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Surviving the Grand Canyon

It was the summer of 1974.  Eight of us were restless from our midterms at UC Santa Barbara, and we needed a break from our studies. We contemplated taking a trip to Big Bear, where the lake and mountains would provide some solace, but the majority ruled in favor of backpacking through the Grand Canyon; a new adventure for all of us.  The five guys began making plans and deciding what we needed to bring, and my two female pals were excited to be with them and share the adventure.

It was supposed to be one of those simple escapes, an easy quick getaway filled with fresh air, adventure and bonding. Little did I know what sort of Hemingway trial awaited us.

Initially, all went as planned. We got to the rim early morning and loaded up our gear, starting at the North Rim, where a rainbow of striped sediments marked our decent. My new pair of hiking boots weren’t broken in, and the camel-colored leather was as hard as a car bumper and equally unforgiving.  My blisters began within the first mile, but I decided not to complain.

Our sedentary pace couldn’t contain the guys in their macho glory, so the five of them soon disappeared from sight. They promised to mark the way with the perfunctory signs.  Broken twigs and piled rocks attempted to show us the way, but as the afternoon progressed, our ability to read their signals dimmed with the imminent twilight. 

Around 3 p.m. the three of us reached a tight ledge with a 3000-foot drop into the Colorado River below. Looking down at the maze of water, I soon realized I had a fear of heights. The remainder of the path curved ahead of me like a wild snake.  I began to panic and thought we should turn around. Thankfully, Nancy, who was leading the way, was a pre-med student and the only one among the three of us with any common sense.

“Mary, if you try to turn around and head back now, it will be far more dangerous that simply continuing on the trail. Just take it one step at a time,” she advised.

With 35 pounds of luggage on my back, I was in no position to argue.  The canyon below me started to swirl. Disaster was imminent unless I made a decision quickly. Overhead, I thought I saw an albatross go by, but in my fright I knew that birds like this only lived near the beach. “I must be losing my mind,” I thought to myself.  Looking again, I adjusted my vision to see a Red-Tailed hawk, probably wondering if I would be good for dinner.

“Mary, c’mon, you can do it.  Take one step at a time.”  Nancy looked like she was five miles away, but in actuality she was only 12 feet ahead of me. Her strong carriage exhibited confidence. Her roommate Nicole stood behind me motionless.

“You can do it Mary,” Nicole whispered to my back. She grabbed my shoulder gently to steady me, and then she let go. I took a deep breath and tried to retrieve my composure.

I knew the ledge and the 3000-foot drop was but a few feet away.   I focused on my blistered camels and began plodding forward again.  “One step at a time,” I rehearsed the advice like a mantra, while the whitewater gnashed the teeth of the rocks below with its white saliva.

I heard the howling of the coyotes in the distance. Perhaps they were laughing at me.  I couldn’t tell. I focused on Nancy’s shoes in front of me until the ledge was safely behind us. Dusk continued to hover ominously on the horizon.  I began thinking of all the Stephen King novels I’d consumed, which didn’t help.

“Is this a broken branch? I can’t tell.” Nicole’s advice was useless as usual.  Taking the wrong road in the Grand Canyon was not something to toy with lightly.  Nancy, the boldest of the three of us consented that it was indeed a marker, so we continued, hoping the path we’d chosen would lead us to our campsite where hot chocolate and hot dogs would be eagerly awaiting.

I noticed that our water supply was getting low.  My tongue felt like sand.  Between us three, we had about 1/2 inch left in one canteen, and we were all parched.  Twilight shrouded us as we rummaged through a skeleton of options. 

“Maybe we should take off our shirts and write SOS,” I suggested shrilly. An owl hooted in the distance back at me. Nancy gave me one of those “Why did you ever join us on this trip” looks and suggested we simply continue with our journey.

Thoughts of wildlife consuming us for an appetizer clouded my sensibilities, but I decided to follow her lead. My pack seemed like it was getting heavier despite the fact that most of our water was gone, and the trail mix had vanished hours ago.

“Hey, what took you guys so long?” a familiar voice chimed.

Up ahead, I saw that it was the voice of Ray, beaming non-chalantly from his campfire as he motioned us over. The rest of the guys were nursing hot chocolate.

“How do you like your hot dog?” he grinned.

Nancy breathed a sign of relief and laughed. “So long? We just decided to take the scenic route! You’ll never believe what we saw,” she continued bravely.

Nancy plopped herself down on a nearby boulder and began recounting the day’s adventures, sparing the guys some of our gruesome details. Nicole smiled meekly before dropping her pack and heading swiftly toward the food.  I stood motionless for maybe a minute wondering if I’d ever be able to count all the lucky stars that had begun to wink at me from above. As the moon cast her white veil across the canyon, I grabbed the closest canteen and reveled in the pure clear liquid that was cascading down my throat.






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