trail of the Ancients through western New Mexico from El Malpais, visiting El Chaco National Historic Park on the way to the Four Corners Monument, we were staying the night on the Arizona Navajo reservation in a hooghan whose hospitable owner has put up for rental on AirBnB. After passing a white gelding and a few mares grazing on the unfenced hill bordering the dusty road, we pulled into the ranch. We met our friendly host (and his friendlier dogs), who suggested we take a hike around his land after settling in. With the red-rock Chuska mountains looming on the horizon, and a few solitary mesas standing guard at their middling outposts, Johnny and I set out to see what we could see.

The nearest scrubby ridge concealed a rocky red gulch that appeared to be a dry stream bed, which became our path. The soil in this part of Arizona feels much more like loose, dry dirt than the sandy floors of New Mexico. All the rocks have fluid shapes, as though softly formed by wind and water over a longer period of time than I can comprehend. We crossed ridges, rock shelves, and tiny canyons, following the streambed. Lola and Miller, our host’s dogs, stayed with us, ranging about, chasing lizards and digging at prairie dog holes. We passed a horse skeleton, scattered by water or scavengers over hundreds of feed down the streambed – huge, dry bones bleaching in the sun. The dogs sniff them but seem to prefer consuming bones with some bit of stinking black flesh still attached instead.

Disappointed at not finding the cliff he’d been searching for over the latest hill, Johnny turned back to the ranch. His ambling form quickly disappeared, swallowed up by the vast expanse of land our Navajo host was kind enough to share with us. We’d traveled too quickly. Our minds hadn’t caught up with our bodies speeding down the interstate, and we were still relying on our outdated North-Eastern sense of scale and geography. We’re not used to spaces like this. A cliff or canyon can look like it’s just over the next ridge when really it’s miles away, only appearing so close because we could see so much farther in the dry atmosphere, and the cliff is massive. Even the lighting on the geography played tricks on me; I couldn’t seem to spot the depressions between ridgetops until we were upon them, or Johnny reappeared, a tiny white dot emerging straight out of the earth.

I continued on alone with the dogs as the sun crept lower on the horizon. Spying a rock shelter in the distance that reminded me of the amphitheaters in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, I weighed the risk of being trapped in a strange new land riddled with prairie dog holes after nightfall against the reward of reaching the rock formation. I looked at the dogs and the dogs looked at me, and we took off for the eastern horizon.

We crossed ridge after ridge. Scaling rockbalds and tiny canyons, vaulting over prairie dog warrens and praying I wouldn’t suffer a broken ankle for my zeal. Eventually, all of us panting, and the sky behind us turning a deepening shade of dusky purple, I realized I’d made another error in scale. The rock shelter was too far away.

I called the dogs and we turned back to the west. Eyes stinging from the wind, ears deafened by the same, alone in the middle of one of mother nature’s harshly beautiful and equally dangerous playgrounds, I suddenly realized where mankind’s love for dogs began. Indefatigable, obedient, and eager, Lola and Miller were my traveling companions in our little slice of wilderness, my eyes, ears, and nose. Where they looked, I looked. When they froze, I froze. A pang of fear struck me when Miller shot off like a bullet after a jackrabbit, crossing two hills and a narrow ravine in seconds, Lola in hot pursuit, the both of them leaving me far behind. But their owner trained them remarkably well; they returned when I shouted after them, albeit reluctantly. Still far from home but reunited and reassured of our companionship, we turned again to chase the sunset.

The High Desert

Juniper spice and pinyon. A tree whose bark smells like vanilla and sugar warming in the sun. Scents mixed on a dry desert breeze suddenly bring a world I’d read about to life. My brothers and I made camp at Joe Skeen campground on the outskirts of El Malpais National Monument, a protected portion of a chain of both ancient and rather recently erupted New Mexico volcanoes that so littered the surrounding plains with jagged volcanic rock, cinders and hardened black lava flows that the Spaniards named it “the bad land”.

That morning we’d driven west from Albuquerque to visit Junction Cave at El Malpais. A number of lava tubes remain underground in the area, formed when the outside of lava flows hardened and insulated the lava within, allowing it to remain molten long enough to flow out of the larger mass and leave a cavity behind. Some of these have collapsed in a couple spots, revealing the tunnel to aboveground explorers. Junction Cave is the NPS’s advertised easiest cave, requiring no special equipment besides headlights. After slipping through the bars of a narrow iron fence at the entrance (probably made so narrow as a warning: if you have trouble fitting through this opening, you don’t belong here) and after a pair of bobbing lights materialized into an older couple coming the other way near the mouth of the cave, we had the place all to ourselves. Inside we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. It got so narrow and low before the end that we were only able to slide on our stomachs, using our toes to push ourselves forward through the silent dark. It was pretty cool.

That evening our campground was at the base of a small mesa that wrapped around the area to the north and east, providing some shelter from the wind that passes through the flat, open plains elsewhere in New Mexico. We had nothing but time, so I went exploring.

I scrambled over sandy slopes and boulders to reach the top of the mesa overlooking our campground, taking care to search the rock ledges for rattlesnakes before trusting them with any appendages. There are ants anywhere one cares to look out here, including to my dismay patrolling the sticky vertical highways of my treasured vanilla tree, which I later learned is the famous Ponderosa Pine. Having mostly escaped the gnats swarming the campground below where Johnny was coking rice and beans, I took a moment to soak in the sun washing over me.

Then, jumping from rock to rock where I could, stepping gingerly around rabbit warrens, snake holes and ant hills when the sand overcame the natural pavement, I wandered alone over the sandy plateau. I passed and wondered at red cactus flowers, rock mortars and shallow dry pools in the sandstone boulders. Piles of desiccated scat from an animal much larger than me lay scattered under scrubby twisting bushes and tufts of coarse grass. I lost a staring contest with a tiny desert rabbit and as a consolation prize took the time to memorize the shape of its tracks in the sand. There were bigger paw prints too. This was cougar country, and I didn’t know how long it takes for wind and rain to obliterate tracks up here. I was a little more alert after that.

I’ve never seen anything like the high desert. It stretches for hundreds of miles around the Sandia mountains and Albuquerque, the largest of the few urban oases out here. The tan and brown and ocre-stuccoed architecture of the region blends into the environment, and the few scattered homesteads we pass on the interstate sprawl haphazardly across the plain – 1 story ranch houses, old SUVs and ramshackle sheds arranged like man-made compliments to the natural décor. Every now and then a massive string of railroad cars breaks the emptiness. I tried to count one and gave up after the 105th car. Property values within an hour of Albuquerque drop to as low as $300.00 an acre for small parcels. Anyone with a little bit of know-how and an adventurous spirit could build a homestead out here for almost nothing. Maybe someday…