Friday, November 19, 2010

Reprints: I'll Note You In My Book Of Memory

Reprints are essays written in another time and place, reposted in part because the archive holding them is going away and in part to remind me that I used to write pieces I enjoyed reading.  A new Reprint will appear each Friday until I feel like ending the series.

I'll Note You In My Book of Memory was originally posted on April 2, 2004.


I have seen the sun flash green and set as a fading ember over a calm Pacific shore. I have seen the sun rise through the misty vapor of a fog shrouded Peace Bridge. I have seen the rolling foothills of the Catskills caught in autumn; ripples of vibrant oranges, yellows, and reds brought forth during the slow death of leaves. I have seen the sun set off the island of Miyajima, sinking into the Sea of Seto, rays streaming through the half-submerge offshore torii gate. Nice, Paris, Geneva, the Falls of Niagara shifting from steady calm to roaring turbulence in moments, and Chamonix by dawn at the base of the French Alps.

The Grand Canyon, through the clear air of a quiet Arizona morning, is a luxurious assault upon the senses on scale with my most treasured memories. The Grandview trailhead rests at 7,400 feet of elevation and overlooks the immense sprawling wonder of the world that is the Grand Canyon. The canyon stretches for 277 miles, ranges in width from nine to eighteen miles, and drops over a mile from rim to river. It is composed of a rich history of stone worn by water, weather, and movement. However, those are merely the clinical facts available to anyone. In the physical presence of the canyon, the end-unseen scale has a corporeal effect upon mind and body.

I stood at the top of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and looked out over a different world, eyes wide.

Words failed me. That font of perspicacity unto which I rely so heavily, the mercury-swift routines that draw forth from my mind language to capture the essence of the moment (sometimes to great comedic effect), had left me adrift. I knew then the struggle of the third grade student pressed to expand his book report from a paltry eighty-five words to a soaring even hundred, having used all the relevant adjectives at his command and begun to seriously consider the technical merits of fifteen cleverly placed 'verys'. Casting about in my mind brought to me a snippet of text written by Douglas Adams:

"Space," says Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "Is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you might think it's a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."

Adams also mentions the minds inability to think of more than seven distinct items at one time, and that nine tenths of the human mind consists of boxes filled with penguins.

At the trailhead, the canyon is all; it is your entire world view. You cannot see beyond the North Rim from the South, and, looking behind you, all that is visible are high elevation trees and the stupefied faces of onlookers caught in the same mental overload as you yourself. The effect is profound, your mind empties of all the baggage you brought and fills, instead, with the Grand Canyon. The penguins are blasted from their boxes. Locking your keys in your car that morning melts away like frost in sunlight. The only things that stay in your mind are the canyon, the miles before you, the pack on your back, the vertical drop, and a sharp knowledge of your water resources to the ounce. The other two of seven are the Grand Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.

My pack weighs approximately forty-five pounds; lighter than the group average. A side effect of taking up my recent outdoor hobbies has been the forward thinking and financial ability to purchase gear with a consideration towards weight. I have ten pounds of water on me captured in a pair of thirty-two ounce Nalgenes and a seventy ounce Camelpack. One hundred and thirty four ounces for a three mile hike in, a long caving session, and a hike out the next morning. A significant portion of that water is targeted for food preparation. I am carrying three freeze dried meals and a flameless heating kit comprised of salt tablets and their chemically activated heating pad partners. It is a lot of food and a tight ratio of water, however, my preliminary calculations indicate it can be done. The pack also has twelve pounds in technical caving gear. Shuffling pack inventory and weight to accommodate all of the scheduled activities of the weekend was a challenge, but when the pack is cinched and settled it remains well balanced and highly accessible.

Entering a trailhead draws the attention of the seasonally small group of tourists there only to observe and move on. We few are prepared to venture below the rim, and traverse trails built by miners at the turn of last century. Those that remain can only look on and wish they could see and experience the wonders we are about to witness.

Our goal is the Horseshoe Mesa. It is a modest goal only three miles distant by trail, although probably closer to two had we wings and a propensity for straight lines. The vertical drop totals 2500 feet. The Kaibab limestone is the topmost layer of the canyon. It is steep and the trails cut through it bear switchback after switchback. The trail is rough, composed of head-sized rocks dropped in place and mortared with dirt. In the moments of rational thought wherein the view is not dominating my existence, I shy my analytical mind firmly away from the thought of finishing the weekend stepping up these uneven and often considerable rough stone steps. My more experienced trip partners take no such mercy upon me and grudgingly point out our eventual fate and the quad-muscle agony it is likely to inspire.

We drop past the Kaibab and walk along the Toroweap limestone in a brief horizontal stretch that takes us onto the adjacent canyon wall towards the Coconino stairways. Our view now stretches out for miles beyond, and at least one down, towards the streams and rivers far below. Water is always farther away than it seems in the canyon. The trail to the Horseshoe Mesa is more feral than the tourist friendly paths far to the west. There will be no water within easy reach at any point during our stay, although the mesa camping area was rumored to possess a chemical toilet.

The Grand Canyon is home to the largest continuous exposure of Redwall limestone in the world. It is rumored that there are over 3,000 potential caves in the park. Within thirty minutes of passing the trailhead, we have spotted at least eight leads; potential entrances into the underground depths of the world. Even if the leads we saw are reachable, we will not be entering them on this trip. The park has a strict permit system in place, and if campers, hikers, or cavers are found in areas to which they lack permits, severe fines will be levied. Nevertheless, cavers can dream. We while away the morning hike with pointing fingers, exclamations, and proclamations of “Just imagine” and “Wouldn’t it be something”.

We pass fellow travelers moving in both directions. Each time, friendly greetings are exchanged by both sides. Where are you coming from? Where are you headed? What are the trails like? The population of the Grand Canyon that day is low, as it is most days, and each person is a kind neighbor. Stops come at intervals and sometimes suddenly. While navigating a switchback, the worn heal of my left boot plays it’s not-so-funny trick of turning under my ankle. I pitch sideways into the waiting embrace of an agave cactus. Fortunately, I use one of my team to break my fall. Also, fortunately, I do not topple him backward into the cactus or forward into the air. Two of the silicon tipped cactus points push through my kakis, my Polypros, and into my leg, snapping after sinking an inch deep. Nothing is visible from a cursory examination of my pant leg, but flexing my quads feels odd. A quick peel of layers reveals the blunt bases of the two offending points, and a minute or two of blood-slicked picking eventually yields the points from their warm embrace within my left leg. I take some water and a bit of a Powerbar to calm my jitters while I assure the team that I am fully functional. A quick application of Neosporin and a Band-Aid and I am ready to continue. Someone remarks, “Patrick zero, Grand Canyon one.”

The remainder of the hike is uneventful, unless you count the continuous parade of ridiculously beautiful landscape spilling out before us, screaming “Look unto me and live in a perpetual state of shock.” I have run clean out of adjectives worthy of the occasion. When I return for another visit, a portion of my pack weight will be reserved for a pocket copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. The verbal conundrum is in no way helped by the extensive visibility of that ultra clear day. We may have spotted a cloud, far to the west and north; maybe, one.

Horseshoe Mesa is home to Last Chance Mine, which, at the turn of the twentieth century boasted a copper vein of over seventy percent purity. The trails we have ventured in upon were originally built by the miner team that worked Last Chance. We pass the opening for the mine, but give it only a cursory glance. Mines are dangerous. There is no way to tell when one will switch from a safe horizontal to a lethal vertical. The campsite is located on the eastern side of the mesa, next to a thousand foot cliff. Two or three miles away, across the adjacent valley, a stretch of the South Rim flashes cave lead after cave lead at us. We setup camp, grab some food, and prepare for the next bit of adventure from our event list.

There is a cave on the mesa that does not require a permit to enter. It is the only one of such permissibility in the canyon. It is a splendid example of the breed. That it is the sacrificial bone thrown to the dogs, as far as canyon caves is concerned, gives us all a moment of wistful pause. The moment passes, we hike the distance to the cave and proceed to tackle it with all available energy for the next five hours. There are booming joint passageways, dusty rooms with thirty foot ceilings, dome-like rooms built by erosion, and rooms carpeted with large chunks of breakdown. The cave is warm, dry, and dusty. The tilt of the canyon means that water does not effect South Rim caves in the same manner as North Rim caves. We see a five foot length of cave bacon, scores of stalactites, marshmallows, popcorn, and in the last room we reach, a seven inch soda column. After gliding, crawling, and climbing through chamber after chamber for five hours, we call the expedition and return again to the surface.

Sunset is approaching, and the walls have begun to glow upon our return to camp. The hike, the cave, and the agave cactus have tired me to a satisfied puddle of exhaustion. Dinner, slowly prepared. Packs and garbage, methodically prepared against unwanted nocturnal visitors, again slowly. Tired muscles make everything an effort. The magical glow of reflected sunlight from the Redwall fades to rust as the sun dips beyond even their lofty sights. Venus shines forth brightly, and the half moon lights the world. As the stars make their appearance, the Hunter, the Bear, the Lady, the Spoon, it strikes me that civilization exists in a completely different world than the one I currently occupy. Horseshoe Mesa, population five. My cave pack on a rock for an impromptu pillow, I lay prone gazing at the majesty of the night sky free of all light pollution save the reflected light from Luna. The grayish-blue light of the moon washes the canyon clean of its immensity. The nearby mesas and cliffs may as well be yards from the camp, as their shadows can give no measure to their true distance.

We talk on and off for an hour, often falling silent as the natural beauty pervade our senses in slow crashing waves. The promise of an uphill march and a less than perfect night’s sleep combine evilly with the exertions of the day; one by one we drift away to our sleeping bags. Sleep comes easily. I am kept warm throughout the night by the technology of my Polypros, a sheer, light weight and breathable fabric covering me like traditional long johns.

Morning arrives and I am treated to another memorable sight; sunrise on the Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon. Vishnu’s Temple catches the golden rays first, and the wall of shimmering light slides gently and steadily down the slopes of the distant mesa walls. Camp is nearly completely broken down by the time the sun has risen high enough to be visible from our position. It took us two and a half hours to hike in. Someone comments on the likelihood of exit times being twice that of entrance times. Five hours to hike out seems a bit much. We endeavor to make it shorter.

And then we hike. Our packs are lighter on the way out, however, any recognition of this is promptly obliterated by the weariness of our previous day’s activities. I have consumed too much water. The drawback to the Camelpack is the lack of knowledge concerning how much water you have sipped away. The first Nalgene went towards lunch the previous day and Gatorade to wash it down. The cave was much warmer than expected and forced the consumption of the entire second Nalgene. At dinner the previous night, I decided to forgo the planned hot breakfast. This leaves me several ounces short of a pint. It is a mile to our first major break point. We consume caffeine drinks and check our water supplies there. I am given a spare pint from a more experienced teammate with a knowing smile and the promise of a secret tip if we all live to see the top of the rim.

The second mile is part gentle and part cruel. The Coconinos stairway is essentially a cobblestone street, three feet wide and raked at a twenty percent grade. Footing is excellent, but the path keeps going and going, twisting around switchbacks only to continue onward and upward. The caffeine and the Powerbar have kicked in for mile three. We pass my agave with a sardonic smile and the knowledge that the rim is near.

I reach the trailhead two hours and fifty-five minutes after leaving the campsite. It is an odd feeling to encounter canyon-goers not geared for any activity other than picture taking and picture posing. Again I am struck with the otherworldliness in which my hobbies exist. I look frazzled and unshaved, probably a bit dirty from the cave, and certainly in need of a shower. I am greeted at the top by our fleet of foot lead man, his camera, and an ice cold beer. High-fives, rock-fists, bottle-clinks, and congratulations pass back and forth, repeating and renewing as the remainder of the team crests the rim.

After group photos and more water (my ounces completely drained five minutes before the rim), I turn to gaze back out over the canyon. As with so many things on this planet, it is deadly, beautiful, and secretive. I am struck with the realization that, though the canyon cuts deeply into the surface of the world, I have yet to scratch more than the surface of the canyon. It was my first trip into the Grand Canyon, it was my first sight of it, and my first time caving in the canyon. Once more I have forged memories to hold with me for my lifetime.



The title of this piece is from Henry VI, Act ii, Sc.4. In casting about for phrases to help me capture my feelings, I also found this piece of Shakespeare with which I will close:

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought” - Sonnet 30

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About Me

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Geek - Gamer - Librarian - Writer. Only awesome at one of those things at a time, unfortunately.

About Fading Interest

After writing op-eds and travelogues for several years, after finishing a few books, and after failing to get the ball rolling with project after project I stumbled into an idea that might just hold my interest long enough to enjoy some level of satisfaction with my writing.