There are national parks and then there are “The National Parks.”

     National parks, as defined by the National Parks Service, are the administrative units under their control.  There are over four hundred, including national monuments, recreation areas, seashores, lakeshores, rivers, parkways, battlefields, military parks, historical Parks, and “The National Parks.”  They range in size from a monument on just a few square yards to an area the size of Switzerland at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, and from places as obscure as the Thomas Stone House to the Statue of Liberty.  “The National Parks”, on the other hand, must be authorized by an act of Congress; currently there are fifty-nine.  They supposedly receive a higher level of environmental protection than the other park units.  Most people, when talking about the National Parks are referring to this select group, as in the question I have often been asked: “Which is your favorite National Park?”

     My initial response to this question is to say the C&O Canal, the historic ditch and dirt path that follows along the Potomac River and through my hometown, where I’ve walked my dog and ridden my bike most of my life.  But this park doesn’t count for most people since they have never heard of it and it’s not one of “The National Parks.”

     Another answer of mine has been to say that I have no favorite.  I did not go out seeking some ideal or perfect place but the wide diversity of American landscapes instead.  The desert canyons of many dimensions, the enormous trees, the unique ecosystems, the exceptional mountains, the isolated islands, the underground caverns, the aftermath of volcanic eruptions, the glacial tidewaters; I wanted to see all of it.  And “The National Parks” lived up to their elevated status, I almost never left one feeling disappointed.  But this reply sounds like an evasion to most people.  So since some of my park experiences were admittedly better than others — due to unpredictable weather and the people I met by chance — I’ve settled on a completely subjective answer: “I had the most fun in the Grand Canyon.”

     It’s not a fair comparison since I spent more time in the Grand Canyon than any other Park during two rafting trips I took down the Colorado River.  All my usual concerns I had while traveling, about eating regularly and keeping a schedule, were outsourced to the rafting outfitter, Canyon Explorations.  The other paddlers, including my Dad and Uncle on the first trip, were reliable company.  Enjoying the scenery was often an effortless exercise of just sitting and floating while the river guide in the back of the boat did the work.  Occasionally there was the excitement of the river rapids.

     The most remarkable aspect of the river trips was the complete disconnect from the outside world.  Entire days would go by out of sight of a building, road, or power-line; flying objects in the sky were the only visible sign of our modern civilization.  Electronic devices were banned — cell phones were out of range anyways — and the sound of an outboard motor was heard no more than once a day when a pontoon boat passed by.  Current events became history as the rafts drifted millions of years into the earth’s past. 

     Floating down river from the start of the Grand Canyon at Lee’s Ferry you are bound to receive a first-hand geology lesson.  On this upper section all the successive layers of siltstone, sandstone, limestone, shale, dolomite, and other rocks are first encountered at the river’s edge and then ascend higher and further away as you descend deeper into the Colorado plateau.  The guide claimed that the abrupt changes in the composition of rocks, or formations, were caused as the types of minerals deposited here changed over eons of time as this area of the planet’s surface alternated back and forth from a shallow sea floor, to a tidal flat, to a floodplain, to a semi-arid desert, and other environments.  At the top rim are the most recent of these formations, estimated to have accumulated two-hundred fifty million years ago; at the furtherest depths lies the ancient, almost two-billion year old, granite “basement”.  The Grand Canyon’s various slopes and cliffs are therefore composed of the crushed-up remains of mountains and oceans so long departed that their existence can only be guessed at now by scientists.  But the forces of erosion at work here are assured to be far more recent, I was told.  The canyon walls were cut within the last four million years, and most of that not by the main channel of the Colorado itself, but by the water flowing in through the many side canyons.

     When the guides were not instructing us on geology they were leading us on hikes up one of these many side canyons.  This was more exciting than the whitewater for me, my introduction to canyoneering.  On the second day they gave us all a chance to hurt ourselves by setting up a rope above a pool of water for a hand over hand climb up a slimy wall and into a fantastic slot canyon.  One guy made the best of this opportunity and dislocated his shoulder.

     Sleeping was even a memorable experience, on the sandy banks under the moonlight, until it started to storm.  This first raft trip was in early September, the “monsoon” season, which in the Southwest means frequent but short lived thunderstorms.  On the fourth night we began to pitch tents because of the rain and wind, which blew the beach sand so hard that it was painful.  

     The fifth day of our trip began with sunshine and a hike up to the puebloan granaries at Nankoweap Canyon, evidence that long ago people had lived and farmed beside this stretch of the Grand Canyon.  I remember a doctor from South Carolina making an unfavorable comparison to the simple pictographs we were looking at: “They were painting the Sistine Chapel in Italy at the same time.”  And from any objective artistic standpoint he had a right to scoff.  But, I thought to myself, these people must be given credit for having the ingenuity and tenacity to survive at all within the narrow confines of one of the most vertical places on earth.  And they also must be credited with good taste.  I personally wouldn’t trade the artificial beauty of any work of art, even one by a Renaissance master, for the view I saw from there of the Colorado, it’s gentle bends stretching out towards the distant canyon walls in the soft morning light.


     The plan for that afternoon was to stop at the confluence with the Little Colorado River, walk up it’s canyon a short ways, then jump in and float downstream in our lifejackets.   But it was not to be.  By the time our rafts arrived the next dark and violent storm had broken, and the heavy rain turned to hail.  The Little Colorado, usually a small stream of turquoise colored water, was a muddy torrent as we paddled by, and paddled hard — like a Roman galley — as the wind gusted.  The storm didn’t last much longer.  The sun impatiently began to break through the clouds while at least a dozen flash waterfalls now poured down from the upper reaches of the canyon, falling into the Colorado in sedimental shades of red, orange, and yellow.  The sun then started to glitter on the hail that had fallen so deep in places it looked like snow.  It probably all melted within a minute but there was no time for getting the camera out of the dry bag. The wind was still blowing, the rain spitting, and I was part of a team with a paddle in my hands.  Even so, this was perhaps the most extraordinary sight I’ve ever seen, and for a fleeting moment I felt that I had arrived at the very heart of the Earth.  

     The thunderstorms continued, raining once or twice an afternoon for the final few days of the raft trip.  When we reached the final camping area our tents were pitched in a hurry as the rain came down yet again.  After a short nap I zipped open my tent to another rare and amazing sight: a vivid double rainbow.  

     The next day my first Grand Canyon trip ended near Phantom Ranch.  Looking down the river I felt some regret to be leaving, and then hiked, with everything I brought along in a backpack, up nine tough miles on the Bright Angel Trail.  Before departing from the South Rim Village there was time to share a cold beer with a couple I had been rafting with from Washington State.  Sitting on an outside patio, another storm approached quickly as we finished drinking.  Lightning struck close by and we rushed inside as it began to rain and hail on us one last time. 


     Less than two years later I returned and hiked back down to the river during a fine May morning to join another rafting expedition continuing on the lower section.  This trip was a wilder time than before, both the water and the people. (It consisted of nine unattached men, three couples, and a mixed crew of seven.)   The rapids began in earnest and peaked in intensity the day after hiking down.  As the trip continued the water calmed down while the springtime afternoon headwinds intensified instead.  Rafts are not aerodynamic vessels, so we were commanded to paddle consistently and sometimes with real effort.  This hardship led one of my fellow rafters to talk of mutiny later on.  

     The mutineer in question was a doctor in training, not a rebellious person at all but probably not in the best of shape.  He choose to do the trip in the spur of the moment and arrived already exhausted from the twenty-four hour shifts a medical student has to endure.  He was born in Palestine.  Another good friend I made on the trip was in America to study urban planning, and the only person I’ve ever met from Mongolia.  I also talked a great deal with a college professor, who taught paleo-Climatology at Utah University, about the inevitability of global climate change.

     These are some of the diverse people I met on the rafting trips.  Most of them, while not necessarily strange, were at least a little out of the ordinary.  The typical American (that I know) is not going to go to the bathroom into an ammo box repurposed with glued-on toilet lid during their vacation.  And the normal hygiene cycle is impractical.  It is very dry so your sweat evaporates, but sand is everywhere, gets deep in your hair, and eventually makes you feel like a gritty mess.  I stripped down to bathe in the cold river about every third day.

     The river guides and boatmen were a less diverse group, some are strange, and all of them surely out of the ordinary.  I found them to be hard working, healthy, independent, and laid back.  It’s not a career field chosen by people with the ambition to “get ahead” in life.  If you are making a part of your living paddling a boat down the Grand Canyon it’s not for job security or recognition, but because it’s what you want to do.  The one character I’ll always remember as the arch-typical Grand Canyon boatman — born to wear a Panama hat — was our fearless leader of my lower river trip, a man called Bronze Black.  I didn’t believe that was his real name at first, but if anyone I ever met deserved to be given a name that cool it was him.  Reminding me a little of Donald Sutherland, by the end of the trip he had gained my admiration as the most perfectly relaxed person I had ever met.

     This second half trip on the lower section of the Grand Canyon, although two days longer, seems much shorter in my recollection than the first.  The days passed by at an accelerating rate and blurred together, becoming more and more like a long party with hikes, waterfalls, and some hard paddling in between.  And before I knew it we were nearing the end.  For the last fifteen minutes on the water, as is the custom, everyone sat quietly and soaked in the surroundings one last time.  Then the rafts pulled into the Diamond Creek take out and everyone helped to pack up the boats and gear into the trucks.  We ate lunch, packed ourseleves into the bus, and headed back to Flagstaff.

     That evening most of the guides and their tired customers met for a final goodbye at the hotel where we were required to stay.  Everyone looked shiny and clean after taking a much needed shower.  Some of us lingered on and drank beer and ate sushi at the hotel’s restaurant until about midnight.

     Waking up from a dream in my hotel room that night I remember something strange.  Staring at the shadows cast on the wall from the lights outside, I believed that I was still somewhere deep inside the Grand Canyon.  After a minute or two went by the sound of a passing car confused me, and then, feeling the softness of the sheets, I realized it was really over. 



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