Day 3: Living and Dying in the Grand Canyon

When the alarm went off at 4:45am I was somewhere between excited and dreading our rim to river to rim hike of the Grand Canyon. Before I had a chance to think twice about it I got myself out of bed and put on my hiking clothes for the day. Making sure everything was ready the night before is the best way to avoid procrastination and time-killing mundane tasks in the morning. So, after a few minutes of teeth-brushing we were out the door with the leftover pizza for breakfast on our way to the Grand Canyon. It was about an hour drive to the entrance from our Hotel in Williams and a short wait for a bus when we arrived. When we saw the Orange Line bus roll up early we high-tailed it to the stop and boarded for the 5-minute jaunt to the South Kaibab Trailhead.

There are myriad signs and warnings to not attempt hiking to the river and back in one day. That’s just for tourists, though, right? Not to mention Becca had completed this same hike last December and made out just fine. Funny enough, my initial reticence turned to total confidence once we started our hike, yet Becca’s knowledge of what was to come made her a bit more wary of what was to come.

As we quickly descended into the canyon the sun was slowly lighting up the towering walls around us and in the distance. The incredible beauty of this sight can hardly be described as anything but magical. I stopped repeatedly to gaze out into the endless canyon as it lit up in blues, reds, and oranges. The light and shadow play off of one another like great actors in a play, and it’s extremely hard to hike a narrow, rutted trail while you’re looking off into the distance constantly. The path drops steeply in curves and switchbacks, and we get passed by a large team of mules on their way to Phantom Ranch with supplies. We meet other early morning hikers who are taking in the views, some with freshly-brewed coffee they brought with them. Most of the these hikers are heading down to one of the campsites near the river to set up for the night and most likely hike back up tomorrow. Not us. We’re doing it all in one day. It’s not totally hubris; we also couldn’t get a permit to camp.

The hike to the river is long—5 miles—but it goes by quickly. The views slowly become more closed in and remind me of other canyons like Zion. When we first see the Colorado River the rushing water echoes loud enough to make us think we’re close. We aren’t. One of the great deceptions of the Grand Canyon is the scale, which becomes very apparent as you hike and hike seeming to only gain incrementally on something that seemed so near. Hiking down first also has its mental disadvantage of not realizing just how far back up you will have to go to finish.

We finally make it to an overlook where the river is just below us and the bridges we will cross are in plain view. Technically we don’t need to cross the bridges, but it barely adds any mileage to our hikes and they’re just a fun novelty of being down there. To cross Black Bridge, we pass through a dark, carved tunnel of rock that leads us onto it. Standing over the rushing Colorado that carved this magnificent canyon is an amazing feeling. We wander along the banks, where rafters have stopped to take a break from floating the rapids, and we refill our water bladders at the pump before continuing on. Having reliable running water to refill on a hike so infamous for people running dry is a fantastic luxury. No need to carry a filter or triple the weight if you can fill up along the way!

We cross over Silver Bridge, staring through the holes under our feet at the rushing water creating whitecaps on the rocks below. We stop for lunch on the other side, where we eat our Buds sandwich from Salt Lake City that we specifically saved to bring with us for this trip. It’s delicious and great fuel to move us along the river as we slowly begin to leave the bottom of the canyon. The hike up begins very gradually, winding along the river’s edge, offering views of the twisting flow until the trail turns in toward the rim and we leave it behind. From here the terrain and scenery will change rapidly. We pass through an oasis of beautiful trees, some green and other in full autumn color. A pair of mule deer cross the path gingerly as we quietly walk up on them. As the trail becomes steeper we arrive at Indian Gardens, the last stop before the real ascent begins. We have a short break, people watch, fill up our water and start the climb.

This final section is what I think most people think when they imagine hiking the Grand Canyon. It’s steep, mostly exposed, and pretty crowded. We speak to a few people along the way who had stayed overnight by the river, and they are genuinely surprised we’re doing it in a day. I understand why one might want to avoid this hike in the summer months when the heat can be stifling, but on a perfectly cool day in November the hike down did little to exhaust us, and we are perfectly fresh for the hike up. This section does become somewhat of a grueling plod at times. Just one foot after the other and promise of achievement and, more importantly, food at the top.

We’ve passed many people along the way, but suddenly our dusty footsteps come to a halt along with a large group of others behind a mule team. My first thought is the mules are coming down and we have to allow them navigate past us on the narrow trail. My assumption is quite wrong as we find out a hiker has died up ahead on the trail and the rangers are holding everyone until the person can be airlifted out. We take the opportunity to rest, but as it becomes clear the helicopter might take longer than expected the rangers allow us to pass. The unfortunate hiker’s body is covered in a tarp, only boots sticking out as a few dozen of us shuffle quietly by, all seeming to feel the same morbid curiosity and empathy for the lost soul.

From here, the throngs of people who were waiting are now hiking in a long, solemn line for final two miles and two-thousand feet of elevation. It’s impossible to not be affected by the thought of dying in a place of such extremes, but seeing someone dead along the trail really pounds the thought home. If nothing else, it makes you grateful to be alive in such an incredible place. Personally I’d much rather die on a Monday in the Grand Canyon than at home on the couch or sitting at an office. That said, Becca and I made it out alive and happily took our last steps back up to the rim. We were surprised at how quickly we made it. At 3pm we finished in just over 8 hours. I had built this hike up to be monumental, so I was fully prepared to be finishing after dark, but this outcome was very welcome.

We took our extra time to ride the Red Line bus down to Hopi Point, where the panoramic view of the canyon we just hiked in allowed us to bask in our accomplishment and stand in awe of the incredible beauty of this place. The views are incredible. Incredible views. Just ask our bus driver. We walked down the rim trail a bit, peeping other overlooks along the way, before hopping back on the bus and making our way back to the car. Clouds had overtaken the canyon to the east, so we left expecting there to be no amazing light show for sunset. Although the canyon probably wouldn’t have lit up, I again learned the lesson I’ve kicked myself for many times in the past: you always wait for sunset. The sky turned to beautiful fire in the west as the sun hit the clouds from below. We stopped along the road and I got some great shots anyway.

After such a big hike we retired right to our hotel, showered, and relaxed the night away. It was a perfect day, and our downtime was well-deserved.

dm.rt

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Day 1: Black Coffee, White Snow, and Red Rocks

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When you wake up in a warm, comfortable bed knowing that you’re leaving on a long road trip where you’ll be sleeping in a tent most of the time it’s pretty hard to get up. To that point, we took our time starting the morning. Eventually we got going and packed up the remainder of our stuff into the car and headed out. One of the challenges to living in Salt Lake City is you’re technically not allowed to leave a vehicle parked in any one spot longer than 48 hours so we had to drive my car to a friend’s place to leave it there for the length of our trip. I also stopped to get two cups of my favorite cold brew in town at Blue Copper before getting on the highway. Once the car was dropped, we got some breakfast in the form of vegan buffalo chicken wraps and an Avocolada smoothie from Tropical Smoothie Cafe (those are both as delicious as they sound) and we were finally on the road for real.

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The views along the drive were incredible as usual with the added bonus of freshly-fallen snow on the surrounding mountains. As we got farther south and gained some elevation the snow was all along the road. Luckily the sun had been out for a while, and the roads were just fine. One of the more unusual yet very Utah sights was a herd of cattle being corralled along the side of Route 89 by a couple of real-deal cowboys on horses and some state troopers for backup I guess. That was a first for me. I kept expecting one of the cowboys to start twirling a lasso above their head. There isn’t much to see along the way–that is, the amazingly beautiful sweeping views of desert and red rock stretch on for hundreds of miles and, while they are breathtaking, it does tend to just become part of the background after a while.

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So, when we got close to Bryce Canyon National Park and saw some snow on the ground we quickly made the call to take the hour detour to the park and see if the famous hoodoos were covered in snow as well. The short drive to the park was picturesque enough with brilliant red rock formations painted lightly with new snow towering around us and a couple of carved tunnels to drive through for good measure. Once we got into the park we headed right to the Sunrise Point overlook where you can see for miles into the canyon. The hoodoos weren’t covered in snow, but there was enough along the bases to create a nice accent which made the view I’ve seen many times look like new. We wandered along the rim trail for a short while taking it in from different places and enjoying the chance to stretch our legs and breathe some fresh air before hopping back in the car on our way to Horseshoe Bend.

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We quickly realized we would never make it to Horseshoe Bend by sunset, so our plans changed from racing down the road to taking our time along the way. That’s the way it should be anyway. We took the opportunity to stop at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary outside Kanab, Utah, where we were met by the lobby ambassador cat Robinson and were told the last tours had already departed for the day. There was a human there to tell us that part. He also told us we could stop at the Best Friends location in the town of Kanab and do yoga with kittens. That’s right. Obviously we headed right there, but were informed that kitten yoga was last night. As a consolation we were able to go into the cat room and hang out with three kitties for as long as we wanted. Seemed like a fair compromise. We enjoyed our time there and then drove out of town as the sun lit up the beautiful red rock formations and dropped rapidly behind the mountains to the west.

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Southern Utah at night takes on a whole different feeling. The glowing mountains become massive, ominous silhouettes against the dark sky. It is sometimes hard to even make them out on a moonless night, but you still feel their looming presence. I don’t mean to make it sound so sinister; it’s incredible to make out the outlines of jagged spires and watch stars dance behind them. As we passed by a family on the side of the road taking a photo with the Utah sign we realized we had just passed into Arizona. Page is just over the border and we had decided to spend the night here to do Horseshoe Bend in the morning. We found a hotel for $57 somehow (between the Hotels Tonight app and Google Maps) so we jumped on that and checked in. It’s definitely the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in for the price. Can’t ask for more. We took a short walk around downtown Page, which includes a little wall of information and great photographs of the surrounding natural wonders. Definitely my favorite man-made feature of the town. After grabbing a few things from the grocery we settled in to our hotel for the night, making plans and getting excited to do it again tomorrow!

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dm.rt

Day 0: Packing and Planning

The day before a road trip is always the day I pack, never sooner. It’s part procrastination and part knowing that what I’m packing is what I use daily. Even though I pack at the last minute, I’m constantly making a list leading up to a trip. You never know when something will remind you of that one little thing you wanted to bring, so I always have my notepad list on my phone ready to keep things organized. It really helps avoid that feeling like you’ve forgotten something when you hit the road. For me, that thing is often pillows. I sleep on them the night before and forget them in the morning.

We will be on the road for three weeks, passing through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and a bunch of eastern states on our way up to New Jersey. The hardest part here is packing for warm and cold weather. I fully expect to be wearing shorts in Phoenix and Texas, but the mountains of North Carolina are often cold and snowy well before the rest of the south gets a chill. My simple solution to this problem was to pack layers instead of whole separate wardrobes. Being able to strip layers off is something you learn quickly when you hike in the cold, and it works just as well on a November-December road trip. Long sleeve shirts, light hoodies or jackets, and warmer coats as well as beanies and scarves are great for keeping you warm when you need it and easy to remove when you don’t.

Food is important on the road as well. Being vegan it’s not as easy to just stop at a fast food joint for a quick bite, but also wanting to be somewhat health-conscious it’s a good idea to cook some food to bring with you. We cook a large stir fry, or in this case we made a big thing of sloppy joes with lentils. Lentils are healthy and filling so they last a while. We also pack plenty of snacks for the car and the old standby: peanut butter and jelly. You can never go wrong with a PBJ in the car or on a hike. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Just bring a cooler and keep it stocked with a little ice and you can have good food with you at all times and save money from eating out all the time.

As much as I like to keep lists of what to bring, I’m much less detailed on the whens and wheres of my trip. I like to keep my options open which can be good and bad. It’s much harder to know where you’ll be staying if you don’t know your exact routing, especially if you’re trying to couch surf. Traveling in warmer months is easier since you can camp just about anywhere, but the winter can prove challenging if you don’t have cold weather camping gear. As much as I try to avoid it, this trip may include some hotels until we get out of the high deserts of northern Arizona. After that we will be staying with friends, couch surfing, and camping anytime we get the chance and the weather allows!

So we said goodbye to Salt Lake City this morning for a little while. I’m sure I’ll miss it, but the road has been calling for some time now and it’s time I finally answered.

dm.rt