My fingers gripped the cold metal railing as I peered down at the yawning hole in the most amazing sight I had ever laid eyes on. My stomach tightened and I sucked in my breath. My father stood next to me, his thick wavy black hair rippling, his hands pushed into his pockets. My older sister, Colleen was standing next to him, her nostrils flared as she sucked in the scents of pungent pine and sagebrush. She threw her hands skyward in a sweeping motion, “I want to see the river, why can’t we see the river? Let’s hike down there.”
The year was 1962 and this was our first and only family vacation.
Our dad was staring through his own viewfinder. My sister leaned to glance at me behind his back, she winked with one eye and sent a mischievous signal with the other.
I took her cue. “Daddy, can we go down there?”
“Ahem…uh…uh…sure, go ahead.” He shrugged.
My mother was back at the camper with our younger sister, Becky.
We were standing next to a large sign anchored in the cement next to the railing; for tourists. We had a mountain goat dad, who taught us that no preparations were necessary for excursions into the unknown. So, donned in light summer sweaters, capri style pants, supply-less and clueless, we headed down the upper rim trail; skipping and singing.
The beginning of the trail was wide and easy going. My sister stopped often to snatch a piece of sage to rub between her fingers or twirl a wildflower on the tip of her nose. Soon, the gently sloping trail became snaking curves which slowed us down, but didn’t soften our resolve to reach the river. Occasionally we would pass hikers coming up the trail but no one seemed to be going – down. We finally reached the bottom of the trail and began to walk on level ground. There were a few trees and shrubs, and tables with benches.
“I’m extremely thirsty; I hope we get to the river soon.” Colleen pulled her sweater tight against the chill.
I never complained out loud but my stomach was speaking for itself. My special order saddle shoes were beginning to feel like horseshoes. We had been hiking for a couple of hours now and we saw no sign of a river.
Then we saw it – this sign was impossible to avoid: IF YOU PLAN TO HIKE TO THE RIVER: BE PREPARED TO SPEND THE NIGHT.
I glanced at my sister for a cue. What was the next act in this play?
“That means the river must be close by – Let’s go!”
I shrugged and trudged onward.
Then we saw it. On a table oasis sat a paper cup with some kind of drink. My sister grabbed it and began to gulp. I drank the last gulps quickly before it could get snatched. It tasted like lemonade.
We pushed forward with prairie girl determination. Fortunately for us, two hikers returning from the river appeared on our path.
“Where are you headed?” They asked. “Are your parents with you?”
“No,” my sister replied. “Our dad let us come down to the river. How close are we?”
“You won’t get there before dark. You should head back. It gets very cold at night. Don’t you have food and jackets?”
Then they added. “There was a sign at the top of the trail warning people not to hike to the bottom of the canyon unless you are planning to spend the night. Did you see it?”
“No.” My sister looked defeated. Too hungry and thirsty, she threw her hands up in surrender.
They threw in a final warning. “You should hurry.”
We began our hike back to where we started. Our prairie spirits were left on the dusty trail.
Going up was twice as hard, especially without nourishment. Why did the trail seem so much steeper? We didn’t see another soul for a long time. Our breathing became raspy and our footsteps sounded hollow in the silent dimming light. We didn’t speak.
My sister began to moan – softly at first – then her moans became cries of anguish.
“I can’t make it, I’m going to lie here and die.”
“We have to make it. We can’t just give up.”
My sister laid down on the trail, to prepare for her coming fate. “The coyotes are going to find us and scatter our remains across the Canyon, never to be found again.”
But, along came two “trail angels” to partake in the next scene of our ongoing saga. They stopped and lifted my sister off the dusty trail and began to carry her. I was relieved. I no longer felt I might have to resort to dragging her body by the arms inch by inch up the trail. Our dad met us a little further up and took over carrying my sister the rest of the way. We thanked our angels and continued on the rest of the way to face the wrath of a very worried mother.