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Grand Canyon Burn

How one woman turns a trip of lifetime into a trip through hell

By Maile Field

November 15, 2004

Some say beauty is only skin deep. I would learn otherwise on this trip.It was launch day at Lee’s Ferry, mile 0 of a 280-mile trip. Marble Canyon, the eye-drying prelude to the Grand Canyon itself, had everyone humbled.

Fourteen people had cashed in vacation days at work; driven hundreds or flown thousands of miles; borrowed equipment and gear; invested in 21 days’ supplies for the privilege of floating the Grand Canyon.

And the permit holder, or “PH,” was nowhere in sight. It was past lunchtime, we should be hours downstream. But our six rafts, heavily loaded with kitchen equipment, gas tanks, tents, sleeping bags, requisite “groovers” and accompanying toilet supplies waited just downstream of the busy commercial launch area at the rocky edge customarily occupied by private boaters the day before launch.

I watched a semi truck deposit an impossibly large “bologna boat” in the water for a commercial run. The passengers would be bussed in later. The giant tubes would motor rows of people through rapids without messing their hair. Our boats ranged from 14 to 20 feet in length and each would host two or three people, including the rower.

The Greatest Whitewater in America. The Trip of a Lifetime. The divorce-causing, love-finding reality show of all reality shows…a private trip down the Grand Canyon spawns many cliches. This trip already seemed unlike any I’d ever been on. We’d spent years preparing for a 2003 run, my husband the permit holder, our friends aboard. This year I’d received a call Thursday and was on a plane Saturday. I knew three others.

“Things were looking serious. Without the Permit Holder, according to the national park service, our launch would be a ‘no go.'”

Using a binder clip, I sectioned off last year’s trip in my journal to begin anew. For last year’s trip, I had produced laminated kitchen duty charts and had engaged an outfitting company to buy groceries organized meal by meal and packed with cookbooks and supplies. Also, we had detailed organizational diagrams which cooler contained what in order to reduce open-cooler time, hoping the ice would last two weeks. This trip would be different.

Where was our permit holder? WHO was our permit holder? She was Helga Brujadera (to protect the guilty, some names have been changed.) No one had any more answers.

I hastily listed what was loaded on each boat and put the list in the kitchen box. We were crowding tomorrow’s launch, a group of friendly Wyoming river rats who laughed sympathetically at our predicament as they wrapped duct tape around whiskey bottles and tugged camstraps.

Things were looking serious. Without the PH, according to the national park service, our launch would be a “no go.” Two of our “repeaters” or river gurus–people who make a life of running the Colorado at least once a year–were looking sideways at the ranger’s truck and speaking in low voices.

“They’ve GOTTA let us go.” In all their years of river running, hundreds of multi-week trips, they had many eye-popping stories in their repertoires. But they had never had a PH fail to show up. The PH and her male friend — the last of the passengers she had invited to actually remain on the roster until today — had agreed to be on location Saturday night. All others had quietly dropped off the trip, making room for others, like me. I shouldn’t be too critical.

Helga’s grace was that she had managed to maintain her position on the waiting list for 13 years to acquire this permit, and somehow, through friends in the boating community, we had all managed to get on the roster. With the waiting list closed since December and those at the end facing 23 years’ wait, no one was complaining about the $100 per head late fees.

In other words, she had been lucky enough to connect with a few boatmen and boatwomen who wanted to go bad enough to do everything else for her. The “sherpa” attitude, the repeaters called it.

Gabriel, Boggins and Lucille, among the most knowledgable boaters to ever ride the current, would learn a huge lesson on this trip.

Add to the mix guys like Iowa, as well as Saul and Robert, two more courageous boatmen who would compete to outbend each other leaning backward to assist anyone in need. Six first-class boatmen and women plus a few friends, a fireman, a doctor, a lawyer an artist or two and me. With Helga and Boyd we would be 16, the max allowed.

It was now Monday afternoon. She had shown up briefly that morning, unloaded her U-Haul trailer, then saying she’d be back in an hour or two after returning the trailer in Page, she was gone. It had been six hours, what could she possibly be doing?

We eliminated ideas one by one. No, we have HER gear, she doesn’t have OURS, that’s good. What’s the worse case scenario? She could be a meth freak, a pathological liar, a homicidal maniac . . . but we all had each other, surely we could overcome?

If only she would show up so we could get on the water.

What if she died in a car wreck enroute? I hitched a ride back to Marble Canyon Lodge and called Arizona Highway Patrol. Nope. I called the U-haul place in Page: “Haven’t seen her, don’t have it scheduled.”

She must have lied.

“We were all weighing the magic of the canyon against Worst Case Scenario…”

We would learn later that PH and non-BF had been sightseeing. Back at the launch ramp, guys were beginning to say what they really thought.

“She’s as ugly as the sun is hot,” said our Primary Redneck.

“I wouldn’t do her for a million dollars” said Redneck Number Two. “Hell, I wouldn’t even do her for my country.”

At this point I was the only one who hadn’t met her. We were all weighing the magic of the canyon against Worst Case Scenario.

I was curious. What did an “ugly” woman look like? I couldn’t, the mirror excluded, say I’d ever seen one.

Gabriel chipped in with some juicy details about the mystery woman PH. “Give her a break, man. She just got kicked out of her house last week.”

“By her mother” someone else added, “who had to get a restraining order against her.”

Whoa. I looked at the ranger. Could we go without her? Maybe we should force the issue now before she showed up.

But it was too late.

A rusting SUV screeched into the parking lot burdened with two kayaks. “She expects us to take those? In this wind?” Gabriel was waffling.

“F—ing S—!” The PH was berating her only friend as she dismounted her broomstick. Gabriel’s jaw dropped. I finally got a look at her. She looked a lot like me. Blue eyes, plain but not frightful. She had perfect teeth which was far more than I could say for myself. Maybe not covergirl material but fair enough to earn good tips. Definitely not ugly if she would only smile.

This is a hard-luck woman who only needs some time on the river, I decided.

 

The not-BF got talked out of bringing the kayak and the remaining gear was distributed. “Let’s just get on the water,” someone whispered. “Once we’re outta here she’s ours.”

There were other reasons to get on the water fast. “Before she discovers we’ve ditched five gallons of soy sauce and case of salt and pepper shakers.”

Someone was rowing out. Someone else followed. I jumped in with Redneck Number One and we were off. We glided under the last sign of “civilization,” the Navajo Bridge. A tourist almost 500 feet above us clicked a camera then we were off the radar.

Shoulders dropped, smiles sneaked out. Redneck #1 offered a beer in exchange for pulling in the drag bag and getting him one. “The bottom of Lake Mead is warming as the water level drops; this beer is almost 50 degrees.” The mean wind suddenly upgraded to “hellish.” Soon my beefy redneck was caught in an eddy. I offered to take a turn at the oars.

“No,” his patronizing smile seemed to say, “this is not women’s work.” We stayed in the eddy for another round.

I looked at Lucille, a delicate woman rowing her own boat with an easy smile, about to disappear around the bend ahead of us. “I’ll bet you a bottle of tequila that I can get us out of this eddy and ahead of Gabriel in two minutes,” I offered.

“What kind of tequila?”

“One hundred percent Agave,” I said. All he needed was an out. He pushed a button on his watch and relinquished the oars. I had just one bottle of tequila so I had no choice but to row like hell.

I pulled even with Gabriel and the watch beeped. He gave me the benefit of the doubt with a smile. Whether I’d been had or not, I was beginning to like the redneck.

The wind at camp was ruthless, but several of us found a windshadowed site among car-sized boulders for the kitchen and quickly laid out tarps and tables. Then PH appeared and demanded we move it closer to the beach. “We’re not going to haul all that S— up here.” One by one we tried to reason with her. One by one we abandoned the kitchen.

“Now I knew what they meant by ‘ugly.’ They weren’t talking about skin at all.”

The next evening we quickly arranged teams and went to work while PH was nowhere to be found. I found myself slicing broccoli for a stir fry while Gabriel demystified his foot-pump hand wash system to a river virgin (or Newbie) named Martha.

Clutching a thermos mug of rum punch and smoking a cigarette, Helga staggered up. I finally had my first one-on-one conversation. Or zero-on-one. It went like this: “What the f— do you think you’re doing with my broccoli? You don’t slice it that way, you slice it this way. Haven’t you ever sliced vegetables before, honey?”

“Well yeah, actually I was a chef in a restaurant in college, now that you mention…” but she had moved on to berate the volunteer next to me who had stopped slicing carrots in anticipation of the attack.

Now I knew what they meant by “ugly.” They weren’t talking about skin at all.

Wednesday morning I found solace in my journal: “The morning light on the rim of the canyon is enough to warm the soul of the illest. And yesterday morning that was me. The first night on the river we were all filled with anger and the sense of disgust at the PH. But we had succeeded on getting on the water and making it six miles down to none other than Six-mile Canyon. It was finally time to relax with friends we hadn’t seen for a year, sip tequila and purge our bodies of hatred.”

By morning we’d be purging ourselves of our first meal as well. Part of the problem had been that with kitchen cop micro managing everything from the placement of tarps to timing of minute rice, dinner wasn’t put together until 10 p.m., excusable only because it was the first night out. And no one had the forethought that dinner itself had to be thawed from 109 degrees below zero to at least 33 to be digested. Happy Hour stretched into Happy Hours, which on empty stomachs had predictable results.

That night, the most peaceful creature on our trip, a plein-air artist called Ben, got tired of being told how to slice vegetables. Borrowing from her limited vocabulary, his voice raised to boulder-dislodging levels, “gentle” Ben told her what he thought. And we all listened; we had no choice.

Ben shook his head a lot that evening. He couldn’t believe himself. “I’m so sorry,” he repeated.

By the end of day three the “healer” had been overheard saying that yes, he had a death certificate on board should one be needed and someone else volunteered that he had been thinking of getting a new sleeping bag anyway…should a bodybag be needed any time in the foreseeable future.

A possibility of my friends spending lives behind bars following homicide convictions flickered in my mind.

 

I had contributed the least, bringing no boats or equipment, I felt I had to offer something. But what? How? The next morning I invited everyone to a meeting, including Helga. She immediately declined, using her standard vocabulary. Ignoring her offensiveness, I told her it was optional, but that I would appreciate her attendance. I used the words “love” and “harmony.”

She came.

I told the gathered, worried, weary group the ground rules: 1) Only the person holding the sugar lid has the right to talk 2) No personal attacks. We passed the cap of sweetness around. People vented. People had Excellent Ideas. Everyone spoke. Helga wandered in and out of the meeting circle smoking and waving her hands.

“We’re dealing with a hurt person here,” Gabriel commented. “She is accustomed to conflict.”

Helga wandered in. She said the kitchen is her territory, that she expresses love through cooking, that food is important to her. She wanted no “bad vibes” in the kitchen.

We all looked at each other. The only “bad vibes” were emanating from her so it was easy to agree; anyone causing bad vibes in the kitchen would have to leave the kitchen.

It was a start.

Ben apologised again. This time she accepted it, grudgingly. They hugged. Some cried. It was then, that Helga found the courage to embark in her kayak. Gabriel, the purveyor of the wind blocking nuisance, was elated. People cheered words of encouragement.

“Go Girl,” I enthused.

“Today I’m a bit nervous because we are entering the true Grand Canyon and a half dozen major rapids are on the chart.”

Fifteen minutes later she was back in the raft bumming a cigarette. She slept the rest of the day and the rest of most days. Her kayak would remain a sail forcing Gabriel upriver for the rest of the trip. She was a nocturnal creature as her drugs of choice defined. I learned that she’d recently had a million-dollar makeover, won on TV. She had new teeth and new breasts, the latter of which she proudly displayed to all passing boats.

It was team tolerance the rest of the way. We took turns, we held together, we enjoyed the trip.

Day 5’s journal entry was written at mile 53, Nankoweap: “I rode with Saul today…The water here reflects the canyon wall and lights up everyone’s faces. Today we hiked up Saddle Canyon. I remember it well as the place you have to push each other up through the cracks and then walk through bath tubs until you come to a waterfall.”

I unclipped my journal to remember last year’s Day 5 entry, written at mile 68, Tanner wash: “Today I’m a bit nervous because we are entering the true Grand Canyon and a half dozen major rapids are on the chart. Tanner, Unkar, Nevills, Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine and Zoroaster at a minimum. If all goes well, no one flips or gets hurt, we may get to Phantom Ranch and Horn Creek rapid. Tomorrow then we’d do the most dangerous on the river, Hermit and Crystal.”

This trip I hadn’t even thought about the rapids. I paged ahead and wrote: “This is a hardworking river trip. I don’t seem to have any time. I think the difference is that this trip is much more poorly organized. I am tired of minute rice.”

 

But I couldn’t repress the memories I’d stirred. Last year we had fussed over details. The vegetarian whose tofu got left behind; the fussy teenagers who didn’t want to eat what was served, devouring all the bagels and other people’s sodas instead of finding their own; the new boatman afraid of the river compounded by his wife who wouldn’t ride with him; my own obsession with not enough milk for the coffee. It all seemed trivial now.

I recalled the cold clammy hands in115-degree heat as we scouted Crystal then my husband’s cowboy attitude “let’s just do it” that just about flipped us.

I remembered him going in too sideways, California-river style, and looked for the journal entry. “Lars learned some respect for the river today. I held on until the line went slack, which meant it was flipping on me. It was an intuitive decision as there was no time to think. I guess it was enough to prevent it as those on shore said the boat stood up for several seconds. For my part, I went under the boat but managed out, just as I realized I had to get some air, it was a panic. Then the bowline got wrapped around my foot. I kicked free, then it wrapped again. I started moving around the boat to get downstream of it without going under it. I thought how to climb up, but felt too weak to even try . . . it was a good experience.”

I paged ahead to write some more: “I know I’ve been smiling a lot because my face hurts.” The stranger in our midst brought us together. Gabriel sang new lyrics to Eleanor Rigby inspired by Lucille; Ben brought out a home-made guiter, Boyd a recorder and Lucille grabbed a bucket for a jam session on the beach. “You don’t know what you have ’til it’s gone…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

The next morning, in response to a newbie’s inquiry regarding the origin of “groover,” the musicians whipped up an answer to the tune of, what else, “Feelin’ Groovy.”

These moments were all missed by the PH.

The trip had the normal quota of one divorce, one flip and not enough beer.

A week after returning to reality, the healer commented “I have NEVER been on a trip like this…and hope to NEVER be on another,” but quickly added, “WE SURVIVED and managed to have some life-long bonding…like any group facing a difficult crisis DAILY.”

The beauty of the trip was well below the surface.