9) Grand Canyon National Park
– Jan. 23 – 31, 2014
“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain… that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
There is an insane sort of satisfaction that comes from making things harder on oneself, particularly in a time and place where things come to us easier than ever before. I think the deep-seeded notion is to find some divine sense of merit in the suffering that one places on him or herself, a sacrifice for not having the burden thrust there unwillingly, and further a perceived sanctity in others’ observation of his or her pain. I try to keep this in mind and not be proud of my life without a home, without electricity or running water or even necessarily the illusion of safety derived from such luxuries. For those who give up anything give it up for themselves, and there is nothing in our decisions or interactions that is not derived from one form or other of selfishness. Selfishness, then, if unavoidable, can at least be celebrated and embraced in the knowledge that a life lived in pursuit of happiness does harvest happiness, and that happiness does spread to others around and is not after all self-contained.
I also try to keep this all in mind, for example, when I’m 8 miles deep into a 9.1 mile all-up-hill hike from the bottom to the top of the Grand Canyon – this was all my doing and I have paid a sizeable fee to claim ownership of this quite unnecessary feat.
In the afternoon of Thursday January 23rd we arrived at Grand Canyon National Park. We stayed in Maswik Lodge for the night. Maswik’s internet was spotty but we were able to clean up our dishes and our selves and enjoy the room for the night. I think also that this is where we broke even on our December 13th purchase of an “America The Beautiful” National Parks Pass for ourselves, costing $80.00 up front, but us having saved that amount of money by now in free passes to parks and monuments that otherwise would have cost $5 or $10 each, here and there.
We were, however, disappointed to realize earlier that morning, that the Meteor Crater site a bit east of Flagstaff, had been owned privately, and was charging an unprecedented $16 per person to look at a 50,000 year old hole-in-the-ground, something they had years earlier built a fence around and declared their private property. This was rather deflating to us, who had driven about 40 minutes out of our way, coming straight from Lowell Observatory with something of a taste for anything outer-space-related, only to find that the largest meteor crater in North America (or maybe the entire world – I forget which) had been pathetically fenced off by some private owners who now charged significantly more money for entry than any National Park or Monument we had seen in about 9,000 kilometres and almost three months of travel. Beyond this, when we found a dirt road nearby the crater and thought we might drive down it for a bit just to see if we could get a distant glimpse of the crater, we were within minutes escorted back by “Meteor Crater Security” who drove an expensive and brand new SUV and were presumably paid a full time wage for doing so. Their need for security seemed bandage-like in solution: removing their full time security and expensive brand new SUV would enable them to drastically reduce their $16-per-person admission and in turn would eliminate or greatly reduce the number of people unwilling to pay their unreasonably high prices. I wondered what stopped some level of government from intervening and expropriating that land away from them, to protect and facilitate the affordable and proper tourism of a unique natural site – something they had done in dozens of dozens of other places around the country, but not yet here. I wondered then if there could ever be legal actions made to extol principle over finance, or community over private acquisition of wealth. Perhaps, one day. We never paid the $32 to glance at their 50,000 year old hole-in-the-ground, and I was comforted to remember that many holes in the ground I had seen before were probably at least as old anyways, if not older.
We had been given a tip back in Texas somewhere by someone: When arriving at Grand Canyon National Park, call and inquire about any cancellations at Phantom Ranch, just in case. Phantom Ranch is the cabin at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, lying eastward between the South and North rim, about 50 miles North of Williams. Reservations for their cabins, the only cabins anywhere in the entire bottom of the Grand Canyon, usually were made more than a year in advance. We were lucky in that this was the winter, the least busiest time of the year for this particular adventure, and when we asked the question on Friday the 24th, we were confirmed to spend the night at Phantom Ranch for the approaching Monday (January 27th). Our luck continued, as the weather was perfectly cool, not too hot, and with no snow, during a time of year where snowfall would not be unrealistic at the Grand Canyon. I think if it had been snowing we might have reconsidered such a hike, and to do the hike in the hot Arizona months of summer would have been even less considerable. Shortly after attaining the reservation at Phantom Ranch for the night of the 27th, we called back and secured a second consecutive night, to allow a day to rest up at the bottom of the canyon – the hike, each way, would take the better part of a day, so if we had only spent one night at the bottom, we would have to turn around and leave again early the next morning.
After making these reservations on Friday, we hiked a part of the way down the Bright Angel Trail, to the first rest point located 1.5 miles down. Bright Angel Trail is one of two main paths from the south rim that travels all the way to the bottom of the canyon. It is 9.1 miles long, but is overall less steep than South Kaibab, the other main path to the bottom which is only 7.3 miles. We hiked 1.5 miles down the Bright Angel Trail and then 1.5 miles back up again, and got a feel for a small fraction of what we would experience on Monday, and then again on Wednesday coming back up. Neither of us had any serious hiking experience, and having not anticipated walking to the very bottom in advance of our arrival, had not prepared physically whatsoever. This is where I will say, for anyone who does not know, that Kat was diagnosed at age 4 with Muscular Dystrophy, grew up in and out of hospitals, underwent 17 major surgeries specifically on her legs and feet between the ages of 10 and 16, had one of her legs lengthened with a metal cage known as an Ilizarov apparatus, only to be cut in half and shortened again years later, who has spent spans of time in wheelchairs and on crutches, and who still maintains ferocious determination to live life to the fullest in spite of nerve pain and many related symptoms. I always tell Kat that I don’t want to identify her or her achievements as champion against adversity, lest I define her by those very adversities. Who Kat is, and her strength which is self-evident and visible, exists to me not in spite of anything, but rather as a result of the positive choices she has made for herself over and over again. She has told me, however, in cases such as these (discussing her accomplishment of hiking up and down the Grand Canyon for example) her adversities are relevant in part to tell the whole tale, and so I bring them up to more fully demonstrate her achievement here, which is without a doubt, quite considerable. I could also bring them up again in remembrance to our recent other hikes including those at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, or in Sedona, Arizona, to name a couple.
We spent Saturday and Sunday at the top of the south rim, driving around the park and rim of the canyon, packing and grocery shopping in preparation of our approaching hike, and doing our laundry and showering near the park’s camp site. I rented a giant hiking backpack, along with a couple pairs of hiking poles and a Jet Boil which boils water within minutes and is quite compact. At the market on Saturday night, we met a man named Al who was from Michigan and was probably in his 70’s. He had been visiting his brother – in Phoenix, I think – and decided he would make the drive to walk down the Grand Canyon, as he had done years ago. He was admittedly not prepared for the hike, as it had been a last minute decision. He had a few snacks and some water, but we gave him one of our ziplock bags of apple chips that we had made back in Ontario, and he offered that we come visit him if we’re ever in Flint.
We slept in on Monday morning, my alarm for some reason not sounding when it should have. We had been sleeping in the trailer in various parking lots for the past few nights since our stay at the Maswik Lodge. We scrambled to get everything together to catch the bus to the top of the South Kaibab Trail, about a ten minute drive away. We left our car at the top of the Bright Angel Trail so that it would be there for us when we got back on Wednesday evening. By the time we truly started our descent down South Kaibab it was 10am, and it actually took us 8 hours to reach the bottom. The trail is very steep, and there seems to be mixed opinions, if you start to ask around, as to whether hiking down is easier or harder than hiking up. For Kat, hiking down was the harder of the two, while for me, we would find out a few days later, hiking up proved more difficult. There are a few levels to the Grand Canyon, as if there is a canyon within a canyon within a canyon, so when you look down from the top, what you think is the bottom of the canyon is only the bottom of the first level, and vice versa looking up from the bottom. Each level seemed to grow more beautiful, and the further and longer we walked, the fewer and fewer people we ran into, and we were left with the isolating reality that the only way to arrive in safety at the bottom was to push onward against any passing desire to just lay down and quit. It is advisable to take breaks every hour, and we certainly packed carefully, choosing to carry extra weight against potentially running out of any supplies. We carried two gallons of water down for the two of us, so our water weight alone was almost twenty pounds, not counting all the food and clothes and emergency supplies we had packed. Some people said we carried too much with us, but we were packed in preparation of having enough supplies for a full extra day than anticipated, in case of emergency. As it turns out, we would need it.
Along the way to the bottom via South Kaibab Trail, there are a few rest stops, all of which offer drinking water from taps during the summer months, but are shut off in the winter. This means that we would have to bring enough water to have for the entire walk down the canyon, and we decided liberally on one gallon each. I remember the first lookout was about a mile and a half down, called Ooh Ahh Point because of its visual beauty and panoramic photo and opportunities. Then about 3 miles down there was Skeleton Point. I don’t remember the remaining couple of stops, but all of them consisted basically of just composting toilet houses, and in the summer, fresh drinking water. Still, they worked well as distance markers to gauge how far along one is, or has yet to go.
Phantom Ranch can be seen from the South Kaibab Trail probably 2 miles before you can actually walk through its doors, so there is a mix of excitement and frustration to finally see the Ranch and the Colorado River but not actually be able to get there for another couple of hours. From there, we could also see the river’s white beaches, something I didn’t know existed down there until I saw it from a distance with my own eyes. We arrived at 6pm, after an 8 hour, steep, downhill hike, and our dinner was reserved in the main lodge for 6:30pm. With just enough time to find our cabin and put our backpacks down, we walked in for our prearranged dinners of beef and vegetable stew. The meals are very expensive, but they are ordered in advance and carried down by mule every day, the waste being carried right back up. We had each ordered one dinner for that first night, plus a breakfast each for the next two mornings. The other meals we would make for ourselves with the Jet Boil and some dehydrated meals we had carried down, along with tons of snacks and electrolytes.
We awoke, much to our surprise, with a lot of energy, and a strange enthusiasm to continue hiking around at the bottom of the canyon, on Tuesday January 28th. We had assumed that after an 8 hour hike the night prior, we would want a full day to rest up before leaving to hike back up on Wednesday morning. We should have, in hindsight, remembered that the purpose of staying for an extra night was to rest up before hiking back, but there was an allure to keep going driven by the prospect that this might be our only chance to ever come here, at least for a very long time anyways. There was a waterfall called Ribbon Falls that was 5.5 miles away from Phantom Ranch, but we were told that the round trip hike of 11 miles would only take 6 hours since it was mostly flat walking. In hindsight we agreed we were both grateful to have seen the first 2 or so miles out to Ribbon Falls. The views and geography were un-relatable to anything I have seen before, as we followed a stream for miles through vast cuts of jagged rocks. Along the way we saw some mountain goats who completely blended in with their surroundings, and I only ever noticed them when they moved. While standing still, staring back at us cautiously from across the stream, they were almost invisible. We had been seeing deer everywhere as well, both at the top and at the bottom of the canyon. Deer have not been hunted in this area for more than a hundred years, so the deer were not afraid of us at all. As the trail progressed, and cool stream shaded by massive, almost glowing, rocks, made way for a barren desert trail which was exposed to the open sun and was growing more rocky and difficult, we continued over and over again to consider if and when we should just turn around and go back. Again and again, we plodded on, focused on a singular destination, one which was said to be quite beautiful, and which few ever hike far enough to see. By the time we actually reached Ribbon Falls, we were exhausted, and daunted by the fact that we would have to just turn around and walk back the exact way we came. The falls were nice, but the first couple miles of hiking there were at least as beautiful if not more so, and in hindsight we should have just gone for a shorter walk and paced ourselves for the following day’s hike back up to the top.
Kat’s feet had blistered quite badly and unexpectedly, so by the time we got back to Phantom Ranch from our hike – it had just begun to be dark, by the way, so I was grateful that at least we didn’t have to walk the last couple miles in the dark – we were asking about spending a third night at Phantom Ranch, to give us a true day of rest, something we had now squandered in exchange for our exhausting hike to and from Ribbon Falls. We were lucky that we were in fact able to secure a third night at the Ranch, lest we be forced to walk up the Grand Canyon the next day, blisters or not. We were less fortunate in that the only accommodations available for that third night, the night of Wednesday January 29th, were separate male and female dormitory beds. We were to sleep in separate dorms which contained five sets of bunk beds, so with up to nine other people per dorm. I obtained a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain from the Phantom Ranch lodge – an employee said that if I was willing to carry it back out of the canyon with me, I could keep it. Our day was quite relaxing, but that night would prove restless for us both. While Kat would deal with a woman reading aloud to her friends for more than an hour late into the night, followed by a night of non-stop snoring, I would feel – in some confusion and uncertainty – the effects of bedbugs for the first time.
I must have picked the only bunk with bedbugs, which means they probably had just recently arrived and not yet spread throughout the dorm. There were a few empty bunks, but of the five or six other guys in the room, they all slept soundly. I awoke shortly after falling asleep with an incredible itchy sensation across my entire body, something I initially related to my already dry skin. I thought that my dry skin was reaching an unprecedented level of dryness, so I tried to ignore it and fall back asleep, but try as I might, pangs of itchiness kept me awake and restless. I was also conscious of others in the room, and tried to keep quiet, but the itch kept me up. Eventually I went to the showers, located in a different building, had a shower, and tried to fall asleep again. Kat of course was in the women’s dorm, and had all of the lotions and moisturizers that I thought might save me from what I believed to be dry skin. Many times I considered knocking and waking some strange woman up in the middle of the night to go get Kat for me to get me something for my skin, but every time I decided against it. I felt better after the shower but as soon as I lay down the itch started again. The second time I got out of bed and left the dorm, I stumbled across a Phantom Ranch employee, and told him I was itching and needed some of the salve they sold at their gift shop, which was definitely closed by now since it was probably midnight. He gave me one for free, which was great, except that it didn’t help. It was some time after covering myself in the salve and still feeling itchy that I considered for the first time that my bed was the cause of the problem. I looked in a mirror and there were definite noticeable red bumps all over me. Finally, I felt a sting on my leg and slapped it. Inspecting closer with my flashlight, I saw for the first time a tiny bedbug, which I had just killed. I tried sleeping for a while on the bench in the shower room, but my discomfort level made it impossible to fall asleep. Around 2am I came back to the dorm, covered one of the empty dorm beds in towels, and slept on top of the towels, until 5am when it was time to get up, eat breakfast, and start the day-long hike back to the top.
Bright Angel Trail is the longer but steadier of the two paths, and our way back to the top finally on Thursday January 30th. This trail followed along the beach and we seemed to walk for at least a mile before we even started to ascend. Along the way the trail crosses back and forth over a creek which apparently varies in width day by day, and fortunately it wasn’t any wider than it had been on January 30th, as our feet only got a little bit wet. I think there was only one real rest stop until about the mid-way point, a camp ground called Indian Gardens, which is the only point along either of the two trails that has fresh drinking water available year round. This meant that I only packed one gallon of water on the way up (instead of two), simply refilling it at Indian Gardens. Indian Gardens is another mile marker of sorts, in that it signifies where and when the path to the top is about to get a whole lot steeper and rougher, where it remains in such a difficult state until the very top. We were surprised at how quickly we arrived at Indian Garden, and even despite the rougher second half, we made it up in only 9 hours, which seemed impressive because it took us eight hours to come down a trail which was shorter, so in a miles-per-hour sense we actually walked up faster than we walked down. Despite my now-optimism based on no longer having to endure that hike, that last few miles became psychologically gruelling for me personally, and I was going through water and electrolytes and protein bars and trail mix et cetera like never before, all of it seeming to have no benefit or giving me no additional energy. This of course, could not have been true, rather, without all of that food energy I might have actually died, so eating and drinking as healthily as I did probably made all of the difference. Still, the last three miles dragged on for about three and a half hours and seemed like forever.
During our stay at Phantom Ranch for the past three days, we met many people, and there were a few couples who made the walk to the top with us. We didn’t all walk together for the whole stretch, but rather we started around the same time, and walked at about the same pace, so that once in a while we would stop for a break and someone might catch up to us, then later they would stop for a break and we would catch up to them, and so on. There was Leroy and Janice, a retired couple who lived in their RV for half of every year, and had been walking down and up the Grand Canyon every week for several weeks by the time we met them. And there was Andrew and Lourdes who were maybe only slightly older than us, and had come down from the Bay Area in California for a vacation. We plan to visit them whenever we pass through the area. Others include Chad, and Bernie, both whom walk down the canyon every year; a painter named Betsy Lombard who was walking with her husband and their friend Paul who was an immigration lawyer in San Francisco; and Maurice, a retired farmer from Ohio who now rented out his farm property including the house and lived in his RV full time.
The official rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, which we did not experience, is a 41.8 mile, popular self-challenge for avid hikers from around the world. The hike begins by taking the Bright Angel Trail through Indian Gardens, through Phantom Ranch, then towards and past Ribbon Falls, through Cottonwood camp ground, to the very top of the North Rim, and then going all the way back again. In the winter, the North Rim is closed completely, so opting out of the hike half way is only possible during its summer season. Our total hike to Phantom Ranch, then Ribbon Falls, and then back to the top again, despite us spreading it out over four days, means we covered about half of the rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. While at the lodge for dinner at Phantom Ranch one night, we met a hiker who had hiked rim-to-rim-to-rim in only twenty hours! He left one day at midnight, and arrived back in the same place, 41.8 miles later, at 8pm that same day! Most people will spend about five days doing this hike, and he did it in one. We had heard stories of people doing it in even less time than that, though we never met them.
The last three miles to the top was the hardest and longest part of the entire four days for me, and I found myself mentally fatigued and worn out. Food and liquid seemed to be doing less and less for me, and the last two rest stops worked against me, no longer appearing as rewards for how far we had come but now as grave reminders of how far we had yet to go. We saw Leroy and Janice and Andrew and Lourdes at both of those last two stops, three miles from the top, and one and a half, respectively. Lourdes made an offhand remark about how they’d wait for us at the top, and she would be celebrating with cognac. I barely remember hearing her say it anymore, and at the time I don’t think I took it seriously or even paid any attention at all (my brain was melting at the time), but when we finally walked up to the top of the South Rim, at the mouth of the Bright Angel Trailhead, there stood Andrew and Lourdes, cognac in hands, and Leroy and Janice. They had all waited for us! We got to the top and they cheered us on, and Andrew took our picture, where I can still see my swollen bedbug-bitten face whenever I look at it, and we all rode the bus back to our cars (the parking lot was like five minutes away on foot, but the bus came around every 15 minutes and we felt like we had walked enough for the day).
At the top of the canyon again, we washed our clothes and had showers by the camp sites, and this is where we met four people doing something quite similar to our trip. They drove a bugged out Toyota van with a Maine licence plate, but I don’t think they were from Maine (I forget the story now). They were travelling the U.S. and en route to Mexico where they would be living on a boat for the rest of the winter, until they drove up the west coast in April, where we might run into them again. They too have a blog, called One Long Trip.
On Friday January 31st we woke up in one of the camper’s parking lots, ready to head west once again. For the first time to us, it began to snow. It occurred to one of us that we had been in Arizona for exactly one month – when we came from Gallup New Mexico into the Petrified Forest on December 31st. We found another part of the old Route 66, ate at the Road Kill Cafe, and at night drove across the border into Nevada.