Now, mind you, I’ve never been to the moon, but I’ve been near Lapland and that was like the moon.
I’d twice before gazed into the Canyon (1976, 1988) from the South Rim, but looking at the Canyon from the rim and hiking to the bottom of the Canyon are two very different experiences.
They are as different as studying Israel and being in Israel.
Or reading The New York Times and going to New York.
You can know a lot about a place, but there is no substitute for walking in it. Immediately, I was swept with the thought: “Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit. This is a real place. And it is much larger and much more tangible than I had imagined. My former understanding was little more than a sincere cartoon of the real thing.”
That’s what I thought when I first stepped foot inside.
Let’s Not Overstate Things
I can’t claim to be an expert on the Grand Canyon. I know very little about its true nature and power.
But I’ve walked to the bottom. And back up. And, in that, there is some understanding.
So, How Hot Was It?
The Austrian hiker ahead of me in line at the Backcountry Office (where overnight permits for “below-the-rim” camping are issued) asked about the temperature.
They consulted a page of conversions (Fahrenheit to Celsius), but it didn’t go high enough. “It’s off the chart,” said the park ranger.
“What does that mean?” asked the hiker.
“It means suicide,” said the ranger.
And so he purchased an eight-night permit.
I admired him, but the heat is not to be trifled with. The weeks we were west, heat in the Canyon killed an experienced 20-year-old hiker. And an 18-year-old hiker died. His group of eight ran out of water. (“How do you run out of water?” asks Duncan.)
They were hiking in true wilderness. We were on the main trails from the South Rim to the Colorado River. These “corridor” trails are heavily traveled and very clearly marked. (If you were suddenly injured, you would be found within an hour, during the day.) We went down on South Kaibab (7 miles, one mile descent, no shade, no water) and up on Bright Angel (10 miles, one mile ascent, some water and shade).
Here is a video (not mine) of the walk down. (For a more realistic experience, turn off the music-only soundtrack.)
The night before, I ate two complete dinners. Every restaurant has clear choices for hikers. Most normal diners wouldn’t even see them. Lots of pasta and beans for carbohydrates.
We woke at 3 a.m., left our hotel room at the El Tovar at 3:30 a.m., carrying Camelbak hydration packs (the opposite of SCUBA) — about four liters each of water and Gatorade, plus about one pound of food each (trail mix and jerky). Our bags weighed 8-10 pounds. First aid kit with suntan lotion and blister remedies. Knives. Swimsuits. (Our bedding, meals and accommodations were waiting for us at Phantom Ranch, the only lodge below the rim.)
We caught the 4 a.m. shuttle bus for the South Kaibab trailhead, and began our descent at 4:25 a.m. So the first couple miles were in darkness, lit only by the half moon and the ingenious LED headlights on our hiking sticks.
I am a big believer in hiking sticks. By reallocating about 30% of the body’s weight to the arms, the sticks protected my knees on the long way down. (And this makes hiking an upper body exercise, too.) Down is hard on the knees. Up is hard on the heart.
When we arrived at Phantom Ranch, we put on our swimsuits and I washed our clothes in the sink. They dried in the arid heat in about 30 minutes. We spent the day playing — building rock dams — in the cold, clear Bright Angel Creek. (The Colorado River is too dangerous.)
The Phantom Ranch is an amazing place. Staffed by the wonderful rangers of our National Park Service, here’s what you get — for only $90 per person: a backcountry permit (required for any overnight stay below the rim); a delicious, all-you-can-eat family-style dinner; accommodations (spartan dormitory, but air-conditioned); a large, hot breakfast (which we missed because we left so early); and a box lunch for the hike out. A unique lodge and all that. For ninety bucks. Unbelievable.
But back to the trail…
And, on the return, to beat the heat, we left even earlier. We left at 3 a.m. with a party of seven. We’d been encouraged to leave that early by a French Canadian couple — Québecois — who we had befriended on the hike down. We didn’t hike together, but they had passed us when we stopped for rest breaks, and we had passed them when they stopped for rest breaks, and over time we had become hiking companions.
So we all left at 3 a.m. Duncan and I led the party in the dark and the heat. It was in the 80s already (or still), so we were glad we had left early. If you don’t get to Indian Garden, the half-way oasis on the Bright Angel Trail by 10 a.m., experts recommend a five-hour siesta to miss the most punishing heat of the day. (We were at Indian Garden by 7:30 a.m., and at the trailhead on the South Rim by 9:45 a.m.)
But, here’s the interesting part…
So, How Hot Was It? (#3)
Little more than an hour into the darkness of our return hike, I was at the head of our party with Duncan behind me. Or so I thought. But, amid the quiet crunching of our hiking shoes on the dry trail, I heard a voice — it was the lovely Québecoise woman, whose English is far, far better than my French — saying, quietly, Frenchly, “Artie, it is so hot, I have taken off my pants.”
I didn’t turn to look. I couldn’t. I might trip. Or worse.
I didn’t turn to look. Not right away.
What to say? I was stumped. I was tired after a poor night of sleep. It was very, very early. It was dark.
There was some concern that we weren’t even on the right trail. That we were wasting energy and time (before sun) that would later prove costly. Our maps were rudimentary. I’d left my compass on the South Rim, because a ranger had said it wouldn’t be necessary on the main corridor trails. But, in the dark, we were worried about being on the wrong trail. (This was especially true in the dark and for the first mile and a half: walking in sand, walking along the Colorado River rather than perpendicular to it. We later realized that we were on the correct trail, but — at the time — we were seriously worried that we were mistaken.)
No pants on the beautiful Frenchwoman.
Happily, for the sanctity of marriage — and you know about my attempts at infidelity — her husband is far more handsome than I, far better built, far better able to converse with her, and way more married to her. And surely not much more than 10 feet away in the dark of the trail.
But, please. I am a mere mortal. With a vivid imagination.
All I could say, in the pressure of the night, the trail, and the awe of her pantlessness: “I will be leaving my pants on.”
We pressed on in the quiet crunching of feet. I turn and Duncan is again immediately behind me.
After sunrise, we let them lead. It was a nice bonus to the already fabulous view. Like a rabbit leading the greyhounds at the track.
The long walk gave me time to prepare my next bon mot. She would, surely, eventually decide to put her pants back on. She would say so.
And I would say, “Not so fast. That requires a vote of the entire hiking party.”
At the South Rim, Duncan and I headed for breakfast at the El Tovar. The lovely Québecois jumped in their car and raced for Las Vegas.
For more photos, visit my album, “Out West 2009,” on Facebook.