If you’re sleeping outside in the Mojave Desert in the summer, you should go to bed as soon as it’s dark and cool enough to relax. Chances are good that you’ll be up again by 7am, whether you like it or not. The dawn light is so clear that the sky wakes you even when you’re still in darkness. If you’re smart, and you have to move around outdoors at all that day, you will get up and get moving. If you’re tired, and you roll over and go back to sleep, and the sounds and smells of breakfast don’t wake you, the heat will drive you out of your cot as soon as the sun hits it. This happens at different times at different days, but today it got hot early, and then it got hotter.
We loaded out looking upriver. We were at one of several spots where the Hurricane Fault crosses the river – our camp was on river right, the west side, where the rocks had slumped over 1,000 feet, exposing older rocks on river left. It was easy to see the fault line in some places, but in others, to an untrained eye, it looked like a jumbled mess. Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite would show up in spots, like stars returning for their curtain calls. But today mostly what we saw was Bright Angel Shale and younger rocks. We were out of the inner canyon. The walls were getting lower, and the river was getting wider. There were also spectacular basalt flows scattered about, but the going was noticeably slower today, with more hard rowing for the oarsmen and more messing around for the passengers.
Tania and I jumped ship today. We split up in the morning and I rode in Pete’s boat, to give Pedro a break. Tania went with Tim. As we floated away from camp, Jai spoke up from Gary’s boat and asked a question to the group: “If you could have brought one extra thing, what would it be?”
–Tim: A different brand of skin lotion.
–Jai: River beads for everyone (one of Jai’s friends had given her a bead necklace for her trip down the river, and she loved to move her fingers up and down the beads like a rosary).
–Tania: A hand-cranked blender (for drinks), OR Starbucks Doubleshots.
–Brad: A small, collapsible tripod stool, OR more polypropylene t-shirts (they wick better than cotton).
–Gary: Something to kill the pain.
–Pete: Antifungal medicine (several of us were getting spots on our hands and toes, a mysterious kind of fungus that wasn’t painful and cleared up as soon as we got off the river; according to Christie, the spots are unique to western rivers, and no one knows what they are or how to prevent them).
–Christie: John Burlow, a paramedic friend of ours who was invited but couldn’t make it, OR a rubber rattlesnake.
–Pete: More carabiners.
–Chuck: Another case of beer. A second Jai.
After a couple of hours on the river – maybe at 11am, just when the thing Pete called “the incinerator” was at its hottest – we pulled over to Parashant Canyon and went on a short hike, over cobbles and through blasted stones, to a spot called the Book of Worms. The book is a block of Bright Angel Shale that has fallen from the side of the canyon wall, exposing worm burrows that are 550 million years old. Tania and I wanted to see it because we are both fascinated by fossils of all types. There had not been many fossils on this trip – the rocks in Grand Canyon are mostly older than the “Cambran Explosion” of 542 million years ago, when multicellular life forms of all types appeared and began to evolve. The worms showed up for the party a few million years early.
The worm burrows were interesting enough, but it was way too hot to go any further, so we stumbled back to the boats. Tim and Rod, the smart ones, had stayed behind and were smiling under Rod’s big beach umbrella.
That’s another thing I would bring. A big beach umbrella.
As long as you’re no more than a foot or two away from the cold waters of the Colorado, it doesn’t really matter how hot the air temperature is. We spent several pleasant hours watching the rocks while Pete Kirchner rowed for Christie and I. Pete was mostly silent but always alert, and at one point I asked him why he thought the current in the river was marked by bubbles. “I think it’s because they are lighter,” he said. “Flotsam, oil, detergent, and air should collect at the points where flows converge, because the churning will drive lighter material to the surface. That’s why you should follow the confused water.”
It was hot enough to make me dopey enough to think that “follow the confused water” was a really deep turn of phrase, kind of like a Grateful Dead lyric. Looking back on it, in a much cooler room, it still holds up pretty well as a teaching tool. That Pete has an interesting brain.
At some point we ate lunch, I don’t remember where, and around 2pm we came upon the only big rapid of the day. Mile 205 Rapid, also known as Kolb, is rated 6 out of 10 and was looking perky today. Pete was in the lead boat and he wanted to scout it. I didn’t look forward to another half-hour waiting, and there wasn’t a convenient place to beach the boats, so I persuaded him to pull onto the shore and let me out – I would run ahead and look things over while the rest of the crew caught up, and then signal whether or not they should all stop to look.
As expected, there wasn’t any reason to stop. There was a moderately big pour-over and hole at the top of the rapid on river left, and some rocks sticking up on river right, but the channel down the middle was clear and the waves at the bottom, while big enough to get you good and wet, weren’t going to flip a 1,000-pound boat. I tried to communicate all of this to Pete and the other rafts through shouting and hand gestures, and they believed me well enough to go on in. This gave me a chance to stand on a rock on river left and make a movie of all six rafts going through. Apologies for the shaky camera. Watch for Rod losing his oar at 0:57 after he goes sideways into the hole, and for Tania waving to me at 1:57:
I ran down to rejoin the boats, which had beached on river left just below the rapid. We hiked up Mile 205 Canyon for about a half-hour – the reason, Rod told us, was to look for Hurricane Fault, but it was too hot to look very hard. Mostly we went from one pool of shade to the next and tried to make jokes.
After the hike I got into Tim’s boat with Tania. She had beckoned to me, and I was powerless to resist. Also, Tim didn’t want to row any more that day, so I got in one mile, at least, before the end of this light day. Tim has an interesting brain, too. Earlier, he had asked me this question: “Would you rather have a third nipple that roamed freely all over your body, or a movie-grade spotlight that projected outward from your groin at all times?”
That’s easy, I thought at first. I’ll take the nipple. But then I thought, how handy would it be to have a bright light shining in front of you at all times? But then I thought, when could you actually uncover that light, and how hot would it be when you had to cover it up? Yes, I concluded, I’ll stick with the roaming nipple. Thanks, Tim. You’ve given us all something to think about.
In a few minutes the rafts pulled in at Indian Gardens Camp. It was 3:30 pm. Directly in front of our small beach was a 20-foot stone wall that threw enough shade for all the camp chairs , if you set them up in a line facing river left. So there we sat (see photo at top), drinking beer and yukking it up and jumping in the water to cool off and telling stories. We drank enough that I don’t remember most of the stories, and I can’t tell you the ones I do remember. This is a family show.
One of the nicest things about the afternoon, as shadows extended outward from the cliff toward the water, was a family of sheep that came down to the river to drink directly across from us. They knew we were there but did not seem bothered in the least, and they spent at least a half-hour grazing and daintily picking their way down to the shore to drink, then leaping back up to small patches of grass to eat.
Mel and Tania directed a kitchen crew that made green chile chili, salad, and blueberry cake from the Dutch oven. And it was “dress up night” – we had been told via e-mail, months in advance, that we should pack costumes to wear at some point, and tonight was it. Christie took top honors with an elaborate improvised “lizard queen” costume, topped by some amazing glasses she had found in Flagstaff. Rod and Tracey got in touch with their inner pirates. Tania and I put on tie-dye t-shirts with the awful, menacing face of a kitty cat on them — gag gifts from our dear friend Donna, to be worn never before or again.
Nan put on a fright wig and a stick-on mustache. I have a photo of that, but I won’t post it out of consideration for her dignity. And I think I would give a special style award to Gary in his sarong and Jai in her 1980s disco dress. As TIm Gunn would say, they made it work.
It was a long, boozy evening, and it was surprising how quickly we all got used to the ridiculous things we were wearing. At one point near the end, Rod got serious and read us this poem by Amil Quayle, which Quayle wrote during his years as a river guide:
Anything you have read about the Grand Canyon is a lie
Language falters and dies before the fact
The experience is inexpressible in words
The Grand Canyon is its own language
Written across space, causality and time
See how puny these words are
Do not believe them
Time was running out. We had just two more nights and two more mornings. So we went away from the chairs to a natural stone patio a few feet away, where we laid out our cots and looked up at the sky and the river and marveled until everything went dark. Go there, indeed.
Quotes of the Day:
Peter: “You have to straddle the zone of confusion.”
Rod: “Jesus died for my sins. And since he went to all that trouble, it would be impolite of me not to sin.”