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  • Saturday, October 4, 2008

    The Grand Staircase, Part Four
    - Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

    Monday
    Click Here for Part One

    We woke well before dawn, at 3:30. We packed our tents and drove to Peach Springs, the Hualapai Tribe Capital, via Route 66. There was no traffic. Wild flowers and mountain ranges ran parallel to the infamous highway. The timing of the drive coincided with the sunrise. Rays foreshadowed its arrival from behind the rocky horizon.

    We drove though lofty sprawling views of open undeveloped land. Fields of green cacti filled in the flat areas between immense red cliffs. At times, we could look up at the cliffs on one side of the road and down toward the canyon floor on the other side.

    The Hualapai Native Americans own a 100-mile stretch of western Grand Canyon. The small town of 600 used to have a steady flow of visitors, until Interstate 40 overshadowed Route 66. The traffic now directed away from town. At a quick glance, it seemed the only thing here was the Hualapai Lodge, the meeting place for our Colorado River rafting trip.

    We went into the Lodge diner to have breakfast. As I ate the best scrambled eggs that have ever existed, I glanced around at the other people and wondered who would also be on our trip. Would I have stories about any of them by this afternoon? Those who wore shorts and sandals on this chilly morning gave away who they might be.

    We finished our breakfast and went to the front desk to register. “We’ll start getting on the bus in a half hour so you’ll need to be back here at 8 o’clock,” said a heavy-set Native American girl behind the counter that reminded me of Marilyn on Northern Exposure. We showed her our IDs and signed the obligatory its-not-our-fault-if-you-die insurance forms.

    An old school bus pulled up and waited outside. I haven’t been on a school bus for 14 years. “Is there anything you ever wanted to do on a school bus but wasn’t allowed as a kid, like stick your arm out the window or anything,” I asked Randy as we walked out to the bus. “Ha ha, uh, no,” he said, less excited about it than me.

    The driver back then told us about a kid whose arm got cut off by sticking it out the window. Enough to keep me in line at the time, but I’m an adult now. I know about scare tactics. I’m not letting such devices control me anymore. It’s just the principle of the matter. I don’t like all this manipulation and lying by our country’s school bus drivers. Let me live damnit!

    In addition, I was sitting towards the back like one of the cool kids. I climbed up the bus’s steps and could smell the familiar plastic school bus seats. Most of the people already on the bus were in the front (i.e. losers). We moved to a few rows behind them and sat on opposite sides. I sat sideways with my legs up on the seat, feet hanging into the aisle. Obviously, throwing caution to the wind. How you like me now bus driver?

    I imagined the retired Kingman Elementary school bus was in heaven as it bounced down the only road into the Grand Canyon. It screeched, rattled and ground its brakes around every bend. Heads of passengers in front of me sprang toward the ceiling with every hard bump. 

    The views of Arizona cliff sides were incredible at every moment. As we snaked our way toward the Colorado River, the road became less discernable as it merged with Diamond Creek, until it was more creek than road. The bus splashed through the water then shrieked to a halt near the edge of the infamous river. Most human retirements aren’t this good.

    Several powder blue motorized rafts bobbed up and down at the edge of the “Willie Wonka chocolate river brown” Colorado. The boats had been loaded with gear, ready to continue our journey. We put on life jackets and climbed aboard. “Ok, now we are going to go upstream a little bit, jump in, and test the life jackets for defects,” said a stout Hualapai river guide with dark sunglasses and a chubby cheeked smile on his face. His name was Louis.

    Louis secured all of the supplies then laid down a blue foam mat on the floor at the bow. “When we get to the rapids one of you kneel down and hold onto the front like this.” He knelt down and grabbed hold of the front edge of the raft. “This is the best view of the rapids. I guarantee it.” I wasn’t completely sure if he was serious, or just wanted to entertain himself by seeing if we’d do something stupid. “I’m serious, I’ll tell you when to get down there,” he said reading the thoughts in my face’s expression.

    On an adjacent boat, another river guide was talking to his passengers, “Ok there has been a recall on these life jackets so we’re going to go up the river a bit and jump in to test them out before we go.” This was Louis’s son Randy. Clearly, he’s learned a lot from his father, even his wit.

    The first rapids were just a few yards ahead. “Is that camera waterproof?” Louis asked me. I was even starting to annoy him with my camera. I took one last shot before stowing it in my waterproof case. I volunteered first to kneel down on the blue foam mat. Louis had, what seemed to me to be, an arbitrary system of telling us the speed of the rapids up ahead. He classified them from one to ten. The first rapids were about a three. We’d be going over some sevens later in the morning, he said. The boat started to pick up speed.

    I’ve never been on even class I rapids so I was stunned when the frigid 45-degree water crashed over us. No part of me was dry. The cold made it hard to take in a breath so I gasped. The Colorado doesn’t taste too bad. I turned and saw everyone else thrilled and laughing. “Hey, this vapor-wicking shirt isn’t working!” Randy said completely soaked and dripping.

    The current took us straight toward a canyon wall. I assumed Louis knew what he was doing and wouldn’t let us actually hit it. I turned back and saw him bent down not paying attention. “Hey!” I yelled out, but he didn’t hear me. Some others on the boat got his attention and he steered us towards the clear.

    “I’ve been running this river for 30 years right next to these loud motors so I’m a little deaf. You’ll hafta yell louder.” Louis said. “Sorry ’bout that. The backup motor wasn’t tied down. That was my first priority. We don’t wanna lose that.”

    By the time he secured the motor the other boats were ahead of us and out of sight. This was fine with me. This made the trip even better. He didn’t bother so much with catching up, but instead told us stories about both the geology of the canyon and his own life as a river guide.

    “My son’s first river trip was when he was four or five.” Louis stood in the back of the raft and spoke loud over the motors, “I couldn’t find a babysitter so he stood right next to me here. He runs his own boat now. His name is Randy. He turned over a boat a couple years ago dumping all the passengers into the river.”

    I once heard a river guide say the more rough a trip was, the more people would enjoy it and tell their friends. So, if the river was slow, he would intentionally dump someone in, guaranteeing good reviews. This wasn’t the case with Louis’s son; it was an accident that the other river guides still cracked jokes about. Louis pointed to him on the first boat we eventually approached. “That’s him there. Everyone say hi Randy,” he requested. “Hi Randy,” we said in unison.

    Short calm moments on the river were broken up by moments of speed, adrenaline, and being tossed around as if weightless. Each one came right after drying just enough to start warming up, reminding us how cold the water was. Louis cautioned us that the rapids coming up were about a six or seven. Stephen, a Canadian passenger sitting with his girlfriend across from us, decided to be the next to kneel down up front. The approaching rapids were massive.

    A raft out in front of us disappeared for a second behind walls of splashing water. Our boat was next. The bow shot up at steep angle and splashed back down. The water crashed on us hard. I gasped for air. More water up my nose and down my throat. We laughed and howled, again stunned from the cold. The river’s power was intimidating. I couldn’t remember a time I’ve had more fun.

    Stephen moved back to his seat, battered by the Colorado. Blood smeared across his face and dripped from his nose. “You alright?” Louis asked. “Yeah I’m fine,” he replied. “You got clean blood? If you don’t got clean blood we’re running the next rapids backwards!”

    The water calmed for a bit. We stopped for a short hike to a waterfall that flowed out of a cavern in the side of a canyon wall. We used knotted ropes and a wooden rope ladder to climb up to the cave entrance. The view could have been pulled straight from the cover of one of my backpacking magazines. We were the last to return to the raft due to my diligent picture taking.

    When we got back on the river, we were hurtled over more rapids. Half way through a swift section, that Louis rated a five, he did a U-turn and slowly pushed upstream to park the boat next to a rocky shore. “I thought we’d stop here for lunch, unless you guys wanna catch up to the others and eat with them.” None of us did. This spot was perfect and he knew we’d love it. He passed out sandwiches and we scattered near the river, sitting on and around large warm boulders like iguanas soaking up the sun.

    I couldn’t believe the trip so far. It just kept getting better. Here we were having lunch by the Colorado River, absorbed in the sound of white water with a view deep inside the Grand Canyon, cliffs towering hundreds of feet above our heads. Three days ago, I was in a beige fabric-lined cubicle, sitting at my desk, eating a banana, while my lean cuisine was warming up in the microwave.

    The sound of the river blocked out all others. It was incredibly peaceful. We finished our meals and just sat for a while. Randy tapped me on the shoulder, “Look”. He pointed at Louis still in the boat. He was lying relaxed in the back eating a sandwich looking around at the view. Even after 30 years, he was enjoying this moment every bit as much as us, as if he too had spent the previous weekdays wasting life away in an uninteresting, soul-numbing, beige cube.

    The final swift section approached. “How fast are these,” someone asked. “Uh about 6 or 7, but I’ll make it a 10,” Louis said with confidence. I took my final opportunity to get in position on the front of the raft. The river tossed me around like a rag doll. My left hand slipped off the edge and my body flew off the blue mat. Only the weakening grip of my right hand on the slippery boat kept me from floating down river. I’ve never held onto anything tighter.

    The river had finally calmed down for good and the final one and a half hours of the trip was with the less violent side of the Colorado’s split personality. Many layers of rock formations surrounded us at imposing heights, as much as a half-mile above our heads. Each layer at different distances slowly slid past us like stone curtains; an enchanting effect that no still photo could ever capture.

    Everyone relaxed. A cool mist blew over us from the front of the boat, cancelling the sun’s heat, now high in the cloudless sky. The rays reflected off immense canyon walls in many shades of brown and red. Our familiar world didn’t enter our minds down here. I can honestly say I didn’t think about my regular days or work much at all on this trip. That world existed somewhere over that rim and miles away.

    “This is my office,” Louis said. Four simple words that could make anyone question the course of their own life. I suspect he doesn’t care that radiologists make more money.

    Louis zigzagged across the river to show us a variety of interesting geological features. He pulled up close to a dark section of canyon wall smoothed to a shiny glaze by millennia of swirling water. “The river flows past the rock, spinning back on itself like small whirlpools, creating tall patterns of curled rock. Reach out, touch it, and feel how smooth it is. You’re touching one of the oldest rocks in the canyon, 1.3 billion years old. We call that sculpture rock.”

    He pointed out areas where workers came to survey and mine in the canyon. We got out of the boat to hike up on a hill where evidence of their time here still existed. “Run up there and take a look. Watch where you step, there are snakes up there,” Louis said, always seeming to make things more exciting or dangerous than what they were. Maybe all river guides knew about increasing the sense of danger to ensure we’d have more fun and more stories to tell others.

    I hiked up and saw an old gas stove and other pieces of rusted metal that I couldn’t identify. I hiked a little further up to check out the view. I made my way down when I noticed I was one of the few not back at the boats. My picture taking almost caused another delay.

    “Around this corner is the surprise spot. That’s what we called it,” Louis pointed up ahead. “Surprise, surprise, surprise,” he said like Gomer Pyle. To our right we saw a narrow canyon a few yards wide. “When I was in high school we’d come down here to party.”

    This river wasn’t just a job for him; this was his home, his backyard, where he grew up, and where he raised his son. It was his life. I hope he never wakes in the morning without realizing he’s the luckiest man alive. I should send him a photo of me in my cubicle just in case he doesn’t. He could look at it every morning and start his day instantly happy to be Louis the Hualapai River Guide.

    When I say, “This is my office,” the effect isn’t quite the same. The response would be more like, “This is great, Ryan, but all this depressing beige is making me constipated where can I get some coffee?”

    Our 8-hour journey was ending. The final attraction that he brought to our attention was the canyon where Robbie Knievel made his famous motorcycle jump. Soon we could see helicopters as we neared the Hualapai’s airport. Another half-mile or so down river some waited for us on landing pads to take us out of the canyon. We have seen the canyon from the rim, from deep inside the gorge on the Colorado River, and we’ll finish our visit seeing it from the sky. Few days in my life have been so remarkable.

    Even though I didn’t envision doing this on a motorized raft, as day-long paddling trips are not offered anywhere on the Colorado at the Grand Canyon, I’m satisfied enough to cross number 47, “Raft on the Colorado River”, off the list.

    A short flight later, we landed at the airport and boarded another school bus heading back to Peach Springs. We bounced around in the seats from another bumpy dirt road, through two hours of the Dr. Seuss-like panorama of hundreds of Joshua Trees. The bus occasionally filled with clouds of dirt. Randy tried to catch up on much needed sleep. I should have, but used the time mostly for writing in my journal and trying unsuccessfully to get good photos of Joshua Trees, while holding my camera out the window. My arm was never severed from my body (Stupid bus drivers and their lies!).