On August 25 we celebrated the 100th birthday of “America’s Best Idea,” our National Park Service. Other than the Buffalo National River, the park that I’ve visited most often is the Grand Canyon. Of course, the first time was that teaser with my uncle back in 1968 when we had a buffet lunch somewhere in Grand Canyon Village and then took the Desert View Scenic Drive and exited at the eastern boundary – Uncle Harper reluctantly stopped on occasion to let me peer off into the canyon. Since then, I’ve been to the bottom of the canyon five times.
My first return was July 1983, and, once again, it was to the South Rim. I set up camp and then rode my bicycle from the campground and village to a snack bar at the end of the western scenic road. Since the road was decidedly on a slightly upward slope most of the way, I was really looking forward to an easy and fun ride back. However, it seemed that my return trip was similarly uphill – how could that be? When I got back to camp, I pulled my air mattress from my hot tent, threw it on my shaded picnic table, and crashed out.
The next day, I began a 7-mile mule ride to Phantom Ranch and stayed overnight in a cabin near the Colorado River – a tour I reserved months in advance. Ben Benton, the lead guide and wrangler, judged all of us with an experienced eye, assigning this mule to that person and placing him or her to a specific place in the line. I was the last one, being given the honorable and dubious role of bringing up the rear on a fine mule named Judy.
To break the monotony of our mule nose-to-tail descent, our guide held us up at one of the switchbacks to tell us a story about my mule Judy. “I want you to know why there’s no swimming pool or a piano any more at Phantom Ranch. It’s all because of Betty – that’s the original name of that mule at the end of the line.” I pointed to Judy to be sure. He said, “That’s right. Didn’t you see her ears perk up when I said “Betty”? He had our attention. “Every time someone would start playing the piano, Betty would sing her rendition of an old Gene Autry song, ‘I Have a Saddle on My Back Again.’ Everyone working at and visiting Phantom Ranch enjoyed it for a long time until one day she began to sing off-key. Everyone decided that the only thing to silence Betty’s noise was to get rid of the piano by burying it. The only hole big enough to hold the piano was the swimming pool.” Our guide eventually gave each of us his business card, which stated he had a master’s degree in B.S.
As we approached the Colorado River, we came to a tunnel that preceded the bridge which led to Phantom Ranch and our cabins. Our guide, who really knew his job, told us we had to use our switches to make our mules go through the tunnel. We all mumbled an unwillingness to do so. The other guide, behind me, put it another way: “If you get your mules through the tunnel, there are cold beers waiting for you at Phantom Ranch.” We used our switches.
Two times (1987 & 1996) I descended from the North Rim, and the North Kaibab Trail is twice the length. The first time was a torturous one-day hike to the bottom, a night at Bright Angel Campground, and a next-day ordeal to the top. It just about killed me!
This is a good time to interject a reminder that the National Park Service says that it has 6,700 miles of trails that Congress has not provided funds for maintaining. This miserliness and negligence has continued since the Reagan Era of the ’80s. If the Civilian Conservation Corps could lay the infrastructures for our national and state park systems during the Great Depression, there’s no reason today this country can’t maintain the lands that you and I own .
The second time I hiked down from the North Rim I did it right. At the back country ranger’s office, I got a three-night permit that I attached to my backpack. The first day, I hiked the first 7 miles down the switchback trail to the Cottonwood Campground. The second day, I strolled another 7, but straighter, miles paralleling Bright Angel Creek to Phantom Ranch and to the Bright Angel Campground. The third day, I hiked back to the halfway point; and on the fourth day, I plodded onward and upward out of the canyon.
On the fourth day, one time when I stopped to catch my breath – as I often did after a switchback – a young couple, maybe in their early twenties, came bouncing down the trail enthusiastically announcing they were going all the way to Roaring Springs with no water. I responded, “Do what?” as we say in the South. They naively bragged again. These people were about to hike 10 miles round trip, taking 6-8 hours! I told them, “No, no. You just passed a water stop back up the trail, and what you need to do is get back to it, drink up, and then get out of this canyon. If you keep going to Roaring Springs, someone is going to have to share his or her water with you, and that person, like I am, is already going to be looking forward to that water stop. I’m low on water now, and what I have is hot as a firecracker.” When I got to the water stop, they were waiting for me to thank me for turning them back. Only then did they continue their escape from the canyon.
My two other Grand Canyon backpacking treks were to the Havasupai Reservation (1988 & 1997). That’s where three waterfalls exist. Havasu Falls is the most beautiful, most accessible, best swimming hole, and nearest to the Havasu Campground. This is one of the reasons I always backpack with a strong beach float instead of a thin air mattress. It not only keeps me from sleeping “on the ground” but allows me to enjoy a good swim – also its weight and space are only negligibly more than a backpacking mattress.
I did things on each visit to the reservation that probably would never occur if it were operated by our National Park Service and its concessionaires. Many other visitors and their backpacks were picked up at the parking area and led to the bottom on horses. So I figured that the hike out would actually be enjoyable if I didn’t have my backpack. So I talked to the Havasupai guide who would lead the horse train out on the morning of my departure. He told me to leave early and he would catch up with me outside the village of Supai, away from his boss’s eyes. For a $20-bribe, my backpack was waiting for me in the parking lot when I got to the top.
On my second visit, my backpack broke about a mile before I reached Supai, which was 2 miles from Havasu Campground! The frame was stabbing me in my back. In Supai, I stopped at the campground office and reserved two horses for the day of my departure: one for me and one for my backpack. That time, my backpack didn’t get better treatment than I. Two days later, I was packed and ready to go. One of the wranglers brought my horses to me at the campground, loaded my pack on one, and took it with him. He told me they were waiting for some other people and that I should just ride on ahead. If they didn’t catch up with me, I was to wait for them at the top. It was a pleasant solo ride all the way. A hike that began disastrously two days earlier ended perfectly.
Even on this 100th anniversary, we need to realize that not all is secure with the people’s heritage. The 2016 Republican platform, as approved in July in Cleveland, calls for our “public lands” – which types are unspecified – to be removed from the protection of the National Park Service. Republican congressmen have proposed bills to repeal the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows presidents to save national treasures as national monuments – as Theodore Roosevelt did to save the Grand Canyon. Also, virtually all of our parks are being negatively impacted by climate change, which the Fox-Trump-TEA Party (A.K.A. G.O.P.) won’t even acknowledge. It will be up to the voters in November to determine the fate of “America’s Best Idea” and what we leave for future generations.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published August 15, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.