Copyright © 2020 Doctor Chuck Radis. All Rights Reserved
My wife Sandi and I lie on ground pads in a dense thicket of Coyote Willow and Rabbitbrush, a few steps from the Paria River. Resting in the dappled shade to escape the heat, we listen to the river as it glides over polished rocks and pale gray ledge below the embankment.
We have backpacked 30 miles through one of the longest slot-canyons in the world, and the river has emerged onto a parched floodplain of sagebrush and cactus and shifting sand. At times, the trail skirts the edge of the river, but for the most part, the easiest, and safest route downstream is the Paria itself. We are hiking the river. A hot breeze penetrates the thicket. I breathe in and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. Did I say it’s hot? It’s hot.
Sandi smiles contentedly and pats my chest, before settling into her book. Until the sun drops over the western canyon wall, we’ll rest. I open my own book and slide over until our hips touch. We are an older couple, married nearly 40 years, still in reasonably good shape, but in slow decline. I am officially between surgeries; a repair of a knee meniscus, a pinned toe for an old fracture, several partially successful forefoot surgeries complete with a plate and screws. My appendix was recently excised along with a wedge of colon after a routine colonoscopy demonstrated an odd growth. I walk without a limp. I can run a bit.
Sandi is ageless except for scattered “age spots” on her cheeks and a gimpy back. Sometimes I think she tells me her left hip aches just to make me feel better. We rest.
The nidus for our trip began two years ago when Sandi brought home a second-hand coffee-table book, Walking Distance, Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People by Robert and Martha Manning. The 38-mile Paria River Canyon Trail chapter was particularly intriguing to us. With our daughters, Kate and Molly, we’ve hiked into the Paria’s much bigger neighbor, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, and are familiar with the terrain: dry, lunar, unforgiving. Imagine a river (In New England, the Paria would hardly qualify as a good-sized creek), flowing through a canyon so narrow in places you can nearly touch both walls. Crane your neck skyward and locate the top of the canyon, a good 500 feet above the canyon floor. Place the river not far from the Henry Mountains in Utah, the last mountain range to be explored in the lower 48 states, and you have the makings of an extraordinary backpacking trip. Extraordinarily good, or extraordinarily bad.
As we read and reread the chapter, the appeal of a desert adventure, hiking through a slot canyon in a remote corner of the southwest settled into our bones.
Not that it would be easy. We both knew this was a trip with significant risk. There was no bail-out road to hike out, not even a marked trail to zig-zag our way out of the canyon. Upstream thunderstorms could trigger flash floods; the river rising in a rushing wall of water. We could trip, dislocate a shoulder, break a leg, suffer a concussion; these were all real concerns. Were we too old for this adventure?
That winter night I took a closer look at a photo of the Mannings. They looked, well, a bit like us: Graying, average height, average build, the kind of people you might meet at a bird-watchers meeting. Robert Manning is a Professor at the University of Vermont who conducts research on the national parks. For cripes sakes, his wife, Martha Manning is an artist! And there she was on page 97 carrying a humungous pack, walking resolutely down a trail like it was a trifle.
Her picture reminds me of Sandi; modest, tough, resilient, self-contained. For 41 years Sandi has held the single season and career record for assists for the Bates college field hockey team. In my eyes, this ranks with Lee Mazilli’s major league baseball all-time bunting record, set in 1976, the same year Sandi played field hockey at Bates.
Until recently, Sandi had no idea she held a record. All the attention was focused on her teammate who set the Bates record for goals that year—thanks in no small part to Sandi’s perfect passes. A few years ago, a friend asked if she was going to go to the Bates reunion, and added, “You know, it’s amazing, Sandi, after all these years you still hold the field hockey record for assists.”
Sandi replied: “What record?”
But that’s not surprising. Sandi has made a career out of quietly racking up assists. On Peaks Island she’s helped with Meals on Wheels and handed out prizes in the July 4th Clamshell Race. For years, she and her friend Rosanne have held a mid-winter, quirky women-only-ball-gown party (attendees: second hand gowns must cost less than $10) and donated the proceeds to breast cancer research. This helping trait seems to run in Sandi’s family. Her mother, sister, aunt, and niece were all social workers. So, it was no surprise when Sandi went on to graduate school to become a social worker. Where she has separated herself from the other Korpela women is in her part-time, second career as a plumber on Peaks Island.
When she left her social work job, our 5th grade daughter, Kate, burst into tears, convinced that “now we’re going to be poor.” In a declaration only a second grader could utter, Molly said, “Mom, you’re learning how to be a man!”
Sandi recognizes the cosmic symmetry between her work as a counselor and as a plumber. “At the end of the day,” she once told me, “either way, you’ve got to deal with other people’s sh*t.” Between the physicality of plumbing and her background in sports, she has the quiet confidence that her body will respond to new challenges. This is why, even now, in our 60’s, she’s been open to trips with a true adventure component.
So, we began to plan. We poured over maps of the Paria River. Sandi obtained a permit to enter the canyon from the Bureau of Land Management. I fired up our old propane stove to ensure it was still functional, replaced the batteries in our headlamps, located my pocket knife and compass, and updated our First-Aid kit. Then there was the matter of a tent. I can’t sleep in a tent. Not since I slipped on my skis in Tuckerman Ravine in the White Mountains 16 years ago and dropped off an embankment into a snow-fed stream. Tumbling into the water, I dislocated my shoulder, and was swept downstream until I came to rest on my side on the edge of a 5-foot drop. My eyes tracked over the lip into a churning, foreboding hole where the stream disappeared beneath a ceiling of ice and snow. If I dropped over, I’d be trapped beneath the ice in total blackness, constricted and immobilized.
Wading up to his knees in the numbing cold water, my friend Brad took off his belt and flipped the buckle towards me. Pinned against a rock outcropping, I extended my good arm and grabbed the buckle. A minute later I was shivering on the riverbank. Thanks Brad.
Since then, I’ve carried a tent in my pack. I’ve started the night in the tent. But during the night, when I can’t see my hand in front of my face, I have to crawl out of my sleeping bag, unzip the side-wall, and, get out NOW. Never mind that it’s raining or its black fly season, every molecule of my body says: MOVE. Time has taken the sharp edges off my phobia. But when it comes on, and in day to day life, it’s a rare occurrence; I am overtaken by a surge of primitive illogical panic. GET OUT NOW.
Sandi likes sleeping in a tent. I get that. Rain, scorpions and snakes generally can’t enter a tent. Do we carry the extra weight of a tent? Or do I try and convince Sandi to sleep under the stars with a backup tarp if it rains? We compromise. We’ll bring the tent out west. I’ll ask my doctor for a few Ativan to block, maybe, the worst of the panic attacks.
In preparation for the Paria, Sandi and I load our packs and tramp up and down Brook Lane, the steepest hill on Peaks Island. We lift light weights. I do a lot of push-ups and sit-ups. But the simple truth is that I have lost 30-40% of my peak young adult strength. I cannot carry a 50-pound pack all day long; it’s down to about 30-35 pounds—and that feels like 50. My balance is fair to good, not excellent. I am both near and far sighted. I wear my hearing aids when I think of it. Sandi? Don’t get me going. I am truly jealous.
Fully loaded, our packs are too heavy. We look for ways to save a few pounds. My friend George is a master of the back-packing, go-light philosophy. Pack a toothbrush? Yes, but cut it in half. Clothes? Be frugal. A single T-shirt and shorts are sufficient for all but the longest trips. Toilet paper? “Your first wipe is usual,” George once said. “Fold the toilet paper in half, wipe again. Fold, wipe, fold, wipe.” By this time, I reminded George, we’re talking about a cleaning device now the size of a postage stamp.
“It’s an art,” George agreed. “Nobody said it was easy.”
A week before our trip, there is a tragedy in Zion National Park (near the headwaters of the Paria). Seven hikers are swept away by a flash flood in a popular slot canyon, the Keyhole. According to newspaper accounts, the day began with partly cloudy skies, but late in the afternoon, a thunderstorm rolled into the region. By the time the cascading waters reached the narrow confines of the Keyhole, the hikers may have had little or no warning before a wall of water swept them away. There were no survivors.
The sobering news doesn’t completely close the door on our hike, but we waver; just why are we hiking the Paria river canyon? Certainly, the spectacular beauty of the canyon is one reason. The photographs of the Paria taken by the Mannings are among the most unusual and striking images I’ve ever seen. And there’s this: we’ve come away from other adventures renewed and re-committed to our day to day work. Having an adventure inexplicably helps us live our lives in a more aware and measured fashion.
But what exactly is an adventure? I know what it’s not. It’s not a cruise. It’s not a roller coaster or cross-country drive or even an extended canoe trip down a placid river. An adventure involves some degree of risk. Successfully completing an adventure requires careful planning and execution, thinking on your feet, and sometimes, a bit of luck.
I’ve kept a dog-eared article from 1990 in my files by RJ Zeckhauser from the Journal of Science, titled: Risk Within Reason. In it, he makes the case that individuals and society have “great difficulty differentiating extremely low-probability events, from higher probability risk.” A desert adventure carries significant risk from sun stroke, injury, and dehydration but our inner fears drift towards highly unlikely events: scorpion stings, rattlesnake bites, quicksand. Planning an adventure should focus on high-probability risks while keeping a clear eye out for unlikely events.
One last thought on adventure. Some of my most harrowing fiascos between age 15 and 23 were wholly unintentional. I didn’t set out to have an adventure, it just happened. My usual plan was: “Here, hold my beer. Watch this.” As I’ve aged, my mind has settled. I am not quite the scatterbrain of my youth, but planning is not my strong suit. Sandi thrives on planning. She makes lists and checks them twice, crossing out items with purposeful delight. If she asks me to clarify a safety concern, she looks at me over her librarian glasses and waits for my brain to turn on. Over time, I’ve adopted some of Sandi’s best practices. But I have to say, it’s not easy. I have to work at it.
Despite the tragedy at Zion National Park, we decide to hike the Paria, but only if there is a zero percent chance of rain in the extended forecast. We arrived in Utah a few days before the date of our permit. As a shakedown for our canyon hike, I suggest we hike in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, an hour north of the Paria. Sandi raised an eye-brow. “Chuck, I am not backpacking along a creek into Box-Death Hollow. Think about it. Box. Death. Hollow.” Nevertheless, Sandi was intrigued, and relented. Secretly, she loves this stuff.
The next morning, we were hop-scotching our way upstream along Pine creek. Trout darted ahead of us into the deeper pools. Wildflowers were in full bloom. In late afternoon we set up camp on a level patch of sand with our tent nestled against a rugged sandstone outcropping. Maybe, I thought, this will be the night I can sleep in our tent. Maybe.
After dinner I heard a faint, almost inaudible rumble. Off to the northwest a line of gray clouds was forming. Where we were camped, the early evening sky was clear. I walked down to the stream and stuck a stick into the bank where water lapped up against a moss-covered rock. Then I went back to where Sandi was finishing up her macaroni.
“Whatcha doing?” she asked.
“Looking at the sky.”
We watched the clouds. Another faint rumble. “Do you think the storm is headed our way? Sandi asked.
“Are we going to be okay?”
I assessed our surroundings. We were a good 100 feet from the stream but on my way back from the stream I’d noticed debris hanging from the lower branches of trees near our tent site. Behind us was a blocky outcropping, not unclimbable, but steep. If the river rises 5-feet we’ll be fine, 10 I don’t know. My eye followed a faint game trail along the base of the cliff where it ascended the rock face. I wandered down to the Creek. The water had already risen over the rock, 4 inches up my stick.
I walked quickly back to camp. “Let’s get out of here.”
Taking down the tent and stuffing it into the rucksack took two minutes. Ground pads, sleeping bags, cook stove, dirty bowls, disappeared into our packs. We were already downstream a few hundred yards when a light drizzle dimpled the water. Then it poured. In the next hour we re-crossed the stream five times as we backtracked to the trail head in the rising water. Reaching the car, the rain let up. I wondered, briefly, if our frantic exodus was premature.
At a nearby campground, as we threaded the aluminum poles through the tent sleeves, a boom of thunder rattled the ground. A moment later sheets of rain poured out of the sky. Violent gusts of wind whipped the tent as we attached the fly and threw our packs inside. We laughed with nervous relief, grateful that we’d escaped from Box Death Hollow. The wind driven rain worked its way through old seams, broken zippers, and thread-bare fabric.
I took an Ativan, no, make that two Ativan, and eventually drifted off. When I awoke at first light, I reached over for Sandi and my arm splashed into a pool of water. The inside of the tent was filled with water. Sandi was dry. I was soaked. Queen Sandi’s ground pad was thick enough to balance her above the pool like Cleopatra in her barge. We left the tent and fly in the trash bin.
We drove an hour to the Ranger’s station to discuss conditions on the Paria River. When the ranger explained that although the water was coming down, quicksand in the canyon would take another week to evaporate, we realized there were too many unknowns to risk the trip. We cancelled, did some sight-seeing, and headed home.
That winter, I turned 64, Sandi 62. At night, we’d occasionally sit on the couch and open Walking Distance, Extraordinary Hikes for Ordinary People. None of the other hikes held the same allure as the Paria River. We’d been so close. The drenching October storm we’d experienced was an anomaly for a region which averages only 11 inches of rain each year. But May looked like a safer bet.
Sandi arranged for a spring permit.
Another note in our favor; my recovery after a second foot surgery was surprisingly good. For the first time in more than 5 years I was running more or less pain free. I wondered? Could I combine another nearby adventure with the Paria River Canyon hike? As a young man I’d been enthralled by the writing of Colin Fletcher and his account of backpacking the length of the Grand Canyon. His book, A Walk Through Time, loomed in my subconscious as challenging as climbing Mount Everest. Even as I concluded that a solo hike the length of the Grand Canyon was unrealistic, I wondered, was I capable of a lesser challenge, running the 24 miles from the North Rim of the canyon, down to the Colorado River and up to the South Rim?
I asked Sandi’s opinion. She considered the question for a moment before declaring, “I don’t see why not. There’s only one hill.” That was perfect. What’s more, she volunteered to see me off on the North Rim before driving four hours around to the South rim to pick me up. Still, there was a drizzle of uncertainty in my mind. Was Sandi really accounting for my diminished capabilities? Was she saying yes to the old Chuck or the current model Chuck? Did she have more confidence in me than I did?
That very day, I purchased a fanny pack replete with four cleverly detachable water bottles. Through the winter, I gradually extended my longer runs from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, then two hours, then three hours. I experimented with electrolyte solutions and munched on Snicker’s bars as I ran—-primarily on my home treadmill. Outside of our home on Peaks Island it was windy and raw; but I dreamed of dry windless heat.
May 18th, 2017 found Sandi and me on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I was dressed for my 24-mile run in shorts, a T-shirt, and a light jacket. Around my hips was my fanny pack with four electrolyte balanced water bottles and a zip pocket stuffed with high calorie treats. Snow blanketed the trail. It was 16 degrees. Sandi was nonplussed. She looked at her watch. “Don’t you think you better get going?” We walked together the first two miles as the trail dropped precipitously. Where the snow petered out, I gave her an optimistic hug, handed her back the jacket, slathered on some sun-tan lotion, and pointed downwards towards the Colorado River.
Going down was my best run ever. Going up was my worst run ever. As the temperature rose above freezing and the trail transitioned to packed dirt, I seemed to float downhill. Filling up my water bottles at Cottonwood Campground 6 miles and 4,200 feet below the north rim, I was aware that my outer thighs were beginning to burn but my urine was still dilute. I drank liberally and munched on Snicker’s bars. By the time I reached Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River, the dry heat was slowly sapping my strength. An outside thermometer registered 75 degrees.
I crossed the Colorado River on a foot-path suspension bridge. For a few miles the trail meandered up and down along the south bank of the river before it abruptly turned up a ravine towards the south rim. A California condor drifted by on a thermal updraft as several ravens harassed it from above. In the space of two miles I went from steady running to jog a quarter mile, walk a quarter mile, to jogging no faster than a brisk walk, to a power walk. I re-filled my four water bottles at Indian Garden Campground but wisely didn’t sit down. Sitting down might mean not getting up. Only five more miles to go.
As the grade steepened, I devolved into a slower, gimpy, survival shuffle. When I was within two miles of the South rim, a day-hiker in sandals and Capri pants whisked by with a cheery “On your left.” I felt the urge to reach out and trip her, but she passed by me in a flash. My cell-phone rang. It was our daughter, Molly, calling from Oregon. I had no idea that phone reception could reach below the rim. I tried to disguise just how miserable I was, but Molly saw through that act and asked, “Where’s mom?”
I insisted that I was okay. Miserable, but okay. Before hanging up, Molly repeated, “Where’s mom?” I said I didn’t know and slumped against the cliff-wall. A half-hour later, after a phone call from Molly, Sandi rounded a corner like a gentle breeze and handed me two quarts of Gatorade. A little over 8 hours after she left me on the north rim, we summited the south rim together.
One problem, our permit to hike the Paria River Canyon was in four days. What was I thinking? At the motel that night, Sandi was concerned that I could no longer walk down a flight of stairs; I had to ease myself backwards a single-stair-at-a-time. The next day I was a smidgen better. On the third day, I soaked in the tub, stretched, and gingerly lifted up my pack and adjusted the straps.
The next morning, we waded into the Paria river at sunrise, shuffling downstream with the gentle current. The river unwound into ribbons of desert silt meandering across a shallow flood plain. Clumps of brilliant yellow desert primrose bloomed along the riverbank. The warm chalky brown water massaged my tired legs. I flexed my toes in my sneakers and my blackened toe-nails stopped throbbing.
Four miles downstream, the river entered a narrow, fluted canyon and we stopped and gazed at the walls in silent awe. Polished walls of sandstone rose hundreds of feet above the riverbed. Craning my neck, I watched a white cloud drift by. At 10 a.m. sunlight had not yet penetrated the canyon floor.
Our focus sharpened and time slowed down. For the most part, the river was the trail. We poked along the shallow riverbed with our hiking poles and avoided the whirls around protruding rocks where the current scooped deeper troughs. At oxbows, where the flow accelerated against the far bank, we stood silently assessing the safest way forward. Here, Sandi had a particular knack for recognizing the proper route. Where the current threatened to knock us off our feet, she often spied a faint trail leading up into the willows where other hikers left the riverbed and cut across a sandy isthmus.
I thought I saw a raindrop dimple the surface of the water. And then another. I looked skyward and the sun was flanked by wisps of clouds and blue sky. Sandi was midstream probing the water with her hiking pole. I scanned the side-walls of the canyon. For another mile or two we were still in the high-risk zone of the Paria. If the waters rose abruptly, there was no escape. I picked up the pace and Sandi quietly matched it. For an hour we moved quietly down-stream.
Sandi scanned the sky. “Did you see the raindrops?”
“I did. Have you seen any lately?” I asked.
“No. That was it. We’re okay, right?”
“Definitely. We’re fine.”
Passing several campsites strewn with debris from previous floods, we pushed on. My legs were getting wobbly. We needed a break, or more accurately, I needed a break. We took off our backpacks and sat on a sandstone ledge, comfortably above the flood zone. I discretely stuck a piece of driftwood into the riverbed at the water’s edge while we ate peanut butter sandwiches and apples. When we were finished, the water level was unchanged. Good.
Even so, as we waded downstream, I somberly watched the flow of the Paria and evaluated potential escape routes along the cliffs if we needed to scramble higher. When we finally made camp, it was up on a sandy bluff, a good sixty feet above the river bed. A peregrine falcon swept off the cliff behind us. A great blue heron flapped by, its wing-tips nearly skimming the water. A chorus of croaking frogs arose from the river’s edge. From a nearby thicket a solitary canyon wren’s liquid descending call bounced off the far wall.
We spent the night in our sewn-up blankets beneath a swath of coal black twinkling sky. In the morning, we played a game of cribbage, eating oatmeal and sipping quietly on our tea. Sandi found a hole in her backpack where a mouse had squeezed in and eaten through the wrapper of her last chocolate bar. She peeled back the tin foil and scraped off the edge of the bar with a finger nail where the tiny teeth had nibbled her treat, and downed the rest of the bar.
I looked at her skeptically. “Sandra, it’s only a chocolate bar. It’s been clawed and salivated on by a rodent.”
“What do you mean, only a chocolate bar?”
We were running low on water, but I felt confident we could fill our water-bottles at Big Spring a few miles downstream. We descended from the bluff through loose, powdery sand and entered the river. Over my shoulder, I saw two ravens absently poking around where our ground pads compressed the meadow grass. Finding nothing of interest, the ravens flapped downstream, croaking their displeasure as they passed noisily overhead.
A few miles further on, the unmistakable flow of Big Spring pushed a finger of clear, sweet water into the Paria. For the first time, I see tiny fish—either a species of sucker or dace—as they zigzag to safety, disappearing into the silty waters. The cliff wall above the spring is thick with ferns and sprigs of pink and yellow-lipped helleborine orchid. Amid the muted browns and grays of the canyon, the orchids are a welcome, dazzling splash of color. Sandi noticed a wet patch of sand next to the cliff where a second spring bubbled to the surface, the sand tumbling over and over like an old-fashioned timer. Quicksand.
Back in the river, the sun finally cleared the eastern cliffs and a flash of heat permeated the canyon. I fished out my baseball cap and slathered on more sun protection. The canyon widened just enough to scramble to safety if the water suddenly rises. I relax. A few hours later, Sandi eased out of her pack and leaned against the trunk of a giant cottonwood. I rubbed a liberal amount of sun tan lotion onto the back of her neck and arms. She sipped from her canteen and wiped her mouth before handing me the bottle. I checked the ground for red ants and kicked a rotten log at her feet to ensure a scorpion wasn’t within spitting distance. It’s hotter today than yesterday.
Sandi asked why there were not helpful signs marking the springs.
“Because,” I said, searching for an answer. “Because we’re on our own.”
Sandi looked me over. “How are your legs?”
“Good. They’re good enough. What about your feet?”
“I have a hot spot in the back of both heels. The sand keeps working its way into my socks.” Sandi unlaced her sneakers and slid her socks off. A clump of sand the size of a silver dollar plopped onto the ground. She winced as I pressed on the edges of two large blisters. “Hagland’s deformity. That’s why you develop blisters so easily.”
“It’s a bony enlargement in the back of both heels, an exostosis. You’ve had them as long as I’ve known you, they’re partly genetic. That’s why it’s so difficult for you to find comfortable hiking boots or sneakers.”
“You’ve known that I have this, this deformity, and only now you’re letting me know?”
“I thought we talked about your Hagland’s deformity. It’s one of your best features.” I smiled as I inspected the waterlogged, blanched skin surrounding the ulcers. We have 25 more miles to hike and nearly all of it will be either in the river or climbing up and over sandy banks where the river is un-walkable. This could be a problem. Sandi seemed unconcerned. I cleaned out the blisters as best I could and applied a water-proof protective bandage. Sandi’s second toe is much longer than the great toe, giving the foot a perpetual “giving the finger,” appearance. I graciously pointed this out to her.
By now, Sandi was giggling as she splashed back into the water. “Hey! My blisters feel good. That’s my husband!”
Two days into our hike we’re settling into a rhythm. Where the river widens, the bottom is generally scoured flat. Where the river undercuts a cliff and rock-fall lurks below the surface, twisted ankles, a scraped shin, or an unexpected tumble into the quick-water, are ever present concerns. As we approach a sharp curve, Sandi is already angling towards the inner cut scouting for the faint trail of sneakers leading out of the river. If the Paria hike is 38 miles, we’re hiking twice that as we zig-zag downstream in and out of the river. By late afternoon, we’re both concerned that we’ve missed the next spring. Along a patch of cattail and reed grass, I see a faint band of clear water but can’t locate the source. I turn back and scour the bank and dry ravine for signs of seepage. No luck. We’ve gone through most of our water. We’ve been in the river for ten hours.
Sandi takes out our map. “We must have passed Shower Spring.”
“I guess so,” I answered. We wade to the far bank to get out of the sun. I study the map. “I don’t see how we could have missed Shower Spring. That would be, let me see, 3 plus 9.8, plus 3 miles, that would be roughly 16 miles since we left camp this morning. I don’t think we’ve come 16 miles.”
“It feels like 16 miles,” Sandi said. “Maybe we should back-track above the river to locate one of the springs.”
“I think we’ll be okay,” I answer. “In a pinch, we can filter the river water and add iodine tablets,” Sandi shoulders her pack and we wade back into the river. We briefly hold hands. We talk less, and when we do, there’s a note of irritation in Sandi’s voice. We’ve passed the fun stage of our backpacking adventure. It’s hard work moving through the river. I’m resigned to making a dry camp and going through the tedious process of straining and purifying the river water. It will likely taste like grout but at least we’ll avoid Giardia.
An hour later, I spy a ravine where a dark-green patch of scrub oak extends nearly down to the river. It looks promising for water. Pulling aside a thicket of underbrush I’m delighted to see a delicate seep of clear, precious water dripping over an exposed root and breathe a sigh of relief. It takes twenty minutes for the water bottles to fill.
Before bed, we study the map and try to pin our location down. I took another look at Sandi’s blisters. River gravel had worked its way beneath the Band-Aid, sandpapering the skin and created an angry-looking ulceration over the back of both heals. I patched her up as best I can and apply a dab of Neosporin to keep a water-borne infection at bay. We go to bed well hydrated and drift off into dreamless sleep.
In the morning, we stretch. Under a cloudless sky we pick our way downstream, or increasingly, where car-sized boulders make river walking nearly impossible, a stream-side trail. We are out of the slot canyon and the river widens through a bone-dry valley. A curtain of heat rises from the desert floor. There is no shade. From experience, I know that my body loses more fluids than average. I don’t know about Sandi. At each water break I sip slowly and conservatively.
Leopard and desert spiny lizards scamper into the underbrush. Several jackrabbits dart ahead, freeze, and swivel their ears. To the east, the twelve-thousand-foot Echo Peaks rise from the desert floor. We rest on the shady side of a massive boulder. I empty my yellow water container. My pack looks odd. Several of the retaining straps are loose. Only then do I recognize that I’ve lost my sleeping bag, probably when I slipped down the hillside several miles ago. How did we not notice the loss of the sleeping bag? If we run into a major set-back, it will be because of the cumulative effects of small decisions or random events like this. Our margin for safety is diminishing.
We pushed on. Sandi says she’s fine. I’m sure that in her own present-tense mind she is telling me exactly how she feels. But knowing her as I do, I’m also aware that phrases such as, “I might need to go the bathroom soon,” or “I’m feeling a little tired,” really mean, “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Good night, I’m going to bed.” Sandi can transition from a little tired to a pleasant nap in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
We’re back in the water. I keep an eye out for shade; there is none. Around the bend, a jumble of boulders splits the stream. We slosh slowly forward but nearly lose our balance where the current drops over a hidden ledge.
Sandi looks over to me. “I’m getting a little tired.”
I know we need to stop. We need shade. Against the far bank is a stand of Coyote Willow and Rabbit bush beneath a dead cottonwood tree. It’s not ideal, but will have to do. Once the sun drops behind the western mountains we can hike out in twilight. We slip into the brush, lay out our ground pads and sip from our last water bottle. Amid the hum of bees and gnats and the skittering of curious lizards, we doze.
When I awaken, Sandi is making a soft, cooing, humming noise. She looks beautiful. The air is cooler. The sun is behind the mountains. I touch an elbow and her eyes open wide.
“Is it time?” she asks.
“I think so. Ready?”
We quietly gather up our ground pads. Sandi reaches into the lower compartment of her backpack and pulls out our last container of water. “Wait a minute.” She reaches in and like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, pulls out another quart of water. I blink. Did I just see that?
I figure we have four, maybe five or six miles before we reach the confluence where the Paria empties into the Colorado River. But it’s only a guess. Sandi reties her hiking boots and duck-walks out of the thicket. There’s a twig stuck in her hair next to her ever-present hair clasp, the hair clasp she’s worn nearly every day since we first met 41 years ago. I pick away the twig and ask, “That hair clasp holding your hair back, is that new?” Sandi laughs. My hair clasp quip always gets a laugh. We side-step down the embankment, shoulder our packs, and enter the river. After only 3 days, the water feels like an old friend, the silt somehow reassuring and calming. A soft breeze is at our back.
Sandi says that her hips are stiff, but she’s moving through the water like the graceful athlete she once was and still is. In a week her heels will be covered by a layer of fresh skin. My blackened toenails will either grow out or fall off. There are no signs, no roads, no early evening lights in the distance to guide us, but I’m not worried. We’re on a river trail pointing south and I’m hiking with my best friend.