Heading north from the scorching wasteland that is the Phoenix metropolitan area. Passing the great forests of saguaro cactus that stand tall and prickly under the brutal sun. The road signs warn us to shut off the air conditioning for a few miles as the highway ascends up a mountain, vertically. I listen to the signs, because I do not want to be caught on the side of the road, melting into the asphalt waiting for a tow truck. For those few miles we can feel the sweat staining the interior of the rental car. When it’s over, we pull into a rest stop, where a native girl is busy staring at her cell phone next to a blanket of handmade jewelry that’s presumably for sale. Another sign at the rest stop warns visitors that the area is filled with scorpions and venomous snakes and that they shouldn’t venture away from the sidewalks.
We keep going. Onward, northward, upwards, until we reach the line of RVs and minivans waiting at the Pearly Gates of the Grand Canyon. In the park, the ranger by the gate warns us that ravens are stealing people’s food, and occasionally car keys, so don’t leave anything out. I smile, because I think the idea of thieving ravens is kind of funny. The ranger is overly serious and says “you laugh now, but don’t come crying to me when it happens to you.” Later on, as we walk through the campground, we come across a flock of ravens, mutilating a plastic cooler that’s been left on a picnic table. They’ve somehow figured out how to undo the latch, and now the campsite is strewn with bags of chips, candy bar wrappers and all other sorts of garbage. The ravens caw at us as we walk past and flutter up into the air, letting us know that this particular campsite is now their territory. I’m glad we’ve left our cooler in the trunk of the car, and I have the keys safely in my pocket.
There’s a female elk lazily chewing on grass in the campsite next to ours. She stares at us as we’re setting up our tent and getting things in order, but doesn’t run away, doesn’t seem startled. She’s enormous. At night the campground is enveloped in darkness. Something rustles in the underbrush. A group of coyotes is cackling and howling. It’s hard to tell distance by noise, but they sound incredibly close.
In the morning we get up early, put on our hiking boots, load our packs with water and trail mix and march down into the Canyon. The air is cool and dry, but dusty, and I have to take some allergy medication, but I still end up sneezing a lot. We see signs posted all near the trail: “Do not feed the wildlife – the squirrels in the Grand Canyon can carry the plague.” Good advice. I do not want the plague.
The earth has been cracked wide open, pulled apart by centuries of erosion, we can see the red inner layers of Mother Earth’s skin. We walk down the steep trail into her wound, looking out over the great fissure that spans for miles. The deeper we go, the hotter it gets, steaming body heat emanating from the earth’s molten core.
The trail is narrow, barely enough room for a person or mule to walk comfortably. At times we are inches from falling down into an endless bottom and certain death. If we fell, I wonder who would get to our corpse first? The coyotes, the ravens, or would we be lucky enough to be fed upon by an endangered California Condor? I would hope for a condor, but to be honest I’d prefer to just not fall in the first place.
We sweat and sweat, chugging water all the way to try and replace what we’ve lost. We stop and rest under the little pieces of shade we can find, watching the others go past us, looking out over the ravine to maybe try and catch a glimpse of an endangered condor. We only see tourists, who are swarming like bacteria on earth’s wound even though it’s still early morning, and maybe some flies.
After a few more hours, we stop, and decide it’s time to turn around. It is getting closer to noon, and the day is only going to get hotter. We’re also tired city kids. Hiking the Grand Canyon in the heat is a bit different than strolling down 28th Avenue on a sunny afternoon. Our knees ache and our shins feel like they’re being stabbed by a thousand hot knives. An overweight elderly woman in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt zooms past us, towing a troupe of young children behind her.
It’s time to rest. We find a shady spot just off the trail, sit down and break into the trail mix. There’s a rustling behind us, maybe coming from behind a thorny bush, or a tree that’s somehow managed to grow in this alien environment. We look but don’t see anything. More rustling, getting closer. I turn around. An adorable little grey and brown ground squirrel steps from behind a rock and stands on its hind legs, staring at us.
I remember the signs. The squirrels carry the plague. I tense up. I do not want to get the plague. A group of other tourists stop, pointing and snapping pictures of the squirrel. “I can’t believe he’s so close! Oh he’s so cute!” Did they not read the signs!? These squirrels have the plague! The plague!
The plague squirrel is getting closer and closer, it’s almost on us. We scooch away, trying to increase our distance from this adorable monster. We’re being blocked on one side by the wall of the canyon, a sheer rock cliff. On the other side is the edge of the trail, the drop off the precipice into the gaping maw of the canyon. To the south we’re blocked by a southern couple with khaki shorts and fanny packs, who are gaping and taking photos of the beast.
The plague squirrel wiggles its nose at us, opens its mouth and lets out a chirping noise. He’s nearly on my shoe. I take a step back, pick up a small rock from the ground and throw it toward the squirrel, not trying to hit it, just scare it away. The rock bounces in the dirt and the squirrel darts back behind the thorny bush. The southern couple looks at me like I just punched a baby. I’m sorry, but didn’t you read the signs posted everywhere? These damn squirrels carry the plague!
We escape their disapproval, and climb back up the rest of the steep trail out of the canyon. The Grand Canyon Village gift shop nearby sells ice cream, so we get in line behind a church youth group. We eat our ice cream while staring out over the vista at the miles of intricately carved red rocks, happy to be alive.