I used to make fun of them, those barelegged, ball-capped figures grunting under the weight of 90-pound loads giving them the appearance of Neil Armstrong on the moon or a man bearing his own coffin on his back: tall, headless silhouettes lurching from around a bend in the trail to dispel the illusion of primordial wilderness and scare the horse apples out of seasoned stock. So what am I doing trudging the hills above Laramie, a Kelty pack filled with 65 pounds of rocks and assorted trash sawing my shoulders and pounding my kidneys, in 42-degree weather with the wind blowing 3 5 miles an hour out of the northeast? It’s Tom Sheeley’s fault for having talked me into making a trip off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from which horses are barred by the National Park Service, along with the firearms required to put the less surefooted animals out of their misery. You actually need a PERMIT to 50 down there yourself—pay good money to the U.S. government 2,500 miles away in Washington, D.C., for the privilege of packing cases of wine and beer in on your own knotted-up, broken-down pack. It isn’t her bailiwick, of course, but expect to speak firmly to Sheeley’s old buddy Maddy Albright when she shows up with the rest of the gang from Flagstaff the Jacob’s Lake Inn at three o’clock in the afternoon of April 13. “Who was your Somalian waiter last year?” I’ll ask her. The State Department wouldn’t treat a bunch of Kosovo Serbs this way—not while it thought someone was looking, anyway.

Laramie to Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Steamboat to Vernal, Utah; Veral to Duschesne and down to Price over Gray Head Pass; Price to Castle Dale to I-70 to Richfield; Richfield to Circleville to Panguitch to Kanab, following the Sevier River; Kanab to Fredonia, Arizona; Fredonia to Jacob’s Lake Inn: a total of 699 miles, taking a day and a half with gas prices climbing steadily from $1.32 Laramie to $1.87 in Kanab, where Japanese and French tourists piled from the tour buses and I had my photo taken twice. (It’s probably sticking to some fridge door in Tokyo or Toulon, a souvenir of someone’s encounter with a Genu-wine Western Badman, looking tender and slightly irritable from too much Chilean red wine taken behind drawn curtains in his motel room in Latter-Day Saintly Richfield the evening before.) The Inn was quiet, no one around but a few overweight pre-season tourists and a Twig Pig with a gun on his hip, looking for a redneck like me to shoot. I drank a beer in the truck, wondering whether, if I tossed the empty can in the air, he’d be able to hit it with his .38 Special, and went to call Rhonda in Laramie to see how my horses were getting along without me. When I got off the phone my watch said 3:45, meaning Sheeley & Company were running three-quarters of an hour behind schedule. They pulled into the parking area at four o’clock sharp by my watch, 3:00 P.M. local time (I’d forgotten Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Saving): Tom, his daughter Gory, and colleague Tim Smith from the music department at Northern Arizona University, their three backpacks bulging like T.E. Lawrence’s baggage train in the truck bed, along with ten or twelve cases of Busch’s beer—lacking only Maddy Albright, who Tom explained had been dispatched by President Clinton to an international conference in Cairo organized to protest the plight of enslaved gay people in the Sudan. Her absence was regrettable, as the expedition would now be lacking a beer truck, but it’s as well for us to be reminded from time to time of the truth of the motto Nolite Confidere in Principibus. Tom switched vehicles to ride with me, and we entered the park headed for the North Rim 45 miles to the south, followed by Tina and Corey in Tina’s Toyota pickup and drinking Busch to celebrate the start of our latest adventure together.

The Grand Canyon was formed by the Colorado River cutting through a bulge lifting high above the north-central Arizona desert floor. At the North Rim, the Kaibab Plateau attains an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet. Climbing higher, we came to wide expanses of glary corn snow bordered by forests of Ponderosa pine fading away in deeper and deeper shades of cold blue shadow.

“We could be in trouble,” Tom said. “As warm a winter as we’ve had, I didn’t expect to find this much snow up here.”

A mile farther on we came to the signpost marking the start of Forest Service Road 422. The gravel apron shaded off into mud, and beyond the mud was the soft snow, filling in the cut as far as the treeline across the low swales and the drifted-over creek bed.

“Do you have a shovel with you?” Tom asked.

“Sure. It’s in the toolbox.”

“Let’s try it, then.”

I stared at the slumping sea of glazed snow ahead. It was a sight to have made even my old comrade-in-arms Jack Mootz consider where he expected to spend the night. But Tom was in thrall to his vision of the Esplanade, Thunder River, and Deer Creek, as Coronado had been entranced by the Seven Gifies of Cibola.

“You want to try and push that for 45 miles?”

“Let’s see how far we can make it, anyway. If we get stuck, we can dig out.”

Well, yes . . . we could, but the fun was not supposed to start until the trailhead, 45 miles away, with my 65-pound pack of a crumbly, ankle-twisting descent I’d been promised was steeper than breakfast in Aspen.

I locked the wheel hubs in and downshifted to compound low for a halfhearted run at the snowfield. We made 20 yards before the truck succumbed to the forces of inertia and quit, spinning its tires deeper into their slushy grooves.

“Let me try,” Tom suggested.

Positive thinking, while admirable, has its limits. He gained another 30 yards before the truck went down again, this time in snow that packed the driveline in a bit more snugly than I felt comfortable with. Cory and Tim climbed from the Jap truck and stood, feet apart and hands in the pockets of their hiking shorts, to observe the situation from behind dark sunshades.

“Why don’t I see what a lighter vehicle can do?” Tim offered.

Not even Toyota can walk on water. This one made a fair try at doing so before retreating hurriedly to a reassuring mud base a few feet from the shoulder of the highway.

“Even if we made a breakthrough here, we don’t have gas enough to break trail for the next 45 miles,” I said.

Youth may be wasted on the young, but not resilience.

“Let’s hike Paria!” Cory cried. “We’re always talking about going there, and we’ve never done it yet.”

Tom caught his daughter up in a bearhug to give her a hearty kiss.

“Good thinking, Cor,” he said. But it wasn’t before we’d had another Busch and were halfway down the switchbacks coming off the Kaibab with a view of the Vermilion Cliffs to the north that Paria Canyon began to seem like a satisfactory exchange.

An hour and a half later we were camped above the Colorado River on its way through Marble Canyon a few miles south from Lee’s Ferry. Down here on the desert where the temperature was 30 degrees warmer than on the North Rim, the hot wind lifted on caps and sent them bowling across the rimrock toward the edge of the gorge. A mile or so downstream and six or seven hundred feet below, a river expedition was encamped in a bend, its bright yellow-and-blue boats drawn up on the silt shore, the camp fires flaring red among the tamarisk and salt cedar. We finished guying the tents with stones against the wind, then gathered around Tim’s truck for the cocktail hour. Behind the town of Marble Canyon, the east-facing cliff showed dark and indistinct against the bright evening sky, sinking prematurely into night.

“Up there’s where Ed’s property is,” Tom said, pointing.

“Is that where? You know, I never knew he owned that land until you told me. Clarke never mentioned it.”

Abbey’s Roost: never built on, never—to use the proper real-estate terminology—”developed.” Anyway, he has an infinitely better vantage point now.

In the morning we stopped for breakfast at the Marble Canyon Café, then got on the road to Page, where Glen Canyon Dam still stood: seemingly invincible, in actuality clogging up with silt—the silent killer—to a degree that guarantees a fatal coronary within the next hundred years or so. North of the dam we crossed into Utah and continued west to the upper stretches of the Paria River, which heads in the vicinity of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument grabbed off by President Clinton in 1996, partly as a sop to the environmentalist movement, partly to punish the state of Utah for not having voted for him in 1992.

We stopped briefly at the Park Service’s visitor’s center to purchase four three-day passes at $15 a head (toothbrush and handtowel not included) and continued on a mile farther south by the gravel road paralleling the river to the trailhead. The day was hot, so we all had a beer before setting out. (Or it could have been the other way round.) The blue Kelty pack resting upright on the tailgate of the truck looked as if it had been packed by—and for—Arnold Schwarzenegger. I took hold of the frame with both hands, lifted the thing, and swung it off the tailgate and around behind me, thrusting with my right arm as if I were trying to get into an overcoat. Suspended by the strength of one arm only, the pack slipped sideways, pulling me off balance as it dropped to the ground. If God had meant man to backpack, He’d have given him a lobotomy first. Finally, Cory demonstrated for me the technique appropriate to the selfloading human made: Insert knee beneath pack, boost onto tailgate of truck, back into harness, and fasten.

At last we started, dropping off the steep flood-scoured bank into the riverbed—braids of shallow water over clinging red mud, with patches of alkali and, in places, quicksand. Trudge, trudge, trudge. It wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, being 65 pounds overweight and carrying my belly on my back. At first the old ski break above my right ankle protested, but it gave up complaining after a few hundred yards. Trudge, trudge. My legs felt good, my wind—as ever—superb. Heart and lungs okay. The trouble was with the pack, which kept trying to pull me over backwards like an inexperienced rider reining back on a rearing horse. As tight as I’d drawn the harness, I was aware of a space between the upper frame and my shoulder blades wide enough to fit a small child into. Also, the thing had a disconcerting tendency to pitch sideways, throwing me off balance in mid-stride. To compensate for conditions, I discovered a bent position, forward from the hips like a centaur, that allowed mc to take the full weight of the pack on my back rather than above the kidneys, where it ordinarily belongs. Otherwise I felt pretty good. The footing was mostly even, while the riverbed tilted, as riverbeds are wont to do, gently downhill. Trudge, trudge, trudge. Had I had the honor to serve in the U.S. Army, the forced march would definitely have been my MOS.

We’d gone a little over three miles when Tom called a halt at a spreading Cottonwood tree growing above the floodplain among buff-colored tumuli of Navajo sandstone. The map showed the canyon narrowing to a crevasse a mile or so downstream: Quite possibly this was the last suitable spot to put a base camp. I’d been looking forward to covering the 37.4 miles to Lee’s Ferry in a single march, but orders are orders. We shed the gear against the sloping rock face and put the tents up, while Tom commenced Operation Leadfoot to clear the area of fire ants. It was close to five before we had the camp secured and broke out the portable bar from the packs. Seated with our backs against the cooling rock, cup in hand, we surveyed the stony wilderness above the canyon—swales, sheer walls, and turrets of rock: red, tan, purple, yellow—in backward motion against round white clouds drifting eastward. Less than two miles downstream the real Paria, the one we knew only from pictures, began: a damp red defile, hundreds of feet deep and more than 30 miles in length, from where the sky is only intermittently visible, offering no egress or escape from the deadly torrent produced by an innocent afternoon thundershower 10 or 15 mile away.

“You know,” Tom said, “it’s providential we didn’t make it to the North Rim. The way that pack’s working for him, Chilton would have been in real danger on the steeps.”

Beginner’s luck, I thought. Maybe the summer I’d drop $300 on a good outfit and get into backpacking in a serious way, before my horses grow too old I carry me and my camp into the wilderness. Only, what happens when I get too old?

Never cross a bridge on foot as long you can still ride a horse over it.