It is now 2015. In retrospect, I still locate and consider two events as the most defining moments in my life: My dad passing away in 2009, and backpacking the Grand Canyon in 2007.
To say that I “learned” things or that I changed is obvious. I just completed a series of nine (now ten) blog posts about the experience and as you can probably tell, I can remember it as if it just happened…even though it was 8 years ago. The effects were immediate and long-term.
Reflections of the trip are recorded in my journal, written on the plane ride back to Connecticut, and they aren’t far off from how I feel now. I knew when I sat on that plane in Phoenix, crying, over people I didn’t know existed 12 days earlier, that something didn’t feel quite right. There was a great sense of loss, that I had changed. Sure, I get attached to things. I cried when my dad decided to take the wooden picket fence out of the yard. When things changed, as a child I grew hostile because I didn’t feel like they needed to change. Well, when I got to the Canyon, things changed a lot.
Together, for a near two weeks, my friends and I conquered amazing feats. I flew in a plane for the first time, and met new friends right away, despite usually being shy. We went hiking and rafting on Lake Powell, dipping our feet into a near-frozen river. We took 30lb packs and walked four miles a day into the Grand Canyon, along sheer cliff faces thousands of feet high, in the heat of day, and though not many of us had done it before, we made it, thwarting all the hundreds of stories about people who hiked into the Canyon and met their deaths there. We set up camp and took it down again each day, leaving no trace that we’d ever been there, and continued our long journey. To the bottom of the Canyon we triumphantly marched, though it was well over 100° and we’d exhausted ourselves walking so far. Then, by sheer act of spontaneity and need, we leapt into a chilly creek and swam the heat away. Somehow we all made it to the next day, for by camping for so long the ground seems pretty comfortable and the concept of bugs doesn’t bother me anymore. Getting out of the Canyon, rock climbing and further hikes tested our greatest and every ounce of strength. But again, we made it through.
Despite these lists of “firsts,” I came away with the idea that something changed immediately. From reading Tolkien, I knew exactly what that thing was. In fact, I had noticed it a few days earlier in Indian Gardens, when I realized that I was missing one of my best friend’s Sweet Sixteens. I knew that, most likely, my friends were caught up playing volleyball and sitting around the bonfire. And why shouldn’t they? Why should they focus on me in the Canyon, where they’d never been and couldn’t imagine? The problem was that I knew this wouldn’t be a one-time thing, where everything was normal back home and I was out in the Canyon. I knew that when I came home, everything would be normal — but not me. I wasn’t the same, and I couldn’t just come back and start living a normal high school life again. At least, not internally.
And then there was the image of walking in a clear line between Battleship rock and the other cliff face, after traversing switchbacks for 3829 hours, and the sheer curtains of rock gently opening and allowing me to see out. I was about halfway down the Canyon — en route to Indian Gardens. It was Day One. And the other image, of climbing (well, more like walking, but it felt an awful lot like climbing !) out of the Canyon and stumbling off the trail at the overlook point at Bright Angel Lodge, and turning around and looking out at what I had just done.
I was a creature of the Canyon and it allowed me to live.
Man Meets Grand Canyon and Underestimates It.
Looking back, I try to remember why I originally signed up specifically for a Grand Canyon trip. I had never been out west. I was into horses at the time. I had never backpacked. I did enjoy camping and hiking. But why Arizona and Grand Canyon?
I was a lucky 15-year-old; I “knew” myself pretty well, even if I didn’t know what my career plans were just yet. I didn’t choose to go on a Destinations trip to “find myself” or to fulfill a lost opportunity or to abate a less-than-quarter-life crisis. I didn’t go because I needed the trip in order to progress in life. Rather, I took it as an opportunity to experience something completely new and bizarre, go out of my comfort zone, and fulfill the zeal of adventure that I pined for since reading Lord of the Rings. I could have easily gone to my Girl Scout meeting and gone home, convinced that a trip like that was forever out of reach.
But I didn’t. I applied. And I went.
And I certainly underestimated the Canyon. Not in its dangers, but in its capacity to awe me. I saw the Canyon, when applying almost on a whim for the trip, as something that was overrated and overdone. Every child in America knows what Grand Canyon is, and can conjure a postcard image of it. I didn’t believe that it could WOW me or bring anything significant to my life.
And besides maybe that Dreamworks horse movie I was obsessed with a few years earlier — Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, I had no ties to being passionate about ~*anything*~ western. The “wild west” died out maybe 50 years earlier (Thanks, Toy Story) and made way for space. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was 5. I was far more interested in Alaska than Arizona. The wild west was no longer wild and it was overdone. Or so I thought.
My first choice trip was horseback riding in the Appalachian mountains. I remember vaguely being under the impression that Grand Canyon would be a trip involving riding horses for the majority of the trip, which is what I had wanted to do. I had ridden horses for years, and I hoped to do it again in an exotic location. I loved riding horses. But again, I am glad the trip turned out to be something much different.
My real experience, after several cycles of imagining and expectations, ended up far greater than standing on the rim and looking at it from the outside and trying to comprehend beauty, and it was far more life-changing than a horseback ride in the mountains. My experience was of a much more intimate nature.
Coming home, I milked the “misunderstood-outcast-ish-girl” thing. Nobody understood. Nobody could relate. I had done something incredible and I couldn’t come home and try and care about everyday things. When asked to complete a poetry project, I wrote poems about hiking, traveling, and not coming home the same person. I wrote short stories about it, and compared everything to Lord of the Rings. I considered myself like one of the hobbits. In Return of the King (the movie), the hobbits come home — their neighbors are still going about their routines, gardening, going to the tavern, and the four who have seen the world realize that they can’t just resume life as it had been. The book is a bit more complicated — the hobbits come home, hoping that the Shire is untouched and that all their neighbors are going about their routines, but in fact though the Shire has been ‘saved,’ it has been tainted by Saruman’s hand. Finally, after one more battle, the hobbits can “come home,” and although they all have endured adventure, war, grief, and hardship, Frodo is hit the hardest.
‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
Gandalf did not answer.
Where am I now? Well, Frodo also told Sam that he could not always be torn in two. That’s true for me, too. The Canyon is there for me when I am ready for it again.
I suppose I have some advice for anyone thinking of venturing to the Canyon, now that I’ve done it:
- I am not the expert just because I’ve been Out There. Here is a cold, hard, fact that even I have trouble comprehending: I have only been there once. Besides that, no one is truly an expert on the Canyon, regardless of experience. Grand Canyon is restless, has mood swings, and will not be exactly the same for each person. With that said, my records can offer insight as to what to expect (read: expect the unexpected) and never fall prey to overconfidence.
- Don’t just read fun little blips that describe Grand Canyon as a pretty and fun place to go visit because it’s in vogue in some magazine — this is NOT grounds for a good experience. Instead, read all you can. YES– read blogs, like mine! Read about people’s experiences on the trails where you’ll be walking. Watch their YouTube videos. Read about the gritty, the nitty, and the dirty. Read Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon for good examples of the mistakes made by…well…everyone. Study the trails you wish to take. Read more than one travel book, but definitely read Falcon Guide’s Hiking Grand Canyon National Park by Ron Adkison, which discusses all trails, the seasons of hiking, regulations, Leave No Trace, planning your trip down to the last detail — water, permits, food, camping, etc., and discusses natural hazards such as critters, weather, and other desert specialties, as well as first aid for common emergencies — dehydration, sun exposure, blisters. Remember that hiking Grand Canyon and visiting Grand Canyon are not the same, so choosing a hiking book is far more important than a travel guide, which will focus on trourism/sightseeing. Learn and understand the environment (hint: it’s a desert, yes, but the mile difference in elevation between the Rim and the River makes for many different temperature zones).
- I’m torn in terms of how to proceed advising physical preparation. Should you be physically fit? Hell yes! But should you be overconfident because of that? NOOOOO you shouldn’t. Sure, I “prepared” physically. I had a lacrosse season and a field hockey season, practicing outside every day after school, and I went walking and hiking in my neighborhood and Vermont. I went white water rafting. BUT… I was stunned at how none of this seemed to matter once I actually arrived and completed that first hike in Phoenix, mainly because no amount of hiking in the Northeastern United States could prepare me for the Canyon. Which brings me to —
- It is hotter than you think. You will not believe how hot it can actually be until you are standing in the Canyon, thinking about how much hotter it is than you ever imagined, and how you aren’t sure how you’re even alive at this very moment, in this heat. Obviously, this heat is dangerous.
- On the flipside, if you choose to hike in a different season, you will not believe how cold it can actually get. Do not conveniently forget about the mile of elevation difference between the Rim and the River. Remember that on my first day, at dawn in the middle of August, we started hiking at around 50 degrees. By mid-day and halfway into the Canyon, that temperature rose to 85 degrees. SO: Pack layers.
- If you think you have enough water, you don’t. My two liters of water for myself and a five-mile hike were not nearly enough. I should have carried at least twice that, if not more, in case of anything going wrong, and in case I could not find a water source. And always… drink more water, followed up with a salty snack, always.
- Any park ranger will reiterate this a million times, but for some reason there are people that think they can do it: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY. As you hopefully read in my blog posts, we did a Rim-to-River-to-Rim hike in FOUR DAYS. The trail length was 19.8 miles. The elevation difference between the top and the bottom is a mile. That’s over 5000 feet. Downhill. Uphill. 5000 feet. While also a length of almost 20 miles. I’ve hiked Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts, which is 3,491 feet. Could I do that in a day? Yes. Can you do Grand Canyon in a day? NO! Can you attempt to do Grand Canyon and then turn back when it gets too hard? HELL NO! Remember: Turning back is actually going uphill. Which brings me to–
- The important thing to remember is that backpacking Grand Canyon is like hiking a mountain in reverse. If you haven’t read my other posts describing it, here’s a TL;DR: You will walk into a furnace, all downhill, and then you will walk out, all uphill. See #7 again.
- Backpacking in the desert summer is not like backpacking in the East Coast’s summers. It is just not the same, it is not the same, it is not the same, and should not be treated as such. 90 – 100 degrees in Connecticut is NOT equivalent to 90 – 100 degrees in the Canyon. So you can climb a mountain? Or two? That’s great! See #3.
- Following up that point… Do not attempt to hike between the hours of about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Have I mentioned the gawd-awful temperatures? Oh yes. There are gawd-awful temperatures. And you can and will die, probably, if you don’t heed this very important warning. If you leave for, let’s say, a five-mile descent down Bright Angel Trail to Indian Gardens at 8 a.m., you may as well just stay at the rim and wait for another day. It is too late to start hiking now. And don’t even think about attempting an Indian Gardens-to-Phantom-Ranch hike this late. The best times to begin a hike are at around 5 – 5:30 a.m., so that you finish up just at the hottest part of the day — around 10 or 11 a.m. This holds true, believe it or not, for the majority of the year.
- Like Pippin (yes, the Pippin from the musical), you are not extraordinary and you do not get to do extraordinary things such as:
- Going beyond boundaries (walls, fences, etc.)
- Moving your body without looking at where you’re moving that body part
- Hiking without excess water
- Hiking without salty snacks
- Hiking and camping without a permit
- Hiking and camping without an itinerary or map
- Picking up rocks and taking them home (or plants…or animals)
- Feeding the squirrels (DO NOT DO THIS) or other wildlife (ESPECIALLY SQUIRRELS)
- Hiking solo
- Going off-route
- Exploring caves without a guide
- Why the harsh rules? Because too many people have died or been injured or marred Canyon and its animal/plant life by being people. You’re not the exception to the rule, and Grand Canyon doesn’t care. One minute you’re sightseeing and you just want to do this one thing, and the next minute you’re in an obituary. Don’t be this person.
- I’m not trying to say that it’s too hard and you can’t do it. Can you do it? Sure, you can! If you take the necessary precautions and are aware of the risks. Too many people, like I’ve said 23,892 times, think the Grand Canyon is Disneyworld, where you can just go and have fun without really thinking about it. It’s not. Read all these points again.
So…where does that leave us? Maybe you hate me and think I’m pretentious. I’m not; I’m just speaking from experience. I know that I backpacked Grand Canyon once and succeeded.
Sure, I made a list of 13 things that can help. Being prepared will raise your chances of survival, but it can’t make survival a guarantee. And while Grand Canyon is a beautiful and awe-ful place, where you will do a lot of thinking (I hope), please, PLEASE read this last part.
When I inevitably go again, because I’m obsessed and can’t get the feeling of backpacking Grand Canyon out of my head, I will hopefully bring Patrick with me. And yeah, I’ll admit that I get freaked out wondering whether I really can do it again. Did I make it out because I was smart, had a great guide, and our group was well-prepared? Many other tourists aren’t so lucky. Or was it pure chance? That’s always possible, too. Maybe my timeline should have ended in the Canyon, but didn’t because of pure coincidence. That a rock didn’t hit me in the head. That we happened to hike during flash flood season but not encounter any flash floods. That I was sitting under a pavilion, rather than hiking, during a thunderstorm. That I didn’t wander too close to the edge and turn around when I heard someone call my name, and lose my balance.
Unless you’re a seasoned, exceptional, advanced and experienced backpacker, the Grand Canyon is not the place for a quarter-life crisis solution. It’s not the place to “take off.” It’s not the place for a spontaneous adventure. Yeah, rich coming from someone who did exactly that — spontaneously decided to go. Well, my trip was fleshed out with itinerary and professionals. The trip was set up to train us, prepare us, and finally, we went. We weren’t just a bunch of kids on the trails, we had backpacking guides with years of experience, who were familiar with the trails, the plants, the rangers.
So, for those of you that decide “YES! This is the trip for me!”, then please do your homework, and bring experienced people with you. It won’t make the adventure any less adventurous because you have some others with you.
So with that, I leave you with a few other hopes of mine: I don’t wish peace upon you, or introspection, or the answers to life’s questions. I don’t wish you epiphany or a sweet trail name, or good weather, or good luck, or discovery.
I wish upon you only the journey.