The parallel trails of brown smoke tracking west to east 50 or so miles ahead above the place where the Grand Canyon ought to be had a sinister aspect, suggesting another greasy invasion by the encroaching metropoli of the desert Southwest.

“Is that L.A.?” I asked Tom Sheeley.  “Or is it only Vegas?”

Tom shook his head.  “I heard the Park Circus was getting ready to do a controlled burn on the North Rim.  You know what a controlled burn is, don’t you?  Like a controlled deficit, sort of.”

At Grand Canyon City on the South Rim, the tourists seethed resentfully, aiming their cameras into the smoky abyss opening away below, like Hell, a few inches ahead of their toes.  From the road out to Hermit’s Rest, we observed twin smoke columns rolling majestically into the hot blue sky and, below a thousand feet or so, red-and-white choppers trailing orange slurry buckets from a cable, on a bee-line cross-canyon toward the conflagration.  

“How’d you feel if you’d traveled thousands miles to see this?” Tom asked.

“I know it.  If word gets out this really was a controlled burn, the park people could find themselves with a bunch of lawsuits on their hands.  It’s a good life, America.”

Damon’s truck was not parked at the trailhead when we got there.  “He said he was hoping to make it here by about ten,” Tom told me.  “It’s just nine, now.  We’ll go on down, set up camp, and drink beer while we’re waiting for him.”

We finished loading the packs, strapped them on our shoulders, and started down from the Rim by switchbacks descending to the Esplanade.  My last time on the Hermit Trail, 18 months before, the vast airy bays between the precipitous canyon walls had been a flat gray with the whirling snow; today, they were suffused by the blue smoke haze.  “Like smoking a f—ing pack of cigarettes,” Tom said disgustedly.

The world that exists below the rim of the Grand Canyon is different from the one above it.  So much is obvious, perhaps, from a look over the guardrail at any one of the several observation points; yet the difference is not what a casual visitor might expect.  It is not, for instance, the difference between life and the absence of life, or between activity and primeval stillness.  Nor is it a matter of the human world as opposed to the nonhuman one.  Besides healthy populations of insects, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals, there are populations of human beings as well.  These, though small, are also healthy.  And crazy.  Their health, in fact, is in direct proportion to their craziness, which is conclusively proved by their self-destructive behavior and instantly recognizable for the insanity it is by the thousands of sane humans flocking with their cameras and ice-cream cones at the tour-bus stops.  We are talking here about the successors to the Indians, river explorers, miners, farmers, and hermits of the pioneer days: the rafters, dorymen, and kayakers, rock climbers, backpackers, adventure photographers, hikers, and runners who inhabit the canyon at all seasons of the year and in every sort of weather, totally unencumbered by any sort of civilized infrastructure beyond a boatload of supplies and a packload of grub, water, and warm clothes to sustain them.  You cannot spot them from civilization, and even the boats are barely discernible to the naked eye as they ply the thin green ribbon of the Colorado River, 5,000 feet and more below the South Rim.  Yet they are down there nonetheless—invisible ciphers struggling on the tortuous trails scratched into sheer cliff walls, camped in fragile tents beside seasonal creeks and holed up on the extremity of wind-wracked points; running fatal rapids in pea-pod craft and hanging 250 feet above the desert floor from nylon ropes attached to rotten monoliths; filtering water as if life depended on it (it does) and husbanding their final packets of denatured chicken soup; consuming themselves cell by cell and calling it fun, while stopping just short (most of the time) of the boundary beyond which human life cannot be reconstituted, like the Phoenix.

A quarter-mile down, we overtook a middle-aged couple day-hiking in to Dripping Springs, at the foot of the Coconino formation across the head of Hermit Canyon.  The man’s slung canteen slipped from his shoulder onto the trail as I came up behind; I retrieved the thing and handed it to him in going round them.  The canvas was damp from leakage; the soft-sided receptacle slack and virtually empty.  “My useless canteen,” the fellow remarked, with a smile that made me shudder.  Thirty minutes later, at the junction of the Boucher and Dripping Springs trails, I considered leaving a pint bottle propped against the signpost but decided against it.  Another half-mile, and he’d have all the sweet, pure limestone water he could hold.

Forty-five minutes out from camp, Tom slipped the shoulder straps on his heavy pack, set the pack down beside the trail, and hiked up a boulder slide to the cache he had put in there the week before.  The water, beer, and canned goods added a good 30 pounds to the load he was carrying, without slowing him up visibly.  We reached Yuma Point at a little past noon, raised our camp, and sat on the sandstone ledge, hanging our heels above the Tonto Rim 1,600 feet below to eat our lunch.  Twenty-five or thirty miles away by line of sight across the Grand Canyon, the twin smoke pillars continued to boil up, tilting eastward under a stiff wind.

“I hope Damon is able to make it down here with us,” I said.

“He’ll make it, all right.  You can set your watch by Damon.  Man, I haven’t seen a fire like that in the 30-plus years I’ve been hiking the canyon.”

I was digging in my pack for binoculars a quarter of an hour later when a figure in white, wearing a white cap and carrying a red backpack, appeared among the blackbrush and juniper trees, headed for camp.  Tom came over to greet him and make introductions, and, when Damon put his hand out, it held a beaded cylinder the size of an oil can.

“That’s for all those Hundredth Meridians,” he said.  “It’s good meeting you.”

Ernest Hemingway only won a Nobel Prize.  I won a can of Foster’s lager from Damon Brown.

We ate an early supper and stood around our improvised sandstone table until long after dark, drinking beer and rum, talking politics, and watching the fires burn beneath the foundations of the starry universe.  We turned in around nine, Tom bringing with him inside the tent two liter bottles of water for himself and two of the three pint bottles I kept filled from the quart bottles he’d carried from the cache.

“Drink up, mate,” Tom urged.  “You can’t drink enough water in this heat, and with all this smoke and sh-t.”

“If I drink two pints of water, I’ll be up peeing all night.”

“Who cares?  There’s worse things in life than taking a leak.  You have to stay hydrated, man.”

In the morning we separated, Damon hitting the trail back to Hermit’s Rest, Tom and I continuing on around Yuma Point and down off the Esplanade to the top of the Redwall by a series of switchbacks and a fearsome rock ledge named by Tom, Cori, and Doug Bonamici of Lake Havasu City the “Hilary Step.”  After that, there was the nearly vertical notch at the top of the Redwall ahead of us; and, farther down, the treacherous Muav formation, presenting a steep trail descending over rounded yellow stones with the properties of ball-bearings underfoot, before the trail dropped us off the Tonto and through the Tapeats formation into the lush green lap of Boucher Creek, where we could replenish our water supply.

“Are you psychologically prepared for the Redwall?” Tom wanted to know.

“I guess so,” I told him.  “It didn’t seem like any big deal coming up last March.”

“It’s worse going down.  And it’s a lot cooler in March than it is in September.”

He was long vanished down the vertical green chute choked by blackbrush, catclaw, and cactus when I arrived at the lip of the notch and took stock.  Eight-and-a-half ounces of water.  Half a Cliff Bar, melting into the foil wrapper.  A severe abrasion above the left elbow, caused by a fall down an inclined rock slab.  Scratches to the shinbones by the highly aggressive agave plants along the trail. . . . Eight-and-a-half ounces of water.  They had to get me down to the creek, visible from where I stood atop the Redwall limestone but a good hour’s downhill struggle in the 90-degree heat over the damned 500-million-year-old ball-bearings.

The great strain is mental rather than physical—at least, until your legs start to go—owing to the excruciating concentration required to set each foot precisely right at every step, on penalty of breaking or “merely” twisting an ankle, pitching forward down a rock slide, or snapping a femur in two and bleeding out from a compound fracture beside the trail.  At the base of the Redwall, I stopped to drink and discovered that my right hand was covered with blood from a laceration to the big vein on the back of it.  That was not a worry; the water level in my graduated Nalgene bottle was.  The descent of a few hundred feet had translated into a ten-degree-temperature increase by my wristwatch thermometer, and I was about to emerge, in a few hundred yards or so, from the shadow of the Redwall into the solar death rays.  It can be a fatal mistake when hiking to measure out your life in coffee spoons.  I swallowed the whole of my water supply at a gulp and resumed the descent.

Tom Sheeley found me an hour and a half later seated beside my pack on a nasty-looking piece of the Tapeats, with a parched mouth and suffering from a strange systemic weakness.  He carried my pack the last ten minutes down to the creek, where he forced me to drank pint after pint of water.  “I never felt all that thirsty,” I protested, but Tom shook his head.  “Thirst isn’t a sign of dehydration,” he said.  “We got down here just in time.  I was beginning to hallucinate, myself.”

We camped in place that night and in the morning hiked the last gentle mile down to the sandy beach below Boucher Rapids on the Colorado River.  Haze obscured Point Sublime downstream, and we made the decision to forego a hike over to Crystal Rapids on account of the smoke.  Instead, we drank beer, swam in the river and washed our filthy clothes, and fed the excess rations I was carrying to a pair of ravens that had appeared the instant the first granola bar swam the rapids.  Around 4:30, seven kayaks followed by four rafts came ashore, not wishing to tackle Crystal with night coming on, and asked permission to share the beach with us.  The canyon was experiencing a heat wave, the leader reported: The thermometer had reached 100 degrees at Phantom Ranch a couple of days before.

Tom got three liters down next morning, and I managed three pints myself before we started back up to Yuma Point.  From there, the North Rim fire was more impressive than ever, exploding in sunspot flares against the black horizon beneath its towering self-illuminated cloud.  “Ed Abbey’s fire tower could be toast by now,” Tom suggested.

“It could be.  I’m guessing he wouldn’t mind much.”

“Do you suppose he’s really in Hell?”

“I don’t know.  I like to think God has a use for people like Ed.”

“Be sure to bring at least a liter of water into the tent with you tonight.  Remember, mate: You can’t drink too much water down here.

“I’ll drink as much as I can manage,” I promised.

From Yuma Point up to Hermit’s Rest is a relatively easy five miles, the last of them by switchbacks engineered with day hikers between the Rim and Dripping Springs in mind.  I reached cruising speed a half-mile from camp and swung along easily under a 30-pound pack, out of sight of Tom Sheeley on the trail ahead, the burning sun on my face alleviated now and again by a cool breeze rising from the depths of Hermit Creek 1,500 feet below.  From time to time, I reached the bottle from the stretch pocket sewn onto my pack and drank a little water.  I did not feel the heat much, and, so far, I had not had to work very hard.  At the trail fork to Dripping Springs, I stopped to replace the water bottle and repack a few items.  A mile and a half farther on, I halted again at the foot of the final switchbacks, 2,000 vertical feet below the Rim, to rest my back and take another drink.  When I looked at the pack parked upright on a rock beside me, it did not look terribly inspiring.  You brought it down here, you have to carry it back up again.

I knew before I had gone another mile I was not going to make it up with that pack.  Carrying only a daypack, maybe.  I took the smaller pack from the larger one, transferred a few valuables and my remaining two pints of water to it, worked my shoulders into the straps, and started up the first switchback.  On the second, I started to black out and nearly fell across the trail.  A juniper tree in the angle ahead cast a cool blue shadow like a desert mirage.  I was sitting in it with my legs drawn up to my chin and the water bottles beside me when Tom Sheeley discovered me a half-hour later.

“So there you are,” he said.  “Drink this, man.”  Besides a container of salt and a handful of figs, he had brought a bottle of Gatorade along in his first-aid kit.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to try.