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Pair's Adventures as Grand as the Canyon

Portraits

May 20, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Francis and Helen Line of Capistrano Beach celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on May 1 in what was--for them--a routine way. They hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Helen's knees gave out, but they made it anyway. A helicopter flew them out after a splendid party at the bottom. Another anniversary, another Grand Canyon descent.

Francis and Helen Line have been doing this on their wedding anniversary for each of the past 10 years, and frequently before that. As far as is known, they're the only octogenarian couple ever to attempt it--let alone make it. Francis is 84, Helen, 81. And they're both in the best of health, thank you, despite Helen's difficulties in the canyon a few weeks ago.

Sitting in their spacious living room with its magnificent view of the Pacific, Helen--a tall, thin, regal woman--said with some exasperation: "I couldn't believe it when I got weak in the knees. I had no misgivings this time. I suppose nothing can really prepare you for the Grand Canyon, but we had been practicing in (Ronald W.) Caspers (Regional) Park, and I was doing fine. So the trouble came as a real surprise to me."

Admittedly, conditions were less than ideal. The party--Francis, Helen, their 51-year-old mountain-climbing daughter, Adrienne, and her 24-year-old daughter, Krista--departed at 5:20 a.m. Two dozen of their family and friends, gathering from all parts of the world, would be following at intervals to take part in the shindig at the bottom.

The weather was terrible. It started snowing at 5:30--great, fat flakes blowing about in a strong wind that cranked up to gale force by the time the Lines got a third of the way down. The hikers had forgotten gloves and had to stop and search their packs for socks to put on their hands. Then, about halfway down, Helen, who had suffered a bad fall several months earlier, began to have increasing difficulty with her legs. Her companions supported her, but about two-thirds of the way her knees gave out completely--fortunately, it seemed at first, close to the one emergency phone on the trail.

But using the phone would simply have compounded their problems. It would have taken hours for a medical ranger to arrive and additional hours for an emergency mule. They might well have frozen by then. The only solution was to somehow push on. They had just made that decision when help arrived from an unexpected direction. Another granddaughter had passed them on the way down and reported Helen's troubles at the bottom. So two strapping young men hiked up 2 miles to the beleaguered party and virtually carried Helen the rest of the way.

The celebration took place as planned at Phantom Ranch, and the next morning a helicopter arrived carrying a doctor who pronounced Helen fit to be flown out of the canyon. But not before Francis and Helen reaffirmed their marriage vows on the banks of Bright Angel Creek, just as they had done 10 years earlier.

Almost three weeks later, back to their normal home routine, both of them are ready to acknowledge that it was their last hurrah at descending into the canyon on foot as a couple.

"I was fine as soon as I got off that trail," Helen said a little wistfully. "We've done it so many years we'll feel lonesome."

Francis--a tiny, quicksilver bundle of energy, an octogenarian who darts about in files and books, talking all the while--shook his head firmly. "We feel she shouldn't go down again," he said. "Our plan now is to hike the 9-mile Rim trail on our next anniversary. We've never hiked it in its entirety."

The Lines throw off comments like that as casually as an 18-year-old talking about going to a school dance. But their performance supports their credibility. They've been doing this sort of thing since they were teen-agers, finally turning it into their life and livelihood. And along the way they've managed to touch the lives of hundreds of others in warm and wonderful ways.

It all started when 18-year-old Francis Line graduated from high school in a small Michigan farming town in 1923 and set out with his brother, Winfield, a year older, to hitchhike to all of the states. It took them a year, but they brought it off--and Francis has been on the move ever since. But on that first trip, he stopped long enough in Northern California to meet a lovely, golden-haired 15-year-old named Helen Gibson on a beach near Eureka. She invited the Line brothers to a beach party that night, and they lingered several more days before heading south. But the memory of that girl stayed with Francis through the rest of his travels and the two years that followed at the University of Michigan.

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