Coming out of Kanab Creek Canyon, back from the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, even more spectacular than hiking down: light patches of rain when we thought we’d left behind all the lovely springs and running water behind, so that when we come on the beginning of a stream trickle, my hiking partner Rick and I look at each other a little wide-eyed. Flash flood?! We scurry up onto a sandy bank in the narrow rock walls and wait, but the trickle only ever becomes a small stream—there just isn’t that much rain. Still, for a while, we scamper from high spot to high spot until reaching Indian Hollow (the side-side-canyons to the Grand Canyon are called ‘hollows’) one of the main tributaries into Kanab Creek, where all the water is streaming from. Beyond this, Kanab Creek lies dry again, showing (though we can’t see them) just how isolated the rain patches up above are.
We take the next hollow, Kwagunt, as a maybe-short cut back up to the main trail instead of Sowats Hollow farther up-canyon where the official trail had taken us across the Mars-like Esplanade. Though it looks like a straight shot up, it itself is not a trail, but a ‘route’ (Canyon parlance for a way to get through) but it has been used by others, so we know it’s possible, with maybe some boulder-hopping and scrambling, but that has been our whole trip, really. There is no ‘path’ down Kanab Creek—it too is a route—you simply follow the creek down to the Colorado, climbing over and under boulders, wading in the water, along the way.
What we hadn’t counted on, or anticipated, or even dreamed of, is that the walls of Kwagunt Hollow would be streaming water from the rains. There is a stream in the bottom, too, yes, but also a multitude of little waterfalls on either side, pouring and spilling off and out of the smooth red rock walls, filling the whole side canyon with water music—a rare blessing from the Grand Canyon that most hikers will never see, or hear. Not even Rick, who has been exploring the canyon for decades, has ever experienced something like this.
Kwagunt does indeed prove to be a shortcut—we make it back up on the Esplanade, and to the main trail, much earlier than expected. Rick had planned to arrive, and camp, here in the evening. Instead, only early afternoon, the temptation to just keep going is too great, looking up at Sowats Point, where we’d car-camped the first night, just above us. We could be back to my truck at the trailhead by late afternoon, and driving out early next morning instead of afternoon.
I say temptation, but there’s also a sense of…not fear, not quite dread, but…urgency, because of the rain, and because of the road out: On the seven miles of two-track in, we hit some sketchy mud holes that, though I did get through, or by, left us wondering what the road might be like if it rained. We’d checked the ten-day forecast—ours had been a seven-day hike, down and back—which said only that the week might be overcast. And, it had been, creating actually ideal hiking conditions: cloudy 70s most days, instead of what might have been the normal hot sunny May 90s. But what may just be overcast at the bottom, or even at the South Rim (at 5,000′) can put the North rim (7,000+) right in the clouds. Thus, now, here, rain.
We had talked about this, and which of our vehicles to take—Rick’s old not-so-reliable 4-wheel-drive SUV, or my newer, relatively recently-purchased 2-wheel-drive Tacoma pickup. Rick had called a couple of the backcountry rangers at Grand Canyon National Park and asked about the road and drivability, and weather, and the rangers too had thought the weather would be clear, and that the road would be ok. One (who shall remain nameless) even claimed to have the same exact truck as I, and said that he ‘would have no compunction about driving it out there.’ All that in mind, and also because Rick had driven our last two Grand Canyon trips, and also because I just like to drive, and wanted to have an adventure with my new truck, and despite a little bit of rain falling at the North Rim just before our arrival, I took on the driving chores. I’m familiar with Forest Service roads (this part of the Canyon is under jurisdiction of the Kaibab National Forest) having driven them for decades, for work and play. Still, I’ve always had 4-wheel drive trucks before—this new truck was bought in a hurry before leaving for a fire lookout job the previous summer after a blissful vehicle-free two years in Portland. I enjoy the better mileage of a 2-wheel-drive, and it has a camper shell in which to carry my worldly belongings, and sleep in the rain, which I will do later that night. Most importantly, I did invest in a set of BF Goodrich All Terrain tires, which have always served me well. I wanted something to give me a little off-road accessibility.
We just don’t know how much rain had actually fallen on top of the Rim and along the road, but when we get back out to Sowats Point for the night, where Rick can get cell coverage, the weather forecast, now, is for even more, and heavier, rain in the next two days. That means, really, that we have to get out tomorrow morning (it’s dark by the time we really hash this out) otherwise those seven miles will be impassible—we’d have to wait not just two days, but longer for the road to dry out.
The risk, of course, is that the road is already bad, worse than when we’d come in, and I could very well end up stuck somewhere on it, in which case we’d have to either hike back out to the Point (to access cell service) and call for a tow truck (from Kanab probably, 70 miles away), and/or hike in and hope to catch a ride (in the rain) along the 25 miles of more maintained FS roads and then get a tow truck. But who knows if even a tow truck itself would, or could, make it out on that road and be able to pull out mine? Though waiting out the rain would be rough. We have maybe a day’s worth of water, and not a lot of food left. Plus, life. Plans. Neither of us was planning on an extra two to four days! I’m not even sure my bank account could cover that many days of hotels and restaurant meals. It’s kind of a now-or-never situation.
One thing we hope is that the air will cool overnight and harden the ground—ideally freeze it—so we plan to leave at first light. But laying there that night, listening to the (occasional)(and light)(but still) rain on my camper shell, I get a queasy feeling in my stomach—visions of being buried up to the axles in mud. And in the morning, the air is cold, but not that cold. Certainly not freezing.We quickly rehash the plusses and minuses. I’d like to think that there is no sense of machismo on my part at this point—I am not looking forward to the drive.
The first mile or so is ok—the road wet, though with gravel giving us traction—but as we gain a little elevation, the rock type changes and we lose the loose chunky gravel, the road becoming dirt. That is, mud. The road basically follows a spur ridge out from the real rim, dipping into plateau areas, where the water has no place to drain, so gathers in puddles. Big puddles. At the first one, down from the bottom of a little rise, I tell Rick, ‘Hold on,’ and gun it. This, to me, is the key: driving through fast so I don’t have time to sink down. To get momentum. And instead of going right through the middle, I aim for the right edge of the road, as far as I can without hitting the shrubs that line it, so as to at least have half the truck up on drier dirt, some kind of non-mud tractionable area allowing one tire powered by the engine up in anything non-muddy.
We sploosh through‚ Rick bracing himself on the dash and door, dirtwater spraying up on the windshield. But success! We made it! We both give a little cheer. Suddenly, escape seems possible: There had only been three, maybe four, mud holes on the way in. If they are no worse than this, then my ‘gun it’ formula will probably work.
Instead, what has happened—and there has to have been even more rain up at the higher elevations—is that the mud holes have multiplied. No, not just multiplied: the whole six miles left have essentially become on big mud bog.
I gun through the next hole, and the next, keeping at least one half of the truck up on either the left or right shoulder, whichever seem drier and/or higher—which sometimes doesn’t seem much with all the shrubbery. I fear driving right into them blind because of hidden big rocks or tree stumps, something that might really wreck the truck. Like permanently. And expensively.
We reach a mud hole about three truck-lengths long, so that I need not just momentum, but to be able to maintain. My rpms revved to 5,000 and beyond, I keep her in first gear and we plow through, starting on the left, but the mud seems to be getting deeper, so I frantically swerve to the right, all four tires in the mud, the truck swerving sideways. Fortunately my years of driving in snow in Michigan have prepared me: I turn tires against the swerve‚ swinging us back left, fishtailing completely in the other direction. Again, turn against it, knowing if we swerve beyond 90 degrees we lose forward momentum completely. We don’t. I manage to fishtail us back and forth, one foot pressing the gas pedal to the floor, the other riding the brake, gradually straightening out and getting us up over on the right shoulder with the right tires into the bushes, allowing us to scuddle up onto a more relatively dry high spot in the road.
I stop, and we stare at the next mud hole, just as long as the last. We can’t go back, and can’t just stop here. That would put back in the same dilemma as before: 2-4 days of waiting, including walking in the cold rain with no cell service.
My hands grip the wheel. “We have to keep going.”
“I know,” says Rick.
But, well, if that is as bad as things get….
They get worse. The same thing happens: we fishtail, mud splorshing up, completely covering the windshield. Rick reaches over and for a crazy quarter-second I think he thinks I’ve gone too far and is trying to grab control of the wheel—which I do not blame him for—but he’s only turning on the wipers so I can keep both hands steering and be able to actually see where we’re going. This whole time he has kept up a continuous calm encouragement. ‘That’s it. You got it. You’re doing good,’ when anyone else might have been saying, ‘Stop! Stop!’
As for myself, never have I been more in the moment, more focused, hands clenched to the wheel, leaning forward, amped on adrenaline. Though ‘amped’ implies fun. This is not fun. It isn’t quite fear—we aren’t going to die—I’m just aware—or self-delusioned into thinking I’m aware—that at any moment we could hit something, anything, a rock, a tree, that would stop us, and if we stop, we’re done. No restart. Game over man.
And the mud just does not end—miles of it. We arrive at a hole that looks impossibly deep—it could swallow us—a fricking pond. A small two-track loops around to the left, developed obviously from other vehicles avoiding that same spot. I take it, only to realize that the half-loop looks almost as bad. In a quarter-second, looking at the relatively clear field between the two ponds, I decide I have nothing to lose and aim for the green: totally off-road, into bushes and grass. I can’t see under them, though nothing big is sticking out, but is the foliage even enough to keep us above water?
We crash through, leaves and branches whipping the windows. The truck bumps and pops and hops and then we’re back on the road.
That turns out to be the worst part. There are more mud holes, which, yes, we could have just as easily bog down in, but they’re only as bad as the ones we started with, so nothing. We’ve gained enough elevation that any water seems now to be draining away. Finally, our muddy two-track spills into a bigger, graded road.
I stop, pull the emergency brake, and pop her out of gear, leaving the engine running, in case she’s so broke that turning her off would mean turning her off forever. We both just stare out the muddy window at the now ponderosa forest. I take a deep breath, heart still jackhammering, body so tense that if I weren’t mushed into the seat and gripping the wheel, I might tense up into a ball. I turn to Rick. We smile, weakly. He still looks as scared as I felt. I try to smile. “Well, we made it.”
And Rick, who had read and written about the Grand Canyon all his life, who had even edited an anthology of Grand Canyon essays, says, “John, this story is going to go into the lore. I don’t think I could have driven that road in my four wheel drive.”
I get out to inspect, fully expecting a flat tire, or two, a cracked fuel tank, a bent axle—anything—everything—that would put us out of action and still in need of a tow. But nada. Given, she’s covered in mud, so I can’t see the expected ‘Arizona pin-stripes’ galore. But, no gouges in the doors, no trees impaled in the camper shell. Ok, one headlight doesn’t work. And, yeah, the running lights are, like, gone. But I’ll take it. But when I get back in and put her in gear, she squeaks at low speed, but she moves.
After that, the graded road, though it too muddy and previously would have been labeled sketchy, is cake. I gradually relax, a little, just enough to sort-of enjoy (again, another rare blessing) the now snow-covered forest. And the time is only 7:30 in the morning.
I turn to Rick and shrug. “Want to get breakfast at Kaibab Lodge?”
He smiles. “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”
Featured Image Credit: Kaibab National Forest [CC BY-SA]