Monday, October 11, 2010

Departure and the Grand Canyon

Unburdened with aspirations of a career or any particular achievement and motivated only by a mounting sense of restlessness, I quit my job and tossed all I had in my car, endeavoring to taste more of America in one go than I ever have before. I've begun my first road trip to the east: an excursion with no official point of termination or conclusion.

My first destination had to be the Grand Canyon. It called to me in a way that beautiful things sometimes but too infrequently do - as if any time my eyes caught a picture of the thing, deep from the base of the fissure I can could faintly hear, "Matthew," a whisper beckoning for me to come and conquer. I felt this way when I entered a contest years ago to win the car I'm driving now and I felt this way when I toppled the Untersberg Mountain in Salzburg, Austria. It almost killed me and it was one of the finest things I've ever done.

Rarely able to plan even a week ahead of time, I was dismayed - dismayed but undeterred - when I discovered the Grand Canyon's North Rim's campgrounds, both above and below the rim, were completely booked through the rest of the season. As of learning this, I had already rounded up a posse, friends of a friend I made in a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course, and I wasn't going to let them down. I discovered that if I were show up in person 48 hours prior to an intended overnight excursion to the Colorado River from the rim, I would likely be able to secure the necessary permit. Additionally, there is free dispersed camping available in the Kaibab Forest, half an hour's drive from the visitor center, affording me a place to stay while I waited for the rest of my backpacking crew to arrive.

Having to appear in person at the Backcountry Office at 8am to secure the permit, however, would involve some creative commuting. Reluctant to too dramatically throw my mind's clock for a spin, I decided to crash in my car at a truck stop in St. George, putting me within just a few hours of the north rim. I nestled my car into a space I thought wouldn't be in the way for the stop's proper sleepers and made a feeble attempt at securing privacy: a sun shade on the windshield and sweaters hung clumsily from the "oh shit" handles. I assumed the comfort of my own car could only exceed that of any of the miserable overnight trains I've settled in. Twisting and turning and being shook awake at every other passing light and horn blast, I found it wasn't much an improvement.

The USA Today at the north rim's laundry room had a three page focus on truck stop serial killers. Fairly disconcerting, seeing as I imagine I'm going to have to crash at least a few while I connect the dots between friends, campgrounds, and couch surfers. I left satisfied that my survival chances are fair just so long as I don't decide to become a lot lizard, a prostitute that specializes in servicing truckers.

I filled the two days until my crew would arrive with trip planning and lovely day hikes along the rim. The time was my own. It was beautiful everything that I needed. I filled the two days until my crew would arrive more miserable perhaps than the night before. My sleeping bag was supposed to be rated effective down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit - just about the temperature the north rim fell to at night. Even fully clothed and with the additional warming effort of a pair of blankets from my car, this California boy shivered and rolled from side to side until the sun came back with the new day.

So even after three nights without any apparent R.E.M. sleep, I was overflowing with life and an eagerness to take the canyon by the time my posse rolled into the park. We fiddled about with our bags for a bit and descended into the North Kaibab Trail - a path originally cut as an escape route to the southern rim by explorers who wouldn't have survived the coming winter.

A passing hiker had just come from the south rim and confirmed what I had learned from my research online and from speaking with friends - that the southern rim was overcrowded, touristy, and much less enchanting. "Like a city," she described it. More, the north rim is farther from the river than the south rim and 1000 feet higher, therefore a greater challenge and a more attractive choice.

We were to camp at a site by the name of Cottonwood, seven miles deep into the 14 miles to the Colorado river, hit the river the next day, and back to the rim on the third. A welcome change from conditions at the top of the rim, the nights were almost too hot to be comfortable. Almost. Though our crew of five was chiefly composed of tall and muscular champions, only I - the malnourished vegan - had enough energy and determination to make it to the river the next day. The rest would stay behind.

The trails teemed with lovely fit people of all ages, full of smiles and how are yous. I lost count of the number of senior citizens engaged in one-day rim to rim excursions - accomplishing as much ground as I in the span of one day instead of three. While their numbers humbled my aching feet, they helped take away some of the fear of one day waking up with grays. My efforts felt all the more diminished as I passed maybe a dozen hikers taking on the rim to rim, feeling around with walking sticks and all of them blind.

Coming back from the Colorado, I cruelly realized that two liters of water and three Clif Bars weren't quite enough for the 14 miles through the canyon desert. One must become zen-like in occasions like these and make the deliberate mental effort to compartmentalize the suffering and keep one foot always pushing ahead of the other. It was harsh, but lovely.

I got back to Cottonwood just in time to catch my gang on their way to an off-the-trail waterfall they accidentally discovered. They afforded me just enough time to skinny dip in the Bright Angel Creek and smack down a can of beans so that I could be rejuvenated enough to join them. I was reluctant to the point that I told them they should go on without me, but they wouldn't have any of it and I'm glad they wouldn't. The mini-excursion to the newly named Pancake Falls, a secluded ten foot waterfall with enough space to swim in and hide inside, was perhaps the most memorable part of the trip.

Wanting to be sure no one was left behind (and to be kinder to my poor heels, calves, and thighs) I took up the rear end of the line. When I did reach the top, the first to finish spent their extra time acquiring victory beers which we eagerly guzzled down in the parking lot. We exchanged SD Cards, hugs, and farewells, and went on our way. It was one of the best things I've ever done (though, I painfully discovered all of the photos I took after dipping below the rim were at 640x480 resolution - a fairly devastating realization, as a good many pictures I was hoping to make prints of are only fit for cellphone wallpaper).

I slept once more at the truck stop in St. George again, more experienced and more exhausted than when I was there first. And now I wrap up this first entry while waiting in an auto shop, replacing my radiator and biting my knuckles for the cost. Hopefully Lugia treats me well here on out. We still have a lot of ground to cover.


Susan said...


Juliet said...

That sounds absolutely amazing. So tough... Must be satisfying. :)