Cold, Wet, and Frozen Stiff on the Forgotten Edge of the Grand Canyon
The prize of the North Rim was worth every miserable moment.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
The paved route to the visitor’s center is closed. It will be for another month yet, but the tangle of forest roads that make their way to the rim are not. We crawled over the washboards and through axle-deep mud. Threw the truck in four-high and let it crawl its way through the nastiness, a sure and laden mule all the way up to 7,500 feet. Two and a half hours from pavement.
Out the window was nothing but pines, thicker than any I’ve seen. Not the willowy, quick-growth bastards back east but stern, determined things, bigger around than I could hold in my arms. Spots of snow here and there and short groves of aspen still bare from winter. When the forest finally breaks after hours of dull and dark trunks, we don’t have the words for what we see—a sight that makes you feel large and small at the same time.
The Grand Canyon, in all its colors. Clouds dancing in late afternoon light over a hundred thousand striations, each holding a thin sliver of shadow. There's no way to gauge the depth or breadth of the stone ocean at our feet. My eyes are greedy for it, refusing to linger too long on one spot for fear of missing the rest. And it’s ours, not another living soul for miles, no noise beyond the rake of the wind on the pines and the hollow reed call of a bull elk, close enough to send a trill of nerves up my spine. And later, a chorus of wolves, their howls a sharp blade in the dusk.
Predicting the weather up here must be impossible. The report said a 30 percent chance of precipitation. But I’m watching the Canyon vanish in a veil of snow and rain, the clouds turning blood stone towers two-dimensional, bleaching them gray and black as the storm works its way closer. Stacking them like cards on the horizon before absorbing them altogether. And quicker than I’d like; it’ll be on us inside an hour.
It starts as sleet. Sideways pellets pecking at the camper, coating the ground white. It hardly lets up for two hours before turning to fat, wet flakes. We’re cozy inside. The furnace fires up and keeps us comfortable. The truck says its 34 degrees outside but it feels warmer when I step out for some photos.
That’s when I see it: the roof, bowed, sagged under the weight of two inches of snow and ice. The manufacturer says the thing’s good for 1,000 pounds, but it’s swaybacked, a good inch-and-a-half dip from peak to valley.
At first I think that maybe I can drop one end at a time. Shake the thing some. Let all that slush slide right off. So I try. The roof is suspended by two springboards, one on each end, and when I pull the tension off the board at the nose of the camper the weight of it accordions me. It’s all I can do to shake the top. There’s not enough pitch, and all that heavy snow sits right where it was. It’s worse when I try the back end. There’s less leverage there, and no amount of cursing or sweating could get the thing back in place. Beth has to come and help push. The two of us just barely get the top back up and the springboard in place.
All of this, of course, has to happen with the door open. Leave it closed and the air pressure alone is enough to keep the top from going up or down. So there we are, cursing and heaving at the roof of the camper, the door open to the pounding snow, our toddler standing behind us, looking like we’ve lost our goddamned minds. There's a solid chance she’s right.
The weather’s picked up. I’d hoped that maybe it’d slack enough for me to connive a way to push the snow off the roof, but it’s only gotten thicker in my waiting. Nothing for it: I’ll have to completely collapse the roof, then use our tiny, camper-sized broom to try and shove the slush off the edge.
Beth fires up a movie for kiddo, the two of them huddled in the floor with a battery powered lantern and the 367th viewing of Inside Out. They’re safe, warm, and dry.
I start by taking the windshield scraper to the aluminum stairs, deicing them enough to invoke the specter of safety. The camper’s tall, probably six-foot or better. I am not. Standing on the top step I can just barely shove the snow halfway across the roof, the broom bending under the insult of being used as a shovel.
An idea, decidedly shitty, arrives: use the stepladder. We have a two-foot stepladder to latch and unlatch the buckles that keep the top in place while we drive. I could put it on the top step of the stairs and lean it against the door. Dangerous, but it could give me enough reach.
I go for it. It’s stable. My newfound reach allows me to push the snow to within six inches of the far edge.
I’m soaked now. From the pelting snow, from the slush on the roof. My hands are stiff and cold. I do not want to climb on the top to slide around on an icy sheet of aluminum 10 feet off the ground. I do it any way, trying not to think about how very far we are from medical attention. The job is done on hands and knees, mostly. Clear off the solar panel. Push every last clump of miserable, wet snow off, then dangle my legs back over the edge and pray the ladder’s still there. It is, and only threatens to buck me off once or twice as I squeegee my idiot self off the ledge.
That was stupid. Dangerous. It pisses me off, that the snow’s here. That we can’t get out from under winter, hard as we try. That I’m cold and wet and stiff, that the road will be a goddamned bog by the time we head out tomorrow, that the two-hour trek could be five if I bury the heavy truck and have to pull winch cable to get us out.
I back away from the truck. Turn around in time to see the clouds break, the setting sun catching the snow as it curtains its way to the canyon floor. The clouds are big—dark, muscular things working their way across the sky, pushing towards us on a persistent wind. I’m still cold. Still wet. But I’m laughing now. At the improbability of seeing this—not the postcard Grand Canyon, but the living, weathered one. The one that was here long before the visitor centers and gift shops. The one that will outlive us all.
There’s more snow in the morning. Four inches or better. The road’s a bog, sure enough, but it’s nothing the truck can’t handle. We poke through the fairytale pines, their branches heavy with powdered sugar snow, and wade through the deep mud, the truck squirming a bit. It gets us through. Into, and out of, the depths of seclusion. Right up against the prize that is the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.