Reaching the River

24 09 2012

We dipped our feet in the river and the cold water was a welcome relief. Having hiked downhill nearly seven miles to the bottom of the Grand Canyon this was the payoff… the reward and hypothermia be damned.

When you first set eyes on the Colorado River, it gives you pause. Desmond and I made it to the river just before high noon and we immediately started to snap pictures. This was an accomplishment to take note of. Before reaching the river, there is a small tunnel drilled out of a huge boulder just before you cross a narrow suspension bridge. The tunnel was dark, but the midday sun kept it from being too scary. I also felt safe with Desmond.

We walked through the tunnel, across the bridge and down to the river bank, which was guarded by a maze of prickly pear and Beavertail cactus. And it was hot. Mid May at the bottom of the Canyon brought near 100 degree temperature with not much of a breeze. But we weren’t the only ones at the river bank, gazing up at the Kaibab Bridge and the mountains all around. There were about a half a dozen college aged kids soaking their feet in the river and just as we joined them, a large rafting group floated up to the beach-esque bank and unloaded for lunch.

Phantom Ranch was nearby and that’s where we would have lunch and, more importantly, shelter. Sitting on the river bank, we didn’t say much to each other, instead basking in the fact that we had reached the halfway point. The water was extremely cold. You could put your feet in for a couple minutes but then they started to get hard and hurt. And no one dared go more than ankle deep, except for one of the rafting hands who had to jump in and tie up the raft.

From the river we wet our shirts for the first time, a tip Desmond picked up from reading some travel guide, and headed towards Phantom Ranch. It’s a short hike up the North Kaibab Trail and one that is teeming with life, from deer resting by the stream, ravens flying overhead and campers singing songs and playing music. As we approached the ranger station, a large American flag welcomed us to Phantom Ranch, prompting Desmond to remark how much we as a nation loved to wave the stars and stripes.

“There is not a lot of this in my country,” he said.

Americans, Desmond had quickly learned, are very patriotic in addition to their love affair with fried foods and beer.

We went inside the canteen, unloaded our packs and chowed down. My sub sandwich was pretty disgusting. It had damn near deteriorated on the hike down, but I ate it anyway. The canteen was about half full. It’s a simple setup with long cafeteria type tables and a cash register near the door. They had some souvenir T-shirts and hats for sale, but we just bought postcards. I told the clerk I worked at Maswik Lodge up on the rim and he immediately tried to recruit me to come down and work on the ranch.

“We work hard and we play hard,” he said. I had kind of gotten that vibe earlier when I was eating my sandwich and one of the employees came out of the kitchen to reload the napkin dispenser. He was a young, hipster type with a full beard and tight jeans. He looked me straight in the eyes and smiled.

“It’s a great place to work if you like to hike,” the clerk continued, making his best sales pitch. “We make good tips here too.”

This I did not dispute, but the reality of living in a place that was a hard 8-hour hike from civilization, and a partial one at that, was too daunting to consider. Being nice, I told him I would think about it.

We refilled our water bottles and soon were on our way again, this time hiking up. As we departed the canteen, the clerk reminded us to wet our shirts before crossing the river. We had not yet experienced the day’s full heat.





Pause & Reflect

9 05 2012

The pain from my right foot was getting harder to ignore. As I approached Indian Garden, I knew it was time to take a look and survey the damage. I found a quiet section of the creek to stop and rest and take off my shoes and socks. Sure enough, it was a blister on one of my middle toes and it was a big one. So I soothed my foot in the cold creek waters and tried to calculate just how much daylight I had left.

I had made it from the rim to Indian Garden in a little over three hours, but the return trip would not be as quick. I would be hiking up a mountain some 3,000 feet in the late afternoon hours — with a nagging blister no less. This is where the real work begins.

At the Three Mile Reststop, I encountered a fellow hiker who I had met upon my arrival to Indian Garden. He was a middle-aged man, overweight and with a huge backpack. He was hiking up from the river and had stopped for food and rest at Indian Garden. I remember asking him about the trek to Plateau Point and he offered a less than enthusiastic reply.

“It’s ok, you can see the river, nothing too special,” he said.

I’m so glad I didn’t take his review to heart.

But here was this man again, resting and browsing through his backpack. I had already hiked to Plateau Point, witnessed the awesomeness of the inner gorge and majestic river, communed with a baby California condor and caught back up with him.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, rather defiantly. “Why does everyone keep asking me that? Do I look that bad??”

He looked a lot like the late English comedian Benny Hill and his backpack had to weigh 100 lbs. There was, without a doubt, an air of misery about him.

“Just checking,” I said.

I unloaded my pack inside the covered rest house, gulped down some water and took off my shoe again to examine the blister. It was still there and getting bigger.

“Got a blister, huh” the man said.

“Yeah.”

“I may have a bandaid for you,” he said, as he began to pillage through his pack again. Then he began to get incredibly honest.

“I’m carrying too much weight,” he said. “And I’m old and weak. I should’ve let the mules haul some of this up. They didn’t tell me about that until it was too late.”

I began to have sympathy for the man, knowing the hike ahead of him and the dwindling daylight hours.

“You have a flashlight, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, got one of those,” he said.

But he didn’t have a bandaid. I thanked him nevertheless for the thought and decided to continue onward and upward toward the rim.

“You going to be alright?,” I asked one more time before departing.

“I’ll make it,” he said, again with an abrupt tone. “I’ve got my own pace.”

Continuing on, I passed several more hikers coming up through what the locals call the “evil coconinos” —  a geological rock formation found near the rim of the canyon. Along the Bright Angel Trail, the coconino is home to a series of tight switchbacks which can and will take your breath away.

I finally climbed out of the canyon around 7 p.m. just before sunset, completing a 12-mile journey covering 3,100 feet in elevation. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel too worn out. The blister hurt, but the adrenaline of having accomplished such a strenuous hike kept me moving toward the Bright Angel Lodge where I sought to reward myself with a steak dinner.

No such luck.

The lodge was packed with tourists. There wasn’t even a seat to be had in the bar. The hostess said they were running at a 35-minute wait. That would not do. I needed fuel pronto, so I took the bus to Maswik Lodge and devoured a chilli burger and fries at the cafeteria in record time.

With a full belly and only a nagging blister for the effort, it was time to pause and reflect. I was pretty darn proud of myself. Four years ago, just after my spectacular crash out of journalism, I could barely walk around the neighborhood back in Panama City.

Now I am climbing mountains.





Trailblazing

26 04 2012

It was a Wednesday morning and I awoke ready to tackle the day. I had renewed energy, knowing a trip to Phoenix — and civilization — was on the horizon. I also had caught the hiking bug.

Intent on making progress into the Canyon, I resumed my descent along the Bright Angel Trail, making it to the mile-and-half reststop much quicker than I had before. I carried more water with me this time and less clothes. The weather was getting warmer and the sun was out and the deeper I went into the Canyon the hotter it would get.

The trail was packed with tourists, some coming up and others going down. At the three-mile reststop, shade was in high demand. The covered benches were full of people swigging electrolyte water and lathering themselves in sunscreen. With no room to spare under the reststop roof, I found a nearby tree, plopped down under its shade and quinched my thirst. It didn’t take long for the squirrels to notice. Grand Canyon squirrels are an aggressive breed and from what the rangers say, the squirrels have become one of the biggest threats to man.

As cute as these little critters look, they will bite and their bite has sent many to the Canyon clinic. Watching the squirrels pander to each passing hiker was amusing and their total lack of fear in humans was equally suprising. With the squirrels dancing around for crumbs, I could hear the discussions from inside the reststop as to how much further should we go. It was the thought on everyone’s mind.

It was just a few minutes after noon and the sun was beating down on the Bright Angel Trail. I decided to shed my long pants and thanks to the Northface brand, all I had to do was unzip the lower end and my legs were free to breathe. As I continued my descent from the three-mile reststop, the number of hikers coming up began to greatly outnumber the ones going my direction. I probably should have gotten an earlier start, I thought.

Indian Garden was the next stop and from the rim, it truly did appear to be like an oasis along the trail. The hike began to level out as I approached this oasis and the Canyon also began to open up and display more of its beauty. I was now almost completely alone on the trail and a subtle pain began to emerge from my right foot. I ignored the pain and pressed on, heading straight for the lush greenery of Indian Garden.

The tall waving Cottonwood trees were a sight for sore eyes indeed and as I entered the Garden their fuzzy white blooms were floating everywhere in the air. It was almost, dare I say, magical.

With its ideal location halfway between the river and the rim, many hikers use Indian Garden as a camping site. It has an ample supply of water, campgrounds and a ranger station. As I wandered into one of the covered rest areas, I encountered two female hikers sunburnt and exhausted, one laying across a picnic table and the other hovered over a water spicket. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked them how they were doing.

“Hot, very hot,” said one of the ladies. They had just hiked up from the river, a narrow stretch of the trail with not much air flow.

I asked them what it was like down there. They said the river was very cold, that there were some idiots who jumped in and were swimming around, but it did feel good on their bare feet. This made me think about my foot and the pain that I was too afraid to confront. I also began to think long and hard about how much further I should go. At the beginning of my hike, Indian Garden had been my destination, but now that I was here and not nearly as tired as I thought I would be, I desired to go deeper into the Canyon.

Just before you leave Indian Garden and cross over its trickling creek, there comes a fork in the trail. You can hike west to Plateau Point and Tonto Trail or head east and down to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch. For a brief moment, I thought of the Robert Frost poem about the road less traveled, a piece of work which could be used to characterize my travels. This next decision, would indeed, make all the difference.





The Initial Descent

7 04 2012

Starting to get settled in here with the initial shock of moving across country and into a completely different climate now fading away. I got a couple of paychecks under my belt too which helps in the confidence department.

And I finally descended into the Canyon, bringing clarity and perspective to the big picture. I have always enjoyed hiking, whether it be the backcountry of Arizona or the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Hiking — which is walking essentially — can tell you a lot about yourself.

As I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail, my mind raced with thoughts dominated by fear. Had I brought enough water? Were my shoes appropriate?? Would I go too far down and not be able to make it back up???

All indeed valid questions. The Park Service does not supply the trail with water until the summer months, but it is in the spring — if the wind cooperates — when conditions are best to descend into the Canyon. The difference in temperature between the bottom, where the Colorado River flows, and the top of the South Rim is usually between 25-30 degrees. The deeper you go the hotter it gets.

On this day the trail was full of hikers and tourists disguised as hikers. I have been surprised by the large numbers of foreign tourists that come here. I have engaged in more conversational French in one month than I had in 10 years in Panama City. This substantial presence of not only Europeans, but Asians has made me realize how foolish I was to believe that I was living in an international tourist destination in Panama City. That was a lie floated by the power brokers to build a new airport. Panama City may get a handful of international tourists, but it is far from an international tourist destination. It is a regional tourist destination at best and will remain that way until a better strategy of attracting visitors is implemented.

Back on the trail, hikers had to make sure they not only avoided mule droppings, but also watched their step for loose gravel and leftover snow and ice. I wore my trusty adidas running shoes, the same pair I bought at the Ross discount store back in Panama City a couple years back. I have a habit about wearing shoes for a long time and this pair of adidas felt good on my feet. They may not look hiking professional, but they were light and comfortable and I was able to make my way down the trail without any missteps.

There were a few tense moments like when the wind would gust up as I approached a narrow overlook with oncoming hikers headed my way. Fortunately, most of the people who hike are considerate and will always ask how you’re doing. I was relieved to make it to the first rest station, one and half miles down. Coming back was much tougher and required a couple stops to catch my breath and hydrate.

What I learned about myself on this foray into the Canyon was I’m in better shape than I thought, but still have a ways to go to make it to the river. That is the goal during my time here — To hike to the bottom and back. It will take more than an afternoon to do it and I will have to be well prepared for the trip.

And I probably shouldn’t go it alone.