To experience fall-away space and wind-licked silence is a truly wondrous thing. The six of us sit and relish what wind, water, and geology have hewn. Vast buttes that were once strangers but are now our friends -- Newberry Butte, Krishna Shrine, Solomon Temple -- hunker before us at various distances, multi-layered pyramids of nearly incomprehensible age and scope. Here in the Grand Canyon the midday heat hums, a bird cries, and the runnings of the Colorado River 3,000 feet below us issue a whisper like the distant sound of breaking surf. Erosion, the ruling force of this grand place, has carved us a tidy little slash in this sheer cliff -- 4,000 feet below the Rim and worlds away from the shambling crowds and rumbling tour buses -- a lovely box seat, fat with shade and the cool press of sandstone.
Ken Walters, our Grand Canyon Field Institute guide, has spent most of his adult life exploring the Canyon. Over forty-some years he has poked over roughly 13,000 miles of Canyon backcountry for many reasons, not the least of which is the Canyon's lovely penchant for surprise. Until five minutes ago he never knew this overhang existed.
Walters watches two rafts negotiate the Colorado, tiny blue water bugs spinning lazy half circles on the current.
"We're probably the first Europeans to ever sit here," he says quietly.
It's possible that no one will take you deeper, literally and figuratively, into the Grand Canyon than the Grand Canyon Field Institute (GCFI). For those who require bureaucratic linkage, the Grand Canyon Field Institute is a program of Grand Canyon National Park's nonprofit park partner, the Grand Canyon Association. For those who simply love the hidden and the breathtaking, know that GCFI offers trips that will take you there. Added plus, you're often in the hands of wilderness experts with PhDs in biology and geology, not to mention finely honed map-reading skills and a deft touch in customer relations.
Moments earlier Walters had to come back and get me. I am uncomfortable with heights (okay, serious fear). To reach the small, shaded bunker-like shelf in which we all now finally sit, we had to walk along a narrow ledge with nothing between us and the river but 3,000 feet of sickening space. In an unfortunate cast of fate, none of my fellow hikers possess an iota of my fear. When Walters told them to hike along the ridge, they did so like happy Hobbits, taking their seats in the shade beneath the rock overhang to enjoy the view and garner respite from the baking sun.
Being a professional guide, after a time Walters noticed one of his ducklings was missing.
I watch him walk casually back along the ledge.
Stepping up to the plateau where I stand, he regards me pleasantly.
"Coming?" he asks.
I can't remember exactly what I said. My heart was racing like a jackrabbit, and my mind followed suit. It's possible I said something about fascinating rock formations right here on the plateau, made all the more fascinating by the illumination of the midday sun.
Walters has a master's degree in geology. I thought I might save myself by pandering to his interests.
God, it was hot.
"You can't stay here," Walters says.
I know this. It's why I fear I might weep.
Walters nods to me and turns back for the ledge.
"Come on," he says. "You can do this. And if you don't, we all have to leave."
GCFI fosters education. I learn that I can shuffle along a narrow ledge without breathing.
With education in mind, we spent our first day on the Canyon Rim in a GCFI classroom. Five of us signed on for the three-day backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa, a remote promontory in the heart of the canyon, accessed via the Grandview Trail, which begins finely at the Rim with a well-maintained series of switchbacks, then deteriorates from there. Janet, Ed, Chuck, Sean, and I range in experience (little to plenty) and age (33 to 67), but we share some common interests.
"I'm here for the adventure of backpacking the Grand Canyon," says Janet. "Ummm. People hardly ever fall, do they?"
In the classroom we review the importance of leave-no-trace backpacking. We discuss proper footwear and pass around one of Walters' socks, each student examining it as if it is a rune. We review compass and map-reading skills, as well as the contents of Walters' backpack. The man travels lighter than Peter Pan.
"Most people pack out of fear, not need," he tells us. "Ounces turn into pounds and pounds turn into pain."
Walters' discourse on water is equally long-winded.
"Hydrate or die," he says. "You need water. You need food. All the rest is extra."
With our own food and water (roughly 24 pounds of it) ensconced on our backs, early the next morning, beneath a cloudless blue sky and unwinking sun, we step away from the Rim. Our plan is simple. Day one: Hike to Horseshoe Mesa, set up camp, and explore the mesa. Day two: Don day packs and drop farther into the Canyon, descending to the Tonto Platform, then farther still to Hance Creek, where we will stock up on water before returning to camp. Day three: Hike back out.
We will be ambling through what Walters called "transitional country" -- not the remote backcountry of GCFI's longer trips, but far from civilization nonetheless.
"For the first mile we'll see lots of people, but then they'll disappear," says Walters, as we begin our descent down the Grandview Trail. A faint smile etches his craggy face. "By the second day, we won't see anybody. About a quarter of one percent of the people who come to the Grand Canyon see the places you'll see. You won't believe the stars at Horseshoe Mesa."
There is a difference between hiking and hiking, a not-at-all subtle nuance that separates mindless stare-at-your-feet slogging from soul-soaring exploration and discovery. From our very first step, Walters' gently directs us along the proper hiking path. We stop regularly and often, gazing out at the Canyon's sea of buttes and using our topographic maps and compasses to identify new friends. On the upper ridges we inhale the scent of pine. Down a bit lower, we stand inside the welcome cool of an abandoned mine, the silent rock, still flecked with copper tracings, testament to man's optimism and impermanence.
"There's a Zen saying: 'Be here now,'" says Walters. "If you are totally aware of your surroundings, of yourself, if you absorb everything, then you really appreciate the moment."
Walters knew the best places in which to indulge this Zen joy. On our first afternoon, after setting up camp, we skirt the western edge of Horseshoe Mesa, following a barely discernible trail to a cave formed roughly 300 million years earlier. Squeezing through the narrow opening, we find ourselves in a living-room-size cavern. This is only the beginning. Dissolved by water over eons, the porous limestone has become a series of squeezes and caverns running virtually straight shot back into the mesa, offering, as Walters aptly puts it, "a nice chance to walk inside rock."
It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Our flashlights trace slow, stunned arcs along floor and ceiling pocked with surreal formations. Here something that resembles tiny coral heads; here thin, sinuous folds, stained by iron, that look like slabs of bacon; here folds of drapes that will never be moved by a breeze. The floor is covered with fine dust. The rock, smooth and polished as jade, emanates cool. In some caverns the ceiling rises so high it is like walking through the insides of some great sleeping beast. Dropping behind my companions I flick off my light (No, I am not afraid of the dark). In the black cathedral hush it is easy to imagine rock sleeping here for eternities, at least by our measure.
That night we stretch out beneath the stars, the Big Dipper hanging storybook-clear before our eyes.
Our remaining days produce additional splendor, and with it, appreciation. First light paints the mightiest buttes and the most delicate grasses. Negotiating switchback trails, sun and wind alternately caress our faces. In mid-afternoon's bake we draw water from a shaded spring resonating with a triumphant frog's croak. We sit in our shaded box seats high above the mighty Colorado, one of us shaking mightily. As the sun sets, shadows run down the vast walls like dark rivers.
Our final night we leave camp with food and stoves, hiking to the eastern edge of Horseshoe Mesa.
Spooning down freeze-dried dinners, we watch the sunset purple the Canyon, then sit quietly as the stars and a scrim of moon appear.
"Pretty cool place," says Walters eventually. "I like this restaurant."