It was late evening, newly dark. We had turned off the main road from AZ 389 maybe an hour ago, just after sunset, and as we had begun to descend into Hack Canyon on the rutted dirt and gravel road, it had grown darker as the canyon walls grew higher. A few trundling miles went by without problem or incident and we had started to feel hopeful. We had gone down only to see what it looked like and with plans not to stay – and against the clear advice of our only good source of information, Charlie, of Willow Canyon Outdoors in Kanab, Utah.
His report was unfavorable and inspecific – he described a kind of general malaise of conditions and a discomfort with probable weather developments that I found difficult to act on. He talked about old reports of rock fall, the unusually wet winter, and the likelihood of snow build up on the road leading in. “I hear it’s impassible,” he said. “Been that way all winter.” Maybe I should have known better than to doubt him, but it was out of character for Charlie to be so grim about conditions, and it was just inconvenient enough for us that I wanted verification. I wanted to see it for myself, before I turned my entire group around and set off in search of a new course area in medias res, as we were. I wanted to know that Charlie’s estimation of “impassible” matched mine.
But we weren’t going to stay. We had decided that as a group. Inescapable, it seemed to me, was the fact that we still had no map, regardless of road conditions into the trailhead. I knew in my heart that that was a deal breaker – I couldn’t take this group of into the desert for 6 days without a map of the area. Although, I confess it, the thought had crossed my mind.
We were prepared, I and my co-leaders had been there before, and canyons pretty much go in two directions. We were either hiking down canyon or up canyon. It is hard to get lost in canyons as big as these. Even if we had a map, we wouldn’t be using it much. Unless, of course, we did. Unless, we needed it. We wouldn’t be using the map much unless something went wrong and we had to find another way out, or…. I didn’t know exactly. I just knew we needed a map.
And I remember thinking of Jack London’s frozen story, To Build a Fire. Never take a group into the wilderness without a map seemed at least as unforgiving a dictum as “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.” Was I in the process of disregarding my old timer’s advice. Charlie had seemed a bit timid and I was in the mood to be bold.
But the nagging echo was there. What were the words of London’s chilly and ill-fated protagonist? “Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right.”
The funny thing is, I though of all that. I have taught that story a number of times, I know it’s lesson, the insight it offers into human frailty, the need to push one’s limits in nature despite one’s better judgment and to believe despite what one knows that purity of heart is enough to keep one safe, that fortune does indeed favor the bold.
But that might just be the best definition of human frailty: the impotence of good advice and the inability to act on it.
Edward Whymper in his 1871 treatise Scrambles Amongst the Alps finishes with good advice: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
So, as we made our way in the dark further down into the canyon, watchful and wondering how far we would get before we turned around and headed out for Kanab to spend the night in a town campground, I cogitated. All we needed was a map and it seemed so trivial that we didn’t have one, trivial and intractable.
Four miles into the canyon – and some 22 from the main road, AZ 389 – a patch of ice and snow stopped our exploration, and we stopped our vehicles to scout the way ahead. With headlamps, my co-leader and I stomped on down the road kicking every conspicuous rock we found off the road – as if that might be the rock whose removal made the way possible. As we walked, maybe a half mile down the road we talked about the plan and our situation, a typical conversation among trip leaders, as much about reassuring ourselves as reevaluating the plan. After the snowy patch which was short, the road again looked entirely feasible. In fact, better in most places than it had looked last year. I cursed the map once again, and as we turned to return to the vehicles, I began to let the deprecations and denigrations I was harboring in my head for Charlie bleed out.
“You know, Charlie might not know what he is talking about. How much do we really know about him? We met him only last year and he did really help us out then, but, you know, he might also be a little nuts. The road looks fine to me. There is no telling why he said what he said. Only one possible reason is that it is true and good advice. He might also just be having a bad day.”
My co-leader, wise beyond her years, said little. I think she knew it was a dangerous line of thinking to be engaged in – a rationalization, nothing more.
We had almost reached the van and our group when I saw from around the corner the lights of a third vehicle. There was someone else there. It was a jeep, fully equipped for off-road travel, light bar, gas cans, four-wheel drive, knobby tires, a winch. That was my introduction to Ranger Todd of the Grand Canyon.