The last week of May 2011, my boyfriend and our two friends, the Razos, spent five nights in the Grand Canyon with only what was in our 35-50 lb. packs. We traveled more than 36 trail miles to Clear Creek in the depths of the Canyon. The trail, while pulverizing our feet over rocky ridges, dry washes, and slippery talus slopes offered expansive views of the Inner Gorge that transfixed us and transported us into another time.
At Clear Creek we stayed for 3 nights within the whistling wind next to the melodic creek and the Canyon Tree Frogs’ ventriloquist sheep tunes every night at 5. Beneath Angels Gate, Brahma Temple, and around the bend from Ottoman Amphitheater we relaxed beneath the Utah Juniper and sparkling Cottonwood trees, washing our feet and filtering our water among black fly larvae, skittering spiny lizards, and blue damselflies.
With our extra time we explored a bit of the creek but mostly we moved from one rock seat to another seeking afternoon shade or morning warmth as the sun shifted through the sky. In those rock seat musical chair sessions I read aloud from Colin Fletcher’s The Man Who Walked Through Time, a book I had bought well before any of my three backpacking trips to the Canyon. Colin Fletcher is most known as a pioneer of solo backpacking and long walking excursions, once having traversed the entire state of California in a summer, he was also the first person to walk the length of the Grand Canyon, below the Rim, in 1963; just weeks after the Glen Canyon Dam began operating.
Fletcher’s book about the Grand Canyon took us from Hualapai Hilltop where the four of us had descended into the Canyon to Supai and Havasu Falls three years prior. It took us across the Colorado River on an air mattress, then back on foot across the Inner Gorge and much of the Tonto Platform. It took us back to Phantom Ranch and along the river; across land no other man had ever set foot. We nodded our heads as he described the “trivia” that besieged him – blisters, chafing, sweat rash, the rubbing of pack straps all hitting squarely home with each of us.
We now knew how true his words were: “cross-country on foot, miles are always misleading: the hours are what count. In the Canyon, miles become virtually meaningless . . . And there were times when I would be lucky to travel half a mile in an hour.” The nine miles across Clear Creek Trail took us 7 hours, we studied the map intently at times to calculate just how far we had gone, as the switchbacks, washes, talus slopes and ridges coiled and uncoiled more times than we imagined.
We camped under a juniper tree just as Fletcher had several times on his journey, the branches providing needed shade from the “clamping” down of the heat. We looked up above our campsite and examined the rocks perched precariously above us, wondering if the wind would blow just right enough to dislodge one, wondering if when it fell atop us it would be as big as a car or even bigger, for, like Fletcher says, the Canyon poses many a problem of scale: “a rockface that from a distance looks like something you might have to lift your pack over turns out to be as high as a house.”
Through Fletcher’s words, we heard the rhythm of the rock and thought affectionately about the beaver’s “ker-PLOOSH”. His description of the Grand Canyon rattlesnake’s pursuit of comfort tempered my reactions so that when we met a rattlesnake on the trail a few days later I did not scream and flail about but moved out of its way and continued on (the snake we encountered was not docile as described in chapter “Life” and although he describes the Grand Canyon rattlesnake as having “a reputation for being an amiable crowd by rattlesnake standards” the one we walked near warned us with a rattle and erect head that he was severely displeased at the interruption of his sun-bathing.)
We witnessed the dawning of the day as we hiked out of Clear Creek, the magic moment Fletcher describes in “Transition”. Our moment came around 7 o’clock when the sun emerged from the east, shining light on Angels Gate and the temples that stood watch over our camp for the past three days. As in “Rock”, “a paleness began to invade the eastern sky. The shadows faded. Vague shapes crystallized, as they always did, into butte and cliff and mesa. Soon daylight had filled the pit with its colossal, solid sculpture.”
From Fletcher’s words we inspected our surroundings beneath the surface. We saw flies and larvae and rocks and sand and light we may not have seen in the same way before. We understood time in a new way, from Fletcher’s insights about geologic time and our own insights about Fletcher’s time. Ants came to carry our crumbs away just as they did nearly fifty years before. Although we did not travel the same physical path in the Canyon as Colin Fletcher, we intersected his path through time on many occasions. Reading his book while at Clear Creek shed light on the meaning our trip in a way that proves invaluable to our memories. Each of the four of us has individual reasons for backpacking. Some of those are about self-challenge, accomplishment, reconnecting with nature, recharging our souls, embracing the silence and meditative qualities of a long, hard hike. These are timeless reasons for wanting to hit the trails and reasons we were able to bond with Fletcher under the juniper tree by the creek below the temples.