Sunday, August 18th 2013
5:30am. The buzzing of my cell phone was a stark contrast to the soft rhythm of nature that surrounded my campsite. I had around eight hours of sleep, but my body was asking for more. I hit the snooze. Soon enough though, I got up and started boiling some water for oatmeal and began the process of breaking down camp and putting everything back in my backpack.
It isn’t hard for me to acknowledge that I overpacked. I mean, what on earth did I need a beach towel for?? Although my excessive clothes were pretty much unnecessary, most everything else came in handy. Learning a hard lesson from the descent, I wore my bathing suit on the way up to avoid having my belt cut my sides again. At 7:26 am, I began my ascent. I made sure my water reservoir was filled and had some back up bottles that totaled at least 3 liters. I left camp and headed towards the Bright Angel trail, but first I had to cross the Colorado River on the Kaibab Suspension Bridge.
And thus began my journey upward. The bottom of the trail was full of switchbacks, mostly long and flat trails that didn’t have much vertical rise, but keep you guessing as to when the real hiking would begin. The sun started rising above the canyon walls – which takes a while due to their steepness – and the heat along with it. I hit a stream on the way up and soaked my shirt and bandana.
As I walked further, a new section of the canyon opened itself up to me. As similar as the canyon terrain is as a whole, every little section has it’s own character. Even though it had been long past sunrise, it wasn’t until almost 9am that the sun finally peeked over the top of the canyon walls.
I kept venturing upwards. The sun was now beating down on me as I raced to get to Indian Gardens before high noon. I was advised that the hike up would take between 9-12 hours, and to avoid hiking during “hot time,” which is between 10 & 2. Though I knew it wouldn’t last forever, my relationship with the canyon grew as she flirted with my childlike curiosity, revealing more and more to me, yet just enough to whet my appetite and leave me full of desire.
The red in the canyon walls became more pronounced. Then I stumbled along some caves high above the canyon floor.
The higher I got and the later it got, I started running into day-hikers. With so few around me on the path, it was easy to see how insignificant we are in comparison to the earth we live on.
As the sun got higher and the path got steeper, my legs were feeling worked. My body was fatigued from the already extensive hiking I had done the last two days, and my knees were especially sore. My rest breaks became more and more frequent. Luckily, I was usually able to find some shade to hide in and a view in which to revel. I couldn’t help but shout into the distant walls, talking to myself through echoes.
I kept pressing on. Even though I was consuming water faster and faster, my backpack seemed to get heavier by the footstep.
Finally, I was above the tip-off, and almost at Indian Garden.
At last, I caught sight of some lush greenery, and not long after, flowing water appeared.
I found the creek bed, took off my backpack and hopped in as fast as my now weakened knees could hobble. It was now 10:18, and it was HOT. I felt like I found paradise. After a short break, I took off my shirt and bandana, soaked them in the stream, drenched my hair, then headed back out on my way. I knew Indian Garden was close.
As a group of guides on donkeys passed me on their way to the bottom, I wondered if they would take a credit card. Finally, at 10:40am I arrived at my mid-day destination. It was time to take a rest. I had hiked 5 miles since 7:26, and I was exhausted. It was now officially “hot time.” Indian Garden is unique in that it is the only source of water on the south rim of the canyon. The text on the sign above reads:
“You are entering an area of Grand Canyon that is an Oasis in this dry and arid landscape. Located along a natural fault line, Indian Garden was farmed by native people for centuries. In the 19th century, prospectors and cattlemen frequented the area because it contained reliable and abundant sources of water. Today, visitors use Indian Garden as a resting place from the heat of the canyon.
What does the lush plant life in this area tell you? The presence of thick, lush vegetation means that water is probably close by. You may not see water, but it is here, just below the ground, appearing as springs and seeps.
Indian Garden’s giant cottonwood trees, spectacular cliffs, natural springs, and cooling shade combine to make this area of the canyon a destination in itself.
Rest and relax. Help protect and preserve this special place by packing out all your trash, not feeding wildlife, and staying off the fragile vegetation.”
90 Degrees in the shade, to be precise. I took a seat beneath the shade of this tree and rested. My 2 liter water reservoir was sucked dry from my morning hike. I had a lunch fit for a king: a large bag of mixed nuts. At least I could rest my knees.
Luckily, I was beyond half way to the top. After a good 1 hour lunch break, I refilled my water reservoir in the filling station and went on my way.
As soon as I started onward, the hike immediately got steep. My stored energy started to plummet. It wasn’t even noon yet, and the sun was HIGH. Making my way up the switchbacks, the water soaked in my bandana quickly turned to sweat as it dripped down my brow. As the trails got steeper and the sun got hotter, I clamored to find shade at any chance that I could. In denial, I tried my best not to look up, for the walls towering above me told no lies.
An hour into it and my legs began to ache again. But where I was, there was no stopping. I chose to do this, and I chose to do it alone. I was determined to finish what I had started, regardless of how long it took. After all, when a man is pushed to his limits, he can choose to lay down, or he can choose to succeed.
Most often, even when faced with physical pain, the only real obstacle to overcome is your own strength of will. Even when that voice inside says “I think I’m dying, I can’t go on”, the body still has more.
And so I pushed.
My pace continued to slow down as my knees felt the quake of every footstep. But redemption came with every breathtaking glimpse of the landscape in front of me.
In time, I eventually came to the Three Mile Rest house, named for it’s position three miles below the rim of the canyon.
I took a rest under the shade of the resthouse, and enjoyed the constant flow of water from the spigot as I soaked my face, hair and clothing. I took out some trail mix, and sure enough a scavenger wasn’t far behind.
I knew if I stopped for too long, I would never start going again. So up I went. And on this portion of the hike I got some of the most beautiful photos and glimpses of this truly grand scenery of the entire 3 day hike. (In particular the first photo of this post.)
My next checkpoint was the 1.5 mile resthouse. Somehow, the 1.5 miles from Indian Garden to 3 Mile Resthouse were much shorter than the 1.5 miles between 3 Mile and 1.5 Mile Resthouse. Thank god for the scenery, and the fleeting spots of cool shade.
But alas, I made it, and took a shot of my tired self to commemorate.
At that point my arm was fatigued from carrying my camera for so long, and I had very little desire left to take pictures. Instead, I laid down next to a wall, back on the dirty dusty ground, while my legs rested raised above my body on the wall next to me – a technique that I picked up from one of the hikers I stopped to chat with the day before, on my way to ribbon falls. Supposedly it helps to drain the lactic acid from the muscles. I think it helped.
I laid there fatigued as onlookers stared and squirrels tried to ransack my bag for food.
After another 30 minutes or so of laying on the ground, I got up, drank some water and doused myself with the generous flow from the spigot. I was ready to go.
1.5 miles left.
On the way to the top I was dragging ass. BAD. People kept asking me how I was doing. I was physically exhausted, and learning a lot about how to pack for a backcountry trip.
Along the way, I stopped to talk to a gentlemen about my the hike, he was very curious about where I was coming from. We parted ways and a few footsteps later I heard him shout out “Oh DAMN!” I looked back.
A big horn sheep was walking up the path right towards us. I thought about how little energy I had to fend off this mighty beast, then I hoped he would act out his worst on the gentleman before me and leave me be. Then I hoped he would be friendly. I got close to the inner side of the trail, wondering what kind of strength was in it’s hind legs.
He walked past, jumped across the path to a cliff and began eating some grass. I walked onward, looking up at the never-ending switchbacks before me. “How much longer?” I pondered. My camera battery light flashed.
As I neared the top, it was as if the only thing I could say to passersby was “How much further?” The lookouts became increasingly frequent, offering romantic views to the copious amounts of dayhikers that never go much further in than just below the rim.
Finally, at 5:02pm, after about nine and a half hours since I began my hike and with little strength left I emerged from the trail, above the fenceline and onto pavement. In this modern day of instant gratification, where we message each other instantaneously, get annoyed when our facebook apps take longer than a few seconds to load, going the speed limit means ten miles over, and flying cross country needs to be no more than 6 hours; I spent 9.5 hours to walk 9 miles. That’s less than a mile per hour!
I leaned on the fence, breathed in and soaked in the view. I had now joined the 2% of people who ever visit the Grand Canyon and make it to the bottom and back up. I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment, pride, relief, joy, and gratitude to be in such a beautiful place.
My battery had just enough juice left to snap these two pictures, and then – kaput.
Once out, I jumped on a bus that took me back to my vehicle. I thought the hiking was over, but no, it was just never ending. WHERE THE HELL IS MY CAR?? AND WHY DID I PARK SO FAR AWAY?!?!?!!! – were just some thoughts running through my head on what seemed like the never ending walk through the parking lot.
I drove out of town and splurged for a hearty dinner, finally willing to spend more than $15 on a meal after three days of eating nothing but trail mix, oatmeal, and dehydrated backpacking meals. It was perhaps the most well deserved meal of my life.
As the day grew short and the night sailed in, it now dawned on me that my original plan of skydiving in Sedona was not going to happen. Neither did I have the time of day, nor the energy to jump out of an airplane, and certainly not the strength in my legs to make a stable landing. So I called up my couchsurfing host from Flagstaff, who although was now out of state, was still generous enough to offer to hook me up with his roommate who would let me in his house and crash for the night. Although I was overwhelmed by his willingness to go out of his way for me, his roommate was working til midnight.
Instead, I found a youth hostel right on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Hostel DuBaeu, and crashed for the night. It was the first time in three weeks that I would have to pay for lodging, and only because of my itinerary change and some bad timing.
I crashed hard. The Grand Canyon was no joke.
If You Go
Grand Canyon Visitors Center – (928) 638-7888
Backcountry Office – Hiking Permits and Information – (928) 638-7875 between 1 pm and 5 pm Monday through Friday, except on federal holidays
Be capable of carrying at least 3 liters of water for backcountry hikes, wear good, comfortable hiking shoes and pack light!