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a travel blog by roel krabbendam

A week in the Grand Canyon,in May. What the hell were we thinking?
Despite warnings from the Park Service, we pretty much blundered our way through the first couple of days...but got the hang of it in the end.
All the good photos are by my friend David, all the blisters were mine.

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Fun in the Sun

Grand Canyon Village, United States

The letter from the National Park Service accompanying our permit suggested we were fools to be hiking in the Grand Canyon in May. Something about the heat. Salient quotes:
“May through June is a time when hikers have traditionally headed to the mountains. You have chosen to hike in the desert at the hottest and most dangerous time of the year. In order to survive you must limit the amount of time that you are exerting in the direct sunlight. This is done by walking in the cooler hours near dawn and dusk and also by walking at night. Do not underestimate the intensity of the 9am desert sun".

Well...we didn't really pay attention to that at first...

“Start your hike well before sunrise. Plan on reaching your destination by 9am. Rest in the shade between 9 AM – 4PM. Plan your hike to accommodate this siesta”.

Blew that off too, at first.

“Your body expends tremendous energy while hiking and trying to stay cool. Doubling your calorie intake helps to maintain your energy. Eat double the amount you normally would.”

Eating has never been a problem, personally.

“[The Clear Creek Trail] is the only trail traversing the Tonto Platform on the north side of the Colorado River. Because the slope is south-facing, the hike from Bright Angel Campground to Clear Creek is warmer than most trails in the fall and spring, and is nearly impassible during the summer months.”

We routinely ignored this kind of language when we were younger...and you're only as old as you feel, right? Wrong.

“The nine mile stretch from Phantom Ranch to Clear Creek is south facing and consequently is in the sun from sunrise to sunset. Expect neither shade nor water for the entire length of the trail. During spring, summer, and fall months it is best to hike this trail in the extremely early morning or in the evening.”

Well. we'll get to that.

I drove up to Phoenix, picked up David at the airport, and we drove north to Flagstaff. The Sonoran Desert gave way to conifers and the temperature dropped 10 degrees. At a final stop for food and supplies we found our permit, that permit we had applied for, and paid for, and been admonished by the National Park Service to have with us at all cost or face punitive consequences…that permit, had been left lying on David’s desk in Nashua, New Hampshire. For this, fortunately for us, we have fax machines and helpful wives.
We spent the first night car camping at Mather Campground near the rim, amid families and college students, eating steak, drinking wine, taking stock, packing up.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 9, 2009 from Grand Canyon Village, United States
from the travel blog: Heat
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Mister Blister

Phantom Ranch, United States

Reassuring us that a faxed permit would suffice, the ranger shrugged at our concerns about heat. "Shouldn't be a problem for a couple of tough guys like you". I'll have to have a talk with that guy. Checking that out, in any case, gave us a late start. We left the car in a lot, took a shuttle to the rim, and threw ourselves down the South Kaibob Trail.
I thought a big canyon might make hiking dull, the view never changing, no unfolding vistas, a monotony however picturesque. Well, that was simply ridiculesque. The hike down through strata of reds, tans and greys, the terrain sometimes steep and other times not, the sun arcing slowly from right to left, and the ever rising temperature and pain in my feet all made the experience quite...vivid.
Like driving nails into your feet might be considered vivid. Just one pair of socks was definitely a stupid mistake, and I should have known better. Near the end of the day I felt like I was walking on a waterbed, the blisters were that monstrous...only the pain felt more like walking on hot coals. Hot sun above, overheated rocks radiating the torso, hot coals below...you get the idea.
After we finally hit bottom, walked the tunnel, crossed the bridge, soaked our bodies, pitched the tent, ate some dinner, treated the blisters and unpacked the gear, a herd of deer gracefully grazed right through the camp area, the only sound a bristle of fur, a rustle of grass, a snapping of twig. Then silence.
Two kids recently jumped into the Colorado from the bridge, and have not been seen since. A sign read "Danger! Falling Rocks!

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 10, 2009 from Phantom Ranch, United States
from the travel blog: Heat
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Clear Creek Campground, United States

When I was younger the sun was a beautiful thing. Radiation, Desiccation, Dehydration, Carcinoma: they meant nothing to me. Nothing to the point that I would spend 1978-79 riding my bicycle around Europe and Morrocco without hat or sunscreen, roasting my lumpy little nose until the skin there toughened to a red crust that flaked and hardened and lifted away from the subdural structure and it felt like I was wearing a mask. I get queasy thinking about it.

Information has made my relationship to the sun has more complex.

Nonetheless, we left Phantom Ranch too late and with insufficient water, and we didn’t figure that out until it was too late to turn back. We wasted precious and cool morning hours as I dealt with my disastrous blisters and tried to decide whether we should postpone continuing for a day. Then, an hour into the hike, after climbing the 1200 feet out of the shade and onto the Tonto platform, the sun hitting us like a fever and already well into the first water bottle, we found two bottles we had forgotten to fill. A couple of cute girls distracted us as we were filling up at the communal pump before the hike, pathetically confirming all of your male stereotypes. You’re welcome.

The 9 miles to Clear Creek Campground were advertised as shade and water-free, and that was very close to the truth. The heat slowed us down and wiped us out. A couple of large boulders along the way offered shade and kept us going for several hours, but we finally collapsed under a tiny overhang in a dry wash, literally digging ourselves in, still miles from our destination and with less than a pint of water each. David’s assessment: “We are FU#K%D”.

He’s rarely so pithy.

Sitting still meant drying up, but the withering fatigue paralyzed us. We moved our stuff under a rocky overhang further down the wash, and slept some, and ate, and lethargically debated exactly how far we had to go, and whether we should wait for nightfall. We wondered why, exactly, we hadn’t brought a map. Something about just hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and taking a right…What little shade we had managed shrank as concern and dehydration argued for action, and finally we dragged ourselves up, and hit the trail. My legs quivered, and though I tried to ration my last bit of water it didn't last long. I guess we were 52 year old guys who hadn't quite gotten the hang of that yet, relying on what we knew about our younger selves, reaffirming any other masculine stereotype you were hanging onto. Glad to help.
Lucky I had blisters from yesterday. Big frigging blisters with a lot to say. Nagging blisters. BITCHY blisters. Mountains of throbbing pus all over my aching feet blisters.
Useful distraction from the lack of water.

The conversation with my feet went on for an hour and forever, the sun really got down to business, we saw no more large boulders, but we did not stop until we finally looked down on Clear Creek Campground and found another little hole to crawl into. No more water, and two miles down off the plateau to the creek: at our pace it would take us an hour or more. 20 minutes of further dessication and we started down, two raisinettes in boots and blisters, down a steep and narrow set of switchbacks across dark red dirt on a south-facing slope that had been baking all day.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 11, 2009 from Clear Creek Campground, United States
from the travel blog: Heat
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That Creepy Feeling

Clear Creek Campground, United States

Two guys from Boston waiting for sunset to leave suggested we take their campsite to avoid the rattlesnake in the next one over. Rather than live on top of something that could kill us, we could live right next to it.

As reassuring as this was, it left me abnormally focused on wherever I set my feet…leaving me worried about how well snakes blended with their backgrounds…leaving me with a memory of that woman in Tucson who died from a snake bite while walking her dog…leaving me mindful that I had never actually seen a rattlesnake in the wild…because...aren't they designed to be invisible???

This feeling of unease felt strangely familiar, like it had been building for a while.

It certainly hit me at the end of the first day, when we were warned about the Colorado River and its potential for menace, the example two kids who leapt from the Kaibob bridge and simply...vanished. The river suddenly felt powerful and threatening and even malicious.

It was building yesterday as we got hotter and hotter, our water dwindling with the shadows, our momentum dwindling until we simply had to stop, the recognition that we would continue to dehydrate even as we dug ourselves into an embankment to escape the sun casting an appalling shadow of futility and stupidity.

The feeling went deeper though:

To the preparations for the trip, when I realized how out of shape I was and how unlikely I was to fix it. I had been worrying for months that I wouldn’t keep up with David, who I knew to be in great condition…worrying, but too busy to attend to the issue and stupidly left with this niggling concern at the periphery of my consciousness, sapping my self-confidence.

And deeper still:

To the office, where the recent lack of success in our interviews with potential clients left me frustrated and tentative. I felt as creative as ever, and as excited about the projects as ever, but I wasn’t making these interviews successful and for the life of me I couldn’t explain why. I was losing my edge, my touch, my zing, and this creative anemia was undoing me.

Most fundamentally though was a growing sense of dread as the economy collapsed under our collective feet, a glacier of financial doom crushing opportunity and possibility and all of the idealism I try to muster every morning on my way to the office. Watching opportunities diminish frays the nerves. That I would evade obliteration seemed more and more unlikely, and the corollaries to that eventuality slowly clouded my perspective and obscured the horizon. Up and down no longer felt secure, the avenues of escape ever diminished. This hike felt like running away.

David encountered the snake later that evening. It was getting dark, we needed more water, he was heading down to the creek, and I heard only a grunt. I can’t speak for David’s state of mind, or just how close things got, but reptile and mammal managed a standoff and no harm done.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 12, 2009 from Clear Creek Campground, United States
from the travel blog: Heat
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Watch Your Step

Clear Creek Campground, United States

Between the shade and the creek and the pleasant company of other campers, in the absence of further close encounters, and with a sense of vast distance between ourselves and the world at large, my frame of mind improved.

A hike down Clear Creek canyon never quite got us to the Colorado River, but the three snakes we met in the clear light of day lacked menace and the creek was truly beautiful.

We spent our days walking and soaking and cooking and catching up.

I watched my step.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 13, 2009 from Clear Creek Campground, United States
from the travel blog: Heat
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Phantom Ranch, United States

When it was finally time to leave, we knew to eat early and hike out at dusk, making half of the Tonto traverse before slapping down our bags and sleeping out in the open. The one snake we met on the trail rattled softly and contrasted sharply against the green scrub. We gave him some space. By 10 the next morning we were back at Phantom Ranch, and we spent the day at ease among river rafters and marathon hikers (rim to rim and back again without stopping for example) and just-one-nighters and park service rangers and employees.

My feet felt like hamburger meat might. Somewhat abused. Yards of gauze I had been carrying for years found their calling on this trip, encasing my patties snugly. If my boots were a bit too roomy and that's why I got all those blisters now there was thankfully room for both feet and gauze.

We caught a lecture on the history of Phantom Ranch, and trooped into the lodge for our prearranged steak dinner. I had been wondering what those mules were kept busy hauling, and now we were eating it…unless that was the mule…

Phantom Ranch feels like a remote outpost, and the people that run it have a somewhat otherworldly demeanor. As it did at Clear Creek, the world at large feels incredibly distant and indistinct and irrelevant. If my daughter ever admitted that being a teenager was too much, and college felt like a burden, I might suggest to her a while in this protected and beautiful place to gather herself together and imagine her next step. For all of my feelings of unease on this trip, Phantom Ranch at least feels safe.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 14, 2009 from Phantom Ranch, United States
from the travel blog: Heat
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Emerge and See

Grand Canyon Village, United States

We climbed rapidly to Indian Garden up the Bright Angel Trail the next morning, embraced there after so much dryness by shade and water and lots of green plants.

The mule trains we passed held uncomfortable people that all looked like they would rather be walking. It turns out that having a donkey's spine slammed into your crotch and buttocks 8 times a minute on a steep incline is less fun than it sounds.

A family sat down next to us, all mute but the father, he eager to discuss his literal interpretation of the bible. Like a professional plate spinner he ducked, from observation to observation, spinning a fact with some random and unrelated theory, the minutia somehow sounding almost reasonable but the whole show an unmitigated train wreck.

Despite the evidence all around us of erosion over unimaginable time spans, he was pretty certain the Grand Canyon was shaped by a single flood-like event. He insists the Earth is about 4,000 years old. It was both horrifying and humbling: the gymnastics involved, the sheer effort and willpower exerted, the commitment demonstrated to these ridiculous ideas in truth a towering achievement.

The jaunt to the top was hot and exhausting, the only relief a comic altercation between a squirrel and a rattlesnake. They were both taking their disagreement pretty seriously though.

A yard of gauze on each foot solved the blisters some days ago, but the weight of the packs and the heat of the day conspired to suck the stamina right out of me. David I think held up better. Despite leaving the bottom at Sunrise, we didn't reach the top until mid-afternoon.

After a week in remote and silent places, we emerged to see hordes of eager tourists browsing gift shops and amassing trinkets as if they were accomplishments. We waded right in and bought ourselves an ice cream.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on May 15, 2009 from Grand Canyon Village, United States
from the travel blog: Heat
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Here's a synopsis of my trips to date (click on the trip names to the right to get all the postings in order):

Harmattan: Planned as a bicycle trip through the Sahara Desert, from Tunis, Tunisia to Cotonou, Benin, things didn't work out quite as expected.

Himalayas: No trip at all, just...

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