Day One: 5 August 2007

True to my nature, I brought a notebook with me to chronicle the entire trip. The Destinations website suggests bringing a journal on its trips, but I would have done so regardless. I picked a bright red one because Bilbo’s adventures were recorded in what was later called the Red Book, but what we know as The Hobbit. So I named mine accordingly and titled my adventures “There and Back Again” in my Facebook photo albums.


Flying isn’t so terrifying. On the contrary, it’s quite smooth and pleasant, except for the occasional rumblings from the great noise of wind. It’s 9:04. Mesas + Buttes + Plateaus extremely visible. Almost like Weathertop, really. V. Beautiful. I can also see tiny specks of what appear to be desert shrubbery. V. Unique landscape. Beautiful. I’m drawing right now…I guess we should be to Phoenix in another hour, or hour and a half.

I have gushed about flying in several other journals, including my trip to England. I recently took my sixth-ish flight to Orlando, and though suffered a bout of airsickness, loved that, too. I love the takeoff and watching the land quickly shrink away as the plane shoots upwards, slowly turns and orients itself, and then calmly glides above the clouds (should there be any). I was not remotely afraid on this first flight. I sat in the window seat, next to two women who ordered wine, even though it was 6 in the morning, and shared a blanket.

Whatever floats your boat!

I continued my flying adventure by chronicling what I saw beneath me: highways, patchworks of farms, and circles of irrigation. Eventually, the land changed from green to brown, and was full of cracks like faults.

I took breaks from watching out the window to read The Two Towers and draw pictures.

I am still convinced that crack-in-the-land MUST be the Grand Canyon below us.

At the Phoenix airport, I couldn’t just go and find my camp representative, Tracie, because she had to come through security to get me. I had to stand behind the customer service desk (oh, the irony!) with an attendant named Molly. She had to deal with a Honolulu flight’s passengers who all had to switch flights in Phoenix because the plane had to land due to engine troubles. Eventually, I found Tracie, and we drove out of the airport and to Camp Sombrero.

Let me tell you something about Phoenix: It’s flat, and red, and there are rocky, bare mountains just sticking up out of the ground, and that’s about it for miles besides the city skyline. We drove up a small hill to the camp, which was sitting on the base of South Mountain, just overlooking the city. Phoenix houses are made of clay-like substance and there are no lawns. There are palms, shrubs, and an abundance of sand and rocks.

What a beautiful lawn!

I was the first one to camp, so I got to spend some time by myself eating breakfast and chitchatting with May, a grad student from Saudi Arabia. She gave me a tour of the camp and we walked along the base of the mountain. As soon as I stepped outside, I immediately started taking pictures of the dry, dusty ground and cacti, which I had never seen before.

Picture Numero Uno: A small cactus.

Getting out of the plane and out of the air-conditioned camp house was like stepping into an oven. Unlike New England, the desert is not humid; it’s dry, so the heat can be suffocating, albeit not heavy. It’s very easy to dehydrate because you don’t sweat. You just get tired.

May explained that she was going overseas to help refugee women and children in the Middle East, so she wouldn’t be going on the actual Canyon trip. I didn’t see her again after that first day.

I am normally shy, but when the other girls began to arrive I surprised myself by speaking up and making friends immediately.There was Ripley, Megan, Marcia, Alex, Amy, Taylor, Carley, Claire, Cora, Cory, Malinda, Sarah, Alison, Kathryn, Melanie, Sam, Leigh, Hanna, Laura, Alyssa, Michelle… girls from across the country. From North Carolina and Texas and Florida and many with Southern Accents (which I immediately picked up), and Idaho and Philadelphia and Washington D.C. and even Los Angeles (Ripley did Girl Scouts with Dakota Fanning).

I remember feeling homesick and extremely jet lagged because Arizona time is 3 hours behind Connecticut time, so 9 p.m. felt like 12 a.m. to me. The first girls to arrive and I spent the afternoon in the pool and Alexis made a joke that the amoeba-looking pool vaccuum which floated along the bottom, sucking up dirt and algae and bugs, was my boyfriend because it seemed to follow me everywhere I swam in the pool. We did some High School Musical synchronized jumps into the pool and watched the sunset over the city that night–it was beautiful.

Weird females pretend to be the grudge or something
Super colorful sunsets as a result of an excess of desert.

After showers, we headed inside to greet the last girls to arrive and to do some icebreaker games. You know — like trust falls and the human tangle, and other sorts of things. We were so tired that we were silly beyond belief, especially me, being from the east coast and having been already up for almost 24 hours. That night, 30 of us girls crashed to sleep in the same room, in our sleeping bags and plastic mattresses, after an exciting, long day, three hours behind on sleep but thoroughly sated so far.

Day Two: 6 August 2007

After being up all the previous day, the last thing I wanted to do was get up. But at 6 a.m. we were woken to go on a morning hike up South Mountain, in preparation for the anticipated G.C. four-day backpacking trip. Why so early when we had the entire day?

It’s hot in Phoenix. Hot and dry.

I found it fun but one girl, Melanie, couldn’t make it because of heat. I was hiking with Marcia, Ripley, and Taylor on the way down and we started joking around about the things we saw (I spy…a ROCK!) and etc. I saw a skeleton of a cactus and learned they actually die from the bottom up. We made a joke about rocks after that, since there were so many. I thought the dead cactus looked really freaky and frightening and remarked that it would “haunt my dreams” and Marcia said the rocks would haunt Ripley’s dreams, so we made up a story about how the rocks were gathering to take over…the heat was making us all silly.

Later that day, Ripley walked noiselessly by my sleeping bag while I was resting and journaling and dropped a piece of paper which said: THE ROCKS ARE COMING!! with a picture of an evil rock on it and someone getting barraged by pebbles. I still have it, and keep it in my notebook.

Hiking South Mountain, overlooking Phoenix

GENIC DIGITAL CAMERARocco, one of our camp counselors, then took us through Leave-No-Trace training and instructed us on how to pack for the Grand Canyon. She told us to gather up all our belongings so we could practice packing our backpacks.

Leave-No-Trace means that nothing is left in the Canyon (literally, not a trace)–no garbage, no impact, no anything. It meant that if you needed to use the bathroom on the trail, you dig a hole. And there’s no toilet paper. It also meant that any food, tents, or tools that are taken into the Canyon must be carried in and out by YOU. That meant any garbage we had to carry out, because there are no litter bins. The Grand Canyon is protected wilderness: you cannot take a rock with you as a souvenir, and you cannot take showers because there is no running water besides the occasional fountain tap at the campgrounds. You may wash your face in the stream, however.

Rocco and the other counselors scolded us for what we decided to pack in our backpacks. See, the pile of things we THOUGHT we would be bringing? There was only room and weight for about 25 percent of that. We would have to condense and conserve weight as much as possible. Plus, we needed room to divvy up the food and tents as well as our ground mats and sleeping bags and water bottles (two 1-liter Nalgenes, full, at all times). The water, they insisted, should be the heaviest single item in our packs. That meant ditching anything unnecessary that would increase the weight. Ground mats had to be light and were rolled underneath our internal frame backpacks.

I had a heavy-weight yoga mat that I brought with me as a ground pad, but Rocco quickly criticized it and handed me a foam one instead — it weighed hardly anything.

There was no space for four days’ worth of hiking clothes plus four days of sleeping clothes. Our outfits would be simple: One shirt and pair of shorts for hiking, and one clean shirt and pair of shorts for sleeping. Maybe a clean extra pair of hiking socks,if we were lucky. For 15-year-old girls, even those who were more adventurous, this seemed unthinkable. Wear the same outfit for four days of hiking? No showers and shaving? No basic cleanliness (helloooo deodorant) or comfort? I could only imagine how disgusting I would look, and I was afraid of that, more than anything. We looked at each other, laughing nervously. How could we resort to such primitive means?

Rocco even pointed at my red notebook, which was your standard 8.5 x 11″ size, and asked me to really think about whether I wanted to be carrying it, and if I could bring a small pocket notebook instead. Naturally, I clutched the Red Book to my chest and put it in anyways.

I carried one  of the 1-liter Nalgene bottles in each side pocket of my backpack. This way, I would have a little more than 1/2 gallon of water on me at all times. I had some friends who were lucky enough to have Camelbaks–pouches of water with a hose so they could drink without reaching for their bottle, unscrewing it, and drinking while walking (I’m looking at you, Meghan).

Water requirements are based on heat, exertion, time of day, and the time of year you hike. As a rule, and for a measure of safety, hikers should always carry at least one gallon of water on extended trips away from known water sources. Running out of water on Grand Canyon trails is the single largest mistake you can make, and occasionally people die for lack of water here. You WILL drink at least one gallon of water per day while hiking in the Grand Canyon…Always prehydrate prior to you trip and during your trip before your most strenuous hiking days, such as prior to your hike out to the rim from the river. Drink large amounts of water over a period of several hours in the evening at camp and in the morning before leaving camp. It is essential, however, that you balance your water intake with electrolytes.

Hiking Grand Canyon National Park, Second Ed., Ron Adkison.

Rocco droned on about checking our urine’s color — the more saturated yellow, the less hydrated we were. We laughed about this at first: “is your pee clear? Better run and check it!” It seemed over-the-top on those first days, but later it would prove to be an invaluable, and quick and easy, resource — one that I still use.

That’s me on the left with the green backpack.

At this point in the game, our gigantic group of friends was divided for the first time into the three groups that would continue rucking it separately–my group was Group Three, Van A. We were made up of Laura, Melanie, Marcia, Meghan, Carley, Kathryn, Alison, and myself, plus counselor Skye and backpacking guide, Christophe.

Next–food. We needed staples, like peanut butter and rice cakes–protein after a long hike, but not food that would spoil or produce a lot of waste. Obviously we weren’t making roast chicken. At Safeway, the local grocery store, we got silly and had tons of fun. We picked out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salty crackers, Ramen noodles, tortillas, beans, and Christophe, supplied some freeze-dried packets for hikers as well as a couple of camp stoves to do a little cooking, and one pot. We planned meals for the next 7 to 8 days, including when we would eat out and when we would have to eat from our packs. To condense the food, we took it out of its original packaging (which we would have to carry out of the Canyon anyway, so that saved us quite a bit of space) and put it in ziplock bags. We pre-made sandwiches and packaged them. We divided up the crackers into bags for each of us, and etc.

Naive little hikers fill the grocery cart with the kinds of things their mothers would make them put back on the shelves.

After work, we got to play. Meghan asked me if I wanted to go on a run with her through the Phoenix streets, but the sun was high and it was hot, and I couldn’t imagine that we’d be allowed to go jogging alone. We walked down the gravel driveway, feeling the oven turned on full-force, and looked down the street. Not unlike in the film Do the Right Thing, I remember the world being saturated with color — yellow from hot sun — and one of the camp counselors called out to us: “Where are you going? You need to stay on site.”

So we didn’t go running.

But Meghan was one of those people who simply did things and was not reckless, but knew what she wanted and was full of energy and confidence. I was baffled; I had never met anyone like this before, who was so bouncy and fearless. I did quite a bit of reflecting on my character at that point. I was the opposite: calm, shy, introspective, and private. We took to each other quickly.

So we went outside to enjoy the Arizona evening with a game of Kubb, which we called “Coup the King.” The object is to knock down the plain “kubb” blocks guarding the “king” block using batons, before the opposing team. Apparently, the game had Viking origins.

Picture 576
A game of Kubb, which we misheard as “Coup,” though the game is literally an attempt to coup the king.

We stayed outside all afternoon and evening, playing rounds of Coup until we discovered that our playing field, the narrow path of fluffy grass between a concrete wall and our camp hall, was home to a massive ant hill.

We decided to play capture the flag instead, then tag, then swimming, and anything else we could think of until the sun went down.

A group of girls debates how much time there is to play before the mountain falls down and buries the campsite.

It was the end of Day Two, and our adventures were about to begin.

Part One