Somewhere south of Flagstaff and north of Sedona, an Arizona park ranger in a golf cart scooted towards our orange tent. My buddy Bo and I were frying eggs and preparing to hit the road. We were one week in, driving from our hometown in New Jersey across the country, our destination in California only a day or two away. Travel-weary and craving the mystical, we asked the ranger about this quiet area, south of the more popular Grand Canyon. Were there any good hikes nearby?
“I know a beautiful hike,” she said, and it was on our way back to the freeway. “Goes through the canyon then up to the top.” She told us about the man believed to have cut the path and then to have carved Adirondack chairs out of boulders. Intrigued, and in need of some highly coveted time outside the car, we decided to hike all the way to the top.
After packing, we pointed the Subaru south along the narrow, winding road toward the mile marker where we’d find the trailhead, armed with a backpack of water and sandwiches, cameras and sunhats. Our path led us through nameless trees, standing sentinel along the riverbed. We forded the low creek several times, feeling small against the red canyon walls. Whole bouquets of butterflies fluttered in the shadows of the trees that crossed like railroad ties across the trail. After sweating it out in the desert above, this vegetation all seemed unbelievably fresh and cool.
We had a small, inaccurate map that led us, first hikers of the morning, through the cobwebs of the trail. We found west on our own, climbed and weaved, losing the trail then finding it again among the trees. After two hours, we neared what seemed like the end of the map, but it ended in the river where the canyon walls suddenly closed in like an envelope waiting to be sent. A single lizard watched from his rock.
There were no chairs carved from natural stone; there wasn’t even enough dry land to sit on for a sandwich, no trail looping back. We were, quite literally, cornered. Now that we had found the end, an anticlimactic ending if there ever was: two walls touching.
I hate turning back, will always move in loops, circles, if at all possible. However, woozy with elevation, I accepted this u-turn as a lesson in patience. After all, we had driven about 2,000 miles west, and there would be no looping back to the east coast. After recognizing that there was no other way out, we returned slowly through the beautiful canyon, looking up from the sand more often and pausing to listen to birdsong, collect pebbles. We found a boulder we hadn’t noticed earlier, hoisted ourselves onto its warm back and looked out over the canyon from this new perch. I opened the peanut butter-and-jellies and we ate, all of us, even the ants and small birds.
After settling down in California, I tried researching this hike. Who was the man who cut this trail? This southwestern Paul Bunyan of a man, rumored to cut rock so that hikers could comfortably eat sandwiches? My searches yielded no results. Yes, this “Call of the Canyon” trail is touted by many as one of the top ten hikes in Arizona, featuring eleven creek crossings in three miles. I’m not sure how that makes it a real trail, anyway.
After the sun rose to a more reasonable time of morning, other hikers passed. It must be human nature to speak to other humans when you feel alone in the woods. Each pair felt the need to compliment our lunch spot or ask us, How far to the end? What could we say?
Well, it gets tricky at one spot, but if you move a few yards downriver, you’ll see a hint of trail on the opposite bank.
And then the walls close in.
We could have said that but never did. Nobody wants to know the walls close in, that beauty has an end. That when it does end, nobody will tell you, like that ranger who sent us on our way. Perhaps we would have lost these few gorgeous hours to Arizona freeway if we had known where the hiking trail really led, what the ranger never said. We preserve the imagination by lying about what lies ahead, what comes after you climb the canyon wall.
But that’s what makes it worth it.
Stacey Balkun’s work has appeared or will appear in The Los Angeles Review, THRUSH, Bodega, Perfume River Poetry Review and others. Stacey was named a finalist for the Tupelo Press Spring 2011 Poetry Project and the Tucson Festival of the Book 2013 Literary Awards, and received the 2013 C.G. Hanzlicek Poetry Writing Fellowship. Stacey was selected to be Artist-in-Residence at the Smoky Mountains National Park this summer. She lives and writes in California.