Tuesday, February 3, 2009

At the Redwall Bridge we saw two Ponderosa Pine and seven women. Of all of them, only the pine trees looked out of place. They must've washed down in a flash flood, or something, and then taken root in the dry stream bed running through this desert-like setting 2,200 feet below the Rim. Of the women, three were on their way to the South Rim. One of them wore an ace bandage on one knee and was having obvious difficulty getting her leg to bend as she negotiated the trail. She seemed much less worried about it than we were. The other four were on their way up. They were equipped with state-of-the-art backpacks, poles, I-Pods, and water bottles with long flexible straws that were attached to their shoulder straps and extended within easy reach of their lips. Hands free drinking water and poles that allowed them to use all four limbs to crawl up and down the trail. Very clever. We felt as hopelessly out of place as those pine trees must've felt. The women had spent the night at the Cottonwood Camp and this was the last leg of their Rim to Rim journey. A guide and a husband were somewhere down canyon on the trail between us and the Camp. We settled in behind them and asked if they wouldn't mind us using them as pace-setters.
Any temptation to go the other direction was not exactly dismissed, but ruled out more by practicality. Going downhill, as steep as this part of the hike is, was definitely easier than moving uphill. There's just that tricky concept of getting back out.

Mules are an option for some and several teams passed us on the trail going down. We saw George and his wife in one team. She's also a volunteer with the Park Service and does condor impressions during one of her presentations. She sets up shop out on the east balcony and uses the fireplace as a stage. Being just a little taller than a condor, she fits in the fireplace nicely and uses the space to demonstrate how the female condor prepares her nest. Condors are not at all like Conures. If you really want to know what a condor is like, take any likeable attribute you might attribute to Conures and add "not." Conures are outgoing, friendly, and social. Condors, not. Conures are known for their personalities. Condors have none. Conures will eat out of your hand. Condors will eat your hand, provided it's dead. Conures are cute and can even be cuddly. Condors are uglier than a pimple about to burst. Their heads look like their neck threw up. Conures will play silly games with you. They'll keep hopping from one finger to another, like they're climbing this endless ladder. (It's an incredibly boring game that we can play for hours because we think conures enjoy it - they think the same of us but are too polite to mention anything about it). Condors won't play the ladder game. They have flat, icky, mushy feet that are pretty much useless props. They don't like to walk, let alone hop around or climb ladders, and when they stand they're about four and half feet tall with nine foot wingspans and feed on people (and other critters) who have died in the canyon. (Yeah, the Grand Canyon is now a habitat for the California Condor. Hence George's wife's Park Service presentation. Did you think I'd just start spontaneously writing about condors?) Condors are so lacking in social graces that when they're hungry they soar around watching for other scavengers, like other foul carrion fowl and creatures like hyenas, eating and then they swoop in and help themselves. They are so lame they can't even find food on their own. I know I'll get in trouble with the "Oooers" and "Ahhhers" and other condor lovers, but these guys steal food from other scavengers. (Just imagine what baby condors get to eat!) They're the hyena to the hyena. The people version of the condor would take a blanket from a homeless child. Is it any wonder they're near extinction?

By the way, if you ever decide you want a condor instead of a conure, you need to be able to make a good nest. As always, it's all about location, location, location. First, find a giant fireplace (or other flat sheltered surface) embedded on a sheer cliff wall, then climb up there and scratch your foot twice and viola! You have a condor nest. Try it sometime and see if you can attract a condor or two.

I've seen three condors in my life. It was back when were only about nine of them in the wild and I went with a friend to a Condor Watching Place to watch for condors. We stood on the crest of a hill with about 100 other people for a couple of hours. They had binoculars and telescopes and tripods supporting 600mm lenses. I had my own eyes and a Kodak Retina with the paralax focusing and a 50mm lens. They were all looking for dark specks moving over the horizon above a distant mountain to the east and "Oooing" and "Ahhing" before finally announcing, "It's just a hawk..." Makes me wonder what the hawks think about. First thought would be, "Who'd want to be a condor?" The second would be "Eeww, more of them! Feh!" when they looked over at us. Doug warned me that he'd been going there with his family to see condors for years and had never seen any so this was pretty typical. Maybe there'd be some cute environmentalist type women there that would look really attractive, at least until we got close enough to notice the braided armpit hair...

There was, in fact, a plethora of women there, sans the braids, but looking all stuffy and very content. I'm pretty sure that we waited in line behind some of them a few nights ago when we arrived at the Grand Canyon Lodge.

So, all the dark specks are plain ordinary hawks and it was all just incredibly boring so we went climbing around on the rocks over on the other side of the hill. We were probably trying to scare rattlesnakes or something like that when I looked up and innocently asked, "What are those? " Three birds were soaring directly overhead. We noticed the white triangular patches under the wings were in just the right places. Three condors and my little Retina captured the whole thing. I felt petty, but I just had to laugh at the "Oooers" and "Ahhhers" on the other side of the hill.

Alas, George's wife was the closest thing to a condor we'd seen so far on this trip and the mule riders offered me no solace as I contemplated whether to head back or plow forward across the bridge. There would be a certain poetry had we gone further, maybe down to that waterfall we hiked to all those years ago. Barring the minor technicality of taking 25 years to do it, we could then say we'd gone Rim to Rim. But if we went that far the only way we'd get out this time was either on a mule or as some condor's entree. I have no trouble putting off ending up in a condor's belly, and the mule was not an option either as, not wishing to inflict any living creature (even a condor) with the burden of lugging my sorry butt around, I'd sworn off all mules the last time I was in this hole.

So, we would leave a mere 5 miles of the main trail untouched by our feet, delaying our claim to having done the whole Rim to Rim thing, and we'd sanguinely follow these women up the trail.

My enthusiasm failed quickly as the switchbacks up to the Supai Tunnel reminded me of the last time I tried climbing a 70 story ladder without using my hands. OK, so I've never done that, but this reminded me of what that would've felt like had I tried. All we needed to see was Gollum and we'd be convinced we were on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. (Hopefully Shelob wasn't lurking in the tunnel...)

With the encouragement and company of our pace-setters we did make it up the switchback ladder to the tunnel. There, we took a long water break and then we crept our way back on the trail. The silty fine dirt that paved this portion of the trail and made walking down so easy was now thick and heavy and gave way under our feet.

We didn't see Shelob in the tunnel, but the Stairs of Cirith Ungol turned into a sand dune. We were now climbing a 1,400 foot high sand dune.

I do believe that at some point we actually started counting our steps so we could ration brief rest stops along the way. I also believe that for every two or three steps up we slid back one or two.

I wondered how all those old ladies were going to make it. Did they train for this? Did those gimpy kneed women practice going up and down stairs, like, 5,000 times on one leg, or what? Were we so naive as to think we could just show up here with two mostly functional bodies and just hike in whenever and wherever we wanted? And then come back out under our own power?

At that moment I hated the memory of Lust and his cute little sayings. "Squeak up!" If he were here now I might be able to think of a 103rd Way to Die in the Grand Canyon.

But the sad truth is he called this one perfectly. That's exactly what we were doing - we were squeaking up ... barely ... inching our way toward the edge of this miserable hell hole. Our predicament was somewhere in the middle of a mouse in a wheel and a conure climbing an endless finger ladder and a condor trying to do "puppy eyes" while asking, "Take me home?" AS IF!!!
It was futility re-imagined.

A gamey, but hefty couple was heading down and stopped with us at the Coconino Lookout. I wanted to ask them how many steps they had taken. But it turns out they had just started counting and were wondering if we knew how many steps it was to the tunnel. I wanted to tell them to forget it (especially since they're stopping to rest and had already begun counting steps and they're still on the way down) and just invite them to join us for pizza and a tall North Rim Ale instead. I'd even treat.

But they'd have to carry us out.

I think I scared them.

From having pizza with us, that is. But not enough to prevent them from descending to what we thought would be their certain deaths in the canyon. (The 104th Way to Die in the Grand Canyon: "I'd Rather Die Here than Eat Another Piece of Pizza.")

"Well, enjoy the condors!" I offered as they traipsed down, carefree as children ...

After they got around a corner I assumed the famous position. Not that one ... the other one. I knelt down and prostrated myself to whatever gods ruled this place. I knew they were laughing at me. They shouted, "We've driven better than your kind from here!" I watched as sweat dripped like tears from the end of my crooked nose, beading up on the too dry trail dust - an offering to appease their cruel and malicious senses of humor - and I almost began crawling. Or maybe I did and I just don't want to remember that part. Hiking poles would've been real nice right about now.

But time on one's knees is almost always time well spent and before long the echoes of thoughts of pizza and a cold sample of the Oak Creek microbrewry's finest brought me to my feet. And so we squeaked up, step by step and inch by inch. Maybe the canyon gods were tired of us. It was almost as if they were kicking and shoving us up the hill. Conquered by the mere thought of pizza and beer, they gave us one last swift boot and we were out. Safe on the top.

"AND STAY OUT!" I was pretty sure I just felt a breeze at my back.

"O-kay!" I said, as I drained a water bottle.

It was intended as both a response and an exclamation. But it probably came out as more of a squeak.

Here I am in training - getting ready for our next hike ...