Spring of 1986 finds Joanne and me with several Grand Canyon hikes under our boots and wanting more. We had barely survived a South Kaibab - Bright Angel loop, had a great time on a rim to rim to rim excursion, spent three nights in Clear Creek, including a hike to Cheyava Falls and lastly had done a four night hike in the Hermit area. Last fall I did a twenty four day Dory trip through the Grand where we hiked many side canyons and I am deeply in love with this special place. Joanne and I are ready to explore some more remote areas of the Canyon and so we plan a hike down the Tanner trail, then up river to the Palisade area for three nights and back to Tanner and out. This will put us in a good position to hike up to the confluence of the Little Colorado and perhaps hike up it a ways. We study the books, mostly Harvey Butcharts’s cryptic ones, and maps, but also books on local Native American history and culture. We read about the Sipapu. We are curious about this place and think it would be a gift to see it. We are young, in great shape, and optimistic we can make the hike up the Little Colorado. We plan our food to the calorie and ounce.
Sunday, April 20, 1986. We pack our packs and load up Joanne’s Subaru, which we have named “Ru”. I am 29, Joanne is 30 and we travel economically on this journey. We load a Styrofoam cooler with diet cokes and snacks, and leave Glenwood at 1800. Driving through the evening, we finally hit Mexican Hat around midnight. Midnight on a Sunday night in Mexican Hat and there is not an open gas station in site. Ru has a quarter of a tank of gas, and there is nothing but forty miles of desert between us and the next questionably open gas in Kayenta. We pull off the main highway and lay back our seats and sleep until dawn. The sun wakes us early and we head back to town. We gas up and then eat breakfast at the trading post overlooking the San Juan River. Eggs, hash browns, toast and some really strong coffee perk me up and we arrive at the South Rim at 1030 and check into Mather Campground. We settle into our site, Oak50 and organize our packs, making a list of things we want to look for in Flagstaff. But first we are off to pick up our permit at the Backcountry Office.
The Backcountry Office is located in a trailer next to the showers and camper laundry services. Information on various trails; and hiking the Canyon in general abound. There is a photo of a dead and bloated body next to a photo of a well hydrated hiker drinking heartily from his canteen. It gets the water point across. The ranger we speak to is a very nice young man. He looks over our experience, signs the permit, and we start chatting about our itinerary. We go over the map with him and he shares trail information and suggests a good place to stash water on the way down for our hike out. We are in a hurry to get to Flagstaff so we thank him for his help and head for the door. As I reach the door, the ranger asks softly, “Are you going up to the Sipapu?” We both stop and look at him. I could lie, say “no” or “maybe”, but I find myself saying “Yes, we have thought about it.” That was only a slight understatement.
We had thought a lot about it. The Sipapu is a sacred place to the Hopi, where they believe their ancestors entered this world. I wanted to see this place, but I was scared. I was not sure I should see it. I meant no harm or disrespect, just the opposite. If given the chance, I planned to approach this place with what I hoped would be the proper mindset. I just wanted to feel the energy of such a place. I would not need to touch it or intrude upon it, just walk past it. However, I am also a twenty nine year old, radical feminist and this nice young ranger man has just pushed all of my buttons.
“Be careful,” he says. I somehow know how hard he is trying to not offend us, just offer advice, share knowledge he has. “We will,” we reply.
“No, I mean it. Be careful. Every woman I know of who has attempted this hike has had problems with it.”
“Problems?” we ask.
“Look, this is a very religious place you are heading to and you must pass right above the Hopi’s salt mines. The Mines and the Sipapu are very sacred places and women are not allowed to be there. Women have had problems in this area. They are generally minor annoyances, pains in the ass kinds of things to deal with, not life threatening injuries. They break a pack strap, twist an ankle, or wander off the trail, or experience some other minor inconvenience. But it seems to happen to most women who go in this area. Just be very careful.”
I am kind of surprised that his advice doesn’t piss me off. I only feel genuine concern for our well being. I try to ignore the hair standing up on the back of my neck and quiet my heart rate as we assure the ranger we will be careful and that none of our plans are set in stone. Then we head down to Flagstaff, where we drive all over town but do not find anything we want. We give up and head back to Mather Campground where we put the finishing touches on our packs, declare them ready, and load them in Ru. We heat up barbeque chicken and veggies for dinner, eat and then crawl into our tent to try and get some sleep.
We plan to be on the trail at first light. My mind is racing, my nerves are on edge, and I don’t sleep well. I wake up at 0300 and 0530 am, sick to my stomach, not caring if its nerves or food poisoning as I throw up in the trash. First light finds me drinking some diet coke, and eating some crackers to settle my stomach. When it feels better, we pack up camp and head to the cafeteria for breakfast. I really want to be able to keep food down if I’m going to do this hike, but I stick with scrambled eggs and toast. The food sits well and I am encouraged. I feel better after breakfast and we head to Lipan Point. My stomach issues have thrown off our early start plans and it is 0930 before we park Ru in the overnight parking area and hit the trail. It’s not the first late start we have ever gotten and we are not overly concerned.
Tanner is a long, dry trail and we carry extra water to be able to stash half a gallon at the saddle for a dry camp and the last climb out. We carry a gallon each to drink, plus a spare half gallon. The spare half gallon will be in case of emergency or in case we decide to do a dry camp for some reason on the way down. The Tanner Trail is steeper than anything we have seen before, and the surface is covered with little ball bearing like pebbles. The two gallons of water we each carry weighs down our packs. We are in a hurry since we got a late start, so I head on down at a good pace. The trail is steep but easy to follow as it goes down a ravine. Maybe a half mile down the trail, my foot starts sliding as my ankle turns at an unnatural angle, my foot inverts and I hear my ankle pop. I am instantly nauseous and seeing little black dots dancing in front of my eyes. I cuss a bit then sit down on the trail, breathing deeply until the dots disappear, then I breath some more until I’m sure I won’t throw up.
I am devastated. I have been looking forward to this hike for so long, planning all winter and living each step of the trail in my mind as I studied the maps. Now here I am, a half mile from the trailhead with a sprained ankle and a 50 pound pack, on an impossibly steep trail paved with loose, pebbly rock, not two thirds of the way to the saddle and first possible camp sites. We decide it best to not remove my boot, I’m afraid I won’t get it back on once I take it off. I rest on the trail until I can think about trying to stand. I sip some water and some Gatorade until I feel better. Thank goodness I hike with a pole these days as it will come in very handy as a crutch. After a rest, I stand and I find I can hobble about some, and activating a rescue will not be needed. I decide if I must hobble, I may as well hobble downhill. I think if I can make it to the river, I will have five days where I can soak my ankle in the 50 degree water before I have to hike out on it. At the very least, rescue is easier by the river if I find I just can’t go on. But for now I must make a decision which way to go.
I swallow a handful of Motrin and stand up. Slowly, I am able move down the trail, careful of every step I take now. My ankle hurts, but I am able to tolerate it as the Motrin kicks in and I make slow and steady progress down the ravine. Finally the trail flattens out as it contours around the saddle. We stop past the 75 mile canyon saddle and stash some water trying to keep it out of site of some really nice campsites nearby. The campsites prove irresistible and I decide I am done for the day. We decide to stash ourselves for the night. We will see how my ankle does in the morning. From here it would be easier to hike back up and out, but we will decide for sure in the morning.
Joanne pitches the tent and we roll out ground pads and set up our beds for the night. I take off my boot and wrap my ankle with an ace wrap. Of all things, we have an instant cold pack in our first aid kit. I crack it open and prop my ankle on my pack. We cook dinner and I eat with my leg propped up on my pack, boot removed and ace wrap and ice pack applied. It aches, but I eat and feel ok. I take more Motrin and settle in for the night. I go to sleep, with my ankle up on the pack.
In the morning, we discuss our options. Joanne thinks it is smarter to head up. I agree, but I still want to head down. We pack up our packs; I tighten up my ace wrap and lace up my boots and we head down towards the river. The trail is flat for a while as it wanders on top of the redwall. I hobble along slowly before finding the start of the descent. The trail down the redwall isn’t too bad, as redwall trails can be, but below it, the trail wanders forever before finally dropping into the creek bottom and out to the river. We take several breaks and I rest my ankle whenever I can. We finally arrive at the river around 1400. I promptly remove my boot and soak my ankle in the river. The cold water feels great on my injured joint. We pump water, eat a snack, and plan the rest of our day. We have to camp in the Palisade area tonight, about five miles upstream. Our plan had been to hike the 10 miles to the confluence today. I’m pretty sure that isn’t happening, but I’m also sure I can make it to our legal camp tonight.
The cold water helps my ankle and I rewrap it for the hike up river. The food and rehydration make us feel better too and we make pretty good time climbing 100 feet up out of the Tanner drainage where the trail heads up river, before dropping into Palisade Creek drainage. We meet a man hiking south along the trail who had tried to hike to the confluence today. He tells us the trail beyond Palisade gets much worse with 300 foot drop offs into the river. He also ran into a lot of wind and one rattlesnake before he decided to turn back. We are discouraged by this news, but hope for calmer weather tomorrow when we plan to hike. He heads on down to Tanner for the night. We hike on up river until the trail drops into Palisade Creek.
We decide Palisades Creek is a good place to stay when clouds start to threaten some rain as we arrive. Legally, we can spend the next three nights here before heading back to Tanner and out. We decide to see how it goes and at least try a day hike to the confluence. We are fairly sure now we will not get to the Sipapu. We are ok with that and are enjoying being in the Canyon. We find a great place for the tent, mere steps from the river, under some Tammies. We chill peach schnapps in the river as a few raindrops hit the rain fly. Some rafts appear upstream and head for our shore. A woman with a daypack hikes past us and flags them down. A raft picks her up and they row across the river to camp at Lava canyon. We heat up water for dinner in the tent’s vestibule and settle in for the night.
The moon is nearly full and the light is bright despite the tent. I toss and turn most of the night. When I do sleep, I am awakened by the sound of scissors cutting something. Each time it happens, I sit up; shine my light around, and the noise stops. Finally near dawn I can’t take it any longer and I get up and really shine my light around. I find a mouse in the tent, happily chewing on the gorp he has liberated from our Nalgene container. I scream and mayhem ensues. Joanne and I knock each other over trying to get out of the tent first. Neither of us wants to touch the critter. We finally trap him between the door and the screen of the tent and usher him outside. The scissors I had heard was him chewing through the Nalgene container and the tent was littered with plastic shreds from it. That was one determined mouse.
We had planned our gorp down to the peanut just about. So we spend the morning scrapping mouth teeth prints out of nuts and pretending we aren’t totally grossed out. Damn mouse loved m&ms and cashews. We could have been on the trail by 0700, but we goofed off until 0900, still a bit hyped by the events of the night. Finally, we don day packs and head up the canyon. We climb up the steep trail going out of Palisade, going up and up, before finally leveling off a few hundred feet above the river. Here the trail proceeds to wind into and out of, every side drainage all along its way to the Little Colorado River. The trail is narrow and slants downhill, toward the river. It feels as if with every step we take, a force is pushing us down, into the water.
It is nerve wracking hiking. I am limping along well enough on my ankle, and Joanne is making good time ahead of me. I am enjoying the quietness of the hike at least, when the wind starts to pick up. Light gusts at first, soon followed by more severe gusts, followed by a steady wind blowing hard off the canyon rim and down towards the water. I dig in my hiking stick and bow my head to the wind and plug along. After a bit I hear a scream down the trail and I try to pick up my pace. Limping as fast as I can, in a few minutes I see Joanne headed back down the trail at me, yelling something about a rattlesnake. For some reason, I don’t believe her and want to see for myself. I don’t know why I think she would lie about a thing like a rattlesnake, but I had to see it for myself.
Sure enough a short distance down the trail there is a pink, Grand Canyon rattlesnake curled up under a rock, just off the trail with the tip of its rattle just visible on the trail. It is possible to step around the snake without disturbing him or her and we do. The trail then turns a corner and we are about 300 feet above the river, with the trail angling down towards the river, when a particularly strong gale force gust comes down off the rim and threatens to blow us into the river. Sprained ankle, mouse, rattlesnake, wind, we wonder what more the Canyon is going to throw at us. When we find two more rattlesnakes on down the trail at a place where it is impossible to step around them, we concede our defeat.
We decide not to push our luck anymore and turn around. We hike back to our tent at Palisade creek and decide to be lazy for the rest of the day. I soak my ankle in the river for a while and then we wander up the drainage a bit. We find the remains of a cabin and some mine openings and explore up Palisade Canyon a while. That afternoon we watch some rafts run Lava Canyon Rapid. We have one more day in our little paradise.
Our third day here is our laziest, we just hang around camp. We eat a late, leisurely breakfast and then walk back up the drainage, until we get to a place we can’t climb and don’t see a way around. Ok, we don’t look real hard, we are ready for a break and it is a nice place to spend the morning. In the afternoon, we hike back to the river where we run into another group of hikers and a river trip. We eat an early dinner and go to bed. We plan on getting up early and making as many miles as possible, dry camping somewhere up the Tanner Trail.
Our best laid plans never seem to work and it is 0900 before we head south and back to Tanner. It is slow walking with the pack again and it is a long five miles to Tanner Beach. After a few hours of hiking we arrive and startle a naked couple splashing around in the river. We apparently rain on their parade as they dress and leave shortly after we arrive. It really hadn’t taken long to hike the five miles to get here, but I am hot and tired and can’t resist another night of soaking my ankle in the river before hiking out. We decide we can’t pass up a last camp by the river and we will just suck it up and hike out in one day. We settle into a nice place by the river and filter some water for tomorrow’s hike out. We organize our packs, now lightened of food but filled with a gallon of water. We plan to be on the trail at first light, around 0500.
We break camp around 0500 and after eating some breakfast, we start hiking around 0600, earlier than we have managed so far on this hike. It is a nice morning and hiking in the shade on fresh legs, we make good time. My ankle seems to do ok carrying me upward. We over take a group that left a half hour before us and we top out of the redwall by 0900. We rest for a short time and then hike on to our water stash where we take a longer break, enjoying the incredible views from the saddle down 75 Mile Canyon. I have been limping along pretty well and after lunch am ready to go on again. We mix up some Gatorade with our water stash and start our last push up the ravine to the rim.
We are nearing the rim around 1300 when we hear people on the rim shouting down at us, “Does anyone down there have a brown Subaru?” What now, we wonder? We are still a half hour from the rim, we can’t hike any faster. The helpful tourists on the rim shout down, “someone broke into a bunch of cars up here, it’s a real mess.” Great. Nothing we can do but continue hiking up. We rim out around 1330 and find Ru with her back window smashed, the trunk and glove box pried open. The vandals have left a lot of nice winter camping gear, cooler, champagne, camera and binoculars. The only thing missing are our purses. We had taken all the cash out of the purses except for about $5 in change we had set aside to do laundry when we hiked out. We had left pictures, credit cards and driver’s licenses.
We drive to Desert View to report the vandalism and theft. The rangers suggest we drive back to Lipan Point and check the woods near where the car was parked. He said kids tend to take cash from the wallets and then leave the rest in the trees. We head back to the parking area and a short search of the trees turns up our purses. The wallets have been stripped of cash but are otherwise intact. The vandals/thieves took $5.00 in cash but did over $600 in damages to the car. We clean up the mess and drive to the campground where we luck out with a place to spend the night. On the way, we listen to a news station on the radio reporting the explosion and nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Power plant, somewhere in the USSR.
We hit the showers, do laundry and eat dinner. We discuss the hike and all that has happened along the way. I start to come to terms with the fact that there are some places on this planet I will never visit. I mean really, I may be a stubborn, angry, radical young feminist, but it doesn’t take a sprained ankle, mouse invasion, raided gorp, gale force winds, unstable trails, rattlesnakes and a vandalized car to get my attention. Ok, maybe it did take that, but really, a nuclear accident? Come on, even I am not that dense. I promise to pay more attention to helpful Rangers in the future. I hereby apologize to whomever I offended in my desire to hike up the Little Colorado and promise to never try such a stupid thing again.
In the morning we leave the Canyon after stopping for some last photos on the way out. We drive towards Colorado via the Hopi reservation, past the three mesas and on to Canyon de Chelly. We had planned to spend a few days exploring here, but there are a lot of signs about thieves breaking into cars, take your valuables, and the Navajo police are everywhere. All of the hikes or rides into the canyon require a Native guide and we just don’t have any extra money. We are also afraid to leave our car unattended with its broken window, trunk, and glove box. After everything we have been through we are more than a little paranoid as we pitch our tent in the campground at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. In the morning we just want to go home so we drove along the overlooks, blow off any lingering thoughts of hiking, and then head north into Utah and towards Moab.
The sun is getting low in the west as we near the turn off to the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park. We turn off the blacktop and drive out to a campground and set up the last camp of our vacation. It is cold and windy at the National Park Campground, but we are well equipped for car camping. We snuggle into big sleeping bags in our tent, and watch the sunset colors paint the desert and the dance of light and shadows begin their evening show. We zip up the fly and tent, and burrow into our winter sleeping bags when the show is over and the nighttime chill settles on the mesa tops. We sleep well this last night of our vacation and in the morning we pack up and head home. This is the only night of our trip where we meet no other humans, car camping in Canyonlands National Park.
[Editor’s note - You may email comments to Marsha at: Canyonsun@aol.com ]