Deep in the Canyon

Robert Sperry

© Copyright 2021 by Robert Sperry

  Photo by Parsa Mahmoudi on Unsplash
                        Photo by Parsa Mahmoudi on Unsplash

We continued to sing and laugh in the back seats of the old station wagon as it rumbled through the wilting early June desert heat. The excitement and anticipation began to build as we gradually approached our destination. Finally arriving, we clamored out to get our first look. As a teenager in the 70’s, I was well practiced at looking cool. Not much could elicit emotion from me, or so I thought until I stepped to the edge of the south rim of the Grand Canyon that bright summer morning. “Wow” was about all I could muster in breath taking awe of the overwhelming beauty and enormity of it all. And then the realization truly hit home - we were somehow going to the bottom to camp for a week.

Stan and Verl were our scoutmasters. Stan was Mr. Rogers type pleasant, always there with a smile and kind word, but he could indeed get sharp if crossed. He was a stickler for following rules and not taking chances. Verl was quiet, but friendly, and always willing to explore. We all liked them both OK. But we liked hiding our little secrets from them too. Daylight was burning, we’d seen enough from the top; it was time to grab our packs and get moving. Little did we know how grueling the 7-mile hike down (and back up) was going to be

By late afternoon, we had hiked about 3 miles with heavy packs on our backs and the heavier packs on the mules walking along side us. Sweat dripped off our cheeks and our clothes were drenched as we negotiated the steep, rocky switchback trail down. We stopped frequently for water breaks, but there was no shade to hide from the 100⁰ heat. By early evening, well beyond the halfway point, we found a place with some trees to set up camp. Though exhausted, we were young with energy to burn. After a brief rest, we wandered around the area and left most of the cooking and camp set up to Stan and Verl. They made it clear from then on, camp work would be a team effort.

We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at our reserved camping spot by the abundance of verdant green - trees and brush fueled by the crystal-clear stream flowing nearby. This was going to be a great camp for the next week. The fatigue from the morning hike had faded, and after quickly setting up tents we took off for some local reconnaissance. It was by no means crowded, but we met several neighborly campers. We seemed to interact as if in another world, and I guess it really was. I found it impossible not to be constantly aware of the awesome splendor of our surroundings.

I don’t think we ever got their names, we just called them the “hippies”. Two guys a few campsites away with long hair, bandanas and a really “mellow” presence. They said they were from “Cali” and we told them we were from southern Utah. We didn’t stay long, but would stop by and visit with them often. At that age, I was just getting into the limited rock ‘n roll culture available in our small town. Those “hippies” probably had an outsized influence on this sheltered boy from small town nowhere.

Our reconnaissance gave us an idea of some of the areas we would be exploring the next few days. By the time we got back to camp, we were ready for a rinse in the creek and a campfire meal Stan and Verl had already started. Doesn’t matter what it is, campfire food always tastes great. We may have been kinda hungry too.

Next day, we were off early on one of the trails the hippies recommended. It was a long, fairly strenuous hike, but the reward at the end was a hidden cove full of mysterious ancient symbols and writings on the canyon walls: hieroglyphics! Artifacts like arrowheads and pieces of ancient ceramics had even been found in the area. We kept our eyes open as we moved swiftly along the trail. Suddenly, Chris, who was leading, stopped with a shriek that froze all of us. He jumped back and we all froze, stunned by the coiled rattlesnake right in the trail. We were on his territory and he was agitated. I scanned the hill for another way around, but this was too great an opportunity for Chris to pass up. He starts beating him with his stick, seemingly unconcerned by the threat. Chris lands a fatal blow and soon gets what he’s seeking: the snake’s rattle. I never could understand the machismo those kinds of tokens represent. But I sure was enthralled by the whole incident.

Back at camp after dinner that night, we relaxed by the campfire while Stan and Verl began telling scouting stories. Predictably with teens, scouting stories morphed into weird myths and rumors. Stan’s son Scott told the best one. It was about the little old lady who lived alone out in the valley. She was brutally murdered one night and the killer was never caught. He said that if you drive into the cemetery at night and your headlights hit her tombstone at the right angle, you can see her black cat sitting and staring at you from atop the tombstone. If that cat thinks you’re the killer he will attack you. Scott said he took a date to the cemetery once, told her the story and she cuddled right up to him.

The others had grown bored of the hippies, but me and Kirk found them fascinating. After lunch the next day, while the others played in the stream, Kirk and I went over to say hello. Kirk told them he played bass guitar in a band. They thought that was cool and began talking about some of the big-name bands they had seen. They even listened to this mellow stuff they called “new-age”. We’d already had lunch so they offered what they called “special snacks” (spiked brownies). We were naïve, but knew what these snacks were. Back at camp later that night, everything was hilarious. It became infectious. We all laughed and joked, had a great time. As night fell, Stan and Verl led us in some traditional scout songs. The campfire started burning down low and I couldn’t help realizing I had never seen a night sky like this before. Maybe I’d never really stopped to notice, and maybe my senses were “enhanced”, but it was the most dazzling star-filled light show I have ever seen. To this day, every chance I get, I try to find a “dark-sky” designated location and ponder the glory of our universe.

The creek running near our campsite was a constant source of activity. It wasn’t too big nor the current too fast, so we easily jump in for a refreshing dip anytime. Some of the trees lining the bank conveniently curved out over the water in areas where the water was deep enough that we could dive in. As a feeder of the Colorado, it was clean and clear, not the murky brown the muddy Colorado is famous for. In fact, it was so clear that when somebody from the tree above lost a shoe, we were able to see it clearly on the bottom to dive after it.

As our time in the canyon began to wind down, we were blessed with the ultimate memory – a short hike up the stream to Havasu Falls. The beauty of the area was breathtaking, the rock formations encircling the pond appeared to have sculpted by some divine artist. The falls were captivating, and we immersed ourselves in this idyllic paradise. Time stood still as we spent our final full day casually basking in the joy and euphoria of the experience.

Now, over 40 years later, I look back on my experience deep in the canyon and realize how much of an impact it had on my life. I had gone on many other camping trips growing up, most of them filled with fun and learning. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to travel and experience many amazing and exotic sites all over the world, but none carried the significance of the canyon experience. I think the canyon experience embedded in my soul a kind of wanderlust – a lust not just to explore the world, but to truly experience it.

After graduating from the University of Utah with a B.A. in economics and Japanese in 1987, Robert spent the next 15 years working with Japanese owned companies, mostly in the southeast U.S.

In 2012, after exploring various options, Robert invested in a frozen yogurt franchise in Pigeon Forge, TN – just outside the Great Smoky Mountains. The business only survived a few years and he has been working various local odd jobs since then.

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