Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The tradition

When I tell friends I'm heading to Arizona to hike across the Grand Canyon, I've heard the response, "Didn't you do that last year?"

"Well, yes," I'd answer. "I do this most every year."


"I go there with my dad. We hike together."

"Don't you and your dad want to do something different one of these years?"

"Well, no. It wouldn't be the same. Rim-to-rim is the tradition."

 Tradition is an interesting concept, isn't it? Repeating the same activities, year after year, generation after generation. Tradition has perpetuated things nobody likes, such as fruit cake and Black Friday, but it also generates a sense of familial belonging and stability. One could argue that the best traditions combine the warm fuzzies of familiarity with elements of awe and wonder. Fall Grand Canyon is top shelf in this regard.

 I'm not sure my dad was setting out to create a tradition when he invited me to join him and a group of family friends for my first rim-to-rim hike in October 2004. Among this group was a guy my age who was something of a childhood nemesis when we were classmates at Sprucewood Elementary School. He would openly mock me for being bad at the team sports were were compelled to play together in gym, and I would quietly seethe about it and then scrawl his name in my Trapper Keeper with "I hate" in bold letters on top. By my mid-20s, these playground events no longer had any meaning, but it's funny how the emotions stay fresh long after the context has faded. I was a little bit mortified when I found out he was going to hike with us.

 At the time I hadn't yet ventured into endurance sports, and had real and strong doubts about my ability to crank out a 24-mile hike with 6,000 feet of climbing that was all at the end, in 100-degree temperatures. Dad had been training hard all summer. My life was in a bit of disarray, and I was at the highest weight I've ever been. Even without admitting to my dad just how inadequate my preparations had been, he reminded me about the terrible ramifications — the "mule of shame" — if I couldn't haul myself out of the canyon. It's funny how far determination can take a person. With the dark shadows of my nonathletic childhood trailing me, there was no way I was going to let myself fail this time. When I set foot on the South Rim at the end of a tough but incredible day, I couldn't help but wonder — what other "really hard" things were within my reach?

 Completing a difficult challenge is always rewarding, but what really made that first trip special was spending that time with my dad. We're both verbally reserved, and I think we both struggle with interpersonal communication. The stunning expanse of the Grand Canyon can only open hearts and minds. As I sloughed off childhood hurt, I opened up to my dad about some of my current struggles. I told him I was interviewing for a job and considering relocating to Idaho Falls, by myself, which is something I hadn't even yet admitted to my boyfriend at the time. Looking up from the depths of the canyon, I could visualize the chasms I'd created in my life. I resolved to pursue more openness, less stagnation.

Life didn't really become less volatile as I decided to stay with the boyfriend and move to Alaska the following year. I moved 3,000 miles away and started a new job just one month before the trip, but I wasn't about to pass up another Grand Canyon hike with my dad. It continued that way for years, even as my life lurched and shifted directions with the wind. Fall Grand Canyon was one anchor of familiarity that helped keep me from going completely adrift. All the years I was in Alaska, I never went home for Christmas, but I was back in Utah every year for Fall Grand Canyon. It's my favorite tradition.

Now it's been a few years since I've been back, at least to the depths of the canyon. In 2013, a government shutdown prevented us from entering the national park. In 2014, I'd torn a ligament in my knee and couldn't hike, so instead did the drive-around with my mom, who joins every year to support the crossing. This year, my dad proposed a rim-to-rim-to-rim, hiking north to south one day and then back, south to north, the next. I suppose one might argue that a true R2R2R must be done in a day, so this is more like a back-to-back R2R. I'd still never completed the out-and-back, and was excited to see the canyon from both directions in the same weekend.

 Dad always invites his hiking buddies, and this year we were joined by his friend Raj. Another friend, Tom, was forced by injury to decline at the last minute. When Tom found out that the weather forecast called for temperatures in the 100s that weekend, he said to my dad in a prophetic tone: "May you rise like a golden biscuit from the oven floor to the canyon rim." We got a lot of laughs out of that statement. Dad immortalized Tom's words on the message board at the Manzanita rest area on the North Kaibab Trail.

 Another tradition of Fall Grand Canyon is the side-trip to Ribbon Falls for a snack and a light shower. The canyon had already cranked on the oven, so it's a welcome respite.

 Looking through Ribbon Falls toward the canyon. I have no doubt I've posted a set of very similar photographs on my blog before. I don't care; this is my blog.

We crossed the Colorado River on the "Silver Bridge," which leads to the Bright Angel Trail. There's another pedestrian bridge across the river just a quarter mile away. The "Black Bridge" leads to the South Kaibab Trail, which is shorter but has no water sources along its length, making for a tough climb when temperatures are in the 90s. Besides these two bridges, the only span across the Grand Canyon is the Navajo Bridge on U.S. Route 89A at Lee's Ferry. (The Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam bridges are technically outside the canyon.) This is why my mother has to drive for four hours just to link up a 24-mile hike. (Thanks, Mom!) One of my favorite rim-to-rim accounts, from another family who has this annual tradition, is by a woman who accidentally took a different bridge than her companions in 2012. I was telling my dad about this hilarious blog post, so here's the link: Rim-to-Rim, A Tragecomedy.

 The classic trail sign at Indian Gardens, warning people not to descend any further lest they become thirsty and dizzy and die. Although temperatures didn't quite reach the forecasted 100s, I thought it was plenty hot on this day, and this is about the point where I ran out of ice. (I always haul a ton of ice on hot-weather outings, if I can. Worth it.)

 Evening light and dusty haze on the South Rim. Hiking into the canyon is a worthwhile experience, but you really can't beat the views from just a few meters off the main road.

 We were up bright and early the following morning to hike the South Kaibab Trail back into the canyon. Dad had some foot pain — I offered up Beat's magic lube as a remedy — and otherwise wasn't worse for the wear on the second day.

 Raj decided he wanted to try running rim to rim, so it was just me and Dad on Saturday. At the trailhead, we were approached by a group of volunteers from the University of New Mexico who were conducting a study of rim-to-rim hikers and runners. They were gathering data such as before and after body weight, blood oxygen levels, water intake, and calorie consumption, in an effort to gain more insight into hyponatremia and other maladies that make hikers and runners ill. We agreed, but ten minutes of questioning threw off our purposeful schedule, and we ended up behind both a full bus of people and a mule train. Doh.

 The South Kaibab switchbacks. Similar to the Bright Angel and North Kaibab Trails, this trail is an engineering marvel and a thing of beauty, turning rather rugged and exposed terrain into an easy walk. It gets a little crowded sometimes, but I don't think anyone can complain about such a unique opportunity.

 We took a leisurely break at Phantom Ranch for a morning "lemmy" (a glass of iced lemonade. These were one dollar on my first rim-to-rim hike, and now cost three dollars.) I purchased two more refills of just ice to top off my three-liter bladder. We took another break for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, collecting our trash in a plastic bag for the study. (I ate two fruit snacks, one granola bar, one pita bread with Nutella, 10 ounces of lemonade, three ounces of saltine crackers, three ounces of tuna, and a handful of nuts for our S-N hike. Plus about 3 liters of water, total.) I thought about the ways this journey has changed for me since 2004. It's no longer this arduous, intimidating thing — actually, it's become rather relaxing, strolling through this gorgeous canyon on such a well-built, nicely graded trail. Sure, there's a 6,000-foot climb, but only one. It's so ingrained into my muscle memory that my legs no longer become tired or sore. I'm not trying to brag by calling the rim-to-rim hike easy, just making a personal observation about the ways perspectives change with experience. And still this is every bit as enjoyable, every bit as incredible, and still something I'd love to do again and again.

 It's also interesting to observe how strong my dad has become. He's always been strong, but he seems to only get stronger. I almost forget that he's 62 years old — out on the trail we're so evenly matched that my youth and even my ultra-running experience don't give me much of an advantage. We kept a steady, fast pace on the 4,000-foot, five-mile climb from Manzanita rest area to the rim, enough so that we passed a few trail runners who we watched fly past us earlier. Dad jokes about his senior citizen status, but it's not too much of a stretch to imagine us doing this together 15 years from now, when I'm the age Dad was when we first started our Fall Grand Canyon tradition, and Dad is nearing 80.

It's a beautiful dream. I hope it comes true. 


  1.'s still an RTRTR in my opinion.We are backpacking it in December and taking, gasp, five nights. Because we can. Still calling it a rim to rim. Your dad sounds awesome.

    1. Five days during the winter would be fantastic. My dad and I would like to try an overnight at Bright Angel Campground one of these years, but as I'm sure you know it's not trivial to reserve a campsite during the peak season.

  2. I love that you still do this with your dad :) We're hoping to run R2R2R this spring, if scheduling allows. I flipping love that place.

  3. Beautiful post, in both words and pictures! Except the snake picture.

    1. Thanks! I believe that's a Kingsnake. Nonvenomous, but beautiful.

  4. Shit, I take a mechanical detour anytime I can, it's not shameful. I still wish I'd ridden a horse out of the Grand Canyon; there was nothing for me to prove by hiking and I regret not taking the chance to ride a cool horse for ten miles of desert. If I ever go back, I'm going to do it that way.

    Anyway, I really don't like the whole idea of "shaming" someone for getting tired, hot, cold, or whatever have you. There's nothing behind that but ego. I think taking the easier way out when things get dire is just plain smart and I admire it. I always think the people who hobble and limp their way out, when there's another option available, just to prove something to a world that doesn't really care are simply foolish.

    1. I've heard the unplanned mule rides cost more than $1,000. And those are just for non-emergencies; the helicopter ride is $3,000. "Mule of shame" is just a humorous expression; I doubt ego is the main motivator for those who choose not to drop four figures on that option.

  5. you're lucky to have such great active parents... some don't have that... grateful you must be to have such a great active dad. Use every second of it.
    I try to do the same with my kids, I hope one day they appreciate the fact I still take them biking, to events such as golfing etc... its so easy for dads just to give up and sit at the couch all day long watching the mindless tv ettc... my dad did that when past 40 years old. I don't ever want to fall into that trap...

  6. Sweet trip report Jill. Congratulations on your first rim2rim2rim and a continuing tradition with your Dad. I hope it continues long into the future.

  7. I loved reading this! (I have a picture from the weekend before of that message board. :)) And I love hearing that after doing it so many times it's still magical to you. I've only done it twice, and I've been wondering if I should move on to something else, because it is so much work to prepare for and what if it bores me next time? That would be such a tragedy, right? To be bored of the Grand Canyon? But I think you're right. I think it never will. Next time I'm determined to talk my oldest son into it. I know he'll find it magical, too. And then we can continue the 'tradition' for the next generation!

  8. I'm embarrassed living this close to the Grand Canyon that I've only hit the touristy spots and never gone inside the Big Ditch. Doing a R2R or R2R2R is high on my To-Do list. Great write up and pictures!

  9. Great post. We were down there doing R2R the same weekend. I hung out with your mom - and my have given her a few Fireball Shots while we waited for you to ascend. Great job!

  10. I love posts like this! Thanks for sharing the details and great photos! Posts like yours inspire me to hike R2R someday. I've talked it up with my husband and his sister and, surprisingly, I think they're actually considering hiking it with me someday... Hoping, hoping!

  11. Excellent post. this is called beauty of nature and it is very good to enjoy this beauty of nature and backpacking in this place is a beautiful experience.

  12. What a coincidence! My running buddy and I were there Sept 25 doing a "South Rim 2 Ribbon Falls and Back" cause it was just too hot at 100+F to run R2R2R. You get the award for most "arresting" snake in the canyon photo. Someday I hope we cross paths with you and your dad on the trail. Until then keep writing more awesome, soul validating and inspiring blogs.

  13. i'm so envious of you have an amazing trip, the views are so gorgeous !!!


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