An Introduction: The Confluence here refers to the place where the two Rivers, the Colorado and the Little Colorado, come together at a bend in the Earth called Marble Canyon, by some. To the Hopi, this place is called Sipapuni, or the place of emergence. It is the place where their people came up from another world into this world. This is the place of their creation story. To them, and many other Indigenous people, this place is sacred. While I did not grow up with such knowledge or views, I too feel this place is sacred and so it has been an honor to be able to set foot there.
Indigenous Wisdom teaches that when a place is sacred, you treat it with respect. Many will travel to these places, enduring hardship along the way, in order to offer prayers, to give blessings and hold ceremonies. Since I did not grow up with these teachings or this awareness, it has come to me as an adult and through research and connections with people who do have this awareness. Since I have physically been living in the Southwest area (Flagstaff) for the past couple of years, I feel compelled to learn about the land that surrounds me, especially the Grand Canyon who’s vortex-like pull was a major reason for my choosing to live here.
Whenever I learn about Indigenous ways of knowing, I feel a resonance and a sense of kinship, since I to believe that our Earth is sacred. I place a high level of importance upon treating her with respect, and in my own way I often give offerings of thanks and prayer. To quote Dr. Herman Cody, an Associate Professor at Diné College “Every living thing here, they are our relatives.” They are not seen by Indigenous people as resources for our use, but rather “living beings just like us, like family.” And, actually hold even more importance than we do, because every species and every element plays a vital role in maintaining the balance of a healthy ecosystem.
I recently discovered two works of media which I feel were insightful and well put together, both of which inform my viewpoint and understanding of the sacred nature and cultural significance of the Confluence and the two Rivers. The Colorado and the Little Colorado are lifeways, the later of which is 330 miles long and originates in the holy mountain called Dzil Ligai Si’an (Black Mountian or White Mountain) of Apache Nation. The Little Colorado is a place of livihood, pilgrimage, physical and spiritual nourishment and for those who dwell in the desert, it is a lifeline, so many people depend on it.
The first article was produced by The Grand Canyon Trust and is called “Lifeways of the Little Colorado River” This is a beautiful multi-media presentation of 11 different Indigenous people including Apachce, Hopi, Navajo, Hualapai and Zuni who teach us the cultural and spiritual significance of these waterways specifically, and the lands they call home. You can see the full presentation at the link here: https://storymaps.arcgis.com/collections/2a13814196244a15b185563628593d00
The other reference is a documentary called “Into The Grand Canyon” which was created by two videographers who wanted to raise awareness about the importance of protecting not only the Grand Canyon region at large, but specifically The Confluence from the threat of development. This documentary film was released in 2019 by National Geographic and now can be viewed on Disney Plus. Director Peter McBride and his partner Kevin Fedarko set off on a 750 mile journey- on foot- across the length of the Grand Canyon. You can click the link here to see the trailer: https://youtu.be/oZf8HU5Tk_c and here is the link to the movie on Disney Plus: https://www.disneyplus.com/movies/into-the-grand-canyon/7K0CWJwrP7wd
Setting foot in the Canyon, to me, is sacred no matter which part I am traversing. I am so very fortunate that I am able to visit the Canyon so often and regularly ponder this: If my regular visitation makes me feel a powerful sense of kinship and connection, how must the people whose Ancestors have lived here for thousands of years feel?
I am so thankful for the trails that exist in the Canyon, but trails do not even begin to scratch the surface of what lies beneath the rim. One could literally spend a lifetime discovering the magical pockets of life in this exquisite masterpiece of Earth. The are caves, cathedrals, waterfalls, springs, grottos and edens throughout that I hope to visit someday.
This post shares the details of my first journey to the Confluence, which took place over the December Full Moon right before Winter Solstice 2021. More than anything, I share this with you in order to bring more awareness to the deeper importance of the water and land everywhere, the value of protecting it and allowing it to flourish under the natural order of creation, and keeping it accessible for future generations.
Dec. 18th, 2021
Miles Hiked: 9
Elevation: + 260 ft/-5,043 ft
Tanner Trail to Tanner Beach
Leaving Flagstaff, I drive in silence on Hwy 89 North. About 30 miles after leaving any visible signs of civilization I start to feel my energy expanding into the vastness of the desert. In the distance I can see the edges of the pink layered painted desert heading toward Utah. Someday, I want to go there.
I drive through Cameron, missing the turn at the roundabout like I always do. I was in the wrong lane again. I circle back, making my way onto Hwy 64 East, and start along the long stretch of road that leads to the East entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. I am well aware, as the road winds parallel to the Little Colorado River, who’s land I’m on. NPS has their boundary right up near the edge of the Confluence where the two Rivers merge. This is where I’m headed.
In Hopi, it’s called the Sipapuni, or place of emergence. This place is sacred to many Indigenous people and the ancestors of this land stretch back for thousannds of years. For me, visiting a sacred place like this is a privilage. I consider journey’s of this nature to be like a pilgrimage whereby I am willing to undergo hardship or discomfort, willing to work hard, willing to show my humble respect to the land, in order to connect my feet to the soil.
It feels very special to get to see the beauty of a place that is less touched by humans, and to appreciate this through photographing the landscape, or to sit and absorb the energy as medicine. In my own way, I give my offerings, blessings and prayers to all the places I visit. I believe the land and the spirits accept this from me, no matter my skin color, or my cultural background or upbringing. I beleive what is most important is what’s in my heart, what I bring to offer and what I will do with what I learn when I leave. So this is why I share this with others, now.
When I make it to the parking lot at the Tanner trail head, my car thermometer reads 32F. There is a chilly breeze but the warmth of the sun makes up for it. I anticipate snow, possibly ice and maybe some wind out there, so I layer up and grab my microspikes that dangle from the chuck box in the back of my car.
It takes me about 30 minutes to mess around with all my gear, making sure I have everything, meanwhile eating a cheese and mayo sandwich on a tortilla. Classic hiker trash gourmet. When I start walking it’s 1:45 in the afternoon. I figure I have 4 hours of daylight and I believe I can make it down to Tanner Beach by 6pm.
The first two miles are covered in a blanket of fresh, crunchy snow. It’s from last week’s storm and it hasn’t warmed up enough to melt it off. This North aspect of the Canyon wall never gets much sun and the distance of snow covered trail goes on much longer than I’d anticipated. I end up needing to wear my microspikes for the whole first hour, the whole first two miles, which are notoriously the steepest section of the Tanner Trail.
Thus, I pick my way carefully down the chunky rocks, ocasionally having to squat down on my bum and use my arms to brace the big steps. I am thankful nothing is too slick as I do this, and the snow is lovely. I enjoy it’s crunch under my feet, admiring the white glow in contrast to the increasing reddening walls, as I drop deeper and deeper down. I notice my feet becoming damp from snow and then remember I didn’t think to pack any extra socks. There is always something. My mind immediately moves to finding a solution to not having sleep socks while winter camping.
This makes me think how much adaptation occurs when one spends a lot of time in the wild. You become solution oriented. You learn not to worry. You learn to trust. Trust your body, your mind, your judgement and your intuition. There are always things that hurt or are uncomfortable, but you either get through it or you change something up. Nothing lasts. Around any bend lies a new moment of bliss waiting to be felt if you can just make it there.
When the snow dissipates from the trail, my microspikes dig into the dirt and scratch the rocks, I need to remove them. I round a bend just then to see a human. Ha, well wouldn’t you know, but I know this human! I have crossed paths with this guy numerous times in the Canyon. It’s wild, how often we wind up on the same trail at the same time. We don’t know each other otherwise, but we always stop to chat for a few minutes.
He also lives and works in Flagstaff but we have never seen each other in town, only in the vast, wild landscape of the Canyon do we perchance to meet. Go figure. Soul mates of sorts. As we were parting ways I say to him “it’s nice to see you again, we must be kindred spirits” and he remarks “yeah, some people like to come out here to visit, you know, but for me, I need it” and I reply “yes, I need it too” and we both smile then go in our opposite ways.
I removed my traction while we chatted and soon am heading down smooth dirt and rock that I can now feel under my feet like pillows. In places where the dirt was recently wet, it seems to have puffed up like a muffin top and it feels bouncy to walk on and I like this feeling very much.
I flash back to the last (only other) time I hiked this trail, which was in May of this year. On the way down, I had to help an elder man get down the final four miles to the River. He was suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion and could barely walk. That afternoon I was to meet up with my good friend Sunkist and travel with her on the Escalante Route, which was part of her extended travel on the Hayduke Trail. I had wanted then to travel along at least part of the Beamer Trail to meet up with her, but didn’t on account of arriving at the beach so late. I found out later, the elder gentleman wound up getting a helicopter ride out.
In camp at Tanner beach, Sunkist shared her experience of coming down the Nankoweap trail from the North Rim, hitching a ride on a river boat across the Colorado River, picking her way through an endless boulder field slogfest along it’s banks and finally, fording the Little Colorado to connect up with the Beamer Trail. I listened fully engrossed in her story, hoping that someday, I will have a similar one of my own.
Today I am headed to Tanner beach for two nights of camping there, as that was the only last minute permit I could get, so I took it! The plan is to hike the Beamer Trail to the Confluence tomorrow, spend time there in meditation and prayer, give my offerings and blessings, and then hike back to Tanner. It will be a long day, about 20 miles round trip, but I am really looking forward to it. This has been in my heart’s vision for quite some time now and during the Full Moon and Solstice feels like a perfect time to go on such a journey of the soul.
Sometimes I step out from myself and look at these little excursions that I love to do. Deciding to walk 40 miles in order to spend one hour at a sacred site seems totally normal and enticing to me, but I realize it’s not for everyone. I recall how in February of 2020, I flew to Lima, Peru to do a week of volunteer work. With the four extra days I had, I flew to Cusco, endured 8 hours of bus riding on windy roads, and hiked 50 miles with the vertical equivalent of crossing the Grand Canyon, in order to visit a sacred site (Choquequirao) at which I also only spent one hour. But it was one of the best and most meaningful hours of my life and I had the entire sacred ruins to myself. It was truly magical. If I could dedicate my life to walking the Earth and visiting sacred sites, I would. (of note, blog post about Choquequirao coming soon).
I’ve been feeling a lot of gratitude all week, knowing I would have the opportunity to come here on this special weekend, just prior to the Winter Solstice. It is a powerful time of year when it feels so appropriate to set off on a solo walk into the wilderness, to reflect on the year passing, to be present with all the blessings I have in my life, to fill my heart with love for family and friends and to make an offering to our Earth at a place that is considered a sacred site to so many.
Visiting the Confluence for people whose ancestors come from there, is not something typically done for recreation. Which raises an interesting point. While much of what I do comes across as recreation, for me it is also about so much more. It is never just about leisure time or checking something off my proverbial bucket list, but rather about personal and spiritual growth, and the journey along the way is the heart of it.
As an athlete, I do push myself physically and mentally and I do take on bigger projects than average. However, I do so in order to elevate my consciousness via physical struggle, delving into transcendant realms where I can connect to the source energy. I learn and grow from these experiences that are intimately tied by the web of connection formed by moving my body across the land. Honestly, one of the greatest benefits I get from doing such things, is the overwhelming feeling of gratitude and humbleness that arises. You simply can’t take anything for granted.
I was not raised religious, but I consider myself to be spiritual, and so when I go out to the wilderness, I go out to pray and give thanks. I give my heart to the water and the land, I go out to say thank you for all the blessings I have in my life. On any of my journeys into the wilderness, I go to walk in wonder and be in awe at the natural beauty of the landscape, I mean, what a gift this Earth is to us! I go to Walk in Beauty, or Hózhó Nahasdl’ii is they say in Navajo. Hózhó Nahasdl’ii describes the continual goal of the Diné people to live in harmony with the natural order of the universe. And to quote the famous Muir “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
And going out to go “in” is so immense. This Canyon landscape is endless in magnitude, for the human psyche can barely grasp it’s vastness. There are simply no ends to how many different angles and viewpoints there are in this Canyon.
Now, the light is dropping as I descend, I walk in shadow much of the time, though the walls across from me, facing West, are lighting up to become a deep orange. Past the more technical, rocky upper miles, the trail smoothes out, following contours and ridgelines, constantly losing elevation and becoming steep in places, but then there is easy walking again, and I’m thankful for it because my ankle is smarting like it always does on steep, long descents. When I reach the bottom, I will have dropped down over 5,000 ft.
Views of the River begin to open up and I try to envision where I will walk along it’s Southern shores on the Beamer Trail tomorrow. I can’t wait to discover this new place. The feeling of going somewhere new fills me with a child like joy.
At one point I realize I am saying goodbye to the last of the warmth and light of the sun. I am grateful for the bit of trail I did get to walk in sun today, and now, as I go lower in elevation, the temps become milder, and I am quite comfortable as I slide into dusk on the flanks of the last rounded red slope of trail.
Amazingly, it’s 5:45pm when I make it to the final wash leading to Tanner Beach. I made it down in 4 hours, and I made it without having to night hike, hooray! I’m always prepared to night hike because I so often wind up needing to, but I welcome this now. As I approach closer to the River, I can smell her mustiness, the plants that grow along the beach who thrive on water have a certain grassy, muddy scent I recognize intimately as Canyon.
I try to find a spot to camp that won’t be in a cold air sink, and search around the sand dunes, now in the dark, clambering around.
When I find the perfect spot, I drop my pack and begin to set up my tent. It’s 6:02pm, ha ha! What timing! I am nestled close to some sharp grabby mesquite trees, but they offer a buffer to the cool breeze, so I feel protected on one side. On the open side I face my tent toward the ridge to the East.
Just as I begin to heat my water for dinner, I am treated to the Full Moon rising just above the rim. This literally stops me in my tracks, I have to go and sit on a rock, facing the moon as she lifts herself into the inky cobalt sky. Her glow almost hurts it is so pure white and bright. There seems to be no interference and I simply allow the beams to wash over me. I welcome this lovely pure energy into my heart.
Here I am, in this moment, bathing in the crisp glowing light of the Full Moon as she rises above the walls of the Grand Canyon. I am down in the deep dark folds of the towering walls, I am alone, I am still. I listen to the rushing of the river over Tanner Rapids, shooshing incessantly as the glow of the moon kisses my face. I am in bliss, this is my life. I choose this, I will continue to choose this as long as I can.
Under the light of the Moon, I walk down to gather water from the River. The water is rushing strongly here and the power overtakes me as I can see the whites of rapids tumble in the light of the Moon. I dunk my water bottle to fill up, then make my way back over the dunes to my camp and boil water to make dinner. As I do these familiar tasks, things I could do in my sleep, I think about how I like what backpacking requires of the body.
You have to squat, balance and reach in awkward positions quite often, you pick up heavy rocks sometimes to secure your tent, you sit on uneven surfaces most of the time, and endure uncomfortable temperatures too. These are good things, they build character. Out here, you have to get a little tough. The last time I did this camp routine was only three weeks ago, also here in the Canyon, down at Hermit Creek. I like to not let too much time pass to allow oneself to become “civilization soft” so I make it a point to get out as often as I can, even if it’s only one night, but now I have two.
Dinner is underway and I must patiently wait for the beans and couscous to hydrate and fluff up. Tonight, sitting in the dark is not sitting in the dark, it is so bright out here, I can make a moon shadow! When I finally complete my dinner and all my camp tasks, get all my things in order just so, I feel giddy with excitement to be here, in my little tent, in my cozy sleeping bag, with my cup of tea. I become still, listening to the roar of the rapids. I have made it to 8:38pm, not bad at all, not a bad time to tuck in. I read for a spell before falling into a deep, peaceful sleep in the stillness of the Canyon, under the vastnes of open desert and expansiveness of the night sky. I feel so blessed I get to do this. I need this. I believe my soul needs this, just like my lungs need air.
Dec. 19th, 2021
Miles Hiked: 20
Beamer Trail to The Confluence, Out & Back
Elevation Change: +1,679/-1,679 ft
In the morning it’s cold. My thermometer reads 29 and I know the sun is not even thinking about cresting the ridge. Still, I calculate. I know it’s going to be a long day, no matter what time I start out. Finally, I’m walking by 9:29am, so much later than I’d initially planned, but figure perhaps I can move fast and inevitably I know I’m going to have to do a bit of night hiking if I want to make this work. And I do. I do want this.
Since I know I will be returning in the dark, I take note of some details in the first few sections of trail. There is one spot right off which has a sheer drop off, and while I navigate this perfectly fine in the daytime, I do think about how it will be in the dark, when I’m cold, tired, hungry and pining to be back in camp. But what can I do? Shortly the trail crosses a couple of rocky washes, before descending to the beach. From here it’s super cruisy for a while and I get my hopes up that perhaps it will be faster now compared to that start.
But it’s not. It’s more reminiscent of the rockier sections of the Tonto, quite similar to it actually, as the Canyon has no choice but to flow this way and I have no choice but to flow with it. As I gaze around at the surrounding mammoth sized walls, I realize I am a little disoriented too. The sun seems to be in the totally wrong place, but then I recognize I am actually walking more North rather than my usual East/West.
It’s super cold still and that chilly breeze persists, in some places it really takes a bite out of me. I pull on and off my hood but it’s two hours before I am in the sun and remove my beanie and gloves. I start to worry about being super cold in the wind and dark on the way back and thus begin a slight downward spiral of wondering if this is really a good idea to try and make it all the way to the Confluence and back in one go.
I do this, I set these challenges for myself, and then seem to get into a little bit of a pickle. I really should have started earlier this morning, at least that’s what I am telling myself now. I try to put a positive twist on it by imagining how beautiful it will be hiking through the Canyon under the light of the Full Moon and leave that thought on the shelf for the time being. If this doesn’t work, I can come back another time, right?
At noon, I stop for a snack. It’s a stroop waffle + almond butter and this gives my morale a good boost. I am not recording my time on any device, so I don’t know how far I’ve come. All I can do is dead reckon, and I can look at my position location on Gaia and that at least show’s me how far I still have to go, and it still looks so far. The trail twists and turns into the washes and side canyons, and I know from experience this can slow one down. I am well above the river now, at least 1,000 ft and some sections are sheer drop offs, but still manageable. I’m hoping I don’t have to do this particular section in the dark…better keep a move on then.
By around 1:00 I am having thoughts about not making it all the way to the Confluence. My head space is off and I catch myself thinking maybe I will have to just come back another time, maybe getting there today is just not meant to be. I wonder and ponder as I navigate the rocky trail. My thoughts are something like this: I just really don’t want to night hike for too long tonight, and I feel I am going to run out of daylight sooner than later down here in the depths of the canyon. Plus, it would be really nice to not feel rushed once I get there. These types of thoughts also tend to arise when I am bleeding, which just started yesterday. So, I have to honor what that is. I have to honor that my headspace is going to give me additional challanges today.
I calculate in my head what my turn around time needs to be. If I want to make it back to camp by 6pm, which is headlamp hour, I need to turn around by 1:45 and I have not taken a lunch break yet. By this calculation, I won’t be able to make it all work out. I eather turn around soon, or I agree to night hiking. I can’t have my cake and eat it too.
All morning I envisioned a nice long lunch break at the Confluence, making a hot cup of Earl Grey tea and eating the orange I brought, and in my mind the Leonard Cohen song Suzanne is playing, except it’s the Tori Amos version of course…“Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river…and she brings you tea and oranges that come all the way from China… and she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover…”
I reach a deep, layered wash that has a long arm stretching down many lengths to the River. I briefly contemplate making this my turn around spot when I suddenly encounter three hikers. They share with me that I am exactly two miles away from the Confluence, from which they are returning. This timing feels serendipitous. Hmmmm…now my thought process goes like this: it’s 1:12pm…I think I can make two miles by 2pm and if I spend an hour there, I can head back by 3pm. It will put me back in camp by 7:30 by my best guess. An hour and a half of night hiking, could be worse, right? I can’t resist this opportunity, I must go. This is more the “me” I know well.
I beleive we encounter people at exactly the times we need to out on the trail. Had I not seen them right when I did, I may not have decided to go all the way. They gave me the boost I needed to make it there. And so it is, I will be night hiking afterall. It will be worth it, I decide, and I will try my best to embrace it for what it is, another chance to work with my mind.
It’s 2pm when I can finally see the beholden site of the Confluence from up on the ridge where the trail leads me. The mixing of the male and female waters creates a soft line where the two rivers coalesce, gently quivering in constant motion. The Canyon of the Little Colorado is mostly in the shadows this time of day, but the far point of the island which separates the Rivers, is in the sun. I want to get down right at the edge, right up close, and sit in the sun to give my offerings and prayers.
I drop down the sand dunes, rock hop across the creeklet, push through the reed grasses and make it to that exact spot at the edge of where the waters merge. Along the way, I am mesmerized by the whiteish-blue tint the shallower waters here eminate. Salt. The color is caused by remnants of salt deposits. The reed grasses are whispering messages in the wind and the waters shoosh and cascade over the rocks making light rapids. I stop to listen and take ti all in. I made it here… I recall the recorded speaking of Franklin Martin saying “It’s a sacred and holy place. You listen. You do not shout. You hear the winds talking to you. It’s like a temple.”
I feel like I am in a temple indeed and I take note that I am the only human here right now. Actually, the entire Grand Canyon feels like a temple to me, and on several occasions I have appeared to be the solitary human in it’s vast expanse. But here, I know it is specifically special, because people who have lived and thrived on this land and among these waters for thousands of years knew and felt this potent Earth energy.
Some believe the Spirits of the land dwell in beautiful places. In Peru, these Mountain Gods are called Apus. Every culture who maintains their ties with Indigenous Wisdom has a similar belief, each in their own way. It is Traditional Knowledge that gets passed on from generation to generation. The Spirits live on Mountain Tops, in Rivers, in Canyons and in the Rocks, Soil, Trees and Clouds. So naturally, the Ancestral Spirits would dwell here, the energy here is in perfect harmony. I feel so fortunate to have made it here, I want to thank the Spirits, thank the land, thank the water, thank everything, for it’s existence, and for mine.
I remove my pack, and gingerly walk over to the water’s edge. As I am taking photos, I am breathless at the beautiful sight of this unusual color water and the sight of the two waters creating a snake like line that is in constant motion. The way it moves reminds me of the Aurora Borealis, it’s colors shape-shifting in mesmerizing patterns of shimmer. Now, I recall the words of Jim Enote, a Zuni Farmer who speaks of the Confluence as “a very important conduit for offering blessings”. I wish I had all day to spend here and at the same time I feel like an intruder in a way. I feel like this privilege is something I can’t take for granted, and so I must respect this place, offer my blessings and not stay too long.
I feel this, and simultaneously, I really don’t want to rush this. At the water’s edge I give my offering and thanks. I sit and meditate and generate gratitude, and send prayers off to loved ones. I try my best to make time stretch out, which is actually possible in the Canyon, but that’s another conversation. Alas, it is time for me to eat, so I sit in the sand and eat the fastest lunch, pretending I am relaxing and taking my time, but I am not. I don’t make tea either. There isn’t time to sit and sip tea, less I want to night hike even longer. The Canyon shadows are already getting so long. I think about the ensuing cold, wind, darkness, and that my tent and sleeping bag are 10 miles away.
My mind astray, I re-focus on the present moment. I gaze at the steep painted walls, the swirling turquiose waters, I listen to the breeze, the shooshing of the rapids, and I sit in meditation briefly. I think of all my loved ones and all the people in the world who are needing healing right now, and imagine the energy of this powerful place going out to everyone who needs it. I also envision it running through my own body, healing the parts of me that need healing. I am in such gratitude and awe, and truly just so thankful that I am able to be here, all alone, and spend just a little bit of time in this magical Earthly temple. This is worth it.
I’ts 3:01pm when I start my way back. The time here went by much too fast, but I am glad that I at least made it here. Now, I have to focus on pacing and efficiency all the way back to camp. I start to accept the truth that it makes me anxious that all my gear for a warm, safe night’s sleep is so far away. As a thru-hiker I have become so accustomed to having everything I need on my back, everything to survive, everything to keep me warm, dry, safe and even comfortable. I have to say that part of feeling empowered as a thru-hiker has to do with the fact that I carry everything with me, engendering a feeling of self-sufficiency and knowing I can stop and camp whenever and where ever I want, gives me confidence. I don’t have that now.
I climb up above the Water. That prescious life-giving force. In Navajo they say Tu hidahii at’ee “Water is Life.” Hualapai Tribal Member Bennett Wakayuta shares “We sing for water. A lot of our prayers are about water. When we sing to one tributary of water, it connects everything that gave this planet life.” Many Indigenous people grew up without running water or electricity. Water was so scarce, it had to be respected in all it’s forms. I have never lived where water lacked from flowing out of my kitchen or bathroom faucets. Sure, I have lived where there is drought, but it seemed more like a concept. Water always came from somewhere far away, somewhere removed from my own reality. This is true for so many people in America.
I recall when I was a small child, I was visiting my grandparents who lived in the desert. As far as I could tell, there was no water anywhere near them. I couldn’t figure out where it came from. I washed my hands with soap and water, and I turned off the water faucet right away because I was afraid it might run out. I recall saying to my Mom “We have to turn off the water because they don’t have much here.” Cute. Back at home, I had a swimming pool.
Now, the only experience I have with lack of water is on the trail, and there have been countless times when I have had to carry up to 6L to get through a stretch of waterless trail, adding 13 pounds of weight. When I thru-hiked the Tonto Trail earlier this year, I had to make several trips to the Canyon to cache water for myself in advance. One of my caches sat there from November to February, waiting for me to return. Boy was I glad it was there when I did! I reflect on the difference between thinking of water as a resource vs as a relative. Sure, humans need water to survive, yet it is not always there. Even in these Rivers, it comes and goes. Sometimes the Rivers dry up, only to one day re-emerge and bring life once again.
By 4pm I am acutely aware of the night settling in as long shadows have been reaching the depths of the Canyon now for a spell. I saw the last bit of sun when I left the Confluence. But at least it’s not windy right? I try to resolve that all will be just fine, but I have this backdrop of anxiety that I can’t seem to shake. Can I just blame it on hormones? I try to settle into these feelings and just be okay with them. Then I remember my headlamp batteries are getting low. They only have so much juice. This does not help. I can use my phone as a back up flashlight, but I need to charge it, as it’s getting low too. Should’ve thought of that earlier!
Despite these anxieties, I make my way efficiently across the landscape and do enjoy the beauty of the River from up above in the fading evening light. I haven’t seen anyone now for almost 5 hours, and get the sense that I am a solo traveler in this vast expanse, and this is an amazing feeling! On the return hike, I have been recording my track so I will know my mileage when it gets dark, when my head starts playing tricks on me. Right now, I am averaging 2.3 mph, not so great. I try over and over again to be okay with the night hike, and it never feels more inviting, especially when it actually gets dark and I have to turn on my headlamp right when I am down climbing a big, steep, rocky slope. Perfect timing, ha!!
Fortunately, after the rocky downhill there are a few miles of easy breezy trail across beaches, dunes and less steep, less rocky terrain, phew! Along the next few miles, I anticipate the moon rising, but it does not. I know it won’t rise until after 7pm, so it’s just me and my headlamp. The light is on it’s highest setting and fading by the minute. I try to see the trail or look for the cairns and am amazed that I seem to stay on the route because I really can’t see much with my eyes. At this point, it’s more intuitive and that makes it interesting. It could be really easy to get off trail, but then again, you really can’t get lost down here, as there’s only so much distance between the River and the route. Still, I want to stay on track.
I try to pretend I am planning to night hike all night, like I am on a mission to traverse the entire Canyon. I try to channel my inner Anish, who is the queen of hiking through the night. What if I was hiking all night, what would that be like? Finally, by 7:30 the walls of the Canyon to the North West are beginning to light up with a glow that falls in big, steep lines. It is quite beautiful to see this, but every time I look up, hoping to see the moon cresting the ridge behind me, it is not there. I am walking in darkness still.
It’s not till the last couple miles that the trail starts getting sketchy again. What I mean by this is there are some steep drop off sections and you do have to scramble over some rocks a bit. It’s not terrible, you are just still high above the River and really would not want to fall. You just have to be very present.
I round a bend into the fold of a side canyon and suddenly I see two sets of glaring eyes down in the wash. I stop in my tracks and stare at them, but they don’t move. Then, I realize they are not eyes, it’s a tent. It turns out to be that group of three again, having pitched their tents down in a wash. They hear me and shout a hello as I traverse the upper throat of the wash. The man hollers that they decided to just pitch there because the trail was getting sketchy for them as it got dark. It sort of helps me to see people, but I feel I can’t chat much, I really need to just concentrate on my footing and keep the forward motion. They wish me well and I wish them a comfortable night and keep on keepin’ on.
Later, there is a group camped across the river, they are boat people, and they are trying to get my attention by howling like a pack of Coyotes. I do not have the energy to reply and I need my concentration, every bit of it, so I ignore them and eventually they go silent. I text my Mom from my InReach at 8:00pm to let her know I am almost to camp. I really want to just be done but it looks like I still have a half mile to go.
Just then, I have to down climb a sketchy drop off where I need to lower my pack down and drop my poles down too and one of them almost goes sliding down the slope. I do recall climbing up this earlier, and using my hands, and it was not that scary earlier, but right now in the dark, it sort of is, as my depth perception is totally skewed.
Approaching Tanner Beach, I overshoot my tentsite accidentally thinking I still have another wash to cross, and I am suddenly walking uphill in what turns out to be a massive wash. It’s Tanner, Oops! I am actually walking up the Tanner Trail itself! Now, I have to backtrack to get to my tent, dang it! But at least I know I made it. On the way, I get water and go pee in the River like they say you are supposed to do. When I finally make it to my tent, I am awash with relief. It’s 8:30pm, 2.5 hours of night hiking, that was more than enough!
I quickly re-pitch my tent with my trekking pole and get set up for cooking my meal. The full moon has finally risen and her glow lights the entire River valley and I now barely need a headlamp at all. I am so thankful I made it, so thankful I got to experience the Confluence and even if it was for a short visit, I know now it was meant to be. Had it not been, the Universe would not have lent me the support it did.
It’s 35F out as I eat my dinner, I am all dressed in all my layers and I have the same sock issue as last night of course, no dry socks to wear to sleep, so getting the feet warm will take a bit of time and my solution is to slip my fingerless golves over them. Such is trail life. I wonder how facing these fears tonight, what I calculated to be my 10th time actually night hiking in the Grand Canyon, I wonder how these experiences will lend to my trail wisdom now? And what about the visit to the Confluence? What am I learning? What did I just do? It all seems surreal now as I am safe, warm and eating my dinner under the glow of the Full Moon.