National Geographic : 2016 Sep
130 national geographic • september 2016 be clotted with houseboats and Jet Skis. The successful campaign to stop those dams, spearheaded by the Sierra Club during the 1960s, established the idea that the Grand Canyon is inviolable. And yet Pete and I had heard about a range of new proposals—many of them driven by savvy entrepreneurs operating just outside the canyon’s boundaries in areas that were con- trolled not by the National Park Service but by the U.S. Forest Service or one of the five Native American tribes whose federally recognized res- ervations are located around the canyon. From every point of the compass, threats ranging from colossal tourist developments and unlimited he- licopter tours to uranium mining were poised to spoil one of the world’s premier parks. It seemed to Pete and me that the best way to understand what was really at stake was to follow Kenton Grua’s example and hike straight through the heart of it all. “DUDE, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?” Pete murmurs, shaking me gently. “ Wanna try and eat some- thing before you totally pass out?” It’s late September, the sun is about to set on our first day of walking, and I’m splayed across the narrow patch of dirt where we’re supposed to spend the night. One of the many things that I hadn’t prepared for is that there’s nothing gradual about this initial stretch of the journey. The canyon sucker punches its challengers with some of the most punishing territory right out of the gate. Add to that our 50-pound packs and an early autumn heat wave that pushed temperatures to 110 de- grees, which wrung every bit of moisture out of our bodies and had begun peeling away the soles of our hiking shoes. By the next morning Pete felt even worse than me. He had muscle cramps so intense that when he removed his shirt, it looked as if a mouse had wriggled into his abdomen and was scurrying from his shoulders to his stomach and back, just beneath the skin. On day six we acknowledged that we were in over our heads and bailed, leaving Rudow and his partners to continue. On the trek out, Pete was delirious and disoriented, and once back in Flagstaff, he was diagnosed with hyponatremia, a heat-induced imbalance of salts and minerals, which, left untreated, could result in death. In late October, intimidated but not defeated, we descended back into the now much cooler canyon and resumed our journey at the milepost where we’d pulled out three weeks earlier. Over the next several days, we threaded a route along a dizzying set of limestone ledges that dropped almost a thousand feet straight down to the riv- er. Near river mile marker 32, we could discern the shadowy portal of the cave where archaeol- ogists have found artifacts of the ancestral Pueb- loans, who inhabited this landscape for more than 10,000 years, as well as the remains of Har- rington’s mountain goat (Oreamnos harringtoni) and yesterday’s camel (Camelops hesternus), now extinct creatures that flourished until the end of the Pleistocene, about 12,000 years ago. A daily pattern emerged: Each morning we would stuff ourselves with oatmeal, then set out on a 12- to 14-mile slog that usually involved haul- ing our packs up as much as a thousand vertical feet, descending impossibly steep slopes, or push- ing through thickets of thornbushes. This would go on until the sun began to set, at which point, battered, scratched, and bone-tired, we would boil water, wolf down some rehydrated dinner, then lie back and gaze at the night sky while lis- tening to the words of Edward Abbey on an au- diobook Pete had downloaded onto his phone. The book was Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s hom- age to the country of the Grand Canyon’s sis- ter parks, Canyonlands and Arches. Although I was usually too exhausted to stay awake for more than a few sentences, I often asked Pete to replay the part where Abbey warns readers not to jump into their cars next June and rush out, hoping to see some of the wonders he had attempted to evoke: In the first place you can’t see anything from Tune in to Parks Week, beginning on August 23 with America’s National Parks: Grand Canyon at 9/8c.