"The wonders of the Grand Canyon can not adequately be represented in symbols of speech, not by speech itself. The resources of graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail."
– John Wesley Powell, 1909
I came west in March of ‘83 to hang out with some friends for an extended stay at the bottom of the Grand Canyon at a lovely oasis known as Phantom Ranch. Phantom would eventually become my home away from home.
Phantom Ranch is the only place in the park along the Colorado River where you can find any services. It’s essentially a dude ranch and hiker pit stop that sits on the north side of the Colorado where Bright Angel Creek empties into the big river. They also sell lemonade, candy bars, film and a small assortment of toiletries.
I am sure you’ve seen the pictures of smiling families on mules, riding through the Grand Canyon. Most of these lazy bastards are heading to Phantom Ranch. They are led by wranglers down the 7-mile-long South Kaibab Trail and arrive in the early afternoon, looking and walking around like someone who has a very large and crooked stick embedded up their ass. These are the dudes, and they stay at the ranch overnight, getting up early the next morning and riding back out to the rim. It’s the 48-hour Sphincter Express through the Grand Canyon and is very popular with young and old alike. I have never done it personally, but it sure looks fun and exciting, especially when the wind gets blowing off Cedar Ridge or Panorama Point. When you combine the painful monotony of being bounced around for six or seven hours while staring at the shit-stained ass of the mule in front of you, with the heart-stopping terror of hanging off the very edge of a thousand foot drop on the back of an animal that seems to be sleep-walking, you really do have all the ingredients for the adventure of a lifetime.
Phantom Ranch has a rich and storied history. The Desert Culture occupied Grand Canyon nearly 4,000 years ago and their delicate split-twig figurines have been found in various locations along the Colorado River. Starting in 800 AD, Anasazi Indians moved in and archaeologists have uncovered a kiva and several pit-houses on a ridge above the boat beach at Phantom, dating back to 1050. The Hopi and Pai Indians followed the Anasazi. They utilized the rich natural resources of the Canyon, and the Havasupai and Hualapai still call it home. John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer, came next, camping at the Bright Angel confluence on his perilous journey down the Colorado in 1869. In fact, he named the creek Bright Angel because it was so pretty, and in contrast to the Dirty Devil River they had named above Glen Canyon. The Grand Canyon Transportation Company got the tourist ball rolling when they built a trail from Phantom to the North Rim in 1900. And in 1922, the Fred Harvey Company hired celebrated architect Mary Jane Colter to design a permanent lodge to serve tourists at Phantom Ranch. All of the construction materials had to be hauled in by mule and the obstacles encountered during the building of the ranch would ultimately lead to what is referred to today as National Park Service Rustic, a distinct architectural style which utilizes native stone and rough-cut logs built without the help of machinery. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps upgraded the lodge and the trails and the place remains pretty much the same to this day. In addition to the lodge where breakfast and lunch is served daily, there are about ten small rental cabins of varying size, an employee bunkhouse, laundry room shed, a corral, two small dormitories for backpackers, and a water plant. The Park Service also maintains a presence there, a bit closer to the river, where they have three Colter-designed houses for their employees who monitor activities within the canyon and provide medical service. The Bright Angel Campground is where most people stay, and both the campground and the lodge are usually booked a year in advance.
Since the days of Fred Harvey, the ranch has always been staffed for the most part by pretty, sharp-witted ladies who like to please. Who could argue with such a pleasant business model?
In order to get to Phantom Ranch, you can walk, take a mule, or come by boat.
There are no roads anywhere at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and all of the supplies, including the mail, are delivered by mule
Phantom sits at an elevation of 2,550 feet, more than a mile beneath the North Rim, which hovers in the clouds about 14 miles away and can only be reached via a twisting and insanely steep trail. Phantom has the weather of Phoenix, and it can be snowing on the rim and be 70 degrees at Phantom, making it a great place to escape winter.
And that’s exactly what I was doing, getting away from the cold by staying with my friends who lived and worked at the bottom of the earth.
I had a very cool arrangement with the manager, a short blonde-haired firecracker named Sasha Jones. Sasha let me stay up in the loft at the employee bunkhouse for free, and eat with the staff, and in return, I did odd jobs, like chopping firewood and building a swimming hole.
Phantom Ranch is like a blast furnace in the summer. The temperatures exceed 100 degrees every day. And while there is a fast-moving creek flowing right by the ranch, it tended to be pretty shallow and there was nowhere deep enough to swim.
So, in 1983, I started what would turn out to be a Phantom tradition. I would come down to the ranch each spring and build the employees a place to swim, for which they were eternally grateful and allowed me to stay as long as I liked. I always built the revetment in the same spot about a hundred yards upstream of the ranch in a narrow place where the Zoroaster granite of the canyon made a great wall from which to anchor my dam. Then I’d use a pry bar to jimmy large river stones into position across the creek. Once dammed, the creek would slowly back up – not entirely, of course, but enough to create more depth. Then we would start piling smaller river stones atop one another to make the pool deeper. The finished product was a circular-shaped, five-foot-deep swimming-hole the size of a small swimming pool. I could always count on help from some of the guys who worked down at the ranch – Steve Young, Andy Hood, and "blind boy" Keith Green were always happy to pitch in – and the whole process took about three days. If we were lucky, no one would have to be choppered out to the rim for treatment of a broken arm or leg. Moving huge boulders and wet rocks where there’s a slippery bottom and a swift current can be tricky and dangerous. By the time I finished my appointed task, the skin on my bruised-black fingertips was scraped thin and I was bent over because my back had gone on strike.
The back pain actually led me one year to build a small pool on the downstream side of the dam, thus taking advantage of the substantial flow that was still blasting through the blockade. You could sit in a little rock bowl and the current hit you like the massage jets on one of those high-priced Jacuzzis. It did a real number on your tired bones after a long hike.
Once the revetment was complete it had two user groups. First of all, there were the party people, who consisted of employees who were off work and their friends – people like me. The second group consisted of employees who were just taking a break from work and trying to cool down before resuming their chores. Clothes were optional and most people went naked. The main reason for this was to keep the tourons away. The revetment was shielded from the North Kaibab Trail by lots of thick vegetation, but a fairly obvious track led from the main trail to the water and if you happened to be wandering around the ranch, be you backpacker following the creek, or a paying guest out exploring, you might happen to stumble onto our little piece of paradise. Upon this discovery, most folks thought they would just come on down and join the fun. We couldn’t really say to them that this was our private swimming hole – even though that’s what each of us thought. And when we saw a touron standing there, eying the water with greedy eyes, we wanted to just yell, "Get lost!"
It was a dilemma that was eventually solved by pure accident. One day, I came down to the revetment with two of the old hands at the ranch, Myla and Donna-Donna. We had our lawn chairs and reading materials, and some beers to put in a bag and hang in the cool water. But when we arrived at the pool, there was a family frolicking about like they had discovered the place themselves. I was so mad I could spit. And then I had an idea. I took off my swimming trunks and shirt and stood as naked as a jaybird. The girls laughed and followed my lead. Five minutes later, the invaders were gone. We had stumbled on a valuable lesson: Americans, Asians, Brits, Aussies and Latinos, as a general rule, have been raised to be ashamed of their bodies and feel very uncomfortable around people who aren’t wearing clothes. I think there is also a sexual component to this curious dynamic. People associate nudity with sex. And so, by shear chance, we came up with a way to keep the trespassers at bay. This trick, however, did not work with Europeans. They love to get naked, almost anywhere and at any time. But then, they tended to be a lot more fun and attractive, so we didn’t mind them as much.
I had been staying at Phantom for about a week and I was hauling large pieces of cottonwood tree that had fallen the previous summer. It was tough, slow work. I would put the large rounds in a wheelbarrow and then push them up the sandy trail to the back of the bunkhouse where I’d split them before stacking the firewood inside the fenced patio.
It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood. The ranch was booked, but the dude train wouldn’t arrive for several more hours. The float trips hadn’t started in earnest yet, so there was no river scum to deal with. That was the moniker we affectionately used to describe the river runners who would sometimes, during the heart of the summer season, descend upon the ranch like a boisterous mob in packs of fifty or more and disrupt the peace. The only other people hanging about that lazy spring morning were the occasional backpacker. And they were always quiet and kept to themselves.
I dropped my wood at the bunkhouse and headed for the lodge to grab a beer. I walked through the back door and into the large walk-in cooler where the beer was stored. I grabbed a six-pack and went up front to pay at the register.
Wanda was the cook for the day and she was putting together the ingredients for tonight’s steak dinner. "It’s been a crazy day today. Did you hear about all the fun and excitement? The Park Service is freakin’ out."
I had missed breakfast and been hauling and splitting firewood all morning. I hadn’t talked to anyone. "Haven’t heard a thing. What’s up?"
Wanda dried her hands on her apron. "Well, Bobby Swayne, the wrangler, was bringing the supplies down this morning and he was having trouble with one of the mules while they were coming through the red and whites. So, he did what his peanut-sized cowboy brain instructed him to do, and started beating the shit out of the mule with his hat. The mule got spooked and bolted right off the edge. Almost dragged the whole string with him. Bobby had to cut the lead rope so he wouldn’t lose them all."
I didn’t care for wranglers or mules. But I wasn’t totally insensitive. "Please tell me the mule that fell wasn’t carrying the beer."
Wanda snapped me with a dishrag and laughed. "You are a heartless bastard."
"No, I just have my priorities straight," I answered. "So, did the mule die?"
"Of course it died. It fell about 500-feet straight down and bounced off the bottom of the Redwall. It’s in bloody pieces. And now the Parkies have to go down and move it so it won’t freak out the tourons."
"They get to have all the fun," I replied with a wink.
"Would you like a sandwich?" asked Wanda.
"I’d love one. I’ve been splitting firewood all morning and I’m done for the day. I think I’m going to spend the afternoon over at Roy’s Beach."
"Sounds sweet," said Wanda as she began putting together a box lunch for me to take along.
Roy’s Beach was an isolated spot upriver of the black bridge and a good place to get away from everyone and lounge naked in the warm sun like a lazy lizard.
There are two, long suspension bridges spanning the Colorado River at Phantom. The silver and black bridges are the only man-made crossings of the big river between Marble Canyon and Hoover Dam. They hang about 400-feet-long and sway in the wind about 60-feet above the chilly Colorado.
As I walked up the river trail I noticed several fishermen, wearing waders and fly-fishing in the eddy line along the north bank. One of them snagged a large rainbow and held it carefully above the water as he brought it back to shore.
Grand Canyon features some of the finest trout fishing in America. But it is tough to get to the big buggers. You need a boat, and then your access is severely limited to the Marble Canyon area far up-river, because of the large rapids that would flip a small fishing boat. Your only other option is to hike down one of the Grand Canyon trails to the bottom. That involves getting a backcountry permit and schlepping all your camping gear on your back, all so you can catch a fish. Needless to say, when you saw someone fishing at Phantom Ranch, you knew they were very dedicated fishermen indeed.
I came to the black bridge and was getting ready to climb over the rock wall that marked the edge of the trail when a streak of silver shot by, almost at eye level, and I damn near shit. It was a F-16A Fighting Falcon jet aircraft flying under the silver bridge. It was like watching a missile go by, the sound trailing afterward like a roaring echo. In a second, it was gone, and I stood there overlooking the churning green Colorado River, wondering what sort of lunatic would pilot a supersonic fighter plane at Mach 1, through the Grand Canyon.
And then I remembered a story I had heard from a Phantom old timer, named Roy Sharky, about a secret club of Air Force pilots who would get a special patch to wear if they navigated the entire 400-miles of the Inner Gorge in the Grand Canyon and flew under both of the suspension bridges at Phantom Ranch. I had scoffed at the idea when I first heard the tale, figuring it was more myth than reality, but I had just seen it with my very own eyes and was still pinching myself when I returned to the ranch later that day.
I ran into the head ranger, Mike Stone, at the bunkhouse that night and I told him about the jet. He asked me if I had gotten the number off the plane. Because if I had, then the Park Service could lodge a formal complaint with the Air Force and the pilot would be punished.
"That’s like telling someone to get the number off a goddamn bullet," I chuckled. "That thing was there and gone so fast I didn’t have time to even blink."
Mike nodded his head thoughtfully. "It takes balls as big as church bells to fly the Inner Gorge. Can you imagine if you hit a wall?"
Sasha was knitting a wool cap by the fire. "Hey. Maybe that could be a new tourist attraction. Fighter planes could fly the Inner Gorge and people could pay to ride along."
" Please don’t give them any ideas," replied Mike. "We already have more than enough helicopters and planes flying around the rim to make it dangerous as shit. Between the tourist operations with their helicopters and piper cubs, and the commercial jetliners, it’s a formula for disaster."
Over the years, there been several high profile crashes at Grand Canyon. The most famous happened in 1956, when United Airlines Flight 718, a Douglas DC-7 Mainliner, and TWA Flight 2, a Lockheed Constellation named Star of the Seine, collided over the canyon. The TWA plane landed upside down at the base of Temple Butte, disintegrating upon impact. The Mainliner hit Chuar Butte and exploded into flames. A mass funeral was held on the South Rim a few days later for the victims of Flight 2 and the unidentifiable remains of the 29 passengers on the United Flight were later consolidated into four coffins and buried at the Grand Canyon cemetery. The wreckage was never removed and remains there to this day.
During the ensuing years, there would be other, less spectacular, collisions involving helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Everyone loved to fly over the Grand Canyon.
Eventually, the whole issue would come to a head and after years of studies and angry public meetings, the Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration would reluctantly put a ceiling over the canyon at 3,000 feet and require all aircraft to stay above that elevation. Interestingly enough, safety did not precipitate this rule change, but rather the outcry from river runners and hikers who complained that the constant buzzing of aircraft greatly diminished the Grand Canyon experience.
A few weeks after I had hiked out of Phantom, I was staying with friends in Flag. My buddy Lou and I decided to attend one of those initial Park Service meetings in Tusayan about the proposed changes to canyon over flights. And on our way home that night, after listening to the air tour operators whine for hours about any further restrictions to their lucrative business, we were drinking some Micky’s big mouths. It was late and there was no traffic on the road. We came to a brand new lighted billboard that had been erected by Grand Canyon Airlines. It featured a golden eagle soaring over the Canyon, with the headline "Fly The Grand Canyon".
"I have an idea," said Lou as he pulled The Shark over onto the shoulder of the road.
He got out and began rummaging around in the trunk, returning with a half-filled gallon of red paint. "I was using this to paint the shed. It’ll work perfect."
We filled four of the empty beer bottles with red paint and then rammed some toilet paper into the tops so the containers were capped. Then we climbed out of the car. The road was dark. No vehicles were coming in either direction. We ran giggling like little kids through the juniper-dotted desert. When we got to the billboard, we both threw our bottles at the eagle. Red paint splattered across the billboard, completely wiping out the advertisement and making a mess of the whole sign. We scampered back to the car, making sure to brush away our tracks with a tree branch, and then squealed wheels into the night.
The following day, Lou and I got a good laugh when we noticed a front-page story in the local paper about vandals damaging the fancy new billboard. There were no suspects.
This would be my first act of eco-terrorism, but definitely not my last. You see, mine was a journey that had been several years in the making.