An unforgettable journey into the GRAND CANYON by two dumb teenagers
TWENTY THREE MILE STAIRCASE
By Dave Finkelstein
There are a lot of things that I have done in my life as a youth that were quite literally hard to accomplish had it NOT been for luck, and NOT knowing all the facts before attempting doing something. This would be one of those stories based mostly on luck and youthful stupidity.
Back when I was 15 my parents took me and my cousin Robert (14) for a trip across America. The trip was one and a half months long and started in Northern New Jersey and ventured into driving in part along the Canadian Transcontinental Highway then to near San Francisco and down the west coast of the United States. We stopped to visit my Uncle Ralph and his family in Lakewood, California and of course visit several of the local attractions like Disneyland and SeaWorld. Then we headed back across the United States but had to see the Grand Canyon. It seemed to us that my father's sole purpose of this trip was to photograph America. He was literally a camera nut. You almost never saw the man without a camera in front of his face. At an early age my father taught me how to use a 35 mm camera and actually how to develop film in our elaborate darkroom he had setup in our basement. I guess you could say I knew the basics of chemistry well before taking the class in high school.
We had arrived at the Grand Canyon by the middle of July and the weather was on the hot side of the thermometer mostly in the nineties late in the afternoons. Once we had set up camp, my cousin and I decided to do a little exploring while my folks tried to escape the heat back at our camp site. We walked to the rim of the canyon trying to get a glimmer of the mighty Colorado river below but you just could not see the river from any vantage point along the rim. When you look into the Grand Canyon its loaded with foot paths and that seemingly lures you to believe the hike to the bottom is not far beyond your sight. It begs you to wander down its canyon walls to see wonders that only the daring would attempt to venture.
As we walked along the canyon rim we happened to come to the entrance trailhead of the South Kaibab trail. Looking down the trail it appeared to have a gentle slope with a few switchbacks and not very dangerous at all. I had bought with me on this cross-country trip my Mamiya 35 mm camera given to me by my father so I also could photograph America but through the eyes of a youth. We had only one canteen of water between my cousin and myself and a pack of firecrackers which I thought would be a great deterrent to warding off any rattlesnakes one might find in this desolate region of our country. We stood at the entrance of the trailhead and as if there were beautiful Sirens (Greek mythology) calling out our names to come join them below and we decided what could it hurt to walk down a little way. By this time, it was near 3 P.M. in the afternoon and I thought there was plenty of daylight to wander down into the canyon and return back to camp for dinner.
We yielded to the Siren's alluring call and started walking down the narrow dusty dirt path losing altitude quickly on every turn of the switchbacks. We kept glancing back to the trailhead entrance to see if we had ventured too far down into the canyon but the river still could not be seen and we continued our descent.
Looking further ahead on our descent we could see that our downward progress could be shortened by walking between switchbacks and we hiked deeper into the Grand Canyon. Before long, the trailhead entrance was no longer in view but our expectation of seeing the mighty Colorado River was shortly anticipated and we continued downward until we came upon the remnants of a large petrified tree. This very unusual find, prompted us even more to continue our downward hike.
The further down we went, the hotter it had become, and the temperature must have been over 100 degrees by that time of the day. The water in my canteen was getting low, I was worried about Rob's asthma condition but he reassured me that he was ok. Finally, after a long descent into the canyon we beheld a view of the river. Up ahead in the distance we could see an eroded single steel cable crossing the river.
The mighty Colorado River was nothing short of spectacular in terms of sheer power running through the canyon with rapids everywhere in view. Beyond the single cable crossing, was a long narrow metal foot bridge which looked safe but the river's waves were actually sending torrents of splashing water through the bridge's grated floor. The roar of the river was deafening and as we approached the bridge's railings, the entire framework of the bridge shook further, making a crossing very frightening. Across the river, we could see a clearing of higher ground with buildings. This was the famous Phantom Ranch that was built in a place of beauty and sheer terror to anyone dumb enough getting too close to the water edge. It would be like building a house on the very edge of the Niagara Falls. My cousin Robert did not want to cross the bridge fearing calamity but I told him we needed to cross the bridge because we needed water and dusk was soon upon us with no way to returning to the top of the canyon with the little daylight left. I decided being the older of us, to lead by example and mustering my courage started running across the 502 foot suspension bridge screaming at the top of my lungs until I had safely crossed. I caught my breathe and signaled Robert to join me to which I got to see what I must have looked like watching Rob running and screaming crossing the bridge. We collected ourselves, and then walked towards the ranch.
The first view of drinkable water was a horse trough filled with clear cool water. For some reason I didn't want to drink out of it but instead laid myself into its cool waters. I closed my eyes and for a short time felt refreshed as if jumping into a cool swimming pool on a hot summers day then I heard a deep voice with a western accent. "Son, do you think you can get out of the drinking trough so my horse can get a drink?" said the man. As I opened my eyes and looking up, I was greeted by the huge head of his horse looking bewildered as to why I was in his watering hole.
I was embarrassed by my actions and quickly removed myself from the trough. The horse then bent down and started to drink his fill. The man was kind enough to overlook my stupidity and I asked him several questions about how to get word to my folks as to our whereabouts and to not worry about us. He pointed to a ranch house within close view and told us it was the Ranger's. He then said that the ranger would be able to get word to my folks as to where we were and so Rob and I headed to the small wooden house.
I approached the open screen door and could see the ranger's family had just sat down for dinner. I lightly knocked on the door. His family's eyes rose from the table and I sensed my timing was really bad but I had to let my folks know where we were so it would give them some sort of relief knowing. A man in uniform rose from the table and came to the door. I sensed our interruption of his warm dinner was not welcomed and explained our situation to the man in a direct manner. He asked me if my parents were wealthy folks to which I replied "No, they were not". "Then you will be walking out of the canyon in the morning after sleeping at Indian Gardens up the Bright Angel trail on our way out. Or if your parents were rich, then we could call in a helicopter" he firmly replied. I asked if we could spend the night at the ranch to which he gave a firm "No". Not wanting to push my luck I thanked the man and asked him if he could at least call the rangers up top to let my folks know where we were? He took down my name and campsite my parents were staying at and we left.
Indian Gardens was back across the river and 3 miles up the Bright Angel trail. We crossed the footbridge screaming again all the way across and started up the Bright Angel trail. When we arrived at Indian Gardens it was the final moments of daylight in the canyon. In the distance, we could hear a lone coyote howling for its mate as the sun's light glowed faintly over the edge of the canyon's walls. In the distance up on a hill was a campfire burning brightly with young college age folks seemingly dancing around the fire to rock music blaring from a portable stereo.
The glow of the fire illuminated the area and we could make out a girl making sandwiches on a picnic table. My cousin and I have not eaten in many hours and were exhausted. I walked up the hill to the girl. She, for lack of a better description would be characterized as a flower child or better known to be a hippie. Between her lips was half a marijuana joint which she smoked while preparing some ham sandwiches. This was 1969 and the peace movement was in full swing out west. I begged her for a sandwich that my cousin and I could share to which she prepared then graciously offered to me. I noticed that she also had a small baggie of marijuana and some rolling papers on the table. Pressing my luck, I asked her if she would give me a couple of puffs on her joint to which she offered up the remainder of the joint between her lips. I thanked her and walked down the hill to my cousin and shared half the ham sandwich. After finishing the sandwich, I told him that I also had dessert and reached into my pocket and pulled out the half joint.
I was no stranger to marijuana but I think my cousin Robert might have been at the young age of 14. We smoked that half joint with reverence each holding our inhales as long as possible to get the full affects of cannabis. Add to that, we slept on wood log benches under the stars that night.
Things may have appeared sort of bleak but then, were they? We were both alive and well. To top off our situation, we could hear crazy rock and roll music in the distance and we each had a marijuana buzz going to sleep. Some folks might even call this a good day!
The next morning
before the sun crested the inside of the canyon's walls, we started
heading up the trail. Hiking up the Bright Angel trail could best be
likened to walking up an endless staircase. The switchbacks were
steep and grueling and with each step the red dust from the trail
rose up and covered our sweat soaked skin. There were several
watering holes on the trail up and we drank our fill, not wanting to
miss any opportunities to rehydrate ourselves while battling this
never ending staircase upward. Finally, we reached the top of the
trailhead. To my utter surprise, my father and mother with ranger in
tow were walking to us.
I had ample time to think about this situation on my 23 mile hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and out. Calmly speaking and exhausted I then said "Pop, I knew you would have wanted to photograph the inside of the canyon if you were physically able to do so. I decided as a favor to you, to do it for you" and handed him my roll of spent film. I could see tears forming around my mother's eyes and the look on the ranger's face was one of disbelief that a son could do something as crazy as what I just did for a father. My father on the other hand was wise to my trickery and wanted to scold me despite my statement of generosity but my mother stepped in knowing how gruel my father could be and said "Harold, not one word. Your son has given you a great gift of love, please do not ruin this for him and yourself." With that, he took the roll of film from my hand and we walked back to the campsite.
My cousin and I spent six dollars in quarters taking showers trying to remove the red dust from our skin. While in the shower locker room my cousin asked me if I thought our trip was worth it? To which I replied "I would do it again, and someday you'll tell your kids that you hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back". I still talk to my cousin every now and then. Our trip down the Grand Canyon always seems to come up every time we speak. I never got to see the photos from the roll of film I shot. I don't know if it was my father's revenge withholding it from me or he treated it as his own personal gift from his loving son not to be shared with anyone but himself.