About an hour before the alarm was set to go off, the temperature finally dropped low enough to make it worthwhile to get halfway into my sleeping bag. We hadn’t eaten all the food allotted for day one, but opted to take all of the extras in our packs rather than stick any in the mule duffle. In our minds it was still possible that we would get halfway up the canyon before one of us would break a leg and we’d need to survive on food ratios for days as we awaited rescue. At least, that’s how I justified bringing twice the recommended amount of food. I don’t know what Nikki was thinking.
After a successful breakfast and a slightly late start, we were at the trailhead at 6AM. The first 30-60 minutes is spent crossing the river and getting to the lowest point of the Bright Angel Trail on the south side, which means that the map shows no elevation change between the trailhead and the first water stop. There is no net change, but the trail does wander up and down a lot, something neither of us were thrilled with after four hours of straight downhill the day before. When we got to the water stop, we did as instructed: soaked all of our clothes to keep cold, sat in the shade, ate a snack, and drank some water. This process would be repeated more times than I could count.
We saw more people in the first two hours on the Bright Angel Trail than we did on the entire Kaibab Trail, which makes sense considering the easier slope, water stops, and outhouses that Bright Angel provides. Stopping so often meant we would pass and get passed by other hikers time and time again. My sister and I can be pretty competitive, if not with each other than with those around us. It was hard being passed by a family with young kids early on, but after a certain point we overtook them and they never caught up again. They may have been full of energy at the start, but kids just don’t have the staying power. Suckers.
We made it to Indian Gardens before the heat of the day, as planned. Indian Gardens is an oasis in the canyon, and has been since the earliest canyon tourists. In addition to drinking water and bathrooms, Indian Gardens has a lot of trees for shade. We found a nice picnic table and ate a few choices pieces out of the sack lunches they’d given us at Phantom Ranch. After an hour, Nikki suggested we keep going. It was just after 10AM, the official start of the heat of the day. Absolutely everyone and everything had told us not to hike at this time, save for the one ranger the day before. That ranger said if we felt good and stayed smart, we could hike through the heat of the day. I was hesitant, but Nikki had it in her mind to reach the top before 4PM so we could pick up our duffle before the mule barn closed. I found this idea to be utterly insane, but the first three hours hadn’t been as draining as I had expected, and I did feel fine to keep moving. The worst that could happen (we hoped) was that we’d get worn out and have to wait out the day in a less comfortable and less beautiful spot. We loaded up our water and went for it.
We made it about 15-20 minutes before we had to stop. We found a place in the shade to sit, ate a snack, and drank some water. I was concerned about getting stuck, and tried to ration my water a little just in case. We started moving again. We would pass by other hikers, which gave me solace that we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to hike in the middle of the day. Of course, they were all going downhill. We were the only ones dumb enough to go up. Another 15 minutes went by and we stopped again. When you include the breaks, we were going at the speedy pace of 0.5 miles per hour. Of course, the elevation change for every half mile was about 300 feet. Each time we finished our break and stood back up, there was a brief moment where I could feel all the pain in my body at once – the blisters on my feet, my worn out calves, the sore shoulders. For a short second the rest of the journey seemed absolutely impossible in my current state. But I took a few steps, settled my weight back into my feet, and kept going.
Nikki led the way most of the time, which was for the best. She could keep a faster pace, and my competitive nature meant I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to slow us down. One could argue that because she had been training for a half marathon and doing yoga every day she was in better shape than I was, which is probably true. But I know that wouldn’t have mattered. When Nikki gets it in her mind to do something, no amount of pain or hardship will stop her. When she graduated high school and decided to move to New York City without a job or apartment lined up, almost nobody believed she would make it. They would make well-meaning jokes, saying she would be back home within a month. I knew better, and so did my mother. I suppose because we had both seen what happens when Nikki decides she is going to do something. And this time, Nikki had decided to climb the Grand Canyon.
We made it to our next stop, the Three-Mile Rest House, and took another long break. There were a lot of people at the Three-Mile Rest House, since it’s about as far as most rangers would recommend you try to go in a single day. I still had plenty of water, which meant my rationing was unnecessary. I still had plenty of food, but I already knew the amount we took was too much. I kept us at the rest house a little longer than Nikki wanted, because I was still concerned about us being in the sun so much. I was being overly cautious for sure, but it seemed appropriate against Nikki’s overwhelming determination.
One of the pages I’d read on the Grand Canyon website listed the “Ten Essentials” for hiking in the canyon. Most were obvious, like water and salty snacks. A few were things a casual hiker might not consider, like a rain jacket and flashlight. Number ten on the list was a Positive Attitude. Nikki embraced this wholeheartedly, and whenever she sensed I was having a hard time (or perhaps whenever she was), she would remind us that we were going to be fine, because she had the number one essential item: a positive attitude. I would remind her that a positive attitude was number ten, but that seemed generally irrelevant. She also got a kick out of being named “Team Leader” on our permit since she was the one who made the reservation. “As team leader, I think we can make it to the top by 4PM. You know why? Because I have a Positive Attitude.”
During one of our shade and food breaks, a man stopped by to chat with us. When we told him we had started our day at the bottom, he pulled back in surprise, “Wow. You guys look fresh.” This was delightful news to us, since we were covered in sweat, dust, and creek water. My shoes were so filthy they’d changed color twice in 36 hours. I think he sensed how surprised we were that we looked good. “Did you see The Frenchman?” he asked.
Apparently there was a man from France hiking up from the bottom that day. He didn’t have a real backpacking backpack, so he was carrying his sleeping mat in his hands the whole time. According to our new friend, The Frenchman and his lady looked absolutely ragged.
We kept our breakneck 0.5 mile-per-hour pace for the next stretch of trail. We saw one of my favorite signs in the park, informing the reader that “Down is Optional, UP IS MANDATORY.” The park does a lot to try to discourage people from making bad decisions, a department known in the park service as Preventative Search and Rescue (PSR). They place signs at key spots where they know people will be when they are about to make a bad decision, such as right before the Three-Mile Rest House, or a few minutes down the South Kaibab trail. In addition, they have PSR Rangers whose job it is to walk up and down the trails near the top, asking people about their hiking plans and making sure they’re prepared. The PSR Ranger at Three-Mile didn’t ask us anything, probably because she saw we were coming up and not going down (by the time people are walking up, they’ve already made most of their bad decisions). However at the 1 1/2 Mile Rest Stop, a PSR Ranger arrived after we did, and started talking to us as we were filling up our water bottles.
“How you doing?” he asked.
“Great,” I told him, “We’re almost there.”
“Well…” he replied, “It’s a long way up from here.” He was looking at me the way I look at my Sunday School kids when they ask to use the glitter.
“But it’s short in comparison,” I told him, “We started at the bottom.”
He told us to be careful because it was hot out, and I tried not to laugh at him. No kidding, I hadn’t noticed. Nikki felt like we hadn’t convinced him. I thought he just wasn’t used to ending encounters without a warning.
Despite our confidence after several hours of successful hiking in the heat of the day, we were still a bit nervous. We had been told many times that the hardest part of the hike is the very end. And we still had that coming. To make matters worse, the very end of the hike is also when you start to encounter tourists. It is astounding what some people will do when entering a serious situation with a lighthearted attitude. We would see people walking down in flip-flops, tanks-tops and shorts with no water and without so much as a hat to protect them front the sun. We saw children running so far ahead of their parents that we started to wonder if something had happened to them on the trail and the kids just didn’t notice. The day before one of the rangers said she once saw a woman on the trails in sparkly high heels trying to feed a granola bar to a rattlesnake. On our way up we overheard a PSR Ranger talking with some women about their hiking plans. The ranger helped them do the math based on the time of day and how long it would take them to get to their destination. “So do you all have flashlights?” she asked. The women stared blankly. “Well,” she continued, “with your current plans it will be dark for the last hour of your hike. If you don’t have flashlights you might want to turn around sooner.” The PSR Ranger passed us and continued up the trail at a speed that would have seemed fast on level ground. Nikki’s competitive instincts kicked in and she immediately sped up. I had to yell up to her to slow down. “She’s a ranger, Nikki, she does this every day. And she didn’t start at the bottom.” Nikki agreed and slowed down, but I could tell she didn’t like it.
As we got close to the top, it was emotionally harder to take breaks, even though we knew we had to. The canyon is deceptive, because the layered ledges make it impossible to see the top for most of the hike up. All you can see is the top of the next level. What’s more, it’s hard to maintain a sense of scale, because you’re not used to being so close to rocks and walls that huge. It’s easy to look up, see a ledge, and think you’re almost there. In reality, you still have 3/4 of a mile to go and it’s time to take a break.
We were munching in the shade on one such break when we saw him: The Frenchmen. He was unmistakable. He was holding a sleeping pad in his arms, and he looked awful. Both of them did. For a brief moment I considered the possibility that the park dresses people up like refugees in order to scare would-be hikers from venturing down too far. They really looked bad. Like extras from a movie about the Exodus from Egypt. After they passed by Nikki turned to me and asked, “How did they get that dirty? We aren’t that dirty.” Later on we would pass The French on our way to the top, and we never saw them again, Nikki pointed out that not only did we beat The Frenchman to the top, we did so looking “fresh.”
As we approached the summit, the people around us became more reckless, worse dressed, much louder, and more numerous. The hiker we met the day before was right: you do start to hate everyone you see. They don’t know what you’ve been through. They won’t be able to handle it. Lucky for us, Nikki still had her Positive Attitude.
When we finally reached the top, we hugged and yelled, and asked a woman to take a picture of us in front of the trailhead. She seemed oddly unimpressed with our accomplishment, though at that point everyone seemed to be under-reacting, since I felt they should have been throwing a damn parade.
Of course Nikki couldn’t help but point out the time. It was just after 4PM. The walk to the car would take an extra ten minutes, so we wouldn’t get to the mule barn in time, but that didn’t matter. It was 4 o’clock. We had hiked a vertical mile in just over 10 hours, including breaks. It was two hours less than our estimate, and it was exactly when Nikki intended to get to the top. God help us if she ever decides to do anything truly destructive to the world.
After practicing our McKayla Maroney impressions at Hoover Dam and grabbing an interesting meal at the Road Kill Cafe (“Do you wanna sit at the bar or the bullshit bar?” asks the 14-year-old boy who is old enough to take your drink order but not old enough to fill it), we made it to Grand Canyon National Park. We got to the mule barn just in time to give them our duffel bag, and went to the backcountry office to ask the rangers a few last minutes questions. Nikki saw a sign that showed 71% of fatalities in the canyon are men and remarked with complete sincerity, “That makes me feel better. We’ll be fine.” Of course those statistics are undoubtably based on the fact that far more men hike than women, but I didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer. We wanted to check out the rim before heading to our hotel, so we drove over and pulled in at the first overlook point we could find.
The Grand Canyon is exactly as massive as you think it is, and probably looked bigger to us because of how much time we’d spent in anxious anticipation. We took pictures and nervously joked about how it wasn’t too late to turn back, when I told my sister, “Hey, this was your dumb idea.”
“No it wasn’t,” Nikki replied.
“Yes it was,” I said. “You’re the one who asked about coming along, and you said we should hike the Grand Canyon.”
“Yeah, but you’re the one who told me about Phantom Ranch and needing lodging at the base.”
“Wait, so this wasn’t your idea?”
“No, I thought it was yours.”
We woke up the next morning at 3AM in order to park the car near the ranger station and catch the 4AM shuttle to the trailhead. On the recommendation of the website, we would be taking the South Kaibab Trail down, and the Bright Angel Trail back up. At least twenty other people were on the bus with us, and with the exception of one couple that hiked down just far enough to catch a good view of the sunrise, all appeared to be headed to the bottom. The South Kaibab Trail is beautiful and constantly winding around. We never knew where we were headed next, and often had trouble figuring out where we’d been. The Kaibab is also incredibly steep and rocky. Downhill climbing can be very difficult, and occasionally I could feel it in my knees. We never saw anyone climbing back up the Kaibab, and we couldn’t imagine trying. There’s absolutely no water, you’re in the sun almost the whole time, and there’s only one bathroom.
I had gotten it in my head that it should take four hours to hike down. When talking with Nikki on the trail she told me everything she read said six hours, and I realized I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten the four-hour estimate from. We made it down to the bottom in six, just in time to jump fully clothed into a stream as the heat of the day approached.
Many people have asked me about the Colorado River, which is the only reason I’ll bother mentioning it at all. It is a big river at the base of the canyon. It is large and green, and they recommend against swimming because of the current. It was fun to look for it on the way down as a way to gage how far we had left. At the base, we crossed a large pedestrian bridge of the Colorado to get to Phantom Ranch. When we left the next morning, we crossed another bridge to get back to the south side of the canyon. Other than that, we never really saw it or hung out near it. The clear, cold, waters of the creek running just below our campsite were plenty for us.
After eating lunch, settling in, and sitting in the creek for awhile, Nikki and I opted to take a nap for most of the afternoon. We set out a tarp in the shade near the creek and caught up on the sleep we missed by getting up at 3AM. When my half of the tarp creeped out of the shade I got up and wandered around for a bit, eventually attending a ranger talk on the California Condor. The Grand Canyon hosts one of the few existing flocks of California Condors, and in addition to learning a lot of other sweet things about the nearly extinct scavengers, I learned how to properly distinguish them from other Grand Canyon birds. Perhaps we’d catch a glimpse of one on the way back up.
I went back to the campsite, where Nikki was talking with the enforcement ranger (the ranger who makes sure you have your permit in order). We asked her a few questions, and talked about our plans for the next day. We’d been told many times not to hike between 10AM and 4PM, but we had gotten some conflicting information about how far up we should plan to be when we stop for the afternoon. After sizing us up, the enforcement ranger said to aim for the Indian Gardens rest spot, but that we could probably keep hiking “if we were feeling good.” This was a surprise to us, since we’d been told time and time again not to hike in the heat of the day. The next day Nikki and I would come to the conclusion that they give everyone the safe advice, but after seeing that we were both young, fit, and not at all suffering after the hike down, the ranger figured we’d be okay. It probably helped that when the ranger stopped by, Nikki was in the middle of a Bikram Yoga session, which she opted to do in the sunshine. The sunshine temperature was 130 degrees, which is 25 degrees hotter than hot yoga is meant to be. Of course, Bikram also requires 40% humidity, and we had 1%.
We had a great meal at the lodge and got to talk with some of the other hikers. It’s a lot of fun being down at Phantom Ranch. You are a member of a very exclusive club. It’s possible to ride a mule train to the base rather than hike, but the mule ride isn’t a walk in the park either. Everyone at Phantom Ranch had to work to be there, both in planning and in physical exertion. We were warned by another hiker that as you get near the top, you start to hate everyone you see. They’re all tourists who have no idea how hard a Grand Canyon hike is, and have no respect for the place they’re visiting. He turned out to be right, but more on that in the next post. After dinner we went to another ranger talk, this one about a pair of brothers and their adventuresome and photographic history with the Grand Canyon. The interpretive ranger leading the talk offered to grab her black-light and take people on a quick scorpion hunt after the talk, which I was happy to participate in. Nikki and I opted to leave the rainfly off the tent, and slept on top of our sleeping bags since it was still 90 degrees outside. We set our alarms to get up for the 5AM breakfast, and fell asleep looking up and the night sky and wishing we knew more about astronomy.
On the assumption that trail mix sold at the top of the Grand Canyon would be $50 a bag, my sister and I opted to do all our food shopping in Las Vegas. Buying snacks for our hike was one of the strangest grocery experiences I’ve had. We read on the canyon website that we should bring a lot of food, enough to eat 300-500 calories per hour. It also said to bring salty snacks to make up for the salt your body loses in sweat, and junk food items like candy and chips because they will be calorie dense and (emotionally) satisfying. Nikki had been training for a half-marathon and on a fairly strict diet, and I’d been doing my best to keep my junk food in check knowing the lure of the road side convenience store. But there we were, standing in the Fremont Street Walgreens, looking at labels to find the most fattening, high calorie, salty junk foods possible.
There was beef jerky, Oreos, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, Swedish Fish, Chewy bars, Gatorade, and so much more. We also tried to factor in what I already had in my car (raisins, dried fruit, etc.) We had pre-ordered a dinner, breakfast, and to-go lunch from the kitchen at Phantom Ranch (the lodge at the base of the Grand Canyon), but without knowing what would be in the lunch we planned as though we wouldn’t have it. I got out a calculator and Nikki and I got to practice our mental math skills trying to add up the total calorie counts for what we had in our basket. It was plenty. More than plenty.
Back in our hotel room we grabbed a box of plastic sandwich bags and got to work separating out the food. The goal was to make individual bags that would hold about 400 calories worth of a particular snack. That way it would be easy to compare how many bags you’d finished with how many hours you’d hiked to ensure you were staying within the 300-500 calorie recommendation. Once it was all bagged up, we compared the number of bags with our predictions for how long the hike would take. We had way too much food.
Next came the packing. We opted to get duffle service, which allows you to pack a bag of stuff that you don’t need on the hike itself and have it sent down on one of the daily mule trains. We compared lists we’d made, adding to them as we thought of things. We figured out what could go in the duffle (sleeping bags, tent, Gatorade for the second day, etc), and started to divvy up the rest. We had shared items like a pair of binoculars or a tube of Neosporin. Other things we doubled up on for obvious reasons, like rain jackets and flashlights. For those who enjoy this sort of thing (like me), here’s the lists I made to help us pack:
In the Duffle:
- sleeping bags
- Day Two food
- change of underwear/shirt
- water bottles
- rain jacket
- extra socks
- ankle wraps
- toilet paper
- water purification tablets
- hand sanitizer
- signal mirror
- camping permit
- writing pad
- ID/credit car/cash
- toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)
- ankle wraps
- water bottles
- rain jacket
- extra socks
- car key
- ID/credit car/cash
- spray bottle
- mole skin
- swiss army knife
- hand sanitizer
- toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)
- hiking shoes
- long-sleeve button-up
- trekking poles
Looking back now, our packing was generally good. With the possible exception of buying and bringing too much food, we hit the sweet spot between having enough without carrying too much. Anything we didn’t use was the kind of thing you bring hoping you won’t need it (first aid, signal mirror). A few things stand out as being really handy:
Bandana and Long-Sleeve Shirt – Both of these were recommended by the park website. It’s the desert, so even through it’s hot you’re better off covering up your skin to avoid sun exposure (think about how people dress in middle eastern deserts). The added bonus of these two items is that you can easily remove them and soak them with water in a stream or at the water pump. Known officially as evaporative cooling, you’re essentially doing what your body does when it sweats: getting moisture on your skin so the evaporation process can cool you off. It’s so dry in the desert most sweat evaporates instantly, so your body needs a little help.
Trekking Poles – Nikki was worried that trekking poles would be more of a nuisance than an asset, and I was worried about how many we should get if we got them (one each? two? three to alternate between us?) We asked a ranger at the backcountry office who told us without hesitation to rent two poles each. I noticed the benefit within the first two hours down the trail, and Nikki soon agreed. The poles take pressure off your knees and leg muscles, as well as allowing you to stay balanced while using less energy. Easily the best $12 I spent.
So we were ready. We were scared, but we were ready.
It has occurred to me from time to time that I can’t do this whole thing flying by the seat of my pants. While many who have come before me have encouraged me not to over-plan, even they will admit that sometimes reservations must be made. While different sources will tell you different things, most will agree that making concrete lodging plans about two weeks in advance is usually enough. My guess is that will be the case for most places I want to stay on my trip. Except of course, for the biggest one.
Not long after my blog was public, my sister emailed me asking when I was going to the Grand Canyon, and how important the “solo” part of my solo road trip was. We quickly hatched a plan for her to take a few days off work to meet me as I pass through Vegas, drive to the Grand Canyon, and hike the length of it as a team. I knew hiking all the way to the bottom and back was no small feat, but I also knew that hundreds of amateur hikers do it every year. I figured as long as we were prepared, we’d be fine.
I asked my sister to look into lodging at the base of the canyon (you can’t go down and up in a single day, so you must either camp or get a room in the Phantom Ranch hostel at the bottom). Meanwhile, I was listening to ranger podcasts and reading up on the “must pack” lists to ensure we wouldn’t get heat stroke or lose all our salt by sweating. The more I navigated the national park’s website, the clearer it became: if you want to hike the full canyon this summer, you should have been planning last spring. Phantom Ranch makes a point of opening reservations no more than 13 months in advance, and tells people to expect the phones to be busy the first few days of every month due to the mass of reservation calls they get when next year’s beds are opening up. So of course, Phantom Ranch was full.
Though the thought of lugging a tent and sleeping bag up a vertical mile sounded abismal, I was willing to try for a camping permit. My sister sent in the request form, and I resigned myself to the thought that it would never happen. I started thinking of alternative plans. A week went by.
Then one day I’m at work and see that I’ve got a voicemail from my sister. I play it and the first thing I hear is her singing, to her own invented tune “We’re hiking the Grand Canyon!” Apparently even the man who booked it was shocked that they still had a spot open. Our camping permit allows us to pitch a tent at the base of the canyon, and now we’ll try to get a reservation for duffle service. Explained to us as “half a mule,” duffle service is a way to get a small amount of luggage down and back up the canyon without strapping it to your own back. If we can swing that as well as a few meal reservations at Phantom Ranch, this whole thing just might work out perfectly.
This may seem strange, but somehow I after hearing such fantastic news, I ended up with the song “Sixteen Bars” stuck in my head. In subject matter it’s from out of left field, but by the end of the song I feel like the sentiment of trying so hard to get something impossible is spot on to how I feel right now. We’re doing this.
In my planning, I try to keep an open mind about where to go, what’s worth seeing, and what really qualifies as a detour. After all, nothing is really out of the way when you’re not going anywhere. My trip is a circle, and the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” is overly applicable. Things can only be out of the way if they make it impossible for me to see something else. So I’m going to have to prioritize. I thought it best to put together a “Must See List” to give myself more direction. So, as of right now, here are the eight things I feel like I Must See on this trip:
- Grand Canyon
- Niagara Falls
- San Francisco, CA
- The Deep South
- Roswell, NM
- Memphis, TN
- Glacier National Park
- The Oregon Vortex
One thing to remember about this list, is that it is personal to my experience. This is not a Must See for the United States. For example, if I had never seen any of the U.S. before, places like Mount Rushmore and New York City would be obvious choices. They’re not on the list because I have already seen them, so if I miss them on this trip it’s not a big deal.
There are a few other places that I originally thought were must see destinations, but in the spirit of setting priorities, I had to make some tough choices. When thinking of a destination, I asked myself if I might visit this place again one day. Certain cities, such and Chicago, IL and Austin, TX, are places I intend to see someday regardless. If not this trip, then the next one. More importantly, they are destinations by themselves. A year from now I could see myself flying to Chicago for a week. I can’t say the same about Niagara Falls.