Santa is spending part of his off-season in the Grand Canyon.
We encountered him twice. First, a surprise, deep-voiced “hello” from beneath a cottonwood on the East Fork of Clear Creek, more than 20 walking miles below the South Rim. That valiant tree must have been his shelter in spectacular, unrelenting country.
Later, as we rested in the shade of a wondrous, narrow canyon of Tapeats sandstone where rosebud trees thrive, Santa walked up. This 60-something, bespectacled man with a white beard wore a beat-up hat, a white T-shirt hanging over his large belly, cutoff sweat pants, high socks and worn boots. Not the Canyon prototype.
Santa was midway through a 15-day journey in the Canyon’s back country, alone. Santa knows the Canyon. He’d tried to climb Angels Gate, a break in the Redwall Limestone below Wotan’s Throne, but found it too steep. Three days from now, he’ll walk to Phantom Ranch for “real food.” Until then — and afterward — absolute solitude, and dried grub. A man has to like his own company very much to spend two weeks with nearly no human contact. We wonder about him. Why?
The next day, we make the 10-mile trek from Clear Creek across the Tonto Plateau, where century plants have thrust their yellow-flowered shoots 12 feet up, and the red barrel cacti grow in multiheaded clusters. A thin, wiry young man is paused in rare stone shade. He admits to weighing 135 pounds or so, with 60 pounds on his back — too much to bear — and large water jugs in hand. His reddish, thick beard, shaved mustache and black, nearly Lincoln-like hat with a short brim — much too narrow to shade his face and neck — suggest a traditional faith. He is alone.
He’s from Indiana. His folks brought him to the Canyon when he was a child, and he comes back, every year if he can, to see and feel the power. He wears the joy, wears the awe. Besides, the Canyon is good for his asthma. Best air in the world, he says (even if the regulators want to “reduce” the haze).
Why not move to the Southwest? Well, there are matters of family and church and work. It’s tough to raise a crop in the desert, he says, though we have seen corn cobs in Anasazi ruins in Obi Canyon. He’s loyal to his boss. This pleasant, chatty young man is a hog farmer who comes to the Canyon every year because he loves it. He joyfully accepts the hardships and the risks of one misstep. Blow an ankle, alone, and a man might die here.
You want to ask: How does this place — where wind, water, events and time work a slow magic — mesh with his faith, which may suggest the quick creation of our world? The Canyon didn’t happen overnight, and it’s still happening. But we must go. Here’s hoping Santa and the young Indianan meet, and talk.
After a week, the climb from the Colorado to the South Rim is long, slow and hot. At Indian Gardens, a woman shares that she’s part of a group primarily comprising firefighters from Phoenix who are hauling a boy, 14 — afflicted with muscular dystrophy and who is wheelchair-bound — to the bottom of the Canyon. And back, two days later. This child has always wanted to go deep. So he rides a stretcher-like throne, long handles on either end, propped in his chair. Each shift is 20 minutes of hard, heavy carriage. Done with smiles.
It’s an inspiring story in an inspirational place. Words and pictures cannot do justice to the beauty. Rather, the testament comes from its trekkers.