Canyon Dreams

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Trip Report
Arizona, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Nov 10, 2003
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Canyon Dreams
Created On: Nov 4, 2008
Last Edited On: Nov 4, 2008

Canyon Dreams: Struggling with loss in the Grand Canyon

Every walk is a sort of crusade-
a westward going, a wildward going-
a journey toward self-awareness, transformation, and the future."

Henry David Thoreau

In November, 2001, I took a trip to Arizona and stopped at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, almost as an afterthought. Since I was in the area, I figured I'd stop by and see this "must see" place known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

I read somewhere that the average visitor spends 8 minutes looking at the Grand Canyon. I headed over on a day trip, thinking the couple of hours allotted for the excursion would be sufficient.

Something changed in me forever when I saw the Canyon for the first time. I don't remember those 8 minutes going by or the time that followed. I was awestruck, utterly fascinated by the sight that lay before me. By the time my now clearly too short visit was over, two things were apparent to me. I knew I had to return. I also knew that I had to hike to the bottom.

Two years later, the dream came true. In November, 2003, just days after my 30th birthday, I set out from the South Rim in the pouring near freezing rain on a long anticipated three day excursion to the bottom of the Canyon. Hiking the Grand Canyon had been my objective since that November day two years prior. It didn't quite go as I planned, but it was more than I could have imagined.

Rain in the desert

Not quite what I expected. It was bitter cold and, according to Jim and Dan, we'd be having three days of rain. We stopped at this point a few hundred feet down the South Kaibab trail. Jim grinned and asked if I realized how lucky we were. At that particular moment, standing at what would be a scenic viewpoint on any other day, but was completely obscured by clouds on this long anticipated one, I was having trouble figuring that out. I said as much to Jim. Still smiling, he explained that, of the millions of people who visit, we were among the few who got to stand here and watch the clouds race across the Canyon. I took a few moments and let that sink in. Jim was right. Despite the fact that it was 30 degrees, raining and we were carrying at least 50 pounds apiece, it was pure magic.

We took a brief lunch break. At this lower elevation, it was warmer than the frigid conditions at the rim, but still pretty chilly. But, even on a cold rainy day in November, the views left me in awe. It was pretty disappointing at first to see the Canyon under cloud cover and rain. But, as Jim put it, this is a view that few visitors get to see. You had to look closer to see the colors of the Canyon walls, but didn't have to strain too hard to see its beauty. Even in the midst and clouds, the Canyon was still incredible.

I'd always wanted to see the powerful body of water that created the Canyon. During my first Grand Canyon trip, I didn't have enough time to hike down far enough to see it. Nearly two years later, I caught my first glimpse of this mighty river of creation. It is amazing how peaceful the river looks, almost as if its lazily winding its way through the Canyon instead of being the violent force which caused the upheaval we know as the Grand Canyon. The river's turquoise waters look pretty inviting too. Its easy to see how the mighty Colorado could lure unsuspecting would-be swimmers on a sweltering 100 plus degree day, unaware that its powerful currents are capable of carrying away the strongest swimmer or that the water's temperature is cold enough to induce hypothermia within minutes. Nature is the most powerful force, capable of unleashing wrath and destruction on those who fail to respect her power.

Nothing prepares you for your first view of the Grand Canyon. But you must hike within her walls to truly understand her beauty and her creation. The sights defy the mere power of words and pictures do not do them justice. The sight of the Colorado patiently winding its way along the Canyon floor, the rust and green walls stretching skyward and, even the dirt covered trails, are magic. The Canyon is the process of millions of years of uplift and carving and remains a work in progress, subject to the whimsy and machinations of Mother Nature. Colin Fletcher put it best by describing hiking in the Canyon as a walk through time.

Crossing over

The silver bridge which leads to Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the Canyon is visible from this spot. It was pretty late in the day and the notion of stopping and dropping these heavy packs was beginning to seem like a good thing. All day, I'd been telling Jim and Dan that it would stop raining and, all day, they had disagreed, insisting it would rain continuously for three days. As we stopped for a break before the last haul over to the campground, the weather broke and the rain finally stopped. I took that as a good sign.

Reaching the suspension bridge over the Colorado river was the dream moment. Actually, this was the dream for the two of us when we'd planned to take this trip together. But long before November, 2003, we'd parted ways. I took the trip alone. Well, with Jim and Dan. But, in many, many ways, I was alone.

Crossing the suspension bridge and standing on the bottom of the Canyon was a bittersweet moment. I wanted to see this through and I did, but it brought me back to what was missing from my life. Had things gone differently, this would have been our honeymoon. But that had ended long before this one had been realized. After a moment of teary-eyed silence, I realized that this was it. The months that followed our parting were filled with reminders of things we'd planned to do together. Hiking the Grand Canyon was the last of those plans. Everything else had long since passed.

Reaching the bottom was a turning point as well as an accomplishment. My dream was completed and I could now move forward. It was finally time to put this one to rest and begin to dream of other things.

So we made it. We hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and would sleep at the foot of the Colorado River. I had quite a bit of help, but it was still an accomplishment, as far as I was concerned. A bit of physical exertion combined with a battling internal and external elements. An accomplishment in many ways indeed. It wasn't quite the way I expected the trip to be, but was more worthwhile than I imagined.

Sleeping by the river

After camp is prepared and food is eaten and cleaned away, there's little to do. Most nights, the park rangers have a program explaining in more detail about the Canyon's history and creation, but that's been cancelled for tonight. I gives me more time to sit here and enjoy the view.

I learned a bit about toughness and patience today. To say this trip did not go as planned is the understatement of my not particularly understated life. I almost lost it up there and wanted to pack up and go home. But Jim really made it happen. He stayed positive and put me back on track when I needed it most. I'll always be greatful for that. After all, this is the trip I'd planned for so long. I'd anticipated moments of fear, discomfort, etc. I just planned on it being worth it. I believe it has been.

Just before dinner, 4 deer walked past the campsite. This is so real. More real than anything I've ever done. Life, work, etc. is so far away right now. I think I understand why people seek out places like the Grand Canyon. I don't have all the answers yet, but my time in the Grand Canyon and on this trip is young yet. Its a long way from last call. Jim said this trip would change me forever. I believe he is right.

Never Die Easy

Woke up a bit stiff and sore but otherwise allright. I passed out cold around 7:30 p.m. and slept straight though the night like a satiated infant.

Not only has the rain cleared but the sun is out. A miracle according to the naysaying hiking guides. Standing on the bottom of the Canyon and watching the sun peek over the Canyon wall, I can't help but agree.

After breakfast, Dan and I headed over to Phantom Ranch. This is the only place in the United States where mail is carried out by mules. Jim insisted that I mail a postcard to myself so that it would be waiting for me back home. After that, we headed across the silver bridge to pick up the Bright Angel Trail and head up about 2.7 miles to Indian Gardens.

I picked out a postcard which was taken from near the bottom. In the postcard, the bridge to the base of the Colorado River is visible below. That one will sit on my desk as well. I wrote three words on the postcard: Never Die Easy. That's my new motto.

Day 2: Indian Ruins and ruminations

Jim has a saying that, up there (in the "real" world and "real life), no one cares who you are down here and that down here, in the Canyon, no one cares who you are up there. Its so different being this far away from everything. I've been farther from home in terms of actual miles before, but here, seven miles below the rim of the Canyon, I've never felt farther away from everything in my whole life. And many of the things that matter "up there" just don't exist in this world "down here."

After Devils Corkscrew, we took a detour along the Old Bright Angel Trail. The trail is no longer maintained and requires a bit of route finding. But it is a shortcut to Indian Gardens which passes the Tonto Platform and will cut about a mile out of your hike. Plus the views are great and you can see some Indian ruins in the caves along the way.

The Old Bright Angel Trail passes Indian ruins ensconsed within caves and runs along the Tonto Platform before reaching Indian Gardens. This off the beaten path route is a less crowded option than the popular Bright Angel Trail.

Jim spoke of the violence which created the Grand Canyon. The powerful surging Colorado River which forced its way across and carved the rugged landscape. As Jim put it, nature can be formidable and ruthless. Nature also shows us who's really in control. Man only thinks that he is powerful. But, Jim went on to say, having an opposable thumb is not what makes one powerful. Having the force to create a deep gorge in the earth? Now, that's powerful.
Mother Nature is indeed a force to be reckoned with, and, most importantly, respected. She can be a nasty one; often unpredictable and capable of wrecking havoc on those who don't respect her. She's a patient one too and will bide her time as long as necessary. It took the Colorado River over 20 million years to carve the Canyon. That's patience and power

Jim went on to explain that he's been hiking in the Canyon for 26 years now, and that its the only place where he's ever felt a sense of peace. He explained that the sense of peace comes from knowing that all of this was created before our lifetimes, that it existed before us and will continue to exist long after our brief stay on this planet draws to an end.

At one point during our trip, Jim looked around and wondered aloud, "how many more times will I be able to do this." Jim's only 49, but has had his share of health problems. To me, he was a modern day Colin Fletcher. But it appeared that the Canyon was taking a toll on him. Yet he keeps returning for that sense of peace and because he loves it. So he'll keep returning for as long as he can.

Jim told me it would take a while for the experience of hiking the Canyon to sink in. But even out here I'm starting to get it. There is solitude and peace down here. A silence that reaches to your soul. You really can find yourself out here, or lose yourself, whichever you choose.

Night 2: The Witching Hour

Night two brought us to Indian Gardens, the halfway point between the South Rim and the bottom. The temperature remained warm throughout the day, but it would be dropping tonight. And tomorrow, as we made our way back up to the Rim, the temperature would continue to decline.

Its a different feeling to be taken away from all that you know and every comfort you're used to. 4.5 miles from the South Rim and I still feel far away from everything. I feel as if I'm farther away than I've ever been.

Night two brought us to Indian Gardens, the halfway point between the South Rim and the bottom. The temperature remained warm throughout the day, but it would be dropping tonight. And tomorrow, as we made our way back up to the Rim, the temperature would continue to decline.

Its a different feeling to be taken away from all that you know and every comfort you're used to. 4.5 miles from the South Rim and I still feel far away from everything. I feel as if I'm farther away than I've ever been.

Sitting on a large rock outside the campground. The weather is holding up. Cold but no rain. It was humid today, according to Jim, who said estimated the humidity factor at about 30%. That's arid weather compared to where I'm from.

I've loved every minute of this from the moment we first hit the trail. I needed this. Needed to get back to the center and find happiness again. Or, at least, a nice quiet moment of reflection. Just a moment ago, another deer walked by where I'm sitting. This one was so close I could have touched its silken coat. So, sitting here, surrounded by G-d's creation, I think I've found both.

6:30 p.m. Dark and chilly but not freezing. We finished dinner and Jim went off to call home on the satellite phone. Dan is cleaning up camp. They keep insisting that I don't help, but it would give me something to do. Lots of people milling about in adjacent campsites.

I 'm always more lonely in the wrong company than when truly solo. Not that Jim and Dan aren't nice guys. They are. But they're here to do a job and not be my buddies. I feel a bit isolated out here. Miss home or at least someone to share this with. Trying not to think in that direction, but as darkness creeps in, the witching hour lurks in its shadows.

One thing I learned over the past couple of days is not to give up when things go wrong. I used to think that a string of bad events meant that my luck had turned sour. But now I think it means you just have to fight a bit harder.

It took a lot of work to get on track on this trip. Started to think I should just go home. But something inside me said, fight harder. Never Die Easy. Its like a grueling workout or a long uphill hike where you're making that final push or struggling through the last mile.

Life's like that. My relationship with the unmentionable one didn't just break my heart. It destroyed my spirit and my trust. Made me so angry it scared me. But that was quitting.

Yesterday, Jim showed me a cactus growing on the black bridge, dangling precipitously over the edge of its steel rungs. He laughed and said it just goes to show that you can do anything if you don't quit trying. I quit trying. I quit on myself and I'm ashamed of that. But now I know what I have to do. Keep fighing because I know its out there.

The hour grows late. It's almost 7:30 after all. I'm a long way from that first solo trip. Hell, I'm a long way from everything. But I'm a lot closer to living my dreams. Guess its not such a lonely night after all.

Day 3

On the morning of day 3, the rain came back, just as Jim predicted it would. The last morning in the Grand Canyon was cold and rainy. And I'd finally managed to get my jacket dry.

The weather remained a light drizzle for the early part of the hike. By the time we hit the Redwall, about a mile from Indian Gardens, we were loaded with rain gear and beginning to sweat. We stopped at 3 mile resthouse for a very quick break before continuing to journey upwards into more rain and colder temps.

The trek to mile and a half resthouse was the worst leg of the 3 day journey. The temperature dropped as we gained elevation. We were pelted with rain and gusty wind, shivering and sweating in Gore Tex raincoats while struggling up some steep switchbacks. Jim told me jokingly this morning that the Canyon doesn't let you out easy. He was right. Those last switchbacks were killers. I loved every minute of this trip and hadn't complained once. But ,oddly enough, the only time I cursed the journey was heaving myself up those steps leading to the resthouse.

Jim and Dan insisted on preparing soup at Mile and a Half Resthouse. We were soaked with rain and sweat and Jim thought hypothermia was a possiblity and the temperature was steadily declining.

I had a better plan. After staggering up those cursed steps leading to the resthouse, heavy pack and wind threatening to pull me down with each tread, I pulled out my last can of Redbull and last pack of Pop Tarts. The sugar and caffeine combination worked much like spinach did for Popeye in those cartoons.

As we exited the Resthouse, Jim had good news and bad news. The good news; only three switchbacks to go. The bad: these were the steepest and longest switchbacks of the entire trail. The Canyon doesn't let you out easy. Pre- Redbull and Poptarts, I was shivering with cold and fatigued. Post Red Bull and PopTarts, I smiled at Jim and said "bring it on."

During the last mile of our journey, Jim and I stopped in front of an old Douglas Fir which Jim named Doug. Jim explained that its his ritual to stop and sit in front of Doug at the end of every trip past this part of the Canyon. For Jim, this was his way of saying thanks. "He's my link to the Big Guy upstairs," Jim explained.

We sat there for quite a while. I didn't have anywhere to go and preferred to savor these last moments of our time in the Canyon. And Jim had a lot to say to Doug.

Jim's been doing this for 26 years. He's 49 and has had his share of health problems. A couple of weeks ago, he was evacuated by helicopter from the Canyon due to hyponutremia. He took it pretty hard. Jim is under doctors orders not to hike alone in the Canyon. That's why Dan is on this trip as well.

At one point, Jim gazed out over the Canyon he considers home and wondered aloud, "how many more times will I be able to do this?" 26 years of hiking the Canyon has taken its toll on him. Yet he loves it. That's why he keeps coming back here for as long as he can.

At times, I wondered if Jim was saying goodbye to the Canyon itself. Maybe he always does that, but this seemed different. I could sense Jim's frustration with being slowed down by an illness a few weeks before. I could also detect a sense of fear and profound sadness as Jim said goodbye to something he loved so much.

Near the last switchback, we saw a rainbow. All morning, I kept telling Jim that the rain would let up and he would just shake his head. It never did and instead rained harder throughout our ascent. The Canyon was not letting us go without challenging us a bit more. But, as our journey neard its end, I witnessed one of my last below-the-Rim views across the Canyon. The rainbow appeared as if from nowhere, its colors stretching in a perfect arc across the land that time created. The rain didn't exactly stop. Well, it didn't stop at all, but I received my sign that the weather was breaking. Not just in the Canyon, as this trip was about more than the Canyon. But, the weather was finally breaking.

Jim's wife Mimi met us at the end of Bright Angel Trail near Kolb Studio. We drove back to retrieve my car, then I said goodbye to Jim and Dan outside Maswick Lodge. Jim wished me safety in my travels and Canyon Dreams until I returned. We hugged and I thanked him.

I don't think Jim ever realized how much he did for me. This had been my dream for so long. A dream that, for so many reasons and so many times along the way, almost did not happen. But Jim made it a reality.

Thanks again, Jim.


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Viewing: 1-7 of 7

maddie77777 - Nov 4, 2008 3:54 pm - Voted 10/10

Wow, part II

Fantastic writing. I think you should write about your experiences at the grocery store, or mowing the lawn, or taking out the garbage. You write so well, I would read those too.


nextyearranier - Nov 4, 2008 4:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Wow

Thanks!! I'm not sure anyone would want to hear about my garbage though. :)


davebobk47 - Nov 6, 2008 12:43 pm - Voted 10/10


Great writing, I had a very similiar experience and itinerary this past Oct. What an amazing place. Thanks for sharing.


nextyearranier - Nov 6, 2008 5:36 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great

Thanks. The Canyon is amazing. I love your profile photo. Great shot!


mkpatrick - Nov 7, 2008 10:45 pm - Voted 10/10


Emotional to read. Thank you for sharing. Made my night better for reading it.


nextyearranier - Nov 8, 2008 7:37 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Moving

Thank you! I really enjoyed your Grand Canyon photos. Looks like you've had some great times there.


nextyearranier - Nov 8, 2008 7:37 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Moving

Thank you! I really enjoyed your Grand Canyon photos. Looks like you've had some great times there.

Viewing: 1-7 of 7

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