Monday, July 2, 2007

The Grand Canyon



The thing about the Grand Canyon is, they don't want you to hike down to the Colorado River and back in one day. They all but beg you to reconsider this, even going so far as to post the picture and story of a 24 year old woman who died in 2004, despite being fit enough to run the Boston Marathon.

The thing about me is, climbing a mountain just doesn't count if you don't summit, so hiking the Grand Canyon without reaching the bottom wouldn't count either. And because I couldn't get a reservation at the campground or a permit for backcountry camping, I had to do it all in one day.

Hiking the Grand Canyon by myself, in one day, without telling anyone of my plans does not exactly rank high on my list of bright ideas, but God I felt great when I finished. Turns out it was the closest thing to a spiritual experience as I've ever come.

I started out on the South Kaibab Trail, which leads approximately a mile and a half to Cedar Ridge, where many day hikers call it a day and head back up to the rim. Carrying 5 liters of water with me, I was not about to do the same. Beyond Cedar Ridge the crowd thinned considerably, and I had to remember that 90 percent of the Canyon's 5 million annual visitors never make it beyond the rim.

"That's just sad," I thought. But not too sad. More room for me, eh?

Once at the bottom, I spent a few hours resting, sitting in a creek and trying to sleep in the grass. I found out the next day the Canyon floor had reached 112 degrees, almost thirty degrees warmer than the Canyon's forested rim several thousand feet higher. Sleep was not forthcoming.

I started my ascent at 4:00pm to avoid the heat of the day. For the first 2 miles worry was forced upon me when I realized I was already dizzy and nauseous. But something happened sometime after that. The higher I got, the more the temperature dropped. The more water I drank, the lighter my pack became. The views slowly became spectacular again, coupled with the odd sensation to have one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world almost to myself. It took me five hours to reach the rim, during which I only saw a handful of people.

The most striking thing about standing alone in an ancient canyon is not the view, however, but the wind. One moment of pure silence is soon replaced by winds sweeping through the air thousands of feet away. I was reminded of the well known bereavement poem by Mary Frye, which George sent me shortly after my mom passed away.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

I thought about my grandmother who, three weeks earlier, had told me the Grand Canyon was the most beautiful thing she has seen in all of her 87 years. I thought about the enormity of what I was doing. I thought about my mom.

Hiking out of the Grand Canyon at sunset is easily one of the greatest things I've ever done.

I reached Cedar Ridge just before the sun set, still a mile and a half to go but in serious need of a break.

I eased myself onto a rock and watched as the sun submitted itself to the horizon, retrieving its golden hues from the canyon walls. A slight wind kicked up on the edge of the ridge, and I sat there with my head in my hands, trying to fathom how anything could feel so beautiful.


the chef said...

That gave me the chills Scott... in a good way.

Why the hell don't you write for a living?

Dad said...

Glad you're finally back on line. This post brings back fond memories of about 16 years ago when Kirsten (then 12) and I hiked down South Kaibab to the Colorado River and back out the same day. We didn't let you go because you had a sore throat. Of course since it was March, there was ice and snow at the South Rim, and temperatures 5,000 feet down at the river, were much more moderate than in summer.
Despite what the Park Service tells you (to avoid lawsuits, no doubt), the trip can be done in a day, but it is very strenuous and it sure helps to be in good condition (as I was back then) and have enough water, especially at this time of year. And be careful of the burros!
It was a memory that will last a lifetime and something everyone should do once.

Annika said...

I actually went to school with Margaret (the 2004 runner you mentioned), and she was a close friend of one of my best friends.

I'm assuming you carried much more water than she had, but tackling the Grand Canyon by yourself is probably not the best idea.

Valerie O'Shea said...

I'm going to have to agree with 'the chef' here. This is your best post yet, Scott. I read it twice.

bgibs said...

God bless you - and thanks for that entry.

Amy said...

If you only wrote this one entry during your entire trip, it would be enough.