The last time I had gotten out of bed at 5 AM was because I was going to early morning basketball practice. Why was I doing this? Sunrise at the Grand Canyon.
I rolled out of bed and showered. We were meeting at six to drive over to the trailhead. I heated up a bowl of oatmeal, had a cup of coffee, and spent five minutes brushing all the plaque off my teeth. I was sacrificing dental cleanliness for contact solution space in my pack so I could wear sunglasses.
Then I fired up my laptop, like I said earlier I was in grad school. Taking classes online made life easier but it still took (and takes) up a lot of my time. I’m one semester away from having my Masters of Science in Secondary Education; come on May 2018! I wanted to see if anyone else had posted in the class discussion so that I wouldn’t have to cram everything in on Sunday night. I got lucky and was able to do the two required posts. I would have Sunday night free to relax. Wahoo!
Around ten till six, I put on my favorite pair of hiking pants, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and a jacket. Grabbed my stocking cap and pack and headed out the door to wait. It was cold, around 17 degrees. Growing up in southeast Missouri I had a very limited understanding of what cold was until I moved to Nebraska. However, it was a dry cold so I didn’t seem to feel it; there also wasn’t the howling wind to contend with like in Nebraska.
I paused to look around, the last few days a couple of mule deer had been wandering around the dormitory grounds and I got a kick out of watching their ears. No deer this morning, so I hiked my pack up on my shoulder and meandered down the stairs, the same stairs I would come to loathe on Tuesday.
So far it was shaping up to be a glorious morning; the sun was going to rise around the time we made it to the rim. I was ecstatic as I walked towards the meeting point, the parking lot. The gang was all there. We had picked up an extra person; she was going to drive us out to the trail head at Bright Angel and hike down with us; then back out before nightfall. After packing the back of the van full of packs, trekking poles, and ourselves we headed out.
The sun was just creeping over the horizon when we pulled up to Bright Angel; I almost needed the crampons and trekking poles to get up to the trailhead. Ice was patchy on the concrete sidewalk and pavement accesses, my klutziness already creating havoc for me. Aside from some slipping I made it to the rim.
The rim of the Grand Canyon is a spectacular place. Standing there at dawn on a cold winter’s day? Simply majestic. It was quiet; the hustle and bustle of tourist, workers, and sightseers wouldn’t show up for another hour or two. Except for the buildings, rails, asphalt, and concrete, when I was standing at the overlook at Bright Angel I could almost image how it was pre-1920. Soon I would be stepping off into a slightly less developed wilderness and I couldn’t wait.
We took a few minutes to get our crampons on, trekking poles to the correct length (well I didn’t have to do this, sometimes being short is awesome), and taking a few photos. During this time, the sun hit the canyon, creating a beautiful blend of the shades; reds draining into golds, it was stunning. I could have sat there all morning watching how the colors changed and shadows played with the moving sun.
I knew though that those colors would be more vibrant and the shadows more dramatic the further down in the canyon. I wanted to see how the sun played on the Colorado River. I wanted to move.
I wanted to know how the world was below.
After taking one last group photo clustered around the Bright Angel Trailhead; we began our descent. Since I was the one with medical training, I thought it prudent to be at the back of the group. The most experienced guy, would take the lead and everyone else would fall in-between. We stayed within earshot of each other; although, as the progression went most of us stayed within two feet of each other. The lead guy would get a little ahead of us and stop and wait for us to catch up; by the end of the trip I would envy him.
The first mile though; was cathartic; at least to me. I was back in nature; hiking down a mountain into a canyon, and I was at peace. The way the trail drops down from Bright Angel we were hiking in the gloaming, predawn, even though we could look out over the canyon and see how the sun was changing the colors. The switchbacks were tight, cutting back against the side of the canyon; in places cutting through the rock creating beautiful arches to walk under along the way. The further down we got the more meandering the switchbacks would get, with rocks scattered at the perfect interval to sit and talk with other hikers. Or avoid the mule trains.
One quick note about the mule trains; I honestly don’t mind them. I grew up on a ranch, cow, horse, or mule manure is by far the least gross thing I can think to step in; just grass and water, sometimes grain. Although, there are some issues with using horses or mules on trails; leading to erosion and trail damage, it has some benefit. If managed correctly, it’s an excellent way for people with disabilities to get out and experience nature. On the trip down I only remember three groups coming through and only one with more than ten people. The trail guides were nice and keep their groups maintained and organized. Of course I might have just caught the right groups, at the right time of year.
We were the only ones for a few hours, around 9 we would begin to see a trickle, by eleven there was a flood tourist. But for those first few hours I felt like a character from a novel, I was picturing myself as a great adventurer; like Martha Gellhorn. I get the feeling I was more like Samwise Gamgee or even closer Pippin; I was ready for second breakfast by ten.
I was imaging hot eggs, sausages, tomatoes, and mushrooms; but I had to settle for a hardboiled egg and a granola bar. We had made it to a little rest house just below the snow/ice line. After taking a few moments to drop our packs, pull off the crampons, and use the facilities, we sat down to enjoy the scenic vistas and eat a snack.
I felt good, better than good; this hike was so easy! My what a big bite of crow I would have to eat a few days later. In that moment though, I was enlivened. I found something I loved; I knew I could take my wannabe status to the next level and become a doer. Heck, I was already doing it and it was amazing!
Sitting there looking out over the canyon was mesmerizing; the sun was further up in sky. The temperature jumped up a little higher; enough that my jacket had to go into the pack. I got to watch a mountain blue bird hop from branch to branch on a small bush next to the trail; looking for handouts. Please people, stop feeding the wildlife; they can fend for themselves.
All too soon it was time to start the next leg of the trip. I shouldered my pack and realized I lost some of the stability I had when my jacket was on. I quickly retied it while the others were putting away trash and grabbing their own packs. I realized I wouldn’t get the pack tight enough to my shoulders to stop some rubbing.
Even with an ill-fitting pack I was in a good mood; although, the way I had the straps rigged after I took off my jacket the next mile down would have me struggling to keep the pack in place. By the end of the day, my shoulders would be a little raw and sore. But I never lost my enthusiasm.
Each step brought me into a whole new world for me. I grew up in southern Missouri; home of rivers, trees, and world class natural springs. Then I moved to Nebraska, the rolling prairie, the natural crossroads of three different ecosystems, and a river. Those places I knew and loved; yet I was having to make room in my heart for the desert, for the Grand Canyon. Aside from some of the animals and birds; I didn’t know the natural aspects of the canyon, only a few of the flowers and plants looked familiar. The geological formations, while breathtaking and fascinating, had me at a loss. I had no knowledge of the names or timeline for the strata lines. I had very limited knowledge of which Native Americans called this place home. I wanted to know more.
Once out of the canyon on Sunday, another colleague and I, would head to the bookstore; where I spend a small fortune on the books I would need to answer all the lingering questions I had while hiking. However, I was hiking through one of the most beautiful places on earth; getting all the answers could wait. I had better things to focus on; the canyon itself.
I was walking through a world of ancient rocks. A world of desert plants. A sea of purple cactus, in the low sunny spots. Purple cacti? Why is it purple? Okay, so I really can’t turn off the endless questions I ask myself. BTW, the answer I was given, by a passing park ranger, was because of overheating or stress to the plants in chilly weather.
The group and I were starting to get a little tired by this point it was almost noon; the trail hit a series of switchbacks leading down to the bottom. These switchbacks resembled the ones at the top; steep back and forth. At the bottom the trail leveled out, but the damage was done. It was here that my pack would start to bug me the worst and I would realize being at the back and slowing my stride was starting to hurt my legs.
I found this funny; my fiancé, Wade, spends a great deal of time teasing me about being short I am and how I must jog to keep up with most people. I wonder why all the time I spend jogging hasn’t gotten me into shape? The fact that I was outpacing anyone was hysterical. I took a short break letting everyone get ahead of a bit. I ate a 3 Musketeer staring up at how far I had come.
Looking back up at the rim of the Canyon, thinking on the four miles I had trekked. I was proud of myself and it was only the beginning.