That’s all I can say about watching the sunrise over the Grand Canyon.
Spectacularly Brutally Awesome.
That’s all I can say about traversing the canyon…and then coming back.
Understanding – Gracious – Tough and many more words would be necessary to describe my wife who would willfully celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary by riking (run-hiking) 50 miles across the Grand Canyon.
We launched out at 5:30am on our 19th wedding anniversary and began the long steep descent of the South Kaibab Trail. The darkness helped to conceal the sheer cliffs of our initial descent as we made our way into the canyon. What caught us off guard were the gusts of wind that kicked up dust and forced us to be mindful that two feet of trail would lead to certain peril.
In classic style, as the sun began to rise at Cedar Point I began to lead my wife onto the wrong trail. Just as she spoke up that we seemed to be going in the wrong direction my watch informed me that we had indeed deviated off course. Quiet literally and metaphorically, this is what she has spent her life doing — keeping me on course.
Returning to the trail, we continued the unrelenting descent to the Colorado River. It was during this stretch that we made one of our mistakes. We allowed a mule train to pass us. It would have been good for us to remain in front of the mules – not only due to the stench but also because it would have motivated us to stay on pace. However, behind the mules we were forced to frequently stop when we got dangerously close to their rear-ends.
Once we made it to the river, we crossed the Black Bridge, and began the journey from Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood. This seven mile stretch was a gorgeous run alongside Bright Angel Creek where we could finally hit a bit of a running stride. Thankfully the weather was ideal for our journey; it remained cloudy and 85 while in “the box.”
From Cottonwood the gentle incline converted into the step climb out of the canyon. Along this stretch, just as the fatigue and weariness began to set in we came across three hikers heading into the canyon. One of them saw my shirt and said – “F3? I am part of F3 out of Columbia.” This chance encounter with a fellow pax member provided the pep I needed to finish the plod out of the canyon.
Also during this stretch through the Red Wall, I would at times find myself dizzy and a bit disoriented. While staring at the few steps in front of me, the 1000 feet dropoff would loam off in my peripheral vision. In passing, my wife commented that our poles provided a sense of grounding, much like the advice she provides to her patients struggling with anxiety. As a result, a strange sensation overwhelmed me as I felt my feet making firm contact with the trail and my poles “grounding” my body upon the trail. The peripheral fear was taken away, and I became fully aware of the my presence and place.
Theologian Paul Tillich speaks of God as the “ground of being.” He does this in an effort to remove the Pie-in-the-Sky idolatry of a distant deity, and focus our attention upon the persistent presence of God. God is as present, real and stabilizing as the ground upon which we stand. Along the trail, I tapped into that Ground of Being in order to steady myself over the disorienting cliffs. Being grounded prepared me for the final push to the North Rim.
However, there was one final obstacle I faced along this stretch. The mule trains had returned and this time they carried passengers. Being forced to the edge of the trail, I sat impatiently on a rock for these beasts of burden to pass by. As I sat there, one mule took it upon himself to smack me in the face with his tail. At that point, I was ready to be done, so my wife could have raced past me were it not for the laughing fit caused by the mule. The laughs quickly subsided; when we finally reached the trailhead and realized that we would not be able to hitch a ride to the lodge but had to hike an additional 1.7 miles, my body began to turn on me.
Upon arriving at the lodge, we were informed that it would be another two hours until our room was ready. So, we headed into the lobby and began to wait. As my body shut down, and the cold wind of the North Rim had dropped my body temperature, I sat shivering uncontrollably. Unfortunately, we shared the table with another couple who were excited to start their Rim-To-Rim adventure the next day. I am sure my shivering, huddling mass was not the motivation they were seeking. Finally I discovered a secret hiding spot next to a radiator in order to warm my body.
Once I had recovered, and was preparing for the return trip back to the South Rim the next morning, I was able to turn my attention to my wife. She had weathered that first crossing perfectly, but I discovered that her left knee had been beaten up by that initial descent. Knowing that we had to start the morning with another (greater) grueling descent, I had a sleepless night trying to consider the contingency options should the swelling not subside. As the next morning approached, I knew as she did, that there was really only one option – to persevere.
We were thwarted once again in our attempts to hitchhike back to the trailhead and were forced to hike the 1.7 back to the start. From there we began our descent into the canyon. By a mile and half into the descent, however, her knee was beginning to become more and more painful. By the third mile, she was in extreme pain but knew that the only way was forward. While natural childbirth and parenting of triplets has proven to me she is tough – the way in which she gritted through this descent further confirmed that she is by far the toughest person I know.
While running the calculations in my head, I had allotted ten hours for our return crossing, but our current pace had suggested that it may take us upward of 13 hours. Nearing the Manzanita pumphouse, we came across some hikers who had started with us the day before. One of them had slipped on the descent yesterday and had hurt her back which caused them to stay the night in the canyon. However, another member of their group was a walking pharmacy who graciously handed Lindsay some Ibuprofen and told her that within 30 minutes it should kick in.
Having completed the grueling return into the box of the canyon – in an area without cell service – Lindsay’s phone lit up with a text message of her Bible verse of the day. It read:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4).
The sheer fact that God sent this verse at the very moment of her suffering, it gave me the hope I needed that we would finish this adventure. Like clockwork the painkillers kicked in just as we began the steady descent from Cottonwood to Phantom Ranch. The 13-hour calculation was getting recalibrated with each step she took, and it looked like we would amazingly be able to complete this return trek in under 10 hours.
While Lindsay remained steady on her ibuprofen-induced pace to get to Phantom Ranch, I would pause to fill our water bladders and then sprint to catch-up to her. While she pushed forward, I ventured off the trail to go to Ribbon Falls and then sprinted again to catch her as we entered Phantom Ranch. The position of chasing after her helped to fuel my protective instincts as I wanted to reach her as fast as I could. Therefore, we cruised into Phantom Ranch at a nice clip.
Here we remained for nearly an hour to evaluate her knee, grab some food (the Lemonade and chips were amazing), and prepare for the final climb out of the canyon.
Across the Silver bridge, we began the ascent to the South Rim. Nearly 30 years earlier I had descended this trail with my family as we rafted down the Colorado River. Climbing it in reverse as a middle-aged man was able to give me different perspective.
After passing through Indian Gardens and slowly chipping away at the Red Wall near the 3 mile and 1.5 mile rest house we got closer and closer to the finish line. When we stopped at the 1.5 mile resthouse, we asked a young couple to take our photo. As we exhaustedly smiled for the camera they asked us where we had hiked to. When we pointed through the haze to the North Rim and said we had started over there at 5am they marveled at our accomplishment (little did we have the heart to explain that we had begun yesterday on the South Rim).
Finally, upon topping out, we surveyed the chasm to see how far we had come. Not only on this epic adventure but also in 19 years of marriage. To watch my wife grit through the pain to accomplish this feat, I marveled at her determination.
The thing I learned while in the canyon was that being completely disconnected from the world, all that we could focus on was the present. Grounding ourselves in the moment – appreciating the views, appreciating the pain, appreciating the people along the trail – appreciating the adventure was all that there was.
South Kiabab to North Rim Lodge: 24.42 miles in 8:04:00
North Rim Lodge to Bright Angel Trailhead (plus Ribbon Falls): 26.33 miles in 9:15 (moving time)