Our cabin at Phantom Ranch for two nights… that was The Plan. As explained in the chapter, “My Dinner with Jeff,” in the novel, architect Mary Colter, in 1920, specified river rocks and pinions from the forest floor as the prime building materials for Phantom Ranch. The remoteness of this place makes it difficult and expensive to bring materials down from the rims. Colter’s design has held up over the past century which contributes unique noire to this remote outpost.
Phantom Ranch is well-hidden in an old growth forest north of The Colorado River. I would have never found it without Jeff on that dark night of arrival. The circumstances forcing us to flee this haunted forest are revealed in the chapter, “Zugzwang — Escape From Phantom Ranch.”
Stepping out of the cabin after the drama on the South Kaibab the day before, this is what I saw. The Sun’s rays angle up from the desert horizon and clip the South Rim at 7,000 feet, while the sky reflects a unique soft glow into the Canyon a mile below. There isn’t a “golden hour” in the Canyon like the ones I enjoy at the beach, but magic reigns all the same. I was sore. The drama on The Kaibab made that a fait accompli, but I was able to loosen up by going for a morning hike on the Canyon floor. I came to know this place in the solitary spirit of exploration that morning, and fell in love. As the novel makes clear, the Canyon floor and I were destined to be star-crossed.
Day Two, Phantom Ranch: 7:30 AM… 15 Degrees Fahrenheit… January 29th 2014
Views from the Canyon floor around Phantom Ranch evoke Mary Colter’s christening of this place. If you don’t believe in ghosts when you arrive, you will after exploring the environs of Phantom Ranch. The combination of temperature extremes, exhaustion, and freaky vistas, cause rock formations to transmogrify into Jungian archetypes… a toxic brew of apparitions conjured from primordial memory.
There’s nothing soft or lengthy about the Canyon floor’s “golden hour.” It’s saturated and momentary. In the Canyon, these oncoming moments leave as quickly as they come. It is rare fortune to encounter them with a camera and lens capable of doing the scene minimal justice. The Canyon merits the exquisite skill of a sensitive professional with the right gear. I was not even an “enthusiast” in spite of my ludicrous boast in the chapter, “My Dinner with Jeff.” I wasn’t even a rank amateur. A hobbyist, maybe. A babe in the woods, certainly. The barenaked truth is I was damn lucky to get what I got.
Hiking the Canyon floor that morning, I recalled our discussion of the ancient Pueblo and was reminded of my walks through Manhattan over the years. Yes, Manhattan. It’s one of my favorite places to explore and every bit as other-worldly as this. Like the Pueblo, Manhattanites see nothing of the world beyond The Rim. When they peer out of their world, they see only sky. The sense of nothing beyond, creates a feeling of self-contained-ness, a not-knowing-ness, of the world outside their world. But for some comes the wonder of what may lie beyond, on the other side of the sky. For those who leave, plumbing the depths of return becomes an insurmountable summit. Pueblos eventually left the Canyon. People eventually leave Manhattan. Children eventually leave their parents. And humans are on the cusp of leaving Earth. To leave, seems to be our destiny. The story in the book is about return.
Early morning hike on the Canyon floor near Phantom Ranch… Day Two of our odyssey
Morning on the Canyon Floor along The River Trail. Grand Canyon is a nightmare for landscape photographers, I suspect. They toil under the influence of geometry, patterns, and math. None of those things are to be found in Grand Canyon. Which is why I loved shooting it. I regret being inexperienced in the art of photography. The natural world merits so much more. I wish I knew then, what I know now.