Looking Back to 1972-Backpacking Through the Grand Canyon

How hard could it be to survive in nature for a few days?

It was spring of 1972. Usually my pals from UCSB and I would head home during spring break to catch up with our friends, get our mothers do our laundry, and rekindle what was left of our high school romances.

But now, we were 19, full of ourselves, and thought a more interesting adventure was in order.  Why not backpack through the Grand Canyon? Sure, how hard could that be?  We could commune with nature, actually see some stars at night, and revel in our newfound teen-age independence.

I’m not sure if I told my mom about this vacation. I could just imagine her shivering with fright at the prospect. 

“Make sure you bring some clean underwear and some matches,” she’d advise before fretting over several cups of coffee and a few cigarettes. My mom was a worrywart, just like I am today.

Soon, there were eleven of us setting out for that great beyond.  Three of my female dormies were on the trek, along with seven guys we knew.  We packed up the vans with our sleeping bags, backpacks, freeze-dried food and planned our route.

I had purchased a new pair of hiking boots for this expedition, and as anyone knows, trying to break in a new pair of shoes before hitting the trails is a bad idea. Into mile one, I started to wince. Thankfully, a friend got out his moleskin and gingerly told me how to relieve the pregnant blister on my heel. Ouch #1.  I hobbled on, cursing myself for not bringing my tennis shoes.

The zigzag trail to the bottom was a long and arduous road. The heat was sizzling by 10 a.m., and of course, the guys who were traveling with us were nowhere to be found.  They left those stupid markers along the way to guide us-a broken twig, and a few rocks piled in the corner of some bush. We tried to be brave as we soldiered on, but their absence started making me uneasy.  They carried all the vital supplies.

Up ahead was a long snake-wide path, with the Colorado River roaring hundreds of feet below.  My three female pals and I began our journey across the divide.  In the middle of the trail, I made the mistake of looking to my right to see the teeth of several boulders gnashing the whitewater below. I began feeling light-headed. I stopped in my tracks, paralyzed to move forward.

“Mary, if you try to turn around now, you’ll really be putting us all in danger, “ advised my logical pre-med pal. “Just keep looking at me, and put one foot in front of the other,” she advised.

I adjusted my 35-lb. backpack, and kept my eyes on her. Soon, I was beyond the rapids, and back on the regular trail. I was thankful there was one among us able to deal with impending disaster.

We kept trying to follow the markers left by the guys, but each clue seemed to disappear in the twilight that was descending upon us.  The guys had all the food and campfire equipment. What if we were on the wrong trail?

I looked at our canteens, and each of us had only about ½ inch of water left. In my mind, I wondered if we could strip off our sweaty t-shirts and write SOS with them, should we be stranded for the night.  There was no shelter nearby, and I wondered if animals and scorpions would turn us into an appetizer.

How I longed for my bed at home on Pacoima Court, as we continued plodding along the dimly lit trail, hoping our buddies weren’t far away.

It was about 8 p.m. when finally we hit the bottom of the canyon. Dismally, we cornered another dead tumbleweed, and a few wide boulders.

“Hey, what took you guys so long?” It was Chris, beaming with his Chiclets teeth. Around the campfire was the rest of our crew, cooking up some hot dogs and cocoa…”

“You guys hungry?”

“Famished!”  We sat down, devoured the dogs and each took a deep slug from one of their canteens.

teresa mcgrath July 03, 2012 at 02:13 PM
great article mary....love the grand canyon....nothing like blisters, ill-fitting backpack, and hunger/heat exhaustion...wouldn't trade my trip for anything...we were on the south rim in '71, '72, or '73 on the hualapai hilltop in the '40's on spring break...backpacked with 5 of us 8 miles to the bottom in sweltering heat as mary pointed out....then many more miles to the campground...never backpacked before...loved it...we were at the havasupai area with the most incredible waterfalls i'd ever seen...my first acid experience too, where i saw the ancient native american tribes in the walls, and stairs going down into a tributary of the colorado river....we hiked to the colorado river 10 - 20 miles roundtrip...we were exhausted...but so happy.....loved it...http://www.havasupaitribe.com/waterfalls.html
Richard Niederberg July 03, 2012 at 02:34 PM
Excellent Story! I hope it is to be continued. Don't leave your readers hanging!
Mary McGrath July 03, 2012 at 03:08 PM
I don't think we did any drugs on this trip. They wouldn't have helped my fear of heights anyway. I think the strongest thing we had were marshmallows...Thanks for sharing Teresa, and for stopping by Richard!
teresa mcgrath July 03, 2012 at 10:27 PM
i was wilder than you, and had to catch up with life....i like the chicklett teeth comment
Mary McGrath July 06, 2012 at 06:10 PM
Well, you made up for lots of lost time Teresa...


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