Sunday, September 23, 2007

Soggy Grand Canyon

You know how there are people who, no matter where they go, always seem to bring sunshine with them? Well, I am just like that, except for with rain.

It would seem that every day, a person, not unlike myself, travels to the Arizona desert in September with a tank top, SPF 50, a camelbak full of ice and a fear of heat that only someone who never sees temperatures above 70 can understand. But it is not every day that this person, not unlike myself, is blasted with nearly a half inch of rain (.47" according to weather.com), temperatures in the high 40s and the deep chill that only a person who hikes in a half inch of rain on a regular basis can understand.

This is the story of my trip into the Grand Canyon ... epic by some standards, normal by others. But any way you project it, it is a 24-mile walk through a small slice of some of the most intense country carved into this big Earth. It is life laid bare, a glimpse of blood-red waterfalls cascading down cliffs and a realization that to battle the elements outside is a simple task when compared to the battle with demons within.

I made the Grand walk with my dad and my aunt Jan. It was walk number four for my dad, number three for me, and Jan's first. She had trained all summer, but she was fearful of the scope of it all. And I'll be honest ... I was feeling a little overconfident. I assumed that I could skip across this trail in my sleep, unless the heat took me down. I was not going to let the heat take me down. I packed my arsenal ... my sunscreen, sun glasses, hat, ice, electrolyte tablets, a bag of easily digestible Power Bars. The rain jacket went in almost as an afterthought.

We started on the South Rim and worked our way north. The cloud-streaked sunrise gave way to quick morning heat. By 8 a.m. it had climbed past 80; in the direct sun, it felt like 450. I clinched my fists and geared up mentally, chanting my mantra: "It's only heat. Only heat. Drink, drink and be free."

Ominous storm clouds built over the northern horizon. Dad and Jan were worried about thunderstorms, but rain was not even in my thoughts. I could not imagine a situation of rain in the desert that would be bad enough to bother me. And, anyway, rain in the desert is a few drops and some thunderbooms. Maybe a downpour if you're really unlucky. Either way ... eh.

We hit the Colorado River at 9 a.m. Looking up from the bottom, the Grand Canyon does not seem like the gaping chasm that we gawked at from the top. The Grand Canyon becomes a small place at its heart, swallowing the echoes of the roaring river and pulling inward until I find myself wandering through my own tiny world.

It was shortly after the river crossing that Jan started to struggle. She became nauseated and stopped eating or drinking. After a few miles of this, she felt bad enough to complain. Dad and I plied her with any solution we could think of, but in the end, everyone feels differently about battling the vicious cycle of the bonk. She looked up at the distant rim many thousands of vertical feet above our heads, that unmistakable look of bewilderment splashed across her face. And I felt awful about it, because I remember what it's like the feel that way; the fear is even worse than the pain.

We convinced her to drink some Gatorade, and then stopped for a lingering lunch. After our long rest, she said she felt much better. Still, she didn't eat much. She was digging deep into her energy reserve and we had a long climb ahead. That's about the time the rains came.

A swift wind down the canyon foretold of something ominous, but I really had no idea. We stopped to pull on rain gear just in time to be blasted with the kind of thick, pelting downpour that can only hit the desert. It was like we were blasted with a fire hose, continuously, for about 10 minutes. The dry desert floor rejected the moisture immediately; it came cascading over the cliffs in ketchup-colored waterfalls and covered the trails in deep puddles and wet clay.

I was frightened of the downpour, but when it tapered into a gentle, steady rain, I really perked up. I realized that I was just given my final free pass out of the canyon. This was exactly everything I had trained for ... walking up steep, muddy slopes in the cold rain. Without meaning to, Juneau had prepared me perfectly for the Grand Canyon. I felt like I had nothing left to fear.

Jan continued to struggle, but she soldiered on without muttering a single complaint about the weather, the walk or the rain. I made a couple of stops along the climb to make sure we all stayed together. I paid for it with a chill. Then it became a deep chill, and I knew then my only choice was to keep walking or let my body temperature keep dropping. But I wanted to stay with my group; I had come all this way to spend time with my family.

Watching Jan quietly marvel at the waterfalls, even after she had fallen deep into her hurt phase, was inspiring. It made me want to look inside myself for the reasons I felt joyful: for the yellow aspen trees fluttering in the wind; the patter of rain on the flooded trail; the sudden intensity of the red on wet sandstone; the elevation that turned the canyon into a deep chasm again; my dad and aunt marching up the trail beside me; my mom, aunt and uncle sprinting down the trail to greet us.

And I looked over the edge of the north rim to the fog-shrouded Grand Canyon as though I was seeing it for the first time.