Paradise in the Arid Zone

Posted: October 22, 2011 in Adventure, ALL POSTS, Memoirs, Misc. World Blogs
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Note: Oops! I accidently clicked “publish” instead of “save”. This blog is still under construction. Feel free to browse through it, but as of today, it is sixty-five pages long when copied and pasted into a Word file and I still have quite some way to go.

My best friends were going on a family camping trip to the Grand Canyon National Park and invited me to join them.  I jumped at the chance.
They Are:   Mark(Dr. Mark Hama), my best friend  since our days together at the Univeristy of Texas in Austin in the late ’70s;  his partner Linda (Dr. Linda Kornasky) — who became my other best friend soon after she and Mark met while both earning their doctoral degrees at tulane in New Orleans;  Their two  children: Sebastian(12) and Lincoln (8) — calling these two precocious would be like calling Mt. Everest a hill — great kids.  I have known them since birth and am their honorary “Uncle Ross.”Mark and Linda are both tenured English professors at San Angelo State University and Linda is in charge of gender studies.

So after much discussion and collaborative internet searches the travel plan evolved into this: I was to fly to Albuquerque where Mark’s parent’s live to meet Mark who would have  already driven the eight hours  there from San Angelo with the kids.  I was then going to spend a few days around Albuquerque to see the sights and possibly ride the Tram to the Sandia Crest (11,000 + feet) with the kids.   And when Linda, who had been finishing up her last summer grading arrived, we would be off the the Grand Canyon.  We would camp at the Canyon Campground for four nights, hiking the canyon and seeing the sights, including on the third day driving 100 miles north to Page Arkansas to ride the Colorado through Glenn Canyon on a rubber raft for five hours.  Then after returning the 100 miles from Page camping the final night at the Grand Canyon, Bright and early the next morning, we would be off to beautiful-in-fairy-tale-proportions Sedona, Arizona for two days at a luxurious Best Western.

That was the plan and although I thought it was a rather tall order, that schedule was followed exactly.  What follows are the details, the adventures and unexpected happenings along with my favorite photos from the six hundred plus  I took.

Embudo Canyon

On my first full day in Albuquerque, Mark’s dad dropped me off at the trail-head at Embudo canyon near his home so I could hike around up there and get a few pictures.  The trail itself is pictured to the left and winds around and up into the foothills of the mountains beyond.  I got my first taste of the higher altitude hiking as I walked to the top of one of these foothills.  Albuquerque airport is one mile above sea level and the Hama’s home and the beginning of Embudo trail are at about sixty five hundred feet,  so hiking and particularly climbing is much more challenging than what I am used to in central New York State.  For example, my house is at four hundred and sixty feet and it is at about the highest point in my town.   Below are some pictures I took  of myself using my remote control as I scrambled up a large rock :

Also got a few pics of the Fauna and Flora:

The shot below is a Panorama of Albuquerque from the highest point I achieved that day:

The Sandia Crest

On Sunday, the last day before we were to leave on our trip, the boys and I took the tram ride to the Sandia Crest, which towers over Albuquerque reaching a height of  10,678 feet — roughly a mile higher than the already mile-high city.  It makes one feel very small riding in that little box with the vastness all around and below.  To give some perspective to our height, see our tiny shadow on the ground in the picture to the right — the green around it is full-sized trees, not moss.

Our ride to the top took about 20 minutes and was filled with a stunning Vista in all directions as we swayed and lurched our way to the top.  Photography was difficult, as the car was very crowded, so we did not get many good shots on our trip up and on the return trip, the car was totally packed, so we got only a few on the way down.  The picture to the left may look like a small pile of rocks, but the smaller ones are actually house-sized and the big one on the right is the size of a four-story building.  The picture to the right shows the view of Albuquerque off in the distance in the valley below.  Below is a view of one of the trams viewed from the observation deck on the crest, followed by a blow-up of the tram itself:

 Both Sebastian and Lincoln manned my camera on the tram and took some pretty good shots.  Here are a few of those:

Once we arrived at the top and before we began our hike, we found the view pictured to the right —  a maze of wooden of walkways with railings winding all over the whole crest, with an elegant restaurant nestled in the middle of them.   We then had a delicious meal in that restaurnant in preparation for our hike on the Sandia Creast Trail.   Even though we all over-did eating the excellent food, after staggering out of the restaurant, we somehow were able — after several false starts –to find the correct trail-head and start on our hike — an experience that was made more difficult both by our full stomachs and by the effect of the thinner air at this altitude. Here are some of the shots we got on that hike:





and finally,  a picture of the stone house that was our original goal, but that we did not make it to because we were too pooped to do so:


The Grand Canyon

So, when Linda arrived from San Angelo on Sunday and after enjoying a delicious meal prepared by Carmen (Mark’s Mom), we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening preparing for our trip.  The process of packing everything we could possibly need for this adventure into the Hama’s Honda Odyssey  — tents, food, stoves, air mattresses, sleeping bags, lanterns, flashlights, backpacks, rain ponchos, hats, sun screen, clothing, hiking sticks, leggos and various electronic equipment — was coordinated and supervised by Mark, who is truly a master at this because when the job was done, I would have challenged anyone to find a space in the back of that van into which a credit card could be inserted.

We headed for the Canyon early the next day and after about eight hours we arrived at Grand Canyon National Park.  The boys and I who had never been there before, were surprised by the large Ponderosa pines that filled the park.  We had the picture of the area being a sparse high desert.  The park is quite large and it took some driving around to locate our camp-site, but when we did, everyone pitched in and and everything was quickly set up.  Our campsite, pictured at the right, is about a mile from the rim of the canyon and is cozily nestled in stands of Ponderosa Pines, mixed with various other deciduous and non-deciduous trees.

Those who know me might observe that my tent looks a bit small to accommodate my 6’4″ frame they would be right — it is a child’s tent.   This sleeping arrangement came about as a result of a conversation Mark and I had on the phone when we were originally planning this trip.  He asked my height to find out if I could — corner to corner, fit in a tent he already had.  He said that when he measured the tent from corner to corner it measured slightly more than 6’4″, so he proclaimed that I could in fact fit in the tent.   But in his measurement, he did not take into account the thick inflateable air mattress I would be sleeping on which raised the floor an additional five inches and due to the inward curvature of the tent walls, the full stretch-out distance was reduced to about 5’9″.  However, since I can only sleep comfortably in fetal position, this did not prevent me from having comfortable sleeping throughout the camping experience.  The alternative — being able to stretch out, but submitting my skinny butt to the hard earth, will never happen.   My being in such a small tent did however earn some strange looks from some other campers who happened to glimpse me emerging from it, rather like a snail from its shell.

Just a word about tents in general here:  Whoever comes up with how many people a particular tent is supposed to hold, must be using very small people in their formula.  For example, the Hama’s tent is supposed to be a “six man tent” and the found it very cramped with the four of them in it.

After setting up the camp, we prepared our first meal — Hotdogs, chips and Pork ‘n’ beans  on a trusty Coleman Stove that Mark’s dad had passed on to him.  By the time we finished eating it was nearing sunset and all were eager to take our first look at the Canyon, so we all hopped in the van and headed that way and arrived at the observation point just before sunset.  The pictures cannot begin to capture the vista that unfolded to us.  Because of limited space and because of the bulk of the thing, I did not bring my tripod, so getting pictures at this time of day was a bit sketchy.

Here are two more from that first evening:

By this time, we were all getting pretty tired and ready to hit the hay.  We had planned on having S’mores around the fire, but decided that could wait until the next night.  Linda chose our campsite well when she booked it, because it was right next to the bathroom, so when we finished our ablutions, we were all out like a light in about ten minutes.  I slept quite well, roughing on queen-size battery inflated bed and it was good that I did, because we were all up before dawn in preparation for a very full day.

The Bright Angel Trail

    The picture above is one I patched together from four separate photos — it took that many to cover the whole trail — actually most of the trail as some of the trail could not be viewed from the place on the rim from which I took those pictures.  These pictures were actually taken two days after our Bright Angel hike as we were on our Rim Trail hike.    Note that I  traced the trail in red in the picture above.  The trail-head is near the  visitor center/Restaurant, which appears as a tiny faint blob in the picture above and then switches back and forth for 6.1  miles down  — the part that is visible in the picture that is.  The rest of the trail from that point where the red line ends near the lower left corner of the picture, becomes very steep and difficult and continues about another 10,000 feet (as the crow flies) to the river.   To the right is the whole trail pictured on a map.

     Ones whole sense of distance and size is very challenged by this experience.  Note the red arrow pointing at the cotton woods that appear like moss on rock as opposed to what they are massive trees — some with trunks twenty-five feet in diameter.  I never actually viewed these, as we did not make it that far down the trail, but Mark had made the trek all the way to where that red line ends back in the day.   As you can tell from the picture the trail switches back and forth causing the descent to not be very steep for the most part, but hikers are encouraged to stay away from the edge of the trails, which have no railings and and often offer edges with precipitous drops that would surely be fatal if one slipped.  We all stayed away from those edges as we hiked. Below is selection of pictures taken on that hike:

We saw hundreds of people both going down and coming up the trail and what an international group. I spoke with people from: Germany, Switzerland, France, Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, Korea, Japan, Viet Nam, Guam.

We get a bathroom and drink stop

The next two pics are of one of the park rangers taking a break in the shade of an overhanging rock from his daily trek of the whole Bright Angel trail.

We wound our way down, for what seemed like forever, but all of us were in very good spirits and holding up quite well, with plenty of water, fruit and energy snacks to keep us going and healthy.  In this very hot and dry environment, one can become quickly dehydrated if large quantities of water are not ingested.

At a point roughly 2.5 miles from our start, I started to worry about the fact that what goes down, must at least in this case, come back up and I expressed my concern to the rest of our group.  The kids of course wanted to continue further down.  I did not mention earlier that the temperature at the rim was hovering at or above 100 degrees and the temperature increases steadily with descent into the canyon until it reaches a sizzling 115 at the bottom, so at our current level it was getting more than a little warm.

At this point, I put my foot down and said that if the others wanted to continue on they could, but this senior citizen was heading back for the top.  The kids reluctantly agreed to begin the ascent and Mark and Linda agreed as well — I suspect with much less reluctance — and we started what felt like a twelve mile hike back to the Visitor Center.

As we wound our way to the top, we took frequent breaks with the frequency increasing as we approached the end.  Just before we reached the top, we were hit by a flash rain shower that was very welcomed as it cooled us off somewhat.

Once finally at the top, we noticed that we were all starving — not that we didn’t have food on our trek, we had consumed many bottles of water, multiple granola bars, apples and oranges, but we were very ready for a sit-down meal so I treated us all to a hearty lunch at the visitor center restaurant.  After this we staggered to the van and headed back to the campsite.  When we arrived we received quite a surprise as a 600 LB cow moose was casually licking water off my tent — apparently an easy source of water for these beasts after the infrequent rain showers there.  She did not seem in the least bit distressed as I walked up and took the picture and when she had licked her fill, she casually ambled away and as she did, multiple campers snapped pictures of her and I was also able to get a pic of her with Sebastian and Lincoln in the foreground.

When everyone settled down from that experience, we started to prepare the fire.   Each site has a cement pit with a large hinged grill over it for building our fires.  Beyond small kindling, no wood is available near the campsite and of course you are not allowed to cut any wood from trees, so you have to buy small bundles of wood at eleven dollars a  pop, so we used our wood rather gingerly.  Mark instructed the kids in the art of building a fire and in a short time we had a roaring blaze over which we prepared our S’mores – a toasted marshmallow sitting on top of chunk of Hershey bar which are both then  squashed between two graham crackers.   S’mores are a tasty but extremely messy treat, that was made slightly more so by the fact that Linda had purchased unusually large marshmallows — about the size of hard balls – which had a tendency to ooze out profusely when pressure was applied to the crackers.  When we had put out the fire and cleaned off all of the sticky stuff, it was time for bed as again we would be getting up very early the next day to head out on the next leg of our adventure

The Glenn Canyon Raft Trip

Early the next morning, as soon as we could drag our rather sore bodies out of bed, prepare a breakfast of oatmeal cooked on the Coleman stove  and complete our toilets, we hopped in the Van to head for Page Arizona where Linda had reserved a trip for us all down the Colorado through Glenn Canyon — Glenn Canyon is basically the same as Grand Canyon, just further up the Colorado and not quite as deep.  Page is roughly 186 miles away — a rather circuitous rout — but it is a pleasant drive especially in the morning before the Earth begins to bake.

Once underway, we made good time and amused ourselves with various car games such as identifying and chronicling  all the different state licence plates we could see — an activity that continued throughout our trip with only a few states missed by the end; playing twenty questions; and posing math problems — Lincoln demonstrated the ability to solve the two variable algebraic equations posed by Mark and I, in his head.  Did I mention he is eight?

When we arrived in Page, we headed directly to restaurant/boutique where we were to catch the bus that would take us on the first leg of our journey.   We had plenty of time to sample the food of the restaurant  before the raft trip where we all sampled their excellent wraps and smoothies.  After we finished eating we browsed the boutique, buying a few souvenir items until it was time to board the bus for the trip.

      I had envisioned that the bus trip would simply involve us being transported to the river by bus.  Although I should have known this is not possible as the river is roughly thirteen hundred feet down in a canyon with precipitous unbroken cliffs on either side, I realized that I really hadn’t thought that out very well.    What actually happened was that we drove around for awhile until we suddenly found our bus facing a huge sandstone wall with a giant un-lit  tunnel easily large enough to accommodate our bus.  From the opening one could observe that the tunnel went downward before it disappeared in blackness a few feet from the entrance.

        As we began our descent the bus driver explained that the tunnel is two miles long and that when we reached the end of it, we we would be at the bottom of the dam, our raft departure point.   The tunnel that was obviously bored through solid sandstone,  has no artificial lighting, but about every quarter mile the tunnel is intersected by a shaft about fifteen feet(I estimate) in diameter that runs from the tunnel out through the canyon wall, affording a pool of brightness eight times during our descent.

When we reached the bottom and emerged into the brightness, we were immediately issued hard hats which we were required to wear to avoid being cracked on the head by any random loose chunk of sandstone that might decide to fall off the canyon wall and were then ushered to our raft and after donning our required life-jackets all of us – roughly twelve in our group — piled on the raft.  The raft, called a J-rig is a thirty-seven foot inflatable pontoon raft powered by an outboard motor and piloted by our guide Kevin.  One could either sit on seats in the lower center part of the boat, or straddle the one of the pontoon on either side as I did affording me the ability to cool off by dangling one of my feet at icy fifty-five degree water.

Here is what the dam looked like when we started our journey:

     Before started down the river, our guide pulled our raft up next to one of the dam’s spillways where just being near the evaporating water gave us some relief from the well-over-one-hundred degree temperature.  As we cooled, he gave us us a brief speech about the dos and don’ts on the trip and after that we were on our way.

Here is another shot of the dam shortly after getting underway:

Here is a shot of Mark taking a picture of the dam:

Remember those shafts I mentioned that offered us some light as we came through the tunnel in the bus?  Here is one of those:

And another of those up closer to the top, near where we entered the tunnel originally:

      It is difficult to represent how much one miscalculates distances in situations like this.  For one example of this, in the following picture you see the canyon wall in the distance and you see raft just like ours made tiny by its distance and it appears to be near the canyon wall behind it, but it is way less than half-way to it:

  We tooled on down the river with the amazing sandstone walls towering over us for a few miles and then our guide turned off the motor and asked us to  look up at the top of the cliffs.  What we saw were tiny ant-like dots up along the rim.  The guide explained that those dots are people at one of the vista points on the canyon.  At that point, as I am sure he does on every trip, he insturcted us all yell “JUMP” in unison on his queue, and we did.  It was a good loud yell and reinforced by my decibels I am sure they heard us up there, but Fortunately nobody jumped this time.  After our shout, the guide told us a story of a previous trip on one of the rafts.   One of the  guides had his group do the same thing and just as they finished their yell they watched in horror as a figure tipped off the cliff and began to plunge into the depths.  However, after dropping about twenty or thirty feet huge wings unfurled and the jumper revealed itself to be a California Condor.  The huge birds that stand nearly as tall as a man and have up to a sixteen foot wingspread.  They are not native to this area, but since they are severely endangered in their natural habitats a breeding and release program has been started in the canyon and according to our guide it has been quite successful.  Unfortunately we did not see one of those on our trip.   The picture below is a telephoto shot of the people on the canyon edge — they looked much smaller to the naked eye.

     For another illustration of the distortion of size and distance in this place, observe the large arch-like indentation in the wall of the canyon, just about in the middle of the picture below.  Note its size:

Ok, Lets take a closer look at that.  Now how tall do you think that arch is?

Ok, here is how big it is:

    That’s right that arch is as high as two football fields are long.  Our guide said that when he was told this he had a hard time believing it, so he went there on his own and climbed from the river through the rock debris below the arch(that debris is actually the remains of the section of the wall that fell out to form the arch) and up to the point where he was standing at its base.   It took him a full hour of very difficult climbing to get up there — something he said that he doubts he will do again.

We saw occasional groups of Kyakers on the river, as well as anglers along the shore:

   About half-way through the trip, we docked our boat at a landing next to a side canyon leading off from the Colorado.  From that landing a trail the leads back into the canyon to huge wall on which petroglyphs etched into this wall by the [fill-in] Indinans  about [fill in] BC, displayed.  Before we walked up that trail to see them, we were all invited to take a dip in the fifty-five degree waters of the Colorado.   Most everyone on the boat, including the four of us, made a quick entry and quicker exit and were quite refreshed by it — momentarily, because after walking about one hundred steps up that trail, we realized how much cooler it is on the river than off.  Here is a view of that canyon and a few pics of those petroglyphs:

     I got some pretty good shots of birds along the way, especially this Great Blue Heron, who appeared to be posing for me:

   We also saw what our guide said was a Peregrine Falcon.  We could tell with the naked eye that the bird was indeed a raptor, but it was not until I later after I enlarged and examined the pictures that I found our guide was right.  Here are some shots of the falcon:

Here are some more miscellaneous shots as we floated along our way:

See the rock in the next picture?  This is a telephoto shot and that rock appeared much smaller to the naked eye, but it is really larger than a three-story house.

    Toward the end of our journey down the river, our guide pulled up near one of the other rafts to perform a ritual river ceremony.  The guide on the other raft, clearly a native American, produced a traditional wooden recorder-like pipe on which he produced a melodic native tune that resonated well.   When he had finished and applause were given, our guide pulled out a harmonica and played a nice little ditty, which he afterward said was a Dylan song, but which I did not find recognizable as such.

And finally my personal favorite from the river trip:

After five fantastic hours, we sadly reached the end of our trip and debarked and after a quick rest-room stop, we scooted through the intense heat to our bus for the hour-long drive back to Page, where we retrieved our van and headed back for Grand Canyon, to spend our final night there and then bright and somewhat weary the next day to tackle . . .

The Rim Trail

   Once back at the Canyon we made a much needed stop at the showers — We did not have showers at the camp-site, the showers are all housed at one central location and each shower is coin-operated, sucking in eight quarters for a ten minute shower.  The guys took turns showering and timing the others, ensuring that we finish our ablutions before the time ran out.  Linda had to fare for herself, but emerged with the same level of squeaky cleanliness as the rest of us.  Refreshed and quite hungry  we headed for the elegant dining room at the El Tovar Hotel, where Linda treated us all to a scrumptious dinner in honor of Mark’s just having officially received his tenure.   I had rack of lamb, Linda and Lincoln both had Buffalo steak and Sebastian had [fill in].   We enjoyed the excellent cuisine, while being afforded a wonderful view of the canyon rim from our table.   After all of that, we somehow each had one of the many fabulous desert choices on the menu.   Well satisfied, we then rolled back to our campsite for a little time around the campfire before our final night in our tents.

  Early the next morning, we headed for our last hike in the Canyon on the rim trail.  This trail as its name suggests runs along the rim of the Canyon and although there are some ups and downs on it, it is much less challenging than the Bright Angel trail, as the return walk is pretty much the same as on the way out.  We only walked a mile or so out on the trail, stopping to take pictures along the way.  Here are some of those shots:

A very lonesome small tree:

Still Life — Old Fart on the Rim:

Grandpa Hama had given both of the boys each an MRE.  MRE stands for Meals Ready to Eat and these are the replacement for the C-rations that GI’s used to consume whenever in the field.   The new twist on these is that they contain chemical Pucketts  that when mashed produce surprising heat, which quickly cooks the contents, and will also burn ones fingers smartly if not handled carefully.  Anyway, the boys both prepared and ate their culinary offerings, without injury.


To be continued ASAP

  1. tobyzwebsite says:

    love Arizona! even smaller canyons are beautiful

  2. […] Paradise in the Arid Zone […]

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