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At Home In A Hole In The Rock

A visitor finds refuge--and tales of deprivation--in the Grand Canyon's hidden alcoves

Text by Michael Engelhard | Illustrations by Daniel Chang

Everyday implements found in Grand Canyon alcoves speak of cowboy life on the range. | Michael Engelhard

Toward noon, eager to leave this husk of a waterway, I nose up a side canyon that could get me to the Esplanade. One of its forks soon ends in a sandstone balcony. A second fork beckons like a mirage--rising, sinuous, promising. Sculpted walls screen out the afternoon glare, and the floor holds clear lenses of water. I fall to my knees and kiss one greedily, not bothering with filter or cup.

I round what I hope will be the last bend before the drainage tops out but am stopped by a rockfall. Cabin-size boulders lie on edge, stacked into a booby-trapped jungle gym, a disaster riddled with crawl spaces. A possible route through this mess starts with stemming between two angled monoliths. I place one foot and both hands and push up and into the crack in one quick move.

The sickening crunch of pulled gristle registers an instant before the pain in my right shoulder.

I slide back to the ground. Something is seriously wrong. The limb feels useless, not part of me. I am suddenly light-headed, which masks the black ache. This is the fourth time I have dislocated this shoulder, though never before so far from help. By now I know the drill. Let your arm dangle, muscles relaxed. Rotate your upper body, carefully, back and forth. Avoid any grinding of bone on bone. When the humerus head and the torso's socket align just so, the limb will slip into its joint, smooth as a chambered bullet.

And it does, after several tries.

This is no country for men past their prime, or for the lame. This is why the Park Service had me sign a liability waiver, warning against an "unusually difficult and potentially dangerous" hike.

With my arm pressed to my rib cage--hand tucked into my waistband for support--I scramble back down the canyon. At the first of the water pockets, I make camp on the slickrock. Fixing dinner more or less one-handed, I feel like a bird with a clipped wing. Where the geology offers shelter, as it does on the esplanade, I travel without a tent. Tonight, with cold stars throbbing overhead, I wish for a hole to curl up in and lick my wounds.

Days later, back on the Esplanade, stiff-shouldered but still making miles, I come upon Bean Cave, whose former lodger I've read about. A signature at eye level in the shallow niche claims it as one of Walapai Johnnie's far-flung dens. In 1928, young John D. "Walapai Johnnie" Nelson joined the search for river runners Glen and Bessie Hyde, who'd vanished on their honeymoon voyage through the Grand Canyon. Johnnie had fought in the Philippines and later worked as a pack-trip guide around these parts. Often blind drunk by noon, he was nevertheless popular with the outfitters who fired and rehired him, according to one boss, "about 50 times every season." A 1954 Kodak ad shows him herding dudes past Bryce Canyon hoodoos: Smiling, he leans on his paint pony, relaxed in batwing chaps, hat tipped back rakishly. You can tell he was charming, a spinner of yarns, fully at ease, someone you'd want as a guide--a spitting image of my younger, wrangling-days self, I'd like to think, except for his raven hair. He must have had grit. He built the trail that drops precipitously through the Supai to a leaf-shaded spring named after him.

The vestiges of Walapai Johnnie's tenure in the Grand Canyon transport me back to my own days of working on horseback. My alcove then was a 12-foot, ovenlike trailer near Tucson that contained a two-burner gas stove, legions of flies, and pints of dust sifting in through the cracks. I was living my Western dream, guiding for a trail-riding outfit. Broke, exhausted, and reeking of stables, I cut short my cowboy "career" when a nag kicked my chest and I had to pay for the X-rays myself.

Before I set out on the last leg of my journey--Johnnie's former commute, a century-old switchback that could kill a mule--I meet three backpackers fresh from the North Rim. Perched on a boulder, legs primly crossed, I chat for a while with their young female leader. As they get up to leave, I stand and pivot, facing the group to hide my half-bare behind. After weeks of abuse from sandpaper rocks, my lone pair of shorts hangs in tatters. I'm wearing a T-shirt, boots, a smile--and not much else. I must look like the hobo king of the alcove clan. I probably smell like him too.

Michael Engelhard migrates between Alaska and the Grand Canyon, working in both places as a wilderness guide.

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