At first, I skied with a gentleness of mind, noting the details of our passage, such as the last aspen leaves. Freeze-dried a hundred times during the winter, these had at last relinquished their grip on their branches. Each curled, crispy, weightless leaf was nearly black with age, so it absorbed the sun's heat better than the white snow, and had melted its way down through a little cylindrical shaft until it was in shade. I had fancied that these tiny rifts cutting through the strata of several snows were precursors of the larger canyon that was our destination. But after four hours of cross-country skiing, I didn't care about things like that anymore.
We were on the Kaibab Plateau of northern Arizona in mid-February, skiing the 42 miles south from Jacob Lake to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. If we made it, we would then tie our skis to our packs and hike down to the Colorado River, cross it and climb up to the opposite rim.
All but one of our party could say that this hadn't exactly been our idea. That person was Bruce Babbitt, the governor of Arizona. He had his reasons, but some of them would take days to become clear. A slender man with a slouch that suggests a history of scholarly pursuits, Babbitt had shown the plateau to us from the air the day before as we flew from Phoenix to Kanab, Utah, just north of the Arizona border. Below, surrounded by desert on three sides, lay a wooded, elongated dome.
"Kaibab is a monocline," Babbitt said, using the geologic term for this 8,500-foot-high, 100-mile-long bread loaf of layered stone that the Colorado River chops right through to form the heart of the Grand Canyon.
From the air, it appeared inexplicable that this should have happened. The Colorado comes rolling along from the northeast, sees the Kaibab Plateau in its way, meanders south for a few miles, gathering its nerve through Marble Canyon, and then abruptly swerves west and leaps at the great hump of stone that appears perfectly able to fend it off and stay dry and whole. But apparently defying the law of gravity, the river chews right through. Explain that.
Babbitt has large, soft, pale blue eyes that don't miss a thing, and a vibrantly professorial style. His interest in the canyon's genesis is not idle curiosity. He majored in geology at Notre Dame, has a master's degree in geophysics from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and assisted in the work confirming the tectonic plate theory of continental movement. "There are different theories about how the canyon was formed," he said. "Earlier geologists postulated that the river came before the mountain. Then, as the plateau was uplifted, the river cut down through it. That's the log-rising-through-a-saw theory. Recent radioactive dating studies cast doubt on it...."
He glanced out the window. Below, bisecting the Kaibab forest, were miles of narrow, white, treeless areas. "On the top of the mountain is a shallow rift, and that holds some of the most beautiful Alpine meadows you can imagine," said Babbitt. "The road from Jacob Lake to the North Rim is only open in summer. But the Forest Service has plans to straighten and upgrade it, and keep it plowed in winter."
Environmentalists, led by the Audubon Society, have opposed this, claiming the area is too delicate to withstand such a project. Babbitt wanted to negotiate that section of the plateau, to gauge its potential as a Nordic ski attraction. He has a record of environmental sensitivity. A prime achievement of his administration has been passage of the most comprehensive groundwater management code in the U.S.
We had no clue then, amid all these concerns of science and economics and politics, that he also wanted to ski and hike himself into a stupor.
From Kanab we were driven by Arizona Department of Public Safety (state police) officers south, across dry plains, toward the mesas that were the northern ascent to the Kaibab, where we stayed the night at Jacob Lake Inn. At one point, Babbitt had the cars stop under a juniper tree. He walked out onto the sandy ground and plucked a sprig of sage, grinding it in his palm. "Smell that," he said, inhaling the sharp, complex scents. "For me, that's the primal smell of the West."