In October of 2012, I spent ten days on a road trip that traced a loop. Starting in Los Angeles, I went through Tucson, Arizona to the Grand Canyon and back to Los Angeles through the Mojave Desert.
Assured of a campsite at the bottom of the canyon in two nights' time, I abandoned all thought of the North Rim, paid for four nights at Desert View, and set up my new camp: site 46. It was already late into the afternoon by then, so I went back to the village to walk some more of the Rim Trail and visit all of the Mary Colter buildings. As the sun began to set, I pulled up to the Desert View lookout. Climbing up its spiral stairs past faux petroglyphs along the walls to the very top, I wondered what it was like for Mary Colter to design her buildings, what her process was like and what obstacles she faced as a female architect in the early 1900s. I peered through the tiny windows that frame the panoramic views and admired her imagination. The pink cliffs and lavender sky were gilded with dusky gold as I turned back down the short road to my campsite.
The next morning, I watched the sun rise over the canyon from my perch at the edge of the campground. I got to the Backcountry Office by 7:45. The little band of three hikers I'd seen the day before was there again, too. I got my permit and a topographical map of the area. On my way back to my car, I heard the three hikers walking behind me, making plans. They, too, had one more day until their permits allowed them to hike down into the canyon. I thought about introducing myself and maybe getting in on whatever it was they were up to, but I got shy and ducked into my car.
It was already near noon and hot by the time I got to Hermit's Rest. Tourists milled around Mary Colter's cheerfully rustic buildings, eating ice cream, buying trinkets and taking pictures. Once I found the Hermit Trail, it was only moments before civilization fell away. And it was only a few moments more until I admitted to myself that I'd worn far too many clothes. At night, it was getting down into the mid-thirties, so the cool air lingered through the day in shady places. But in full sun, the temperature was reaching heights of seventy-five degrees. The long switchbacks in the steep canyon led me in and out of these cool and hot areas, making it difficult to regulate my temperature.
I continued on past towering cliffs, moss covered boulders, and stunted trees. I couldn't get enough of the contrast of the green and yellow leaves and grasses against the red rocks and dirt or the lichen-encrusted rocks. At every turn, there was something more beautiful to look at. Passing the junction with the Boucher Trail, the terrain changed drastically. Leveling out into a small side canyon, I crossed a few washes. The trail was legible, yet elaborate cairns dotted its edges at short intervals. Soon, I rounded a bend and followed the path under a massive rock overhang. Up ahead, delicate green foliage clung to the rock where water dripped down twenty feet into a pool surrounded by rocks. A small wooden sign next to the pool read "Dripping Springs". Thanks, National Park Service! The trail ended at another smaller spring just beyond. I turned around and walked back down the path until I found a good rock to sit on while I ate my lunch.
On my way back to the trailhead, I thought about how easy it would be to get oneself in a bind out there. When I slid sideways on a patch of scree, my foot landed just a few inches from the edge of a sheer drop-off. Who knows if going over the edge would have meant certain death, but it surely would not have been good. Not only was it pretty much straight down for hundreds of feet, I hadn't seen another soul in an hour or so, and the handful of people I'd passed earlier had all been heading out of the canyon. My thoughts didn't linger on such dire topics, though; the landscape was far too beautiful to be overshadowed by any potential danger.
I'd descended around 1,500 feet over about three and a half miles. Now I'd learn what it felt like to walk out of the canyon. It was hard. Coming on late afternoon, the sun angled right at me. Walking up the steepest part of the trail was like ascending a seemingly endless staircase. I pressed on, taking short rests in the infrequent bit of shade. In all, it took me less than four hours to cover the seven miles I'd walked. Back at my camp, I looked over my maps. Comparing the Hermit's Rest walk to what lay before me on the South Kaibab (seven miles with 4,780 feet of elevation loss) and Bright Angel (eight miles with 4,380 feet of elevation gain) trails, I finally realized that the NPS literature is written with a specific audience in mind. The Grand Canyon gets five million visitors every year. Most of them come just to look out over one of the wonders of the world. But some of them start walking into the canyon and don't really know what they are getting into, and rescues are relatively common. Apparently, even well-conditioned athletes get themselves into bad situations there, sometimes fatal ones. The longer I stayed, though, the more confidence I had in my ability to take care of myself in such a place.
Back in camp, I poured a tumbler of wine, built a fire, and started sorting food and gear for the next day's adventure. I like the detailed process of preparing for long walks. I enjoy making lists, organizing things, and making sure everything is in its place. It was fun to separate my camping gear from my backpacking gear and to prepare everything in the hatchback of my car by the light of my headlamp. When I'd done all of the preparations I could, I hit the sack. To make the six o'clock hikers' shuttle from the Backcountry Office to the South Kaibab trailhead, I would have to get up at four o'clock, at the latest. But it was getting late, and I was tired. I set my alarm for five o'clock and planned to make the seven o'clock shuttle instead. I woke at a quarter past four from an eerily deep sleep. There was no use in dozing for forty-five minutes, so I got up and made some tea.
While wandering through Grand Canyon Village a couple of days before, I decided to book a room at Bright Angel Lodge for Saturday night, after my return from the bottom of the canyon. I'd already paid for four nights at Desert View, but I thought it would be nice to have a warm shower and to sleep in a comfortable bed on my last night at the canyon. That meant that I had to break camp. It took much longer than I anticipated, and I finally got on my way at six o'clock. In the parking lot at the Backcountry Office, I loaded the last few things I'd need into my backpack, made sure my permit was strapped to its closure, and locked up my car. I didn't recognize anyone at the bus stop, but soon enough, Chuck arrived. I'd chatted with Chuck during my first visit to the Backcountry Office. He reminded me of Wallace Shaun. Soon enough, the bus took us over to the South Kaibab trailhead, and we were on our way.
To be continued.
Go to Part I