Up Top: Adventures in the Grand Canyon

Deep in the Grand Canyon (and if you’re right on the Colorado River that seems like the only way to describe it) on the second day of our grand adventure, Claire, our longbeard sage and veteran river guide used an expression new to me: Up Top. When you live on the east coast, California is found Out West. If you’re in California, then everything from Kansas to the Atlantic is Back East. The words are mildly pejorative, as in: “It sounds crazy, I know, but that’s how they do it Out West” or “I was stuck for two hours with these three uptight bankers from Back East.” And it was easy enough to see that Claire used the words Up Top in more or less the same way. Someone asked Claire about the real world, and he quickly replied, with his good-natured growl, that this IS the real world. It’s Up Top where everything is messed up. But when you’re down here, it all makes sense. Claire estimated, when pressed, that he had made some three hundred trips through the Canyon, so if anybody is qualified to make a statement like that, he is. After a few days of dropping steadily into this huge cleft in the earth, of watching the world and the heavens climb away from you, I can attest that Up Top seems immeasurably distant. That’s when you really feel like you’re Down Here. Down Here is close to the earth, next to the river, and far away from absolutely everything else.

Day Zero

We were due to meet with the rafting crew at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas at 2 PM. We were both hungry and extraordinarily grumpy. Here is a simple observation about McCarren International Airport: there is no fast food to be found. Don’t look for it, don’t expect it, and certainly don’t plan on it. Hungry, tired of carrying enormous heavy packs, and afraid of missing our connection to the Grand Canyon, we stomped around looking for something to eat. Eventually, we cornered and trapped two greasy sandwiches in a bar, after which we stumbled quickly downstairs to the appointed rendezvous point. There we saw a motley crew of people sitting on the floor. “Are these our people?” I thought. I puzzled over the fact that these people were either going to remain utter strangers or become my well-known and perhaps well-regarded fellow-travelers. I puzzle often over such things. Still, we needed to make sure we were at the right place so as not to miss our flight, so I asked: are you on the Moki Mac trip? To my surprise, all of them were. A lot of people, maybe twenty. I was mildly disappointed; you’d get much closer to ten people in six days than twenty people, but there you go. I immediately did my best to form snap judgments about everyone on the trip. What fun, I thought, to look back from a more informed future and see how good I am at snap judgments. Never overlook the chance to calibrate, I figure. (It turned out that I am damn bad at making snap judgments, but that’s another story)

The cheerful woman who organized us, we came to discover, was not in fact from our rafting company, but rather from Aluminum Foil Airlines, the company that was going to fly us out to Marble Canyon and the start of our trip. And no, oh no, we’re not flying from McCarren International Airport. We’re going to get in vans and drive to the Boulder City Podunk Airport before we get in the little tinfoil airplanes that will transport us. Outside, it is hot. Hot like opening an oven, peeking inside, admiring the scenery, hopping inside and closing the door behind you. Hot. The vans we are to take have no air conditioning. Once we are on the highway, we learn they have a number of other ailments as well. At 45 MPH straining to get over the pass on the way to Boulder City, the woman driving the other van calls out to ours: “Stay behind me! The van is acting up, and I don’t want to get stranded!” “These vans, it’s a wonder they don’t fall apart,” our driver remarks to no one in particular, shaking his head. We have just discovered that he is also going to be our pilot. Heh-heh, I joke with the driver of our van, it’s a good thing they take better care of the airplanes, huh? “Oh they take great care of the airplanes,” he says, without missing a beat. Heh-heh.

The flight is long, and though the scenery is fantastic, many of us are spending more time thinking about our uncertainly digesting lunches. And so it goes for a good two hours: loud, hot, close, and depending on your temperament, extremely nauseating. At the same time, I can’t help but think: what a great way to start an adventure vacation. This is the part of the voyage where we distance ourselves from what came before. Drone groan drone groan says the engine. We cross over the Kaibab Plateau at a surprisingly low altitude, low enough to make me pick up my feet to keep from scraping the trees, and once over the top, we follow the contour of the terrain straight down to Marble Canyon. Though our altitude above ground changes very little, I watch the altimeter spin around at a truly amazing rate

Day One

We’re up just in time for our free breakfast at the Sweaty Pillow Motor Lodge in Marble Canyon, and then we take a quick van ride down to Lee’s Ferry. Sorting out who’ll go on which boat is a surprisingly haphazard affair, and before long we’re drifting down river with riverguide Bill. “How is your head?” I ask him, having seen him absolutely smash it into part of the trailer on the van while retrieving luggage. “It hurts,” says Bill. He’s been living in Phoenix trying to get a nursing degree. This is the only river run he’ll do all season. Hmmm, I think to myself, is this the man I want to trust with my life? One trip all year, a big disorienting welt on his head, and (according to him, at least) out of shape? The twin spans of the Navajo bridge drift over us. Bill is definitely knowledgeable. If you ask, he’ll keep the information coming: this is the Kaibab formation, visible throughout the entire trip. Here is the Coconino limestone. There, if you look close, is the beginning of the Hermit Shale. He takes us through our first good sized rapid, Badger Creek Rapid, with great comfort and easy unmistakable skill. Bill is a good guy; he looks awkward as a stork, slightly goggle-eyed. He is quiet, but good-hearted, and he rows like a master. “How is your head, Bill?” I ask, with genuine sympathy. “It hurts,” he says.

Day Four

I had hoped we would get to be close friends with some of the people on the trip, but everyone seemed content with going to sleep early in general. But tonight at our Carbon Creek camp Beth, a print buyer from Atlanta, offered some after-dinner solace to WJ in the form of a little Jack Daniels. WJ was in need of solace because she had received a nasty bite on her ankle from a red ant; in fact, this is the only kind of bite they are capable of delivering. When I saw that bourbon was forthcoming, I found I was in need of solace too, so we all trooped back down to the riverside with Fresca, liquor, water, and a great big bucket for WJ to soak her ailing ankle in. It was here in the dark by the streaming river that Beth revealed, as she smoked a cigarette, the shocking secret of her vacation: it was financed by stolen goods. As a senior at Auburn, she and a sorority sister had discovered an old dusty marble bust in a disused room, and as part of a zany college prank they took it back to her room. Since then she had carried with her it for years from place to place, not through any great love of its style and form, but simply because well, there it was. Only in the last year had the idea crept into her mind that it might actually be worth something, and you can imagine her surprise and delight at having it appraised to be worth exactly one all-expenses paid trip to the Grand Canyon. Beth is no fool: she inquired in June and here she was on the river with us in early August. Are you troubled by guilt? we wanted to know. Well, yes, she admits: if her sorority sister ever finds out she’ll claim half the loot.

Day Five

Highlights: evening thunderstorm, the inner gorge, huge rapids, the Vishnu Schist (which sounds to me like the Indian equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge, but what do I know). Toward the end of the afternoon we pull off just above Clear Creek for a day hike. This will just be a short hike, but the climb out of the gorge is steep and stony, and by now everyone is used to the fact that short hikes are actually quite long, so a number of people hang back with a riverguide named Whaler. Whaler never goes on hikes; instead he sits in his raft under an enormous umbrella and rolls the cigarettes which he smokes one after another. Whaler once told us he has a little cat that will give you a high-five. He said it with such evident glee that we had no choice but to believe him.

The walk is beautiful though, and a thunderstorm that threatens to soak us never does. The granite and schist are fantastically weird compared to the sandstone and limestone we’ve shared the last four days with, and it’s very satisfying to hike over it and hold onto it. We end up in a little grotto with warm water jetting into something like an enormous jacuzzi. On the way back, I hike next to Catherine and we talk for some time. Where did you first learn to run rapids? I ask. Right here, she says. And the amazing truth of the matter is: this is her first season on the river, and the very first time she ever went down the Colorado, she was paddling a baggage boat. She moved to Flag, which you’re allowed to call Flagstaff if you’re sufficiently cool, and she began pestering river runners relentlessly. And the final part of the secret is this: she works for free, presumably through the generosity of her father. River running is not the most profitable business, and none of the guides will get rich from it, so the temptation to let a neophyte drive the baggage boat on no pay must be great. So if you’ve got time and desire, you can jump in on the ground floor and go.

Day Seven

Back in Las Vegas, we can only conclude that Claire was right about the locus of the Real World. Las Vegas is Up Top, Over the Top, and Beyond Bizarre. It is the least real place I have ever witnessed, and it’s particularly jarring to see it after six days on the river. The ancient, forgiving Colorado pays Las Vegas’ rent. It gives her water to drink, it spins the turbines that electrify her neon. But I don’t think the river minds too much. The river that carved the canyon can afford to wait a century or two for this insane city to dry up and blow away. We had a fun in Las Vegas, but it’s the canyon we remember.

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