Grand Champions

26 12 2012

The final section of the trail was brutal, people were moving at all kinds of paces. Desmond was clear out of sight. My knee was killing me so I stopped and sat on a rock. It was dusty just like me. The wind was whipping now and earlier I had gotten an eye full.

Previously, we had stopped at the last rest area to escape the high afternoon sun and its covered benches were packed with people — many who were not budging. I found that a little odd. Could they not tell we were distressed?

‘They are coming from the other side, John,” Desmond said.

Some of them looked familiar from our time at Phantom Ranch, others had trekked down from the rim. We stood under the middle of the shelter, hoping for someone to give up their seat. Fat chance. After a while, I retreated outside and found shade under a nearby cottonwood tree. Desmond followed, but did not want to rest. He signaled for me to continue up the trail. I signaled back that I needed a break. He then began hiking without me.

At this point I started to think why was I here. What possessed me to do this and why oh why had I moved across country and placed myself into extreme isolation? Jokingly, I had referred to my time in Grand Canyon as a period of exile. But was it really a joke? Having made the leap from journalist to politician, my career was indeed at the crossroads. I saw the Canyon as an opportunity for a fresh start in an environment where I would have no trouble clearing my head.

Whenever I would feel depressed, all I had to do was take a short walk up to the rim and gaze into the grandness of nature. No pharmaceuticals could take me away like a look into the vast and magnificent Canyon. I was sure there was someone up there right now looking down at me … a tourist, park ranger perhaps or even the All Mighty. Slowly, I began to climb again, placing more weight on the good knee as I hiked into the evil Coconinos.

The stops became more frequent, just to catch my breathe and rest my knee. It was at this before mentioned rock where I would have my last chat with a fellow hiker. Here I was sitting on this rock, dusty and damn near beaten, when all of the sudden an energetic Canadian appeared. He was a little older than me; a family guy on vacation from somewhere north of Spokane. I told him I worked in the park and this was my first rim to river and back excursion and he, seemingly unimpressed, asked why I had come to work in a place like this.

“How can you move so far away from your home?,” he asked.

“Work,” I replied.

We then went into the inevitable political discussion to which I listened much more than I spoke. You know the lines. America is going to hell and all that crap and I’m from Canada so naturally I am superior to you. Finally, he hiked on. I waited for him to get a lengthy head start and then followed, dodging mule poop and chomping on the last of my power bar. Surprisingly, I found Desmond waiting at the final water stop a long with a hearty company of hikers, many I had seen throughout the climb. I mustered a smile and continued to hydrate. I was glad Desmond waited for me. It clearly demonstrated his patience.

We hiked the last part together. In stride and overjoyed. The closer we got to the trailhead, the more people would stare. We were exhausted and disheveled, but seeing the trailhead and its bustling tourist activity gave us that final incentive to sprint to the top. We did it. Almost 12 hours and 18 miles of intense mountain hiking that no park ranger would recommend. It was my greatest athletic achievement. I was never good enough to play football, basketball or baseball in school. My body was undeveloped in those years and my confidence hidden behind chess pieces.

The pain from my knee was almost forgotten as we declared victory at the trailhead. There was a group of French tourists posing for pictures nearby and I asked them if they would please take our picture — as evidence of this amazing journey. A nice woman happily agreed and I was sure to say, ‘merci.’ An incredible feeling of accomplishment came through me as she took our picture. The fear and uncertainty I felt as we barely caught the bus earlier that morning had been defeated by a successful hike to the river and back. It was then that I truly believed there were Bright Angels amongst us.



Pain sets in

14 11 2012

As soon as we arrived at Indian Gardens, I headed straight for the outhouse. I had been holding in pee for a good while and just too prudish to stop along the trail. Traffic had begun to pick up as there were several groups of people resting underneath the massive Cottonwood trees. We were still three miles deep into the Canyon.

It was after my outhouse visit that a sharp sting shot out of my left leg. It was severe and it damn near knocked me off my feet. I was surprised by the pain and could only surmise that it was caused by my brief stop of motion. Whatever the case, it hurt. Bad.

I was afraid to let Desmond know just how much it hurt. He had joined a dozen or so other weary hikers around a small water fountain encased in stone. Everyone looked beat. It was still plenty hot and most were battling dehydration. Some took off their hiking boots and rubbed their feet relentlessly, while others laid near comatose alongside their life-sized backpacks.

Desmond was eating his last sandwich when I limped up to the fountain for a sip of water. Nobody said a word. Damn, my leg hurt. Finally, an older woman with a British accent spoke up.

“Are you alright?,” she asked.

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

She was British to a certain extent. She actually declared her independence from the Crown by stating she lived in some obscure island off the coast of France. She wore dark, large rounded sunglasses. Exhausted, I could not find her eyes.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to speak with a fellow hiker. She had hiked down from the Village, leaving her husband along the way. “He can’t make it down here anymore,” she said. “His knees gave out a long time ago.” But here was this woman, significantly my senior, huddled around the water fountain telling her story. Her knees were fine. One of mine was damn near killing me. After about 15 or so minutes, Desmond was ready to go again. He wanted to make it out by sunset and we were losing daylight.

The pain was tempered by the fact I was now hiking into familiar territory. I had hiked this part of the trail before, returning from Plateau Point where I communed with a condor. Surely, he was circling somewhere, I thought. Desmond, meanwhile, began to open up a sizable lead as we neared the dusty redwall limestone part of the hike. The sun still beating down, I lingered in shade every chance I got.

Most hikers will tell you that everyone has their own pace. And almost all will admit to having been part of some race. Desmond was viewing this as a competition. Initially that is. We would go on other hikes where time was not so much a concern, but for the rim to river excursion, Desmond was looking to break records. At this point in the hike, I was just trying to keep up.

I tried to keep him in eye range. It became more difficult as we climbed and with eager tourists appearing at every turn. You could tell the hikers from the tourists by the simple fact that NO ONE would try to hike the Grand Canyon in flip flops. And yet they appeared more frequently as we neared the rim. There were a few times where I stopped to catch my breathe and I would see Desmond on a cliff in the horizon waving his arms for me to catch up. The sun was beginning to disappear as the trail took to one corner of the massive canyon. The climb out was underway.


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.

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.

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.”