Gregg Henry — bull rider, firefighter, cowboy, canyoneer, guide, and full-blooded Cibecue Apache of the clan of Chief Diablo himself — stood nonchalantly on the edge of the sheer 80-foot drop alongside the thundering waterfall and looked at me expectantly.
I — middle-aged stout, scratched, bruised and dressed in the turquoise sun shirt my father often wore before he died — licked my suddenly dry lips and decided to beg Gregg to simply lower me down the cliff face like a quivering sack of mashed potatoes.
I tried — my life stuttering in my throat. But I could not do it. Not in front of Gregg — a stocky, White Mountain Apache guide, fashioned from slabs of granite — his eyes twinkling with mischief, adrenaline and the stunning beauty of Cibecue Canyon —the sacred, seldom-visited, waterfall-punctuated canyon through which we’d been wandering for three days. Gregg exuded an effortless, cheerful macho —running lightly along sloping cliff edges, boulder-hopping with a 50-pound pack, diving off cliff-tops into deep pools — with a shy smile always lurking just behind his eyes. Confronted with Gregg’s shrug of daring, how could I flinch?
Moreover — I was, after all, wearing my father’s water shirt.
But then, I’m getting ahead of myself. Best to start at the beginning.
I have yearned to cast myself into the mysterious depths of Cibecue Canyon for years, for it is rich in history and sacred to the Apache. Then I heard that the White Mountain Apache had decided to open up Cibecue Canyon to outsiders accompanied by an Apache guide.
So I got hold of Gregg through the tribe’s Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Division to set up the trip. He seemed unconcerned I had never done any technical rock climbing, so I decided I wouldn’t worry either. He explained we would leave one Jeep at the mouth of the canyon on the banks of the Salt River and then drive up onto the reservation and down a dirt road before hiking into the canyon. That would leave us most of three days to cover 10 or 12 miles — all downhill. How hard could it be?
Packing in predawn flurry, I was rooting through a basket of towels when I came across my dad’s blue-green sun shirt. My father’s death was a shockingly quick descent into helplessness down the slick slope of colon cancer. When I was young, he taught me to camp and watch birds and love the wide, wild world. At the end, I nursed him when he couldn’t roll over in the hospital bed the soft-spoken hospice people installed in the same bedroom where my mom had died of colon cancer the year before. Years earlier, Dad had developed a mild form of skin cancer and so he had bought a light, quick-drying sun shirt for outdoor outings. After he died, I had claimed the shirt, as I’ve had two malignant melanomas of my own. But somehow the shirt had disappeared — until the moment of my hasty departure. So I swallowed hard, blinked back tears and stuffed the sun shirt in my pack.
I met Gregg and Mowley, a low-key, soft-spoken Apache guide in training, at the little store near at the Salt River Bridge on Highway 60. I bought the $10-per-person daily permits, paid the guide fee, dropped my Jeep, then headed north on Highway 60. We took a thread-like dirt road to the brink of the canyon, shouldered our packs and hiked on down an eroded road into the canyon bottom.
We hiked through intermittent rain spatters for about two hours to a campsite alongside a rocky, narrowing of limestone that created a 10-foot-high waterfall brimming over a broken slab of rock. That night, we sat around a cheerful fire on the bank of the stream to joke, anticipate and trade bits and pieces of our life’s stories. Gregg eventually began singing an Apache song he had learned from his grandfather as I stared up at the Milky Way and listened to his strong, hypnotic, ancient voice.
The next day offered a long slog through the stream, which had created a convoluted, brushy, smooth-rocked landscape of intricate and unexpected beauty. We hit our first real waterfall — a scenic, but modest affair involving a 20-foot drop. Gregg broke out the ropes, although we didn’t absolutely need them.
“Just remember,” he said amiably, “you’ve got to lean way back, so that you’re upright against the rock. Let the rope out with your right hand — which you keep behind you.”
I started out all right, but couldn’t resist the temptation to lean forward and step down onto a likely ledge. I ended up kind of lowering myself instead of walking down the cliff face. However, I neither whimpered nor pleaded openly for my life, so I counted it as a success.
We spent the rest of the day stumbling downstream — burdened by our packs and the need to inflate a raft to get the expensive camera gear safely past the frequent pools we couldn’t hike around.
At one point, Gregg pointed out a perfect black bear track in the sometimes-deep mud along the bank. I felt an unaccountable chill. Black bears virtually never attack people, but the Apache rarely hunt them because traditional beliefs suggest bears may represent the spirits of the dead. I ran my hand across the silky smoothness of my turquoise water shirt and felt suddenly a great pang of loss, knowing how Dad would have loved such a track in such a place.
We camped that night in a narrowing of the canyon. As the light faded, Gregg led us a little ways downstream to look at the waterfall that awaited us in the morning.
The water ran across a terrace of limestone, creating a medley of light and sound. The stream then plunged over a 15-foot waterfall into a pool, then gathered itself for a lunatic lunge down a 60-foot drop into a furious corkscrew flume of limestone, like a roller coaster designed by a sadist for crazy people.
The memory of the sound of the water hurling itself against the rock woke me in the middle of the night. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and sat watching the moonlight move across the cliff-face. The stream
wove me into its spell as the moon set and the Milky Way emerged. One Apache myth suggests that the spirits of the dead make their way to the next world along the path of the Milky Way. I don’t know anything about that, but I do know that I did not feel alone in the darkness. Then I heard the inexplicable sound of drums braided into the noise of the stream. As soon as I focused on it, the sound vanished. But it returned later — for a few notes — a movement at the corner of the eye.
The next morning I wandered down to the stream and found the fresh tracks of a bear that had walked through the mud 50 yards from me before crossing to emerge on the opposite side. Water seeping out of the sodden mud had pooled in the deep bottoms of the tracks.
So we headed to the waterfall. Mercifully, Mowley went first — rappelling down the cliff and into the waterfall then gripping the rope tightly for a careen through the corkscrew to arrive safely on a broad ledge at the bottom before the stream rushed on into the slot. He attached ropes to eye-hooks set in the stone at the bottom so Gregg could simply clip the ropes to my climbing harness and lower me down the cliff and into the water. I might drown, but I couldn’t fall. That was fortunate, since I lost my footing as soon as the water hit me, so I tumbled, slipped and shouted “Hooah, hooah” — a habit I’d picked up from Gregg.
So we continued on down the canyon to the final waterfall — the sheer, 80-foot drop off the cliff-edge. I half expected Gregg to clip me to the rope and lower me down the cliff. Instead, he merely threaded the rope through my clip.
“Remember,” he said — “lean back. Trust the rope.”
“And don’t let go with my right hand,” I said.
“Yep,” he said, with a sly grin.
So I walked to the edge and looked down. This was a mistake. I waited a moment for the thudding in my ears to subside, turned my back to the cliff and walked backward — feet spread at shoulder width.
Leaning back against the screaming of my better judgment, I began to waddle down the cliff — perfectly perpendicular and scared to death. Once fully committed to the cliff, I risked another look down — and was disconcerted by the dancing of the tip of the rope far below, which ended 15 feet above the water.
My heart hammered, my legs trembled, my right hand contracted into a death grip. What had I been thinking?
Then, somehow, the fear left me — shredding like the mist of the waterfall. For the great ache of a moment, I wished my father could have hung at the end of this rope, beneath the heart-piercing blue of the cloud-scudded sky. Then that great bubble of loss burst, leaving me dizzy with joy — the life force gleaming all around me. The sun flared through the cloud and I bounced on down the cliff. At the end of the rope, I swayed in space before finally letting go my grip and dropping into the deep, wet benediction of Cibecue Creek.
Gregg came down last, turning upside down above the water before he forsook the rope with a great “hoooahing” and “haahahhing” — arms and legs flailing with the sheer rush of life.
So we shouldered our packs and hiked on down the canyon, splashing through the creek that swirled around our legs like a prayer.
And here and there in the soft red mud, I saw the tracks of an unseen bear who had gone on along ahead, as if to show us the way.