Ed Abbey and I traveled all over the Southwest. I was a college sophomore and “Desert Solitare” had been in print for only four years. I kept a cheap, dog-eared copy in my red Kelty external-frame backpack and everywhere I hitchhiked across the Southwest, there was Ed.
We had great conversations as we thumbed across the Colorado Plateau, from the Glen Canyon Damn to the Gila, the Henrys, Madera Canyon and the Dragoons.
He was there that night in Hussong’s in Enseñada, Mexico, when I met a ranch manager at the bar and he suggested we visit the place he was caretaking along the coast. On the way to the beach, we suffered a fierce hailstorm, got soaked. I tried to dry my jeans by the ranch house fireplace, but, because of too much tequila, my attention wavered. The jeans burned up, and I crossed the border at Tijuana wearing a beard and a lightweight cotton skirt.
Ed was in my pack with the fringed Pendleton blanket I’d bought at the pawn shop on Route 66 in Gallup. I didn’t know it was a female blanket. It was cheap and I wanted to stay warm. Sometimes, I wore it draped around my shoulders or tied to the top of my pack. All across Navajo and Hopi land, I got sly smiles from children, uproarious laughter from adults and rides in the back of trucks.
Abbey was my guide. He taught me never to let college interfere with my education, how to question authority and how to find myself by getting lost. He went with me to Canyonlands, Arches, Wupatki and everywhere on the Coconino. Abbey was even with me on the Hermit Trail in the glaring light and suffocating heat of the Grand Canyon, and he was just as glad to crawl out of that overrated hole in the ground as I was. To hell with all those glorious sunrises and sunsets. I needed beer. I needed rest. And I needed to get laid.
I knew it wasn’t a good idea to take two girlfriends to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the same hike. I knew the Hermit Trail was a long, hot nine-mile slog 4,300 feet down to the river, but I wanted less traffic than on the Bright Angel Trail, with its hordes of tourists and farting, shitting mules. I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how much trouble I’d get into or what I’d find at the Colorado River’s edge.
What I didn’t know was how much water to take, even in March. Nor did I know the benefits of caps, hats, anything to cover my overheated head. But I’d learn. Oh, yes, I’d learn.
In the morning descending into the center of the earth, the first mile below the rim, hikers are confident, calm, poised. Backpacks are not yet heavy, thirst is not anything like what it will be by late afternoon, and the lack of shade is of no consequence. Hikers stretch out and get distance between each other. The full-on heat of the canyon is not yet apparent, at least not in early spring. It’s joyful to swing out along the trail walking, deeper and deeper away from the traffic, congestion and gawking tourists with their cameras, ice cream cones and fear of leaving the paved viewpoints on top.
Molly, Susan and I spread out. We attended college together and wanted to hike the Grand Canyon on our spring break. It had seemed like a fine thing to do back in Colorado with late-winter snow still on the ground, and no warm Chinook winds to melt patches of ice. So we made the drive down through Durango, the Four Corners, on to Kayenta, Tuba City, Cameron and in. Seeing the canyon in late afternoon light is unforgettable. As we drove, we thought about how fun it would be to play in the river so far below us, we couldn’t even see it.
Susan had her dad’s big Ford Galaxie station wagon and agreed to drive, which gave me time to flirt with freckle-faced Molly with her long straight hair, cute dimples and warm smile. I didn’t know how well I’d get to know her until we got close to the bottom. Then she took off her shorts and top and swam naked in one of the pools. Underwater, she dipped and dived, her smooth white skin submerged below the green surface of the water, a college boy’s fantasy if ever there was one. I’d been reading Abbey and somewhere he’d written about “rosy-bottomed skinny-dippers.” Had he been down the Hermit Trail, too?
But before we got to the pools and Polly’s birthday suit, there were miles of hot, dusty trail. After a few hours, my canteen was almost empty. I had no chewing gum and my tongue was getting thick and heavy. Little sparks seemed to float near my eyelids. I finished the canteen and soon wanted more water but, in the glare of mid-day, all I could find was shimmering, bleached-out rocks. The trail wound down. First, I wanted water, then I begged for shade, but there was none of that, either.
Instead, what there was under that glaring, brutal sun was a group of bouncy, boisterous Boy Scouts. Didn’t they know they could die out here in the depths of the Grand Canyon? What sort of Kool-Aid was in their canteens anyway? And, if the Boy Scouts were a shimmering haze of uniforms, patches and pins, on the flat, dry Tonto Platform, I thought I saw a wiry little man skipping down the trail, poking at rocks, turning them over and setting them back. It was high noon and I thought I was seeing things — a brown leather elf wearing nylon shorts and sandals. He looked not just sunburned but sunbaked, like a dark chocolate chip cookie left in an oven overnight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and assumed we’d had too many beers the evening before at our camp up top.
We’d packed all wrong. Too much food. Canned goods, mostly. Too many clothes. Winter wear for Colorado utterly unnecessary where we were headed. The sleeping bags were too heavy and I don’t remember any tents. What I do remember is becoming overheated, wanting water, then wanting shade, willing to settle for death if only the vultures and coyotes would be quick and clean. Sharp claws gripped behind my eyeballs. Dust in my nose made it hard to breath, and those damn Boy Scouts up ahead kept singing.
I knew I should have felt more responsibility for the young women I was with, but they seemed to have more stamina than I did, and they had sense enough to bring caps while I thought my long hair would keep me cool. Without a hiking stick, I slipped and tripped every now and then, sliding a few feet closer to the bottom. As for the brilliant colors and snapshots of geologic time in the heart of the canyon, it was all stone to me. I was as dry as a hobo’s shoe.
Just when I was ready to give up, fall behind a rock and wait for darkness, death, anything, out of the corner of my eye I saw the tiniest little white cloud. A few minutes later, it got larger, and the hot desert wind seemed to be a trifle cooler. The cumulus cloud grew. I said a quick prayer for shade and was overjoyed when the first cold drop of rain splattered in the dust before me. Suddenly, scattered drops became a deluge. What had been an insufferable descent into hell became a rush to get out of the cold, driving rain mixed with spikes of hail.
We came around a corner to find Hermit’s Creek and a likely ledge for shelter. As we ducked under it, we were surprised to see a dozen other hikers with wet hair, soaked shirts and saturated packs. My death march was over. From rain running off the alcove I scooped cold, clear water in dripping handfuls. We had a few snacks. The eagles let go of the backs of my eyeballs. I was delighted to see how lovely Susan and Molly looked in their wet, clinging T-shirts. It was the early 1970s and liberated women wore no bras.
Renewed, refreshed and keenly interested in sharing my sleeping bag that night, when the rain ceased we swung on down the trail. In another mile, we could hear the river, though we couldn’t see it. Water kept flowing down rivulets and off canyon walls. I was as happy and as ecstatic in that moment as I had been depressed and forlorn forty minutes earlier.
Life had taken on new meaning. I would live to tell the tale. To hell with the vultures, the coyotes and the Boy Scouts. I had two girls ahead of me on the path, a pack full of food, a wet bandanna around my neck for extra cooling and the welcome roar of a river getting louder in my ears. It would be an exciting night to be alone with Susan and Molly. I would be the hero, the guide, the interpreter. I would make up stories about prospectors, tell them about my favorite children’s book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” whip up Dinty Moore beef stew as canyon cuisine, wait for the stars, the cool night and the need to sleep close.
And then I saw them. Large hairy males wearing loin cloths dead ahead on the trail. Tall, muscular, bearded, like some throwback to the Stone Age. What the hell was this? We had almost made it to the bottom. I wanted to be alone with these two young bra-less co-eds, but, instead, we’d stumbled into a camp of degenerate, dope-smoking male hippies in need of food and females. While I was trying to determine what kind of threat the lean, muscular and totally bronzed Neanderthals might pose, Polly took off her clothes …
Stunned, I watched as she swam and splashed, making little noises about how cool the water was. I particularly liked her backstroke. Shapely breasts exposed, silken alabaster thighs moving slowly through the pool. Suddenly, there was a large splash. One of the cavemen had taken off his loincloth and jumped in. They started to swim and laugh together. I thought about reaching for a rock to bean him on the head when he swam by, but then I saw his four friends grinning ear to ear and talking to Sarah, who had just started to take off her T-shirt, too. I looked at my arms. As white as the belly of a trout.
So much for all those hours spent in the college library. My moment of confidence and tranquility ebbed away. I sat down hard on a rock, took off my pack, looked for a map and realized this was the end of the trail. The Colorado River was just below us. I had thought I’d find privacy. I thought at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the girls’ inhibitions would fall away. You know, back to nature in the basement of time.
But I had not counted on stumbling into a male hippie enclave hiding from the National Park Service. Their 14-day camping permits had long since expired. Instead, the merry band lived on food from any backpackers who had extra and who were returning to the top. When that ran out, they drew straws from blades of grass to see who would make the long hike up. We had arrived just in time. I had brought food and females.
Dejected, I watched a milk-white mermaid and a bronzed Greek God gambol in a pour-off pool. The Grand Canyon suddenly didn’t seem so grand anymore. Then the lizard man showed up.
He wasn’t actually a lizard man. He was a man who studied lizards and looked like one. He was a scientist from some university back east and this was his spring break, too. I don’t know what he’d been smoking, but a decade earlier he’d been hiking the Hermit Trail, crossing the Tonto Platform, and had seen the very first, only, one-of-a-kind, bonafide lizard with hair on it. Naturally, he was surprised. Delighted, but surprised. Quickly he reached for his camera only to remember that he’d forgotten to put in a new roll of film.
The lizard lounged, did a few push-ups, posed on a rock, showing off its hairy chest and a few small tufts of hair on its legs. Frantically, the scientist groped to load his camera, finally the film was in. He quickly closed the camera’s back, leaned down to take the photo that would make him world famous, and the hairy lizard disappeared. Without a trace. Into the vastness of the Grand Canyon. Into the brightness of high noon.
Skeptically, I listened to his story. It didn’t sound too probable to me, but what the hell? How was I to know that a colony of renegade hippies would make off with not one but both of my girlfriends? Reality was pretty strange down here below the rim. Anything could happen in the heat of the day.
I looked again at the scientist. He’d been stained mahogany by the sun. Then I looked closer. If he’d found a lizard with hair on it, he himself had no hair. Nowhere. He was as bald as a river rock. Seemed a little odd, but he was telling what he thought was a rational story about why he’d returned to the same spot on the Hermit Trail every March for the last sixteen years. This was the imp I’d seen hours ago.
I was sympathetic. At least I’d found someone not interested in gawking at the two girls I’d led down here to a canyon oasis. Still feeling sorry for myself, I looked up. By then, we were close to the river and a large group of rafts was coming by, including a National Park Service rig hidden in between the other rafts. The swimmers had decided to sun themselves on a boulder and didn’t see what was happening.
Ah ha! I thought. I’m saved. The Park Service will bust these law-breaking cavemen, give them fat fines, handcuff them, haul them out by water and leave me in peace with my naked nymphs. Hooray for the man with the gray shirt and golden badge!
But the hippies, long overdue up top, had been expecting an official visit. Just as I started to run down to the rocks to receive a tossed line from the short-sleeved ranger, the king of the vagabonds, naked as the day he was born, jumped off the boulder he’d been lying on with Molly, swam a little ways off shore, climbed on another rock and yelled at the passing boaters, water streaming off the long hair that ran halfway down his shoulders, “MY NAME IS KING RICHARD AND THIS IS MY BATHTUB — BE GONE!!!”
Startled by this brazen exhibition of premeditated madness, the Park Service ranger forgot to throw the rope. He drifted into frothing Hermit Rapid the wrong way and, despite paddling hard toward shore, the current pulled him into the river’s main channel. Like the other rafters, he was gone. And so was my hope for solitude and sex.
The cavemen, the girls, the lizard man, all began to laugh. I didn’t.
It would be a long restless night, followed by more nakedness the next day with accompanying giggles, hand holding and God knows what else. I slept alone in the sand counting the stars. Wondering how long it would take to hike out.
The morning of the fourth day, we began the long trek up, minus most of our food, which we had donated to the hairy hippies. Susan and Molly gave big hugs to the Neanderthals, hugs that seemed a little too long for such newfound friends, but who cared? I was going up, climbing toward the rim and sanity, to the real world and not this crazy canyon scene.
My legs and thighs hurt. Thankfully, the muscles we use hiking uphill are different from the muscles used going downhill or I would have been immobile. I was feeling pretty good until those rowdy Boy Scouts came by, shouting and singing and way too happy for the hard hike ahead. Hours and hours later — or was it days, weeks, months? — we finally topped out, took off our packs and collapsed. Molly and Susan were beat, exhausted, too much heat they said, and quite frankly, a real expanse of sunburn.
I was not sympathetic. Secretly, I wished that we’d all gotten sunburned together, but that had not come to pass.
Truly in need of shade and rest, we made it to the Ford station wagon and down the road to a cheap motel at Cameron, Arizona. I was perking up. Here was my chance. Having experienced the beauty and wonder of the Grand Canyon, I was ready for a long, slow night in a motel room with two college co-eds. We got the room. The last one they had.
Heart pounding with anticipation, I opened the door to two single beds. I showered, they showered, shades drawn, we re-hydrated drinking glass after glass of water. They put lotion on each other and whimpered softly, exclaiming loudly as they applied cream to the more painful bright-red, sunburned places.
Then they slept. And so did I.
On the floor.
The author teaches at an institution of higher learning on the Colorado Plateau and prefers to travel incognito.