611 miles hiked
We sleep until almost seven and we have a slow morning, don’t start hiking until 8. A mouse chewed a hole in the sidepocket of Dan’s pack in the night- otherwise everything was peaceful and still, and we slept with the mesh of the tent unzipped and the vestibules rolled up, good air coming through, and it never rained. We fill up four liters each from the good clear Nankoweep creek. This way we’ll be able to delay drinking the silty/heavy metal/agricultural runoff of the Colorado River for a little while.
We have an eight mile bushwhack down the banks of the Colorado River today, through the main gorge of the Grand Canyon. This is not immediately alarming- almost all of the Hayduke is cross-country, without tread or signage or visible route of any kind, and we’ve walked up the banks of a couple of rivers already- but we’ve heard tale of this bushwhack, and it’s supposed to be one of the slowest and most frustrating parts of the entire trail. I’m not sure why, exactly. I guess I’ll find out.
But first, the Nankoweep granaries! Beautiful masonry ruins built into a cliff high above the river, and a steep little trail to get there. Several rafting parties are camped nearby, and we watch them from high above, pretending they’re an invading party. We spend kind of a lot of time at the granaries, looking around. I wonder how much work it was to get the corn, which the Anasazi people must’ve grown on the broad bench below us, all the way up to the granaries to store it. Seems like a lot.
The first half of the eight mile bushwhack is not so bad. There are game trails that stay pretty high, above the dense tangles of razor-sharp mesquite (this is a tree that’s covered in long sharp thorns) and the jumbles of loose boulders on the riverbank. Sayeth the guidebook:
“There is no formal trail to follow but you will find a maze of game trails leading you downstream through the brush and talus. As you follow these game trails, an important thing to know is the difference between deer tracks and those of bighorn sheep. You will figure it out soon enough. Typically, the deer are going to seek the more sane terrain, following the path of least resistance. The sheep, being unparalleled climbers, do not need to conform to these conventions, and you could find yourself following them into serious trouble.”
We must end up taking both deer and sheep trails, because on occasion we find ourselves super high, traversing a nearly vertical bit of soft ground above a very steep drop, and it kind of sucks. But mostly the game trails are good enough as we weave in and out of drainages in the steep rocks and cactus, and I figure we’re going about 1.5 mph. Which is better than I expected.
It starts to rain. It’s warm down here in the canyon, almost pleasantly muggy, and the rain seems benign. We stop to talk to rafting parties (one of the couples in one of the rafting parties is neighbors, in Montana, with Doug Peacock, the real human who the fictional character of George Washington Hayduke is based off of) and at luchtime we find an overhang beneath some boulders that’s just big enough for both of us to hunch under, out of the rain. It’s full of spiderweds and rodent turds, as most sheltered spaces in nature seem to be, but I don’t mind. We watch the rain fall and birds swoop over the slow green Colorado as we eat snacks and then the clouds thin and light comes through and sets the canyon walls opposite all aglow.
Four miles into the bushwhack our game trails end. I’m not sure why this is, but pretty much immediately we are totally fucked. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe I’m just tired. But it’s some of the slowest hiking I’ve ever done. Imagine it: everything in the world is sharp. Mesquite trees with their long needley thorns, prickly pear, small barrel cactus, another thornbush whose name I do not know. Even the boulders are sharp- it’s a new kind of rock we haven’t seen yet, and its surfaces are jagged like rough glass. There is no beach on the river to speak of, just this jumble of brush and boulders, rising up towards the cliffs. We try staying high for a while, but there is so much cactus, and so much loose uneven rock, and so many short sketchy bits of exposure where I am terrified and slow, that we then try the riverbank, where there is sometimes a way through the labryinth of dense mesquite, and sometimes a bit of soft sand to walk on, and sometimes not. On top of all of this, the route on the map is an as-the-crow-flies line straight down the riverbank. But we are contouring in and out of drainages, we are going high to avoid huge impassable ravines and then dropping down again. We are dead-ending in impenetrable brush and having to turn around. We are weaving in and out, up and down. So we’re walking more miles than the map says. Everything is going to take longer than we think.
I sit on a cactus, and pick many small spines out of my legs. I stumble on the sketchy bits. I climb up and over innumerable unstable boulders. I imagine what it would be like to break my leg, a hundred ways to fall to my death. My knees ache. I grow demoralized.
It’s beautiful, though, so beautiful. I am in awe of it. I feel so lucky to be able to stand witness it. This jumbled manifestation of the physical world, this slow intimacy with a bit of truly wild land between the river and the cliffs. It’s a spiritual experience, and it’s breaking me down and building me back up again, like spiritual experiences are sometimes wont to do.
Eventually it’s seven-thirty p.m. and we’re one mile from the end of the bushwhack, where we will hitch a ride to the other side of the Colorado river with a passing rafting party. We’ve gone just ten miles today. We decide to camp, as the last bit will take us another hour, and we’re not trying to get into the habit of hiking late and waking late. We find a sheltered spot up a wash a bit, where the sound of the rapids are muted. The sky is clear and the ground is sandy, and we spread out our bedrolls for cowboy camping. I lay in my sleeping bag, cozy and warm, and watch the stars come out.
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