If there were ever a time to rescue a semi-defunct blog from the depths of the internet, I suppose it would have to be two weeks after graduating from college. It’s been a real two weeks, though, and having finished the new season of Arrested Development, I find myself with lots of caffeine running through my veins, and very little to do. Time to reflect of one of the greatest/stupidest things I’ve done to date.
As many of you have probably noted, I have the strange tendency to do something to the extreme with little to no preparation and then put it on the back burner. In 2010, I trained for a half marathon, took two weeks off from running, ran said half marathon, and then essentially dropped my running hobby. In 2011, I signed up for a 200 mile bike ride, having never ridden a road bike before. I went on one practice ride on Wednesday, rode 100 miles on Saturday, and rode another 100 miles on Sunday. Since then, my longest ride has been Jamieson to Summit. All great experiences, without a doubt. They’ve given me countless memories and stories and helped me push my limits, blah, blah, blah.
Recently, however, I topped all of those endeavors. 4 days after graduation, I hopped in a car with 3 fellow Summit baristas, drove 30 hours non-stop to the Grand Canyon, camped, hiked ~24 miles from the South Rim, down into the canyon, and up to the North Rim, camped, and drove 30 hours non-stop back to Davidson. And that was an abbreviated version of what I had originally planned on doing. To tell the story right, though, I need to rewind about six weeks…
It all starts at Summit, my home away from home. My 200 mile bike adventure also began here. After that, I swore I would never let my co-workers talk me into more crazy shenanigans. Oops. There is a strong running core at Summit – several members of the Summit family have run multiple marathons, the Blue Ridge Relay, Palmetto Relay, Summit’s own road races, and more. So with Jon’s marriage coming up in October, he and Brian began looking for an adventurous running event/challenge that they could carry out over the course of a weekend as a sort of “bachelor’s weekend.” Or something like that.
They soon discovered that it isn’t all that rare for people to run from rim to rim at the Grand canyon: roughly 23 miles of running with 10,000+ feet of elevation change in one of the most beautiful places in the country. There was only one problem: that seemed too easy. Now folks, this is where my understanding of the thought process ends. Because my mind is fully incapable of understanding how that could possibly not be challenging enough for any human being. They liked the idea though, and after a little digging (maybe no digging at all? I’m extrapolating a little bit here…) they discovered that a much smaller number of runners occasionally ran from rim to rim to rim. R2R2R. About 50 miles. 20,000-something feet of elevation change. And it’s supposed to be fun, too. But hey, they felt up to the challenge. Power to ‘em. This is where I come into the picture.
I learned about the plan while pouring my traditional pre-French cup of iced coffee one morning. I laughed. Honestly, I was glad they had picked a trip to ridiculous that I knew I wanted nothing to do with it. Until it occurred to me that this may be my only chance to camp at the Grand Canyon, a place I’ve wanted to experience for a long time, having listened to my father’s stories about the rafting trip he had gone on several years ago, back before the days when you have to reserve such a trip years in advance. So, wanting to earn my space in the car, but wanting nothing to do with all the running, I offered to operate a base camp for the runners. I would drive out with them, help with tents, cooking food, making sure the cooler is always stocked with beer – all the important things. Then, when they left, I would simply drive to the other rim and meet the guys there. I thought it was a great plan. I would get to camp at the Grand Canyon and maybe even squeeze in a short day hike or two. The others would get to go on their crazy run and show up to a camp that’s already up and running, with cold beers and a hearty meal waiting for them. Everybody wins.
Of course not. Phase 2 of the plan (the plan changed quite a bit) had everybody camping at a place called Cottonwood. Cottonwood is about 4,000 feet below the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. So this put the Kaibab kibosh on my plan to drive around the canyon and meet everybody at the opposite rim. Thing is, Cottonwood is only about 16 or 17 miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Long story short, I got talked into hiking to Cottonwood from the South Rim, with the additional plan of hiking back to the South Rim the following morning, for a total of about 34 miles of hiking. It didn’t really sound too absurd to me, though. I’ve done quite a bit of hiking in my day, and although this was well outside of my comfort zone, I felt that it was within my ability.
So I signed on to the new plan. Remember how about 2 paragraphs ago, I mentioned that in order to book a Colorado River rafting trip these days, you have to make your reservation several years in advance? Well – funny thing – it turns out that this also pertains to making reservations at the campsites in the Inner Canyon. We learned this about two weeks before our trip was scheduled to start. I had begun to mentally prepare myself already, and had told enough people about the trip that I was committed. Begin Phase 3 of Operation R2R2R. A new plan is born. We would camp at the South Rim on Friday night. Wake up at 4AM. Brian, Jon, Spencer, Will, and Chris run to the North Rim. I hike to the North Rim. We camp “at large” at the North Rim; this just means backpacking-style. No running water, restrooms, or nice box of soft earth in which to stake down your tent. Then, we wake up at 4AM again, run/hike through the Grand Canyon again, hop in the car, and drive 30 hours back to Davidson. No sweat.
It was about this time that I started to worry that the hiking would be slightly beyond my ability. Because, you see, back when I did that impulsive half marathon in 2010, it left a mark on my right knee in the form of IT band issues. Long story short, it hurts when I go downhill. This posed a significant problem, as hiking across the Grand Canyon and back would involve about 13 miles of hiking down hill cliff, to the tune of about 10,000 feet of elevation. But they Canyon called to me, so I convince myself it won’t be too bad and continue preparing for the trip.
Phase 3 of planning was by far the most long-lived. In the weeks leading up to the trip, which were also the weeks leading up to Graduation weekend and all shenanigans appertaining thereunto, I slowly and surely gathered the gear, apparel, encouragement, and other items I would need. Sure, I didn’t train at all, but what, was I supposed to train for the Grand Canyon during Beach Week? Probably. I assembled a set of trekking poles from collected pieces of older broken trekking poles, purchased a highly detailed map of the Grand Canyon, pieced together a first aid kit, made sure I had sunscreen (I did, but I forgot it in the car), and gathered the various sources of fuel I would need: pop tarts and chewy bars for calories, beef jerky for protein and sodium, 2 power bars (1 for each day), and some Gatorade powder, because Gatorade has convinced the world that electrolytes are by far the most important thing in the universe. But more on that later.
Graduation weekend comes and goes, I move into the teeny tiny house, I’ll be living in for the summer, and before I know it, the trip is upon me. We gather at Summit at noon on Thursday, and, after listening to a few more people tell us we’re crazy, we set off. The four of us (Me, Jon, Brian, and Spencer) set off on I-77 in a Ford Fusion (we were pretty furious that we didn’t get a Prius, but it was probably for the best), listening to Howard Stern interview Zach Braff on Sirius radio. Ahead of us lay a 30 hour non-stop drive over 7 states. The trip is all a blur now, so I’ll just recount some of the highlights in bullet form here:
- Tennessee is a big state. Especially if you’re driving across it on I-40
- Tennessee is also very green in May
- Arkansas…yeah, not much to say. Lots of bugs hit the windshield. Almost sounded like it was raining…
- HOW could the Pacers take out Hibbert in game 1??? We listened to sports people over analyze this question for probably about 5 hours.
- Oklahoma is another very long, very boring state. If you can take measures to avoid having to drive through it in your life, you probably should. Especially if said driving would be at night. Just don’t do it. They call it fly-over country for a reason, folks.
- I’ve finally been to Texas now, although Amarillo is a pretty sucky place.
- Speed limit jumps to 75MPH in Texas!! Woot!
- Satellite Radio: maybe not totally pointless…
- Orange traffic cones/cylinders: who makes them? Who owns them? Where are they kept? How many exist?
- New Mexico! Finally some positive things to say! NM is incredibly beautiful, although never-ending
- There’s a fair amount of land for sale in NM and AZ…what does one do with land there?
- Arizona is home to the Grand Canyon. By the time we got there, that’s about all we could comprehend…
We push on, getting closer, and closer, and closer, and closer, until finally, WE MADE IT! We fall out of the car, excited to stretch our legs a bit, and walk over to the rim. Now, it is my opinion that until you have been to a place like the Grand Canyon, you really shouldn’t be allowed to describe something as “breathtaking.” The Canyon is just so massively impressive that it to fully drink it in. Despite all the training that we the others had put in, Spencer’s first reaction was, “We may have bitten off more than we can chew…”
Just happy to be out of the car…
When we were done gawking at the Canyon that we had designs to run/hike across, we set up camp, ate dinner, set our alarms for 2:45AM, and went to sleep. “Morning” comes, and we crawl out of our sleeping bags, pack our things, get dressed, and drive over to the parking lot where we will be leaving the cars. Shuttles from this lot to the trailhead exist, but we weren’t sure of their timing/availability and didn’t want to “taint” our trip with a ride on a shuttle bus alongside people in Hawaiian shirts clutching their disposable cameras, so we decided to just hike the two miles from the cars to the trailhead. After all, when you’re about to hike 22 miles with 10,000 feet of elevation change, what’s an extra 2 miles over flat ground?
We leave the parking lot sometime around 4AM. Sunrise was 5:16 or something like that, but by the time we got to the trailhead at around 4:45, it was bright enough that we had all turned off our headlamps. We ask two strangers to take our picture at the top of the South Rim, proudly displaying the Summit flag, excited for the adventure we were about to begin. Then, next thing I knew, the other 5 took off down the trail, and I mean TOOK OFF. As they ran/flew/tumbled/slid/screamed down the beginning of the trail, I took one last gulp of water and set off on my own.
Rarin’ to go!
It quickly becomes clear that we weren’t the only ones who knew that the time to start hiking to the bottom of the Canyon was around 4 or 5. Moving quickly, I frequently passed other hikers – a Swiss couple, some group of about 20 people who didn’t understand how to hike without taking up the whole trail, and another large group that was dispersed along the trail using walkie talkies and codenames to communicate. Once I had hiked/jogged past them into the clear, however, I had the first of several of what I now call “Canyon moments.” When I stopped for my first water/snack break on an exposed ridge line, with the sun rising over the walls of the Canyon to my east and the full moon setting behind the walls of the Canyon to my west, I experience complete silence for the first time in my life.
Moon setting, sunlight on the rocks beneath it…
A beautiful sunrise
There was no whispering wind, no rush of water, no crunching of footsteps. I couldn’t hear a single cricket chirping or a lizard scampering over a rock. I stopped and stood and tried to listen for any noise – even the far off sound of a car driving by. There was absolutely nothing. I stood for a few more seconds, got some serious goosebumps, and, because I still had about 20 miles to go that day, set off down the trail once more.
Even the trail itself was impressive. Steep would be an understatement, as would beautiful, and covered-in-mule-shit. Every morning, a mule train heads down the South Kaibab (KaibabKaibabKaibab) trail, headed for Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon, one of only two places in the country that still uses mules to send and receive mail (as well as all its other supplies). It’s a nice added challenge to have to dodge the clusters of softball-sized dungballs as you fly around another hairpin turn, to say the least. Fortunately, the pungent odor emanating from said dungballs served as an effective warning system. I couldn’t wait to make it to Phantom Ranch and move past this zone to wait I believed would be a mule-free zone.
I pushed on, winding my way down the trail, stopping every 45 minutes or so to drink water and have a bite to eat, being truly overwhelmed by the Canyon. Not necessarily in a bad way; it just became incredibly clear that I was only going to survive if the Canyon wanted me to. I witnessed beauty like I had never seen before, physical challenge like nothing I had endured, and – in retrospect, the most interesting – solitude like nothing I could have imagined. I realize that it seems somewhat storybook-ish to go hike across the Grand Canyon immediately after graduation. And maybe it was, but I didn’t realize it until afterwards. I had just graduated and was (still am) enduring lots of talk about the next “chapter” of my life: people asking if I’m sad to leave Davidson, what I’m doing next year, what I want to do with my life, etc. I had put it all off for a long time. I formulated responses to every possible form of the question, and most of them were even true! (One of the barbers at Great Clips thinks I’m a history major, because I didn’t want to deal with the “Arabic-major-conversation” that day…)
Hiking through the Canyon, I didn’t find an answer to all those questions. I realized that they didn’t really matter to me at all. I got to do a lot of thinking while solo hiking across the Grand Canyon (mostly in the first 3 hours, for reasons that will become clear later), and I’m proud to say that most of it was about the Canyon itself. Thoughts like “Could I climb that rock?” or “How am I ever going to climb back out of this?” ran through my head for hours, topped with a constant appreciate for the endless beauty around me.
Could I climb that rock?
I made it to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon, roughly 7 miles into my hike, in about 2 hours and 25 minutes. I felt good about how quickly I had done the first leg and rewarded myself with a ten minute, two chewy bar break under a tree at Phantom Ranch. I took a good long look at the map, trying to steel myself against the challenge presented by hiking up to the North Rim. When I felt ready to move on, I packed everything up, took 3 Advil for me knee, and set out for The Box.
The Box is an aptly named section of trail about a mile or two past Phantom Ranch. Here, the Canyon walls press right in on the trail, shooting straight up around you, making it seem like you are hiking through a massive crack in the Earth, rather than one of the most vast natural wonders of the world. The Box is also hot. Much of the rock in the walls here is black metamorphic sun which, when combined with sunlight, can turn the entire section of trail into an oven. A friend of ours had talked to a park ranger friend of his and warned us that temperatures can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit in The Box during the day. (We checked: the hottest temperature ever recorded in the US is 134 in Death Valley). We still got the picture, though: The Box would be hot. Fortunately, I hiked through The Box around 8AM, so temperatures were only in the low 90’s. In fact, second only to the hike down the South Kaibab trail, hiking through the Box was the most enjoyable part of the hike for me. I was able to push my pace, since there isn’t much elevation change there, and soon enough, the walls moved apart, revealing an open desert before me.
That which comes after The Box
This section of trail was definitely the most deceiving and also very challenging. The trail wound its way through high grass and over rolling hills, and the unrelenting heat made the 8 miles from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood feel more like 16. There were no water stops to be seen, and shady spots were few and far between. By this point, my knee was throbbing with pain; stopping to rest wasn’t an option though, since stopping in the sun would be pointless. Finally, I was pretty sure that Cottonwood lay right around the corner, so I stopped a hiker going the opposite direction and asked for confirmation. His response? “Cottonwood? Oh. Well, Ribbon Falls is just a half mile or so further and then you have about 2 miles after that to get to Cottonwood. But yeah, you’re almost there!” I did my best to keep my face from showing my disappointment and tried to kick it back into gear.
Along the way, I passed two middle aged men who, judging by their attire, had been running across the Canyon. One of the men had a pretty serious limp/shuffle going for him, and the other was there for moral support. As I hiked past them, with my own limp/shuffle in its infant stage, the injured man shouted an encouraging, “You go brother! You own this Canyon!” I couldn’t really tell if he was talking to himself or me, but I pushed on until finally, I saw a sign for Cottonwood. I found the water source, dropped my bag to the ground, and sat down on the bench right across from the spigot. Five minutes later the two men showed up. The slow/injured/shuffling one lay down on the bench next to me while the other took a few minutes to thoroughly douse his companion with water from head to toe. A minute or two later, I got up to refill my water bottles, douse my own head with water, and move on. As the woman ahead of me filled her own bottle, though, the water stopped flowing.
Almost all of the water at the water source spigots in the Canyon flows from the same source up by the North Rim. Apparently a water main had burst earlier that day in the Canyon (It was in The Box, as a matter of fact. A section of trail had been flooded…), so they had to shut off the water to most of the water stops for the rest of the day. So with six miles to go and 4,000 feet to climb, I knew I had another 4.5 miles before I could refill my bottles again. So I set out with the 2.5 liters I still had.
Broken water main on the trail
So began the main struggle of my Grand Canyon adventure. My right knee was now barely functional, and had, in fact, given out completely once already that day. Shade was almost non-existent, as it was around noon, and my legs were getting to be plain old tired. I managed to figure out a way to walk that took my knee pain from a 7 to a 5, and fell into a rhythm. Never stop in the middle of a switchback. Never stop in the sun. Food every 30 minutes. Water every time I stop. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. The two men I had passed earlier were clearly in a rhythm of their own. My hiking pace was a touch faster than theirs, but they didn’t stop. So every time I stopped, they would pass me, and then I would pass them back when I started hiking again. Turns out the two are brothers, Bill and Dan Bradley. Bill (the limping one, nicknamed “The Tortise”) lives in northern California, and Dan (a.k.a. Dan the Man) lives near L.A. Bill quickly nicknamed me “The Hare,” and our sorry little company kept on going, although not really hiking together. We picked up a fourth member, too – a cute girl, maybe about my age, from San Diego who Bill cleverly nicknamed “San Diego.”
The scenery was still beautiful, but I was much less aware of the environment around me at that point, and much more aware of the pain in my right knee and the cramping in my left leg. But still, I pressed on, channeling the spirit of Thomas the Tank Engine with every step. Much to my dismay, it turned out that the trail from Cottonwood to the North Rim was another mule zone, so every few minutes, I had to fight the urge to vomit when slapped in the face by the stench of another pile of dungballs. As Bill and Dan passed me during another of my brief stops, Bill announced that we only had 1.3 miles to go, according to his GPS watch. So I crammed 3 Pop Tarts down my throat, dumped the last of my Gatorade powder for the day into what was left of my water, and started hiking again, convinced that I wouldn’t stop again until the top.
The Tortoise and Dan the Man
I stopped four more times. Finally though, I heard Bill’s voice echoing from up ahead on the trail and figured he had made it, and sure enough, I broke through the trees into the trailhead parking lot 5 minutes later. I took a quick picture with Bill, Dan, and San Diego (I don’t know her real name…) found the other members of my crew, and promptly lay down. I was done in every sense of the word. I had made it in just under 12 hours. I wasn’t sure my knee would ever work again. In fact, the only thing I knew for sure was that I would not be going back through the canyon the next day. Which leads, of course, to Phase 4 of the plan.
After some discussion, we have a new plan. Brian, Jon, Spencer, Chris, and Will would set off back down the trail for the South Rim at 5:15PM that afternoon. It was about 4:30 PM when I got there. They only got a few hours of rest. So, while they ran/hiked back across the canyon, I shuffled the last 1.3 miles to the campsites, got my tent mostly set up, and fell asleep face-down on top of my sleeping bag at about 7PM. The plan called for me to wake up at 4:30AM, and meet the others at the lodge at 5AM, after they made it back to the South Rim and jumped into the car and drove to the North Rim to pick me up. At 4:30, I got a text that they wouldn’t be there until about 9AM, which was fine with me. So I slept a few more hours, woke up, got all packed up, shuffled the 1.7 miles to the lodge, and met up with the guys. Their experience going back across the canyon and (even more so) driving 4 hours to the North Rim to pack me up had been harrowing to say the least. But they somehow did it. All the kudos in the world to them for not leaving me at the North Rim.
So I jumped behind the wheel, more than happy to take the next driving shift in order to let them sleep for a bit, and we set off for Davidson. Some notes from the ride back:
- Jon doesn’t like condiments. Don’t EVER put condiments on anything of Jon’s.
- Baconators taste even better after conquering the Grand Canyon
- I really should’ve worn more chapstick while hiking
- Jon slept a lot
- Those “Wing Street” Pizza Hut’s are weird. Imagine Pizza Hut. Now make it a full restaurant, but a kinda Applebee’s kinda place. Also it was in Amarillo. And nobody was there except 10 folks at the bar. And they were all smoking.
- Oklahoma still sucked. Yep, even at night!
- Ever seen a deer in two pieces on the road? I have.
- Apparently there are some gas stations in the world that arent’ 24/7!
- Who else but Udonis!
- The ESPN radio announcer called Mario Chalmers “Rio” for the whole game. What are you, his childhood pal? Stop it!
- Mere coins can provide endless entertainment during car rides.
It really felt like it would never end for a bit, but we finally pulled into the Summit lot, had a celebratory beer, and dispersed.
Thus ended the great R2R(2R) adventure of 2013. A week later, my knee still hurts, but I think it’s getting better. It was a great trip, and I don’t regret it one bit. But I don’t think I’ll ever do it again…
A more complete photo album is here.