The Paria River Trip of 1971
This story is taken from the pages of my sojourn in the southwest in 1971.
The Paria is a forty mile river trip along a little river that empties into the Grand Canyon, Arizona. It begins in aeolian sandstones and deepens going into the narrows during the first 13 miles. The narrows have cliff walls 150-200 feet high in passages the width of a room. Below the narrows, the canyon becomes progressively wider and the walls become less steep. In the last ten miles before joining the Colorado River, the river is a half mile wide valley, scorched by the Arizona sun and swept with huge sand dunes. Between these two extremes, visitors to the canyon will find sandy coves and grassy patches shaded by cottonwood trees. Explorers may wade small tributary springs upstream through colorful passages that lead to towering side canyons, each one differing completely from the last. And the Paria Valley reminds us of the majesty that is now a sunken below the silt of dying Glen Canyon Dam.
The people on the trip teachers or students at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (“Tech”) in Socorro, New Mexico:
Larry. Larry was the expedition leader, although keep in mind that this title not exactly politically correct during the days when students wore T-shirts warning to “Question Authority”. Larry had the build of a bird-watcher, tall and long, draped with binoculars, stalking the countryside with his ever-present camera. His demeanor was one of traveling carefree through life, and this may have come from having seen worse times and having moved on. I was surprised to learn that he served two years in the army (drafted) as a chaplain’s assistant during the Vietnam War. He tells us he was never drawn into combat. His entire camping gear consisted of surplus army equipment-green hat, green coat, spit-shine boots, green toilet paper. He must have been in many boring situations during the war because he was forever inventing diversions such as skipping rocks or building ornate sand castles.
John. John was a huge man, and also a Vietnam war veteran, also vehemently opposed to war. In Vietnam he was a “boonie-stomper”. He was entirely contemptuous of anything reminiscent of authority or social class. He was vocally critical of America’s power materialism, particularly when speaking about Glen Canyon Dam. But John rationalized that it was too late to blow it up at this point having missed his chance ten years ago.
John was what most people would term a “long-hair”. His life philosophy emanated an amiable attitude of “do your own thing, but don’t step on me”. His house was behind the police station where he had many good friends. They considered him as their favorite hippie, but declined his many offers to see his marijuana crop. He was always surprising us with some hilarious character quirk: There was the time we were watching a propaganda film about Glen Canyon and he kept grumbling “bullshit” under his breath until the whole movie audience became was singing along with him in comtempt of the dam; and he had a habit of driving slowly and intentionally through the busiest town traffic, waving and smiling out the window as if he were a dignitary.
Verne. Verne seemed to be the most experienced hiker in our group. He had hiked through most of America’s wilderness areas, and had two first ascents in the Alps. He derived as much joy from actively scrambling on boulders as he did in peacefully watching life go by. Verne was a professor of physics at Tech, but it would be hard to guess from the five hours and two nights he spent trying to rehabilitate his “Mallory”, a defunct flashlight that had been highly recommended by Colin Fletcher in The Complete Walker. One of the others finally discovered the problem, but Verne would take no assistance, leaving that person somewhat peed-off. Finally, Verne replaced the broken filament in his light bulb, only to break it again half an hour later. His constant companion was a barometer but this was totally useless as either barometer or altimeter because he didn’t carry a map, which he apparently despised using. Whenever we would ask him how many feet we had descended from the day before, he would always study his instrument carefully and tell us, “well, I’ll have to check the yellow dial first,” then, “the red dial says we’ve circled the dial one and a half times.” But that was the most he could tell us.
Jack. Jack taught English at Tech while working on gaining his doctorate at the University of New Mexico. He had applied to 300 different institutions before being accepted at Tech. Like Verne, he was married, but intentionally without children. He was strongly inclined toward physical activities; during the trip he traveled at an amazing pace which none of us could keep up with, that he described as “nervous energy”. During the trip he was the only one of us to successfully scale the canyon walls and reach the Kaibab Plateau. He told us that his luckiest life experience was being told he was not physically fit for the Navy’s elite Corps.
Mary. Mary had the kindest personality in our group, which she radiated toward everyone. She was born in a large family living on a mining income of between 300 to 3,000 dollars a year, but the children never went unhappy. She was tolerant, respectful and loving to everyone she met, but had little respect for prejudice or generalizations about people. Mary was a close friend of:
Dan. Dan and Mary had been going together for many years. They lived in the same house with John, in back of Socorro’s police department. The two of them were not planning to have children until they were ready. Dan was a physical education and rock climbing instructor who helped plan this hike as a for-credit class. He was very agile and proportionately muscular. He was an accomplished gymnast, which he taught at Tech. He and Mary drive around on their two motorcycles and a truck, which along with John’s Hornet, took us all up to Arizona for this trip.
Patty. Patty was a Socorro local who lived with her mother. During her sophomore high school year, she got into a disagreement with her principal, quit high school and went directly to Tech, skipping eleventh and twelfth grades. She was the youngest of us, and the only sixteen year old freshman I ever met. Her academic standing was above average. She used to live on a ranch behind M-Mountain, where she is proud to say that her grandmother “gave” her all of Strawberry Mountain. She could tell many tales of stray debris dropping out of the sky from White Sands Missile Range, particularly during the '60s. She said that locals would get a reward for returning things like rockets, missiles and other assorted warheads that found their way to her ranch. Once, she even watched as a prototype lunar landing module touched down near her house and a man got out. Her astounded grandmother quickly called White Sands only to be assured that this was just a routine test, nothing new, and please keep it to herself. Patty was engaged to Manny, who at the time was far away serving the Navy in Asia. Manny’s lottery number for the draft was about four, so he decided it would be better joining than being dragged.
Mark. Mark was a great all-round athlete, heavily muscled and preferential to mountain climbing, cross-country running and his big love, bicycling on his ten-speed. Mark had been on a physical fitness trip all of his life. He used to race bicycles until he unavoidably ran over and broke up a fallen competitor. He always pressed his abilities to the maximum, for instance the time he fell thirty feet from a cliff, breaking his collarbone and arm. Mark was not as political as the rest of our party, but he was not adverse to an occasional puff of grass and a smile.
Everyone. Everyone in our group was conservation-minded. We were students and teachers at a mining college and could see that the country was losing its natural resources to uncontrolled development.
The ride there. Patty, Larry, John and I rode up in John’s car. The rest of the people and the packs were in Dan’s truck. Gas was ridiculous-Dan got seven miles to the gallon and John got fifteen (in a Hornet!). John waved and smiled at every car we passed, while Larry warned us about a little speed-trap-of-a-town in Arizona where he had refused to pay a fine and subsequently had been banned from the state. Sure enough, as we cruised by the spot, there was a cop there writing a ticket and another one hiding in the bushes. We arrived at Glen Canyon Dam and mapped our trip out on their relief map, while John railed protests against the dam. He seemed particularly annoyed with a little sign that read, “Your dam has made this many dollars!” It had a digital display box with a number like 4 billion, where the last digit changed once a second. We finally reached the Paria River at four in the afternoon.
The trip. We started hiking downstream right away and traveled about three miles to a campsite at the head of the narrows. After a fine meal, we all gravitated to the campfire and passed souvenirs from the war. Larry, Dan, and Mary were the talkers. Larry went on about anything and everything, and every time he contradicted himself, Dan would interject with a series of statements like, “It was a green hat? How do you know it was green? Oh it was a coat? Was it still green? I thought you said it was blue ...” Larry never broke stride until he had sufficiently rebutted the attacks with a big grin all the while. Mary was our spiritual advisor, reminding us and particularly Dan of the beauty of life and the hardships we would endure to have it.
We broke camp on Friday morning about seven. Those first few steps into icy water are very, verry cold.
That morning, Larry took multitudes of pictures while John was busy complaining about tourists and their cameras. That was the day Larry had Dan take his picture standing in the water beneath a rock ledge. As he positioned himself, he suddenly sank into quicksand. Larry gave a yelp and tossed his camera high in the air, only to be snagged by Dan. Larry was thoroughly soaked before he got out. Everyone was laughing hard, but we had to stop and get him into dry clothes.
Friday was also the day that we reached Buckskin Canyon. The others were busy exploring the canyon, while I waited with Patty at the river’s mouth. As we waited, strange things began to happen. First, a party of four long-hairs came walking by, then a man in his seventies with his two nephews, who said he was taking his fifth Paria trip. Finally, horror of horrors. We were passed by a string of at least 50 boy scouts, marching in single file past us, their leaders trudging behind them. Last, but not least, there was another party of three with a cocker spaniel yelping along behind, on our now weary trail.
In addition to all of this, we seemed to be following two motorcycles down the canyon that had illegally driven down the canyon. Everyone was hoping to meet up with the bikers so we could throttle them and bury the bikes. Still, whoever drove or carried those bikes through Paria Canyon were some helluva cyclists.
Buckskin Canyon turned out to be the prettiest side trip, so on the advice of the exploration party, we all walked up a ways and had lunch in a grassy clearing where the side canyon was wide. Larry, Mary and Dan went to explore the headwaters of Buckskin Canyon which were listed in our pamphlet as highlights of the trip.
Half an hour later they came running back, telling us about a pinch-out they had reached where the canyon was eight inches wide and 150 feet high, with waist-deep spring water at 34 degrees Fahrenheit. They had waded sideways through the water twenty feet before cold forced them back. From other stories we had heard, the upper Buckskin is the most beautiful part of the Paria Canyon.
That night we camped along a large sandy bend. While Mark made futile attempts to ascend to the plateau, Larry got the souvenirs passing, which got everyone telling yarns and recounting their colorful past lives amidst giggles and mirth. Verne was extremely absorbed in his precious flashlight. Physics teachers are supposed to be able to solve such problems. It was always John who went to bed first and by 8:30 every night, the fire was always out and we snug in our down-filled beds. When morning dawned, Larry or Mary were always first to get the coals blazing again while Jack brought his thermometer out and told us we were not warm, we were cold, and that was that.
Saturday, everybody’s packs were beginning to get lighter so the pace of the march quickened a bit. Patty’s pack was too heavy for her and when she began to drop back a lot, we redistributed the weight in her pack to ourselves. I believe this was the day that we spied a large open area high on the canyon walls above us. We guessed that it was a grotto or something, but we seriously doubted that anyone had ever visited it, because the way up to it was a smooth rock face. The only other way in would be rappel down the 700-foot sheer walls from above.
While Jack, Verne, John, Larry, and Mary were racing along in the lead, Dan, Mary, Patty and I were taking our time enjoying the scenery. The others were going so fast in their efforts to reach Landmark Number 14, that they passed The Hole, which turned out to be Landmark Number 14. The Hole is just that, an opening in the canyon that goes back about fifty feet to a huge grotto with a small natural skylight far above. There is a spring in the center of the grotto, and despite the perpetual state of semi-darkness shrouding the atmosphere, the floor is covered with a dense mat of various, mosses and green plants.
In the afternoon we passed an ancient water pumping station circa the 1950s. All around were scattered remnants of a derelict effort to pipe water up to the plateau. Verne, of course, was trying to rebuild the pump and generator, and “get this machine working again.”
During the weekend we explored another large side canyon. As we prepared to go up, John and Dan were busy washing themselves and Mary, Mark and I were watching the life and death struggle of a red ant and a spider (the spider won by avoiding the ant’s gaping jaws enough to tie him up). The others were busy eating lunch or lounging in the sun. And then the boy scouts came trooping out of the side canyon. When their leaders finally appeared they spied our two au natural swimmers and stopped in their tracks. Dan walked over to him in the buff and began a long conversation, “Nice day if it don’t rain. You think it might rain?” Dan was thoroughly enjoying himself, blocking the fully uniformed scout leader from going forward, while a few boys got ass shots.
Going up into the side canyon revealed a lush paradise with a small spring criss-crossing its way downward. On the way up, I spied Jack showering in a natural waterfall. Further up the canyon we found a huge natural arch, one of about five of the largest in the country. Verne was sitting on a boulder underneath this monolith while Larry was trying to climb it. The entire place was so gorgeous that we decided to camp there and let the scouts get further away. Also camped about fifty yards upriver were the four long-hairs, who also seemed to want the scouts to get far away.
Easter Sunday was Mary’s birthday, which she was going to celebrate by eating a chocolate Easter egg. But she stored the egg in her shoe for safety and it accidentally got smashed when she put on her shoes that morning.
On the subject of clothing, I am reminded of sleeping bags. On our first morning out, Verne showed us the scorpion he found sleeping with him.
Sunday I was in the rear echelon, when we came upon Verne and John, obviously quite mad and busily at work damming the Paria River. As Mary described it, the three of them were peacefully enjoying the weather when suddenly John jumped up and yelled, “let’s move the river over there.” Somehow he succeeded in afflicting all of us with his transient insanity and eventually we built a large swimming hole. But before it could be enjoyed, John said, “no, let’s move it back over there!” When we had had enough, John destroyed his monument, incidentally creating quite a flood.
Also that day, we were exploring a side canyon when we discovered a complex stone wall forming a wide trail up the canyon. Strangely enough, this elaborate trail led nowhere, or at least only to the end of the canyon. We could find no mines, or dwellings related to this peculiar structure. Larry even followed it to the end of the box canyon which had smooth, vertical thousand-foot walls and no exit. All he found was the remains of a deer that had fallen from the top of the cliff above.
Here, the river valley became very broad and steep, and the canyon was choked with sand dunes, making travel difficult. Some of us tried to pick our way along the river course only to be foiled by huge boulders and deluded by deep pools that appeared crossable but weren’t. Changing tack, we hiked far above the river to the top of the dunes only to to find that it was worse traveling than the river edge, due to the shifting sand. That night (Sunday), we climbed back down to the river valley and camped along a sandy inlet, the roar of the river right beside us. Of course we were all quite tired and dirty by then, so we took a communal bath midst the plunging waters. Nothing cleans the soul like being submerged in a wall of water and energy rushing past you every second. While we were swimming in the river, Larry dropped his camera and couldn’t get it working. It nearly defeated him until he proclaimed that it just needed a battery: “I’ve always wondered how long those little flat camera batteries will run - they run until you drop the camera.”
The ride back. Monday morning we awoke very early and broke camp half an hour after dawn. Due to the oppressive amount of energy required to walk on the sand dunes and over the boulders, the last eight miles of the trip were very hard on our feet. Despite that, we reached the Colorado River at 10:30, about three or four hours later. Unfortunately, we had become separated again, half of us arriving at Lee’s Ferry and the other half at a campground half a mile away.
After suitably resting and cleaning ourselves, John and Dan started hitch-hiking back to our cars, some 75 miles away, while the rest of us took inventory. Jack had about a half pound of raisins. Larry had about a half pound of Gorp, home-made trail food composed of raisins, prunes, M & Ms, this, that, and the other. Larry was very distressed about this because he had planned all his meals exactly so that nothing would be left over. In fact, all along the way and at every stop, he kept urging us to, “Here, help me eat this, I’ve got to eat it all today because I’ve got another quarter pound to eat tomorrow. Does anybody want some Gorp? I can’t deviate from my meal plans.” But we usually declined because all of us were operating on unpredictable metabolic levels, from the dried fruits we had brought.
Verne had an empty peach brandy bottle, a casualty of the evenings at the fireside. My inventory included an attractive rock, the value of which increased with every step I took across the sand dunes. Before going home, I left it for the next person to admire.
Larry went off to some secluded niche of the Colorado River, stripped, dived in, and began swimming across. Apparently he didn’t notice some picnickers on the other side who suddenly packed up and left. Maybe they thought Larry was an escaped convict or something, anyway, they were probably insulted. But Larry only made it twenty feet, before he turned back. “It was cold, yes.”
We finally were all assembled at Lee’s Ferry where we could watch the raft expeditions leave. While waiting for Dan and John to return with the cars, we met Jan, a girl who had hitch-hiked from Oregon in two days and was waiting there to take a twenty-day expedition down river. Apparently rafting was big business.
We left Lee’s Ferry (Verne called it “Lee is a Fairy”) at seven pm. John’s Hornet arrived home at 2:30 in the morning, but Dan and his truck didn’t reach Socorro until ten. He got a flat tire and ran out of gas outside a little two-horse town called Springerville, where he had to camp out on the highway until morning. Returning to our classes, we all had memories that would last a lifetime.