View over French / Swiss Border
Sitting in front of an open fire of an autumn evening, the wind blowing and the last of the faded summer roses chapping against the glass in the window behind the heavy drapes; reading the glossy long-distance walking brochures with pictures of green grass, mountain streams and endless sun; the taste of seriously fresh Tuscan food in your mouth, or the long, slow-cooked, southern hog back roast . In such circumstances the idea of stepping out of your comfort zone seems perfectly logical.
Adjusting your position, leaning forward to spear a muffin on the end of a long-tined toasting fork to torture in front of the glowing red coals, the action doesn’t seem a million miles away from what it must be like to cook in the wilds of the Grand Canyon, does it? And that is how we ended up struggling in 100F + heat, hiking along the Colorado River with fifty pound packs on our back and ruing the day the postman came to call.
You only see the wee, happy smiling faces in the brochures, him stripped to the waist with his trim six-pack ("gosh, doesn't he look like me", as you suck in deeply to avoid looking at the consequences of too many buttered muffins) and her looking perfect in designer shorts and short, short crop top (forgetting in your admiration she is fifty years younger than you). What you don't see is the fat, sixty-odd year old, flat on his back on the red sandstone, peckin for breath, searching for the penny-sized bit of shade that will stop the tormenting sun and, wondering how the almighty it came to this? I'm nearly only kidding.
We had hiked in the Grand Canyon in May 2014, undertaking a three-day hike down off the south rim. For a first Grand Canyon adventure it was ideal, but the south rim is the tourist centre, served with paths, shelters and water supplies. Walking down the first half of the Bright Angel Trail is a bit like Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow on the last Saturday before Christmas. It was teeming with people of all ages, shapes and sizes. As much as we thoroughly enjoyed the three-day trip, we came away thinking we had not encountered the real canyon; the majestic wilderness that people speak of. We wanted to experience the isolation of wild camping in a pristine wilderness area; lying in bed at night looking at the stars; challenging ourselves to walk distances in extreme heat over difficult terrain with heavy packs and, to the best of our ability, try and enjoy it.
So back we went to the Wildland Trekking Company and signed up for a six-day hike going down off the less-well used north rim to traverse the Colorado River and to investigate some of the creeks, canyons and waterfalls that run off the main canyon. It suited us perfectly that it was to be just Joanna, our guide and me. Mere words cannot describe the Grand Canyon experience. When you are in it there are so many questions to ask about the flora, fauna, geology etc., that to have our own expert on hand was just a gift. Over the six-days our guide, JC (you guessed it, rippling six pack; over six feet tall, muscles on his muscles but still slim) usually a mountaineering man, answered all our questions with patience and fortitude and demonstrated a depth and breadth of knowledge of the canyon and its environs that was impressive. Of course, we returned the favour and before the end of the trip he was able to speak eloquently in the Olde Scots tongue of our forefathers and able to order a deep-fried Mars bar in a very acceptable accent.
To acclimatise to the higher altitude before we entered the canyon, we spent five days in the town of Flagstaff, Arizona. During the period of our stay the ‘Pickin in the Pines’ three-day open-air bluegrass concert was on and we took the opportunity to go and enjoy the beat. A number of the bands were from the local Arizona area and most of them wrote their own material, which added to the piquancy of the day. One of our favourite turns was a band called the Hogslop String Band with a base player on a broom handle in an upturned wash bowl playing a piece string! Their music was real toe-tappin stuff and it was no surpsise to hear they often played and called for big barn dances. We spoke to one of the band members later outside the hall where the barn dance was held and he amazed us with his knowledge of Scottish violin airs and the differences between how he played a violin in bluegrass and how it was played in Scottish folk music.
While we were in Flagstaff NASA’s 'New Horizons’ spacecraft, after ten years and three billion miles of travel, was doing a fly-by of Pluto. It was of course, at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Percival Lowell, who founded the observatory that bears his name, had suggested the existence of a planet beyond Neptune and spent many years before his death in 1916 undertaking detailed research to try and pinpoint its exact location. We could not visit the town without going to the observatory and undertaking the guided tour around the grounds, buildings, and equipment.
On a piece of ground outside the observatory, the wonderful Peter Juhl was conducting a workshop on stone balancing and took time out from the class to demonstrate some of the techniques to us. Jo was instantly taken by the endeavour and stayed on to participate in the class, while I went off to wander in the wonders of outer space. Joanna’s time in Peter’s class has had a continuing influence in the shape of some nifty stone sculptures both in the canyon (dismantled before we moved on) and in various locations back home.
We had walked the few miles in to the town and then walked back without realising the heat of the sun and its effects on us. It was a good lesson to learn in the comforts of the hotel before we descended in to the canyon. For the first couple of days we struggled with both the heat and the higher altitude and our training runs in the forest surrounding the hotel were breathless affairs as we struggled to adapt to strenuous exercise in the thinner air. We were helped by the avaiability of an open-air swimming pool and hot tub, which we made good use of.
On the night before our departure we had a detailed planning meeting with out guide, when we were given the equipment and food we would need to use and carry over the next six days and went over some of the dos and don’ts for the trip. We were reassured by the knowledgeable and laid back approach of our guide, who reassured us and gave us confidence regarding the challenge we were taking on. He laid it out for us and now we just needed to deliver our part of the bargain. Prior to departure, the company had let us know the level of fitness required for the trip and some of the demands it would make upon us. We had tried to do our part by preparing physically for the activity and could do no more at this juncture. It was time to suck it and see!