The sun was sinking low in the west, casting its orange light onto the porch of Fiesta Mexicana on Friday evening. I sauntered towards the far side of the open-air dining area, spotting Randy (Randal Schulhauser) and Larry (squatpuke) already seated. After shaking hands, I sat down, only to move quickly to a different seat - that sun was blazing directly into my eyes. Talk quickly fell onto the upcoming hike and our preparations. Clanton and Toad (ToadOfTheRocks) showed up shortly thereafter and we began discussions in earnest. None of us had ever hiked this trail before, but Toad and myself had done what we considered to be a fair bit of research. Randy asked about maps. We had only a few large-scale overviews, but I promised Randy I would be printing some off of HAZ and laminating them. He seemed dubious, to say the least.
Others began trickling in. Page is small. It is fortuitous that both Toad's wife Emily and my wife would also arrive on the porch that evening, for they would play an unexpectedly large role in the trip to come.
Dinner, drinks, and tales came and went until it was time to depart. I still had to make my fabled laminated map and the others needed their sleep. We had set the ungodly early rendezvous time of 5am at my house and I intended to keep it.
The sun was not yet close to rising, but I did that morning at the forsaken time of 4:30am. I had some last minute packing to do, mainly water-related items. All too soon the other parties began arriving. My lovely wife was even up to get them outfitted with coffee and muffins. It took some doing, but we did manage to get everything eventually loaded up and into the Explorer. Down to Maverik for gas, and then we were on the road. I wasn't sure exactly how long the drive would take, but considering that we weren't going all the way down 98, but were going up IR16, I estimated about an hour. Boy was I wrong. Including the axle-crunching wrong turn up past a huge water tank, it took us about three hours to get from Page to the trailhead. There were several times that we got out to do some "road maintenance" and spotting up rough rock slopes. The ruins of Rainbow Lodge finally came into view, nestled high on the foothills of Navajo Mountain. We were relieved and once the truck stopped it was go time. The crew trundled off into the pinon-juniper woodlands to relieve themselves. The Navajo Nation spread out below us - White Mesa, Cummings Mesa, slickrock knobs, dark-forested uplands, the haze-blue sky and high clouds. The perfect spot for dropping some weight.
Soon (or soon enough), we hoisted our packs. I set my SPOT into track mode. We wandered up the road a bit and hopped on the well-cairned trail. Some of the most spectacular vistas in the state of Arizona spread out beside us. Not far up the trail we entered into Utah, but no signs marked the way. Sage dotted the route, which was well traveled, well maintained, and well marked. Navajo Mountain's pale sandstone slopes towered over us on the right as we approached First Canyon. The drop into First was well defined like the previous stretch of trail, though rocky. The wash bottom was strangely narrow and sandy, considering the scope of the gorge it laid in. Climbing out of First reminded us that we were hiking at elevation. Pinon and juniper again greeted us on the rim, old friends framing the vistas of buttes and canyons. We contoured roughly around the piedmont before coming upon the chasm of Horse Canyon.
From whence it got its name I do not know. What I do know is that Horse is a daunting defile, a deep gorge carved out from the runoff of the inner basin of Navajo Mountain. That's a big stretch of ground to drain, and Horse Canyon looks up to the part. Its floor it littered with boulders. Toad would comment further on that the rocks look like they were deposited by a glacier. But I get ahead of myself.
Before even dropping into Horse, we sat and pondered our course of action. The trail across the bottom was easy to see from the rim. The way down and way out were not so clear. We dug out the laminated Franken-HAZ map, and contemplated. The map showed the trail splitting just below the rim of Horse, with a high route quickly crossing Horse and a low route that looked long and arduous, climbing up the side slope of Dome Canyon further to the north. We wanted to tackle the high trail and avoid unnecessary ups and down. This alone shows how little we knew about the trail ahead.
After much consultation, we dropped into Horse, hoping for the high trail. The trail headed upcanyon, first contouring the canyon wall and then dropping steeply. A trace of a trail took off across some sage flats, leading towards the inner basin. Was this the hoped-for high trail? The route was blocked off and appeared disused, while a well-worn path switchbacked further into the canyon. Not wanting to get off track, we dropped down. After dodging some fallen trees, we ended up in the canyon bottom. The views in either direction were - not terribly inspiring. We were hemmed in by the canyon wall, a spur of rock, and bends in the canyon in either direction. The trail headed up some sand and then sandstone. A steep ascent, and the Sandfoot Expedition regrouped on an overhanging cliff. The view here was much better. Straight down, 100 feet below us, was the moraine-style boulder field. The inner basin of Navajo Mountain opened up before us. Larry commented on the slight overhang we were perched on, while Toad and I searched for the path out. I spot it, some cribbed rocks in a break in the cliff face almost directly above us. I am met with general disbelief. I mean, really, the trail goes straight up the burnt tan sandstone?
Indeed it was so. Larry and Toad led the slog up the switchbacks, passing a long-abandoned hogan. It was time for a snack break at the top and take in the view (gorgeous as before). We found the remains of an old camp - burnt wood, rusted cans, etc. Larry gave us a mileage check (less than halfway there). The blue sky floated above us, dotted with thin white strands of clouds. It felt good to get the heavy pack off my back and let that sweaty patch on my back have a little evaporative cooling action.
Time to saddle up again came all too soon. My heart rate from the climb out of Horse was just starting to drop back down to the under-heart-attack range. But we needed to make tracks to Yabut Pass, our intended lunch destination. Larry sprinted off again in the lead, and I brought up the rear behind Larry. We went about 100 yards, discussing the state of the trail, the view, etc., when a minor disaster struck. One of the zippers on Randy's pack had become hooked on a strap. Apparently this exceeded the design specs for the zippers that Osprey had installed on their pack, and it failed. Completely. One side of the zipper separated from the other, sending Randy's gear tumbling to the trail. We sat down and spent a good 10 minutes attempting to fix the zipper failure in the shade of a pinon. The geniuses at Osprey had opted not to include a zipper re-railer at the bottom of the zipper, so we ended up abandoning the idea and found a new way to secure everything. We dusted ourselves off and headed back down the trail. Only one somewhat major drainage (and a couple thousand vertical feet) separated us from Yabut Pass. We dropped into the little drainage and caught sight of Toad and Clanton on the far side. Apparently our absence had caused some concerns, but our reappearance with all limbs spurred them on. By the time we reached where we had seen them at, they were gone.
I, and it seemed the other as well, had anticipated a slow ascent to Yabut Pass along basically contour lines. After maybe a quarter mile of hiking across what we had expected, Randy and I encountered the real way to get to Yabut Pass. The terrain changed from pinon/sage uplands to a broken boulder landscape. White fins and shattered rocks slowly climbed towards the gap, now visible, between Navajo Mountain and No Name Mesa. The trail turned tortuous. It climbed, dropped, circled, then dropped again. There was no straight way forward, and we passed many dry camps where others must have given up in despair of reaching the pass. Not us. The wind also began to blow at this point, a portent of things to come. It was at our backs, pushing us up the broken trail.
The trail became steeper. The crew bunched back up by the roots of an old cedar that shaded the trail. It was a water break that lasted a bit longer than usual. We sat and BSed and rehydrated. A solpugid scurried under a rock, dodging Larry's probing hiking stick. The sun was climbing higher in the sky, and our twists and turns through the broken country had begun shutting off the views. The only option was upwards and onwards. The trail stretched ahead of us, and we still had miles to make.
A notch appeared, a sandstone fin broken by a talus slope. It was still a couple hundred feet above our current location, but as I caught up to Larry and Toad, I voiced my opinion that we were headed that way - that the notch was the pass. Toad wasn't sold on the idea, and Larry suddenly started hiking again, only to dump his pack and head upslope to dump something else. Nature calls even on the side of Navajo Mountain. Toad and I trekked on, past the notch (I was right) to a wide sandy spot with large boulders and sheltering junipers. Beyond that, the world dropped away towards the distant red rock domes and deep blue waters of Lake Powell, shimmering in the April sun. We'd arrived, finally, at Yabut Pass. Only 3 miles remained between us and our camp.
Those three miles, however, could wait. It was time for lunch. I detached my camp chair and brought my bagel sandwich over to the shade of a large square boulder. Trees offered us some gentle shade, but clouds were growing thicker - high, wispy creatures weaving a white basket over the sky. We sat for a spell, bitching, moaning, and complaining. Some ribbing of Larry for his very sudden off-trail adventure. Toad explored around the corner of our sandstone "dining room" and discovered trash - plenty of it, though apparently most was old. It was a good camp, sheltered from the winds by the fallen block, with a view that'd be hard to beat. But it was dry. Dry and dusty as an old coyote bone bleaching in the sun.
Enough inaction - time to get on the trail again. We began our descent into Cliff Canyon. We dropped slowly at first, around the head of a minor drainage, towards a fin of rock. Toad and I discussed strange metal markers as we picked our way through boulders and junipers. He considered them drill pipes from some long-forgotten oil project. I disagreed, as we came to the fin, stating that some of these locations would be impossible to get a drill rig into, even by chopper. It turned out, after the hike, that they were placed along the trail as mile markers. Since they don't start at the lodge, however, it is hard to say exactly where they measure from.
We hit the fin and the world dropped away from us. "Pumpkin me sideways," I exclaimed, while Toad voiced a similar comment about holy excrement. Randy sat down on a block overlooking the gaping chasm that is Cliff Canyon. Red rocks hemmed it in, while a steep and rugged looking talus slope with an indistinct trail showed the way down. Deep at the base of this awful slope, the canyon bottom trail takes off into the shadowy bends of the canyon. Our camp for the night hopefully lays somewhere down that trail.
Larry is already off and running. I don't necessarily like the idea of going down, but I'd rather do it now and get it over with now, and then move on to water. My earlier heart-pumping and breathlessness has led into an easy rhythm on the trail, pack fitting and settling on my shoulders, legs swinging easily. I don't want to disrupt my flow, so while Clanton and Randy sit down and take some photos, Toad and I set off as a pair.
It is a good decision. We fall into conversation, cursing the trail that jolts our knees, commenting on the rock walls that seem to soar ever higher around us, the baby head boulders underfoot, the narrow switchbacks and steep rocky drop-offs. Good companionship. We take special note of the spots that we think we'll be cussing on the hike out. The drop is 2,000 feet over the stretch of 2 miles - about 3/4 of the way there, Toad and I stop to take a quick break. We're also concerned that we haven't seen Clanton or Randy in quite some time. We wait 15 minutes or longer - just when we're about to hike back up the hill to see what is going on, Clanton emerges, all curses.
"You've gotta be pumpkin kidding me! I just stopped behind that tree there." He sat down on the trail. "Man, my pumpkin legs are killing me. No seriously. My knees man. My knees are killing me."
We offer some pain meds, but he's already taken some.
"I got some bad crotch itch too man. You know if you walk bow legged it helps man. Plus you're more stable."
"Don't you have some bicycle shorts or something? Stops that whole chafing thing in my experience."
"Oh man, I did. Seriously. I don't know what happened to them."
Well, since I didn't know what happened to his underwear and neither did Toad, we let him go on about his shorts and his knees. We were growing more concerned about Randy however, as Clanton told us he was "just right behind" him on the trail. We sat and waiting, growing stiff and disconcerted in the scanty shade of a pinon. Again, just as we are preparing to hike back up the trail, Randy comes around the corner, not looking like his normally spry self. He makes his way down to our stretch of trail and sits down.
"I want to propose something," he says, laying his pack down and resting on the trail, "and I'm serious about it. I want to suggest getting a ride out on the boat. I can't make it back up this trail. My hips really hurt, and I've never had hip pain."
Toad and I exchanged glances. We had both been concerned because of Clanton and Randy's pace, but perhaps they were just slow on the descents. Now it had turned into a whole new ball game.
"You know," chimed in Clanton, "I wasn't going to say anything, but you've kinda brought it out into the open. I didn't want to be That Guy. My knees are killing me. Seriously. I don't think I could make it back out this way either, man. We should try and get a boat ride out."
Thus began Plan B for the 2011 Rainbow Bridge Sandfoot Expedition Spectacular.
We hit the trail again not long after our discussion, with me out front. I heard some shouting below us, and eventually saw Larry ascending the slope again, concerned about our well being. I shouted and waved back. He seemed satisfied that we were all present and none were being carried, so he turned around and headed back down the trail to wherever he'd cached his pack. I dropped my pole over the edge - a highly unfortunate occurrence, but Toad was able to retrieve it for me. Shortly thereafter, Toad and I met up with Larry, lounging on a rock.
"I wouldn't drop your pack upcanyon here. Might find something you aren't looking for." Point well taken. Toad and I don't shuck our packs, since we'd been resting for quite some time. I break the news to Larry.
"Clanton and Randy don't think they can hike back up this," I say, gesturing back upslope at the rocky hell that is Yabut Pass with my hiking pole.
Randy and Clanton drop in at this point, and they continue the story, in abbreviated fashion. Larry takes this all in. I decide to put in my leaderly opinion.
"We should only be a mile or so from camp. We're almost out of water. We're going to lose daylight here at some point. I think that a couple of us should go on ahead, find water, set up camp, etc., while you guys rest."
There is some discussion of this, but it comes to a general agreement. We do need water. Randy and Clanton need to rest some. We're only a mile from our proposed campsite, and in a canyon with no side canyons. Larry, Toad, and myself hit the trail. We follow it for some time, crossing and recrossing the boulder-filled dry river bed. I grow frustrated. I need to drink water. We need to find water. The river bed is dusty, but we detour down into it anyway. No sense climbing and dropping multiple times if we don't have to. Besides, water is more likely to be in the river bed, right?
We begin seeing signs - seeps high up, green grass and trees. But nothing usable. Nothing for us. The canyon is shaded now, but the sun is still up. We push on, detouring up onto a bank to get around a boulder field. Larry spots it first - a scummy pond in the creek bed. It'll be a decent night after all, I guess. We find an outhouse sheltered under an alcove. If it is still usable is anyone's guess, but no one really wants to investigate. The next bend in the creek brings us to our campsite for the evening - sandy, with a few trees, next to the creek. It'll do. We drop our bags.
I, by a strange turn of coincidence, happen to have brought my cell phone on the trail with me. I had no plans to use it, of course, but I preferred to have it with me than having it left in the truck. With this stroke of strange luck, while Larry set up and Toad fumbled about (since Clanton had his tent poles), I climbed a nearby ridge, where I could see Navajo Mountain. To my relief but not great surprise, I could get a signal. Not enough to make a call or even send a text, but I was hopeful that a nearby spot would do. I returned to camp to set up my tent and send the check in signal via my SPOT.
I had just finished my camp setting and had laid out my camp chair when Randy and Clanton walked heavily into camp. They looked beat, and I mean beat. The shadows were growing darker, but they gamely settled into the campsite tucked against the red cliffs. Randy and I crack a Cag together and then get down to the serious business of setting up a campfire. Dinner ensues, wind lifting sand and embers together in a dark spiral into the dim evening, while we discuss egress and evacuation. I know two people with boats - one doesn't work, the other already said they wouldn't come. That leaves Clanton. The crew agrees on a hierarchy of options: friend with boat, tour boat reservation, hitchhike on private boat from dock, try and hitchhike out on tour boat. Away Clanton scampers (his knees miraculously better) up a sandstone slickrock dome to text friends and family, starting the chaos back in Page.
While Clanton attempts to communicate to the outside world (poorly, it would turn out), the rest of us relax and discuss in camp our plans for the morning. I feel like we can't make much of a plan besides getting up early and seeing what responses we've received from Pageites. I am certain word of our situation is spreading like wildfire in our gossipy little town. A shout breaks the discussion - Clanton yelling that Toad's wife (and mine) wanted to talk to us. Little did we know at the time, our text messages interrupted them in the process of hearing a story from a friend about how sometimes people clone cell phone numbers and attempt to extort money and/or services from friends. Our wives, basically, didn't believe that we were communicating with them at all. It also didn't help that Clanton's messages were disjointed and occasionally nonsensical. I shouted back up that I would deal with it in the morning. I was frustrated. I wasn't trying to text out because I didn't know the people Clanton was talking to, and as the titular leader of the "expedition", I was worried that things were starting to unravel. The idea of having a serious medical issue on the trip was definitely distressing as well.
Clanton clambered down well after dark, after a volcano of color erupted across the sky, painting the clouds a spectacular purple and pink before fading into total blackness. Our campfire sent out a faint pulse of red light into the darkness, visible only to the sky gods. The wind was picking up, and the rum only made a desultory pass around the crew before we turned in for a restless night. Wailing wind and uncertainty about the day yet to dawn kept most of us awake.
The morning was clear and chilly. Navajo Mountain reared to our north, looming over Cliff Canyon. A brief fire to warm things up was of little use to me, for I was climbing the opposing cliff in search of a cell phone signal. I had been telling the crew on the drive to the trailhead about how the literal Navajo translation for cell phone was "the little thing that makes you climb a hill and spin around." I found myself living the definition as I scrambled past prickly pear and juniper to a little boulder field with a clear view of Navajo Mountain, already illuminated with dawn's early light.
Turning on the phone prompted a swarm of text messages. Fortunately I was able to ignore most of them - people telling Clanton they couldn't pick us up. The two biggest players on the cell phone were now just my wife and Toad's wife Emily. I sent out a credit card number and info, asking them to book us onto the boat. My wife was convinced that they wouldn't take a credit card over the phone and kept texting that back to me despite all arguments to the contrary. I'm not sure how she thought people from other countries booked boat tours, I guess. I also found out that my SPOT was not sending out my check in messages. With all this news I was getting frustrated and hungry, so I scampered back down the slope to cook some oatmeal and refill my water. I figured that nothing was going to really happen while I was up there except raising my blood pressure and lowering the phone's battery. I ate quickly as high clouds began again creeping over the sky. After cleaning up the best I could (dumping the sand from my dishes that had accumulated the previous night), I changed into the day's clothes. I was concerned about money. I don't have much, and we couldn't afford the boat if they didn't take the credit card info I sent out. Some serious discussion was undertaken about costs and options. I said that I was going to have to hike out that day due to money - but I didn't really want to split up the group. A similar idea was floated regarding the two injured parties taking the boat out, but again the group would be split (and since the other three wouldn't have our packs with us, we'd have to leave them without knowing they made the boat or face a 14 mile trek back the next day with Yabut Pass in the middle of the day, not the start). We decided that sink or swim, we were all in it together. Start together, finish together; no man left behind. The camaraderie of the backcountry is strong.
After reaching our decision to stick together no matter what, I re-climbed Cell Phone Hill. I was greeted with good news a few minutes after conversing with Ely. Emily texted me saying, "They took the card. You're booked on the boat today. It has to leave the dock at 11:30." I misread this as 10:30, but it simply provided extra impetus for us to move along. I shouted down to the camp while typing out my reply. "Let's go you bastards. We're on the tarzan swinging' boat and it leaves at 10:30. Pack your shit! Let's move!" I signed off the phone, promising to text at the Bridge, and bounded down the slope (catching a prickly pear needle in my foot in the process).
Despite my optimistic statement about being ready to move, we weren't. I certainly wasn't. Bags were still unpacked, tents still set up. With an air of urgency, however, breaking camp was accomplished relatively quickly. Our packs, re-laden with liters of water, sat heavily on our shoulders. My arms were red from the sun and our cross-country shadeless hike the day before. None the less, the trail was clear downcanyon. We bashed through the willows and plodded along the sand. We crossed the stream several times before climbing a high bank. Toad was mumbling something about a sign marking the entrance to Redbud Pass. I thought him slightly sun addled - who the hell would put in signs in the middle of the Canyon Country? But then again, someone humped those metal pipes down the trail. Still, I wasn't convinced. The high bench looked out over a large open area, with several tributary canyons leading in from the east - where we needed to head. We followed the well-defined trail down off the bench, admiring a large arch-like structure on the downstream canyon wall. The trail hit the stream...and disappeared.
We were at a loss. This looked like what we expected the junction with Redbud to look like, but there was no longer a trail. Downcanyon looked dark are foreboding, but our side canyon options didn't look terribly good either. We spent close to half an hour scouring the bench on the north side of the creek and its side canyons with no luck. Larry and I consulted a topo map that Toad produced showing the junction area in some detail. We eventually decided we were one canyon too early; that we needed to head downcanyon, past the arch/crack on the canyon wall. Time lost and the boat was moving inexorably closer to Rainbow Dock. We bashed our way through some willows and found a lost water bottle...and the trail. We hiked along the bank of the creek for a short stretch when Toad sighted a sign! Sure enough, it had an arrow pointing towards the right, and read Redbud Pass. We were in the right spot after all. Against the far cliff face we saw another old Hogan and some Basketmaker rock art. I normally spend lots of time at places like that, but I was concerned about time if we were going to make the boat. I contented myself with a water break and photographing from afar. Larry, being the superhuman hiker that he is, jogged up to the panel with his pack on and snapped some photos. Taking the opportunity to strike out ahead, I took the lead.
The Redbud Pass area gets narrow pretty fast, giant pinons and junipers rising out of the sand. A Redbud tree, fronted by an Indian Paintbrush, appears, backed by the rusty orange cliff. Toad stops and gives a brief lecture on botany. I cruise on, wanting to make time and get Randy and Clanton to the boat. The canyon bends, twists, and turns as the water-laden clouds spit rain at us, but never more than spit. As we continue trekking, we round a bend and are faced with a sudden obstacle. A sand slope, dotted with boulders, fills the entire canyon. Redbud Pass.
Despite its ominous reputation, Redbud Pass is not terribly daunting. The switchbacks are narrow and steep, but a little bit of slogging through sand and over boulders, and soon I am standing on top of the Redbud summit, by a rickety old sign saying "Redbud Pass." The others trickle up and take celebratory photos on top. I am worried about time, though, so we start to head down the other side. Larry took off out front again, and we soon came to a couple of drops where we had to sit, toss poles, and slowly scoot down off the ledge, following by some boulder-hopping. Clanton seems remarkably spry, but I say nothing. The canyon narrows up again, with inscriptions from Bernheimer and Wetherill. Blast marks mar the canyon walls as we come to the famous "man over mule" photo location. Beyond that, the canyon opens up, and the whole feel of the hike changes.
Before the base of Redbud Pass, the canyon system had been a maze of narrow slots, towering domes, and tight narrows. After leaving Redbud, we came to an open boulder-strewn field where several canyons came together, with Navajo Mountain's snow-capped cranium towering high over us. The canyons took on a different feel as we headed downstream too. The canyon was slightly wider, slightly twistier, but those weren't the source of the change. The canyons felt friendlier, more inviting. The maroon walls seemed to draw us in, not impede our progress. The creek gurgled clear, not with a steel reflection. The stretch from the base of Redbud downcanyon was also easy canyon hiking. We criss-crossed the stream many times, heads cranked back to take in the overarching walls, streaked with desert varnish. The sun came out and we took a break in the shade, eating Sour Patch Kids. This, I thought, is classic Glen Canyon hiking. Others have similar thoughts. Clanton says, "I mean, I love the lake. But think of how many canyons like this are underwater." Larry makes some sounds, I am unsure what they mean, but they prompt Clanton to continue his musings. "I mean, Glen Canyon had these beautiful streams and trees. That's why it was called Glen Canyon. It was a lush garden at the bottom."
Deep thoughts deep in the stony heart of the earth, cradled in Mother Earth's rocky arms and nursed by her clear-flowing stream of life. It is true, though, that Bridge Canyon was a veritable paradise. Green all around - junipers, pinons, grasses, reeds, Cottonwoods, all manner of native water-loving plants. Flowers were poking their colorful heads into the brisk spring air, seeing if the time was right for them. The group stretched out, three out front with two in the back. We never let ourselves get very far apart, always conscious of our collective burden.
The geology of the canyon bottom began to change. I remarked upon this to Toad as we slogged up a sand hill. "Kayenta Formation coming in. That's a good sign. Rainbow Bridge's footings are Kayenta, and the canyon isn't too deep below it. We must be getting close." We have a discussion about this, but it is soon put on hold as we spy a fence - our first since turning the truck off the paved road yesterday. Part of the gate is an old bedframe. "We must be near Echo Camp," I surmise.
Passing through the fence and regrouping, we can see a large alcove just ahead. Toad and I agree that this must be Echo Camp. There is some discussion as we wait for Randy to round the bend if we should book it for the boat or head into camp. I vote for heading towards the Bridge - based on the topo, it looks like a detour out of our way to get up into camp. The others are less certain. I call the situation Schrodinger's Boat - we can't say if the boat has left or not until we get there. The sun shines down on us all with no answers, as usual. We heft our packs and head down the trail, still somewhat undecided.
Just around the bend we catch our first glimpse of Rainbow Bridge. As titular leader of the 2011 Gay Sandfoot Rainbow Bridge Spectacular Expedition, I am at the front of the pack to get "first glimpse", and I do. It is a beautiful sight, but it quickly fades as we drop into a draw, cross a baldrock drainage, and then come to a junction with the simple sign reading "Camp" and an arrow pointing to the right. What the hell. I head towards camp.
Larry, Clanton, and Toad seem slightly confused by my sudden change. I sit down on a bedframe and explain that the sun did provide some answers. It is well past noon, I state. I stand up and hold out my hiking pole. Its shadow falls north-northeast. Past noon. Might as well drop our stuff and go down to the bridge unencumbered.
"What about Randy?" someone asks.
"Hopefully he'll come this way. Otherwise, we'll get him when we're out on the trail."
We loaf about for a few minutes, enjoying having the loads off our backs. Larry and I head into the more sheltered area to explore the pool. He hikes up into the alcove, scouting it for a possible campsite. He says it looks passable. The acoustics are amazing. We decide to make camp up in the alcove for the night. Larry and I make our way back to the entrance of camp. Since Randy still hasn't arrived, we decide to head out on the trail and find him, while Clanton and Toad putz around camp and get themselves settled. Just as we are about to leave through the gate, some people show up! What a surprise! I ask if they've seen an old, disabled, decrepit man. The two ladies don't think that 's very funny, asking why we left him by himself. No sense of humor, these Moabites and their grandson. We chit-chat for a bit, and determine that they are hiking in via The North Trail, with most of their gear being packed in by horses. That quickly tells us that if they didn't see Randy, he's heading towards the bridge. Larry and I excuse ourselves and cruise out onto the trail. We crest a rise and see Randy making his way down towards the bridge. I shout out his name, and he stops in his tracks. A few minutes later, we arrive by his side, at the entrance to the National Monument.
"We decided to head up into camp."
"Oh, I thought you guys would be hauling down to the boat."
"We figured it was after noon by the sun. The boat is gone, so we're going to set up camp and then come down and see the bridge."
"Well, I'd like to go down to the bridge and take some photos."
"We were going to come down after lunch. Are you sure?" Rain begins spattering the ground intermittently.
"Yeah. Take some photos, you know."
"Do you want us to take your pack?"
"No. It's my burden." A laugh. "It has all my camera things."
We do go with him to get the first view from inside the monument, but the rain starts coming down harder. I say, "If you're going to take some photos, I'm going to head back to camp for now and eat."
"Yeah. Wouldn't it be something to get Rainbow Bridge with a rainbow?" I agree that indeed it would be, but I want to protect my gear from drops that are coming down as more than sprinkles, and say so. "Don't you think your friends will do that for you, since they're back at camp already?"
"I prefer not to take that chance of having a wet bed tonight."
With that Larry and I jog back down the trail in the pelting rain. Of course, when I reach the fence to camp, the rain has stopped and my pack was still sitting there. No one had moved it. I chat briefly with the family again and haul my pack up to the alcove.
Randy arrives a while later, having photographed to his heart's content (though with no rainbow at Rainbow Bridge). Most of us are just lounging, enjoying the gorgeous scenery. In the deep amber pool of water below us, horses frolic. The sun and clouds paint never-ending patterns on sunburnt rock. I find a flat rock at the center of the alcove that slants towards the abyss. Unfolding my camp chair, I take a seat on it and eat my tuna fish lunch. The others perform similar duties as the afternoon continues.
Finally clear weather looks like it will stick around for a little while. The crew decides to head down to the bridge in earnest. We load daypacks and water filters (deciding to forego the horse swimming pool below us, we'll pump at the creek down by the bridge). The trail is easy and gorgeous; as I cross from reservation to monument again I wonder at my luck being able to be at this location on earth at this time. What an astounding location.
The Expedition creeps up on Rainbow Bridge, taking photos from behind trees, rocks, and other things. Only when we are close are we in the open - exposed to its full majesty. Two plaques on the north side of the bridge commemorate the native guides who brought Anglos to the bridge in 1909 - other than that, the bridge is remarkably free of human artifice. Randy walks to the shade of the bridge and soak it all in. The rest of us drop down to the shady creek bed, chasing away a couple who appears to want alone time. It turns out this was the beginning of a evening-long association with this grumpy pair.
We pumped water by the creek and did nothing except BS and admire the bridge. A more stress-free afternoon I cannot imagine. Before dropping down to the creek, I had checked the cell phone - yes there is service at the bridge. We were booked onto the boat the next morning. All we had to do now was make sure we had enough water for the evening, relax, and enjoy life.
Gradually, water bottles filled and the sun settled. The grumpy hikers left (upcanyon). We trickled up out of the creek and hit the trail, on the way back to camp. I run into a gal hiking down the trail towards the bridge. "Howdy," I offer.
"How are you? Where you coming from?"
"No, I mean, did you take a boat in?"
"No, we hiked in. We've got a camp up there in Echo Camp."
"You didn't come in by boat?"
"No. We came in from the South Trail. Started yesterday."
"Oh. Have you seen a tall guy with gray hair on the trail?"
"Yeah, but he's part of our group. Where are you from?" That question seemed to confuse her, so I had to ask it again.
"Colorado." Nothing on this trip raised my expectations for Colorado hikers.
"Where'd you hike in from?"
"North Trail. Started Friday. We're getting picked up by boat."
I bid adieu, anxious to be away from this strange contact, and slightly slighted by her initial judgment that I couldn't make the hump over Yabut Pass. I want to get back to camp.
New guests had arrived, however - two more hikers, some horses, and the pack guides. They're out of Navajo Mountain, and the fella needed to borrow my Leatherman to fix his saddle. Meanwhile the Moabites seem awed and amazed that A) we can carry all our own gear and B) that it doesn't weigh 75 pounds like they estimated. This ain't my first rodeo, I tell them. The grumpy hikers are part of this group, and they're out of Colorado. They offer an apple slice, which I gladly accept. They talk of making frybread that evening. I joke about saving some for us. The guides and the Moabites I get along with well enough, but I want to be back with our crew. I head up into the alcove, gathering some firewood along the way. Dinner was on the horizon, but for the time being we sat and watched as the grumpy Coloradans set up their tent practically right in the middle of the trail. The horses, we were certain, would trample or piss on it for sure. At least once they were done drinking - they had returned to the pool.
Clanton straggled back in, wanting to spend some "alone time" with Rainbow Bridge. He stumbled about in the dead wood near some old building foundations, smashing into branches and making a general racket. As he stumbled back up to the alcove, he started shouting "I'm bleeding! I'm bleeding!" Sure enough, he wore a blood mustache. He dropped the wood by the fire pit and told his tale.
"I was breaking these branches off to bring up here, and when I went to pick it up, it stabbed me! It was just, like, at the perfect angle! I went for it and felt this pain. When I jumped back, I saw this branch I didn't see before. And it was covered for like a solid inch with blood! Fortunately it missed my brain, I guess. Anyone have any TP handy?"
We are slightly shocked. I hand Clanton my toilet paper. Randy refers to the device he makes from it the Nose Tampon. It certainly looks the part. Does the job too - within 10 minutes, he's feeling fine and we're eating dinner and watching the light fade over our little stretch of canyon. The fire warms us as the cool night settles in, and raucous songs of Sandfoot (usually involving the Navajo word for feces) echo through the night. The fire dies down and we trundle off to bed, ready for the conclusion of our trip the next day - no matter what it brings.
I wake up in the middle of the night to blackness. Are my eyes open, or did I really wake at all? No stars, no reflections, nothing at all can be seen from my tightly-closed mummy bag atop squeaky springs. I roll over and see a thin line of sky. The alcove is so deep and so dark, all light disappears. I close my eyes again (for certain this time) and doze back off.
We all awake early and get our camp broken relatively fast. I was somewhat taken aback at first, because there was no ground past my feet - quite disconcerting, but I quickly adjusted. Hefting our packs, we find the packers loading their horses and the hikers already down the trail. The packers are supposed to be taking their gear down to the docks. I'm not sure how they're going to get through the fence, but I assume they know how to get around it. They've done this before.
Rainbow Bridge throws an arc-shaped shadow on the tangerine cliff to the north. We try to get some photos and then there is some discussion on how to proceed - around or under. There is no clear trail around the bridge, and a very clear one under it. None the less, all save Randy hike up and around the gravel bench on the eastern buttress of Rainbow Bridge. Hiking around, I pause and put my hand on the bridge, thanking it. Clanton snaps a picture of me, shaded by the morning shadows, with our destination. I don't know if anyone else in our group actually touched the bridge.
We mill around on the tourist side of the bridge, looking at the shadows and light, dinosaur tracks, and old dock mooring anchors. Eventually we trickle down to the docks, where the packers are indeed unloading the Moabites gear. I never did figure out how they got the horses around.
We don't spend too long at the docks until the boat arrives, bearing the day's load of tourists. We wearily dump our gear aboard the boat and make small talk with the crew (two enormous, loud men) and the Moabites (the Coloradans are still aloof). When the tourists return, the boat departs and we are on the penultimate leg of the trip. The lake glides by, slowly at first but picking up speed as we leave the confines of Forbidding Canyon. The lake is crystaline blue, and the rocks red-orange towering above us stand like majestic monuments. It is not the same, though, as a hike through the same canyons would be. It is more of a view and less of an experience. The boat tourists head belowdecks while the hikers and us backpackers brave the chill wind for the awesome view.
The rest of the trip occurs in a blur. The shuttle up from the docks, waiting for the shuttle eating some ice cream, the truck ride in Randy's F-150 out to the trailhead. We toasted my truck being intact with some Samuel Smith, Cheetos, and Salt and Vinegar chips. Then back on the road to Page for some after-hike celebratory beverages and calzones at Strombolis. Randy, Larry, Toad, Clanton - it was a hell of a hike and an awesome birthday. I can't wait to hike with each of you again.