In the winter and spring of 2009, I worked at Grand Canyon National Park, building and maintaining hiking trails out of a backcountry post called Indian Garden, which is about half way between the rim and the river.
That May, as daily temperatures soared well above one hundred degrees, I started to feel like the Canyon was something like a trap. We were working just one mile uptrail from the Colorado River, on a steep and winding section of Bright Angel Trail chiseled into the side of a pink and red and white cliff of decomposing granite called the Devil’s Corkscrew.
Every day I prayed I could make it back from our worksite to our trail crew bunkhouse at Indian Garden that overlooked a sea of red rock buttes and purple prickly pear cactus. It was an uphill hike in the heat of the day, beginning in the afternoon, when I was already tired from a day’s work. Each day I returned to that oasis and saw that trickling creek and those stout cottonwood trees, which seemed as completely out of place in the desert as I was, I felt grateful to have survived.
As the heat intensified, I began to obsess about moving north again. By the end of the month I planned to be back in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to begin my summer job, in a latitude I felt more comfortable in, but for now I was toiling in the Canyon for nine days at a time, installing juniper log stairs into the ancient trail, part of a crew of five. We were helping to check the erosion caused by the same factors—wind and water—that had combined to carve out the Canyon over the last five million years, with a little help from the impact of mule’s hooves and hiker’s feet.
As the weeks brought us all closer to summer in the desert, I began to appreciate those who attempted that hike, facing so many obstacles on their way from the canyon rim down to the Colorado River and back again—heat, sun, exposure, elevation, a heart-thumping cardio-workout.
The Grand Canyon can seem like a disturbing chasm in the earth, but surprisingly, it’s irresistibly attractive to enter; hikers, experienced or otherwise, practically have no choice but to amble on down the path. The magical environment is too inviting, the morning sun reflecting the color of Mars too intriguing. Once on the edge, it’s easy to be called into the wild.
Dropping away from the Rim feels great on the mind and the body, especially in the early morning. The steps down come easily along the Bright Angel Trail, as it faces north most of the way and therefore the shade covers it for a good portion of the morning. Leave the Rim early enough, and it’s possible to get halfway down before seeing the first beams of desert light hit the ground. The air is cool and full of high-altitude gusts at that time of day, being that the Rim is close to seven thousand feet above sea level and the river is more than four thousand feet below us. We aren’t sweating yet, and so we don’t drink enough water.
It’s after a few hours of hiking, when we begin to climb back out of the immense natural amphitheater, that all of nature’s forces align against us. This is when we begin to struggle. We are tested against ourselves and against the earth. Most of the time in our modern society, we easily coexist within our environment. We don’t directly look death in the face very often. But that is not the case as we hike back toward the Rim, on an eight-mile climb from the river. It’s afternoon, and the Arizona sun has burned any remnant of shade away. All those downhill steps become uphill battles, each one seemingly taller than the last.
One afternoon, we were working about a mile up-trail from the river, along that first major slog through the lowest stretch of the Bright Angel, using mules to haul the gravel we were shoveling in behind our newly-constructed juniper steps, when a heavy-set hiker in his early twenties walked into our worksite. He wanted to know if he could ride out of the Canyon on one of Eric’s mules. Eric was surly in general, like most horse packers, but friendly enough to that struggling hiker, even though he had to tell him, “Can’t. I don’t even have another saddle.” Each of the mules carried a bag on both sides of their round bellies. They looked passively toward the troubled hiker. “These guys are just rigged up to carry dirt.”
Damon was my crew boss. He’d been working on trail crews for ten years, a few more than me, though we were both thirty years old. He had the straight black hair of a Hopi, the descendants of the ancient Anasazi who lived in the Canyon for hundreds of years, in immaculately-constructed dwellings. He told the hiker, “There’s no way you’re getting out of here on a mule—we just can’t. But keep hiking,” he said, “and, if you feel really bad, come on back and we can try to help you out, somehow.” Damon was well-versed in the art of Search and Rescue.
That hiker had barely disappeared out of sight around the first bend in the canyon before he returned to our worksite to repeat Damon’s words back to him: “I feel really bad.” He told us his chest was hurting and his right arm felt tingly.
As Damon ran down the bottom of the Grand Canyon, looking for a place to call a dispatch operator to request a helicopter, and as he searched for a good place for that helicopter to land, I thought of how he was not the first person to run through the Canyon searching for help. On average, almost one person is rescued from the maw of the Grand Canyon each day. In the summer, multiple people may be saved in one day. My guess is the Anasazi wouldn’t have dared to carry so much on their back through the heat of the day, and they probably wouldn’t have walked from the rim to the river and back again in one day, either. To survive in such a hostile place they had to have been infinitely more adapted to their environment than we could ever hope to be.
Damon quickly found both his radio communication point and his helicopter landing zone, and that hiker was whisked to the rim and on to the hospital within the hour, a much better option than bouncing three hours up that winding trail on the back of a mule, or the option of dying, trapped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
For the rest of my time at the Grand Canyon, I thought about that hiker, and I thought about my friend and co-worker Jake Quilter, whose heart had given out farther south, in Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, as he hiked an equally challenging desert trail. Jake had also worked on Damon’s crew at the Canyon. The day he died, he was on his way to start a week-long backcountry tour like the ones Damon and I still worked, four years after. Damon showed me some of Jake’s work—a rock wall holding in the trail and a covered bench the crew named Jake’s Shade. That desert pushed hikers up to and beyond their limits; over the years, no doubt, Jake’s Shade gave just enough relief from the sun to save at least one hiker.
The day I thought about my survival the most, and about Jake and the heart-attack-kid, was when Della, a park ranger, called us from Phantom Ranch to say that one of the Canyon’s largest cottonwood trees just up from the river had crashed to the ground in the night, blocking the hiking trail. I carried a chainsaw from our worksite down to the bottom of the canyon to cut the tree out of the way.
A line of hikers waited. They watched as my saw screamed through that old, dying tree, sending a stream of woodchips through the air. When the first cut-rounds of tree dropped to the ground with a thud, my audience—anxious to get going because the cool morning air was already rising, replaced by rushing, toaster-oven air—applauded. I let that first wave through, then continued cutting. I could hear my heart beating away as I baked in the sun. An hour later, I sat with Della under another still standing cottonwood tree, a sister of the fallen giant, to eat lunch. For the moment, I was in the shade. That’s something that never lasts long in the Grand Canyon.
On the hike back up from that assignment, I counted my blessings for conquering each step. As I moved through the heat waves, carrying my backpack and a chainsaw, I lived and breathed my mortality. Thankfully, my pack was empty; I’d eaten my lunch and drunk most of my water. By the time I rejoined my crew, they looked dusty and tired, having dug in a few more juniper steps. They asked me if I’d saved the day. “Saved it,” I told them, raising an eyebrow and smiling slightly, conserving my energy for the rest of the hike.
I didn’t hesitate longer than to put down that chainsaw before I continued on to the bunkhouse in Indian Gardens, an hour’s hike away and up a thousand feet. Tired as I was, I noticed how the western redbud had already dropped its signature magenta flowers and begun growing clover-shaped leaves to catch the summer sun. At the junction, I decided to hike the Old Bright Angel Trail, breaking away from the new trail just below a section of Tapeats Sandstone called the Narrows. I walked past several seldom-visited Anasazi granaries, some of the small rooms still in perfect shape, their square doorways midnight black against the face of the orange cliffside.
We were living in the Grand Canyon, like the ancients, although, in 2010 we were cheating, sleeping at night in a bunkhouse with electricity and running water. Instead of farming corn and hunting small game, we had a helicopter bring us nine days’ of food at a time, straight from the grocery store. Unlike the ancients, we now have the ability to save a man from nature’s wrath. The trail crew, beyond surviving, only hoped any structure we built would last as long as those ruins.
The Grand Canyon can nurture life just as well as she can take it away. I thought more about life and death there than in anyplace else I’d ever been. Life sometimes came through just as powerfully. Near our worksite my friend and I discovered an incredible oasis bursting through the barren desert, when we squeezed through a crack in the boulders toward the sound of trickling water. Yellow columbines and magenta monkey flowers grew there in thick carpets, their broad, green leaves locking moisture into the air of that dark desert cave, making it humid, dank and drastically cooler than it was outside in the sun.
We found that oasis the same week that three young kids on a field trip from Phoenix were swept away by the Colorado River when they tried to swim across, instead of hiking the suspension bridge like everyone else. We ran from our worksite a mile down to the river and searched the surface of the water for them for hours, but, sadly, they’d disappeared in an instant and there was nothing anyone could do to change it.
All around us was the story of life enduring through desolation, swift death and drought: the spines of the cactus, the retreating of the ancient ones, the look on the faces of the struggling hikers, the lost kids from Phoenix. But life persisted. The heart attack-kid survived. And those clusters of colorful wildflowers drank forever from their secret cracks in the rock.