The Drunkards of Nankoweap

Spirits in the Grand Canyon (distilled, that is)

I always wondered whether a person could walk on their hands for 50 feet across unstable sand while completely drunk. Oddly enough, I got the opportunity to see this feat successfully accomplished during the 2019 rafting trip I took through Grand Canyon with my wife Janet. Let me explain.

A handstand, a scorpion, and a peculiar smell

When you’re finally at the Lee’s Ferry boat ramp preparing to put into the Colorado River, it’s controlled chaos. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I signed on with Western River Expeditions for trips in both 2018 and 2019. They specialize in large, motorized rafts that each carry 14 guests and two crew, a boat captain/trip leader who navigates the river, and a swamper who takes care of logistical tasks. On a typical seven-day journey there are two rafts. So, it’s important to know that in the chaos, you’ll be choosing which boat you will ride, and therefore, the people who will be your river companions for the week.

In 2018, when I rafted with my son Alex, our choice ended up not being a big deal. All of our fellow guests were delightful people who had a similar idea about what the experience of the canyon should be. Essentially, everyone was predisposed to having a sense of wonder for a place that can enhance perceptions and dissolve preconceptions, if it’s allowed to. The trip in 2019 was a bit different though. Of the 28 total guests, a large contingent of ten was an extended family. It became strikingly apparent at the boat ramp that their idea of a canyon experience was to party hearty for the entire 188 river miles, with alcohol of all types and quantities being the anesthesia of choice. As soon as we saw them hoist their gear onto one of the boats, Janet and I made a beeline for the other boat. It was unfortunate that four other folks who were a little too slow had to share their time on the river with this family in order to round out the slate of people per raft to the full fourteen.

After a just few hours on the river I got a better read on the group of ten. I could see that our initial impressions were proving to be distressingly accurate. All the other guests were drinking the unlimited supply of water and lemonade, as instructed, to prevent becoming dehydrated in the bone-dry desert environment. The ten partiers, however, were adding copious volumes of Jim Beam and other liquors to their fluid intake. I felt a little guilty that we had stranded the unlucky four with these lushes, but they seemed to enjoy the trip anyway and, in any event, no homicides were reported. I chalked this up to the fact that some people turn out be “good drunks,” pleasantly sloshed and comfortably numb.

I should mention that the group of ten, really had only nine drunks – six adults in their 40s and three young men (probably cousins) ranging in age from about 18 to 23. The tenth family member was a 12-year-old girl. While the nine were getting bombed, the preteen girl was exploring the wonders of the canyon and was, by far, the most mature one of the bunch. When some parental guidance was needed, for instance, to make sure she didn’t walk too close to the edge of a dangerous cliff on a side hike, the river guides looked after her.

With all of this as a backdrop, around noon on day two we pulled in for lunch at river mile 53. Realizing where we were, my eyes widened as I felt a rush of adrenaline and anticipation. In a canyon wall 700 feet above, the famous Nankoweap Granaries bore silent witness to the passing Colorado River. “Nearly 1,000 years ago, ancestral Puebloans hauled their grain, including pumpkin seeds and corn, from the river delta below to these ‘storage units.’ The granary helped keep the food dry during floods and protected it against rodents and other hungry creatures.” The year before, Alex and I had floated by on our raft far below the Granary’s square “windows.” We could barely see the tiny figures of a few hikers who were about to reach this iconic destination, and we wanted to be up there with them.

Ever since, I had become incredibly fascinated by the place, and not only the Granaries. Kevin Fedarko, in his definitive book, The Emerald Mile, calls that particular three-mile stretch of river (through mile 56) the “fairest” part of Grand Canyon. Having been through there and having seen the stunning images taken from that vantage point high up on the sandstone wall, I developed a burning desire to experience it directly.

The fairest stretch of the canyon

As the 2019 trip approached, I realized I might get my chance. I put in a request to Western River asking for one of our side excursions to be the hike to the Granaries. In reality, I knew it would be the trip leader who had full discretion over which stops we would make at the time of the trip, based on his or her judgment about weather and river conditions, the makeup and capabilities of the guests, and time constraints. I fervently hoped my request would make it to the right person.

So, it was with elation that I heard Evan, our trip leader, announce that those who wanted to, could hike up to the Nankoweap Granaries after lunch. He said that we lucked out because the increasingly extreme summer heat in the Inner Gorge made our tour the last that would be doing this trek for the season. Evan had some non-negotiable requirements, however. One was that every hiker had to submerge in the frigid Colorado while wearing a sun hat right before shoving off. At a nippy 47°F, the river’s “air conditioning” effects would stay with us for much of the ascent. Second, we each had to carry a full liter of water with us to protect against the ever-present risk of dehydration.

When I looked over and saw the Booze Contingent getting ready to join the hike, all in fine early-afternoon form, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be filling up only on water. Janet and looked at each other wide-eyed. It was entirely possible that we were about to witness a gruesome addition to the statistics in the next edition of the authoritative book, Death in the Grand Canyon. After learning about this hike and studying the photographs, I knew that the hot climb up the steep slope of talus and scree would be strenuous. But it was the last 25 feet up to the Granary’s windows that really concerned me.

Indeed, we found this to be the case. It was a short but arduous trail from the boats to the top, about a mile in length and a 700-foot gain in elevation. As we got about halfway up and looked around to see the spectacular view, any of the discomfort we may have been feeling receded. Soon we arrived at the cliff face 25 feet below the four square windows. To reach them, we had to mount a nearly vertical set of exceedingly narrow and unevenly spaced ledges. The accompanying image shows how dicey this was, even for a sober person. It’s accurate to say that losing one’s balance or foothold would likely result in a nasty drop, roughly a hundred feet, with nothing of note to stop the fall. Yet, as with most other experiences in the canyon, an exploit that most people wouldn’t think of trying at home, worked out fine here. Even for the Drunkards of Nankoweap, as I had now dubbed them.

The Nankoweap Granaries – better watch your step!

Later that afternoon we found a campsite with a beautiful beach along an idyllic stretch of the Colorado. It wasn’t long before the booze was flowing. That’s when I saw one of the young Drunkards do a handstand and ‘walk’ across the sand. Amazing! I’d like to see him try that when he’s 40, or even 25 in his case. This campsite also had some unusually nice nooks and crannies back towards the canyon walls for added privacy and distance from the Inebriated Nine (ten minus the 12-year-old). Although they were far enough away, we were eventually accosted by another artifact of their revelry: pot smoke. Oh well, at least it’s a natural substance, and I happen to like the smell. Our trip leaders were hanging out on the boats by the river so I don’t know whether they were aware or would have had any problem if they were.

Just as the sun rose the next morning, we heard one of the Drunkards on the other side of the campsite yell “scorpion!” I was disinclined to move, maybe because I had been breathing in their pot fumes all night. But Janet ran over to see it. They all gawked, the stoners and the non-stoners together, appreciating a life-threatening creature in the Grand Canyon. How heartwarming. I wonder if they’ll remember any of it.

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