"Holy Water" appeared in the anthology ON FOOT: Essays on Hiking in the Grand Canyon from Vishnu Temple Press.
Loose rock/stones on North Bass Trail, with soft dry dirt underneath, but not too steep. Down under the North Rim, away from the ponderosas, out in the hot Arizona sun, through thick manzanita, Gambel oak, scrub oak, locust (my old spiny enemy!) and the start of the pinyon/juniper tree mix, switch-backing into White Canyon proper, I stop and listen: Running water! A stream off to the left! I wasn’t sure I’d be blessed at the beginning of the trip and so have loaded up with six quarts in my pack, enough to (maybe) get me through the first day and a half. Which it’s about time to sample. And—that was quick—my first stupid mistake of the trip manifests: the four Arrowhead bottles of ‘spring water’ I bought back in Kanab are not just spring water. No, I open one and it bubbles and fizzles out.
Aghast, I check the label. Oh. Oops. 'Sparkling' spring water. I’m not a fan of tonic water unless it's in a gin and tonic, and I could still drink it but, well, here I am at real spring water right off the mountain. Meaning I'm dumping this sugary stuff right now. I know, I know, I hope Mother Earth forgives me. Who knows what kind of mutation I’m creating here, some two-headed lizard or something, which could be waiting for me five days from now when I come back. But I do it.
Hopefully this is my only big mistake. I usually have one every trip, but my consolation in this case is to sample the water of White Creek right now: Just scooping my hands into the water and raising it to my mouth. Cool, clean, deliciously pure. Or purely delicious. A wonderful treat after expecting basically arid desertness, and I’m tempted to lighten my load and just drink as I go, but who knows? Better to play things safe here in the Grand Canyon. I refill the bottles.
The trail parallels the creek down into the drainage bottom, shrubbery and small cottonwoods as well as a few brave ponderosas providing shade over boulders and rocks, and then climbs up onto red dirt PJ flats. And though some uphill is required to do this, walking on the trail is actually faster than jumping boulder to boulder. Weather today: mostly clear blue sky, with some high welcome Simpsons clouds. Birds: goldfinch, chickadees, and a big hawk circling above, not even flapping, just riding the hot air up and up. And flowers, still, at the end of May: reds, yellows, whites. Lunch break, check the map, and based on the fact that I am now at the Red Wall Descent (unmistakable because of the straight up and down red walls) I’ve only gone 3.5 miles! I re-check, using a big landmark, Emerald Point, up on the Rim, directly across. Lining up the map, yes, I appear to be where I think I am. That can't be right. Hike all day, downhill, to only go 3.5 miles?? Time and Space seem to have no meaning down here. That means no Shinumo Creek tonight, which I’d thought a possibility, or maybe just a hope, because of its perennial water.
The Red Wall, always the narrowest section of the side canyons. One misstep and I could go crashing down over the side! But, after some almosts, I’m down in the creek bed again, though water seems to have vanished, drizzled down underground. A few nice flat sandy open areas though, and HUGE red rock walls rising up, with a HUGE natural sandstone shell echoing even normal voice levels 200 yards away. A cathedral. In shade too—a relief from the hike over the hot flats, though still warm. Big contrast to last night up at Swamp Point where I froze my butt off!
Packless, I explore upstream, and find more blessed running water: just a trickle, but with some sandstone pools big enough to strip down and throw water on the ole corpse. Then kneeling, cupping and raising the hands. Feeling ghosts of others who have done the same here. Drinking water as a tradition. Drinking water as a spiritual experience. Quenched, at least temporarily, I sit in a last remaining sunny spot, naked, communing with dragonflies and butterflies, plus some fat black bumblebees.
Back in camp, feasting on Triscuit cracker-wafers, with Tillamook Monterey Jack cheese, working away at a huge chunk I've brought. Even cheese and crackers becomes a spiritual experience down here. Backpacking as spiritual practice. And for dessert, Fig Newtons! I’m stuffed, though it’s not really that much food. Weird how while backpacking I exert way more energy than at home, but eat less and feel better.
But the thirst. Drinking water all day and still this thirst. Gulping it down from my bottle. My urine was clear last time I checked, so not dehydrated yet. Out here even just laying on my sleeping bag is dehydrating. The air cooling some, but not too much. Sunlight reflecting on the clouds. A bumblebee buzzes by. Birds chirping, three different kinds at least. Crickets, spring peeper frogs, and....goats? No, frogs, bigger ones, farther upstream, echoing off the sandstone amphitheater. A frog chorus. Going to be a wonderful star night, if I can stay awake. And my friends the bats come out, flipping around. I doze off for a little bit but wake with darker sky and bright half-moon, cold, putting on my long underwear and zipping up my bag. Perfect—warm, but with cool night air on my face.
The next morning, after donning my pack, and in keeping with my tradition of thanking wonderful camp sites, I raise my hands to heart in prayer position, and bow deep at the waist, then turn and hike down between the narrow red walls. And I'd thought that there would be no more water until Shinumo Creek, but White Creek starts back up! Yes, with even a flat sandstone rock area and a dripping waterfall! Opportunities in life like this cannot be ignored—I must stop and stand under it! I de-pack and de-shirt, sticking my head into the drip. The water just slightly cool, not quite brisk. Goosebumply. A minor miracle. I raise my face, open my mouth, and gulp as much as I can.
This, alas, turns out to be the last of White Creek, as the path comes out of the Red Wall narrows and onto the Tonto Platform. Flatter ground, following the now-dry creek bed. It's hot. And dry. Ugh. Cactus, mostly prickly-pear, some even blooming, but also hedgehog, spiny green penises. And another old enemy: cat claw! Arizona: where everything wants to bite, poke or scratch you. But around lunchtime, another miracle: a small shady rock ledge. Thirty-degree difference in temperature under here! Feeling very lizard-like, I lunch and doze. Then more hot desert hiking, though soon heading downhill again, another steep descent, switchbacking over dark brown shale, and—finally!—a glimpse of Shinumo Creek! Glorious snaky shiny moving water in the desert. Coming down into the main campsite next to it, I drop my pack in the shade and get in on my hands and knees, like an animal, dunking my head and gulping cool clear water.
Plenty of time, the sun still up, and the campsite still in full-on sun. Packless and light, I head upstream into the narrow side canyon on a small trail, wanting a nap more than anything, sun-groggy, but once I'm walking, curiosity takes over. The trail becomes more like a game trail, and actually ends after maybe a mile. A determined person could bushwhack farther, but this section of creek is deep enough to be considered a swim hole, so I'm determined to get naked and swim. In the desert, if there is a swim hole, one has a moral obligation. And lo, it is good. Refreshing and lovely, though once I find a nice rock ledge to sit on, keeping my feet in the water, my lower pale body in the sun, getting some air and sun on the man parts, I immediately start to doze, listening to water burble.
Back at camp, I set up near the creek, and dine on more cheese and crackers, dreaming of the decadence of river runners carrying coolers and coolers of iced foodstuffs, barbequing steaks and veggie burgers and drinking lots of cold beer. With plenty of sunlight still available, I’m tired, wanting to sleep really, but go down and do my best imitation of a crane, standing knee-high in the water and observing small fish jumping out, catching mosquito-looking bugs hovering over the water. One brave fish actually throwing itself onto a rock, trying to catch flies sipping at the stream edge. Plus, a stillwater pool of tadpoles, not moving much, just floating, maybe feeling the changes coming on, the appendages starting to grow. One big one hanging out at the edge, facing the dirt, as if hearing the call to crawl out of the slime. That's how I felt in high school.
Back in camp, air mercifully cooling down, sky deep blue, wispy pink cloud lines, then dark. Fat moon already glowing. Rapids both up and downstream. And here come the bats! I lie naked on my sleeping bag watching planets and stars appear. Sky clear, no clouds. A light down-canyon breeze, warmer than the cool air settling in the creek bed. And more frogs! Another spring peeper choir to sing along with the crickets. What's missing is coyotes. Would be nice to hear them singing too. And wolves!
Morning sun almost over a nearby butte, which makes me think I must have slept a long time, but no, only six o’clock. Time flows differently here in the Canyon. Sad to leave Shinumo Creek and its good water. Not sure if I’ll be near it down at the Colorado or not. I can always filter river water, but I'd prefer this pure creek soma. Not quite goodbye, though. First, some creek crossings which, earlier in the year, with snowmelt off the North Rim, could even get sketchy-dangerous. Even now, a wrong step, a slippery slip, could put me face down with a heavy pack on, so I stay mindful.
And, even though I’m expecting it, I’m still surprised to come on Bass Camp, maybe because I was expecting some kind of structure, a shack or something. In fact, it's a cave-ish area under a big north-facing perpetually-shaded overhang. This Bass guy was one of the big (white) explorers back in the day, and owned a ranch over on the South Rim (which the Bass family still owns and runs), and had guests and customers over to this side, for hunting, and maybe just as the first tourists. This 'camp' still includes a collection of old tools—an axe head, three different pick heads, a stove, some pry bars, plus a bunch of glass fragments from really old bottles, all laid out on some benches. The hard thing to believe, although the guide books say so, is that Bass had an orchard here, with apple, peach, and fig trees, whereas all that's here now is some mesquite and cat claw, on sand. Can peach trees grow in hot desert sand? But how amazing would it be to sink my teeth into a nice juicy peach right now?
This is the last place to fill up my bottle and dunk my head before the push for the Colorado. And the sun is a hot bastard. I dunk my t-shirt and floppy hat in the water, as well as my head, for some evaporation action as I continue on the trail, which soon splits: The path-most-traveled heading up and over a pass to, supposedly, sandy beaches. I'm sorely tempted to just stay on the path-less-traveled following the Shinumo, but I’ve heard rumors of women in bikinis on those beaches. That is, the possibility was mentioned, and it has become a Great Promise. Maybe I’ll even encounter one of those all-women groups. Good odds! Surely one would want to rebel against all that women's empowerment energy and invite a scruffy backpacker dude into her tent. And anyways, why couldn't that be empowering?
But first, up 700 feet—a good dry run for the hike out, and yeah, it's hot, and yeah, it's uphill, but in fact after a half hour, lo! Thar be the mighty Colorado down below! A shiny, wide, deep green strip curling through red-brown and black rock, two sets of mild rapids visible, and glimpses of white sandy beaches (so it's true!), with a flotilla of rafts even gathering above the top rapids! I descend, switchbacking through shale, watching them take the whitewater one by one. Lordy, that looks so much more fun than hiking in the desert with forty pounds on my back right now.
At the bottom, another fork: One way going down to the main, bigger beach right below, where the rafters usually camp, but there’s another smaller beach just below the top rapids, and I love the idea of a beach of one’s own, though that lowers the chances of being invited for dinner and beers by bikinied vixens. Sigh. I hike the extra mile upstream, and find a little trail that weaves down onto a beach, with bonus little shady cliff overhangs. I drop pack and shed clothes asap, heading to my baptism. By the way, that sand is blazing hot! No stopping now, though! I get on a rock bluff, the water clear and deep below, and dive.
Holymotherofgod it's COLD! My appendages, all five of them, throbbing. But I swim! Not too far out: the strong fast current a wee bit scary. Would be really cool (and dangerous) to go all the way to the other shore, but that's just not possible here. These little beach areas are hemmed in by tall rock ledges, especially on the south side.
I reach the shore and pull myself out of the depths, out of the water, and rise, naked, reborn. This is it, the holy land. Cliff walls and mountains rising up all around. The wide green Colorado, rapids and clear sky. The enormity of this Canyon, and this River that carved it, and the Time it took. Hallelujah!