Summer 2000

I was headed for the Grand Canyon, accompanied by my two daughters; Idun, 12 years old and Sunniva, who was 14. We left on the 27th of July. My father had the car checked, then went to Sears to buy new tires. He was convinced that he would never see his car again. I, on the other hand, had acquired an almost religious faith in its infallibility, after returning unscathed from a previous expedition. The motor missed at certain speeds, but this was a familiar quirk, which I ignored. My mother woke up at 4 am to insure that we left on schedule. I was strongly advised to check for wear-and-tear on the new tires, which had not been aligned. By sunrise we were off. We left Arkansas at 6 am, after prolonged farewells and delays while the kids tried to wake up enough to fumble their way to the car. They had stuffed most of their earthly possessions into the car the evening before, while I double-checked our list. The camping equipment was just thrown in, and the back seat was piled high. I could see very little out the back window, especially after Sunniva made a nest against the left rear door. Luckily, this did not matter much on a 4-lane freeway. Any overtaking vehicles could easily pass us (this included all of the other traffic).

We made pretty good speed to Oklahoma City, despite periodic downpours and thunderstorms. In fact, it started to rain a couple of hours before we left. In our naiveté, we assumed that the car chassis would divert any direct hits by lightning. In Oklahoma City, the floodgates opened, and we could barely see the car 40 feet ahead of us. We went past two fender-benders, but no serious crashes, since the traffic had slowed down to about 20 mph during the storm. We had considerable difficulty following the freeway signs, which were virtually invisible in the downpour.

Surprisingly, we emerged on the other side of town, after having chosen our route at random as the freeway lanes appeared and disappeared. An hour later, we stopped at the Cherokee Trading Post in El Reno, and called a friend to announce that the car had at least made it so far. The kids wandered in the trading post, lost in admiration for all the "Indian" jewelry (mostly imported from the Far East). Actually, it appealed to me too, but I look ridiculous in a headband. When our friend arrived, lugging an enormous inflatable mattress she intended to lend us, we ate lunch in the restaurant. I spontaneously decided to abandon my planned diet, and ate 3 pancakes. Nobody's perfect.

We gassed up, and launched ourselves across the wide prairie, which I was anxious to place behind me. We pressed on to Amarillo, which has only RV parks. Somehow, putting a little tent between those mobile homes did not appeal to me, so we detoured about 30 miles off the main highway to a place called Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It was indisputably a canyon, but the stream was a trickle, and the campground lay 7 miles from the entrance. An army of no-see-‘ems and flies already occupied our campsite, and we spent most of our time beating them into submission. The kids went down to the creek, but soon returned, pursued by some rather aggressive bees. We decided to visit the showers in the more exclusive section of the campground, a quarter of a mile further down the road. We spotted some wild turkeys along the road, which appeared to be pretty tame.

At the showers, the kids went inside, and stayed. I started conversing with a lady from Dallas. I asked if any of her kids played soccer, and she replied that all four did. After she finally came out of the shower, Idun returned to our campsite to fetch a soccer ball, and the other family hung a lamp in a tree next to the parking lot. Sunniva and Idun seemed to have the edge. The oldest girl was 13. A boy stopped by to report that he had almost stepped on a rattlesnake in the middle of the road right behind us, where the ball kept rolling. Afterwards, the kids were sweatier than they had been before they had taken their showers.

We retired to our igloo tent, and nearly suffocated the rest of the night. There was no rain, no wind, and any openings would have admitted the hoards of insects buzzing at the tent door. We discovered and taped a lot of holes in the tent, but the peak of the tent was in rags. We stuffed plastic bags in the holes and prayed for a dry night. The next morning, we left early. Making oatmeal without getting extra protein (insects) in it was virtually impossible. I never saw so many bugs. We decided to eat at a roadside rest instead.

The bread already looked like a run-over possum. We ate lunch at Taco Bell, a habit we continued with. We generally drank water. The ice was free, even though the water usually had to be tapped in the restroom.

We decided to spend the night at another state park ( perhaps we were a little slow learning from experience). We drove to Bluewater State Park in New Mexico, where we put too much too money in the little self-service envelope, because we only had a ten-dollar bill. We followed the road, which broke into a tangle of paths leading down to a nice lake, with hundreds of campers surrounding it. The tent was put up quickly, if not properly. The water was ice-cold, and the kids decided to stay dirty until the sun came up in the morning.

The next campsite was occupied by a group of 20-year olds, who were having a party. One girl got drunk and lost her car keys, which made her very unhappy. Probably somebody hid them. Two campsites down, somebody had a monster mask and was growling loudly. The campground quieted down about 0130, but then a thunderstorm blew up. There was little rain, but we had not tied the outer tent to the inner tent, and it flapped like it intended to take off. We discovered, too late, the mission of the little ribbons on the tent walls. We were supposed to anchor the inner tent to the outer tent, Idun moved into the car, where it was a lot quieter, and lightning-proof. Sunniva and I stuck our fingers in our ears and held out the rest of the night. In the morning, the people in the next camp were in such a rush to leave that they forgot their tent. The car-keys had apparently surfaced.

We ate breakfast on the hood of our car, and set off for Arizona. We stopped at a trading post, and found out where the Indians bought their beads. We eventually reached Flagstaff, detouring for a stroll through a shopping mall at Gallup.

We got to Sunset Crater at about 4 PM. This might have been Arkansas time. Arizona is in a different time zone, and does not keep summer time, so we never did figure out what time it really was. We set up the tent, this time with both walls tied solidly together and staked down. A ranger gave a presentation about rafting in the Grand Canyon, which was right on the mark for us. They had a nice amphitheater. We went into the park and ran up a cinder cone (18 minutes to climb about 250 feet and walk back down), took the loop trail through the lava field, and tramped around another VERY jagged lava flow in a valley. We also wandered through the main building and watched some videos on volcanoes. After a very pleasant, COOL, night, we collected our free coffee and cocoa at the park headquarters, chatted with an Austrian boy and a ranger. We gave a rock with a hole in it, for hiding a key, to the camp hosts, who had sent my lost earring all the way to Norway the previous year. (I had tried to give the rock to my father first, but he was not very enthusiastic).

The ranger told us of a cinder-cone volcano just outside the park on national forest land, which was not spoiled by prepared paths and keep-on-the-trail signs. In fact, there was apparently no path at all. It was called Strawberry crater. It was about 350 feet high, and was described in the brochure as "challenging". It was also about 5 miles off the main road, on a gravel road in poor repair. I took the route recommended for low-clearance vehicles. It was pretty washed out, but not much worse than the road home in Arkansas. I hate to think what the other road must have looked like. We found the volcano, which had trail markers up the easiest side. There were no people in the area when we got there, but we saw a jackrabbit. Sunniva thought it was a deer to begin with. It was too small to be a deer and much too large to be an ordinary rabbit.

As we approached the volcano, a little fox came trotting through the trees in broad daylight. We were about 30 feet away. We started zigzagging up the mountain, which had about a 40-degree slope. I got up in about 20 minutes, or about 10 minutes after the kids. Under the crater rim, we found Indian ruins. One half of the crater was blown away, and as we worked our way around the rest of the rim, the ruins got better and better. These were real ruins, not the ones archeologists had dismounted and glued back together again with cement. It was like the good ol' days. After taking a lot of pictures, and drinking up most of the water, we retraced our path back to the car, where a couple we had met the evening before at the lecture were wandering around looking for the trail head. We pointed them in the right direction and set off for the Grand Canyon, vaguely relieved that there was another car behind us on the dirt road in case we should break down.

This side trip was rather time-consuming, so by the time we got to the Indian shops on the road to the Grand Canyon, most of the entrepreneurs had retired to their trailers. We continued on to the park, and rushed to the backcountry office, only to find it had closed early. They didn't open until 8 am, so an early start down the canyon was precluded.

We went to the South entrance of the park, where we knew of a big campground that had a tenting area. The showers ran on quarters, either ice cold or boiling water, but apparently you had to choose one or the other. Anyhow, the kids decided we might as well stay dirty, because we would most assuredly get sweaty on the way down the Canyon. At 8 am, we were back at the backcountry office. After waiting through the line, we got a long lecture on how hot it was, and how we should wait ‘til 0530 the next morning to start down. I reassured the girl that I knew it was hot in the canyon, having been inside it about 30 times. She reluctantly issued our permit, and we hopped on the bus to the trailhead for the Kaibab trail, at Yaki Point.

We started down at 0915, armed with about a half-gallon of water each. There is no water on that trail, and it is about 9 miles long. It was over 90 degrees, even on the rim, but we had a lovely breeze all the way down, which continued to increase in strength. I was terrified that the kids would lose their "Norway" caps, and they finally stuffed them in their backpacks. About a third of the way down, we met a caravan of people on mules. They were taking a break, and were walking stiffly around a little plateau and eating box lunches or visiting the outhouse which lent an air of sophistication to the rest area. We found an unoccupied tree and ate our Ritz crackers, peanut butter and candy; which I had taken along because the brochure had assured me that it was not advisable to diet while hiking the Canyon. Two of the mules refused to be re-saddled, and one managed to buck off its load. The kids swore that they would never ride a mule down that narrow path.

We picked our way gingerly down the trail. When one mule decides to let loose, all of the others follow suit. Consequently, the path was practically awash in places. The trail was reinforced with logs at regular interval, to keep it from eroding. Each log required a jolting step of roughly a foot down. I called them mule hurdles. There had been no mules on the Kaibab Trail 30 years ago. We finally arrived on the Tonto Platform, a nearly level terrace about half of the way down. The breeze was still blowing, but in the sun it felt like a draft from a blast furnace. The temperature in the shade was now about 105degrees Fahrenheit, and we had a lovely rest on the shady porch of the last outhouse. Shade had become a scarce commodity, and we stopped about every 15 minutes under any rock we could find. We had drunk most of the remaining water, but by then we could see a cluster of rafts on the river about 800 feet below us.

We overtook two middle-aged ladies panting under a rock. I stopped to pant too. We talked about the store we had heard about on the bottom, and the possibility of ice-cold cokes. One of them lent me 7 dollars so that I could buy cokes upon arrival. She was determined to find a mule to ride out on in the morning. I told her that I thought they were booked months in advance. She had started down about the same time that we had, and was starting to get fried. I had worn a low-necked T-shirt, having given my blouse to Sunniva (she had almost started out with a skimpy top). I suddenly realized, too late, that my neck was singed. I hung a rag around over my shoulders to prevent further damage. I crawled out from under the rock and staggered the last couple of miles down to the river. The temperature was around 110 degrees by then.

We reached the bottom, went through a pitch-dark tunnel to the footbridge, and crossed the river. On the opposite bank was a cool, burbling creek. People had built ponds to swim in, about 2 feet deep. A sign by the creek asked if we were hot and half-dead, and invited us to throw ourselves in the creek. We complied, reveling in the clear, clean water. Oh- what a joy! I have never in my life experienced such bliss! We were still immersed when our benefactors stumbled down the path. Being apparently possessed of a stronger form of self-control than we, they simply soaked their feet before continuing on to the campground. We eventually dragged ourselves out of the creek and followed the signposts to the campground.

After inspecting the available sites, we chose one by a little footbridge. Upon closer inspection, it proved to be thickly populated by large black ants, so we moved to another site, across the path. Idun and Sunniva waded up the creek and built a little pond for my near-boiling coke can (I had to think of feeding my habit even in the Canyon), and our water bottles. While doing so, Idun saw a ring-tailed cat under the bridge. One of these critters once tore a hole in my new backpack because my hiking partner had stuffed a leaking honey bottle in it.

We set up camp, put everything even vaguely food-like in the metal bins on the picnic bench, and went to the ranger lecture. It was, appropriately enough, about rescues in the Grand Canyon, and the various ways you can get yourself in trouble there. We decided that an early start would be advisable. Like about 6 am. We spent a stifling night inside the tent, after the ranger ended her lecture with a quick and successful scorpion hunt. Somehow, sleeping under the stars had suddenly lost its appeal.

We were awake at the crack of dawn, but were far from the first to start up the trail. The path followed the river for the first 2 miles. I could not remember any of the details about the path from 30 years before. Finally, we came to a little burbling creek, which we followed for several miles as it slowly wound up a pretty, green canyon. We passed hikers occasionally, and came over four deer grazing about 15 feet from the trail. They apparently felt perfectly safe as long as the passing people kept on the path. There were many overhangs which must once have housed Indians, but I guess the ruins had washed away in the periodic floods.

In some places, beautiful little waterfalls gushed out of the rocks. We walked in the shade for the first 3 hours, and it had not gotten hot yet. Finally, we began to climb some switchbacks in the sunshine. These took about a half-hour, then the creek reappeared and the trail continued to meander along it.

While we were climbing the switchbacks, a man on the next switchback called to us "look at the ram!". I looked around, but saw nothing. I shouted "Where?", and he replied "Right ahead of you!" Suddenly we saw it. A wild sheep was wandering down the main trail directly towards us. We dug frantically in our backpacks for the cameras. The ram left the path about 10 feet in front of us, and wandered unconcerned into the bushes, where it proceeded to graze unconcernedly.

We arrived in Indian Gardens, about halfway up, at about 1130 in the morning. A ranger was standing in the path diverting all the hikers to the creek bank, where about twenty hikers were soaking their aching feet. If they didn't ache to begin with, they certainly did after ten minutes in that ice water. I had planned about an hour’s rest there, but had no intention of hanging around until 4 PM, as suggested by the ranger, before continuing our trek. We again met the lady who had wanted to requisition a mule. I had returned her money, as the store had been closed by the time we got down, and was not scheduled to reopen until 8 o’clock the next morning. She had started up the last stretch, but had been ordered back to the creek by the ranger, who thought that she looked too hot. Being a more cooperative soul than I, she followed orders. I figured I would have to fumble my way out in the dark if I waited until four in the afternoon to continue. I promised to find her husband, who had left her in the dust, and tell him what had happened; if I managed to locate him among hundreds of tourists on the basis of a rough description and his first name.

We dragged ourselves over a sun-scorched path to the base of the cliffs a mile or so away. There was no shade at all. The cliffs were vertical, and I could understand why many had gazed up from this point and proclaimed "No way!" Actually, going up is not as bad as going down. It is easier to step uphill than lurch over a log going downhill. While we were sitting under a rock resting, a Swede chasing two little boys down the trail spotted the girls' "Norway" caps, and spoke with us. He figured if the boys could make it, so could he. At the first water pump, we met some Danes. One woman had stripped down to her bra to cool off, which is acceptable in Denmark; but probably gave some of the Americans a nasty turn. I mentioned it to the kids, in Norwegian. I should have guessed that she was a Scandinavian. We had kept our swimming suits on under our clothes, so we could rip off our T-shirts at the water pumps and soak them under the faucet.

At the second water pump, a mile and a half further up, the squirrels were climbing on people, hoping for some forbidden crumbs. Each spent most of its efforts keeping the smaller squirrels from encroaching on its territory. At the canyon rim, some hippies were playing a guitar and drums. They presented us with free lemonade in little cups. We partook.

I wandered about 600 feet along the canyon rim, asking every man who seemed to fit the description (glasses and dark shorts) if his name was Craig. Amazingly, I found him. He was sitting on the bench waiting for news, and looked horrified at my suggestion that he might want to stroll back down the path to meet his wife. He could barely stand up. He was relieved and grateful to find out what had happened to his wife.

The kids and I piled into the car, and drove to the South Entrance, where a McDonalds awaited us. We bought a lot of junk food to celebrate our return to civilization. We also showered in the ice cold/ boiling hot water and washed all our clothes before leaving the campground the next day. After lengthy visits to the Indian booths lining the highway, we arrived at Lake Powell. We were surrounded by violent thunderstorms, so we collected boulders and anchored both the tent and the tarpaulin down so that it could withstand a tornado.

Sunniva went to sleep early, after a long swim in the 80-degree water, and Idun and I took time-exposures of the lightning striking across the lake. She decided to sleep in the car, and I retired to the tent, which justified our efforts by withstanding a rather violent rainstorm. The lightning itself was not too heavy, and I felt reasonably safe surrounded by hundreds of RV's and perched on air mattress. We decided to stay an extra day, and took an excursion to Wal-Mart in Paige. We were still recuperating from the hike.

It was two days before we could look at stairs without trepidation. I decided we should stop and take the tour of the Glen Canyon Dam the next morning. We went down to the bottom in elevators. It was chilly inside the dam, because the water at that depth was so cold. We saw the turbines and forgot all the statistics. We also bought a copy of John Wesley Powells' account of the first trip down the Colorado River. By this time, large sheets of skin were peeling off my back, and smaller flecks off my nose. I found a new pastime in expediting the process.

Idun started reading Powell's book, using me as a dictionary. After diligent research, I found the lock to the power steering fluid, and found it needed refilling, as it had a year earlier. I also topped off the oil and the coolant reservoir for the radiator. I intended to check the air in my tires, but the first three gas stations I tried had no pressure gauges. Also, the ideal pressure was not listed in the user’s manual or the inside of the door. A man who was waiting for the air pump told me I could read the optimal pressure on the side of the tire. This proved to be accurate. I didn't need any air, even though I had let some out by accident and squirted it back in without measuring it.

We set off towards Monument Valley, where all the automobile advertisements with spectacular western backgrounds are made. The area is also studded with vertical columns of lava, formed when the cores of volcanoes congealed and the lighter ash in the cones washed away.

We were chasing a little thunderstorm, and finally got close enough to immortalize a herd of sheep next to the road, with the rocks and a rainbow in the background. The sheep had four dogs herding them. They were obviously in charge of keeping them off the road. Of course, the greenest bushes were right along the shoulders. They must have been pretty smart dogs. All of the RV's and trailers were also stopping to take identical pictures.

Loaded with Wal-Mart orange and apple juice, we continued over an amazingly good road to Mexican Hat, on the border with Utah. I had once rafted past this point on the San Juan River. Unfortunately, instead of the raging torrent I remembered, it was only a languid creek. The summer monsoon rains had failed to materialize. We walked around a while, then drove to Bends State Park, a few miles to the North. Following a 4-mile long, isolated road, we came back to a lookout over the canyon, where a retiree from Paige and a RV of Germans had settled down. I had also floated down this section of the river to Lake Powell in a toy raft, armed only with a road map. The rain had quit for the day, and the sky was jet-black.

This evening, Idun and I could observe about 5 airplanes at any one time, and we saw 3 satellites. They are a lot easier to spot than they used to be, probably because there are thousands of them up there now. We had a cool, beautiful night, and all three mattresses miraculously held air, after a quick patch job on Idun's. The camping was free.

The next morning, we set off for Natural Bridges National Monument. The flat, smoothly paved road we had been following suddenly deteriorated into a one-lane, four-mile-long gravel road with a continuous 10-degree slope. A large sign warned buses, caravans and trailers against attempting it. We forged courageously on, while the car and trailer behind us hesitated, then continued. I assume he had to back down again. We didn’t see him anymore. The gravel made us slide around as if we were on ice. I clenched the steering wheel so hard that I felt like I was making indentations in it. When we emerged on the top, the smooth, straight paved road suddenly resumed, as if nothing had happened. I started planning how to avoid coming back down that hill in low gear upon our return.

We went to Natural Bridges National Monument. I volunteered to drink out of Idun's water bottle, which had at one point held chocolate milk. I had cleaned it with plain water, without soap, and the stench was enough to gag a maggot. Rinsing it out did not help. Idun collected more postcards. We walked part of the way down to 4 bridges and an Indian ruin. Some are of the bridges are high enough to accommodate the national Senate building in Washington, or the Statue of Liberty. People standing under them were almost invisible from the rim of the canyon. Afterwards, we drove towards Mexican Water, stopping at 3 separate Indian ruins on the way. One was a good mile-long hike from the road.

We missed the San Juan River, but doubled back on a road to Four Corners (where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado met). A wildfire was burning about 50 miles further north, In Mesa Verde National Park, but we could not see it. We followed a camping sign to a trailer, but the people weren't home. No other customers were in sight. We wandered down a dry creek bed to the river, which was redolent of the cattle that obviously drank there every evening. There were cow-pies in the campground too. The campground consisted of a thick mat of tumbleweed (Russian Thistle), an outhouse that didn't smell, because it had apparently not been used for months, and a roll of toilet paper covered with cobwebs. There was also a half-collapsed bench.

The women who lived in the trailer came home, and we went to talk to them. They wanted 10 dollars, which seemed steep, but it was getting dark. I put up the tent, put two blankets inside, doubled up, and still impaled myself on the underlying thorns. I decided that keeping the three mattresses inflated would be impossible. Both girls decided to sleep in the car after being stabbed by innumerable thorns. I dragged the tent over an ant heap. The thorns didn’t seem to thrive there, and the ants were too big to get into the tent through the gauze. After a fairly pleasant night, except for a spooky trip to the outhouse at 3 am, we ate breakfast on the bench. Just before we left, Idun got bit by an ant, and I started digging desperately for the antihistimins. She cried for the next hour, and her whole foot ached as the inflammation spread. She is allergic to bug stings and bites. A stop at Taco Bell at Ship Rock distracted her, and we headed south towards Gallop, increasingly confident that the car would survive the rest of the trip.

We stopped at one road-cut, in the Chinle Formation, and found about six pieces of petrified wood. This was the same rock formation as that in the Petrified Forest, though the size of the chunks of petrified wood was more modest. We got to Gallop and went to the bead store I had heard about, but it was Sunday, and it was closed. I have the street address, and can write for a catalogue later. After visiting a couple of trading posts, we got to Albuquerque. I saw a state park in a town a few miles north called Bernalillo. The park turned out to be on the Rio Grande, which was pretty wide but only knee-deep at this point. It looked like a storm was coming, so the man said we could use one of the picnic shelters at no extra cost. In fact, he said we could pay whatever we had, if we didn't have the right change. One dollar, or two; it didn't matter. We paid the regular price, 8 dollars, in small change. We placed all the change in an envelope, which we were supposed to stuff into a box through a very narrow slot, obviously intended for paper money. This proved to be a difficult operation, and I think a lot of the change ended up loose in the bottom of the box.

We raised the tent inside the cement shelter, anchoring it by hanging rocks on ropes out the open windows. The shower was made of molded plastic, and was just beautiful. Only about 10 people were in the campground, and we had the shower to ourselves. It was wonderful. The kids had read about an enormous soccer field in this town, so the next morning we decided to find it. It turned out to be locked up, guarded by barbed wire, and deserted. They were pretty disappointed. I stopped in a park in Albuquerque to console them, but it had about 6 baseball diamonds and no soccer field. There was, however, a big cement rink for skateboards and roller-skates. It was as big as a gym-hall, and free, with all sorts of ramps.

With the kids partly mollified, we continued towards Arkansas. By then, I was almost certain that the car would survive the trip. We got past Amarillo in Texas, determined not to stay in the bug refuge at Palo Duro Canyon. We saw a very appealing description of a campground about 40 miles east of town, but when we turned off, the terrain looked like the dust bowl. We followed some signs south 11 miles and came over a golf course (!) and a large lake, called Lake Claredon.

After driving around a while, we found a man who was about to close up a store where one could buy camping permits. He told us about a park where some people were camping in tents and caravans by the lake, and even led us there with his truck. It had a nice beach, where we swam with the air mattresses, and also picnic benches and a grill. The toilet was clogged, but I got it working.

There were some large frogs hopping around, but no mosquitoes. A terrific lightning and rainstorm on the other end of the lake missed us, but provided considerable entertainment, and I slept with my head out of the tent because it was cooler, and there weren’t any bugs. We slept like rocks. The last part of the run home was uneventful. We subsisted the last day on potato chips financed by the change generated by the cheap gasoline in Oklahoma. This proved that we could carry out an expedition without any unplanned adventures!