Phantom Ranch

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Each party was assigned a cabin. I was in a party of one, and aptly assigned cabin number one. It was set away from the other cabins, behind a private residence, so I would find the solitude I’d been seeking within its air-conditioned walls. I took my belongings to the building that would be my home for one night and closed the door behind me. I laid across the bed and let the air conditioning cool my sun-warmed body. I pulled off my dusty riding boots and saw the clear line the red dust had left straight across my jeans. My bag held a pair of zip-off hiking pants and hiking sandals and I changed into those, stuffing my wallet into a cargo pocket.

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The Cantina is a multipurpose building at the center of Phantom Ranch, serving meals twice a day and drinks and snacks throughout the day. It also houses a gift shop with items only available for purchase at the bottom of the canyon. I’d heard you could buy postcards that a mule would mail out. Eric had volunteered to be our USPS carrier for this trip and he’d carried mail to the bottom on his mule. I had many people I wanted to write to, so I headed over to the Cantina to purchase postcards for Eric to carry out the next day. I saw they also had beer, and over the winter I’d always have a beer after skiing down mountains all day. I figured riding a mule down a canyon was pretty similar, so I bought a beer and a stack of 20 postcards, and sat down at the end of a long family-style table to write.

I brought sandals, a toothbrush, and a copy of Desert Solitaire to the bottom of the Grand Canyon but I didn’t have a pen with me.

“Can I trouble you for a pen?” I asked the bespectacled young man who’d given me the beer in exchange for a NYC-esque stack of bills.

“You can even keep it.”

I wrote ceaselessly for the next hour, squeezing small words onto large postcards. I went back to the cabin to get my list of addresses and realized I did, in fact, have a pen that I’d wedged into the spirals of my journal. Oh well. Everything addressed, I went back to the Cantina to put the postcards in the mule-mailbox. Then I decided to put on my swimsuit and brave the cold waters of Bright Angel Creek. We’d been told less than 1% of visitors to the Grand Canyon make it to the bottom annually and I was determined to take advantage of it. Although the water was hovering around 48* – same as the Colorado, into which it flowed – and it was barely above my knees in most places, I found a deep well behind a rock in which I could sit. A group of hikers sat on the side and I asked them for a photo of me in the creek as proof I actually did it. Then I took off my outerwear and plunged into the bubbling, cool water, up to my shoulders next to the boulder. I sat for a few minutes, shivering as the sun withdrew from the high walls of the inner gorge, until I decided I’d sat long enough for it to count. I grabbed my towel and wrapped it around my legs and tied my shirt around my ribs. I wasn’t ready to go inside yet, so I sat on the rock with my legs extended in the icy water for a while, watching the sun retreat and enjoying the refreshing sensation after hours of pounding on my joints.

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When I got really cold I gathered my pants and went back to my cabin, where I put on dry clothes and got ready for dinner. We were seated by party, but as it turned out, all the mule riders were at one table, and the hikers were dispersed among the others. I was at the end of the table with Sara and Larry. We all enjoyed salad, bread, potatoes, and vegetables. Maryann, Marie, and I devoured bowls of vegan chili and the others had steak. The meal finished with chocolate cake. It was incredibly filling but I also knew I’d be hungry again later so I was glad we’d brought our lunch leftovers down and I had some cookies left. Zach, the young man who’d given me the pen, was also the cook, waiter, and host for the dinner. The rangers who worked at the bottom of the canyon would hike down, stay down for ten days of work, hike back up for four days off, and repeat the cycle. While at Phantom Ranch they were somewhat all jacks-of-all-trades. They cooked, cleaned, ran cash registers, gave presentations, and more.

After dinner I decided to make the trek out to the Indian ruins we’d passed on muleback on the way in. I could have sat in the Cantina and talked with other hikers or riders but I wanted to be alone. A big part of this trip was to be alone since my other travels this year had always involved others and this was the only trip I’d taken completely solo, and yet, I’d hardly been alone, except to sleep. I walked out in the approaching dusk toward the Indian ruins and crossed paths with our wranglers, who told me it was about a ten-minute hike over – no problem. Once again I found myself with Sara and Larry, walking over to the mule field to visit our mounts. I walked with them until they turned up to the corral and I continued on toward the banks of the Colorado.

The nearly-full moon was bright and starkly white in the Carolina-blue sky but it didn’t photograph well. I distinctly remember seeing it perfectly framed between a divot in the red canyon wall, scrub brush cacti at the bottom, and that image lives only in my memory. I got out to the ruins and took my time reading the information boards discussing the approximate ages of each structure, possible uses of each, and speculation on what happened to the people who’d once lived here. I was utterly fascinated by the fact that people had actually lived inside the canyon. The earth there is harsh, unforgiving, unpredictable, and dangerous, yet people had lived there for hundreds of years by following the cycles of the earth. They would move to upper or lower parts of the canyon based on the seasons and weather. They managed to farm and harvest, and to save seeds. Especially after my time spent in the Amazon, I find myself questioning who has it right: the modern Western world with technology and medicine, or cultures who listen to and live from the earth? Are we, as a species, truly stronger now? I doubt it. I know few people in my daily life who would last more than a few days inside the Grand Canyon without any of the technology we have today. But history exposes itself to us in rock paintings, ancient homes, and handmade artifacts. People not only survived there, but thrived. They were creative and valued art and beauty. People struggling to live don’t have time to think about painting pottery.

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Larry eventually ambled over as well and we discussed these ideas briefly, before I descended the rocky slope to sit on the soft white sand hugging the river. It was some of the softest, whitest sand I’d ever felt and I sat in silence, admiring the natural beauty surrounding me. The river flowed green next to white banks at the base of red mountains supporting a black bridge under a blue sky. At the bottom of the canyon you see about as much as you can see standing on the rim, which is next to nothing. The inner gorge is so narrow and the rim so high, it’s impossible to get a good grasp of the magnitude of the canyon. It almost felt like just being inside any old valley, except for the isolation. Everything at the bottom was either carried in on muleback – the majority of everything, from food to gift shop items, floated in on a raft, or helicoptered in. Helicopters were saved for the largest, heaviest items like the washing machines and my queen-size bed, and were used rarely. Pack mule trains came down every single day.

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As the moon rose and the temperature dropped I made my way back up to the trail. I didn’t bother actually finding the path I’d used to get down and I paid for it with a stab from a cactus in my right shin. I still have a triangle-shaped three-pointed scar from the sharpest needles that went straight through my pants. I pulled them out and wiped the bright red blood off my pale-white skin. On the way back I passed the mules in their corral, and once again, sweet Vegas was happy to see me. I walked up and scratched her nose and ears through the fence. The wranglers were getting the mule food ready and all the other mules were more interested in the food than human contact, but Vegas continued to enjoy her scratches. After the food was put in the trough she finally joined the others and I joined the men on the other side. It reminded me of my childhood: the mules were eating alfalfa cubes which I’d fed to my horses.

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“How ya’ doin’, New York?” one wrangler drawled.

“Pretty well, actually. How about you guys?”

“We’re good. You gonna be up at the Cantina later?”

“Y’all gonna bring the whisky?” I grinned.

“I’ll be there for my coffee!” Steve, the old ranger from California, grinned back.

“So why do you get to ride Vegas?” I asked Ed.

“Well, she’s only been here a few months, but she was doin’ real well and we thought she was just about ready to put a rider on. Then last week, I don’t know what it was, but somethin’ spooked her, and she started buckin’ like crazy. Threw me right off, down the side. I had my rope and luckily she got steady before she fell down and followed me. So, I’m stayin’ on her for now.”

“That’s pretty rough,” I mused.

“It’s alright. I was hurt worse down here a few months ago when a mule pushed me right up into the trough and broke a few of my ribs.” The trough was concrete and that didn’t sound very pleasant at all.

“Glad you’re doing better,” I told Ed. I left the men with promises to meet them at the Cantina around 8pm – when it would open again after being cleaned up post-dinner – and walked back to my solitary cabin.

The sky was a dusky, purplish blue and stars were beginning to shine behind the cloud cover. As I walked back I saw Eric sitting alone outside the cabin he was sharing with the girls. He moved the towel on the bench over and I sat down next to him. “Still here?” he’d been sitting there when I’d walked out an hour earlier.

“I’ve moved a little. It’s nice out here though.”

“So what do you do when you’re not working on government secrets?” I asked. Earlier he’d told us he worked in computers for the government.

“I like traveling. We have to do it while we’re young and able.”

“I agree. Where are you headed next?”

“Greece this summer.” We talked until Marie and Maryann returned, towels wrapped around their wet hair, and went into the cabin.

“I decided not to shower. I’m just going to get dusty again tomorrow,” I laughed.

“Same here,” he agreed.

“I’m going to my cabin for a minute, so I’ll see you three at the Cantina in a few?” he nodded and I walked back up to my cabin. I didn’t really need anything there, but I wanted to be alone again. I laid across the bed and just closed my eyes for a few minutes, until I realized if I didn’t open them and go back out, I was going to fall asleep at 745pm.

I met Eric, Marie, and Maryann on the steps as we waited for the doors to open. We followed the line as it snaked into the Cantina, with people getting drinks one by one. Zach, again, was the one behind the cash register, and again, I got a beer. “I promise I’m not an alcoholic.” I apologized.

“I get it, don’t worry,” he reassured me. “You’re a New Yorker. I used to spend a lot of time there.”

I sat with my new friends and we talked about everything from M&Ms to their cross-country voyage. The wranglers never showed up. Within an hour our youthful energy was fading and we decided to turn in for the night since breakfast would come early at 630am. We got up to leave but Zach stopped me near the door. “Hey New York, what do you do?” I waved my friends on and told Zach I was a musician. He asked what kind and I went to my cabin to get my phone and play him a song. I watched his expression change as he heard my voice.

“If I didn’t have a nice new job to go home to, I’d be thinking pretty seriously about just staying down here.” I told him.

“That’s what I did.”

“What?”

“I used to work in fashion and I was in NYC a lot. I came here on a trip and I never left. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I could have had some sweet apartment and stuff by now, but instead I spend my days at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s what was right for me.” He recommended a band for me to check out in Phoenix and took my website and phone number, promising to call when he came to visit NYC over the summer. He told me he would be off the following morning and we’d have another cook/host, so I wouldn’t see him again before I left.

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I walked out into the dark night and into my cabin once more. I enjoyed the leftover cookies and took some ibuprofen for the pounding headache I hadn’t been able to shake. I was pretty sure it was a combination of serious altitude changes: I live at sea level, Phoenix is just over 1000ft above sea level and I’d been steadily climbing up to the South Rim’s 7000ft elevation the day before. Breathing deeply in the cold air at night had been difficult up there. Then I got on a mule and descended about 4500ft in seven hours in direct sunlight and warmer, drier weather than I’d seen since the Israeli desert. Sorry, body. After drinking some water I climbed into my queen bed – larger than my bed at home – and read a chapter in Desert Solitaire which just so happened to deal with Indian civilizations in canyon country. Although I was at the remote bottom of a canyon in a building over a century old, in some ways it was nicer than my apartment. It was private – no upstairs neighbors – and had air conditioning, two amenities I lack in New York. No matter the creek steps from the front door, or the fact I didn’t have to cook anything for myself.

I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to write a page in the journal attempting to summarize my day, from my first view of the rim to my last swig of beer, and soon enough, I was asleep, in the quiet, cool darkness one can only find in places where humanity finds it difficult to travel.

Continued here.

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