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.

Why?

Why?

Do you ever wonder why you are drawn to adventure? Even if you only like to read about adventure, discovery, exciting lives and times, have you stopped to think about why those stories are appealing? Why do we have bucket lists? Why do we purposely choose some challenges and count them worth the pain they may cause? Why do I want to sleep on the ground for five nights, hike 20 miles up and down a distance greater than four Empire State Buildings, in uncertain weather with only what I can stuff into one duffel bag, and do all this with 7 strangers who might snore even worse than I do? Why?

My thinking – it’s because we are made in the image of an adventurous God. Big plans, big ideas, a view of existence so broad and all encompassing that we can’t begin to understand it, all that starts with him. It’s mystery and we are made to be curious and to seek it out.

The Grand Canyon is a project on a scale bigger than we can imagine, yet the processes that formed it were designed and patiently overseen.  Colin Fletcher in “The Man Who Walked Through Time” was trying to wrap his mind around the length of time represented by the Grand Canyon – millions of years.  He had this to say, and I quite agree.

 “Most of us, when we first think deeply about such time spans, tend to draw back in fear from their brink, just as we tend at first to draw back in fear from the brink of anything so immense as Grand Canyon. But it is worth remembering, I think, that some element of fear probably lies at the root of every substantial challenge. And it makes no difference at all whether the challenge is to your mind or to your body, or whether – with richer promise than either, alone – it embraces both.”

The Man Who Walked Through Time, p. 4 by Colin Fletcher

That fear thing! I will admit to being drawn to things that are capable of frightening me.  Isn’t that the essence of challenge? I am habitually choosing challenges, small, large, and in between, because I want to know if I can prepare well enough, mentally and physically.  The prospect of seeing and experiencing wonderful things that I would otherwise miss pulls me into adventure.

My adventure is somewhat ridiculous when compared to Colin Fletcher’s goal of walking the Grand Canyon from one end of the park to the other, but another quote from him resonated strongly with me.

 “I looked east and west, as far as my eyes could strain, until cliff and terrace tapered way into hazy distances. It was mysterious and terrible – and beckoning. And some time during the afternoon, as I sat on the rink of this strange new world, it came to me that if a route existed, I would walk from one end of the Canyon to the other. Once the idea had crystallized, no hideously sensible doubts reared up to plague me.  And I did not need such fragile props as “reasons”. The only question I asked myself was whether the project would turn out to e physically possible. Perhaps it is in this kind of simple certainty that most of the world’s ridiculous and wonderful dreams are born.”

The Man Who Walked Through Time, p. 6 by Colin Fletcher

Hmm… I know what he means by “hideously sensible doubts” and from time to time they may plague me.  But sometimes, like with this Grand Canyon thing,  a challenge just comes to me, from out of nowhere, and if it’s physically possible to do it, I don’t need reasons. Just sayin’…

Fletcher, Colin

Fletcher, Colin – writer and hiker

I’m including a post about Colin Fletcher, yes, because his last name begins with F, but also because he was somewhat famous for hiking. In spite of being interested in hiking for quite some time, I had never heard of Mr. Fletcher, so I was surprised and intrigued to find out that he’s considered the grandfather of backpacking. He was one of the first persons who thought long and hard about where he was hiking, how to get there and what to take along. His book “The Complete Walker”, a sort of hiker’s bible, has sold over 500,000 copies and is still in print. So, as a result of studying up on him, I now have a new reading list that I can’t wait to get into! See it at the end of this post.

Fletcher was born in Wales, educated in England and did time in the military in World War II. He also spent time teaching in a Mountain Warfare Training Camp and living in Africa, surveying and helping to build roads. He did some prospecting in Canada, which led to a move to San Francisco in 1956. He hiked the nearby mountains. By this time, exploring and getting out alone into the wilderness was in his blood.

This is funny. His first extended backpacking trip in 1963 was from Mexico to Oregon, all along the eastern coast of California. He did what he called “contemplative walking”.  According to the NYT obituary, he took this hike to think over whether or not to marry his girlfriend. He did end up marrying her but it only lasted a few weeks. He probably should have taken a longer hike and contemplated more.

Daughter Julia and I are out for a “contemplative walk”.

He wrote his first book about this experience and called it “The Thousand Mile Summer”.

His second book, “The Man Who Walked Through Time” was written about his hike from one end of the Grand Canyon National Park to the other. He was the first to do the complete length in one hike.  The park at that time didn’t include the entire canyon but it was 200 miles in length. Apparently, with all the zigzags and explorations, he walked closer to 400 miles.

Not many have done this hike even today. It is incredibly difficult to cross the many deep tributary canyons. In an interview with NPR, Chip Rawlins, who co-authored the latest edition of Fletcher’s book “The Complete Walker”, said that Fletcher had devised a sort of life vest that would float him across some of the rivers he had to cross.  One of Rawlins friends, a river guide, said Fletcher must have been “nuts”. Here is a quote from “The Man Who Walked Through Time”:

“I saw that by going down into that huge fissure in the face of the earth deep into the space and the silence and the solitude, I might come as close as we can at present to moving back and down through the smooth and apparently impenetrable face of time.”

The Man Who Walked Through Time, by Colin Fletcher

Colin Fletcher also traveled the complete length of the Colorado River, from source to sea, when he was 69 years old. His book “The River” is said to have his reflections on growing older.  It sounds like all of his books, in addition to having detailed guidelines on wilderness backpacking (solo), have a lot of philosophical musings. A bonus, all of the reviews say his writing is witty and enjoyable as well. I can’t wait to read these books!

The Thousand Mile Summer (1964)

The Man Who Walked Through Time (1968)

The Complete Walker (2002 edition)

River: One Man’s Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea (1997)