Squirrels, apparently, are the most dangerous animals in Grand Canyon National Park.
They are also the mostly likely to approach humans, particularly those of us who produce snacks from our packs.
If you consider plague and rabies cute, pat a squirrel.
I don’t and I didn’t.
Instead, whether three feet or three miles into the canyon, I hissed when they came for my cheese, my apple, my chocolate, my organic blue corn chips. Yes I felt a twinge of guilt for hissing. No I wasn’t sorry.
It was a day of serious heat in the canyon. Three miles down the dusted track it was 105 degrees F. I know, I’m impressed myself. You’d never find me vertical in that kind of heat in Australia.
But that’s the advantage of adventure – three miles into a canyon, about a quarter of the way down sheer escarpment on near shadeless track, there is nothing else to do but surrender to Lesson One of the pilgrimage road: Keep Going.
In this instance, that means up. Keep Going Up.
It was, after all, so easy to go down. I stopped short of the three-and-a-half mile water fountain when I realised that the extra half mile would offer me no greater view of the canyon than the point I was already at, which, alluringly, beheld a speckle of shade from a spindly tree.
As I sat on a rock watching leaf shadows sweep the ground with the small breeze, allowing common sense to talk me into going no further, a panting woman heading up the track stopped and asked me if I was heading up or down.
‘Neither,’ I answered.
It is telling of the situation that we both found this so funny she had to sit down while we laughed ourselves out.
There were quite a few Pop-Eye types parading up and down, bulging biceps and camouflage, heading in and out of the canyon. They’re the ones going all the way to and/or from the river. And not just for the day.
Just as I dropped over the rim, at the top of the track, I passed one on his way up holding a young woman’s hand. I met his eyes and we smiled. Intrigued by the size of his pack, I asked him how long he’d been down there.
‘Four months,’ he said.
Before I had time to reply he kissed his girlfriend’s hand and said ‘she came down a little girl and returned a woman’.
Now, I’m slow at the best of times when it comes to sexual innuendo. I’m thinkin’ ‘what – she was six years old when she went down four months ago?’ It took me all the way to the spindly shaded rock to work out what he meant.
And there I sat, just for while, in the dust of the canyon, sharing smiles and conversation with the upbound ones only too happy to stop for shade and a breather, well aware that at any moment I’d have to join them . . . and partake of the agony.
I shade hopped up and up until I met a ranger sitting beneath the serious shade of a great rock overhang. I collapsed on a rock beside him and unfurled my pack. And there I sat for a good while in the company of a stranger, gazing out over the glory of the world’s biggest hole.
The longer I sat the more beautiful the story.
‘Well, there’s Indian Gardens,’ he said, pointing to a relative blip of a strip of fertile green below.
If I didn’t have a train to catch I’d have started early and made Indian Gardens the point of my day. That or the Santa Maria spring. He said this particular trail, Bright Angel, was the old Indian trail, that the gardens had been an oasis for America’s first nation people.
It was D. Kozac (that was the name on his tag) who told me it was 105 degrees F. It was also D. Kozac, volunteer ranger with a pack full of first aid gear and ropes, who’d spent four years checkin’ on folk as they puffed and panted up and down the trail.
‘How you doin’?’ he’d ask, over and over and over. And he meant it. He needed to know.
It was D. Kozac who told me 26 people died in the canyon last year: some by intent, others from lightning, still others from heat exhaustion and a small few whose adventurous spirits called them far beyond their individual capacities.
Like the trio a few weeks ago who tried to swim the Colorado River. They were young, not invincible.
Dark clouds began to circle a nearby peak. I asked D. Kozac what to do in case of lightning, something he reminded me I wanted to ask when he told me about the German woman who stepped out of her bus last year and snap! dead; hit by lightning. The park brochure says ‘step back from the rim; get on a bus’. There aren’t a lot of buses on the Bright Angel track; D. Kozac said to get as close as you can to the sheer wall of rock, away from trees.
Rolling thunder was incentive enough for me to get cracking.
Shade hop. Shade hop. Shade hop. Up. Up. Up. The moment I was tempted to stay too long in the shade, the thunder rolling through that vast, vast open space got me going. As did the beer I imagined waiting for me on a small table with a grand canyon view.
As is the way with pilgrimage, the agony passes the moment it’s over. I smile as I count myself among the dusty, the red-faced, the exhausted; the initiates who have ventured beyond the rim, into the canyon and returned. (Really, it shouldn’t be dramatic, but it is. It really is.)
At the top I turn and look back over the distance I have covered. There is a peak that is classic Arizona; from the rim it is level with the canyon skyline. On the way down, I had wondered if I’d get low enough to have it tower above that same skyline. It did. And once again it has levelled out.
As I look with satisfaction into the unfolding space, a girl catches my eye. She is standing in a vertical hole in the rock, like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. A man calls out from the rim ‘young lady! young lady! get back on the track’.
She obeys. I had thought she must have been standing on a ledge, from which she’d stepped into the hole . . . as she steps out of her hole back onto the track, she walks a ledge no wider than her sneakers, a million foot drop between her small trail around the rock face and the valley floor. She can be no more than 13 years old. Young, apparently invincible.
I sit with my Corona and a slice of wild green lime, staring blindly, contentedly into the wilderness. I close my eyes and see the Arizona skyline imprinted like a daguerreotype on the backs of my eyelids.
The dust on my boots tells its own story.