After a high school rafting trip and a few de rigueur strolls across the skywalk, my experience with the Grand Canyon is just as superficial as the visits most people conduct when stopping in for a day. While I can't write with any authority on the history and geology of this beautiful gorge, I can speak to the stunning narrative of Seth Muller's new travelogue.
And so can my wife, who, after hearing me read passages from the book aloud, printed out a backcountry-permit-request form and left it on my desk.
I say that, because Muller's book, Canyon Crossing: Experiencing Grand Canyon From Rim to Rim, as compellingly written as it is, is full of warnings about when and how to conduct a proper journey into and across the canyon's heart. In the last few pages of an otherwise wonderful tribute to hiking the big G.C., the author reminds us that young and in-shape marathoners have collapsed and died in the canyon from underestimating the heat—and the amount of water needed to remain hydrated—in the summer months. Safety first, indeed.
That said, Canyon Crossing celebrates the spiritual timbre—and, yes, the occasional hard slog—that accompanies a day trip or grand-scale rim-to-rim adventure. I've read more than a few books on canyon hiking, but only Muller, a Flagstaff journalist, has had the poetic eye necessary to convey the power of descending into heaven.
Take, for instance, a moment of pre-hike meditation on the North Kaibab Trail as Muller attempts to recall and visualize rock layers and formations in different parts of the canyon:
I daydream of their colors and contrasts. They begin with the craggy gray to beige to white Kaibab, clustered with fossils from an ancient shallow sea. ... The rocks bleed red down to the Redwall Limestone—gray rock with a red sandstone dye job on its face. ... I conjure the bands of Muav Limestone, with one impermeable band where the springs gush forth. And the Bright Angel Shale, seemingly tarnished copper green, eroded and broken across the Tonto Platform. I move into the piled plates of Tapeats Sandstone followed by the fantastic nothing: the Great Unconformity. It is a gaping absence of time, a missing 1,200-million-year-old section of Earth's history.
If that sounds a tad psychedelic, that's because the Grand Canyon offers the ultimate head trip. Forget taking mushrooms in the desert à la Jim Morrison. If you want your mind blown in a positive way, crossing the canyon might be ideal. Or at least that's what Muller's righteous prose suggests.
Muller also introduces readers to the many interesting and varied people who make up the extended Grand Canyon family. This includes Ranger Bil Vandergraff, who greets hikers and backpackers with rhetorical questions and statements intended to get them to rest for a moment: "Are you tired?" he asks a hiker. "Nauseous? You should be. It's hot." Vandergraff, who humorously describes his role as being akin to an EMT-certified trash collector, can be found at Cottonwood Campground, located seven miles down in the Grand Canyon along the North Kaibab Trail. He's a voice of reason lodged in place of chaotic splendor.
Another intriguing character: Canyon artist Bruce Aiken, who resided with his family in the inner canyon of Roaring Springs (down the North Kaibab Trail), where he worked at the pump house and needed to have food shipped in via helicopter. Initially, the canyon's majesty intimidated him, but gradually he mastered the place's mesmerizing colors and landscapes to become the much-sought-after artist he is today.
There's also a great chapter devoted to the community of Phantom Ranch, a resort village near Bright Angel Creek, known for its friendly staff and home-cooked meals. ("A baked potato never tastes as good as it does at Phantom Ranch," remarks Muller.) There we find TV repairman-turned-volunteer Sjors (pronounced "Shores"), who has tended the campground and interacted with visitors since the '80s.
Muller talks to everyone—from mule-skinners to ultra-marathoners—and encourages them to share their expertise and help construct the complete history of the canyon along his day hikes and rim-to-rim journeys. If you ever wanted to know about, say, how the Civilian Conservation Corps blasted the River Trail into existence in the '30s, this book explains it all rather eloquently.
Hopefully, Crossing Canyon will inspire readers to consider a hike into the corridor trails. And with any luck, my wife hasn't just hatched an elaborate plan to kill me off.