Several years ago I was talking to a woman about a hiking trip she had taken and I was instantly inspired. I didn’t do anything with the impulse. But I did file it away, hoping I would dust it off and act. Cut to last year and lockdown. There was nothing standing in the way of remembering that long ago conversation. So I dug it up. Talked about it with friends. Found others who were inspired and willing to take up a challenge.
And so it was that on a recent pre-dawn morning two fantastic friends and I donned various gear and headlamps and stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at the South Kaibab Trailhead. Wendy and I had traveled from Los Angeles, CA while Lorinda had come all the way from Athens, GA. It was cold. There was fear. But we hadn’t come that far to give up before starting. So we headed down the trail. It was 6am.
Only Wendy had been to the Grand Canyon before, so Lorinda and I were fairly gobsmacked. Just the night before, we had held each other and cried while looking across the Canyon for the first time. Now that we were starting our ambitious hike, in the dark, we were focused merely on remaining upright and covering ground.
Because it was chilly we all wore layers. Lorinda and I used hiking poles to help with the downhill grade. The sky was wrapped in the most subtle light. It was magnificently quiet. We’d not gone very far when we heard a steady rustling. It was so steady that I imagined it to be the river some four thousand feet below. Wendy and Lorinda, more discerning than I, were quite certain it was the sound of approaching mules. They were right and in no time we were being instructed to step as close to the canyon wall as possible and to turn off our headlamps so the mule train could safely pass. We did as we were told and watched the mules – laden with supplies – as they confidently moved down the trail. They were much faster than us. Still, we kept going, sidestepping the mule piss and poo.
We saw the sunrise at Ooh Aah Point and it lived up to the hype. We saw wildlife, other hikers, more colors in the Canyon than I ever imagined. By the time we spotted the Colorado River, we were more than ready to be at the bottom of the trail.
But we were moving more slowly than anticipated. Walking (or hiking) more slowly than the body’s natural rhythm isn’t easy. In fact, it’s downright difficult. My inclination was to shake a tail feather, but that isn’t what you do when you’re part of a team. And believe me, we were a team. When I slipped and fell backwards on the downhill trail, it was those two women who helped me to my feet. You don’t dismiss support like that and you don’t take it for granted. You step in line with the people who have your back. And that’s what I did. What we all did.
Nonetheless, when we reached the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground, our timing was way off. A ranger there asked if we were camping for the night. When we told her we wouldn’t be staying, that we were going to hike out, she tough-loved the hell out of us. There was no time to waste, she said. No time for a break. No time to lollygag about. She pretty much put the fear of all the gods in us and advised us to keep up a certain pace, lest we find ourselves stuck on the trail overnight. We listened, filled up on water and started moving.
We hit the Bright Angel Trail and did what we could. Not as picturesque as South Kaibab, the Bright Angel Trail is much longer and – to my thinking – much more difficult. Both trails are rutted by the mule trains. Both trails are diverse in their makeup – sometimes rocky, sometimes sandy. But the Bright Angel Trail had some really technical and steep steps that challenged me more than any other hike I’ve done. I lost count of the switchbacks but read somewhere that there are about a jillion. (I may not be remembering the number correctly.) None of that mattered. There was really no choice. We had to get out of there. So we kept going. And whereas we had avoided the abundance of mule piss and poo on the downhill portion of the day’s hike, we now headed straight for it. Or rather through it. Souvenirs!
We encountered several streams along the trail, requiring us to walk through them. I was pretty excited about that because I figured the cool water would feel good on my tired feet (and would clean the mule off my kicks). But wouldn’t you know it – my shoes were freaking waterproof. So – although beautiful, no relief.
Because of freezing or near-freezing temperatures at the rim, a few water stations along the way were closed. That meant our last available potable water was at Indian Garden Campground. That was just under five miles up the trail. By the time we reached it, the light was fading fast. We had an 8pm dinner reservation at the El Tovar and we were all looking forward to it. As we filled up on water, we talked to a couple staying at the campground. They were darling. The woman listened as Wendy talked about our rezzie, then she leaned her head to the side and smiled, saying, “Oh honey – you’re not gonna make that reservation. You may get out by 9, more likely it will be 10.” Yet again, a woman we didn’t know was tough-loving us. Disappointed but with a better grasp of reality, we told the couple goodbye and started back up the trail.
Shortly after leaving that campground we turned our headlamps back on. We were about four and a half miles from the trailhead. It wasn’t getting any easier and we all knew it. But we couldn’t talk about it. That would have been too real, too rough. And the trail was rough enough. To acknowledge the reality of the situation was more than I could handle. So I didn’t. Instead, I started playing a game with myself. I would look in the distance, shine my headlamp on something big enough to see – a tree, a boulder, a switchback’s curve – and I would say, “We just have to get to that rock.” And that’s what we did. Over and over again. Wendy would walk up ahead and call back to us, letting us know what the trail was like. “Smooth,” was a great report. That meant we had a slope to climb. “Small steps,” was just as you’d imagine – short steps along that stretch of trail. Those steps were manageable, friendly even. When Wendy didn’t say anything, Lorinda and I knew we were in for a challenging stretch of trail.
Big Steps. I’m not a fan of bouldering, of scrambling. I’ve done it and occasionally there’s no other choice. But on this trail, when we encountered a stretch of Big Steps, it was hell. Some were eight inches high, some I’d say were as much as fourteen or fifteen inches (if not more). When you look up and there are Big Steps as far as you can see, it’s defeating. And y’all, that happened over and over again during the last half of the Bright Angel Trail. For the record, when I was walking up ahead scouting the trail and found we were coming upon a stretch of Big Steps, all the girls would hear from me was, “Goddamnit!”
To say I was afraid isn’t exactly true. My mind wasn’t working like that. Instead I was focusing on survival, trying to formulate a plan just in case. I did a lot of praying. That isn’t out of the ordinary for me and even felt true to who I am. I’m also a “worst-case-scenario” gal, so I was turning over ideas to cover my ass on that front. I landed on this: the worst case was the three of us spending the night on the trail. If we found a decent enough spot where we could all lean against the canyon wall and huddle together, our emergency blankets would probably be enough to ride out the cold (predicted to be near freezing that night). No one would be coming to find us so surviving was up to us. Once my mind settled on this last resort option, I relaxed a little. A little.
When we reached the Three-Mile Resthouse you’d think I would have been relieved. But I wasn’t. It was a mere one and a half miles up from Indian Garden Campground and it had taken a long time to get there. And it wasn’t easy. At some point my legs were tiring of the steps and I stumbled on a smooth portion of trail, falling forward in the darkness, wiping out completely. I knew I wasn’t near the trail’s edge, so I didn’t fear falling but I did think to brace myself so that I wouldn’t break my teeth (no joke – I actually thought that). I put my left hand out and hit the ground hard. Lorinda and Wendy rushed to help me. I said I was okay, but I needed to be still for a moment. What I didn’t tell them was that I was afraid I had injured my wrist. I lay there on the ground, quietly thinking about the pain I was feeling. Then I started to rise with their assistance, all the while moving my left hand to try to tell whether or not I was really injured. My wrist was okay. I reached down to feel my right knee where it had hit the ground. It was okay, too. For a split second, I wanted to cry. But I couldn’t let my mind break me. We acknowledged the 3-mile marker and kept going.
Before the sun went down we could look behind us to see how far we’d come. That was inspiring and boosted me to keep going. We could also look up at the canyon walls, all the way to the rim. That’s where we were headed. Seeing that was brutal, daunting. The darkness actually helped deal with the reality of what lay before us. It was damn near impossible to see the rim. The only indication of the trail was the occasional tiny glow of the headlamp of another hiker, either above or below us. Knowing there were other people out there was comforting. We weren’t alone.
It was somewhere during the last three miles that I realized how I was addressing hikers who were passing us. “How you doing?” they asked. “I’m doing,” I answered. It was all I had. I really couldn’t give anything more. Just after the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse a fellow hiker approached and didn’t ask how I was. He just looked at me, miserably, and said, “The last mile. I’m on mile 50. I hate this.” I couldn’t begin to process why on earth someone would be hiking 50 miles in a day, so I called out after him, “Why?” He disappeared into the darkness without answering, leaving only the glow of his headlamp moving up the trail.
We were somewhere in the last mile. The quiet was wrapped around us like a blanket. The pitch black of night was so thick, it seemed we could reach out and stir it. No one was talking. We were just trying to move up the trail, one step at a time. Lorinda and I were about thirty feet behind Wendy, who was up ahead, scouting the trail. For some reason I lifted my head to get a bead on where she was. That’s when I saw it. A boulder the size of a loveseat crashed down right in front of Wendy then bounced off the trail, down the side of the canyon and into the darkness below. Wendy immediately turned toward us and started running in our direction. Lorinda, who had only heard the commotion, yelled at Wendy, “Don’t run! Don’t run!” I was yelling, “You’re okay! You’re okay!” trying to get her to slow down. When she reached us we grabbed hold of one another. She was breathlessly trying to tell us what had happened, but it took her a moment to gather her words. She was shaking and struggling to calm down. When she was finally able to talk, Wendy said it had not been a boulder. It had been a large Bighorn Ram. It had indeed come down from above and seemed to have fallen in front of her. The light from her headlamp had hit the ram’s eye. It was close enough for her to smell its musk, its fear. After hitting the ground a few inches in front of her, the ram had bounced over the trail’s edge and was gone. I’ve never read about such a thing happening to another hiker on the trail. A few inches. In spite of its agility, the ram likely didn’t survive. But Wendy did. We kept climbing.
Near the Bright Angel Trailhead there is an arch that hikers pass through. When Wendy spotted the arch and told us we were almost there, I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t get my hopes up. So I kept my head down and focused on the trail. Only when Wendy aimed her headlamp at the buildings along the rim was I able to allow myself a small bit of joy at having completed the hike. When the three of us stepped out onto the Rim Trail and could see our hotel in the distance, I cried a bit. We had done it. It was just after 9pm.
This was definitely the toughest hike of my experience. Had I known what I was in for, I’m not sure I would’ve undertaken the task. 22 miles, 15 hours. Rough. And for the record, if someone tells you the downhill is the toughest part, do not believe them! (I’m looking at you, April.)
It was also spectacular. The Grand Canyon is worth the trip, any trip. The hikers we encountered along the way were just lovely. Interacting with them was a pleasure and I’m grateful they popped up when they did. Maybe not the two dudes near the end of the hike who said, “Somebody order a pizza?” as they passed. But hey – dudes. The Grand Canyon is a Designated Dark Sky Park, so there are about a million, billion, god-zillion stars to see in the sky above it. Living in the light-polluted metropolis that is Los Angeles means I don’t ever get to see those stars. What a treat.
The preparations we made surely paid off. Of the three of us, there wasn’t a single blister on our feet. (Speaking for myself, mad thanks to The Hiking Guy for his double sock & powder protocol.) The only soreness I had afterwards was in my calves. And after three days I didn’t have any residual soreness at all. Lorinda and Wendy reported the same. Training. Who knew?
I’m grateful to have checked this off my life list. And believe me – it is definitely checked off. I don’t need to repeat this hike. I would gladly visit the Grand Canyon again. Maybe even hike down to Ooh Aah Point for sunrise. But the whole she-bang? Nope. Besides – there are far too many adventures out there with my name on them. Just imagining where I might go next is exciting.
Still – the Canyon has been visiting me in my dreams. It’s daylight. Quiet, still. I am alone on the trail with the colors and shadows stretching before me. I walk, not in a hurry, just moving my body along the path ahead. My only thoughts are of being there in that moment. And it is perhaps the most holy dream I have ever known. I still can’t believe I lived it.