As I walked down the path to Phantom Ranch, which is actually set up a side canyon a little ways from the river, I was mulling over the things I wanted to do. I wanted to get a bottle of sunscreen to protect my feet which had already been burnt badly the previous day when I ran out of the little I had brought (I would carry white strips where my sandal straps crossed my feet for almost a year before they matched the rest of my skin.) and send off a few postcards which were taken out of the canyon by mule train. But the well-worn paths smelling of donkey piss were distracting my thoughts and not helping the foul mood that I would be experiencing later.
Phantom Ranch was originally a Native American trading site that was later used by prospectors of the river canyons. Theodore Roosevelt visited it while hunting and loved it so much that he worked to get it included in the national park system during his tenure in office. It has since been made into a resort of sorts that is mostly fully booked for two years in advance. There is a little cafeteria that serves only meals that has been scheduled in advance and a little shop that sells things to tourists. After seven days of being disconnected from society in almost every way, I entered the latter with high thoughts.
Almost instantly I was overwhelmed. The frigid air from an air conditioner smelled terrible stale and put my body into shock. Shivering, I bought a small tube of sunscreen for the princely sum of almost $15 because I didn't have a choice and a few postcards. I sat down at a table to write some words of humor to friends and family but couldn't shake the dry, canned, almost sterile feeling of the environment. Some piped in music over the speaker system seemed garishly loud and obnoxious as if boring through my head with a dull drill bit. Reality started slipping and everyone, everywhere were laughing and screaming like circus clowns in a horror movie with a bad plot. Suddenly I felt sick and claustrophobic, so much so that my head started reeling making me feel very dizzy and light-headed. I quickly wrote a few words, jammed the postcards into the mailbox and staggered out of the building, down the foul smelling trail now making me gag, and back to the boats along the river. There I sat in the shade of a tamarisk bush allowing the cold sweats to dissipate and my reeling senses to stabilize as I spent the rest of the morning hiding from civilization and drawing in my journal.
It has only been seven days on the river and it now felt like seven years. Suddenly I didn't want to go back from the world I had come from. It was a world full of artificial and unnatural things and this week, I had my eyes opened to what life was truly like and should be. As I sat there doodling a drawing of Bronco's boat, The Phantom Ranch, I realized just how appropriately it had been named. It wasn't a geographical feature now buried under miles of water like the names of the other boats but it had been destroyed just the same. For me, Phantom Ranch was something evil and foul and a place that I hope never to visit ever again. As I sat eating my lunch a little later, Bronco came by and sensed that I was not well. He asked if I was okay and I told him some of what I was feeling. I could see the understanding in his eyes and knew he felt it as well. He said it never gets any easier, got his lunch and wandered off down the beach to eat his lunch alone and away from Phantom Ranch.
Eventually the other passengers wandered down to the boats and the four new people who hiked down from the south rim this morning also showed up. They were given a brief lecture on the dos and don'ts of dories and promised a longer session in tonight’s camp. We said goodbye to the three who were to spend the night here and hike out the next morning and went on our way.
The three who had left were all people who had been on other segments of the dory trip and had come back to finish what they had started. I knew this and couldn't blame them. However I couldn't help but think vile thoughts towards them and the four newcomers. I felt the leaving three were breaking a bond that had grown to such strength in seven days one that only intense close proximity experiences that few share could create. They were leaving a huge void, one that necessarily had to be filled for financial reasons and some safety as a heavy dory deals with huge waves better than a light one. They felt almost like traitors in my mind for putting us in this position.
As we "met" the four new people, I could tell by the morose attitudes of clients and crew alike (though the latter handled it much more privately and professionally), I wasn't the only one thinking vile thoughts. These newcomers felt like intruding strangers into a world that we had created and grown close over the course of seven days. They were here for only the middle segment and then would be gone very much like a corporate raider after acquisition of some new company. They were rookies. They got into Bronco's boat and we set off downstream.
This trip has changed me in such a drastic way in only seven days and would do so to such an extent by the end of the trip that it would take a few years before I realized the full extent of my emotional turmoil. I've heard of survivors who were forced to survive great lengths of time alone have problems re-entering society and for the first time in my life, I knew exactly how they felt. Looking back, I know we were pretty hard on the newcomers those first few days after Phantom Ranch and undeservedly so. We somewhat ignored them treating them like the outsiders they were and they for the most part sensing our foul moods, rode together in a boat together so that we only had to be around them while in camp. Reading back through my journal entries of over eight years ago, I understand this now though at the time I blamed them in various ways throughout my journal entries for the remainder of the trip. Perhaps you will pick that up in some of my entries that I will post later. Gradually however, they earned their way into our group and by the time they left at the end of the second segment, I knew I would miss them. But an emotional knot in my stomach kept growing that peaked at the end of the trip and has never gone away.