At the bottom of the Grand Canyon there is a dump. Actually it was once a swimming pool but in the 60’s it became a health hazard and was filled in, with all sorts of stuff that had found its way down the Canyon in the hedonistic 30’s, including rumour has it, a grand piano. Of all the stories I’ve heard on my travels, this is the one that has most fired my imagination. I love skips and charity shops, as you know. Imagine what I would find if I started digging down there. I had to go and at least view the site.
So now I know what ‘down there’ means, for I have walked the Bright Angel and spent two nights at the bottom of the Canyon. I did the hike to celebrate my sixtieth birthday and it took me, armed as I was with two Leki and knee bandages, to the edge of my stamina.
But what a journey! The shadow pictograms, still as cathedrals between the buttes and mesas; the condors crying overhead. And far beyond the sight the tourists get on the rim, the switchback trail down to the aquamarine river, now sadly no longer as potent as it was when it carved this incredible gash in the earth’s crust.
Once the whole earth was this quiet. It took Zizi and myself seven hours to reach the vishnu schist on the bottom, formed two billion years ago. It was down there that I learned the meaning of the words,’ The Grand Canyon is not a place at all but rather a state of understanding.’ I was changed by the experience.
At the bottom there is a place called the Phantom Oasis, lying at the junction of two creeks. Here in the depth of the mystery is a Mary Coulter-designed ranch known as Phantom Lodge. All trails end here and in order to do the full hike one has to have accommodation booked (two years in advance when we did it.)
The trails in the canyon were put there by an amazing group of young men known as The Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1920’s. When it opened in 1922, Phantom was an exclusive resort. The swimming pool was 19 feet deep and folding French doors opened onto the patio. The rich travelled down by mule and no luxury was denied them on arrival.
In 1941 when Pearl Harbour was attacked, the last conservation camps were closed and the young men went to war. By the late 50’s, early sixties the pool was polluted by 800 swimming bodies a night and health and safety decreed that it be filled in with all the ‘old junk’ which had gathered that no one was going to carry back out. So the pool became a landfill site and thus ended an era.
Today Coulter’s beautiful cabin is the cookhouse and dining area and the hikers are housed in boys and girls dorms.The food down there is simple and unbelievably delicious. Steak or Nut Loaf with baked potatoes and salad, followed by a generous square chocolate fudge slab cake-every night.The cooks are youngsters earning money for university.
At night, as the dusk falls desert- fast and the huge moon gazes over the rim, bats fly and people gather for a pre supper talk on the wildlife of the Canyon.Then it’s food and a walk before bedtime which is pure dorm. Women from all over the world, strangers until arrival, sleepily sharing their funniest stories as exhaustion after the climb waits to claim each one for the best night’s sleep ever. Next morning at breakfast someone declared Zizi, ‘a hoot to hang with’. I couldn’t disagree.
After two night’s rest Zizi and I left to make the climb out, at 5.30 in the morning. There was no one else in sight, just the two of us and the vaste green river, which we walked beside at a meditative pace. Then the trail veered to the left and we seemed to reach a point where a 40 year friendship, the Colorado River and the vast landscape of rock came together in one delicious moment.
“Thank you Zizi,” I said. It seemed enough. She turned around and called, “I couldn’t have done this without you, Allie,” and with that we entered the side canyon and started the upward climb.