#33 Hike Out of the Grand Canyon
Why This Fear?
I have to keep reminding everyone (especially myself) that my list of 50 fears was written in a torrent. It took, maybe, 10 minutes to write 50 things. So why did I write Hike Out of the Grand Canyon? Maybe because this is the kind of boast (“I think I’ll hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and then hike out.”) that I’d never make. More likely, it came from my first memory of seeing the Grand Canyon and knowing that I would always be too scared to go down in, or come back out. I was 6, and I was watching one of my favorite television shows: The Brady Bunch. The Brady family is vacationing at the Grand Canyon. They ride mules and, as I remember it, Alice the housekeeper is terrified, and freaks out. I could totally relate. I would be just like Alice, I thought.
So, it’s 1971. All my peers want to be just like Marcia Brady. Our moms want to be just like Mrs. Brady. And me? At age 6, I’m identifying with Alice!
So the Grand Canyon, not because it’s the Grand Canyon, but because it represents that part of me that’s always been a nervous Nelly. Funny, that I’m redefining her only now, when I’m fast approaching Alicedom.
Conquering #33 Hike Out of the Grand Canyon
My sister Beth hiked out of the Grand Canyon after a river trip years ago. She told me about the heat and the thirst and the physical and mental ordeal of it all. But when I read her my list of 50 fears, she said, “I’ll do #33 with you.”
And she meant it. Beth immediately called the Grand Canyon National Park, looking for spots at Phantom Ranch, the lodge at the bottom of the canyon where hikers can stay, and eat dinner and get water for the hike back up. Phantom Ranch fills up 13 months in advance, so it seemed like a longshot, but Beth kept calling, and low-and-behold two spots opened up in the women’s dormitory on February 20th. It felt like fate!
With just a few weeks to prepare, I had to work fast. First, there was the googling: “First aid for snake bite” “Deaths in the Grand Canyon” “Knees, preventing injury”. I started gathering Grand Canyon survival tips from everyone who has ever as much as driven past the Grand Canyon. My friends were ready with soothing hints:
When the mules come along, hug the inside of the trail for dear life.
It’s winter. Stop worrying about rattlesnakes and worry about ice.
You’re gonna feel like you’re on the ledge of a skyscraper, only instead of not looking down, you must look at your feet to make sure you don’t slip. Just get down on all fours if you have to.
When you look up and see the rim, that’s not the rim. There’s more.
Use hiking poles or you’ll ruin your knees.
Prepare yourself. The altitude’s gonna kick your ass.
Beth sent me an old pair of hiking boots and told me to wear them everywhere I went. I did stair workouts. Rod took me on mountainous hikes. I experimented with layering, preparing for everything from a snowy winter cliff-hike to a sweltering canyon desert hike. There was no way of knowing which to expect.
I was prepared for it to be hard. For it to hurt my knees, for the possibility that I might see a rattlesnake. But I was not prepared for what actually happened…
I fell in love with the Grand Canyon. I mean, I fell madly in love with those red cliffs, and with that big sky and with those mysterious crevices, and with that silken Colorado River. At every turn, views more incredible than the ones we’d just seen, were laid out before us.
Hiking out of the Grand Canyon was what I’d written on my list, and when I got to the bottom, I knew I’d truly reached my point of no return. There was only one way out of this place, and it was up, up, up. When you hike up a mountain, it’s hard. But even if it’s not technically true, psychologically, you just sort of let gravity take you home. But a canyon is different. The work lies ahead.
We started our day early, climbing just after a 5:30 breakfast, on the Bright Angel trail. It meant that over the next two hours we would witness the spectacle of light and warmth filling the canyon, the shadows moving and the layers of distance changing minute by minute. Yes, there were crazed switchbacks, but there was just so much to look at.
The Grand Canyon is full of people who return year after year. Wiry and tan and smitten by the place. They don’t seem to need much water. They clamor in and out with ease. Beth named them lizard people. One of them told me, “Those last few miles you’ll know you can’t make it. But you will make it.”
The final three miles are a test. The canyon becomes a wall with seemingly endless switchbacks. And it gets crowded with people who parked up in the parking lot, thought they’d take a quick walk in, and are utterly unprepared to come out. The lizard people are irked by these dumbnuts, (wearing flip-flops, carrying photography equipment but no water, what were they thinking?). But these were my people, and I loved them! Accidentally, they were facing fears with me. They hadn’t trained. They didn’t have gear. But here they were, digging deep and climbing out of the Grand Canyon! By the time we reached the top, it was a party of hugs and high fives. Lizard people and newbies feeling universally relieved and triumphant; and filled with a special magic that comes from spending time in the warm embrace of such a magical place.
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© Mary Elder, 2015. All Rights Reserved.