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The Last Fifteen Miles, by Michael Engelhard

This essay has been adapted from Michael Engelhard’s new collection No Walk in the Park: Seeking Thrills, Eco-Wisdom, and Legacies in the Grand Canyon. The co-founder of the Glen Canyon Institute Rich Ingebretsen calls this book “a mesmerizing read.” It draws on the author’s twenty-five years of experience as an outdoor instructor and wilderness guide in the canyon country.



The Last Fifteen Miles

This is a pilgrimage of sorts, and like all good pilgrimages, it begins on foot. After the convenience of air-conditioned, motorized travel in a contraption whose model and brand convey status as a trek to Mecca or Jerusalem once did, I set out for the sacred place humbly, in sturdy leather boots.

Trudging through deep red sand, past a gutted mattress and shards of whiskey bottles that glitter like broken dreams, I search for the route into the canyon, down to the Colorado’s lobed shores. After avoiding “Lake” Powell and its dam for decades, I finally decided to visit what is left of Glen Canyon. Over the years, I sifted stacks of bleached photos and accounts by travelers lucky enough to have seen the Glen in all its glory. With that historical residue and my knowledge of similar canyons, I’ve tried to reconstruct loss—a loss felt possibly even deeper because I neither knew the thing lost nor would have a chance to reclaim it. Those from whom it was taken at least have their memories. The damming feels like personal trauma, as there is no other landmark I care to know that has been so completely corrupted while almost staying within reach. I am curious how the place I imagined compares with reality. There is middle-age stocktaking also, which casts its long shadow. I am past fifty now, and the likelihood of seeing the reservoir drained or dried up in my lifetime is slim.

After a tour of the concrete blade that guillotined the river and now marks Mile Zero, the little-used Ropes Trail to the river seemed just the cure for a case of civilization blues. When I had asked about the trailhead’s location, a volunteer at the Park Service information desk refused to provide that information, because “it’s too dangerous.” I guess the agency thinks that rescuing a few cliffed-out, dehydrated hikers or retrieving the bodies of those who, searching for a way down, haplessly missed the edge, is less trouble than facing a liability suit.

I was sure I could find the trail on my own but, apparently, had walked from a hard place into rocks—plenty of them.

* * *

Beyond turtleback outcrops, sandstone gives way to sheer space, and, peering over the edge, I cannot see an entrance gully or lower ledge to reach safely. No markers, no cairns. Instead, steel pylons march overland, two-headed robotic grotesques of the mythical Navajo warrior twins. They hum with the river’s life force and cables droop from their raised arms into the abyss. On the far rim, the town of Page sprawls across hot sienna flats, still improvised blight, but now catering to golfers and house-boaters rather than dam builders.

Across from town, upstream from where I am scanning the cliffs, the Carl Hayden Visitor Center sticks to Glen Canyon’s west rim like a modernist cliff swallow nest. I had opened its mirrored glass doors with trepidation. Would anybody there recognize me as a dissenter, a deserter from the American Dream? Morbid curiosity compelled me to take that guided tour—Know thy enemy!


Bureau of Reclamation personnel tries hard to keep undesirables from infiltrating the site. Waiting near the desk for the tour to begin, I learned from a cardboard sign that nail clippers and binoculars were among the items forbidden to bring, for security reasons. “Any mentioning of bombs, sabotage, etc. will not be tolerated,” the back of my ticket stated. I wondered if a black tapering Visqueen “crack” in the dam face (like the one famously unrolled by Earth First! on the 1981 spring equinox) qualified as sabotage. Plaques mounted below panorama windows vis-à-vis the dam instead bombard visitors with stats—as if the view alone weren’t enough. “Height of dam above river level: 583 feet. Maximum thickness at foundation: 350 feet. Generating capacity: 1.3 million kilowatt. Cost: $145,000,000…” The film schedule at the auditorium listed Desert Oasis, a cultural and natural history flick about the reservoir, second largest in the United States. In the exhibition area, posters with diagrams and historical photos further trumpeted our species’ accomplishments. Strangely, the pageant of progress also included a fish tank in a corner. Boxed-in behind glass, flannelmouth suckers and humpback chubs—streamlined by the turbid Colorado, now endangered by sediment-trapping dams—hung listlessly between neon green plastic plants, suspended in unnaturally clear, filtered water.

Having passed through the airport-style security checkpoint, our motley band stepped into the first elevator and quickly fell to the dam’s crest. Our tour guide, Duane, a gray-haired gent with high-riding chinos, probably meant well. Originally from Salt Lake City, he had worked at the Page power plant for thirty years and now enjoyed shepherding tourists for the Glen Canyon Natural History Association. As it turned out, we would not hear much natural history. “Lake Powell gets 2.5 million visitors per year,” Duane said with a lisp that at times made him hard to understand.

I wish Duane had taken the time to find out and explain that, before the construction of dams, the Colorado River supplied one of the world’s largest desert estuaries. Fed by freshwater and nutrients, these coastal wetlands teemed with beavers, deer, coyotes, numerous species of fish and waterfowl—even jaguars. Farther out, whales, dolphins, and California sea lions cavorted in the fertile mixing of waters. “The river was nowhere and everywhere,” Aldo Leopold reminisced about the delta, “for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf.”

We first stopped on the dam crown, at one of the van-size concrete pouring buckets, a memento of construction times. “Five million cubic yards of concrete were poured,” Duane boasted, while a uniformed guard loitered nearby. “Cement blocks were cooled with ice water for fourteen days before the next block was set into place.” A heavily made-up German woman in a stars-and-stripes vest and straw cowboy hat worried about “ze kracks on ze side of ze dam.” Duane assured her that those were the seams of the concrete blocks and perfectly safe. I was more concerned about the lush hanging gardens and tapestry seeps on both canyon walls downstream of the dam. To Duane’s credit, he admitted that the reservoir’s leakage through porous Navajo sandstone—the dam’s anchoring rock—caused those. Fifteen feet lie between Lake Powell’s high-water mark and the dam crest; Duane mentioned the 1983 snowmelt, which almost overtopped and threatened the dam and everybody downstream. He also recalled the 5.5 magnitude earthquake of 1993.

After pausing at the merry-go-round of a display turbine, we entered a second elevator, bound for the belly of the beast. Bridging the silence in the tight cubicle, Duane informed us that we were passing several inspection galleries on our way down, each equipped with instruments that measure the dam’s flex under varying pressure from the reservoir. “It’s a living creature,” he reminded us. In exiting, I looked up the concrete elevator shaft with slight vertigo. We followed a neon-lit, echoing tunnel chilly as a bunker or meat locker. More than 100 feet of concrete lie between you and the waters of Lake Powell read a sign near some drafty hole, and a gray sample polished like gemstones was displayed to be touched. Comforted by its smooth solidity, we emerged on a gallery at the dam’s foot. Between the generating station and the dam stretched a buzz-cut, incomprehensibly green lawn—a space level and wide enough for a game of golf—planted, according to Duane, “to make it look nice.”

Bulging against the river’s might, the blinding, white act of defiance stolidly plugged brick-red canyon walls. At this shrine a society worshipped technology, its own cleverness, but despite the overwhelming gigantism it felt like veneer on the masonry of the ages.

* * *

At long last, I spy a black-and-white-banded metal post pounded into slickrock slightly below the rim, in line with several others. Weak-kneed under my heavy pack, I seek traction, shuffling down an exposed sandstone ramp with the posture of a stubborn mule. A chainsaw’s nasal drawl rises from the canyon bottom—tamarisk control or firewood for a fisherman’s camp? After passing an alcove with cowboy inscriptions, I approach the last and steepest pitch above the river. Here, a steel cable—the trail’s eponymous “rope”—runs through eyebolts in the wall. Avoiding frayed strands that could draw blood from my palms, I lower myself hand over hand, feet planted firmly against naked rock.

I now have descended roughly the same distance I “traveled” by elevator from the dam’s crown to the power plant, but the two trips couldn’t be more different.

At the bottom trailhead, the hiker faces a shithouse half as big as some cabins I’ve lived in. It sits smack-dab in a site of worship, where, thousands of years ago, Desert Archaic hunters chipped elongated, latticed figures with light bulb-heads and “antenna” appendages from the rock varnish. The bullets of imbeciles “killed” the panel’s bighorn sheep, the mainstay of people who entrapped spirits in stone, who appeased and bound animals to themselves by magic.

Lightheaded from the heat and the climb, I loll in tamarisk shade, guzzling lukewarm water. Midges whine, and a raven talks to its own echo. Below the cliff rim across the river, I notice four test pits for dam sites that engineering geologists considered but ultimately rejected.

I get up and walk upstream to an old cable car, a relic of more optimistic days. The dam that goes with it lies around the bend, out of sight, which is just fine.

On the beach’s crescent of sand, I unroll my packraft, a five foot-long, lightweight Hypalon number I had piggybacked to my pack. As I start to inflate it with an ingenious nylon airbag, two motor pontoon boats are pulling up, disgorging gear and kayakers who will paddle downstream, to Lees Ferry. To get a head start and perhaps a camp to myself, I push off right away.

This is my little tub’s maiden voyage, and I enjoy its maneuverability—it appears to turn on a dime—and the freedom and ease of travel it affords. Working my shoulder muscles also feels good after the punishing hike. The spark of self-sufficient discovery galvanizes me, as it does after every launch. I stab my twin-bladed paddle into the river, watching water pearl from its edges and momentarily dance on the surface like droplets on a hot stove plate. Little whirlpools follow each stroke, shaped like miniature waterspouts. Fish jump. A cormorant rakes through the afternoon—a stumpy-winged crow. A red-necked grebe dives, leaving haiku pond-ripples. About a quarter mile downstream, a spring plashes from a fern-bearded rock crevice straight into the river, calming as a courtyard fountain. Already, most of the canyon lies wrapped in shadows, but occasionally, low-angle light sheets down a defile, igniting fall-tinged willows and tamarisks on shore. Between sightseeing planes and motorboats that chop into the Glen’s tranquility, I can peer through cracks in the present, glimpsing what it must have been like—before. I cannot help but imagine what we would have done regardless, to wring lucre from its allure. Jet tour boats would ply the river as they now do below Moab and above “Lake” Mead. Helicopters would shuttle the rushed rich to and from the canyon. Private permits would be hard to obtain, rock art would be vandalized, riverbanks trampled, campsites overrun . . . yet another quiet place loved to death.

At the Honey Draw riffle, the current accelerates; fronds of weed and river cobbles rush by underneath the raft like some Lewis Carroll netherworld as I get sucked onto the glistening tongue. Blowing down the chute, I flinch at licks of icy water.

It is getting late, and I look for a camp. At Ferry Swale, a veritable tent city has mushroomed, with lustily burning fires, and so I continue. Tamarisks choke the banks, and where they did not find a foothold, erosion has gullied other possible tent sites. Eventually, I make landfall at Mile Nine, near the apex of Horseshoe Bend, where the river doubles back as if to meet with itself.

The canyon’s east rim briefly flares like burnished copper before it turns leaden gray. Warm and cool air currents caress me while I fix dinner. Mourning doves mourn what once was. When a breeze combs the tamarisk thickets, the expiring day sighs. Silhouetted walls amplify water shushing across gravel bars, cicadas shrilly pulsing in the bushes, and later, stars bright as lit dust motes. Never mind the scattered bottle caps, the hobo hearths of metal-ringed fire pits, or the camp’s sign fluorescing in the beam of my headlamp.

* * *

The gorge has a Sunday morning feel to it—as a matter of fact, it is Sunday. I rest on my elbows, paddle athwart, and yield to the river. Like me, herons inertly survey the scene. In an eddy mallards chuckle as if at some private joke. A raven sculls past, alighting on yet another sign, where he throws back his head and slides some limp thing down his gullet. Twirling on glassy boils, I glide past Finger Rock’s pillar, which slips through my field of vision. In some places, blind arches grace the cliffs like walled-off tunnels. Elsewhere, buttresses plunge directly into translucent green depths, leaving no beaches whatsoever.

Too soon, wall stumps of local stone and the Paria Riffle’s unvarying pitch spell the end of Glen Canyon. And thus begins the Grand Canyon—grandest of all—Abbey’s “conveyor belt for baloney boats,” which I shall leave for some other time, some bigger baloney boat.

* * *

Duly impressed and a bit shell-shocked, we had resurfaced in the busy visitor center: The teenage couple holding hands as if on a date. The Euros, always fashionable, seeing the best ’merica has to offer. The Jurassic Park fan getting kicks from nature engineered into amusement. And the dad holding the hand of a four-year-old-boy with a bulldozer emblazoned on his T-shirt. As I was preparing to dodge bodies in the lobby and bee-line for the exit, a tall, baldheaded punk turned to me: “Not too bad a tour, huh?”

Not at all. Not at all. Unfortunately, one number had been missing, drowned out by Duane’s rote citation—the number of miles between Hite and the dam, the true measure of Glen Canyon before the deluge: 186. It took days, sometimes weeks, to string them together with oar strokes and elbow grease, and each mile was miracle-filled. Only the names survive, evoking mossy grottoes and phallic rocks, ruins, petroglyphs, stone-cut hand-and-toe trails, corkscrew narrows, dripping springs, cottonwood groves, solitude, mystery, history, romance, the poetry of moon shadow and echoing halls. Twilight Canyon, Tapestry Wall, Klondike Bar, Last Chance Creek, Iceberg Canyon, Cathedral in the Desert, Hole in the Rock, Hidden Passage, Crossing of the Fathers . . . I curse the sins of our fathers who sacrificed too much beauty for what they mistook for progress. Born too late, I have nothing but these names and the last fifteen miles.

Michael Engelhard is the author of books that include the memoir Arctic Traverse: A Thousand-Mile Summer of Trekking the Brooks Range and of What the River Knows: Essays from the Heart of Alaska. His writing has appeared in Audubon, Outside, National Parks, Sierra, and other magazines. Having trained as a cultural anthropologist, Engelhard lives on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska, dreaming of canyon sun when it’s minus fifty degrees.

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