Coming Out

Do you see how far away that rim looks? How do I keep from thinking about that?

I kept looking up at what is called the Redwall, a formidable layer of red stained limestone above me. I could see no path taking me up beyond it and it was towering. After five hours of upward travel, the Redwall seemed like a dead end. The only thing I could think was that if I didn’t stop, if I just kept going, I would eventually get to the top. The mental challenge was every bit as big as the physical. I found myself praying frequently that God would strengthen me to keep moving and I warned him that I would someday ask him to explain this canyon to me. This beautiful, challenging, and mystifying place…

When I looked back over the distance I had already traveled I was aware that I had already come far. But most of my attention was focused on the ground where my next footfall would land. The second half of the Bright Angel Trail, right before the South Rim was a real struggle.

We had started that morning around 6, with cool weather and a possibility of rain. The Silver Bridge took us from the campground to the south side of the river. The trail stayed along the river for a while before heading out of the inner gorge on what the guides called “Devil’s Corkscrew”. It wasn’t as steep or difficult as I had expected and all of our crew made really good time. Again the scenery was powerful with frequent views of the trail below and above us, so three dimensional. Voices carry in the canyon and we could hear other hikers even when they were far away, like in an echo chamber.

Indian Gardens – trees, water, resting places

We reached Indian Gardens around 10 am a little ahead of schedule, and rested. What a beautiful place! Large cottonwood trees thrive around the creek, and green plants were plentiful. I can see why the Indian tribes chose to spend time there in the past. I could have spent more time there but we were urged on – the guides knew there were still 4.5 miles to go, some of it would be in the sun, and some of our group had expended most of their energy and strength.

Our group had spread out by this time and I lost track of my brother and his wife. I had seen them ahead of me and I didn’t want to fall too far behind them. I passed up the next stop at Three Mile because I would have had to come down a hill from the restroom and downhill was still too painful to choose unnecessarily. I skipped the stop at Mile and a Half because of the vicious acting squirrels trying to get people to share their snacks. I had heard squirrels were the most dangerous animals in the canyon and I found that believable. I wasn’t going fast at all – I felt like the only way to go slower would have been to stop. It’s possible I looked pretty wasted because lots of people asked me how far I’d come and tried to cheer me up.

I walked out of the canyon at 12:50 pm. I never did catch up with my family, and I found out it was because they were behind me, not ahead. Hmmm….

The member of our group who had trouble and the guide who stayed with him made it out two hours later. As we collected and went to find food we compared our experiences. My sister-in-law and I both were avoiding painful downward grades and well, we walked funny. We were sore. Both my knees hurt – I had actually taken the brace off the right one and put it on the left. I found out that if I kept walking even though I hurt, pretty soon that hurt would diminish and something else would hurt more. That was one of my more interesting observations about pain.

It was wonderful to know that I could stop walking, and that most of the places I would want to walk were relatively flat. I felt relieved of responsibility that had been impressed upon me numerous times, in books, in words, and on signs – the warning “to go into the canyon is an option, to come out is not”. I had gotten myself in, and with God’s help I was now out.

Zigzag

the letter Z

Distances in the Grand Canyon are described in various ways by those who have hiked them frequently. There are straight line miles, “as the crow flies” miles, and the miles spent zigging and zagging, as Colin Fletcher called it.  From “The Man Who Walked Through Time”,

“Cross-country on foot, miles are always misleading: the hours are what count. In the Canyon, miles become virtually meaningless. From start to finish of my journey I would cover, in a straight line, only forty-three. The river mileage came to one hundred and four. When I ran the map measurer from one end to the other of my proposed route, carefully following each winding contour, it registered just two hundred. But I felt sure, and Harvey Butchart greed, that I would walk at least four hundred miles as the foot slogs. And there were times when I would be lucky to travel half a mile in an hour.”

Another word, switchback, is often used to describe hiking trails and roads that go up or down steep hills. The trail will go in one direction up the hill, turn 180 degrees and continue uphill in the opposite direction, and repeat until the hill is climbed. The main purpose of this zigzag process is to protect the hill, and the trail from erosion. It is also a way of controlling the grade for ease of hiking, although it makes the distance considerably longer.

Almost every place I’ve hiked has been in hilly or mountainous terrain. Often there are switchbacks and there will also be signs to stay on the trail and not take shortcuts. Shortcuts that go straight down the hill will get worn down and become a path for rainwater to follow, producing erosion and eventually the trail will be ruined. It’s tempting at times but I’ve learned not to take those shortcuts.

The descent into the canyon includes so much vertical distance in such a short space that there will be a lot of zigzagging, especially on the South Kaibab. The picture below is of a section of the Bright Angel Trail, the upper left corner and lower right corner have a lot of visible switchbacks. Looking at this picture makes me think this is going to be a long, grueling climb. What fun! I can’t wait. The word zigzag is interesting because of the z’s which sort of mimic the shape of a switchback. 

portion of Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
Switchbacks on the Bright Angel Trail (most visible at top left and bottom right)
photo from canstock.com by Kelly Vandellen

We are at the end of the alphabet once again. The A to Z is a valuable writing experience for me, but more than that, it is a joy to meet others in this online blogging community. I am always amazed at the creativity, the sharing of comments and encouragement, the friendship extended, and the way it is all shared through the written word. Thank you to everyone who read and commented, and to the organizers of the A to Z. It has become my April habit.

Mules…

Thank you, Mule.

I’ve mentioned already that this hike, sponsored by the Grand Canyon Association Field Institute, is titled “Take a Load Off: Mule Assisted Camping 0514”.  My brother was being thoughtful of me and his wife, thinking that we would be better off having assistance from some friendly mules. The mules have agreed to carry a duffel bag for each of us which will lighten our load considerably.

On our first day we will meet at about 10 am to have our equipment checked over by our guide, and then our tenting equipment, some of our food and clothing – basically anything we don’t need on the descent – will be packed in the bag allowed us. I think our mule train will start that afternoon. I’m guessing they will go down the Bright Angel Trail, cross the Colorado on the Black Bridge and stay the night at Phantom Ranch (see this pic of mules crossing scary bridge). Almost everything that goes to Phantom Ranch goes by mule, including supplies for the canteen meals and goods sold in the store. Duffel transport is a common expense for hikers, especially ones going up who don’t want all that stuff on their own backs.

A lot of people ride the mules to Phantom Ranch too but the park video says the people getting off the mules are just as tired and sore as the ones who hiked the trail. Excuse me for laughing, haha. When you don’t ride for hours at a time as a regular thing, that is exactly what happens.  

Our hike guidelines give specific instructions to hikers who might happen to meet a mule train on the trail. We are to back up against the uphill side of the trail and wait quietly until the last mule has passed and is at least 50 feet away. Although the mules are well trained and mostly stick to business, if they are harassed or startled it can result in an accident. It is a real shame when a mule is lost off the trail, as you can imagine. And worse yet if a hiker falls, which is why we are given the uphill side. Lucky us.

Book Cover for Brighty of the Grand Canyon

Mules have a real history in the Canyon. An old children’s book which I read to my children years ago was “Brighty of the Grand Canyon”. It was kind of a history lesson of the prospecting days, when miners traveled the canyon looking for gold, with a mule carrying their provisions. Brighty, the mule, is the star of the book – kind of the Black Beauty of the mule world.  A great book about the canyon, and not just for kids. I loved it. Earlier this month a reader reminded me of this story that she had also read and loved. I’m not sure but I think Brighty might have been a burro (small donkey), which is different from a mule, but close enough for these purposes.

The little corral at Phantom Ranch looks just the same as it did when first constructed in the 1920’s. I’m hoping to hang out there a little and talk to some of the handlers because I’m curious about where the mules come from and how they are trained. I know they are very reliable and sure footed, which makes them a good fit for terrain in the canyon.

Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel Trail, I can’t wait to climb this “corridor trail” out of the canyon. It’s the most commonly used trail and its trailhead is at the Bright Angel Lodge in Grand Canyon Village. On my brief visit years ago, I had breakfast at the Lodge and wistfully walked a few yards down this wide, well maintained road, knowing that I had to turn around and go back in a few minutes.

Many hikers go down into the canyon on this trail and because of that it has several places where water and restrooms are located. There is a campground called Indian Gardens about 4.5 miles down. It was used first by the Havasupai Indians for accessing water at Garden Creek. Seasonally they stayed at Indian Gardens. The trail was widened and improved around 1890 and extended all the way to the Colorado River by Ralph Cameron. Wouldn’t you know, he started charging $1 per person to use the trail, plus more if needed water or using the outhouses.

What I wondered was why it was called Bright Angel? For a while it was called Cameron’s Trail for obvious reasons, but later he named it after Bright Angel creek and canyon. And those places got their names from the explorer John Wesley Powell. He thought the creek was delightfully pretty and clean, unlike one farther upriver called Dirty Devil. Yes, Dirty Devil and Bright Angel, makes perfect sense.

Bright Angel Trail is not quite as steep as the other trail we are using to go down into the canyon, but even so, it climbs more than 600 feet per mile on average. The total ascent will be 4,380 feet, about a 10% grade.

The Park Service does not recommend trying to hike down and back out in one day on this trail, especially in the busy summer season. In off seasons it has some cold and windy sections near the top of the south rim, and there might even be snow and ice. Many use it as a day hike to Indian Gardens which is quite do-able. It is rated as a moderately difficult hike and even though water is available I will carry my own as well.  

#AtoZChallenge 2019 Tenth Anniversary blogging from A to Z challenge letter