Written by: Thomas Berry
Edited by: Kaard Bombe
I left Phoenix around nine in the morning, throwing my pack and boots in the back of my Jeep. Already late, I had a stop at Target and then a good three hours of driving ahead of me to make it up to the park by twelve. At Target I grabbed an insulating layer jacket on sale for thirty-five bucks, then changed into my long johns and snow pants in the parking lot, slipping my wool socks over the thin polyester of the white base layer before pulling my boots tightly over the socks. Fifteen minutes later I was heading north on the I-17, mentally as well as physically unprepared for the four days to come.
The drive to the rim was a long one. Nearly two hours down the I-17 and the scenery had transformed into something only out of winter. Desert became snow. The highway became ice. Even my Jeep had changed in line with the weather, its engine shivering and coughing through the cold. As my knuckles turned pale gripping the steering wheel, I thought not of home or family or school behind me, but of the dark clouds covering the earth ahead, and the fog pouring down from space, changing the wilderness to white.
The highway was becoming less and less visible, but I continued at a constant speed of 80mph, following a couple of cars whose taillights stayed visible through the thick white clouds. I was not accustomed to the new foliage around me; I’d never lived anywhere near a dense forest, let alone driving through one in a snowstorm. There were moments along that stretch of highway, as Camp Verde passed by through cracked windows, and the forest became really thick, that I irresponsibly lost sight of what I was doing. The rooftops of the roadside cabins, layered neatly in snow, had my head turning from the road; the occasional antlered buck I’d pass had me pausing to consider pulling over. The patches of asphalt that looked a little darker than the rest had me easing on the clutch and pushing the breaks. Flagstaff seemed so far away that I began to wonder if I’d strayed off the path at some point, as if I’d taken some exit that pushed me further into the woods on some forgotten highway without gas or cars to entertain the setting. Thoughts like that had me imagine breaking down in the cold. Surely, a thumb could not take a weary traveler home from here.
Really, I began to think I was exaggerating the glory of the trip. After all I only lived three and half-hours away from the Grand Canyon. When I met my roommate, Kaard Bombe, some five months back, the planning for the trip had been simple enough. A quick drive to the south rim on Tuesday with one night spent in the snow and three nights spent inside the canyon, all with time to make it home around 12 on Saturday for my family’s early Christmas. The itinerary we had laid out with our requested backcountry permit read it plainly. Now, five months and nearly 700 dollars later, I was actually following through on my first backpacking trip.
As I pulled into the town just outside of the Grand Canyon, I passed by a hotel I remember staying at as a kid, when I had first seen the great hole in the ground. Back then, when I was nine or ten, I was overwhelmed by the Canyon. It left me feeling the same as I did when I looked at the ocean, or a perfectly immaculate night sky; something too big to be so seemingly close. After that I hadn’t been back to the Canyon. This time, nearly nine years later, I was by myself.
Foolishly, I had let Kaard do most of the research when it came to our trip. He had told me to bring a twenty and I’d be cool to get into the park. When I finally rolled up to the entrance, however, I saw that the price was twenty-five dollars, with a white piece of printer paper comically taped over the sign that read, “ATM down.” Marching on, I pulled forward and explained my predicament to the woman inside the kiosk. The answer was a straight, “No.”
I pulled over in front of the gates as Kaard followed some two hours behind. Thirty minutes later it had started to snow, the small flakes floating down onto my windshield. Fed up, I got out and walked to the next kiosk over to explain the situation to someone else. I was greeted by a middle aged woman, younger than the first, who told me her boss would throw a fit if he saw me walking through the snow, and to pull up to her window. She tried my debit card, but after it proved to still be broken, she handed me a map and waved me in free, stating it “wasn’t my fault the damn machine was broken anyway.” Sweet.
From there I drove to the visitor’s center parking lot and parked and stretched my legs. It was cold, but with my base, insulating, and shell layer on, I not only looked like I was going snowboarding, I was warm. I tried calling Kaard twice, but to my joy, the signal was too weak. I’d have to wait.
All around the parking lot were people from places I’d never been. Sharp Mandarin drifted by, muttered by hunched bodies, shivering and gloveless. Some Dutch girls, all three of them blonde, were having a snowball fight near the bathrooms. I stood against my jeep and breathed in the cold, clean air. There was just something about that air, fresh and rejuvenating. After almost thirty minutes of waiting for a call or a sight of Kaard’s black car, I decided I deserved a nap. I woke up an hour later to my cell phone ringing and Kaard telling me he was by the backcountry office.
What followed was a prime example of my special ability in getting lost. After one ranger told me to hit a right and drive two miles west I pointed the jeep in that direction, only to end up in the parking lot of a Chase bank and a grocery store. From there I attempted to circle back around to the main road, only to end up the parking lot of Mather Campground. The rangers there directed me back to the center road with directions for the backcountry area, only for me to somehow end up back in the grocery store parking lot. Frustrated, I studied the map and somehow ended up by a set of train tracks, which were mercifully right by the backcountry office. Kaard had already purchased our permit, and had me jump right back into the jeep to follow him to our campground. I didn’t even bother to remember the different turns we took.
We pulled up to a vacant spot with a long driveway, and plenty of snow. First, we decided to set up the tent. The trip was to be filmed for a mini-documentary (Kaard was a professional videographer and I was learning to be one as well) so we set his GoPro on a tripod to do a time lapse of the tent being set up. To our surprise, however, one of the two major support poles that held the tent up had snapped, its nylon string ripped somewhere inside the many subdivisions of tubes. After fuming for a good 30 minutes, Kaard (this being his tent) decided to MacGyver it and simply sit the poles inside each other, carefully maneuvering them to lock in place even without the nylon. By sheer luck, we managed to stick the poles together in a way that stuck firmly enough into the ground to hold. It didn’t bode well that the tent, our one and only well traveled and well used tent, would have to be jerry rigged every night for the rest of the trip.
The tent fiasco over, we loaded into my jeep, taking with us, collectively, some five thousand dollars worth of camera gear, to film and take pictures from the rim. First, we stopped by the Bright Angel Lodge to set up a time lapse of clouds as they rolled over the Canyon. This was the same place I had looked out as a child, and the feeling hadn’t left. Kaard recalled his last trip to the canyon, where after spending the night at the lodge, he woke up to the ground covered in over 6 inches of snow. Being a born and raised Southern Californian, he hurriedly shook his parents awake before sprinting outside. Much to his Dad’s disbelief, there it was, the snow covered ground and black skies a 180-degree reversal from the bright and sunny day before. This memorable eleventh birthday trip was one of the many adventure stories he told me, each one making me more and more jealous.
Looking back across the canyon to the North Rim, the lines of snow grew thicker as they approached the canyon rim. Through the camera lens, the canyon looked so vast and far that it almost appeared as a backdrop to some movie set, with only what was directly in the foreground truly there. The rolling storm clouds blew through, intermittently pelting us with snow and driving wind. We waited out the timelapse for nearly an hour before loading up the jeep and driving westward, stopping at trail view overlook and taking more pictures for nearly 30 minutes. Next was Powell point, but before we even got there, three elk the size of horses bolted across the road in front of us. Startled, I quickly parked the car some fifty yards away before sprinting behind Kaard towards the roadside to grab a few photos of the animals. For my first time seeing anything like them in person, it was unbelievable. They didn’t stray further than ten feet from us, allowing us to take a hundred photos, all from closer positions. The elk wouldn’t be our last encounter with animals throughout the trip.
After Mohave Point, we drove to Hopi Point. The sun was setting and Kaard wanted to shoot a bit of the sun coming in over the Canyon, as well as the snowstorm that had hit us on the way there that was slowly arriving. We stayed at Hopi utill just about dark, as small snowflakes began to fall once again. The sunset looked as if the heavens had picked a particular patch of the canyon to shed a spotlight on, somewhere at the far west side of the North Rim. As absorbed as we were by the beauty of the Canyon, it was time to go. Quickly, we drove to the grocery store and shelled out fourteen dollars for a spare can of propane (out of fear that my own smaller can wouldn’t last). Elatedly, we found a pack of nylon string for our fledgling tent poles. Inside the store the Yak Tracks, chains I had over my boots, slipped across the tile; I nearly lost my footing twice. It was another reminder that I didn’t come here to be inside, as much as I might have wanted to be that night.
Kaard directed me back to our campsite in the dark, but when we arrived we found the tent missing, and a hulking black shape wavering in its place. Being such an experienced outdoorsman, my first thought was that it must be a bear. Not sure what to do and paralyzed by fear, we stayed in the jeep until we realized that the wavering shape was actually our tent, still staked halfway in the ground. The wind had gotten underneath the rain cover and had uprooted the entire thing, the lack of nylon again rearing its ugly head. For the next hour, we used our head lamps to search the area to find our base layer for the tent, re-stake the entire thing, as well as fill it with our packs ensure it wouldn’t go anywhere.
By the time we were done, hot food sounded so good that I emptied out my pack for my stove and Kaard quickly grabbed two cans of soup from his car. As the wind whistled around us, we huddled around the picnic table, attempting to light the stove. After several tries, it appeared that we were at a loss. I suggested that we open the back of my jeep, sit cross-legged with the windows cracked, and try and light the stove there. At no time did I think that filling a vehicle with propane as well as a source of fire was a bad idea, and even when we did we figured the resulting bowl of hot soup was definitely worth the risk. The next hour was spent huddled in the back of my jeep, clicking the small button that would surely bring us warmth and food, only for it to produce nothing but a fickle flame, quickly burning out. Kaard decided to call it a night, and as I left everything in the back jeep, I couldn’t help but worry for the next three nights in the canyon, in which we were to rely on that very same stove. We feasted on protein bars, cookies, Wheat Thins and Cheese-Its that night. After I snuggled into my sub zero sleeping bag, I grew warm, and felt confident to skin down to my base layers, snuggling into the polyester of my mummy bag. Soon sleep came. I dreamt of bears.
I woke around six in the morning, after only a few hours of sleep, unbelievably cold. Fumbling in the dark I reached for my snow pants and my jacket, and stiffly pulled them over my body. I unzipped my sleeping bag and threw on my boots without lacing them, then tumbled out of the tent, stepping on Kaard’s feet in the process. I bolted in the direction of some trees to pee. It was probably the coldest I’d ever been. The lighting around me was an eerie blue. When I came fully to my senses I saw that the tent had been surrounded by a foot of snow. My jeep and Kaard’s Rav4 were completely white, with icicles hanging from their undercarriages.
I climbed back inside the tent, back into the warmth of my sleeping bag, meaning to soon wake Kaard and begin our journey. Instead, I fell asleep, only to be woken up by Kaard nearly three hours later. Around nine-thirty we began to pack the tent and stuff our gear into our backpacks. The game plan was to leave a majority of our possessions inside our vehicles and pack everything even tighter in the backcountry parking lot. We would find that we did not know how to pack light and minimalize. We brought too much and carried a lot of unnecessary weight, overestimating both our appetites and strength. After all, it was our very first real trip.
Before heading out, I attempted one last go at the stove. After filling the small pot-like cup with ice, I attempted to light it. On the second click, a strong flame burst underneath, and I left the ice to boil. Of course it worked today, but I was less upset about missing a real meal last night and more excited that we would likely be able to cook food for the rest of the trip. We set up another time lapse of breaking down camp in the snow, the process nearly taking us another 30 minutes. Once I had the pot of water to a boil I poured it over my windshield, which was covered in nearly a half-inch of thin ice and a few inches of soft snow. To my surprise, the water did little but make a small few holes in the ice, an enormous let down from my plan of defrosting the windshield in one go. I grabbed a spare sock to wipe off both of our windows, and we drove to the backcountry office.
In the parking lot, I finished stuffing my pack as tight as it could go. Kaard uploaded the footage that he had taken so far to his laptop to preserve memory for inside the canyon as he charged our Canon 7D batteries with his nine-volt adaptor. After gleefully dealing with some credit card issues with his bank, we texted our parents as we left the last bit of phone service, and began the walk to the Bright Angel trail head.
Right away I could tell I had my pack on incorrectly. It was a 75-liter Osprey Aether, and it was grinding against my hips. With some 60lbs on my back, and us already behind schedule, I moved on without saying anything, hoping the problem would correct itself.
We rounded a corner and walked past the Kolb brothers’ studio, stepping up to the trailhead. There, a mother, her three children, and their grandparents asked to take photos with the “real” hikers. We gladly obliged, and they snapped the first photo of us together, smiling and excited to head down.
The hike down didn’t seem too hard. We trudged through the thick snow that was still left on the trail from the storm of the night before, our Yak Tracks giving us grip. Hikers blazed past us with hiking poles; they looked tired, much too tired. We would stop every hundred feet or so to take a picture or to film a bit, the entire landscape became increasingly overwhelming. It was on the hike down that I learned a pretty common phrase you might hear on a Grand Canyon trail, “You’re almost there.” We didn’t learn the sardonic irony of that phrase until our hike back out.
There was an old woman who asked us to warn a group of Asian tourists that they shouldn’t head all the way down. There were two men, one nearly jogging up the trail as the other called to him to stop for water. We even passed a couple celebrating the husband’s 60th birthday. Surely if they could do it, we could without a problem.
At what seemed like 200 feet below the three-mile marker my toes began to stiffen from constantly hitting the front of my boots. We were tired, thirsty, and had been hiking down hill for nearly 4 or 5 hours now. I increasingly began to worry that there was no way in hell I could make it out of the canyon Saturday morning by 12. Kaard shared my worry. We decided we’d talk with a park ranger and see if we could have our itinerary changed so that instead of sleeping at Bright Angel campground our last night, we could return to Indian Garden, where were staying that current night. We agreed to see what tomorrow had in store for us before deciding. Soon enough, we crossed into Indian Garden.
We made camp at a spot a little ways down the trail. I spent 30 minutes fixing the tent poles as Kaard went and filled our water bottles. Once everything was unloaded I began cooking on the picnic table, boiling Ramen in my stove. Soon enough a park ranger stopped in and checked us over, as well as our itinerary. He showed us how we had covered, in big bold white paint, a sign on the table that warned to not cook on the picnic tables. We’d learn the reason for this rule soon enough, but for now we had to move our ramen feast to the dirt floor. It seemed even colder on the ground as the sun slipped behind the canyon wall and the creeping shadow covered us, bringing with it an even colder wind.
Soon enough the sky turned dark, and Kaard and I crawled into our sleeping bags. Just before I began to fall asleep I decided it was a perfect time to do some night photography. I climbed out into the not-so-cold air and fumbled as I set up my tripod in the dark. With a 15mm fisheye lens on my 7D, I set my ISO to 1600 and my aperture to 2.8 with a 30 second shutter speed and waited. The photos that the camera yielded were incredible. Suddenly an already speckled sky became an infinity of stars. There in my screen played back a wall of the Canyon, red and orange, lit up by the light of the stars like daylight. One picture revealed a streak to be a shooting star. Another caught a small fire lit by a group next several spots down the trail (even though fires were prohibited on the canyon floor.) I called Kaard outside but he decided to stay inside the sleeping bag, so instead I had him turn on our lantern and dangle it inside the tent. The picture result ended up being the best photo from the trip. Here was a portrait shot, with a tent glowing blue, a wooden post looking crisp and clear, a desert background rising to the wall of the canyon, and above the canyon a horizon of stars with the Milky Way splitting through. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, and frankly, it looked staged. After waking Kaard to show him the photo he was shocked, promising to join me the next night. Sensing his jealousy of such a great shot, I climbed inside my sleeping bag, keeping my warm pants on, and quickly fell happily asleep.
The next morning Kaard got up before dawn to set up a time lapse of the very same cliff I had taken photos of in the night. I got up a couple hours later and began making oatmeal for the both of us, this time with stove properly on the ground. It was a great breakfast, and we were quickly packed and prepared to head to Bright Angel campground until we noticed the Asian group camped next to us, panicking. Laying on their picnic table was a stove nearly three times the size of mine, surrounding it was a small fire, quickly getting bigger, accompanied by frantic Mandarin and a growing crowd of spectators. As Kaard put it, we did the most American thing possible: stood and watched. However, the fire soon began to take nearly a quarter of the table, and we sprung into action, grabbing our water bottles and sprinting to douse the fire. As we expected, it was a propane fire, and it spurned back to life as quickly as we had seemingly put it out. Thinking on his feet, Kaard dumped the last full water bottle directly onto the stove and yelled at the man speaking broken English to turn the switch off. Reaching in through the momentarily suppressed flames, he turned it quickly, shutting off the propane valve. I sighed a breath of relief, as did everyone else. We told them not to cook on the table and not to use matches around an area that much propane had been released, and after filling up our water bottles we were quickly on our way.
Nearly twenty minutes later we were stopped again down the trail in some brush, with myself digging into my backpack for my telephoto lens. There, only fifteen down the trail were 4 deer, all of them female. We spent the next half hour following them through the brush snapping dozens of photos. After one had stepped onto the trail, seemingly posing for us, we called it a success and continued onward.
This part of the trail was by far my favorite. We followed a creek that would break open into mini waterfalls and ponds that ensued in jutting boulders painted with the reds oranges and golds, colors so vibrant I was sure that if I touched them I might come away with dripping fingers. Nature, with the best attempt to not be cliché (I do often try that dance called poetry from time to time) bled through the seems of the Grand Canyon. More than just desert, color came alive through water and red rock that seemed to sustain more life than ever. It was on this stretch of trail that I truly lost myself in the canyon. Here, I had no worries, and had forgotten entirely of home. We hiked on.
When we came to our first set of switchbacks going down, we realized that there wouldn’t be any point of trail that could actually flatten out. The hike to Bright Angel would be a chaotic mess of nearly rolling downhill. I regretted not buying poles. A few hikers passed by, making good time on their way up to the rim. At one point, a caravan of mules with riders walked beside us. I thought of how taking the mule down was cheating your body of the physical connection it got through the hike. The next day, I’d be regretting that statement. Hours passed and we seemed no closer to the center of the canyon. Every time a corner was near to rounding I was convinced I’d see the Colorado. Every time I was greeted by another valley. Finally, we turned a corner and I caught a glimpse of the river, obscured by the height of the cliff I was on. Maybe 30 minutes after that, the trail began upward, and we soon learned the luxury of the mule.
Some background should be put forth here before continuing. Kaard and I were 18 at the time of this hike. We’d spent the last five months preparing for the trip by mostly forgetting that we had even ordered a permit for it. The food at our Arizona State dorm had consisted of pizza or a cheeseburger every night with a side of fried veggies and some water or tea. After getting a job at a news station, I had spent a majority of the semester sitting. As the trip neared, the most I did to plan was buy my gear and do little research. For two young men supposedly in the best shape of their lives, we were in terrible condition.
After restarting our trek after a quick lunch break, we were stopped, completely out of breath. Complaining from both sides began quickly. The wind had picked up too in the depths of the canyon, prompting us both to put back on the layers we had gleefully shed a few hours back. Kaard, however, proved to lead the way, with my following closely behind. My neck began to cramp from staring at me feet. My glutes felt as if they had stretched. Most of all, my calves were red-brick-and-mortar, and my heart seemed to be making its way up my throat. As we hiked upward and onward, the massive Colorado river stretched much wider than I had imagined, and I could only pretend to feel the chill of its icy breath. I had definitely underestimated today’s trip. I had pictured a straight and smooth trail to the river where a wooden bridge would bend up and over to the other side that would end in a nice campground. What I found, instead, was a trail alongside cliffs some 300 feet above the river, hiking up, rather than down. It was then that we saw the bridge, and only then did I really take anything in at all.
The Silver Bridge is a suspension bridge that stretches across a wide part of the Colorado, and for my own intensive purposes, the heart of the river. This magnificent steel goliath gave us a renewed sense of hope, and sure enough, at the other end, I could make out the roofs of buildings, and assumedly, Bright Angel campground.
Taking out our cameras, we filmed each other walking across. Kaard grabbed the railings and literally swayed the suspension bridge, even if it only moved inches at best. Needless to say this was not a good idea, as the torrent of water below suggested a quick end to our trip if we entered it. The steel grates of the bridge didn’t help any, as looking down revealed a thin separation between our feet and the rushing water. At the middle of the bridged we stopped, took photos, and took a moment to appreciate the sound of water below us, this creation by man underneath our feet holding us up. We had made it, this far anyway, and camp was ahead. Off of the bridge a sign read its name. It also revealed that men had carried cable by hand to build it. Again, I was astonished by the power of mankind. At one point, Native Americans lived throughout the canyon. At another, a pipeline was built to bring water to an increasingly bigger amount of tourists. And now, men had hauled god knows how many pounds of cable and steel down to depths of the canyon to construct this bridge we had walked across. I silently thanked all of them.
Just as we began to hike around a bend that would lead us to our campsite, I saw the unfortunate sign of something I knew would prevent us from getting there any sooner: more deer. Sure enough, I found myself alongside Kaard, snapping dozens of photos, this time at a buck leading his heard. His antlers were symmetrical and at least a foot and half out. With him were a baby deer and a doe, while the others stayed around us, eating. After living in the city for as long as we had, we had forgotten about things as simple as deer, and, subsequently, used our cameras like rosaries capturing sacred prayers of nature instilled in moments filled with a deer eating leaves like a cow chewing cud. The deer were unflappable, treating us not as enemies but as mere nuisances. Looking up from their grazing, they would look at us, seemingly trying to decide if they were annoyed or equally curious at our presence, before looking away at the next patch of grass. After forty minutes of photographs, I convinced Kaard to leave, it was time to get our campsite.
We set up the tent we turned on our phones, looking up to smile at the same time. No bars. No service. No possible way for anyone to call us or to text us. No status updating, no tweeting, nothing. As journalism majors, a huge part of our lives was spent connected to the news of the world, and for once, we had no idea what was going on outside of the canyon walls. No girlfriends, no parents, no news from Syria or D.C. The world was at peace.
We decided to go to the ranger’s office by Phantom Ranch to have our itinerary changed, so we left our camp and hiked upwards. I had pictured Phantom Ranch as a fancier campsite with stables. Instead, I found a town.
I left Kaard in the ranger station after having waited 20 minutes with no response and continued up the trail toward Phantom Ranch. It was amazing what I found. Packed away into this little valley were dozens of cabins, all with glass windows and curtains drawn like a vacation spot. There were bathrooms, perfect trails with wooden fence like handrails, trees that stretched up into the canyon, and most noteworthy, a thatched canteen in the center of it all. I stepped into the canteen and found a room with tables, heat, full fountain drink machines, beer, supplies and food. The woman behind the counter greeted me and explained the hours that it operated, and I told her I’d gladly be coming back when they re-opened at ten that night.
The ranger suggested that changed our plan entirely. Rather than heading back to the Indian Garden campsite, we should simply leave in the morning on Friday, and take the South Kaibab route. I was more than happy with the idea, as it would guarantee me getting home in time for my family Christmas, not to mention leaving me a night to sleep before the festivities. Kaard was satisfied too, and we headed back to camp to cook some of the dried food bags I had bought at REI and rest a bit before we headed to the canteen. Kaard wanted to head outside around 10 and do a time lapse of the night sky moving over the canyon, so we decided to nap as well.
Waking up some hours later I put my headlamp on and led the way up to the canteen. Inside we found some twenty people all situated around different tables, drinking wine and playing board games. I ordered a glass of lemonade and an apple and Kaard got a bagel and hot coco. To my surprise, again, the lemonade was some of the best I had ever had.
We began to discuss our game plan for the next morning when a twenty something backpacker with a small beard and glasses asked if we wouldn’t mind sharing a conversation. In an English accent, he introduced himself as Christian. Even more surprising than great lemonade was the story we heard from him at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Christian had been nomadically traveling the past thirteen years. The majority of his life had been spent on a yacht working as a crew hand, a job he had landed fatefully one day while walking through a harbor somewhere on the west coast. He had been everywhere from New York to New Zealand, and had spent a great deal of time backpacking along the way. His parents were separated but he was heading home to a town just outside of Cambridge to stay with his brother for the new years. He loathed Christmas, and seemed way happier to spend the season trekking through the Grand Canyon. We talked about college and American society and discussed politics and things like gun control. He fascinated us with stories of travel, and seemed happy after telling us he had just decided to settle down. At the end of the night, Kaard left him a business card with contact information if he might not want to eat Christmas dinner at a hostel, and rather, Kaard’s home in Flagstaff.
Of all the things that we had experienced on our trip, this was the last thing we saw coming. The beauty of backpacking is that it puts everyone on the same playing field. No matter rich or poor, old or young, the trail treats you the same. We are all humans, our class differences stripped away by the cold rock surrounding us. Like each layer of colored sediment, we all have our own stories, seen our own reality, lived our own lives. Converging in this one place, we were all similar, all descendants of this great rock labyrinth. The kinship that can be experienced in a campsite or canteen at the bottom of a huge hole in the ground could never be duplicated, and in its beautiful uniqueness we stayed trapped. The night couldn’t last long enough, the stories of Christian and the overheard conversations from the Canadians next to use and the kids behind us melting into one beautiful stew. As we rose to leave, we all understood the beauty of the moment, yet were keenly aware we wouldn’t have this experience again until the next trip. This reality was more uplifting than sobering.
Along with our newfound friendship, we left the Canteen carrying our tripods and cameras, and picked a spot in the darkness. We sat for the next two hours bonding over word games and stories from high school, timing out each fifteen second exposure as the moonlight creped up the canyon wall. The night sky was a lustrous ceiling of dots of light that seemed to stretch forever. My camera took each photo like a jealous eye stealing the night from the earth. Walking back to our campsite, the trip seemed to culminate in the darkness alongside a creek bed under a starry sky with a sense of comradeship and achievement. When I fell asleep that night I knew the trip had been a success.
The next morning, Christian stopped by the campsite to wish us luck on our hike out. We wished him a happy new year, and packed our belongings away. Crossing the Black Bridge of the South Kaibab over the Colorado, I thought how in only a matter of eight hours or so, I’d be in my jeep heading home. When we came out the other end of the tunnel, however, we found hell waiting before us.
What stretched upward and onward forever into heaven was this trail that did not stop but merely provided in switchback upon switchback of steep narrow trail. I pushed up, following Kaard, forever moving my feet in front each other, forever thinking my next step would be my last as I could not possibly make it out of this Canyon lest it by carried by the wings of some great bird… or maybe a helicopter.
After a half hour of hiking and minute stops every 100 feet to struggle to grab a breath and hope that our legs would stop shaking, the bridge was only a small strip below us, with the river merely a trickle. We hiked under the shadow of the canyon, covered in sweat and chilled by a strong wind. We hiked against the steep path of the canyon, our legs becoming swollen and numb. We hiked up and out of the canyon, hungry and tired and irritable. But the more we hiked, the less we seemed to travel.
Hikers 20 years our senior strode passed us like they were on a Sunday stroll, hiking up into the sky and over the next ridge. Every time we left one canyon we entered another, never hitting a moment where the path would leave our legs some breath. The steps were awkwardly positioned, the wood planks holding the trail on the side of the canyon wall spaced just far enough apart that two steps were required in between each one. We hiked hours and hours and hours, dawn turning into a harsh midday sun. How people did this in the summer I couldn’t imagine. Through every switchback and every corkscrew, we followed the trail. Some seven hours later, I collapsed at a station that marked a mile and a quarter from the rim. This hike had yielded us some of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, but I was done. I was dead from my toes to my ears. We drank water, ate protein, and pressed on. At the last wall of switchbacks I was frozen. I had my gloves stashed deep in my pack with my beanie. My fingers were white and my nose was red. I pushed forward ahead of Kaard with his encouragement of a Wendy’s burger awaiting us. Three times my boots, without their Yak Tracks on, slid frictionless on the ice. I hiked on, faster, seeing the top. Our gps on our phones told us we were close, Ohh Ahh point seeming like it was right at the trailhead.
One wall of switchbacks remained. As good as we felt for seeing the end, our bodies were limp with fatigue. The evening hikers streamed by us, many starting from even further inside the canyon than we had. The sunset cast a warm, glowing orange tint onto the canyon wall above us, a stark reminder that the temperature was dropping further. As it always seems, the last half mile was the longest of the trip. Staggering through the oxygen thin air, the last part of the trail lay before us. Our fifth wind kicked in. As we climbed out, the pain left my body, and we high fived with a congratulatory, “We did it.”
We did do it. We set a goal for ourselves and accomplished it.
The shuttle bus seemed to take forever to get to the trailhead. We took the time to call our parents, letting them know that we would be home a day sooner than expected. Each call was met with the expected joy. As we sat in the bus looking through photos from the trip, it began to set in. My legs were sore and tired and I was warming up to the heater, but I thought only of the bed at home. I snoozed off momentarily before being awakened at the next stop by the mechanic voice from the bus’s dash.
Out of the window the bottom of the sky met the rim of the canyon, and before me lay the blood red gash of an Arizonan sunset. The pain in my legs could not shield my eyes, and I knew it had all been more than worth it.