Hiking the Grand Canyon from rim to rim is an enlightening experience. In hindsight, it’s one of the most incredible things I’ve done in my life; you find yourself winding along a path that most people in your life will never experience. You spend hours upon hours inside your own head, talking yourself into taking each step and reminiscing on every decision you’ve made in your life. Poet Franz Wright says it best; “the long silences need to be loved, perhaps more than the words which arrive to describe them in time”.
As our group of seven took off from the South Kaibab trailhead at 11AM, we moved fast and with great anticipation, entering into the canyon with views on all sides. We energetically passed other hikers, with our youthfulness and eagerness pushing us down the side of the canyon. The first two water stops were hardly stops, as we pressed forward in hopes of getting to the river in two hours, ponchos and rain jackets keeping us as dry as possible with the rain clouds moving in. In the first hour, it felt as though we were controlling our own destiny, hiking right into the dark clouds that we had been expecting all this week. The rain started early, and didn’t let up. Having a legitimate rain jacket instead of a poncho was one of the best decisions I had made in preparation.
We arrived at the Colorado River in about two hours time, which was much faster than any of us were expecting. Phantom Ranch was everything I had expected and then some. Referencing Donald Miller’s encounters in “Through Painted Deserts”, I had envisioned what the bottom of the canyon would have looked like. There were people from all over the world, sitting around tables with tall glasses of lemonade and handfuls of beef jerky speaking in various languages (seriously, isn’t that what the kingdom of heaven is like?) Phantom Ranch is an oasis in the middle of the desert, with beautiful greenery that you’d never expect down there. Tents were pitched all along the river, which was flowing beautifully with all of the rain that we’d been experiencing. I can say with all certainty that I will be returning to Phantom Ranch to spend some time camping and relaxing (something that wasn’t on our agenda for this trip). We left Phantom Ranch in a hurry, in hopes of continuing our pace. The realization of climbing up rather than down came pretty fast, even as we were winding along the river and slowly progressing up the North Rim. In the 4-5 miles beyond Phantom Ranch, the younger and more agile guys in the group created some distance between us; it’s pretty intimidating to only be 26 years old, but feel like you’re the weak link in a chain of bad-assery. But as we headed towards Ribbon Falls, the aches and pains began to settle in. For me, the burning and pounding was where I least expected it, in my right hip. I spent the last two months building up calluses on my feet and working my quads and calves, which were treating me surprisingly well so far. Every few miles, we’d stop for a quick rest, rarely sitting down in fear that muscles would tighten up and our bodies would enter into a mode that we were nowhere near; rest. The perception of sunny desert and dusty trails was entirely inaccurate for us as well; the rain clouds stayed above us through the duration of the trip; in the evening, temperatures dropped into the mid 40’s and we were all soaked, along with everything in our packs. In the first 10 miles, we took on scattered storms, with rumbling thunder in the distance. But by the time we had made it to Cottonwood, we were all dripping wet, regardless of the gear we had. I could feel my feet absorbing the moisture from my socks, blisters forming along the edges of my heel and toes. You know you’ve been on the trail for too long when your blisters go through the entire circle of life from forming to popping to reforming.
As darkness fell, Adam and I were on the last leg of our journey, stopping every few switchbacks to refuel, rest, and re-align mentally. At this point, the rest of our group was out of sight and we were battling together; the coolness of the night made itself known, as my body began to shiver in the 20-30 second breaks of stillness that came every few switchbacks. It was a battle with no upper-hand, as my mind was ready for completion but my body demanded rest. When the sun goes down, you rely on your headlamp to guide you forward, seeing only 20 feet in front of you with the occasional headlamp off in the distance of another hiker letting you know . Never in my life have I experienced a roller coaster of feelings; from the breathtaking views while soaking up God’s creation to the cold and lonely place that you enter when you simply crave warmth and the coziness of a soft blanket.
With just a few switchbacks left to go, we ran into the rest of our crew, who had rested briefly at the top before making their way back down to take on the second rim to rim. There was so much relief in seeing them taking on the second half of the journey with anticipation, as they were finally heading back down rather than up. While there were feelings of defeat in our decision to end at the North Rim, there was a really fascinating sense of accomplishment to be standing with the group of 7 people that had taken off on an adventure earlier that day. The Grand Canyon isn’t necessarily the most appropriate place to get to know someone or to engage in friendly banter, but simply to encounter the highs and lows of a challenge connects us to one another. Adam and I wished them the best, as I prayed for coverings of protection and safety over them and continued to the top. Arriving at the North Rim trailhead was a mental breath of fresh air in an anti-climatic manner. A half-empty parking lot sat dark, with a single pair of headlights shining brightly. We walked over to a van filled with exhausted hikers, asking for a ride to the Grand Canyon lodge, which was two miles from the trailhead. With a full vehicle, they pointed us in the direction of the hiking trail to the lodge; a couple of miles to add to the journey. At this point, two miles with little incline felt like eating birthday cake compared to the grind we’d been on all day. Adam and I walked along the dark street, distancing each other on our own paces. It was the longest walk of my life, as we would wave our lights and hiking poles every time a car would pass; in retrospect, I wouldn’t dare pick up a hitchhiker in the middle of the night, but for some reason hoped that someone would be crazy enough to get us to the lodge.
When we finally arrived at the lodge, I entered survival mode. I pointed in the direction of the public bathroom, sizing up the handicap stall and asking Adam if he had ever slept in a bathroom before; everything I had read in the time leading up to our trip had said that finding lodging on the North Rim was near impossible, with many people making reservations a year in advance. In the truest form of a scene from “Pursuit of Happiness”, I wondered if a moist emergency blanket could get me through a night of wet clothes as I ran my hands under the hot water. We hobbled into the lodge, which was filled with people in dry clothes and designer gear sipping on wine and enjoying large leather chairs. The “No Vacancy” sign stared us in the face, doubt filling every ounce of my body, despite the prayers of hope that I had been proclaiming as we entered the lodge. A young woman greeted us with a kind, “you made it!” She asked us for our last name. I dropped my head to the ground, Adam doing the same.
“Are you guys here with someone else?”.
We both shook our heads, in both shame and embarrassment. Is there an easy way to tell a stranger that we hadn’t intended on stopping and that the rest of our group was currently on their way back to down to Phantom Ranch? She pointed her finger in the air, asking us to hold on a second, and disappeared behind the back wall, with a glimmer of hope that leads me to believe that she was, indeed, an angel. She came back and said that they had been holding a single room, as they had several cabins that were leaking with all of the rain; they were expecting to move someone upon complaint. I quickly volunteered to sleep in the leaking room, as she placed the paperwork in front of us and assured us that we would spend our evening in a warm room with a fireplace and showers. I don’t think that I’ve ever handed my credit card to anyone as fast as I did in that moment; the young girl noted my Ohio drivers license and made her Midwest roots known, as she had grown up in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Small talk has never felt so good; and in similar fashion to other experiences around the world in hostels and dorms, I heard her own story of adventure, which brought her out to the lodge and likely to another destination in the future. It’s an adventurers mentality and it’s highly contagious when you meet people who took the leap (or road trip, depending on how literal you’re talking). These are the people that I choose to connect with. they may not know where their next bed may be, but they embrace the uncertainty and know that it’s going to make a great story.
Warm showers. A small fireplace. And a bed with multiple layers of sheets. The pre-made ham sandwich and pint of beer at the saloon sealed the deal that we had, indeed, had someone watching over us that evening. I emptied my bag in front of the heat blower, hoping that my clothes would dry out by morning, but our stay was short-lived, as we were able to get spots on a 7AM shuttle back to the South Rim. The next morning, I hobbled to the edge of the North Rim before departing, taking one more look at the Grand Canyon with a subpar cup of coffee in my hand; the canyon is brutal but lovely. Like a soldier standing in salute, I gazed out into the canyon in admiration and respect for the adventure that it brings its visitors each and every day. This challenge has been completed, and it’s time to look ahead to what comes next.
“It’s like trying to describe what you feel when you’re standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or remembering your first love or the birth of your child. You have to be there to really know what it’s like.” –