Friday, October 17, 2014

7 – THE DEATH MARCH -- “Grand Canyon Rafting – A Dozen Little Stories”

Our Grand Canyon rafting guides didn’t call it “The Death March” for nothing. The hike from the Colorado River up the cliffs to see some modest waterfalls high in a narrow side canyon wasn’t that far – maybe a mile. Nor were the steep trail or rocky switchbacks impossibly strenuous or particularly risky.

It’s just that near the top of the hike, death was as close as one slip. The trail was unforgiving, especially a short stretch where you had to duck your head under an overhanging ledge while navigating a narrow slice of rock and gravel that sloped off to a sheer drop.  
Context makes a difference. You might not give a second thought to scrambling along such a trail on a little hill next to a parking lot at the mall. You slip there – you get grass stains or gravel in a knee. Not The Death March. You slip there – you die.
I had no doubt that some really had died right there after our guide, Ann-Marie, told us a story from the Paiutes, who called the Grand Canyon home a thousand years ago. She showed us a spot where the vertical walls of the deep slot canyon come close together in rock nubs projecting from each side that are large enough to stand on, although both slant into the abyss. You might even imagine that you could jump across from one side to the other – if you had a running start on flat ground, you were a trained broad jumper, and you didn’t know it was certain death if you missed.

Jumping, however, is apparently just what the Paiutes did – probably young men out to prove their mettle, like all teenagers of all time, I suppose. I imagined that’s who left the red hand prints burnished into the walls there, Paiute boys leaving their mark like a Facebook selfie.

Paiute selfies.
If Tyler had been born a Paiute, he probably would have tried the jump. The youngest at 16 in our rafting group, Tyler insisted on climbing everything in sight, to the heartburn of his accompanying grandparents who accused me with some justification of encouraging his risky behavior.

Eva had concluded, “When I saw Tyler stop in mid-sentence to try and catch a passing butterfly, I realized he’s just like a puppy.” And on the last night when we heard a voice from the booze table loudly demand of the darkness: “Who drank all my vodka?” the image of a drunken puppy immediately came to mind. Boys will be boys.
However, you have to wonder if that Paiute jumping story is true. There was this one crazy white boy who actually took the leap, according to Ann-Marie. His name was Kenton and he worked on the river and one day he got up his nerve and just did it. Kenton jumped and landed on the other side but was losing his forward momentum with gravity pulling him backwards toward death. That’s when he “felt a force” pulling his body back to the rock. So the story goes.
Everyone on our hike made it safely up to the waterfall, although one burly fellow needed several minutes to compose himself before crossing the worst spot. Hoping to ease any embarrassment he felt, I loudly branded it “the most scary-ass trail” I’d ever hiked and meant it.

Later in camp I asked fellow-hiker Bernard, a well-seasoned traveler, how he would rate The Death March on his personal scary scale. Bernard, known to most of the other rafters as simply an aging, Mexican restaurant owner from southern California, had shared with me his secret. He was a professional race car driver, having competed several times in the Indianapolis 500. As famous in Mexico, he conceded to me, as A.J. Foyt, whom he once had raced for. When racing as a rookie in practice for the Indy 500, Bernard had ricocheted his car off three walls and demolished it, as well as his spleen. Bernard knew scary.
“So, Bernard. The trail?” I said.

“Not number one,” he insisted.
“Then what?” I persisted.

“For me,” he paused, thinking hard, “number two.”
Rachel & Bernard
For overcoming our fears on that scary-ass trail, our reward had been plunging into a waist-deep grotto fed by a head-high, crystal clear waterfall flowing down from a sun-lit oasis lush with greenery and cottonwood trees.
Descending, I lagged to chat with Ann-Marie, who was bringing up the rear. “The most scary-ass trail in the world to see the world’s most beautiful landscape – at least in my world. Not a bad afternoon,” I told her.

As we dropped back down the rocky cliffside I added, “Still, I can’t believe you take people here. I mean, it’s a great experience, but I can’t believe the risk.”
She reminded me that anyone can stay with the raft; take a shorter, completely safe hike, as most had chosen to do; or turn back at any point, as none had chosen to do. “It’s great when people push themselves,” she said. “We don’t want to discourage people from doing what they don’t know they’re capable of.”

“Well, you can never go wrong making people feel good about themselves,” I concluded.
We came to a fork in the trail where an abandoned and steeper portion of the old trail dropped back to the river. The two of us scrambled alone down that little-used route, sharing the silence, sliding over boulders, and dodging poky desert plants. Thank you very much, Ann-Marie, for at that moment I felt very good about myself, indeed.

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