Scared Sober on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

27 Apr

September 12, 2009.  We awoke in Bryce Canyon, Utah, and drove furiously south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to make the sunset and our campground reservation.  It’s always painful to have to move through such beautiful country so quickly, but the pain was slightly eased by the Fat Tire we were able to purchase just across the Arizona border, which tasted even better than usual after a week of watery Utah beer.

We got to the campground just before sunset, threw up our tent, and ran down the rim trail to an overlook.  We ran partially to catch a good view, partially because I was terrified of lightning strikes.  The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is highly susceptible to lightning strikes – though it’s debatable if running makes you any safer – and it was a stormy evening.  People were clustered on and around the overlook like mountain goats, so we hung back on the trail and watched another glorious sunset – pink sky, dramatic skyline, and a cloud raining a vertical rainbow.

After the sunset we explored a bit, looking to rustle up a drink.  It was Paul’s birthday, after all.  The main lodge was a little too stuffy for us campfire-scented types, but just outside the lodge we found something just right – the Roughrider Saloon.

The Roughrider Saloon© Lisa McNamara

The Roughrider Saloon only gets one sentence on the official Grand Canyon website and hasn’t yet been reviewed by anyone on yelp.  It serves cappuccino and croissants in the morning, but you can get a beer from 11:30 on.  It’s about 50 miles from the nearest “town” (really just a junction and a gift shop) and technically it does have a cover charge, since you must pay the park admission fee to get anywhere near it.  But the crowd is great: there are the campground tourists, a table of the park geologists discussing the day’s work, a ranger in charge of a controlled burn stopping in for a quick one, and a biker who seems utterly baffled by the fact that it’s night and he’s hours away from an available hotel room.  We felt like we’d struck wonderful, boozy gold.

After a few celebratory drinks and some sub-par cafeteria food, we needed to head back to our campsite.  By this time it was late and absolutely pitch black.  The developed part of the North Rim – the lodge and campground – is located on a narrow fin of land that juts into the canyon.  There’s just one road and two trails, one right along the rim that we had taken earlier and one that runs a little above the road.  Since it was terribly dark, windy, and we had just a single headlamp, we decided to take what seemed like the inner trail.  It was about a mile back to the campground.

At first it was great…but then I started to feel like the wind was going to pick me up and pitch me over the edge.  And then…the eyeballs.  First it was just one set, glowing eerily, crouched down in the bushes…over there!  Then another set, over there!  Then, look, a whole group of eyeballs!  The logical part of my brain told me they were just mule deer, bedded down for the night, but the rest of my brain, the majority, was screaming: bears!  Mountain lions!  Axe murders!  You’re going to die!  Suddenly we felt very alone and very exposed.

I’ve heard people say they’ve been scared sober by an experience, but I’ve never believed them.  Until now.  There was nothing to do but refrain from looking anywhere but down at the trail and to run.  My knees were like jelly; the flight response was in high gear.  My heart didn’t stop pounding until I saw the friendly light of the campground general store and then, even though still outside and in range of the shadowy axe murders, I once again felt completely calm, though also strangely sober.