Hiking With Sonny

SonnySonny was a piece of work — like no other — completely unique. His recent passing was marked and mourned by many, especially by his hiking buddies.

Most people knew him as Dr. Milam S. Cotten, a prominent and respected ophthalmologist in Hattiesburg for many years. But the good doctor had another life and another persona not known to everyone. It was Our Milam of the Trail, the hiker, the camper, the outdoorsman; and that Milam had his own separate trail name: Sonny 34 (1934 being the year of his birth in McComb, Miss.).

Sonny 34 was a fascinating and uniquely entertaining character, much loved and enjoyed by the many friends he made on the trail.

His hiking group has sometimes been loosely referred to as “The Dirty Dozen”, although the composition of the groups with whom Milam hiked has varied greatly over the last quarter century or so. More or less than twelve, and different combinations of guys (and, occasionally, wives, daughters, and/or daughters in law).

But, whoever and however many there were, they were each lucky to have experienced the great outdoors with one of the Lord’s truly unique creations: Sonny 34.

A Hike to Remember

There are more tales growing out of those hikes than Carter has Little Liver Pills, as the saying goes, so here I will attempt to share only a few of those from one memorable hike in the Grand Canyon in 1991.

The group on that occasion, though dirty, was far less than a dozen; four to be exact. It consisted of Thad Waites, Ed Langton, Sonny, and yours truly.

The trip in question was a week at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and included two major hikes, one into the Havasu Canyon, one of the many tributary canyons of the Colorado and inhabited for hundreds of years by the Havasupai Indians, and a second hike into the main canyon of the Colorado River itself (the Grand Canyon).

Planning and Preparation

Of course, part of the fun of a major hike is studying the area, planning the actual hike(s), obtaining the required permits and registrations, plane tickets, vehicle rentals, hotel and cabin rentals, assembling the gear, obtaining and studying the maps and quadrants and, of course, discussing and debating all of the above repeatedly ad infinitum.

Our hikes always required several early morning meetings at the Cracker Barrel, starting weeks prior to departure, to make sure all plans and arrangements were in place and understood by all (the latter not always achieved).


Gear is a major consideration, more major for some than others. Some are real “gear heads” and study, discuss and debate all the latest equipment and are constantly updating their stuff. When they open their back packs, the inside looks like the inside of a computer, everything being organized and packed just so. And of course all of this has to be properly discussed during the weeks preceding departure.

And then there was Milam. He was not what you’d call a gear head or high-tech hiker. In fact, he was the opposite of a high-tech hiker. He was not even a low-tech hiker. He was no-tech.

He cared not for tech of any kind. For him, the older, the more worn-out, beat-up and apparently useless a piece of “equipment” was, the better he liked it. He cared nothing for the new, sporty, hi-tech gadgets and, if something he had happened to be new, he’d add a little duck tape and spray paint to make it look used. For example, while some had the latest ergonomic hiking poles, Milam proudly used one handle off a rusty old post-hole digger which he had partially spray-painted at some point to make it look even worse (as if it needed any help).

On one winter hike, Sonny didn’t even bother to bring a sleeping bag, but simply wrapped himself up in some plastic sheeting for the night (not much R-factor there!).

And, of course, he disdained fancy up-scale hiking boots, the one item most hikers would recommend for comfort and safety. When he did have boots, they were old, beat-up, and appeared close to useless, but Sonny loved them. So much so that he put them under his head at night for a “pillow.” There were times, as discussed below, when he had no boots at all.

It was all part of Sonny’s mind-set, his point of view, where he came from. The worse things were, the worse the conditions were (the hotter, the colder, the wetter, the drier, etc.), the better he liked it. And that went for his appearance as well. He couldn’t just feel rough, he wanted to look rough as well. Thus, he didn’t care for photos when he was fresh and looking good, he wanted them at the worst time of day or night when he appeared exhausted, dehydrated, and on the verge of heat stroke (now that’s what he’s talking about!). And to assure the worst possible photos of himself, he often took his own; just arm’s length, looking into his camera (now those are some bad photos).

Getting There

With Sonny, the adventure usually started long before you actually hit the trail, in this case at the Jackson airport where he was prevented from boarding the plane with his huge new Bowie knife, which he had purchased for this hike. In fairness, this was long before 9-11 but, even then, most people understood that trying to board an airplane with what amounted to a machete was not going to endear you to security, as modest as it was in those days. So he had to go back and put the knife in his checked backpack, with hopes of seeing it again in Arizona. However, when we landed near the Grand Canyon, Sonny’s backpack was not on the plane, having missed the flight due to the flap over the knife.

The knife he could do without, but his pack contained all of his cloths and hiking gear, such as it was, and we began to wonder how that was going to be addressed.

Sonny rim view

The El Tovar

The El Tovar Hotel sits on th very edge of the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and is one of those wonderful old railroad hotels you find in the National Parks out west. Built to entice tourists west by rail, it opened in 1905 and, like many of the others, it looks like the ultimate western hunting lodge, complete with huge beams, lots of stone, and Indian blankets and artifacts everywhere.

The four of us had a beautiful suite with a balcony literally overlooking the Canyon. The views were simply indescribable, as we stared slack-jawed toward the north rim some 11 miles away.

We were told that President Bush 41 would be in the hotel, and was expected the next day. That explained the serious looking guys in the lobby with bugs in their ears.

The First Hike: Havasu Canyon

According to plan, our first hike was a descent into Havasu Canyon, one of the side or tributary canyons off of the main Colorado River canyon. This canyon has been the beautiful home of the Havasupai Indian tribe since around the 1300s, and they are still living there today, in and around their village of Supai.

The Havasupai (“people of the blue-green water”) welcome visitors to their village and have both camping facilities and a nice lodge in which to stay.

This would probably be an appropriate place to update you on the fate of Sonny’s backpack and all his hiking gear,including the knife. In short, it didn’t arrive before we left the El Tovar, so he had to improvise, which he had been known to do before and didn’t mind. In fact, I suspected that he kind of enjoyed it since it resulted in a most unorthodox hiking outfit. And Sonny was nothing if not unorthodox. Let me describe it.

On his head he wore a huge black felt cowboy hat (remember the movie “Billy Jack?”). Since he had no hiking shorts, he substituted a pair of boxer shorts (yes, underwear), with Micky Mouse printed all over them (I’m serious). Below them a pair of very white legs descended to a pair of real eye-catching red socks, which lined not hiking boots, of course, but low-quarter Cole-Hann deck shoes (for a major multi-day hike into the Grand Canyon).

It goes without saying that Sonny got incredulous looks at almost every turn; Indians, white men, and everyone else. He was, indeed, a sight for sore eyes!

The 8 mile trail down drops 2400 feet and is the only way in or out of Havasu Canyon and theVillage of Supai, and there is no mechanized transport of any kind below the trailhead. Literally everything goes over the trail, most of it by mule or pony pack train, including the U.S. and Havasupai mail, one of only two places in America where the mail is delivered by pack train–the other being Phantom Ranch, another place on the bottom of the canyon, which we would visit during our second hike.

Once you reach the canyon floor the trail is usually a dry creek bed and, from time to time, we would hear what sounded like sleigh bells jingling. Then, all of a sudden, a mule or pony train would come thundering around a turn in the trail and we would scatter for survival. A mounted Indian or two would be leading the train, which was gone in an instant; the Pony Express indeed!

An interesting innovation Sonny often employed while hiking was his oatmeal raisin cookie system. He preferred not to lug a lot of heavy food and cooking gear in his pack, allowing others to perform that task. However, after a hard day of hiking he would be as hungry as the next guy, and his solution to this dilemma was simple and elegant. Sonny simply brought along a bag of what he described as his wife Betty’s famous homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, which he ceremoniously shared with one and all at crucial times throughout the day.

Later, as the wonderful smelling trail grub was being pulled off the fire for supper, Sonny would appear with his plate in hand. Having been so generous with those wonderful cookies all day, no one would refuse him a little of what they each had. Thus, Sonny ate as well as anyone, having transported no more than a light bag of cookies.

At one point we passed a small group of Indians, who asked us for a light. When we told them that none of us smoked, they looked a little surprised and one of them smiled and replied, “Oh, you guys are into fiber?”

We were very amused by the question/observation (here I am, relating it 21 years later), and its implications. We from the fancy, modern, white man’s world were so concerned about blood pressure, cholesterol, fiber intake, etc., while these Indians who lived simply, naturally, and close to the earth were smoking cigarettes and were amused at us. Sort of a conundrum.

As we finally neared Supai village, we were fascinated by everything we saw. The trail gradually widened and, shaded by ancient cottonwoods, became the main street of the village, which was surrounded and guarded, at a distance, by gigantic red rock walls, towers, and other formations, nature’s own sentinels.

The people were open and friendly, despite Sonny’s bizarre appearance, and you felt like you were encountering a lost tribe of some kind (although it was more likely we who were lost).

At the lodge we were given our room keys and split up to find our rooms, clean up, and settle in for the night. Thad, Ed and I didn’t learn what happened next until the next day.

What did happen next was that the naked woman on the bed screamed when Sonny opened her door. Given his attire and appearance, she probably would have screamed had she been fully clothed but, given the way things were, Sonny’s arrival must have been doubly alarming. We later learned that there had been a slight mixup with the room keys and that Sonny had beaten a hasty retreat to get it straightened out. Lord knows what the woman did.

Land of Blue-Green Water

The next morning we walked out of the lodge and into paradise, which is really the only word for Havasu Canyon. It is stunningly beautiful.

It is a relatively narrow canyon, one of the many tributaries of the main Colorado River canyon, and is filled with beautiful natural gardens accented by great randomly scattered boulders and exotic rock formations which are bordered by high sheer rock walls on either side, heightening the lush oasis effect in this otherwise arid land. The contrast between the lush green vegetation in the canyon, and the surrounding desert environment, which stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction, is dramatic. In fact, everything in canyon land appears dramatic; it is a harsh but ruggedly beautiful world.

Havasu Canyon is transected by multiple dramatic cataracts forming beautiful waterfalls. And the pools into which that water falls, as well as the adjacent creek bottoms, are all coated in a light-colored travertine produced by the minerals in the water. The creek bottom and the minerals suspended in the water reflect the brilliantly blue sky, charging the creek with a beautiful blue-green (turquoise) color, hence, the name of the canyon, the creek, and the people who inhabit it.

The whole effect was profoundly moving . Words like “heaven,” “ enchanted,” and “the Garden of Eden” came to mind repeatedly.

Our intrepid band continued exploration of this enchanted place, swimming in the round travertine pools beneath the waterfalls, each one more beautiful than the last, and descending the cataracts using little steps cut into the face of the sheer cliff, while holding onto steel cables or chains. We climbed over, under, around and through the multitude of rocks, boulders, and exotic formations of every description. We even scaled the sheer rock walls of the canyon on remnants of old mining ladders left in place by long vanished miners (don’t know what we were thinking, but it was fun!).

At our last waterfall, Mooney Falls, Ed and I happened to be talking with a lady who related an unusual incident at the lodge the night before when a strange man in a large black hat and red socks attempted to get into her room. This was news to us, and we couldn’t wait to tell Thad and Sonny!

Meanwhile, Back in the Village

One of Sonny’s favorite hobbies, for which he was well known in Hattiesburg, was welding, believe it or not. He had his own shop in his backyard where he could get away from his normal high-tech, high-stress job. Now, in the village, Sonny fell in love . . . with an anvil, and he wanted to buy it and take it to his welding shop back home. Doubtless it was a fine anvil, but how in the hell Sonny planned to extract it from Havasu Canyon, then somehow transport it across a good bit of North America, was never entirely clear. However, like the unexplained naked woman in Sonny’s room (or the unexplained man in her room), it did make for good conversation.

One of the more charming features of the village was its signs, and we enjoyed trying to decipher them. For instance, a prominent and very official looking sign near the center of the village read:

‘No Parking Any Other Time’

We debated the true import of this sign extensively. In fact, on the rare occasion that things slowed down a bit, someone would quote that sign and the discussion would start all over again.

Another great sign was exquisitely local in nature. It displayed a logo representation of an Indian on horseback, obviously inebriated (the rider, not the horse), covered by the usual large red circle and slash mark, under which was the admonition:

‘Don’t Drink and Ride’

We assumed that the offence would be RUI, rather than DUI, and that the latter was unknown in the village.

Adieu, Havasu!

Having had a wonderful visit in the Land of Blue-Green Water, we hiked out of Supai before dawn the next morning in order to ascend during the cooler hours (a definite consideration in these climes), and made it back to Hilltop in good order. We stopped on nearby Route 66 for milkshakes and, in about five hours, were back at the El Tovar.

Return to the El T and Second Hike

During our Havasu hiatus our wonderful suite had been pinched by the President of the United States! That’s right, they gave our room to George 41 but, not to worry, the replacement was plenty good enough for us peons.

We had another great night of socializing in the El Tovar dining room, and a restful night in our suite. In our maturity, we are no longer strict purists about hiking and camping, and little objection is heard to the occasional night under roof (especially a roof as nice as this one). As the years have gone by, it is what we have come to call, “hotel hiking,” and we are no longer even ashamed of it.

South Kaibab Trail

Early the next morning we began our descent on the spectacular South Kaibab Trail, which drops 4780 feet in 7.3 very sunny miles from the south rim to the Colorado River. The South Kaibab is one of the most scenic trails in the whole Grand Canyon complex, since it is principally located on a huge promontory jutting out into the main channel of the Colorado River canyon. This puts you on display, as it were, out in the middle of the canyon and right in the middle of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.

You encounter many interesting things along the trail in the Grand Canyon. Many young people, while quite fit, fail to understand or allow for the rather extreme desert environment of the canyon. Dehydration is quite common, and the park rangers told us that, believe it or not, Germanic males between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most common victims (“We haul them out like cord wood, all the time.”). While they are young and fit and quite used to hiking in, say, the Alps, they are not used to the desert conditions of the canyon and fail to take the proper precautions, such as water, hats, occasional rest, etc. We would see young men without hats, water, or even clothes other than shorts attempting to run, not walk from rim to rim in a single day. These would be some of those we’d see being carried, packed or air-lifted out by the Rangers.

The Plateau, Inner Canyon, and River

After you wind down the wall of the outer canyon you come out onto a broad, more level plateau or esplanade that takes you to the edge of the final steep plunge into the dark and ancient inner canyon, whose twisted and tortured rocks are some of the oldest visible on the earth’s surface. It also grows noticeably warmer, from what was already quite warm and dry, as you travel down into the earth and far into the past—many millions of years into the past. Some indigenous legends hold that if you sleep within the earth, you will never be the same again. My wife probably believes them.

Many signs along the way had warned us to “Have plenty of fluid” with us, and it was at about this point in the hike that we noticed Sonny’s artfully efficient system of fluid circulation. At first, it merely looked like he was sitting on a flat rock drinking water out of his nalgene bottle, and spilling a lot of it in the process. But then we noticed that he was actually, and simultaneously, relieving himself at the other end. It was such an elegantly simple, efficient, and time-saving system that the rest of us adopted it as well. Worked just fine.

At the bottom of the inner canyon roars the mighty hand that had wrought all of that which we had seen and at which we had marveled, the Colorado River. From the rim it seems so small and far away and silent. Down here, when swollen by rain, snow runoff, or a dam release, it roars like a freight train at some points, while inexorably continuing its ancient work. From here you can at least fathom how the mighty waters might somehow cut and remove a great deal of stone. But then you look at the unimaginable size of the abyss above and all around you (for example, 11 miles wide and a mile deep at this point, and hundreds of miles long), and the amount of time it has taken to do so starts looking pretty infinite.

Phantom Ranch

Once we finally reached and crossed the river on the pedestrian suspension bridge, two more miles brought us to Phantom Ranch, the famous outpost on the bottom of the canyon, where we had a place to eat, drink and sleep.

This famous and alluring place has been visited and inhabited by Native Americans for over a thousand years that we know of, but the first recorded visit by white men was that of the John Wesley Powell party in 1869. Thereafter, prospectors used the area and, in the early 20th Century, the Grand Canyon Transportation Company began to develop its potential for tourism.

A trail from the camp to the North Rim was improved and, in 1913, President Theodore Roosevelt visited with his hunting party. Thereafter, it was known as Roosevelt Camp and, in 1919, the Grand Canyon joined the young National Park System. Three years later the Fred Harvey Company was granted the concession for the camp and hired architect Mary Colter to design permanent structures and other improvements.

Colter designed the picturesque buildings so admired by visitors, using the natural materials available in the area such as natural stone and hand-hewn timbers and shakes. Colter was one of those who developed the style that became known as National Park Service Rustic, which has always been so popular in our national parks, and of which Phantom Ranch is such a good example.

During the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) made improvements to the ranch and its access trails, and other parts of the park at large, as it did in national parks all over the country.

The park’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 20th Century, and the ranch became one of the most popular destinations in the national park system. People arrived by foot or mule over the trails, or by boat from the river. Permits became necessary for overnight stays in the cabins and bunkhouses at the ranch, and for meals as well, which are often sold out a year in advance. Our permits were the result of some of that intensive Cracker Barrel planning I mentioned.

It goes without saying that we slept very soundly that night (the sleep of the just or the dead or something like that), although, sleeping within the earth, I guess we were never the same again. Whether that was good or bad would be the domain of our respective wives.

Final Ascent : Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens

Always keen to get us away in the cool hours of the morning, first call for breakfast at the ranch was at 4:30, but the meal was delicious. Sonny did not even need his oatmeal rasin cookies at the ranch, where we decided they were not legal tender.

We said goodby to the marvelous ranch and a two mile hike brought us back to the river, where we enjoyed wading before recrossing the suspension bridge and beginning the arduous climb out of the canyon. We took Bright Angel Trail, which climbs 4460 feet over 9.5 miles from the ranch to the south rim. Indian Gardens campgrounds is about half way up and was our destination.

The ascent was sort of the reverse of the experience we had the day before, and you felt as if you were slowly emerging from very far within the earth (which of course you were). In the steep, dark inner canyon the trail switches back over and over in order to negotiate the steep canyon wall. And of course we were again time traveling, covering centuries of time with every step upward.

At the top of the inner canyon you reach Plateau Point, which provides great panoramic views of the inner canyon below, and the vast outer canyon above. It is a place where you feel very much “in the middle”,”on the brink”, right at the dividing line between the two vast and different worlds of the inner and outer canyons. It was also an excellent place for Sonny to introduce us to his new friend, Chief Tomor.

Sonny never ceased trying to help others understand or experience something he had discovered, in this case a particular rock outcropping high up on the wall of the outer canyon, which Sonny was convinced looked exactly like the profile of some illustrious Indian chief of the past. He named his discovery Chief Tomor, and had set about assisting the National Park Service to see the chief as he did, and in adjusting their maps, guides, and other material to reflect their new enlightenment.

I believe he wrote the Park Service several times , enclosing photos of the Chief’s likeness in its canyon, but apparently the Park Service failed to embrace the Chief with the same enthusiasm shown by Sonny. At least I have not noticed any changes in the U. S. Geological Survey in that area relating to the Chief.

Of course he offered the same assistance to us, as well as other hikers, random strangers, and so forth. Reactions varied.

Indian Gardens campgrounds is an outpost about half way between the top and bottom of the canyon. It makes a very good stopping place, ascending or descending, and, thus, became our camp site for this our last night on the trail.

Our campsite was right on the main thoroughfare, allowing us to watch all those passing through this well known oasis, and we relaxed and enjoyed the night, with its passing entertainment.

And a jolly night it was. I had lugged a heavy (and precious) pint of Jack Daniels all this way with which to properly commemorate the last night of a great hike. And in our exhausted and dehydrated state, the elixir was even more effective than normally. I announced that I was not about to tote that bottle another step and that, since all of us were good stewards of the environment , we certainly couldn’t pour any of that foreign matter onto the delicate desert flora, and so it would simply have to be drained then and there, before anyone slept. I heard no objection, and we proceeded to protect the environment.

Final Climb to the El T

The last leg of the hike, from Indian Gardens to the south rim, was perhaps the hardest, since it is essentially straight up. Every step is up, and it definitely separates those who are in shape from those who are not. It also separates those who are ascending from those who are descending. As you huff and puff with every step up, lightly clad day hikers are cheerfully skipping down the trail, wondering what is the big deal. A few hours from now, going in the opposite direction, they will have no doubt.

The El Tovar looked even more welcoming this time than it had on our first two arrivals, and a broom closet would have been perfectly acceptable to this weary crew. But, to our surprise and great pleasure, we were given our wonderful original suite again, the President having decamped during our latest absence.

Our last night at the hotel was spent in cheerfully recovering in the dining room, where we made a number of interesting acquaintances. For instance, at the next table sat Paul Hogan, the Australian star of the then popular movie, “Crocodile Dundee”. Nearby was the party of Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, whom I had known from my page days in Washington. He came over and visited. Everyone in the dining room seemed merry and convivial, and it was a very pleasant conclusion to a most memorable hike. But the final coda of the trip, appropriately provided by Sonny, occurred some weeks later.

Sonny’s Post Script

As mentioned, Sonny was fond of helping people and often volunteered to do so. He didn’t always understand when his offers weren’t gratefully accepted, and such was the case with the Havasupai.

Being an Ophthalmologist (eye doctor), Sonny had noticed certain eye problems among the members of the tribe we encountered in and around Havasu Canyon and the village of Supai. Wanting to help, he mentioned the problems to the Chief and said that he would be willing to come back out to Supai and check the eyes of the tribal members, free of charge, to identify any problems they might have. Sonny called it an ophthalmic survey, the normal professional term.

The Chief thanked him and said he and the Tribal Elders would consider the matter, but Sonny had heard nothing further at the time we departed Supai. This was not surprising since we were only there a couple of days.

A week or two after returning home, Sonny got to thinking about the Havasupai and realized that he had heard nothing from them concerning his kind offer. So, he wrote the Chief a letter and repeated his offer of the free ophthalmic survey for his tribe. More time went by and, still hearing nothing from the Chief, Sonny decided to call him on the telephone and inquire.

Sonny was finally able to get the Chief on the phone, and the conversation went something like this:

“Chief, do you remember my offer to come back and do the ophthalmic survey of your people, free of charge?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And did you get my letter about my offer?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And did you discuss it with the Tribal Elders, like you were going to?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And they considered it?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Well, I didn’t understand why I hadn’t heard back from you. You and the Elders would like me to do it, wouldn’t you?”

“We don’t think so.”

“Why on earth not? It would be free, and would help your people!”

“Well, Dr. Cotten, we appreciate your offer but, you see, over the years every time white man does survey, we lose land!”

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