On my knees in the bright pebbly waters of Hermit Creek, I looked up from the cotton shirt I was wringing out to the buff-colored rim of the Kaibab Plateau, over 4,000 vertical feet overhead.

“Its a long way down from up there,” I told Tom Sheeley, who had just arrived along the trail from camp at the pool.

“We have a mile and a half to go still to the river, remember.”

“And a longer way yet back up,” I added. For individuals as well as civilizations, there’s a penalty inevitably to be paid for yielding too much ground. “Where’s Tib?” “Tib” was Tim Smith, but after months of hay fever we all found it easier and finally more natural to say “Tib,” as Tom came out “Tob” and Chip, “Chib.”

“He’s off reading somewhere.” Tom, who carried a can of Ice House beer in his hand, produced a second one from the pocket of his nylon shorts. “Care for a lunch cylinder?”

The case of beer, backpacked down the previous month by Tom and Tim and cached beneath a snaky-looking rock pile, was a luxury.

God yes!”

I hung my shirt, underwear, and socks to dry from an acacia branch overhanging the pool while the two of us lolled in the fresh waterspout cascading between limestone boulders, drinking beer and watching a pair of ravens fly reconnaissance 50 feet above the canyon floor.

Beaudy-ful” Tom pronounced from under the waterfall.

“It’s Perfect,” I agreed, aware of the sun hot on my trailing white legs given lift by the rushing water, while minnows nibbled at my toes.

His gray beard emerged out of the falls as he swallowed off the beer and tossed the empty onto the bank beside his shorts and hiking shoes.

“Never despair,” Tom said. “To despair is to turn your back on God.”

“I know that. It’s tough not to at times, though.”

Together, we waded from the pool and stood, first on one leg and then the other, pulling on our clothes.

“‘My proud young friend, come here right now, / Before Sarastro you will bow,'” Tom sang, from The Magic Flute. “Steak Diane for dinner tonight,” he finished in his normal voice.

We were set up at the old Hermit Camp, used to accommodate tourists until 1931 when the Park Service quit maintaining the Hermit Trail. Today the camp amounts to three or four bare places among the cacti, one of them (ours) overhung by a rock ledge offering shade during the heat of the day, and an open-air toilet. For company we had a party of women from Nebraska camped a hundred yards off on their way over to Boucher Rapids—among them a dark haired, strong-looking girl with sunburned arms and cornflower eyes that struck at you from under the brim of her Lady Cornhusker cap. This was the campsite where Barbara Sheeley had been stung twice on the hand by a scorpion several years ago, but on this trip our concern was for deermice, some 40 percent of which are carriers of hantavirus, the bubonic plague of the Southwest. On account of the mice, we kept our food stashed in the Army rocket boxes provided by the Park Service.

Tim came in with his book, and we all had another beer. Then he and Tom fired up the gas stoves, and we prepared the evening meal, beginning with the thick steaks from Tom’s butcher in Flagstaff. Seated on a low rock ledge we ate dinner from our laps, staring out under the overhang at the terraced wilderness of rock rising to the sky and falling gently backward beneath round white clouds already edged with gold. From behind the screen of acacia trees, girlish laughter sounded sweetly.

“You remember what Abbey said about bringing women along on a hike?” I asked Tom.

“He said it helps a man keep his mind off sex.”

“It’s a good line,” I said, “but I’ve never felt he really meant it.”

From Hermit’s Rest on the Kaibab Limestone down to Hermit Camp is a distance of 7.7 miles by the Hermit Trail, in places steeper than breakfast at Aspen. We washed up, turned in at a little past eight o’clock MST (having more than enough, Arizona doesn’t save sunshine, it burns it), and rolled out at dawn in time to see the ladies from Nebraska already on the trail over to Boucher, waving to us from across the creek. Lady Cornhusker marched second in line, directly behind the goose-faced, somehow attractive leader. For breakfast, we ate coffee, reconstituted huevos rancheros, and bacon, adjourned to the swimming hole for morning sheep dip, and set out on the mile-and-a-half hike down to the river.

Hermit Creek enters the Colorado River near Mile Point 95, the side canyon depositing the boulders that form Hermit Rapids. Tom, a professional riverman as well as one of the finest classical guitarists of our time, squinted appraisingly at the crashing white waves and hanging spray exploding from the flow of glassy green water, smelling strongly of salt. “River’s low,” he said. “Maybe 10,000 cfs—no more.”

“Where was it Ed got suckered into running the rapids when Reneé volunteered to ride in the boat?” I asked.

“That was Lava Falls, upstream from Diamond Creek —celebrated, in Kim Crumbo’s words, ‘in song, verse, poem, and frequent profanity.’ Guys I knew who floated the river with him said he was seared s—less of Whitewater, no matter how he described it in his books.”

A foaming wave to the left of an underwater boulder collapsed into a churning hole (called an “eater” by boatmen), then rose again on the other side to form a second wave as it struck the eddying backwater. Like all writers—like me—Ed Abbey maybe had just a little more imagination than was good for him.

We hung around on the sandy beach for a while, waiting for boats to drift downstream. When they failed to appear, we hiked up the stream bed back to camp for another dip in the pool and more reality suppressants.

“There are eight billion people on the planet,” Tom remarked from beneath the water, “and here we are, the three of us—alone down here.”

We spent a second night at Hermit, rose at four, cooked breakfast, and hit the trail around six, tramping eastward across the Tonto Platform over to Monument Creek in the cool shadow of the Redwall. Reaching Monument Creek before nine, we made camp under a sandstone ledge screened by acacia trees and sawgrass. When the tents were up and the sleeping bags unrolled inside, Tim went to the creek to pump water, while Tom and I wandered upstream. Two desert bighorns, both young rams, browsed the grassy bench above the watercourse and Tom discovered, under a rock, a purplish green scorpion the size of a small lobster. Seated on a sandstone slab, we passed the water bottle between us and grinned at one another.

“Being down here makes me want to write,” I said. “That’s what makes it real, finally,”

“Music, playing the guitar, training, kicking butt our the Tonto, wilderness, good food and booze, companionship— it’s all interrelated, everything connected up with everything else.”

“Everything that used to be called civilization, you mean.”

“Yes. And f— a bunch of consumer socialism.”

We made do with a smaller swimming hole that evening and lay down in the lingering desert heat while tree frogs shrilled from the cliffs above the pool. Well before seven the next day we climbed out the switchbacks up to the Tonto again and hiked around a nose of purple cliff to Salt Creek. From the trail we had a view of the river in the lower gorge below, running red this morning, not green, after the Little Colorado had kicked in with a load of sediment washed downstream by an afternoon thunderstorm the previous day. Salt Creek, considered a perennial watercourse, at first glance appeared dry, to the consternation of Tim, who was serving as water wallah on the trip. But Tom found a pool downstream, and Tim, digging with his hands in the gravel where we had set the packs, made a reservoir large enough to supply water for the purifier to pump from.

We sat up under the cliff for lunch and afterward hiked downstream to drink gin in the shade of an acacia grove growing between high rock walls, before a shadow passed swiftly overhead, accompanied by the creak and whoosh of slow wings.

“Chib. Did you make sure your pack was secured before we left camp?”

“I thought it was.”

“Look up there, on that ledge.”

I looked and saw a glossy raven perched with something oblong and brown in his beak, as if displaying a trophy.

“Raoul got into my package of Ry Krisp,” I said.

In camp we set a Nutribar out on a rock and waited under the overhang. Two minutes later the bird made a pass above the stream bed and set down a few feet away from the bar. Cocking his long head, he observed us with partK open beak, but made no further approach.

“That’s a smart bird,” I said, “with a guilty conscience. He screwed with our stuff—why should we be doing him airy favors? He figures that bar’s bird-bait, not a peace offering.”

The raven flew off, leaving the fruit bar untouched, and we returned our attention to the gin bottle until Tom, on a hunch, walked quietly across to the dry waterfall downstream, peered over it, then beckoned me to follow him. Below the fall, Raoul approached upstream on foot over the gravel bed, his wings lifted slightly away from his body and his beak still partway open against the heat, sneaking up on camp.

After supper, we sat with the tents up and our backs against the canyon wall to watch the flashbulbs go off along the rim of Hopi Point as the tourists sought to capture the sunset, invisible to us in our geologic crack below, on celluloid. Now and then, when the wind was right, the sound of the Park Service’s shuttle-bus engines was audible from a mile out and 4,000 feet up. Tom made a megaphone with his hands and let out a roar like a grizzly bear crossed with a catamount in defiance of the invisible thousands above us. “Work hard, play hard, practice your art, enjoy life—and be ready to make the most of the first real opportunity you get,” he concluded.

Tree frogs playing their bladder-sacs like bagpipes kept us awake much of the night. We awoke at dawn, packed in the camp, and hit the trail for Horn Creek and Indian Gardens around six. The sky at sunrise was a hot blue haze, but a springing wind cooled the air as the sun ascended above the spiny, gray-green Tonto, Lis Temple and Wotan’s Throne, Vishnu Temple, and the velvet gorge of Bright Angel Canyon. Ordinarily resentful even of a rifle and daypack on my shoulders, I kept my own pace in the line of march, falling back where the footing felt uncertain under the weight of the 40- pound pack. I caught up finally a mile out from Indian Gardens, where Tom and Tim had halted to load the three-liter box of Franzia White Rosé, the canned fruit, tomatoes, asparagus, and pasta cached beneath a pile of rocks, and we hiked on together to the developed campsuit, where tourists swarmed like dung beetles and the first mules were arriving from Grand Canyon on the South Rim. Tom turned to Tim and me in the trail, walking backward now, wrinkling his nose and grinning happily from his beard.

“Ever noticed these people who smell like chemicals and plastic instead of human sweat?” he asked.

That evening we “utilized” the designated campsite with its ramada and picnic table, close by the Clivus and under the watchful eye of the Park Ranger. When supper was finished, we hiked out to Plateau Point with what was left of the rose and drank it overlooking Pipe Creek Rapids while the sun went down behind Dana Point and the tourists standing around tried to trap it in their cameras as it showed itself fleetingly between scarves of gray cloud. Many, including a party of subcontinental Indians, were foreigners, but even our fellow Americans seem less and less recognizable nowadays. We waited until we were alone to drink the last of the wine together.

“Here’s to a great trip, mates,” Tom said. “You know, it’s about this time on a hike I get homesick and start to miss my wife. Then when I’ve been home a few days all I can think of is getting back down here in the ditch again.”

In the night when I got up to visit the Clivus, the lights of Grand Canyon glared like a giant spacecraft hovering far above at the verge of the mighty cliff, like something in a dream. On climbout next morning (4.5 trail miles, 4,000-plus vertical feet), with the lights extinguished and the buildings barely perceptible against a lowering sky, the dream inverted itself, and we became in my imagination the fantasy, myth, or legend: three isolated men struggling upward from the bowels of the earth through the Great Hole, the Sipapu, as the Hopi and Navajo believe the first humans did, to inherit the earth and begin the world over again.