I used to think, ‘Life is great, but people suck,’ but now I’ve had to learn the opposite, ‘Life sucks, but people are great’. ~ Neil Peart
Have I mentioned how much I love people? I LOVE people. There are many things in life that bum me out, but people are pretty consistently a source of fun and inspiration. I love how Neil Peart from Rush put it in his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. He said, “You know, I used to think, ‘Life is great, but people suck,’ but now I’ve had to learn the opposite, ‘Life sucks, but people are great.'” My sentiments exactly. I love exploring the weird history that people have created and abandoned to posterity in the backcountry, but when live people get thrown into that adventure the whole thing becomes a symphony of entertainment, especially if you are traveling with people who are opposites like my friends Liz and Sharon.
This April my hiking group, Wild Women Hiking, took a girls weekend adventure to the Grand Canyon. Several members invited friends who live in other states to join the us, the result was a wonderful mix of enthusiastic, adventurous women from as far away as Alabama, convening at the Grand Canyon in Arizona for a weekend of fun and a 10 mile hike.
The group plan was to hike 5 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon down Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden, a gorgeous, lush oasis on a plateau in the canyon. It is a former village and farm site of the Havasupai people and now is a picnic area and campground next to a perennial creek that runs through it. Once arriving at Indian Garden our hikers could choose to stay and explore the garden plateau for a while, turn and start hiking the 5 relentless uphill miles back to the rim, or come with me on a quest to find some 1200’s era cliff dwelling and granaries. All would convene for dinner and drinks at Bright Angel Lodge later that evening. Liz and Sharon opted to tack on a few extra off-trail miles and come with me to hunt for archaeology.
Introducing Liz, an enthusiastic, fascinating woman who has an outstanding talent for quickly identifying and giving voice to exactly the how the worst case scenario could play out in any given situation. Liz prepared for her trip to the Grand Canyon by reading Over The Edge: Death In The Grand Canyon which is summarized as “Gripping accounts of all known fatal mishaps in the most famous of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders.” In Liz World the “Natural Wonder” portion of the description plays a weak supporting role to the more potentially relevant and engaging headline “accounts of all known fatal mishaps”. For weeks before the trip she would caution us about bringing insufficient water and having access to salt to stave off dehydration before the the all but inevitable event of getting lost and falling over a cliff. Then Liz meets Sharon.
Sharon is the long-time friend and guest of our Susan. Sharon joined us at the Grand Canyon from her home in Colorado. We had not met her before and she was a lovely addition. Sharon is a runner more than a hiker, therefore her gear is lean. She wore sleek running pants and tank top, carried a small bag of vittles in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. (Note that water is running and available at Indian Garden, so hydrating and refilling your bottle there instead of carrying all you need for the whole trip is a reasonable option.) She had a thin sweatshirt tied about her waist which she didn’t wear because she claims to always feel hot. Liz, with her salt packets, copy of Over The Edge, her 8 pounds of spare water, layers of protective clothing, hiking poles, and vigilant eye took one look at Sharon and went into worry overdrive.
Call someone underprepared, call someone overly cautious, but you must peer through the superficial to what’s really going on underneath – adventurers! Its best not to judge hiking styles. “Hike your own hike” as they say. Whatever keeps you moving forward is what’s good for you. Both these women approached the adventure in different ways, but the fact remained that they were the only two out of 8 hikers who opted to leave the established trail behind and head off into the unknown with me to see what may be found. I was tremendously grateful to and inspired by their spirits and only hoped that my treasure hunting skills would measure up and we would find the cliff dwellings so as not to disappoint my friends and their willing attitude.
After much research I found clues to finding the cliff dwelling in the book Grand Canyon Hiking Adventures by Wayne Tomasi. He doesn’t write directly about how to find the cliff dwellings, but mentions them in passing while describing his attempt to hike every step of the original historic Bright Angel Trail that for most of the past century has been disused, eroded, and obscured by the park to discourage use.
It turns out that Arizona is a very lucky place for me. Energy flows my way and mysteriously lucky things happen to me in Arizona. I plan to spend a lot more time there and find out what Arizona wants me to learn from it. One small coincidence is that I purchased a used copy of Tomasi’s book through Amazon and it turns out it is a copy he inscribed to “Grandma B”. I don’t know if this was his grandmother or not, but I’ve tried to reach out to him and ask him if he wants this copy back. I have yet to receive a response. If anyone would like to pass this message on to him, feel free, it would be a pleasure to offer his this book back to him and thank him for the adventure.
We were following a path outlined by general landmarks that instructed us to do things like look for two boulders on the north side of the trail, there you leave the trail and head due east to the adjacent canyon where you will switchback down the ruins of the old trail following the path of the old telephone lines until you reach the pink zoroaster layer. (I paraphrase.) Good instructions, but just vague enough to make you have to stop and look at the landscape from time to time to make sure you are still on the east side of the wash and what the heck is a “pink zoroaster layer” anyway?
Liz kept declaring, “I’m way out of my comfort zone!” Sharon just smiled and looked relatively relaxed about the whole thing. Sharon’s sweatshirt, tied about her waist, kept brushing cacti. At one point her leg brushed a cactus and picked up about 100 tiny little spines in her Lululemon running tights. “Its fine,” she said and wanted to ignore it and continue hiking. Liz and I fussed over her trying to get the spines out of her pants, warning her that those spines would work their way into her pants and really bug her later. I was recalling a time when I had to fish a painful cactus spike out of my crotch in front of my son’s fourth grade teacher. Sharon let us pull most of the spines out of her pants, but called an end to the event when I offered to get my tweezers to remove the smaller ones. Liz insisted this must be done or tragedy would ensue. Sharon said, “Forget it. I can’t even feel them.” This went back and forth for a little while until I said, “Whatever. Let’s go.”
Once we reached the point where we were supposed to be seeing a really obvious “pink zoroaster layer” we spent a few minutes trying to figure out what the heck we were looking for. These ladies are naturally talented navigators and all along the way offered helpful observations that propelled our search and kept us moving successfully through the clues toward the cliff dwellings. Once we figured out what “pink zoroaster” was (a pink kind of rock layer) we found the cliff dwellings and granaries lining a hollowed out strata of the cliff. Breathtaking.
The compound featured the remaining walls of a couple of rooms at a lower level and an open, smoke stained rock shelter above, as well as many small granary chambers that extended several hundred yards along the edge of the cliff. There was an ancillary collection of granaries further out toward a point that over looked the Colorado River gorge, but we didn’t traverse the cliff to see them, we just observed them from afar. For those who may not know, granaries are storage chambers where resources like corn would be stored protected from weather, critters and bandits. You know, much like the liquor or candy cupboard in a house with children. Its the highest, most hard to reach, inaccessible, secure cupboard in the kitchen. Same thing.
There were also a number of stone tools at the site, small rocks crafted into sharp objects.
In my excitement I hadn’t taken the time on this hike to relieve my bladder, but once we got the ruin I really needed to go. Urgency and modesty combined to tell me that it would be a good decision to crouch down behind one of the ruin walls to make water. I told the girls, “Excuse me a moment,” whereupon Liz jumped all over me and scolded me that I absolutely must not pee on or near the archaeology. She was right of course and ordinarily such a notion wouldn’t even cross my mind, but I had to go really bad. I gathered my knickers and hustled over to an appropriate bush to do the deed while Liz stood by and rolled her eyes at me. Of course she was right.
Sharon and I climbed up into the enormous rock shelter and sat for a while. I can sit in a rock shelter or cliff dwelling all day. I’d stay for weeks. I love how cozy and protected they are, truly a well planned and efficient shelter design, thoughtfully placed protected from wind currents, sun and rain.
There is so much wisdom in the ancient ways and it is my hope that in my lifetime I can strip some of my modern conditioning and adopt a simpler mode of living. I’m not an idealist. I don’t believe it is reasonable to think that a modern person can revert to an ancient lifestyle in which freedom, land and resources were ungoverned by empirical forces. Too much has changed in human sociology in the past several hundred years for western man to be successful as a cave person today. But it is possible to learn from the spirit of the ancients and adopt some of their patience, practicality, efficiency, humility, respect, and gratitude. These are the treasures I seek from archaeology. I seek the philosopher’s stone, what is transformative about the human spirit. Every time I visit an ancient home, the vibrations of its people seem to still be pulsing in the atmosphere.
After enjoying the ruin it was an easy navigation down the Old Bright Angel trail to where it rejoins the new Bright Angel Trail at polished rock. Liz was much relieved to have been delivered safely to civilization and she visibly relaxed before setting in to worry about Sharon and her small water bottle. It was mid-afternoon by now and with a long uphill walk ahead of me, this is the point at which I insert earbuds, push great music into my head, and slip the brain into neutral to daydream up the trail toward that delicious cocktail at Bright Angel Lodge. Everyone made it out successfully, Liz with even a few salt packets to spare, and we all had the tales of our unique adventures out of the canyon to share. Had I been alone I would have had one experience of the canyon, but because I made myself available to share the journey with so many other people, we were all part of each other’s adventure. The gift just multiplied. I write this post with gratitude for others and the adventurous spirit in them.
Liz is still talking about the cactus spines that are surely, even at this moment, still working their way into poor Sharon’s tights.
Cheers to Shirley, who couldn’t come because of family commitments, but sent small bottles of vodka for us to toast our success upon emerging from the canyon.