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Hitch-Hiking Trip to the Grand Canyon, 1972
The Marble Pinnacle
A trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon
A trip to the Grand Canyon is a lasting memory for whoever treks to the bottom and hikes back to the top. The Grand Canyon is where history and mystery meet, divided by the Colorado River and bordered by an endless sky.
When I was nineteen I met a young man in the Haight Ashbury. A few months later we went on a hitchhiking trip that took us all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This is our story, as I remember it.
Unfortunately I took no photos while I was there so none of the images on this page are from that trip. However I remember the events intimately - it was a peak experience for me though it happened in one of the deepest places on earth.
San Francisco and the trip into Arizona
It started in the city by the bay, San Francisco. I was very familiar with the city as I'd lived across the bay from it all my life. When I was eighteen I went to Santa Cruz and moved into a communal house my cousin had just moved out of. With little money to spare I begged my way into a job at the John Ingalls Brussels sprouts cannery nearby. I say "cannery" but it was actually packages of frozen Brussels sprouts that we produced. When the season was over I ran out of money and hitchhiked north to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury District. I met up with an old friend who invited me to stay at the flat he was living in on Baker Street.
In the Baker Street flat I met the man that was to occupy the next few years of my life... John. When we decided a few weeks later to move out of that flat we got a room in Noe Valley. By the middle of January that was no longer working for us so we decided to take a hitchhiking vacation to the Southwest. We got some sleeping bags, hiking boots, and back packs to prepare. I don't remember much about our journey south except for the time we were picked up by a trucker. It was cold so he offered me his plaid work shirt... and when I got out of his truck I still had it on. Despite feeling guilty for accidentally keeping it, I treasured that shirt for many months to come.
Phoenix and Casa Grande
By the time we got to Phoenix we were out of food and almost everything was closed for the night. We were out of money too -- we had foodstamps only.
There was a Der Wienerschnitzel fast food restaurant in the process of closing down for the night, and I was starved, so I asked if they had any extra sauerkraut. I was (and still am) a vegetarian so the hot dogs were not what I wanted. They consented to give me some and it helped me get through the night.
That was the most desperate for food I've ever been.
That night we crawled under some trees at the side of the road in what looked like a rural area. In the morning we discovered we were in a grapefruit orchard. Guess what we had for breakfast? It was the best, sweetest, grapefruit I've ever had. I never knew grapefruit could taste that good and to this day I've never found any to rival it.
The next day we got our groceries and prepared ourselves for more adventures.
First We Visited Casa Grande
We hitchhiked south to a remote spot in the desert where we slept overnight, then we went to Casa Grande the next day.
I remember being so hungry, thirsty and exhausted that I was trembling on the long walk from the highway to the Casa Grande ruins. I definitely needed to toughen up or at least take better care of myself... but I was nineteen and really not thinking about reasonable things like drinking water.
I loved the vibration of the ruins. I could feel the ancient civilization there and was very much attracted to the desert lifestyle the ancient people lived. Of course, I was there in the winter - in January - so what did I really know about desert life?
The Grand Canyon - the walk downhill
Our next adventure took us to the Grand Canyon. This wasn't planned in advance as I recall - I think we were just drifting around, getting rides from people, and taking suggestions.
Anyhow, who could resist the idea of seeing the Grand Canyon?
Someone who picked us up wanted us to see it and took us there, dropping us off in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The Hike Down Into the Canyon
John of course wasn't satisfied with just looking down from the rim. "We're hiking down there," he said... and I followed. At nineteen, I was SO naive!
Actually, walking downhill was the easy part. There was a thin covering of snow on the rim but soon we were beyond that, going down the Bright Angel Trail, enjoying the warm air and sunshine, the well-marked trail, and the joy of being alone in a majestic and awe inspiring wilderness. Half-way down there's a campground, Indian Garden, with a ranger station, though I don't recall ever seeing anyone there. We were able to descend 9.6 miles and reach the Colorado River by late afternoon.
Walking to the river from the end of the trail is one of the most vivid memories of my life. We noted a shelter with a phone in it, but passed that by to walk on small rocks of various shades and then coarse sand, to where the huge light-greenish river rushed by joyously cascading through the most beautiful canyon in the world. I totally blended with the environment, feeling like I was part of it - until John suggested that it would be prudent to find a place to sleep for the night. We located a flat ledge a bit downriver and set down our gear, pulling our down sleeping bags out of their stuffsacks. I thought that was pretty much "it" for the day, but then John informed me that there would be a lunar eclipse that night, and that we had to stay awake to watch it.
I was pretty much willing to do whatever he suggested so we headed back to the river and sat around drinking in the scenery and the refreshing, sweet waters of Pipe Creek. As I recall I had an old green Coke bottle I was filling with water from the creek. Remember this bottle - it has another role in this story.
Total eclipse of the moon
As the canyon darkened I found myself in a mysterious landscape of rocks and boulders strewn wildly about with a rushing, frothy river nearby churning up the energy and bursting with refreshing vibrations. The moon was full so we had no trouble navigating the area - meaning we didn't slip and fall and stumble over rocks.
Eventually we settled on a large boulder downhill from the ledge we'd chosen to leave our gear on. The boulder, large enough for the two of us, gave us an outstanding view of the river and the sky. A little chunk of moon disappeared into Earth's shadow, and the show was on. John told me about the constellations - many of which I wasn't aware of until that night. The ones I remember learning about were Cassiopeia and Lyra.
The earth's shadow slowly bit into the edge of the moon. This was the first lunar eclipse I'd ever seen so I didn't know what to expect. The bright light of the full moon gradually darkened as the earth's shadow took over more and more of the moon's surface. Finally the moon was fully eclipsed, framed perfectly by the tall canyon walls, and John suggested we chant Om Mane Padme Hum . . . and so we did, and the landscape was absolutely amazing, all bathed in golden crimson light from the shadowy red moon. The stars around the beautiful sphere shone brighter and the wind tunneled down the canyon as I inhaled and crystallized this brilliant memory for all time.
And there was howling . . .
Afterward we carefully picked our way over the boulders by the returning silvery light of the full moon, and got a welcome night's sleep on a ledge that no doubt had been used by others seeking sleep over the course of many centuries.
I can always remember the date of our journey into the Grand Canyon because of this eclipse. It is on the web! You can see NASA's PDF file for the lunar eclipse I saw on January 30, 1972.
The park ranger
The next morning we were enjoying a sunny bit of relaxation next to Pipe Creek, drinking up that amazing, fresh, sweet water, when we got a surprise visitation from a park ranger. He was not happy with us.
"You're in the wrong place," he said. "You should have camped at Phantom Ranch!" As if we knew.
"Where's that?" my friend asked.
The park ranger pointed upriver. We didn't realize that a footbridge had been erected many years before to take us across the river to a nice campground, and in fact, I thought that was terribly repressive. I felt like a free spirit and couldn't understand why all hikers had to be rounded up into one specified camping space when there were so many other places to park our gear overnight. And honestly, I wouldn't have wanted my experience to be any different.
Not impressed, I raised my green coke bottle to the ranger and said, "Would you like a drink?" You see, I thought the issue was irrelevant to real life. Drinking the pure sweet water was real life. I wanted to share a bit of reality with him.
He proceeded to take out his ticket book and write up a citation that would, in the future, cost us a bit of money we really couldn't afford to spend.
The hike out took us two days
John inventoried our food that morning and decided that due to the fact that we had nothing left to eat but peanut butter and granola, we needed to hike back out right away. I wasn't thrilled. I could have lived there forever. I was that taken in by the beauty and atmosphere of pristine clarity.
Nevertheless, I agreed to follow John back up the trail. And the keyword here is UP.
The hike out of the Grand Canyon is nothing like the hike down. Going down was exciting. Going up was excruciating. I totally understood, finally, why there was a shelter at the bottom of the canyon with a phone that people could use to request burros. But it was winter, not summer, and despite the exertion it took to hike out of that canyon, we made it on our own without emergency help.
Food was a bit of a problem as we were more or less starving. We had to spend the night at the half-way point, Indian Garden, which was at one time a Havasupai villiage. The next morning we ate the rest of our peanut butter and granola and filled our coke bottle and canteens. And off we went, climbing to the south rim of the canyon.
Many hours later we finally started seeing a bit of snow on the trail and realized we were close to the top. What an amazing feeling of relief. The torture was over!
Hiking out - ...the Bright Angel Trail.
Our quest for food
Once at the top we of course wanted to spend our foodstamps on some food, and were thrilled to realize there was a brand new large modern supermarket there. We got a cart and filled it with all sorts of exciting edible things, then got to the check-out and were told, "We don't take foodstamps." No foodstamps? A supermarket at a federal park won't take foodstamps from the federal Department of Agriculture? I was shocked. I think John was just angry.
We walked outside and started hitchhiking... and this was one of those rides I'll always remember because the man who picked us up took pity on us and decided to take us out for lunch in Flagstaff. I ordered pancakes and here I am, thirty-seven years later, still thinking about those pancakes and praising the kindness of that old man.
How to prepare for hiking in the Grand Canyon
For those of you who don't want to suffer like we did on our trip out of the Grand Canyon, here's a video that speaks of preparing in advance for the hike. (Something I never gave one thought to before our little adventure there.)
What Goes Down Must Come Up
Hitching a Ride in the Rain
Please don't try this!
Remember, my story took place in early 1972 -- a long time ago. Back then there were many thousands of young people (hippies) on the roads hitchhiking, and it was much more accepted. These days it is unsafe and I don't recommend it to anyone.
Even back in the sixties and early seventies I had a few bad rides. Perhaps someday I'll write a lens about that. Thankfully I made it through my childhood and young adulthood... despite some of the crazy things I did back then.