Saddle Mountain to Nankoweap

At the end of Forest Service Road 610, a few dozen yards from my cliff side campsite, I entered the Saddle Mountain Wilderness.  The trailhead marker identified the trail as Nankoweap, but most other sources would call it Saddle Mountain Trail.  To be safe, just call it by its NFS designation: Forest Service Trail 57.  As I traipsed up Saddle Mountain itself, a steep- sided and vernal paradise, I enjoyed commanding views of Marble Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs and the Echo Cliffs to the left, and of the Eastern end of Grand Canyon near its confluence with the Little Colorado River to the right.  A split vision into different hemispheres of infinity.  In nowhere else in Grand Canyon that I’ve trekked, save perhaps for Point Imperial, do you get such a two-sided view of the Canyon.  It’s kind of like the cubist perspective; the vantage point where one sees a great work of art from multiple perspectives at once.

The day before, I’d hiked out onto a vast headland to Point Imperial, a peninsula denuded of its ponderosa forests by fire.  I could see almost the whole length of that headland from Saddle Mountain – from the golden aspen forests beginning to crop up from the ashes, to the remaining stands of ponderosa which still studded the peninsula.

Near the summit of sheered-walled Saddle Mountain, which tops out at over 8,000 feet, I dropped down into a luxuriantly dense forest of aspen and maple just beginning their autumn turn, with grass chest-high and thick against my sides on the narrow and damp trail.  At points in the half-mile or so of forest trail, it became so overgrown that I couldn’t see the surrounding terrain, giving the feeling of the woods around my boyhood haunts in Racine County, Wisconsin.  It had a swampy feel, and it burgeoned with currant berries.  As I squeezed out the other side, I spied down into a wide, mountaintop ponderosa grove hundreds of feet below, a flat open space where the wind wouldn’t stop.

The scattered, mostly mid-growth ponderosa and hummocks of salmon-stemmed stemmed scirpoidea with leathery, quarter-sized leaves seemed manicured and artificially set among the rocks.  The whole grove seemed more like a rock garden, maybe a Pacific surf scene atop cliffs near Monterrey.

Miles below, the uninterrupted plain of House Rock Valley poured itself over the rims into Marble Canyon like waterfalls.  Marble Canyon is mostly a jagged rent in House Rock Valley when seen near Lee’s Ferry or the Vermillion Cliffs.  As it nears the Colorado-Little Colorado confluence, Marble widens, scouring huge side canyons northwest into the Valley.  Only the unbroken Vermillion Cliffs hem in the cracked expanse of House Rock Valley.

I dropped down the backside of Saddle Mountain from about 8,800 feet down to 7,640 feet, where the mountain vegetation changed abruptly to desert biome.  The soil turned a blood hue.  The trees spaced out into an extraterrestrial scape of pinion understoried by yucca and cacti.  At this saddle, the mountain dropped sheer for hundreds of feet down into the inner canyon.   In front of me, the crowded forms of the east Canyon – spires and fins in the foreground, small volcanic mounds pocking South Rim plains and the Coconino Rim in the background.  All cast in quicksilver and dark blues by the roiling, autumnal sky which heaved with storm.

I loitered for a few minutes at the cliff’s edge, facing into the wind.  I’d reached the true trailhead for Nankoweap, probably the most difficult designated trail in all of Grand Canyon.  Would I brave it?  Hell no.  It had no water sources.  I wouldn’t even take a step onto it, for fear of automatic, disqualifying lightning strikes.

I’d carried a copy of Underhill’s Mysticism in my backpack, not a happy read.  But I plunged into it as if into a sea astorm, realizing that “the courage to change” in the Serenity Prayer didn’t mean the courage to send my manuscript to Houghton Mifflin or the guts to approach that lovely, tall blonde poured into the corner of the coffee house.  The courage to change meant instead the courage of humility.  It meant the courage to give up things like television and the pursuit of meaningless conjugal encounters with women, even if that pursuit took place mostly in my head.  It’s the courage to surrender the chase for status and respect.  It is to act despite the fear of economic insecurity.  It’s the courage to face my responsibilities of serving others without looking for a back door out of them.  It is the guts to do all these things without praise or applause, and perhaps to risk being seen by others as wee and unglittering, given no promotion or position of power as a result.  This is “accepting hardships as the pathway to peace,” one line in the long form of the Serenity Prayer.

In light of this series of uncolorful realizations, my ideas of work and of success needed redefinition, i.e., my employer is God and both my business and my success are serving God.  Okay. Enough of this.  Let’s head back up now.

Yesterday, I’d encountered gale force hail that forced me to nail on my sunglasses in the middle of a plateau-top storm.  Judging from the consistency of the soil up the steep, sliddery slopes of Saddle Mountain and the poor state of my treads, I needed to head up before the storms began again.

I made it up to the upper col of Saddle Mountain before the rains hit, and I loitered again in those summit broadleaf woods that reminded me so much of boyhood Wisconsin.  I had to climb yet further to reach camp.

At the summit of Saddle Mountain marked by a cairn, it seemed that I stood higher than I had at Point Imperial yesterday, judging from my line of sight cross-canyon.  And it felt windier than the South Pole.  My eyes spanned the distance across to that promontory.  A deep and narrow side canyon separated the target of my vision from where I stood.  My camper just a tiny Matchbox toy on the edge of the scarp across the divide.  The burned out ponderosa trunks on the plateau across from me just matchsticks, the shouldered slopes of their peninsula clad in a green-gold veldt.  Cape Royale jutted out beyond Point Imperial, and the San Francisco Peaks rested atop that platform.  San Francisco.  Saint Francis.  He’d been mentioned often in the Mysticism book I held in my armpit, and I realized that mysticism did not equate with anonymity.  Francis was one popular mystic.

“San Francisco Peaks.  City of San Francisco.  Rice-a-Roni, a San Francisco treat,” I said.  “Do you approve of the franchises bearing your name?”  I asked the Saint.  Only the wind howled back.

South, the red temples and ivory spires of the Grand Canyon twisted north and east to become Marble Canyon.  Cloud shadow painted the western rims of Marble, which incised through House Rock Valley, while the sun buffed its eastern rims.  The Echo Cliffs hemmed in the eastern bounder of the valley.  One jutting escarpment of the cliffs fell in shadow, while the next leader out shown in the sun.  Farther north, the broad sweeps of the Kaibab Plateau wove in a seamless, earthen cloak which swathed into House Rock Valley.  Deformations and monoclines wrinkled the smooth shoulder of the plateau.  Rare is the place where an eye can take in so much horizon in one glimpse.

As I made my way down Saddle Mountain, I walked down to the cliff’s lip and peered into the side canyon, lined with red wall.  It seemed deeper and narrower than any I’d remembered on either rim.  Past the ill-defined region where this side canyon joined the main well of Grand Canyon, a long wall of limestone set out from Point Imperial like a sail.  A strong wind knocked me back and I could walk no farther to the edge.  My body erect without any effort on my part.  I was the sail, God my wind.

© 2014 by Michael C. Just