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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Camping with Zach at Grand Canyon

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/19/2021
Occurred: 8/24/2008
Topics/Keywords: #Arizona #Camping #GrandCanyon #Photography #Travel #Zachary Page Views: 485
All about the camping trip we took, with Zach and his friend, to Grand Canyon.
Our new, 2-room, 8-person tent, without the rainfly.

One of the things my grandson, Zachary, was most looking forward to about being in fourth grade, was the annual trip the local fourth graders traditionally make to Grand Canyon. This trip isn't just for fun. Grand Canyon is a living example of geology, ecology, the protection of endangered species, and more; and fourth grade is about the time most youngsters have grown aware enough to appreciate and understand it. Unfortunately, since our president has chosen to spend trillions of dollars fighting an un-winnable war against an enemy that didn't exist until he invaded their countries, there isn't enough left for the local schools to make the trip. And so, Michael and I took Zach and his friend, Chris, ourselves.

Michael and Mary have both complained that getting into a regular dome tent hurts their knees. And I will admit that it's not as easy for me to get up and out of a 2- or 3-man tent as it once was. So Michael bought a beautiful, 8-person, two-room tent. One-by-one, though, Mary and Jenny opted out of making this trip. So it was just us guys.

I was somewhat surprised to be able to easily make a reservation to camp right in Grand Canyon National Park—I expected it to be booked up as it usually is, often a year in advance. I was also surprised, but pleasantly so, to find I could locate availability, and make the reservation and pay for the site in advance (at only $18 a night!), at a well-designed web site.

Michael picked up Zach in Mesa, where we live, as soon as Zach got out of school, in the pre-loaded SUV. They followed the directions on the GPS to Chris' house in Chandler, then to pick me up from work at 5:30 pm. We drove as quickly as we legally could to Grand Canyon, but still didn't arrive at the entrance gates until 11 pm. By that time, there were no rangers manning the gates. Our reservations at Mather Camp Ground were right in the park, so we went on through. There was no one at Mather's entrance, either; but as is customary at campgrounds where late arrivals are not unusual occurrences, my name was posted on a whiteboard along with our assigned campsite number. We found the site easily.

The boys were sound asleep by this time, of course (and had been since we left Flagstaff). Setting up a new tent for the first time is always a challenge—especially when the directions aren't well-written (forgetting to mention, for example, that the poles must be aligned in a certain direction). And one of the poles that was supposed to insert into another, was dented. I had to un-dent it with a screwdriver, the only tool we had. But I did, and before too long the tent was erected (minus rain fly, since the sky was clear and glittering with stars), the mattresses inflated, the comforters, blankets and pillows laid out, and the boys and Michael and I were in bed and asleep.

The boys await breakfast.

In the morning, the boys got up first and busily explored the campground, made friends with other kids camping there, and waited patiently for breakfast.

Michael got to sleep in.

By 7:30, I was awake enough to rise and get it for them. (This may have been the result of Zachary's standing outside the tent every fifteen minutes and asking, "Big Papa, are you awake yet?")

I had decided to not bring the stove on this trip since Zach doesn't like cooked eggs anyway. Still, we had a nutritious breakfast.

Cereal, bananas, and milk, plus orange juice. What more could a kid want? Our nutritious breakfast.

We decided not to bother with showers, which cost $2 per eight minutes. (Mine alone would therefore have cost about $8.) But we did mount the rain fly onto the tent before leaving, partly because it might rain before we got back (though it didn't look like it) but mostly because it made our tent look that much more fabulous.

Our tent, looking fabulous with the rain fly.

We stopped at the Mather Campground office to get our car pass and also to ask where we should pay for our admission into the Park.

"You arrived last night after the gate was unmanned?" the ranger asked.

"That's right," I replied.

"Then you're here. Once you're in the Grand Canyon, you're in. Now, if you were to leave and come back, you'd have to pay. You don't get a free 7-day pass! But for this visit, you don't have to pay anything else."

I must have looked dumbfounded, because she added, "Take that $25 and get dinner with it."

So, we got into Grand Canyon National Park at no cost.

We drove the short distance from the campground to the nearest vantage point on South Rim, Yavapai.

The boys get their first glimpse of Grand Canyon.

It was, of course, wonderful to see the boys' eyes grow big at the awe-inspiring vista.

Grand Canyon from Yavapai Point. Zachary took pictures with his cell phone.

One reason that 9 is the perfect age to see Grand Canyon is that 9-year-olds are too young to feel the need to be "cool". It's okay, when you're 9, and seeing Grand Canyon for the first time in memory, for your jaw to drop and to stare in open-mouthed wonderment. Zach quickly recovered, however, and whipped out his cellphone camera.

Grand Canyon from Yavapai Point.

Chris was pretty overwhelmed. He's a quiet kid, and perhaps a tad uneasy with heights. When it came time to get a photo of our group standing on the edge, we couldn't get him to budge.

Paul, Zach and Michael at Yavapai Point.

Yavapai Point consists of a safety-railed lookout, a museum, and a length of paved walkway. We wandered to the lookout for a truly panoramic view.

Panarama from Yavapai Point.

While many stretches of the Rim are left just as the Spanish explorers of the 1400s found them, this one is sedately walled and made acrophobic-friendly as possible. Of course, for people who aren't acrophobic (such as Zach), the wall doubles as a handy seat.

Can you tell Zach is happy to be there? Ranger Mike Weaver.

In the museum, Zach and Chris learned about the Canyon's "Junior Ranger" program. They were given free workbooks and the ranger running the bookstore explained which sections they should fill out in order to be sworn in as Junior Rangers. One of the requirements was to attend a short ranger talk that was to begin nearby.

Ranger Mike Weaver gave the talk, explaining in a lively manner the answer to most peoples' question: How did the Canyon come to be? As required by the Bush Administration, he gave both the scientific (real) answer, and an answer for Creationists.

The real answer is that the Earth in this vicinity is composed of layers of several types of rock. Schist is the oldest type of rock, a metamorphic jumble that is billions of years old. Limestone is composed of the skeletons of sea creatures and is deposited when a section of ground has become sea bottom, as happens periodically. If the sea becomes shallow enough, that section becomes a swamp and shale forms on the swamp bottom. And if a section should rise from the water enough to become a beach, a stretch of sandstone is the result. Since the ground moves up and down (and so do ocean levels) as the eons pass by, many layers build up, one on top of the other.

Zach contemplates the four rock types that make up the walls of Grand Canyon: Limestone, sandstone, schist and shale.

But they'd all be quite out of sight, under our feet, if it weren't for the erosive ability of the Colorado River, which is loaded with so much silt and sand that it is like a moving carving knife as it flows along the ground. Over the past 10,000,000 years or so movement of the continental plates forced a section called the Colorado Plateau to rise, slowly. However, the Colorado River stayed where it was, more or less, slicing deeper into the ground the higher the ground rose. So it was the Colorado that cut the basic gorge in the ground.

It was rains that did the rest. Once the relatively soft, inner layers were exposed, millions of years of rainfall wore away at the sides, making the Canyon wider and wider, the dislodged dirt and rocks falling into the river and then being swept downstream and eventually into the Pacific ocean.

As Ranger Mike put it, "You've come to visit Grand Canyon at exactly the right time. A million years earlier, and it would have been too narrow to appreciate; a million years from now, and it would be too wide and flat."

As for the Creationists' version of the story, Ranger Mike pretty much let the Hopi's creation myth represent all of them. He abbreviated the story, which is actually quite interesting, to "The Hopi believe that their Creator made the Canyon a few thousand years ago," which of course is the same tale the Christian Fundamentalists tell.

But the actual Hopi mythology is much richer than that, involving Two Brothers who pierced a hole through the roof of a cave where all the Hopi were living, and grew a cane ladder so the people could climb out. At that time (just after the worldwide Flood), the world was soggy and damp, so the people appealed to Vulture, one of the beings who had come out of the cave with them, to help. Vulture spread his wings and fanned the waters, which flowed away until mountains began to form. Then the Two Brothers cut channels, and the remaining water rushed through the channels, cutting away the land until the Grand Canyon (and all the other canyons of the world) were formed.

Meanwhile, in the present world, we decided to see a little more of the inside of Grand Canyon. We took the free shuttle to Bright Angel Lodge, named for the trail we intended to hike. Michael, whose kidney stone was bothering him, decided to remain at the Lodge while Zach and Chris and I headed down the trail, which is also used by the mule trains going to Phantom Ranch on the river far below.

When mules pass, stand to the inside of trail, follow mule guides' instructions.

It's only been a few days since a couple of self-appointed Grammar Police were banned from all National Parks for "defacing" signs by correcting the grammar and spelling mistakes on them. They apparently missed the sign shown in the photo above.

This was not, in fact, Zach's first time in Grand Canyon, though it's the first trip he remembers. When he was five years old, we brought him, and I carried him out on a ledge for a photo op, much to the dismay of his acrophobic grandmother and aunt. He remembers the photo, and couldn't wait to climb out there for a new picture.

Zachary: Living life on the edge.

(This is the same formation at which I was photographed for my web site's logo.)

I sent the below photo to his aunt via cellphone, which now works as far down Bright Angel Trail as we went, at least.

Zach: Not an acriphobe.

Of course, the photo was a lot smaller on her phone. Karen's reply: "What's that on the ledge? PLEASE tell me it isn't a tent or the kids."

The fact is, Bright Angel Trail has many places that are safer than sidewalks to stand on, but can be photographed in such a way that it looks like only Spider-Man could get there. It has to do with the fact that the trail hugs the curving canyon walls.

Chris and Zach on Bright Angel Trail.

Bright Angel Trail is 8.1 miles from the Rim to the Colorado River (not 11 miles, as Ranger Mike told us). Along the way, we got a spectacular view of the trail down about five miles to Indian Gardens, after which it gets really steep and drops behind a cliff.

You can see the curvy Bright Angel Trail switchbacking back and forth to Indian Gardens, five miles away.

There's a rest house a mile-and-a-half down the trail which I've been to, but not on this trip so we didn't go that far. I'm guessing we probably hiked down a mile. The downward hike is pretty easy, relatively speaking.

Zachary, who has always loved to climb, was drawn to the various shale ledges along this part of the path.

Zach tries out a little ledge-walking.

Chris, not so adventurous, sat in the shade and enjoyed the view spreading in every direction.

Chris sits safely on the ground.

One puffy little cloud, the first we'd seen all day, ventured over the Rim's edge. I didn't worry about it, though, because Ranger Mike had assured us that today's perfect weather would continue unmarred for the next few days, at least. (Of course, he also said the Canyon is ten miles wide, rather than the 18 the Park Service's own literature claims.)

First cloud of the day.

Since Chris hesitated to climb out onto interesting rocks, he became the photographer documenting it when Zach and I did.

Paul and Zach on an outcropping.

By now we had turned around and, of course, climbing up the trail was a lot more challenging than walking down. The average incline of Bright Angel Trail is 18%, which is less steep than a stairway but not by much. The view can help keep your mind off how exhausted you are becoming, but even that can only go so far.

Grand Canyon from Bright Angel Trail.

Each time the trail shifted into the shade, we stopped and rested for a few minutes. Meanwhile, hikers passed us, many of them looking as if they were taking their last steps ever. I offered encouragement: "You're almost there!" I'd say. They would smile wanly, most without the remaining strength to even thank me. One elderly Japanese couple did thank me, but it was clear the effort had brought their reserves of energy dangerously low. I found out later they had hiked from North Rim, having left the morning before and spent the night lodging at Phantom Ranch. I imagine when they get home that pilgrimage up Mt. Fujiyama will be a piece of rice cake for them.

Back on the Rim, we found Michael and went to the Ice Cream Shop for a cooling snack. As we sat to eat our ice cream, a fuzzy little squirrel came right up to us and tasted Michael's finger. Of course, we didn't feed the little guy, which is illegal as well as bad for him. But Zach took photo after photo with his camera phone.

Photographer Zach gets shots of a Grand Canyon squirrel.

Finally, with clouds building up ominously despite Ranger Mike's assurances to the contrary, Michael took the boys to the Junior Ranger station where another ranger swore them in with a solemn promise to "learn all I can about Grand Canyon" and to care for it gently.

Zach and Chris are sworn in as Junior Rangers.

She then gave them Junior Ranger pins (Zach has worn his since) and provided proof that Michael traded in for official, embroidered badges they could wear.

We got in one, last look at the canyon before jumping in the shuttle bus to return to Yavapai Point, where we'd left the SUV. Cloud shadows now dappled the formations. We would have rain before nightfall.

Cloud shadows dapple the canyon.

Our plan had been to roast hotdogs over a fire in camp. We had the hotdogs and buns, and the firewood. But as gusts of rain splattered the car, we decided to eat at the Canyon Café instead.

I don't know why I keep eating there. I am disappointed every time. This time I had a chicken pot pie which was not bad except for the bone I unexpectedly found in it. But the sourdough biscuit they served with it was as dry as plaster. Michael and Chris had fried chicken that may have been good when it was first cooked five or six days before. Only Zach was happy with his meal, or perhaps it just isn't possible to make a bad pepperoni pizza.

We got back to our tent while it was still daylight, the rain having stopped after all. I was exhausted and went right to sleep. Michael napped for awhile, then arose and unpacked the new telescope he'd purchased for the occasion. He showed Zachary how to use it, and Zach was very excited over having seen Jupiter in its lenses.

Checkout time in the morning was 11 am, so when we awoke around 8 we made quick work of breakfast and then striking camp. The crates I now use to organize and hold our camping gear made that job a fairly simple one. (I do need a new crate for the new tent, however; there's no way two adults and two kids can compress that big, two-room tent into the compact box it came in, as well as the dozen Chinese children employed to do that originally could.)

As we approached Flagstaff, we came upon a field of flowers that I had to stop and photograph.

Field of flowers outside Flagstaff.

Altogether, it was an awesome and enjoyable trip with three of my favorite people.