The greatest portion of my free time since August 2013 has been spent working on my Master’s program in Liberal Studies at Arizona State. The very nature of the program means I can focus on something that interests me and submit a final applied project on it. Of course, I chose the Salt River (see “Solstice Memories”), because, well… I’m fanatical! I will graduate in December, so the entire program has been one long crunch time! Challenges make us more rounded individuals, right? Right? I sure hope so, because I’m driving my poor husband nuts with me.
During my many Internet explorations on the topic of arid rivers and riparian areas, I found a quaint little ranch located on the Salt River at Saguaro Lake conveniently called Saguaro Lake Ranch. I’ve been itching to see and photograph the upper regions of the Salt for some time now. I love the restored areas down river here in Phoenix, but there’s just something about seeing water free-flowing through a canyon that is good for the soul. I immediately wanted to go there for our 10th wedding anniversary in May. It would also provide me with great information for my applied project, so win-win. Michael took some convincing. He is the worrier in the family, and as such, he takes forever to make a decision. I’m a little more resolved in my choices, but hey, we keep each other in check. When he finally sold himself on the idea of kayaking and peaceful hikes and we had acquired a grandma for babysitting (2 weeks before our anniversary) he made the call to the ranch. And then fate threw a big wrench in the cog wheels of our plans. The ranch was not open that weekend. It wasn’t the heat, it was the tourists. Memorial Day weekend packs the single roadway into the area and the poor little ranch can’t compete with the many visitors wanting to tube down the Salt River. I was heartbroken. I’m not a big crowds person, and as much as I wanted to see the upper river, I did not want to fight to see it over people in bikinis and massive inner tubes. I’m willing to brave the crowds for the sake of research if I have to, but this was also our vacation and we needed less chaos. We’ll have to plan a trip there for another rare moment when we have an excuse to get away (not holding my breath, sadly).
With two weeks left to make plans, we scoured the copper state for ideas. We only had three days of childless abandon to spend, so location was important. We finally settled on the Grand Canyon again. Why not? This time there were no children in tow trying to wildly dance themselves off of cliffs. It was going to be crowed like our last adventure, but at least we only had ourselves to worry about. The chance to hike down Bright Angel Trail was tempting to say the least. Wrong river, but worth a look anyway. We made reservations in Williams at the Mountain Ranch Resort (the most beautiful hotel in the woods I’ve ever been to), packed our bags, and crossed our fingers that this trip would be fun and memorable.
Then the Slide Fire reared its ugly head. Several fires actually cropped up around Northern Arizona. My heart broke again, not because we were worried about our trip, but because the most magical places in our state were being destroyed by human stupidity. Sedona is a place of absolute wonder and the fact that Oak Creek was burning left a sour taste in the air, literally. If you’ve never seen Sedona, you don’t know what you’re missing. I never take a trip up to Northern Arizona without considering that magnificent drive up through the red rocks on 89A. To see it is to fall in love with geology and nature, over and over again. We bit our nails, watched the news, and left on the I-17 to the canyon. The entire drive up to Williams was like watching a Greek tragedy unfold. The smoke was evident everywhere, white-grey and billowing like monsoon clouds. I’m not going to lie; I shed a tear or two as we passed Oak Creek Canyon.
The perfect scenery and rain-cloudy skies at the hotel had a powerful effect on my nerves. I breathed in every particle of the forest air. Pine! Beautiful pine. It is a cleanser for the soul. The presence of little cottontails, jackrabbits, blue birds, and robins made me squeal like a child at a birthday party the moment we turned into the entrance. I had a Nikon D3300 with me, my first DSLR, and these dear little subjects were dully studied. My love for animals was not satiated though. We had a few hours before darkness settled in. It wasn’t enough time to reach the canyon, so we hopped back into the car and went to Bearizona. It’s a place we’ve explored before, but the park is constantly expanding and improving. We’re always impressed when we visit. Watching black bear cubs wrestle is also cleansing to the soul. Don’t believe me? Just try it. You can’t frown watching baby animals play.
The next morning we slept in (big oops) and hurried through our complimentary breakfast. (Can you say custom omelets? Yum.) We gathered up our water packs and supplies and lathered on sunscreen, hoping our nature-loving naiveté wouldn’t cause us to forget anything important. The drive up to the canyon was beautiful but uneventful, though we did see great looming clouds of smoke in the distance, billowing reminders that we were still relatively close to the massive wildfire to the south. We parked in the visitor’s center, which was not completely full at 10:30 in the morning (whew!) and hopped on the shuttle to the Bright Angel Trail Head. I was itching to go down into the canyon, even if it was only part of the way. My husband and I know our limits physically, but I admit we sometimes push it. What we didn’t know was that our will-power was stronger than our untrained legs and lungs. Seriously. If you want to test the limits of your marriage, and you’re not experienced mountain climbers, take a trip down Bright Angel to the Mile-and-a-Half Rest House. I’m a little proud of us. We’re a hot-tempered couple at times (me more so than him) and the stress of daily living can grate on our abilities to support each other. When you’re hiking down a cliff and back up again in the heat of early summer, none of that crud matters. We grumbled about the pain, but survival mode made us far more encouraging to each other. The views were worth the effort, though our legs throbbed for days afterward. The top of the trail as we finished our 4-hour hike was like reaching some entry-level of heaven. We stood there, sweaty and sunburned, and looked down on everything we had accomplished, taking in the little rainstorms that loomed in the distance and the mule deer grazing. I realized with some satisfaction that we had done something that mattered more than bills, schedules, and fears: We had done some living. My husband planned to do more, already prodding me to decide when we were going to take the more difficult hike down to the river. Bah! My aching muscles protested this even if my heart secretly wanted to just head back down those switchbacks again.
We spent the rest of the day recuperating: noshing on good food at the local restaurants and exploring the Kolb Brother’s studio (amazing men who took photography to literally new levels!). The rim was beautiful that afternoon, caressed by rain clouds and glowing with the magic colors that moisture commands of stone. I was in my element and delighting in the views of water rushing through the Colorado from the recent release upstream. Without the children to preoccupy us, we somehow managed to avoid the tourist crowds. It was pleasant to feel like we were part of a chosen few who were granted permission to be in the presence of such grandeur. I knew we were blessed when we drove past the visitors center on the Desert View Drive headed toward, of all things, the Desert View Watchtower. Your sense of time is muddled when you’re away from the quick-paced demands of civilization. We mistimed the setting of the sun and did not make it to the tower. Michael found a secluded point on the side of the road and we filed out, still aching in our limbs, but wide awake to everything that appeared before us. I found a perfect little vantage point on a small overhang of white granite and we sat there, silent but for the click of my camera and the few gasps I couldn’t hold back, mesmerized by the orange winking sun as it waved goodbye and slipped under the horizon. That’s peace right there: listening to the rush of air and birdsong pass through the canyon and refocusing your fragile eyes to gaze at dusky, candy-striped cliff walls. I watched day turn into night and, though I was sad to see the perfection go, I knew there would be no regrets in my dreams.
Our last day was met with a little sadness. We had a few hours left to experience the northern wonders before we had to make the long drive back to Phoenix and rescue the frazzled grandma. We packed everything up in the car, enjoyed another omelet breakfast, and headed back up to the canyon. Our goal was still the Desert View Tower. When you look out at the canyon from the south rim near the visitor’s center, it’s easy to believe that the great hole in the ground goes on forever. But the expanse has an end. On the south east rim, Michael and I looked down on the edge of the canyon and marveled at how alien everything looked. Things were greener there and the rocks took on different hues. Looking to the east at the mesa and flat lands was like staring into the face of some primeval wilderness. If our oldest son had been with us, I’m sure he would have seen a dinosaur roaming the rocks. The beautiful tower that guards this fantastical realm is impressive. It looks like something out of time immemorial from the outside; inside it is elaborately covered with the expert care of native artists. The painted stones tell so many stories and I could have spent days listening to them whisper their secrets into the echoing depths of the little fortress of solitude. I bought a tiny spirit carving to remind me of the magic and reluctantly left the tower for the long drive back home.
Michael and I talked and mused over our 3-day adventure as we soared on rubber wheels down the winding 64 to the 89 for Flagstaff. We were trusting in our GPS to find us the quickest route home, though we were secretly wishing for more time to explore. We dutifully followed the path before us, traversing the lands of the Navajo Nation.I had never been this far north and I felt my whole body tingle with excitement when the vast expanse of the Painted Desert waved hello in front of us. It was a pleasant distraction and I almost ruminated on the colors indefinitely, but I happened to glance over at Michael to share in the excitement and gasped at the hidden treasure that emerged to the west of us. The Little Colorado River Canyon looked like someone had taken a tan basket, turned it upside-down, and raked over it with a sharp knife. The deep grooves that appeared in the ground were shocking, rising like leviathans in the flat earth. My excitement was contagious. Michael noticed the turn off to an overlook and made a rather reckless but complete turn into the parking lot, looking rather pleased with himself for finding me another mini-adventure to ruminate over. We paid the donation fee and parked. The moment I saw the overlook my motherly instincts took over; I was glad the children weren’t with us. The blue railings were more for show and the steps down to the cliff head were really just natural formations of sandstone that jutted out in a stair step-like pattern. Once my initial instincts were acknowledge, I shoved them aside and walked carefully in my flip-flops down to the overlook after my equally-inquisitive husband. It’s strange how an empty canyon can make you grin from ear to ear. The Little Colorado was in a dry period, but it was evident this was just a minor setback. Several resilient plants rested near the river bed and waited patiently for their chance to drink up the next flow of sustenance when the winter rains would come again. The deep grooves cut into the stone of Little Colorado River Gorge were mesmerizing. We spent some moments there, taking in the stillness and watching hawks fly overhead in the turquoise sky.
After this brief respite into fresh air, we continued our journey through the reservation and around Humphreys Peak down into Flagstaff. We leapt on the I-17 and raced home. As the ash and smoke filled our lungs and the oppressive heat of the desert valley crept into our metal bubble, we sighed and tried to put our responsibility caps back on. The kids would need their dinner and baths. We would have massive loads of red-stained laundry. But this was okay for now. In our hearts we carried with us down the freeway the memory of many canyons.