Camping requires a minimum level of technical competence. I wish I had it. I decided to camp out at Indian Gardens, a half-day down from Grand Canyon Village on the Bright Angel Trail. The problem with my plan was that it was damn icy at Indian Gardens in January. And cold. I ended up with the whole campsite to myself, for a while anyway.
I love the solitude. I hate the solitude. I want to be alone until I’m alone, and then I want to have people surrounding me until they surround me. I need a city in the middle of a National Park, that’s what I need.
I’d been down in Bright Angel Canyon the night before, and for a few nights before that. It gets warmer as you get low down. It can be zero up at the rarified Rim, and 50 degrees at the bottom, which is a desert environ. That hurts in July, definitely. But in December, it’s a gift from the weather god.
Indian Gardens is a woody oasis along a stretch of Bright Angel Trail that leads out to Plateau Point on the Tonto Platform. I’d never done anything at Indian Gardens before except eat lunch, drink water, eliminate lunch and eliminate water.
I hiked on up Bright Angel Trail from my previous encampment at Bright Angel Campground. By the time I arrived at Indian Gardens in mid-afternoon, I’d lost direct light; the towering rim rock occluded the sun. There was plenty of day left. But the day hid itself behind the cliffs. I lived in a crevice of shadows, and that had a decidedly refrigerant effect. I explored the dead camp. There wasn’t another human around, as you might expect after the Holidays. Even the Ranger’s station was vacant. I didn’t expect that. But I liked it.
I hopped around the ghostly campsites like a child in an empty playground. Old, crusty snow smothered the frozen, sandy soil. It was great to have my pick of sites. This one’s slanted, I thought. That one has a great view, but it’s too snowy, and has too many rocks. I want a soft berth. Ah this one’s perfect: but too far from the bathroom. This one’s okay, but windy. I took more time deciding on which site to pitch my tent than I did on which house I bought back home. I decided on the one that had the most pleasing geometric proportions, the one shaped like a triangle.
I checked out the bathroom: good enough. There was a toilet. There was running water, of course. I waltzed over to the camp bulletin board: hmmm, they were telling me to beware of heat stroke and to lock up my food in one of the ubiquitous metal storage lockers found at each site to avoid attracting wild animals. Wild animals? That started my hamster cage rolling.
I lit my giant can of Sterno, from which you can make great booze when you’re all out of Everclear at a dinner party, and I murdered my Chicken Alfredo in a bag (don’t think dirty). I topped my meal off with a steaming cup of honey and ginger tea. That cleared my nose, and I picked up the scent of subdued sage tumbled with cold creek water on the brittle wind. As I sponged my pots out at the camp sink after dinner, I spotted them: the tracks. The four paws. The pads of the cat. Not a house cat. Too big for a bobcat. They matched the photocopied cougar tracks on the camp bulletin board. The hamster picked up his pace.
Now my ambivalence about solitude kicked in, as it always did. Sometimes it ignited because I was horny. Sometimes it was longing for a family of my own. And sometimes, like this dusk, it was because I was afraid of being humbled by a carnivore. Not to worry, for tonight, I had the unassailable walls of my tent to protect me.
Time for bed. That’s the good thing about camping: you go to bed really early, even night owls like me, because there’s nothing left to do once you’ve eaten and washed up. How much simpler life was when we were cavemen. So, with a shiver I splashed my face and chamoised my teeth. I knelt down beneath the apron of the rain fly, unzipped the door, and rolled into the cool, black interior of my lumpy, space-age sleeping bag. You’re supposed to strip down because these sleeping bags allegedly get very warm.
It was just getting dark, and I figured I’d get a head start on my insomnia. Sleep has been my lifelong enemy. A good night’s sleep has always eluded me. I’d had two sleepless nights down at Bright Angel. If I wrestled with sleep in my warm, Queen-sized bed back home, I didn’t stand a chance pinning sleep down in an icy tent. The most I could hope for here was pretend sleep.
Just as I began to doze, I heard the high-pitched syllables of some far-off campers cascading down the trail from the Rim. As their excited voices neared, I picked up their Aussie twang. Two men and a woman. My rising chest flooded with a mixture of relief, since I wasn’t alone anymore, and exasperation, since I wasn’t alone anymore. Behind them, the treads of a larger troupe crunched through the gravel and ice. They laughed and sang in what could have been Russian, Bulgarian, or Glasgow Scottish. I wouldn’t sleep now. I eavesdropped on the two groups setting up camp in sites nearby. Their Slavic and Australian merged into a cacophony of campsite giggles.
I had nothing else to do but try to decode the meaning of their guttural utterances. The January frost gnawed its way into my marrow. My neck hurt. My air mattress allegedly had a pillow head, but I still felt like I was in a Full-Nelson. Speaking of the alleged air mattress, I felt like I was sleeping on Astroturf. And in the higher altitude I’d arrived at from the lower reaches of the Canyon at Bright Angel Campground the night before, I found myself short of breathe. The ivory moon burned through the tent’s polyurethane carapace. No wonder I couldn’t breathe. I was interred in a damn sarcophagus. I crossed my arms over my heart like Bella Lugosi and dozed off. I dreamt I was a vampire, sucking the blood of everyone else in camp just so they’d stop making noise. That woke me, a full 20 minutes after I’d dozed off. The hamster accelerated into a trot.
A little embarrassing history is in order. When I was a boy, I was sometimes afraid of wetting the bed. So I’d lie awake on the top bunk, my older brother snoring beneath me. At the slightest sensation of an infilling bladder, I’d dash down the ladder and into the bathroom. This obsessive bladder control behavior has been extinguished, fortunately for my many lovers. Yet as with all odious childhood behaviors, it does reemerge from time to time, in two places: (1) when I am a guest at someone’s home, or (2) when I am in a tent. So of course, I had to water myself.
I was too cold and lazy to go outside. I peed in a bottle in my tent. When you go, you think you pee only a wee quanta, but try going in a drinking bottle. It started filling too fast, like a man-hating toilet. Cup runneth over, and I spilled some on my fingers, which, I imagined, I magically transferred to my entire sleeping bag. This gave my sleeping bag the imaginary odor of urine. On my way to the camp washout sink to rinse off my fingers and dump out the pee bottle, I had my cover story ready in case anyone saw me: it’s lemon Gatorade.
I cast my roving eyes about in wary glances as I trekked to the wash sink. I did see those cougar tracks before. I made it to the sink without becoming carrion in a natural meat locker. I craned my neck behind me to check for angry animals. Instead, my eye snagged a moth-shaped cloud drifting toward the copper moon. It swallowed the moon up inside its translucent belly and glowed. A moonshaft broke out from an orifice in the cloud and scanned the ledge of a nearby mesa, which shimmered like coal. The mysterious light, miles away, pierced my neurotic dream and filled me with its own knowing.
Cougars, Mike. Remember?
The squeak of my hamster treadmill had rattled through. Sublimity is so exasperating in its evanescence. Exasperating in its evanescence. I just had to say that.
I slinked back into my coffin-shaped tent, zipped up the door, and slid into my night skin. My feet were bricks of permafrost. I guessed the hi-tech, all weather sleeping bag which cocooned me was based on the nine-month calendar of some long-forgotten civilization. If that wasn’t enough, the large, singing Bulgarian family kept their gas stove stoked well past 9:00 p.m. It sounded like a blast furnace. Maybe they were destroying secret police documents from the old KGB days. I finally marshaled the courage to pop out of my tent and march over. As I approached, I saw that they were Chinese. There was a mother, a father, a couple of grandparents, and three children, an older boy, about 11, his sister, maybe a twin, and a tiny preschool girl whose eyes glowed in the fire of the giant Coleman stove as she stared at me. The whole batch of them were gazing at this strange, skinny-legged Anglo in tight, prison-striped long underwear that disappeared into the foundations of giant Columbia hiking boots, laces undone, his top half coated in a yellow Gortex jacket. I hadn’t shaved for days, and my hair was unintentionally spiked like a Sex Pistol.
Grandma uttered a couple syllables in Cantonese. “Screwy-lewy white boy,” it must’ve translated.
In quaking words they may or may not have understood, I reminded them there wasn’t supposed to be noise after 9:00 p.m., as if there was an official around who could have enforced that. The husband apologized with a nod. Before I turned around, I noticed a tall stew pot on the Coleman. I think they were boiling potatoes.
Back in my tent, I almost wished for the Chinese-Bulgarian folk songs to reignite, because the quiet was ominous. Every noise became the stalk of the catamount. Of course I had to pee at 20-minute intervals into my Nalgene drinking bottle from which drinking for the rest of the trip was now forbidden. And, bless those zippers on that too-good sleeping bag. The damn things kept gobbling up the nylon skin. I had to turn on the flashlight every time I needed to get in or out, just to fix the zipper. Why hasn’t someone thought of putting Velcro on sleeping bags?
The flashlight was another issue: it refused to turn off once I’d turn it on. I ended up having to bury it in the sleeping bag just so it wouldn’t show me how spooky everything looked inside the tent, with shadows heaving all over the walls. I wasn’t Bella Lugosi. I was Linda Blair.
I finally managed to doze again, when an image from the campground bulletin board flashed before me in negative, like something from a bad music video. The bulletin read: “KEEP FOOD IN STORAGE LOCKERS. DANGER. WILD ANIMALS. COMING FOR YOU.” I had to make sure I’d secured that storage locker. I cursed the designer of my brand-new tent because I stumbled over the tent lip every time I crawled out the door. I’d never been able to unzip the rain fly because the zipper was permanently jammed at the bottom. I had to unstake the whole rain fly every time I needed to go outside. I dreamt up more replacements for the slide fastener (zipper): staples, glue, or a needle and thread all seemed more convenient at the time. I stumbled around in the cold black and, with the dancing beam of my flashlight, I spotted the food locker. Locker secure. Not a crumb on the hard frozen ground around the picnic table. Back to bed.
An hour or so passed with me drifting between paranoia and just my average, baseline anxiety. That shifted into a hypnotic doze. The hamster wheel slowed. Even hamsters needed to sleep, I guessed. I imagined drifting through a window in the thatched hut on a tropical isle in the boundless Pacific. Here I was at Grand Canyon, and I was picturing a South Sea beach, floating through the window of the hut. Windows? Why would I be picturing windows?
My eyes sprung open. A plastic window was sewn into the wall at the foot of my tent. The moon flickered outside. Could people see inside? Could the mountain lion be stalking me through that window? I bolted up. I heard the water faucet for the camp turn on. Maybe the mountain lion was getting a drink. I didn’t know. I glanced at my glow-in-the-dark watch face: 2:00. The foreign nationals in the other campsites were still as stones, asleep and dreaming about that same atoll in the South Pacific I’d envisioned. Maybe they’d all turn Survivor on me and vote me off the island.
I tossed and turned in frozen worry until, out of nowhere, real terror hit like a blast of wind for no apparent reason. Now I knew what a panic attack was for: labored breathing and the absolute certainty that the mountain lion was playing with my head and would burst into my nylon citadel any moment. I was no use to myself zippered to my ears, especially since the damn zipper wouldn’t undo. I’d never be able to grab the walking stick I’d bought to fend off the unwanted advances of mountain lions. I mean, I’d read books on cougar attacks. I knew what to do: Back away slowly, and if you had to, fight with sticks, stones, untrue accusations. Anything.
What if he smelled the urine vase in my tent? When the camp signs said no food or garbage in the tent because it attracts animals, did they just forget to include urea because people didn’t admit to in-tent pissing?
I wondered what those Aussie he-men in the next campsite thought as they saw my walking stick nudging my Nalgene bottle with the new flavor of Gatorade out from beyond the envelope of my rain fly.
Okay, that was done. Finally, I could sleep. Then I started thinking I should’ve put the Nalgene bottle in the food storage locker. And what if I had to go to the washroom again? I had to stay awake for that, didn’t I? I harbored a secret wish for catheterization.
I thought maybe I should just empty that bottle into the camp toilet. But that would’ve defeated the whole purpose of everything, because then I’d have to leave my tent and possibly be attacked by the cougar. The hamster was spinning his wheel full-throttle. He wasn’t running it—it was running him! I came up with a name for him: Lance Armstrong. But finally, even Lance broke down in exhaustion. The rampaging wheel flicked him out.
“Screw you, we’re through,” he said.
Great, even my obsessive-compulsive ideations were abandoning me. I finally managed a couple hours of tortured sleep.
I woke in the morning, shivering and moist. My throat scraped like Emory board every time I swallowed. My brain quivered like gelatin from lack of sleep. I dressed, but I couldn’t zip up my gators because the damn zipper got stuck. As I popped out from the tent, my face hooked a smelly sock dangling from an overhead storage compartment. The Australians eating breakfast saw a wild-eyed man storm to the latrine with a bottle of yellow water, too angry to remove the sock draped over the middle of his scalp like a Mohawk.
Eventually, with slow fingers, I managed a breakfast of oatmeal and a cereal bar. As I struck camp, I couldn’t find my sleeping bag bag (I don’t know what else to call it). I had to spend five minutes jamming my sleeping bag into a detachable parka hood. As I rolled up my wet tent, I found my sleeping bag bag underneath the tent, soggy and crusted with wet sand. How it ended up there remains one of the great unsolved mysteries. Everything in my wet, nylon world, from my hands to my fleece pullover, seemed caked with sand. Even my eyebrows, of all body parts, were coated. I looked in my signal mirror and saw that I resembled Sam Ervin, chair of the old Watergate committee who became famous for his luxuriant, twitching eyebrows. I looked like I’d been rolling around in breadcrumbs.
“This doesn’t happen to anyone else,” I muttered.
The Chinese children, I discovered, had been watching me strike camp. They perched three in a row on a nearby picnic table. The littlest girl pointed at my sand-crusted eyebrows and giggled. I’m sure it was retaliation for ruining her Slavic sing-along the night before.
The sun warmed the easy morning as I hiked the switchbacks up to the trailhead. I’d lose the light in the deep gulfs that gouged into the south cliffs, but it warmed that day more than it had all week.
I embraced the uncertainty of the trail, slipping on the rocks in an arrhythmic dance. Movement was never a problem for me. It was the uncertainty of the stillness that slew my peace. I could dance with that out-of-control moment on the edge of a cliff, aware of the chaos but not succumbing to it. I stopped and gathered energy from the sun on my back like a gecko. I remembered that people sailed around the world, going exactly where they intended to, having no control over the direction of the wind or how strong it blew. All they needed was a sail and some awareness.
As I rose along the trail, the panorama broadened cross-canyon and I could see the bands of snow woven between the pines and exposed reds and ivories of North Rim sandstone. It looked like one immense marble cake. I stumbled into an unexpected peace. I’d survived the night without a mountain lion event. She’s so stealthy and silent. I’m on her turf. If she’d wanted me, she could’ve had me. That is, if one had been within 20 miles.
Why was I like this? Because I wasn’t in control. Of the imaginary panther. Of the cold. Of zippers. The Grand Canyon doesn’t adapt to me. I have to adapt to it. That’s the wonderful reminder the Canyon provides. It lets me know I’m not in charge.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just