Part Two: The Descent

5:00 AM.

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.

Bright Angel Trail Sign
Beginning of the trail, with the sun rising in the distance.

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.

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Standing on the edge of the trail about a quarter mile down.

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.

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Not the best photo; but this bird was cute!

 

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.

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Hey, look a battleship!

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.

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The purple cacti that had me wondering about plant species. 

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.

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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.

 

Grand Canyon Part 1: Getting Ready

I started writing this while on my early Christmas vacation. It went a little longer than I thought it would so I decided not to overwhelm myself, or more importantly my readers, with a super long chunk of text so I broke it down into four* parts. I will be posting the rest over the next week.  Enjoy!

February, not my ideal time to go for a hike, or even camping for that matter. However, I was at the Grand Canyon! I wanted to experience everything I could while I was there. I was spending two weeks in a classroom for job related training but the weekend was mine to do what I wanted. I spent most of the first week in my “off hours” reading over brochures thinking about what I wanted to do on my upcoming weekend. I spent some that time walking around the dormitory and going to some of the nearby overlooks. I fell in love with the snow covered desert while I was there.

There were so many options in those brochures; however, I felt like I wouldn’t get to really experience the canyon if I did an interpretive program or a “day hike.” What I really wanted to do was a rafting trip on the Colorado River but it’s kind of hard to do a two day trip and really experience all the rapids and the amazing geology. I was still planning and re-planning my weekend when the training instructor said something like, “Although, it’s wintertime, we did secure some backcountry passes for anyone who wants to do an overnight in the Grand Canyon! The good news is once you get down below it will warm up to the mid-sixties. We have it set up for two groups, a long one that will overnight at Phantom Ranch and a shorter one to Indian Gardens.”

“Could I make it down to Phantom Ranch?” I asked myself while staring down at my feet. I was thinking about blisters, pulled muscles, and sore calves but I could touch the Colorado River. However, my internal voice piped up with, “No, your chunky butt would explode; if you’d lay off the damn cupcakes and ran a mile a day you might make it but you’re so out of shape you are a shape.”

My internal voice isn’t very nice sometimes.

But it was right, I couldn’t do a 17 mile hike overnight and keep up with the group. Not without severely injuring myself in some way. I got lazy over the last year; I started graduate school and slipped back into the bad habits I had in college. Snacking while I was studying, not managing my time well so workouts went the way of the dodo, and stressing myself out because of it, which in turned caused me to eat those delicious cupcakes…

In reality I had only gained twenty pounds (bad but not as bad as my internal voice made it seem) and wasn’t as out of shape as I thought. I wouldn’t be running marathons but I could still handle hiking at my pace. After the weekend I realized the weight issue or even the out of shape issue wouldn’t have been a problem. It was holding back my stride going down and coming back up that caused my calves to cramp. Although, I’m sure if I had been hitting a stair stepper it wouldn’t have hurt so bad.

We had a meeting after that day’s training and the instructor and about twenty of us were debating going down. I was still on the fence but I was determined to go even if it was the shorter hike to Indian Garden and back. While looking at the map and scale, my internal voice said “Hmm, almost five down and five back spread out over two days, you would probably live through that.” I concurred; but I wanted to see if anyone else would go.  While I felt confident doing it by myself I wanted at least one other person on the off chance I slipped on the icy parts of the trail. I was starting to get a little worried, everyone else wanted to do the overnight to Phantom Ranch, but once the dust cleared there were three of us willing to do Indian Garden. Two newbie backpackers and an experienced guy.

While I do have a little experience, I still think of myself as a “newbie” or a “wannabe,” I know the gear, I understand how to pack the backpack, but I’ve never spent a weekend, or even a day, doing a backpacking trip. The reason I know the information and how to pack the gear is because I’d always planned to backpack the Ozark Trail. I just never got around to doing it before I left for college or leaving for my job in Nebraska. I’m the queen of procrastination, but I plan like crazy for the “future” trips. I also had to be a familiar with backcountry trips, even though both places I worked at didn’t really have established backpacking communities. The Ozark Trail is a big thing where I’m from; but I never really had to deal with it while working for Ozark National Scenic Riverways; everyone was more interested in the rivers than in taking a backpacking trip.

I also got familiar with ultra-light equipment because I would keep it in my day pack when I was out on a quick hike, just to be on the safe side. I always figured I would be the person that managed to fall over a root, break something, and be stuck outside overnight. I figured with my line of work I should be familiar with the equipment; I even took a backpacking class so I would know the basics.

We had a mini meeting before we raided the gear room. Since I was an EMT and had a little more experience than the other lady going; I would handle the medical gear for the trio and a tent for us girls. I decided to go light on the medical gear; just a basic first aid kit with the usual stuff, two Sam Splints, and needed splinting materials.

I remember looking at the gear laid out on the shelves. The first thing I grabbed were crampons and hiking sticks; since it was winter, the first mile or so down was covered in snow and ice. I’m a klutz, I can fall “upstairs” just as easy as down, and while I’m usually pretty agile on trails and high places I was hedging my bets.

The pack I found wasn’t really made for someone of my diminutive size; if I had been thinking I would have grabbed the pack I received as a birthday gift in college after one of my ramblings about becoming a backpacker, and brought it on this trip, it’s a perfect fit for me. It also would be great for weekend backpacking trip or ultra-light trip.

I was surprised that nobody really grabbed the mummy bags; which made me happy. Thinking, while during the day the interior of the canyon would be nice and toasty, the night would get cold, I was right on that. Into the pack the mummy bag, mummy bag liner, a couple of dry bags, the two person tent, and a ground tarp.

I thought about taking a little MSR backpacking stove but since I was already carrying the tent and during our meeting we were doing are own food I decided to bring stuff that wouldn’t require heating and thrifty so I could eat at El Tovar without wincing at the bill later in the week.

Once we had grabbed all the gear we thought we would need, we huffed and puffed it back to our respective rooms to pack our other essentials; for me that was mainly food and water.

A quick trip to the general store had me stocked up and ready for the overnight. My menu was Bumble Bee tuna snack packs, hard boiled eggs, granola bars, and peanut butter oatmeal bites. Later, I would regret not bringing the stove; a cooked meal (even if it had been oatmeal) would have been heaven and hot tea would have been lovely on Sunday morning but live and learn. I tossed in a two full sized Snickers bars, a handful of mini 3 Musketeers, electrolyte packets, and New-Skin (the only thing I didn’t wind up needing). My special treat: one bottle of Gatorade that I planned on drinking at the bottom of the canyon. I’m weird, I know.

Side note on the weird part; I’m a big water drinker…now. I annoy my fiancé, Wade, with how much water I drink and my many bathroom trips. However, I used to not be that way; all through high school I despised water. I lived on Coca-Cola and beef jerky; why my kidneys didn’t fail or I didn’t drop dead I’ll never know. But now it’s like my body is making up for not drinking water during that time. I think the majority of weight I carried was from water; three full water bottles plus the Gatorade.

Once I was back in the room the packing commenced. After packing all the needed items, I decided to bring my Kindle (I was reading In a Sunburned Country at the time), my phone so I could take pictures, and extra socks. I was only going for an overnight and figured my clothes would keep. I finished putting everything in, and decided to test the weight.

I had a problem.

The weight wasn’t the issue; the pack was made for the Jolly Green Giant. Even after pulling in the straps all the way in; it would still gap on my shoulders pitching the weight back to around my butt/upper thighs. So I got creative. I had compression straps from packing two weeks of clothes into a little carry-on. Tweaking the chest strap by adding the compression straps to frame and tying them off on chest strap, it closed the gap; it wasn’t comfortable but it was doable. It would shift and bug me but it wouldn’t cause stress to my back and hips at least.

I was ready.

Or at least I thought I was ready.

Link to Bill Bryson In a Sunburned Country: //ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=bjpennington-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=0767903862&asins=0767903862&linkId=9d27dc1c7202d11af9d34cdd56519081&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff

Finding my stride

So this is a new world for me, writing about my adventures. Usually, I just tell the stories to my friends and family. It was just such an occasion that lead me here. I was telling a friend of mine about the first backpacking trip I ever took in the Grand Canyon, among other stories. Once I was done he informed me, “You should write a book!” I’m pretty sure he was drunk off his gluteus maximus but the idea stuck with me.

However, what would I write about? The stories are great but would they transfer over to written word and actually have people enjoy them? Even more important, can I write well enough that people can understand what I’m saying?*

I started playing around with different formats and couldn’t really find a great way to write a book with what I had. Stories about camping are great, if you can toss in a little horror, hiking is wonderful but after the first ten subheadings all beginning with “I hiked (blank) trail and saw this…” Long story short, I bored myself.

So I started reading about people in the outdoors. I got my first taste of writing about hiking and backpacking from Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods; I tried to channel Bill in my writings but I just didn’t have his humor. Cheryl Strayed was an informative book, but not really where I was going. Then I stumbled onto blogs; I honestly never thought I would wind up here.

A blog would give me the freedom to pass on my thoughts, rambles, and stories without having to write a “book.” It will also let me see if people are interested, because who knows maybe someday I’ll turn this rambling mess into that book. However, there are a lot of outdoor writers out there; would I just get lost in the shuffle? Would I be like the plants I hiked through in the canyon; “grow by the inch and die by the foot?”

But then I had an idea; I’m still getting into the world of backpacking. Sure I’ve done a lot of hiking, camping, and kayak camping, etc. but never actually took a “pure” backpacking trip. Although, the Grand Canyon trip would be my introduction to the world of backpacking it was only an overnight; but it got me interested. It was also the story that got me interested in doing a blog. So why not base the blog around my wannabe hobby? Because I’ve been saying I would try this out since I was in high school, I’m now 29.  I just never had the time (was always my excuse) “I’ve got to work.” “I’ve got classes to finish.” “I’ve got to get my EMT license, I don’t have time for it right now.”

The list goes on but now that I’ve gotten that taste of the adventure that is backpacking and have a bee in my bonnet to write about it. I’m going to commit to becoming a backpacker. Maybe someday I’ll be doing a thru hike somewhere; instead of just a wannabe backpacker doing a day hike.

*Please leave feedback about spelling, grammar, or other glaring flaws I might have missed during editing. Thanks