Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Grand outing

In the purple light of predawn, my dad and his friend, Tom, rushed to pull on every piece of clothing in their packs before the chill set in. I tilted my travel thermometer beneath the dim light of the South Rim bus station. It was 37, maybe 38 degrees. I was already wearing all of my clothing. Three years of Alaska outings have taught me to leave the house as pessimistic as possible and shed my way toward optimism.

The shuttle bus pulled up at 6:08 a.m. Arizona time (what time is that in Alaska? What time is that in Utah? In a state that does not observe daylight savings, the real time was a constant source of debate.) The bus was packed to the brim with people - other hikers bundled in their Arctic best for the long descent down the South Kaibab Trail. It was a swift dose of reality that the Grand Canyon is not the place to seek solitude. But more than that, we were astonished at the sheer number of people undertaking what just a few years ago to us was a bewildering idea - hiking from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other in a day.

But since those uneasy years, I had dropped off the rim three times. By the fourth, the edge had worn off a bit. I had become more accustomed to day-long physical exertion, and rarely on paths as well-built and luxurious as the Grand Canyon's main trails. But where the physical challenge dulled a bit, the wonder only sharpened.

In the warm light of sunrise, a huge chasm spread out around us. Serrated rock and soft sand is a kind of scenery so different from that which I see in my day-to-day adventures. I appreciate its beauty so much more now that I'm so far away.

My dad looked out over the trail snaking into the gorge and said, "this is one of those 'wow' moments, isn't it?" I smiled, because a love of sweeping spaces is something my dad and I both identify with. It reminded me that my dad and I share things that run so much deeper than bloodlines.

After just a little more than an hour of hiking, we were already watching the blue-gray ribbons of the Colorado River flow toward the oasis of Phantom Ranch. I felt like we were moving at the speed of light. Tom, who had been up Mount Rainier but never down the Grand Canyon, said "Wow, I feel like we've walked a long way downhill, and we still have a long way to go."

We skirted a narrow bridge across the Colorado River, elevation 2,400, at about 9 a.m. On the banks was Phantom Ranch, a little National Park resort with flush toilets and bunk houses and cold lemonade. We were still wearing half of our warm layers. My thermometer still hovered well below 60, in Arizona, in mid-October. I have visited that place at the same time of year when the temperature was in the 100s, and I have suckled the Phantom Ranch lemonade like it was the elixir of life. "You know," my dad said, "I don't really feel like a cold lemonade right now." And I realized with no small disappointment that I did not, either.

As we continued up the surprisingly un-oven-like box canyon on the lower north side, we saw our only member of the large wildlife community that we met during the trip, a bighorn sheep. We also saw, to our disappointment, dozens of other hikers.

We stopped for lunch at Ribbon Falls. I pulled out my assortment of Clif Bars and candy bars and tried to ascertain a good combination for lunch. My dad offered me a cheese bagel, with honey, and part of a can of Pringles - just like in the old days, when I was a grumpy teenager and my dad carried all of the food. The idea that he would still think of me when shopping for his hiking expedition made me feel warm and secure, and I relished in a lunch that still tasted as rich and nourishing as it did when I was 16.

Ribbon Falls was just spectacular in the noon sunlight. We finished lunch and climbed up behind the waterfall, trying to dodge the mist that on any other October day in the Grand Canyon would probably feel wonderful.

Ribbon Falls is about a perfect halfway point between the South and North rims. I think it should be a destination in and of itself. Crystal clear water over a ribbon of moss and vegetation as rich and green as anything in Juneau, contrasted against the red rocks. I would hike 24 miles out and back to see it.

I couldn't decide which picture to post, so I posted four. Yup, still Ribbon Falls.

A cold wind that had been blowing all day really picked up force as we ascended the North Rim. Gusts of 40 and sometimes even 50 mph blew away my hat and pounded us with chilling force. Luckily, the wind was almost always at our backs. Even on slow-moving feet, the push helps.

I ticked off the elevation on my GPS, announcing the numbers to my dad and Tom as we marched upward. Fall began to return to the landscape. The thermometer dropped back toward 40. The climb is long, more than 6,500 feet over the course of the day, and the mileage - about 22 - is not a short stroll either. Even so, near the top, a part of me felt like we were just getting started, and GPS confirmed it. We had spent just a little more than nine hours in the canyon, with only about six to seven of that hiking (GPS accuracy is hard to pin down on moving time.) For the first time in four rim-to-rim treks, I could understand why people would turn around and walk back into the abyss.

Still, there was enough good tired to go around. I have difficulty with the impact of running and walking for more than a few hours. Saturday was no exception, with some IT band tightness that subsided pretty quickly. Tom was pretty happy with the experience. This picture is our crew: Tom, his wife, Jill; my dad, Jed; my mom, Sheri, and me. (Jill and my mom drove around to shuttle us out. And yes, it really was that cold on the North Rim.)

Clouds started to move in shortly after we crested the rim. By 5 p.m., it was snowing. But, all in all, we had an ideal trip. The weather was just about perfect - for my Alaska blood, that is. I was half disappointed I didn't get to see the snow while we were hiking. I imagine the canyon is beautiful dusted in white.

So that's my fourth time down the Grand. Would I do it again? Most definitely.