Burning Man 2013: The Pilgrimage, part 2

Day 3 of our pilgrimage to Burning Man, and since Ross hadn’t laid eyes on the Grand Canyon since he was a little kid, I decide it will be well worth the hour and a half drive from Flagstaff to show it to him the BenStarr way.

I have to say that when it comes to natural wonders, I become fiercely allergic to people.  I simply CANNOT enjoy the wonders of Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon if I’m jostling for elbow room along a railing with a dozen tour bus loads of camcorder-toting tourists.  It will absolutely RUIN the experience for me.  In fact, the first time I went to Yosemite, it was a summer weekend, and the hike to Vernal Falls looked more like an amusement park line, and I left and swore I would never, ever go back.  (I did, but it took a decade, and I did it smart when I went back.)  So when it comes to a place like the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which sees about 4.5 million visitors a year, I have to be VERY careful about when I go and where I go, otherwise I break out in a rash and swear to never visit again.

So, of course, I have this secret spot.  It’s less than a 4 mile drive from the Times-Square-like overlooks in the Grand Canyon Village, but it’s a world away from the crowds.  There are no railings.  No concrete.  And the canyon wraps around you on 3 sides because you’re standing on a point that juts way out into the center, so it feels like the earth has dropped out from beneath you and leaves you feeling really queasy and stunned.

Getting to this secret spot, which isn’t advertised in the park literature, requires a 1 mile hike from an unmarked pullout on the park road.  Which is as it should be.  NO ONE should drive right up to the Grand Canyon rim, step out of their car, and see it.  You have to approach it the natural way…by working a little.

After an incredibly pleasant 15 minute stroll through fragrant pine forest, I make Ross wrap his hands around his eyes to eliminate his peripheral vision.  Then I walk right in front of him, so he can see where my feet land.  He’s only allowed to look straight down at the ground in front of him.  We walk carefully, step by step along the path as it heads out onto a narrowing fin of rock that juts out into the canyon.  A misstep here can result in death.  And there are no guard rails.  Some people might call me crazy for making people walk without peripheral vision, but it’s actually much safer to focus solely on the path beneath your feet, rather than be distracted by the wonders around you.

We reach the point where, if you take another step, you plummet a vertical mile to the canyon bottom, and I have Ross open his eyes.  He’s not one for freaking out, like I am.  But he is overwhelmed.  And he has to sit down from the vertigo.  The canyon drops precipitously on all sides except for the narrow rock ledge behind us that we walked out on.  We are the only people there…the folks inhabiting the other 2 cars in the parking lot passed us on our hike in as they headed out.

We sit and stare, our brains trying to process the vastness.  It doesn’t seem real.  A roll of thunder from behind wakes us from our reverie and we turn to see a storm approaching.  You don’t want to be the tallest thing out on a rock in the middle of the canyon when lightning strikes, but the storm is still 20 minutes off, so we watch the colors in the canyon change as the storm cloud’s shadow encroaches.  With each clap of thunder, the canyon shakes and echoes, and what would normally be a 3 second rumble lasts almost a full minute.  Birds soar in the vast silence.

I’ve sat in this exact spot a dozen times over the past 15 years, each time with someone who is laying eyes on the canyon for the first time.  And I become aware that I’ve never experienced a thunderstorm at the Grand Canyon.  Snow, yes.  But thunder?  The way the canyon amplifies and tosses around the deep tones is just unearthly.

A few drops graze my face and while I desperately want to sit here and experience the raw power of nature, the safest thing is to get off the bare rock, so we head back to the car.  The increasing rain unlocks the scent of the pine trees and the temperature drops 20 degrees almost instantly, but we are spared the downpour until we are 5 feet from the car.

We drive east and I attempt to show Ross another stunning vista at Grandview.  But there are people.  Lots of them.  I watch as one guy flippantly flicks his cigarette butt onto the trail, and I stare at him, open-mouthed.  What exactly about this place makes him think it’s his personal trash can?  The naïve part of me wants to believe that a single glimpse of something as stunning as the Grand Canyon can awe anyone into a respect of nature, but that’s just not the truth.  In fact, in a hundred short feet of trail, I pick up a dozen cigarette butts, two straws, a plastic shopping bag, and a Styrofoam cup.  The part of me that wishes everyone in this country could lay eyes on our national park wonders is almost dead.  Anyone who deliberately drops trash on a trail in a national park does not deserve to be there.  Ever.  Thank heavens I’m not running this country, because I would imprison ANYONE caught littering in a national park for a full year.  I can be a very forgiving person…too forgiving, as my friends can attest.  But littering in nature is something I will not forgive anyone for.  Ever.

This is one aspect of Burning Man that continually amazes me every year.  One of the core values of the event is Leave No Trace.  One would imagine that when 65,000 people get together in the desert to  build a temporary city, throw a giant party for a week, and burn giant wooden structures, that the place would be a total disaster when everyone leaves.  But the Bureau of Land Management sends out a team of rangers after the event is over to walk across the entire footprint of the event, looking for trash.  The last 5 years in a row, they have yet to come up with more trash than will fill a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.  In the aftermath of 65,000 people camping out and burning things.  It is truly incredible.  So, Mr. Cigarette Butt Flipper from Grandview Point on August 19 at 2:30 in the afternoon, don’t ever try to show your face at Burning Man or you might end up being burned at the stake yourself!

Electric blue waters of the lower Little Colorado. Image courtesy of norcalblogs.com

We head further east out of the national park to a spot that, for me, at least, is even MORE impressive than the Grand Canyon, and most tourists whizz right past it, eager to get to the park.  It’s the gorge of the Little Colorado River, a tributary of the Colorado River that flows into the Grand Canyon near its eastern end.  This impossibly narrow, dark, deep gorge hides a river that, for much of the year, flows an electric translucent blue due to dissolved minerals in its waters.  But during the summer monsoon season, and the spring melt in the mountains of central Arizona, the Little Colorado flows thick and muddy, scouring out the rock and making the canyon ever deeper.  The Little Colorado is one of the least visited places in the mainland US.  The upper canyon is filled with deadly quicksand, and the lower canyon has only a couple of routes down into it, all of which require intense scrambling and route finding skills.  Very experienced canyoneers have died down there.

The Hopi sipapu, navel of the earth, where their people emerged into this world. It is requested that visitors not climb the dome. This is not my image, it appears courtesy of bobbordasch.com

But it has been a place of pilgrimage for the native Hopi people for many centuries.  In fact, deep within the Little Colorado gorge lies the “sipapu,” or the navel of the earth.  For the Hopi, this is the center of the universe, and it is where their people were birthed into this world.  The sipapu is an ancient hot spring dome, and seeing it has been at the top of my must-do list for many years.  But several attempts at descending the gorge have been foiled by Mother Nature in years past.  I figure when I’m ready, she’ll let me down there to respectfully gaze at the sipapu, and bathe in the electric blue waters of the Little Colorado.

For now, Ross and I stand on the razor edge of the gorge and our stomachs churn with vertigo.  The fierce wind buffets us as we cautiously peer into the seemingly bottomless depths.  The hair on my neck stands up and my body screams “DANGER, DANGER, DANGER” at me.  I meet a young Hungarian/Belarusian couple on the edge of the cliff, and he’s trying to convince his girlfriend to take a picture of him scrambling down to a narrow ledge about 6 inches wide, with nothing below it but 3,500 feet of thin air, but she is panicking and refuses to do it.  He fights with her as he’s lowering himself into the precarious position, and I realize the best thing to do is just to take the camera from her and snap the shot to stop the fighting, so that he focuses on his safety rather than his anger.  My stomach shreds into bits as he cautiously climbs back to safety, and I tell him that was a very, very foolish thing to do and to please be more careful in the rest of the park.

At dinner in Flagstaff that night at Criollo (a fabulous restaurant that sources all their ingredients locally), my new friend Eston, a park ranger, makes an interesting comment after I tell him the story.

“I’m actually way more scared of places like that now than I was before I became a park ranger.”

“Really?  That surprises me.  I figured you’d have walked across so many narrow ledges by now that you wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at it.”

“Well, yes, I’ve been in some really precarious places, but that’s not what changed my mind.  What changed my mind was retrieving bodies from down in the canyon after accidents or suicides, and seeing exactly what happens to the body after it falls that kind of distance.”

Wow…that’s a sobering comment.  I know that many folks make a pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon to commit suicide.  Luckily, most of them fail.  But Eston continues, “We really don’t know how many people try to kill themselves in the park, but it’s way more than what gets reported.  Every single time we go down to retrieve a body, we find 2 or 3 others.”

So those secret dreams I harbor of being a park ranger some day just flew out the window.

Ross and I say our goodbyes.  Audrey is an old friend from high school, and though we don’t see each other that often, she’s one of those people that’s just so real and self-knowing that I’m instantly comfortable in her presence.  She is incredibly easy to love.  And her husband Scott, a Grand Canyon ranger who I’ve now had the pleasure of meeting twice, is a perfect match for her.  They are such good people.  And this time they introduced me to Eston, also a park ranger, and his partner Jonathan, a Canadian who works as an archivist at the university.  So I think I’ve found my dream team for that descent into the gorge of the Little Colorado!

Now, it’s on to Las Vegas…my least favorite place on planet earth, but often a necessary stopping place in the vast wilderness of the West, for one night, because we need a shower and hair dryer to do the all-important pre-Burning Man hair dying.

I hope to get one more blog posted Wednesday night before leaving for the remote wilds of the Black Rock Desert where the event is held…and after that you’ll have to wait a bit for pictures and stories of the insanity that is to ensue!

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