Rising at dawn Benton and Zeta ate an early breakfast in the Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant of eggs, sausage, biscuits, gravy and orange juice. They walked a short distance from the lodge along the canyon rim past the mule corral where Benton said, “Ladies first,” and Zeta took the first lead.
They started down the trail originally built by the native Havasupai Indians for access to the year round water flowing miles down the trail at Garden Creek. Most of the trail would be wide with many areas having scrub brush growing on the sloping sides. However, there would be no shortage of dangerous switchbacks and other sections where sheer steep sides and gravity await just one misstep.
Picture postcard sandstone in colors of red, orange, with areas of striated tan and brown, greeted the two bipeds everywhere along the trail. A perpetual visual feast would offer the hikers a new menu every few yards. Geological layers troweled over millions of years, revealed their veritable story to any knowledgeable viewer.
The hike has an average incline grade of 10 degrees and Park signs warn of dangerous overlooks. A couple of fresh hikers were already starting down the trail a bit ahead of the Barringtons. The trek would take them through the first and second tunnel and past the first and second rest houses. They would see ancient petroglyphs along the trail near the first tunnel. The descent into earth’s history would take them past places with names like Vishnu Schist, Jacob’s Ladder, Tonto Platform, Indian Garden, Plateau Point, Muav Formation, Tapeats Sandstones, and Devil’s Corkscrew a perilous stretch of harrowing switchbacks carved from canyon black granite. Tired descending hikers with fatigued quadriceps encounter the treacherous Devil’s Corkscrew in the final 1,000 feet of the canyon’s inner gorge.
Just after the first tunnel, Benton decided to move out ahead of Zeta on the trail and stand near the edge of a sharp cliff drop off. Waving both arms like he was struggling to keep his balance he yelled, “Take a picture of the daring Grand Canyon adventure!” Zeta took out her cell phone to snap a shot and said, “Get back from that steep edge Bent!”
An elderly woman with a pair of walking sticks, who’d taken an early short hike down the trail, was coming back up shouted, “Get back you damn fool, this is no place to clown around!” The scolded and embarrassed Benton moved back to a safer spot as Zeta took the picture.
“What the hell ya doin’, you fall from there, and the park rangers won’t have much to rescue.”
“I’m sorry ma’am,” Benton said sheepishly as she passed on by him.
“We spend too much money as it is rescuing careless folk. Now be safe,” she instructed with a sweet voice and broad smile.
It was not the hottest of July days, and some passing clouds mercifully dimmed the sun’s laser power intermittently. One of their first unexpected surprises was the number of presents they would encounter left by the mules on the trail ahead of them. They didn’t realize just how much mule poop they would need to step around and avoid. One guest, they’d talked to who’d finished the hike, said his wife took a spill when she stepped into some frothy mule piss, fortunately at a wide spot in the trail. “Don’t get so mesmerized by the grandeur that you step in the poop like I did,” he’d added in self-deprecating jest.
“Those mules must have OSHA attorneys and a strong union. They won’t haul anyone over 200 pounds and won’t step in human poop. I hope neither of us needs to take a crap before we get to the ranch, because unless we want to risk a huge fine, the law says we have to bury our poop 200 feet from the trail and 6 inches deep,” Benton explained.
“Well enough of the poop talk Bent, did you bring a ruler in case you need to dig a latrine?” she answered as they strolled along a wide flat trail section.
Some parts of the trail were broad enough to walk two abreast. About half way to the bottom of the trail Benton said, “I think there must be some way for us not to have some of the problems we do. Don’t you agree, Zeta?”
“Oh, sure, yeah,” Zeta responded in a low sardonic tone, picking up the pace a bit. “How can he come up with words like that? I just don’t get it,” she thought to herself. She changed the subject with “Did you know there are mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bighorn sheep here in the canyon?”
“Mountain lions? I didn’t know there were mountain lions. This is a canyon, not a mountain.”
“Yes, mountain lions?” she replied.
Zeta would have rather kept the hiking pace brisker, but Benton wasn’t in as good physical shape as Zeta. He was still far more fit than most attorneys, but the hours logged sitting in an executive’s chair had taken a toll on him. She would just naturally begin hiking faster, and Benton would start lagging behind, so she eventually realized it would be best just to let him lead most of the time. When the trail wasn’t too narrow, they’d walk side by side. About half way down the trail they passed numerous hikers coming back up the trail, many clearly struggling as gravity had become their formidable constant foe on the return climb.
They reached the bottom of the trail and walked through a tunnel to the beginning of the long silver steel suspension bridge over the Colorado River hanging on 550-foot steel cables. “Shit, this is like entering some scary old mining tunnel,” Benton called back to Zeta as they walked into the dark carved out orifice. The first and second tunnels near the top of the trail could more accurately be called arches with holes than tunnels. This was a real tunnel they were now in. “Wow, that’s a long ass bridge!” Zeta exclaimed exiting the tunnel’s end.
The Colorado River rushed and roared beneath them as they walked across the steady suspension. As they neared the far side of the bridge, a river raft was letting passengers out who would spend the night at the campground or ranch. Then in the morning, their rafting adventure would continue down the relentless Colorado. Stepping off the bridge, the Barringtons saw bunch grasses, various cacti and soaptree yucca. Then they walked past the park campground and continued less than a mile to the Phantom Ranch where they would spend the night.
In a little less than 4 hours they’d walked from the cool pines into a canyon bottom desert. It was hot at the bottom of the canyon, but at least shade and water were available. Their cabin had a queen size bed with bedding, a cold water sink, toilet, liquid soap, and hand towels. A shower with towels was at a central location. Some of the Phantom Ranch guests had arrived earlier by mule. Zeta made it to the toilet ahead of Benton, and he told Zeta, “Hurry up or I’m going to be leaving poop around the place like them mules!”
They showered, sat around and took it easy during the rest of the hot day. Both munched on some protein energy bars to hold them until dinner. They lucked out with the high temperature being only 96 degrees when 105 was not uncommon. Their cabin was constructed from large round river stones and with none of the luxury of their lodge up on the rim, which now seemed and was another world away. There was a wooden bench outside each cabin.
When the sun lowered itself in the blue sky beyond the darkening canyon walls, they walked around the area. Mules were patiently waiting in the coral until the wranglers fed them. One mule was having a hoof tended to, and a friendly woman who rode down on a mule told Zeta and Benton “I had no idea the human butt could hurt this bad. My husband and I used to ride horses a lot, but that was a long time ago. And we have to get back on those mules again come morning or walk back up.”
Neither the man nor his wife looked like they could hike up the trail. “We both took 800 milligrams of Advil, and we’ll take the same dose come morning. I’ve also got some oxycodone and Xanax. We’ll make it if we don’t O.D. They might have to strap us on the mules, but we’ll survive,” the man’s wife chuckled. “I’m a retired nurse,” she added proudly.
For dinner, they had more steak cuisine, something they had not planned on. The small grill restaurant offered a vegetarian chili, and they’d planned on having that, but they were so hungry from all the calories they burned hiking, their appetites screamed for steak. “What do people crave when they climb back to the rim? Benton asked. “Probably a 24-ounce rare steak a large banana split, bread, rolls, gravy, apple pie, and vanilla malt,” Zeta speculated.
Sitting outside their cabin with full contented bellies Benton asked, “What’s that sound, do you hear that noise?”
“Yes, I do. I was just about to ask you. At first, I thought it was noise from rafters echoing from the river. It’s definitely getting louder.”
“Yeah, some kind of whoop and whirring humming whirling sound.”
“What the hell is that weird noise?” Zeta asked as they both stood up and looked around and up.
“I think that’s a helicopter, yeah, that’s a copter.”
They both started walking over to the Phantom Ranch heliport pad with the other guests who’d heard the noise. They could finally see the copter in the sky, now over the ranch and descending like a giant dragonfly. This was the Park Service NOTAR McDonald Douglas twin-engine 900 eight-passenger model. This high tech silver and black, with a red stripe, hovering sky bird was customized for medical team use. It was also equipped with a winch used to lower a highly trained Helitack team member on a cable in critical rescue scenarios.
The MD 900 had no tail rotor like most conventional helicopters, had a body made entirely of a composite material including the blades, and produced only one-third of the noise of comparable size rotor helicopters; a noise that surely sounds like angels singing to any hiker or river rafter awaiting emergency rescue.
The Phantom Ranch emergency medical station gets frequent use. During the summer months, a thousand to fifteen hundred hikers are on the trail each day. Helicopter rescues called drag outs, cost a minimum of $3,000.00 each, usually, but not always paid by taxpayers. There’s a telephone at the Indian Garden park ranger station and several rest houses on the Bright Angel trail. Phones at the rest houses aren’t always reliable. There are some areas on the trail or in the canyon where cell phone service might work, but service is highly unreliable. Hikers are instructed not to try to walk while talking on a cell phone as several hikers doing so have walked right off the edge of a cliff.
As Zeta and Benton were watching the unexpected drama, hikers were bringing an older man into the ranch and over to the idling rescue helicopter. A makeshift stretcher had been constructed of walking sticks and what appeared to be cut branches. One of the hikers must have been a MacGyver TV fan because duct tape had been utilized in the impromptu crafting. It was impossible to get cell phone reception to call a ranger station for a drag out, so the good Samaritans carried the man from the trail over the bridge.
Shortly after its arrival the heroic dragonfly quietly lifted off and magically headed up and out of the canyon. Minutes later they would be up on the canyon rim unloading the patient at an emergency medical station. Word eventually spread among the ranch guests that the man had apparently experienced a heart attack walking back up the trail. Fortunately for the man, he was only a couple miles from the bottom of the trail. Unfortunately for the rescuers, it required quite an effort to carry him to the ranch.