Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Are you a man or a mouse ...

One of my college housemates, Lust (not his real name) could be an incredibly offensive annoyance. We were perfect for each other. Oh, there were a few differences between us ... his offensiveness came from his honesty, whereas the source of mine (offensiveness) was obnoxiousness. Plus, I was taller.

Honesty is merely a function of our ability to express the truth. Most of us can be honest most of the time. Unless, it is not to our advantage. Then we use this built in filter that protects us (and sometimes others) from our own honesty. Some use this filter selfishly, for their own personal pleasure or gain. In other circumstances it prevents us from blurting out our deepest darkest secrets.

Lust never bothered to use this filter and so we (as in everyone in Isla Vista) knew what he thought. All the time. About everything. At least everything that would concern a young adult man growing up in the multiple layers of confusion on the 1970's. To say that Lust was precocious would be like admitting there was tar on our beaches.

I think what made us uncomfortable around Lust was that we heard and saw him act out pretty much all of our own secret thoughts. His words and actions betrayed nearly every college male's well hidden sins. Whether it had to do with money, power, or women we never knew when one of our own secrets would be revealed for everyone to see. To be with Lust was kind of like allowing everyone to see us naked while reading our minds at the same time. And we couldn't just blow it off as "Oh, there he goes again," as if only Lust thought about those things because we all thought about those things. Like the woman across the street. She was drop dead gorgeous beyond belief. And sure, we wondered if ... But while we just wondered silently Lust would simply vocalize (and sometimes try to act on) every temptation and fantasy that most of us ... well, most of us would've rather licked a stack of used razor blades than admit out loud the secret desires of our hearts.

So, there was this really intensely uncomfortable uncomfortableness about Lust. He could be hard to live with. But there was also this childlike playfulness that influences me to this day. I still can't sing a Christmas carol without remembering how Lust would switch lyrics and melodies. (Try singing "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer" to the tune of "Frosty the Snowman" sometime.) Or when facing a challenge, Lust could call our bluff with a simple, "Are you a man or mouse? Squeak up!"

The North Kaibab starts out as a broad, tree lined, and relatively inviting path that disguises its true identity: a slithery tongue reaching out over the fat lips of hell's gaping mouth that drags people in raw, and whole (if you're lucky). But so far it had remained disguised and it was amazingly easy and surprisingly comfortable as the trail was relatively soft. Not so much due to loose dirt that would compromise our footing, but it was soft and almost silty. Fine enough to cushion the feet, ankles and knees while working it's way between your toes ... permanently. We took turns in the lead and sometimes I'd give Shawn a few minutes to get around a few switchbacks or follow the trail around to the other end of a side canyon and we'd take pictures of each other from what looked like miles away. The trail was tame enough that I could actually run down to catch up with her.

And I wasn't the only one running on the trail. We were passed by two runners, one on his way up and another on his way down.

Idiots ...

Besides the runners and the two of us the trail was well populated. Most of the hikers we encountered were on the rim-to-rim path and they far outnumbered us wimpy day hikers. We left too late in the morning to see any who might be trying the one-day version but we met several who were taking their time and camping along the way.

For a short time we hiked down with two women, probably in their early 60's and loaded with gear and expertly using their hiking poles. They planned a four day/three night journey, stopping the first night at Cottonwood Camp (6.8 miles and more than 4,000 elevation drop), the second night at the bottom at Bright Angel Camp (another seven miles), and then up to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail stopping about half way up at the Tonto Plateau and camping at Indian Wells. From there, it's an (easy) 4.5 mile hike to the Grand Canyon Village. This was their first attempt to cross the canyon and we learned that their husbands were helping them on the trip by driving the RV with the pets over to the South Rim to pick them up.

Others were attempting the trek in two or three days and we noticed that nearly everyone was using hiking poles. We also noticed that we were probably the youngest people (except for the early morning runners) on the trail. This shouldn't have been a surprise considering the people we've encountered so far seem to be enjoying their retirement years, or at least enjoying being empty nesters.

It didn't take long before the gentle Ponderosa lined paths through side canyons and inlets evolved into long traverses across some fairly sheer limestone faces. But the hike really did feel easy and when we arrived at our predetermined destination, the Supai Tunnel, we were a little sad to part ways with our hiking companions. We said our goodbyes and "nice to meet" yous and wished our new acquaintances well on their journey. We gorged ourselves on the water at the tunnel and refilled our bottles. Then we climbed around on a few of the nearby rocks and rested on some flat stones that were set up like a small throne. So there we were, the King and Queen of the Supai, having conquered this small portion of the North Kaibab Trail. We'd hiked about 2 miles in with an elevation drop of about 1,400 feet.

No wonder it seemed easy.

But before we headed back out (with our dignity intact) we ventured around the corner to look through the tunnel and just a little beyond.

We were still in the Roaring Springs Canyon, a side canyon like a giant inlet, and could no longer see the South Rim. The views from here are straight ahead and straight down. The straight ahead view revealed where our canyon would join up with the Bright Angel Canyon. This was where the original Bright Angel Trail ran from the rim and followed the Bright Angel Creek to the Colorado. The straight down aspect was simply straight down - as in, how do you do this without ladders and ropes, straight down.

I guess it was at this point that the trail got more than a little bit steeper and the switchbacks were obviously tighter and narrower. I still remember the last few hundred yards of our last trip into the canyon. We were numb and drunk on pain and exhaustion. Each step was a biomechanical miracle. We passed some visitors who were on their way down. They were side stepping with their backs hugging the canyon walls, eyes on their feet, one arm out at their sides with fingers groping and clenching for unseen cracks and crevices, the other desperately gripping their Coke cans, barely inching along. We moved from the middle of the trail to the edge to give them room. And they actually asked us how we could just walk up the way we did, along that outer edge and seemingly not even caring that there was nothing but 500' of air inches away from our feet.

I don't think we did care.

I think we grunted.

After the steep switchbacks the trail disappeared around a bend and reappeared a few hundred yards further into the canyon. It was then that I saw the bridge and the trail that continued on to Roaring Springs. And I thought of all those geezers on the trail. The woman with the knee brace, easing her way down. The retired professor (and Purdue alum) from Illinois. The two women hiking across to meet their husbands. I heard Lust prodding me. "Are you a man or a mouse?"

I knew Roaring Springs was out of the question. We talked about it beforehand and imagined trying it and just taking our time. It's more than 11 miles round trip and would probably take us all day. Now, at the tunnel, we were still feeling pretty good and it was still early in the day, only about 8:30. But the Roaring Springs hike was also about 8 miles more than either us was used to.

"Are you man or a mouse?"

I squeaked up. "Let's try and go down to that bridge."

That's me at the top of the switchbacks

That's Shawn, just one little step away

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