I have been slow to write about my hike into the depths of Grand Canyon National Park. Partly because it’s difficult to describe the beauty and my emotional state of accomplishment, partly because I’m exhausted, but also because I worry that trying to describe it will make the magic disappear. From the moment I drove into the park, I was under a spell. I have written in previous posts about the class I had in high school where we hiked to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. In later years that class added a trip to the Grand Canyon and a hike to the bottom and out again to their roster. I have always been jealous that the classes after me experienced this and I missed out. When I told my teacher I was going to be near the Grand Canyon he said “You should take that hike to Phantom Ranch, you can do it, though reservations need to be made a year in advance.” Lowell proceeded to inform me of the details (4-6 hours steep hike down, spend the night and 8-10 hours back out), suggested which trails to take, and he infused a niggling sense of excitement in my soul tempered with a lot of my own fear. I got on the internet and searched out the details and yes, the reservations for a bed at the ranch at the bottom of the canyon were full. Somehow that didn’t stop me, and I got a reservation for a hotel in the village at the top, thinking if it was meant to be there would be a cancellation. I called the morning of my arrival and there was nothing available, but they put my name first on the wait-list and told me to come by the desk at 7pm. At 6:55pm I showed up and the wonderfully patient gal at the desk said, “I thought there was a space, but I don’t see one now, I’m sorry,” and just then the manager walked by and said “oh I’ll override that, let her go.” The manager then proceeded to make all the meal reservations for the next day, bang bang, bang, “Stew dinner at 6:30pm, breakfast at 5:00am and a box lunch. That sound alright with you?” I think my jaw was hanging open at this point as I nodded my head, with an OH MY GOSH, WHAT DID I GET MYSELF INTO? I was then given a crash course in how much water I needed to carry (at least a gallon on the way down), what kind of snacks (salty and sweet), where the shuttle bus departs and the times, where to buy supplies and that the store would close in an hour.
Now to put this all in even better perspective, I didn’t have an appropriate backpack to carry all that water, let alone a container for a gallon of water. I did have snacks and moleskin for blisters and a pair of trail shoes (but not heavy hiking boots), but off to the store I went. I found a wonderful backpack, that was perfect for my needs, with a water pouch enclosed. I went and checked into my hotel room and started pouring over trail maps and hiking advice about what to expect. I also had the pressure to get up and to the bus stop by 7am the next morning all in a new place I wasn’t familiar with. I set the alarm for 5am, enough time to pack my pack, and check out of the hotel and get to the shuttle bus. I made it with 10 minutes to spare, wondering the whole time what I was forgetting and if I was in shape for this craziness.
There were 15 of us waiting for the bus for the South Kaibab trailhead at 7 the next morning, they all looked a lot more organized and were in small chatting groups. I was the only one ALONE. By now I am getting excited, the adventure is happening and I hop off the bus and immediately start off on what I think to be the trailhead. I ask a group of 5 young guys and they assure me that I am headed in the right direction and to feel free to follow them. They were sweet and I followed them down a little way, and when they paused on the trail I passed them by with a wave.
My mouth was agape the whole time looking at the sculpted cliff views and beauty before me. I stopped every 10 feet to snap another photo on my iphone. The trail was steep, but I like going down and concentrated on keeping my feet from blisters (a problem I have in the best of shoes) by putting moleskin on as soon as I felt any hot spots. I was well rewarded for this diligence as I only got a few small blisters. I kept seeing the same group of guys, but I was always a bit ahead of them and they teased me to slow down so they could keep up (they were carrying heavy packs to camp at the bottom, so they had an excuse for being slower). But knowing they were always somewhere behind me was a comfort in case I ever needed help, I knew I would have it!
I sang many a tune, shared Shakespeare monologues with the walls and gave the right-of-way, cheery smiles, and hellos to the weary looking hikers coming up, and tried not to obsess about my return. It was a constant struggle to stay in the moment and not think about how in the heck I was going to survive the ascent.
It was getting hotter and hotter the deeper down I went and I passed a group of three going my way and one woman was having difficulty and didn’t look well at all. This is not an easy trail, steep, zig-zagging back and forth, your legs, feet, and knees all taking a toll, as well as the heat, on your body. Electrolytes are a must, and I had purchased tablets to put in my water. But the beauty all around me was so profound that I almost skipped my way down, trying to keep a measured pace so as not to overdo in my enthusiasm. There was one section that was especially hot and grueling and seemed to go on forever and the misery of the ascending hikers almost made my stomach turn.
But my first glimpse of the Colorado River and the suspension bridge that would take me across to Phantom Ranch gave me tingles. And from that time I was like a horse going back to the barn, drawn down, down, down ever deeper. I was elated that my knees and feet were faring so well, though my legs were shaky at the strain.
There is a tunnel that leads onto the Kaibab suspension bridge and as I went inside I knew I was stepping into another world. When I walked out on the bridge a wind started from out of nowhere and sailed through the canyon whipping the bridge to swaying a little. I was the only one out there and as it blew I just knew it was the Canyon’s way of welcoming me and saying, “you’re finally here, come in.” And all I could think looking down into the river was the Thoreau poem on which I have based my blog name and I said it aloud to the wind.
I was born upon thy banks, river
My blood flows in thy stream
And thou meanderest forever
At the bottom of my dreams.
As quickly as the wind came, in 2 minutes it was completely calm again. I was wanted, and expected with anticipation.
I still had a mile to go to get to the ranch and all this heat and steep stepping had taken it’s toll. I was tired. The river looked inviting with people on the beach, enjoying the cool relief from the 102 degrees in the shade, but I knew if I went near the water I would have a hard time getting to the ranch at all! My feet were sore, and I didn’t know how difficult the terrain of the last mile would be. So after a break I trudged on to arrive around 1pm, a good 5 and a half hours from the top. I finally passed under the “Welcome to Phantom Ranch” sign with relief. I was exhausted and it was all I could do to stand in line to get my room assignment. “Bunkhouse 15, take any bed and put your stuff on it to claim it.” I entered a room as dark as a cave and silent as a tomb and to my gleeful surprise, air conditioned! I waited for my eyes to adjust and found that a lot of beds had bodies already in them. But I found one last lower bunk and immediately hit the shower since I was covered in red dirt and dust almost clay-like in it’s consistency sticking to my legs. After the shower I crashed and joined the other sleeping ladies in a much needed nap. (TO BE CONTINUED…Part Two)