The Hike Back

24 10 2012

High noon and the sun is directly overhead. There is little shade along the river and for the first time on the hike I’m starting to feel the heat.

We cross another narrow suspension bridge and pick up the Bright Angel Trail on the other side, where after a few minutes, we encounter another mule train. This one had people on it, being carried to Phantom Ranch from the rim. We let them pass, squeezing against the trail’s rock wall. On the other side, a steep drop to the river.

The mules appeared miserable, their skulls sunken in from the intense heat and yet they carried on. When I first arrived in the Canyon, I was fascinated by the mules and would visit them quite regularly at their stable next to Victor Hall. This only added to the dorm’s unique smell. Riding one of these beasts of burden from rim to river was never something I desired to pursue. I was more than healthy enough to make the trek on my own and as the wranglers can attest, a mule ride is not the most comfortable way to travel.

As the mules passed, Desmond used the break from hiking to look for small rocks. They were everywhere. We both took one each, as a memento of sorts. Mine was a mix of red and black with shiny quartz sprinkled in. Taking rocks out of the Grand Canyon, of course, is against park regulations, but since the Grand Canyon was damn near taking all of the life out of us, what’s a couple little rocks going to matter.

As we left the river side and began a steeper climb up the Bright Angel Trail, I found it harder and harder to keep up with Desmond. He was much younger and had recently competed in a marathon. This was by far the most physical activity I had taken on since roaming the streets of New York City a few summers back.

Desmond was steady and he began to distance himself from me. We were no longer talking. We were hiking up a mountain. A Grand mountain.

The switchbacks were damn near murder. Every time you rounded another corner there was a steep stretch of trail awaiting and a steeper one after that. The vegetation was disappearing and so too was the water. There was hardly a soul coming from the other direction. It was early afternoon and most were taking shelter from the unrelenting sun.

Finally, after an hour or so of steep switchbacks and heavy breathing, the trail began to level out and I recognized the rock formations from my previous hike to Plateau Point. This is when I felt totally consumed by the Canyon. One small piece to the puzzle.

Yucca and blooming century plants appeared more frequently as we pressed on, up the Bright Angel Trail toward Indian Gardens. Tiny lizards began to scurry across the path and sounds of birds chirping from the brush filled the air. It was during this stretch of the hike where I felt like stopping, making a camp and just hanging out for a while. That would be so nice, but we both had to work the next day. The summer season was upon us and soon the park would be overrun by tourists.

“It will look like a giant ant hill’s been stirred with a stick,” was how one bus driver referred to the peak summer  season.

Deep inside the Canyon, however, was another story entirely. Only a tiny percent of visitors to the park actually enter the Canyon and even a smaller percentage make the hike to the river and back. We were a good three-fourths of the way to completing this super challenging endeavor when the swaying Cottonwoods of Indian Gardens came into sight.

And little did I know, pain was waiting.

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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.





The Tipoff

27 07 2012

We talked a lot on the way down the trail, mostly about international affairs, politics and why Americans are so fat.

I’m not sure if Americans realize that we have become the butt of the world’s fat jokes. In many countries, McDonald’s is comically referred to as the American embassy. I told Desmond that the American obesity rate was much higher in the Southern states because of an affinity for sugar and fried foods.

“Is not the South where your least educated and poorest population resides?” he asked.

It was an innocent enough question, but for a native son of the South, it stung like a sharp prick of a cactus.

“Yep,” I said.

“And they consistently vote Republican,” he continued.

“Yep.”

“Why?,” he asked, again with an innocent, inquisitive tone.

“Desmond, if I knew the answer to that, I would not be on this hike with you today,” I said.

He smiled and we continued to chat, not realizing how quickly we were descending the trail. The sun was still rising above the Eastern Rim as we reached Skeleton Point. The views here are breathtaking. Dark orange rock formations jutting out of the earth. We were certainly no longer in the pinyon pine tree forest of the South Rim.

Some of the folks from the bus were here resting and I spotted the woman who I had sat next to. I asked her if she would take a couple photos of Desmond and I and she gladly obliged. We put our arms around each other in a brotherly fashion. It had been quite a while since I had experienced this type of male bonding. It reminded me of college. It was refreshing.

After a short break, we pressed on and it was my turn to probe Desmond about his country’s politics. I was, admittedly, igonorant as to Singapore’s culture. I did know it was a former British colony, which put me ahead of most Americans. It had become quite comical when the American tourists would remark how good the Singaporean workers spoke English, always assuming they would be producing a Chinese accent.

Desmond was quite proud of his homeland. He boasted of Singapore’s high GDP level, zero homeless population and alluring tax policies. He is, after all, a business student.

Most of the Americans — or Ang Mohs — as they are referred to by locals, come to Singapore not for pleasure, but rather for business.

“We encourage free market capitalism,” Desmond said.

But if there is one aspect of his homeland that Desmond would like to see changed, it is the media. The press, he said, is run by the government and never questions authority.

In other words, it’s like MSNBC today and Fox News circa 2004.

Meanwhile, we continued to descend at a healthy pace, stopping for a quick rest at the junction to Tonto Trail just before what is called “The Tipoff.” It is at this point where hikers get their first glimpse of the Colorado River — looking down into the massive gorge that resembles a scene out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

At the Tonto Trail junction we encountered the mule train coming up from Phantom Ranch, carrying mail and supplies. I marveled at the stamina and strength of these beasts of burden. It was starting to get hot and they had one steep climb awaiting. Amazing that they do this everyday.

We took a few pictures as the wranglers tied them up to a man-made steel rail in the middle of nowhere.

“Don’t get too close,” one of the wranglers shouted at Desmond. “They kick.”

The Tonto Trail Junction is a flat area surrounded by nothing but knee-high scrubs and prickly pear cactus for miles. The trail runs horizontal between rim and river and at this junction, with the South Kaibab, there is a rail to tie up the mules and a small outhouse for human waste. Desmond used the facilities, while I used the shade that it provided. I wasn’t the only one who sought escape from the sun. Sitting next to the outhouse was a tall middle-aged man who had been hiking the Tonto Trail from the east.

“I’m headed to the Bright Angel,” he said. “What about you?”

“The river,” I replied.

“Well, you’re close,” he said.

I plopped down next to the man and started swiggin’ water and eating peanuts and raisins. Desmond, having finished his business in the outhouse, joined us and the three of us chatted while fending off hungry squirrels. The man was from New York and an experienced hiker.

“I come here once a year,” he said. “Never gets old.”

It was definitely a different picture than New York. As I looked around, I felt so small. Just a blip inside a vast desert canyon. Far, far away from civilization.

“Shall we?,” Desmond asked.

He was ready to continue, knowing the rewarding part of our adventure was close.

“Good luck,” said the New Yorker as we parted ways. This was one part of the hiking culture that I had come to appreciate. Nearly everyone acknowledges each other on the trails and checks to see how you are doing, especially at rest stops, and always offers tips, provisions and well wishes.

I would likely never see that man again, but for a few brief moments we shared in each other’s extreme outdoors experience. Conversely, Desmond and I were just getting to know each other as the most strenuous stretch of our adventure loomed.

The rising sun set to test our stamina.





And away we go

12 07 2012

One of the best investments I have made in Arizona is hiking shoes. Sure, once properly broken in and caked with desert dust, they are hardly worthy of a night out in the city, but without them there is no way I would be making any trips into the Canyon.

The blister from my trek to Plateau Point forced me to abandon those trusty adidas running shoes. They were long past their expiration date anyway. In their place, I bought a pair of Columbia low top hiking shoes during a rare weekend getaway to Phoenix with Thomas. Thomas doesn’t want me to mention him in my blog anymore so that weekend in Phoenix will remain a mystery.

I did get some hiking shoes though, a full size bigger for the steep trails I would be traversing — the most challenging of which was yet to come. We would take the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch. It’s the shortest route to the river and has some of the more spectacular views of the inner canyon. We would then hike back to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail, a popular return route because the trail has ample shade and water.

Desmond wanted to meet at 4:50 a.m. at Maswik Lodge so that we could take the hiker’s shuttle bus directly to South Kaibab Trailhead. The bus left the lodge at 5:10 a.m. and I woke up at 5 a.m.

“Dude, where are you?!?” was the text message I received, which stirred me from my slumber.

Crap. I had overslept. Luckily, I had packed my backpack before going to sleep and all I had to do was grab it and race for the lodge in time to catch the bus. I climbed aboard the bus at exactly 5:10 a.m. It was full of eager hikers ready to hit the trail before the blistering sun climbed high in the sky.

Although we had just met, I could tell Desmond was a little peeved with my tardiness. If he only knew my history, then perhaps he would understand this was par for the course. Early mornings have always plagued me. I remember an 8 a.m. journalism class at Troy that I was serially late for and finally the professor decided to lock the door. When I knocked to enter at around five past the hour, he opened the door, looked me in the eye and promptly shut it right in my face —  to cheers and laughter from the rest of the class.

But Desmond wasn’t laughing. He didn’t say a word on the bus ride to the trailhead. Instead, I listened to a chatty woman from Alaska describe her many hiking experiences. She was headed all the way to the North Rim and her pack was double the size of mine.

When we reached the trailhead, the bus unloaded and the more serious hikers took off in a sprint. Before descending the trail, I stopped at the water spicket and filled my bottles. I asked Desmond if he needed any water and he said he was already carrying quite a lot of liters.

“Do you have enough gallons?,” I asked.

This made him smile. The ice was broken.

We snapped some photos at the trailhead and then began the adventure. The sun was just beginning to peak over the eastern rim as we started our descent, creating a soft shade of blue in the sky. The air was crisp and there was a slight breeze. As we set off, Desmond underscored what we were about to attempt.

“Remember,” he said. “Going down is optional, Coming up is not.”

 





The goal is

5 07 2012

It’s a dusty day in mid June and I haven’t seen a raindrop in months. Welcome to summer in the high desert of Arizona.

My new roommate, Brian, has been working in the Canyon for going on five years now and is exhibiting some of the tell-tale signs of burnout. He’s about five years younger than me and there are times when I feel as if I’m watching myself five years ago. He’s in a problematic relationship, running up big amounts of credit card debt and sleeping a lot.

When I ask him about transferring to another national park or changing careers, he casually shrugs off the suggestion — comfortable, so it seems, in his misery.

Brian and I struck up a friendship around sports, while working together at Maswik Lodge. Brian has a superior knowledge of athletics and is what I was once — a walking encyclopedia of sports. He knows all the coaches, players and records for baseball, basketball and football — both college and pro, watches SportsCenter religiously and has an extensive wardrobe of his beloved Boise State Broncos.

Plug in Florida State for Boise State and this guy IS me circa 2001.

When Brian’s roommate quit his job and moved home, I was asked to fill his spot in a cozy one room, one bath efficiency apartment. If Brian didn’t find a suitable new roommate, the company would have stuck him with the next random guy they hired or worse — three internationals. They really deal the internationals a rough hand here. Sometimes placing as many as seven of them in one room.

The move doubled the rent I was paying at Victor Hall, but my recent promotion covered it and having a more private bathroom, small kitchen and Direct TV was an added bonus. And Brian is clean guy who likes to keep things tidy. Another selling point.

With my living accomodations settled, I could concentrate on hiking more, specifically making it to the river. That was, after all, the goal of my time here. A physical challenge to myself and a spiritual journey only a tiny percentage of the population complete.

That’s when Desmond came into the picture.

Desmond was one of the new arrivals from Singapore, although for some reason he was not on friendly terms with the other Singapore guys. This surprised me, but I didn’t press the issue. He came into the gift shop one day searching for a long sleeve white shirt, which for some strange reason we did not carry. The request, however, prompted a conversation — Desmond wanted to go hiking. I told him I had already made the trek to Plateau Point and back.

“How long did it take?,” Desmond asked.

I hadn’t really timed it, so I estimated, “about seven hours,” I said.

“Wow, that’s good,” he responded.

I hadn’t given it much thought, but I guess it was a decent time. Later, I would find out that Desmond is quite the ambitious fellow, who has run a few marathons back home in his native Singapore.

“Do you want to hike to the river and back,” was his next question.

Of course I did, but I wondered privately if I was ready. And yet, here standing in front of me, was my chance. Finding a partner for the journey had been one of my biggest obstacles until Desmond walked into the store. Most of the Americans I had befriended could barely hike out of their dorm rooms and Brian, bless his heart, was unable to hike because he has multiple sclerosis.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

“It’s 17 miles,” Desmond said, cracking a smile.

“Yes, and your point is,” I replied.

We then exchanged phone numbers, became friends on Facebook and set the date and time for our hike. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I knew if I waited much longer, the heat would be unbearable. It was now or never.

To the River!

 

 

 





Saving grace from Singapore

19 06 2012

As I sit down to type another blog entry, it has occured to me that life is indeed grand.

I was down for so long and had been trying to climb out of a hole, that admittedly, I dug for myself. In the process of working diligently to rebuild bridges, repair relationships and regain status, I failed to realize that I might have climbed higher than ever before.

“Is it difficult to accept someone so young as your boss?” was the question posed to me recently by one of my newest Grand Canyon friends, Justin, a university student from Singapore.

This is where humility pays off. As difficult as the last four years of my life have been, my walk through humility has made me a stronger, wiser and all around better person. Of this, I am convinced.

So, yes, I can take orders from a 21-year-old glamour girl who hasn’t the slightest idea which countries are in the European Union or what austerity means.  When she asks me to fold t-shirts or mop the floor, I oblige because all work is honorable and as the old saying goes, “be nice to the people on your way up because you’ll see them again on the way down.”

This I know all too well.

Justin and his fellow Singaporeans have become my saving grace in the Canyon. They arrived at a time when I was considering heading back to Florida, unable to find anyone who I could connect with beyond the usual pleasantries of “Good morning” and “Nice weather today.” Much to my surprise, I found camaraderie with a group of college kids from Southeast Asia.

The Singaporeans, hailing from a former British colony, speak the Queen’s English, albiet with their own distinct dialect — Justin calls this “Singlish” — and even more impressive is their thirst for knowledge and success. We connected early through the social networks of Facebook and Twitter and soon I was hanging out with Justin and his friends every day — meeting for breakfast at the employee cafeteria, going on day hikes into the Canyon and riding the bus to the general store for groceries.

Justin was intrigued about my run for office, particularly challenging the establishment. Apparently this is rare in Singapore — as is any sort of objective media. Still, the country is prosperous and it was quite easy to tell upon their arrival that the Singaporeans were a cut above the rest of the international workers at the park.

Most of the internationals are placed in the kitchen, housekeeping or as cafeteria line servers, where their contact with the public is limited. But of the five Singaporean guys who dared cross the Pacific Ocean to reach American shores for the first time, two were rewarded with retail jobs in gift shops.

I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to cross the globe into a different culture, a different climate and then learn to count a different currency.

But Justin and his crew have done just that and in impressive fashion no less, reinforcing stereotypes of strong mathematical skills and loyal work ethic that are often associated with the Asian community.

They also figured out how to get out of Victor Hall much quicker than I did, convincing the Housing Dept. to placed four of them in a cabin. As one of company’s human resources managers noted, “They are very good negotiators.”

They are also very good friends and I am grateful to have met them. I only hope my future is half as bright as theirs.

 

 

 





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.