A Christmas Story: Hiking the Grand Canyon 1970

This is a funny story of one of my exploits back when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at UT, Austin. Its a “remembered” story I found myself retelling to my eldest grandson, Brandon Evans, and probably my future granddaughter-in-law, Meredith Clem. It is a “remembered” story because it was long before I had started journaling on my exploits. This means I’m going on memories some 50+ years old. They may not be totally accurate, but they are in the ball park.

In one of my rare events during this COVID pandemic, I had invited Brandon and Meredith over for dinner one evening. I’d fixed a dish my brother had highly recommended, a Greek chicken and potato recipe. I’ll diverge here before going on with my story…

Now my brother, like me, is an excellent cook. So when he speaks, I listen–usually, mostly. He is rather OCD-ish (not a diagnosis, a behavior patten), whereas I’m a lot more laid back about cooking. On the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, he is probably a sensing type personality. Sensings want to go step-by-step and follow the recipe exactly. The benefit is that his dishes turn out the same time after time. On the Myers-Briggs, I’m a P, or perceiving, personality type. I read through a recipe, say, okay, often close up the recipe book after I’ve gotten the general idea, make modifications as I go along, depending on what I’ve got on hand, adapt the recipe to my taste–I like spicy, for example. The result is that seldom do any two fixings of my dishes come out the same. My cooking drives my brother crazy as a result. He will only begrudgingly admit it’s good if he has to and seldom volunteers a compliment. He is, however, very quick to point out anything he doesn’t like about it. It is a lovely relationship.

Unfortunately, we were not impressed with the dish, is the short of it, and I followed the recipe exactly! It didn’t go to waste, however. I made chicken gyro sandwiches out the left-over chicken. They were pretty good actually. The chickens loved the potatoes. Now back to the Grand Canyon story…

It was Christmas break in between semesters. I would officially be starting graduate school, working on my master’s in zoology (fish evolutionary genetics) the next semester. My roommate was Gary Powell (now deceased), and we had decided to go skiing and hike the Grand Canyon. Gary had a pickup with an insulated camper shell on the back. We bought a piece of 4 x 8 plywood, had it cut down, and put it in the back as a bed platform. That way we could store gear underneath it.

I didn’t have any camping gear, had only mild weather, West Texas winter gear, and a pair of work-boots. The trip was my introduction to R.E.I., of which Gary was a member. I managed to scrape a little money together and ordered a backpack, sleeping bag, mess kit, and a few other things I could afford. That old external-frame backpack is still hanging in the barn at my now-wife’s farm I think. The day after Christmas, off we went on our adventure.

I’ll cut to us finally getting up to the south rim of the Canyon. It was dark and the roads had been snowy coming up. Gary, being from Indiana, was used to the snow and driving in it. I was from West Texas, and we’d had a little snow while I was growing up in Odessa, but I’d never driven in it.

It was dark when we pulled into the parking area that evening at the Grand Canyon Lodge. Now, there were three of us on this adventure. Gary, myself, and Argo, Gary’s border collie. I really liked Argo. When we would bring women over to our apartment for an evening of entertainment, Argo would politely walk up to them and proceed to stick his nose up their short skirts to their crotch, and take a big sniff. That always got a squeal from them–and a smile from Gary and I. We would profusely apologize of course.

Okay, here we were on the snow-covered south rim of the Canyon. It’s night. We fixed ourselves some dinner–opened a can of something and warmed it up on Gary’s backpacking stove. Warmed up a can of dog food for Argo. Now, we’re laying there in the dark, smoking a joint, and talking about our hike down the Canyon the next morning. Gary is talking about how steep some of the switch-backs are, how they don’t have safety rails or ropes or anything, and how far down the drops are. (He’s done this hike before.) As he talks, I begin to get a little paranoid, and ask him, “Has anyone ever fallen off–you know, over the edge?” He’s silent for a moment, then, clearing his throat a little, says, “They usually don’t lose more than one or two a year. Same with the donkeys.” Shit! I think. Okay, now my paranoia is way on up there. Remember, we are pretty stoned by this time. He laughs, and remarks something like, relax, you’ll probably be just fine. So, that’s the way I fell asleep that night, worrying about falling over the edge of the Grand Canyon.

We got up the next morning. It had snowed some more and colder temperatures were moving in. And we’re going to camp in this, I thought!! We were taking Argo with us, a no-no to the rules. Nonetheless, down over the ridge we went. We met a few people coming up as we hiked down those icy-covered trails, but no park rangers. I only slipped three times going down. I would hit an icy patch, my work boots would loose tractions, my feet would fly out from under me, I would fall down on my back, my backpack cushioning my blow. I found out when we got down to our camping spot late that afternoon, that I had ruptured my fuel flask for my stove, and it was empty. Luckily, Gary had fuel too.

That night, we camped about seven miles down out on a non-aurthorized peninsula– meaning, we weren’t supposed to be there. This was about half-way down according to Gary. We couldn’t camp in a registered camp site because of Argo. The night went fine. Cold, but fine. I’d bought a sleeping bag, which I still have, rated down to zero. However, I had been exhausted by the time we found a hidden camping spot. As I lay there that night, again, after eating and some of the magic weed (remember this was graduate school, 1970), I thought, if I am this tired hiking downhill, how is it going to be tomorrow going up 7 miles!? Shit again!

It was the next morning now, we got up, cooked and ate some breakfast, packed up our camp and backpacks, and headed out, back up the trail today to the rim’s top. Yeah, my legs were sore. I figured I’d walk that off. As I remember, it was mainly my calves that were sore from the seven-mile downhill grade. I was in terrible shape from too much studying, working in the research lab, and not getting any real exercise, except walking across campus to my classes. I was paying for all that inactivity.

Gary had wanted us to split up going up so he and Argo could move off the trail if they came across any rangers, etc. He had a set of walkies, and I was to radio him if I passed a ranger, etc., and give him a warning. So, okay, off I went ahead of him. He would follow in about 30 minutes. Let me say, that was the most God-awful seven miles I have ever walked! Before it was over, I was walking one agonizing switch-back at a time and having to sit down and rest for several minutes before tackling the next. It was slow and torturous. My legs kept trying to cramp. I was in a LOT of pain. About a mile from the top, a guy stopped and asked if I’d like him to carry my backpack? I nearly cried as I took it off and handed it over to him. He shouldered and buckled it up, and headed up the trail. I got up, tried to walk, and couldn’t get my legs to move, even without the pack’s weight! With great effort and a lot of pain, I finally got them moving. Bringing the far rear, I finally made it to the top. He was waiting for me and handed my backpack over to me. I thanked him profusely.

In agony, I made my way to the truck. Threw my pack and gear in the back of the truck. After waiting a few minutes, I decided, since the Lodge’s bar was just a short walk away, I’d go and have a drink while I waited for Gary, and I did. Actually, two Manhattan’s!. Managed to find my way back out to the truck. The drinks had hit really hard. I was glad to be feeling so little pain. Back out at the truck, I managed to crawl in and shut the tailgate and window. I crawled up into our bed, and, thankfully stretched out on my back with my legs straight out.

An hour or so later, Gary and Argo finally made it up. I awoke when Gary opened up the truck. When I tried to get up, my legs wouldn’t bend. With a great deal of painful effort, I managed to crawl stiff-leggedly out of the truck bed. Walking stiff-legged around to the truck’s passenger door, I had to chin myself up, using the tops of the truck and and the door to pull myself up and swing my stiff legs into the seat area.

The adventure continued, but I’ll end this portion here. Before it was over, we got caught in a blizzard crossing the Rockies, hit by a snowplow, and woke up to a 40 degree below zero weather with several feet of new snow. That was one cold night. Argo crawled up between us, and we threw the extra blankets over the three of us. I slept in several layers of clothes and my coat that night. But that’s a story for another day. Stay tuned.