Grand Canyon – Climate Change and The Journey Home

The Unexpected Journey

The final hours of our dusty climb was in the dark. We didn’t know it but we were being pursued by a massive ice-storm. The next morning, we woke in the shocking comfort of a hotel on the South Rim to find a layer of ice blanketing the Canyon. Had we not made it back the night before, we’d still be in The Canyon today. The original plan was to stay two nights at Phantom Ranch on the Canyon floor. Reservations for two nights are so difficult to get, no one ever gives them up. Forfeiting our prepaid second night at Phantom Ranch was the first wise decision Jeff & I made since our bizarre journey began. Luckily, it would not be the last.

The Road Home – Jerome, The Asylum, and El Capitan

Leaving Grand Canyon National Park the next morning, we skirted the west side of the ice-storm for a couple hours. On a lark we ducked into the remote cliff-side town of Jerome and checked-in to The Grand Hotel for a few days – our second wise decision. The hotel bar named The Aslyum became our sanctum sanctorum. Three days later we caught-up with the ice-storm again in West Texas where we made our third wise decision.

Every town’s got something special that’s not apparent at first glance. Van Horn’s special is really not Diesel Fried Chicken in spite of its iconic old fillin’ station. Van Horn’s special is the El Capitan Hotel. And it had two rooms and two reservations for dinner at the restaurant bar with our names on them. The El Capitan is a Depression-era hotel restored recently by a couple from Fort Davis for love and two and half million dollars. It’ll never be profitable but who cares? It’s the finest old hotel on I-10 from Jacksonville to Santa Monica.

diesel fried chicken
The drive-by view of Van Horn most people take away
front door
The El Capitan was designed in 1930 by architect Henry Trost who designed several hotels in West Texas
leather chairs in lobby
Comfort, mood, and Mexican tile – a great hotel and the food is good as well

The El Capitan was the surprise-ending of our journey to Phantom Ranch. We got to the hotel and its restaurant bar just in time for the Super Bowl coin-toss. When our meal arrived we lost interest in the game. At half-time, we wandered off in different directions to explore the hotel, and our rooms. With our Grand Canyon experience still so fresh, I guess we just couldn’t stop wandering around.


Jeff and I left Van Horn the next morning in a reflective mood. Our strange adventure was coming to an end in a strange town. We headed back to Austin and for a while things were quiet. But soon enough the truck was filled with the familiar claptrap of bogus insights on politics, life, and love, our mouths watering for Hill Country brisket, Shiner Bock, old flames, Asleep At The Wheel, and even the bovine noise of the State Legislature. There’s something about Texas that always brings me home. And there’s something about Grand Canyon that will always take me yonder.

Somewhere in West Texas, sometime in February 2014

If 6 Was 9 – A Grand Canyon Mystery

Mountains Fall to the Sea

Grand Canyon is home to the Hopi, Navajo, Hualapai, and Havasupai. They all have Canyon creation myths. Three claim to have witnessed its birth. Only the Hopi admit they didn’t. But the Anasazi were here centuries before any of them. They were the original masters of the Canyon multi-verse. The Anasazi vanished mysteriously and no one knows why. All that remains are abandoned architectural wonders and lots of questions. Most scholars today blame climate change bringing drier cooler Summers and wetter warmer Winters beginning in 1190, lasting 300 hundred years. The people simply migrated-away seeking better conditions. But they left their spiritual imprint behind and there are times when you can hear them.

It was bitter cold the morning we began our descent to Phantom Ranch. The Canyon was nearly deserted. But we met a couple interesting spirits. At least I think we did.

woman rider
Riding back from Phantom Ranch in the morning with a knowing smile
Day Two on the Bright Angel: Loren found us on the Kaibab Trail, Day One and offered to help … we refused gamely but we needed help and he knew it … he circled-back for the next two days checking on us … a great spirit from Luxembourg


Grand Canyon mysteries are preserved in creation stories, lyric, and music. Jimi Hendrix was part Cherokee and became inspired by the ancient tales. His song, If 6 Was 9 came from a Hopi creation myth. The lyric, “if the mountains fall to the sea,” is the translation of the Indian word “Kaibab.” It’s also the name of the treacherous trail of descent to Phantom Ranch where we spent the night.

Like the Anasazi, Hendrix left a mysterious body of work that people are still trying to figure out.

Grand Canyon – Winter 2014

Pi vs Macbeth: The Triumph of Comedy Over Tragedy in Grand Canyon

The Lighter Tale is Heavy Enough

Our hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon evoked the tragedy and despair of Macbeth but also the comedy and hope of Pi. For Macbeth, the tragedy of life is its meaninglessness so his tale is dark and heavy. Our adventure was marked alternately by despair and wonder. The steep arduous trails with endless switchbacks made our destinations seem to recede and recede … in a daze, Jeff donated his heavy wool Pea Coat to the ghosts of the Canyon. But there was always an amazing view just around the turn and we forgot our troubles for awhile.

For Pi the horrific slaughter of his mother and the terrible vengeance he exacted on the cook led him to construct the lighter tale for telling. The dark truth he discovered about life in the desperate condition of nature was transformed by Pi through the symbol of the adult Bengal Tiger into a better but no less-true story about life. For us, playing below the rim forced us to reckon with bare naked nature and the ravages of age. Not exactly like Pi, much less Macbeth. But death is death and we could have met a meaningless demise a thousand times. A little colder, a little more wind, and we may well have not made it back to the rim that dark night of ascent. With that, there are things we can’t tell and things we can …

When we made it back to the South Rim that night we remembered that the trail’s end feeds hikers right to the entrance of the Bright Angel Bar but Jeff and I clean missed it and wandered around the dark grounds for 10 minutes before stumbling inside. We had become delirious at the only safe moment to be so. We sat in the Bright Angel Bar for 3 hours with a thousand yard stare trying to figure how we made it back alive. About midnight, we got up to move but couldn’t. Our bodies had locked-up and we could only hobble in excruciating pain. It’s called the “Canyon Crawl” and we had it bad. For the next 5 days getting dressed, stepping into a tub, or up the stairs was next to impossible. The only thing we could do well was laugh. There’s no accounting for Jeff and I hiking to the floor of the Canyon and making it back alive. But we did.

Unless you’re under 30, in tip-top shape, and you respect nature, you shouldn’t do what we did. There are shorter, safer, sane-er hikes all over the North and South Rims. Should you decide to ignore my advice and survive to tell about it, you’ll walk on billion year old dirt and have the adventure of a lifetime. But like Jeff’s coat, some things are better left in the Canyon. The lighter tale is heavy enough.

PvM 3
Jeff came sauntering around the turn sans his heavy pea coat – the Canyon got it

Grand Canyon, January 27th – 30th 2014

Author Notes:

This was my first time to hike the Canyon though I had seen it from the rim a few months back while on a cross-country motorcycle trip … I assumed the trails to the bottom and back were as smooth as the trail heads you see from the rim so the arduous difficult barriers of logs, rocks, and dusty red sand were a total shock as well as debilitating

My friend Jeff had hiked the Canyon several times in his younger years – the last when he was 40-something but this time he was 60 and so was I … it’s fascinating how our memories play tricks on us … Jeff suffered mightily this time and I became terrified for his well-being on the afternoon of the first day … we should have turned-back right then … I’m glad we didn’t but we got lucky … real lucky

When we left Grand Canyon on Thursday, January 30th, the weather took a sharp turn for the worse … had it looked like that when we arrived on Monday we wouldn’t have been able to do what we shouldn’t have done

Jeff and I have hiked the Canyon for the last time

I may never go back … I can’t imagine returning to Grand Canyon and not walking through the ancient wilderness

You won’t believe your experience in Grand Canyon … but you’ll never forget it