Is there anything like an early morning in June? The cool air is not the heat-drenched air of mid-July and smells of freshness and purity. It smells of early morning boardwalk pitch and coffee on the deck. The leaves are blowing gently in the breeze with a promise of warm beauty in the afternoon. Problems evaporate with the effervescence of sunshine and contentment.
Written Summer of 2012
As I was going to sleep the night before, I suddenly had a pang of fear– would we really be able to descend and ascend Grand Canyon in a day? For months I had told friends and family that a friend of ours gave us suggestions for our trip to Arizonia/Utah and one of them was hiking Grand Canyon in a day, descending in 3 hours and making it back in 5 hours. We told everyone this. A few persons acted skeptical, but I trusted implicitly the knowledge of a friend. You see his son lives in Arizonia and he really seemed knowledgeable of the area and what people could handle. But suddenly, I thought … but I’ve only known this man for a few years…what if he’s wrong? I’ve built this whole day that includes 4 other family members around my trust in this person’s judgment… but, soon I fell asleep.
I awoke at 5 am for a 6 am descent down Grand Canyon. The night before we had packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, along with healthy snacks of Fig Newton’s and granola bars. So all 5 of us crisscrossed around the small Yavapai Lodge room at the rim of Grand Canyon to then board our rented van, followed by a Grand Canyon shuttle that dropped us off at the South Kaibab trailhead. Despite our early rise and coordinated efforts, we began our descent at 6:15 am. We were all in good spirits buoyed by the morning shade and the cool temperatures. We stopped numerous times to take pictures and congratulate each other for our journey, including Ooh-ahh Point, Cedar Ridge, and Skeleton Point. At Skeleton Point, a mere 3 mile hike, we took amazing pictures on some overhanging rocks (see picture above). We were feeling good.
But somewhere in between Skeleton Point and the junction of Tonto Trail, we seemed to run out of steam. Perhaps it was the travelers coming up that told us we were not quite ½ way down and that they had started at 5 am in the morning, or perhaps it was the dry desert conditions that felt inhospitable to human life. Whatever it was, by the time Ken and I reached the toilet facilities at Tonto trail juncture, we were feeling breathless and needed the shade of the small wooden deck. We were starting to feel the effects of the hot mid-morning sun. The thing we didn’t realize is that we were over ½ way and had hiked 4.4 miles of the 7.1 mile trek down. We used the port-a-potties, but were a bit more sluggish to head out in the hot white sand of the trail. My toes were already sore from the constant downward movement of toes against hiking shoes (which eventually led to the loss of a toenail). But our 3 children were obliviously driven by some adrenalin-induced high and had even taken an added excursion up a nearby mountain peak near Skeleton Point.
Soon the Colorado River came into view, but to me it looked very far away with small ant-people nearby. I was no longer sure about this whole day hike in Grand Canyon but trudged on. Miraculously, by 10:30 we made it to the bottom of the canyon and were soaking our hot feet in the cool and refreshing Colorado River. We ate our lunch. Already my husband was talking about making it up to the rim before dark and fearful of snakes and coyotes that we had seen on the introductory IMAX movie the day before. I didn’t even want to think about the trek up and, in fact, was seriously considering paying for a helicopter ride up. I felt haunted by an inexpressible fear of being deep in a canyon with no way out. I hid away under a bridge where I sat in the river, trying to block out concerns and relieved of the scorching sun and 103 degree temperatures.
The concerns kept interfering with my rest and relaxation in the voice of one of my sons telling me that we should be heading up the canyon wall again. Now, one thing was clear from our advising friend: we shouldn’t try to hike in the mid-day sun. It was what killed hikers and we needed to remember to start back after 3 pm to ensure our safety. So with that in mind, I kept telling my family, no, we needed to wait. Well, when I realized they all were insistent on going up earlier, I relented with a river-soaked jersey to renew my spirits. The first mile was hard with too much heat and too much hot sand. We didn’t go very far till we had to take a break. We were now on the Bright Angel Trail which hovered for the first few miles around the curving Colorado River, ascending and then descending again, but continually hugging the river. As if God took mercy on us, amazingly the sun disappeared behind clouds after a few miles and the sun gave up her relentless torridity. There also was a slight breeze that appeared around the shade of the Indian Gardens, 4.4 miles into the 9.3 mile hike up.
About this time, our children grew impatient of their parents’ slow meticulous pace, so they were often about 10 to 15 minutes ahead of us. When we’d finally catch up to them, they had been resting for 10 minutes and looking totally refreshed, anxious to be on their way again. Ken and I often did not rest enough because we were eager to keep up with our kids, so took a short 2-minute break and continued on with our children (see picture above). Soon our daughter, who had not eaten her lunch and had come to the end of her adrenalin push, began lagging behind her older brothers. We forced her to eat and soon she regained some of her former strength and was up ahead of us again.
The once fairly full trail was being weeded out by hikers opting for the Bright Angel or the Indian Garden Campgrounds. There was one couple that we kept seeing and seemed to be on the same crazy hike down and back in one day. Their names were Robert and Juliana and they were the one constant among ever challenging switchbacks and steep inclines. After Indian Gardens and the warned sighting of a rattle snake, Robert and Juliana seemed to be the only ones on the trail. Our kids were far up ahead and we were lagging, still wondering if we’d actually make it to the top. My oldest son had my backpack, which at times was being carried by my daughter in exchange for her backpack. Water was not a problem due to our resources and the plentiful refilling stations along the way.
Robert was a considerate companion to the more beleaguered Juliana. He appeared to be a fit 30-something that kept talking and encouraging Juliana as she felt the weight of descending and climbing in one day. Typically, they would hike for 1/8 of a mile and rest. We then would pass them on our 1/8 mile attempt before suddenly squatting on the rock’s edge in exhaustion….only to see Juliana and Robert coming towards us. We did this for at least an hour before we started hiking together as a foursome.
Ken felt particularly discouraged after reaching the 3 mile rest house by the distance left to ascend. We’d glance up and the red peaks didn’t seem to get any closer. The last 2 miles was where we encountered a family of bighorn sheep. The young goat-like kids scampered up and down the rocks, sometimes running full-tilt right towards us on the trail, but then would make an abrupt turn up the mountain. This made our daughter turn around and hike down towards us in tears. With the bighorn sheep staring at us from inches off the trail, Robert led all 5 of us with a calm-talking, quiet-stepping approach up the mountain. Phuuu, we had made it past another barrier to the rim.
The last mile felt grueling and we were only going through the footslogging motions of counting steps, stopping in exhaustion and pulling ourselves up again. Luckily, Juliana and Robert had walked down a short distance of the trail the night before and just about the time we were ready to give up, they started recognizing landmarks and knew the trailhead was close at hand. They were a gift from God and indispensible to us in reaching the rim. Watching them struggle and continue to get up and walk was a formidable encouragement.
When we had last spoken to our boys, my one concern was that if we didn’t make it to the top, they might be able to come down the trail with flashlights so we could find our way up. In the end, this wasn’t necessary. We had started out at 1:30 pm and 7 hours later, we saw the rim of Grand Canyon with applause from our 3 children. It was a bit past dusk but we could still see their proud faces. We took no time to jump or dance at our accomplishment, but hurried with Robert and Juliana to a packed shuttle bus. All eyes were on us as we walked to the back of the bus, covered in reddish brown filth …and huge smiles.
Finding Healing and Hope in the West
Written Fall of 2008
Whenever I talked about our upcoming vacation (July 25-Aug 6, 2008), I usually said, “I hope we can stand driving together for that long. Hopefully we won’t have too many arguments.” But traveling by van from Pennsylvania to Custer, South Dakota and on to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons ended up being one of the best family vacations ever.
It had been a rough few months before we left, so we as a family were in need of a time of solace. And we threw ourselves into it full force. We rode horses in the Black Hills National Forest and rafted the whitewater rapids of the Yellowstone River as if there were no tomorrow. We ate a chuck wagon supper and listened to blue grass music into the night. We all knew we didn’t want to go home to the issues and troubles of the last few months; we wanted a complete vacation from stress, a time to escape the cares that seemed to haunt us before. And we found in each other the perfect comfort. Laughter and the thrill of excitement were like nectar to our weary spirits. We amazed ourselves that we could all get along so well. Sure, the kids often retreated to a Game Boy world of Pokemon while Ken and I navigated the highways, but it may have been a necessity when driving over 10 hours together each day in a van.
And did I say that we hiked? Maybe it was because the kids were so glad to finally be released from the depths of the Toyota Sienna, but they jumped at every opportunity to hike, all in one accord, and even got mad at us when we didn’t have an afternoon of hiking in Custer State Park. We hiked and hiked and hiked —in the Badlands of South Dakota, around Devil’s Tower of eastern Wyoming and among the clear, transparent lakes of the Grand Tetons. Ken and I were usually far behind our three kids, while they would run ahead as if there were a reward at the finish line.
So, I guess the family road trip is not dead, despite the high cost of fuel. It was the saving grace of our summer and the memories of that time out West continue to bless us. -BBM