Sunday, October 06, 2019

Lucky 13

Dad and I first crossed the Grand Canyon together in 2004, when I was 25 and he was 51 years old. In one of those mundane yet still-jarring realizations, I acknowledged that someday, not all that long from now, I'll be the same age as he was then ... if I'm lucky. If I'm even luckier, we may still be planning a fall Grand Canyon crossing for that year. It's not outside the realm of possibility. Although he has his share of somewhat odd health setbacks and accident-related injuries — a genetic legacy I reluctantly carry — he seems as likely to become a spry 77-year-old as I am a capable 51-year-old. And I really want this tradition to continue. It doesn't get old — gazing across the Grand Canyon, or crossing its main corridor on an always-unpredictable autumn day with my dad.

It goes without saying, how much I admire my dad, but I'm not sure I've really said it here before. He raised three girls, working hard for a single-income household so my mom could stay at home. We enjoyed an idyllic childhood with lots of love and regular family vacations and important traditions. Things have never been all that difficult or contentious in our immediate family, even when I made a choice to diverge from some of those traditions. For this I am grateful. Dad was always athletic, but he picked up hiking in force when I was 13 or 14 years old, which would have made him about my age now, 40. I wasn't yet 15 when he started inviting me to join his hiking group on shorter jaunts, and about to turn 16 when he accompanied me up my first big mountain, Timpanogos. I remember having the sorest legs and terrible heel blisters, but it was a formative experience — one of a handful of truly life-changing moments I count from my youth.

Dad was able to retire a few years back, and some people close to him questioned how someone so healthy and relatively young could step away from his career. What was he going to do for the rest of his life? His reply — "What I want to do." I think I admire him most for this. He doesn't need validation or ambition to stay vibrant. He simply wants to experience life at its brightest edges, and ride the exhilarating waves through every crest and trough. I think it helps that this is all I want from life, too. He worked hard, planned well and earned his freedom to wake up whenever his sleep-challenged body has had enough rest, and set out for a day-long ramble through mountains he has lived near for most of his life.

 As with all traditions, life happens and we've missed some years in the past 15. I crunched the numbers because as usual I'd forgotten but was curious about how many crossings we've shared. Including the doubles of 2015 and 2016, this year was my 13th rim-to-rim with Dad. This was a lower-key year where we'd spend fewer than 24 hours in the park, and cross our favored route from south to north on the Kaibab trails. Because room reservations have become so difficult to obtain, our trip has skewed earlier in recent years, from mid-October to late-September. This usually means hotter weather, and I was braced for the worst, having lost any heat acclimation while in Europe.

 We were joined this year by Chad, one of Dad's original hiking buddies. We set out at first light, in pleasantly mild weather with a temperature near 40 and a light breeze. As rich morning light saturated the layered expanse of sandstone and sky, I smirked at the memory of how unsettled I used to feel while gazing across the chasm. Before our first crossing in 2004, I trained specifically all summer so I'd been in prime condition. I greatly feared the prospect of faltering during the long climb out and disappointing my dad. I barely slept the night before the hike, because I was so nervous. It was a huge undertaking. Now, I'm not even sure I'd rank the rim-to-rim in my top five toughest outings since my birthday fourteeners, six weeks earlier.

Much about this trip has become routine, but the views are still as awe-inspiring as ever. Still, as I was packing my little running vest with minimal supplies, I wavered on bringing my camera. I mean, I love photos, and I take thousands of them even on my most mundane running routes near home. But would I even have anything new to share about the Grand Canyon? This feels like a trail everyone has traveled and views everyone has seen, in locations I've already documented a dozen times now. I tend to forget how special this place is at all times, and how unique every crossing can be.

 On this morning, amid ideal temperatures, all of the confidence of 15 years, and lots of leg pep and energy, the friendly skies opened up for some stunning magic light. Everything felt as perfect as it could possibly be.

 Sadly, about two miles in, there was a bout of bad luck as Chad rolled his ankle and fell forward onto the trail. It's strange, really, that out of a dozen crossings that involve both Dad and myself, there hasn't been an injury on this trip yet. It's even stranger that the first occurrence didn't happen to one of us. Chad is a talented runner and mountaineer who rarely has such mishaps, but he got unlucky. He wrapped his swollen ankle and walked for another quarter mile before deciding his injury was untenable for a full crossing. I was lucky to find the one spot of cell phone reception in the canyon, and was able to get ahold of my mom, who was preparing to drive around to the other side and pick us up. So Chad was able to hike out and get a ride without drama, only disappointment. 

 Dad and I continued deeper into the canyon, where the shadow and light continued to inspire. We didn't do a lot of talking on this year's trip — Dad and I are a lot alike, and if you put the two of us alone together, there probably won't be an overwhelming exchange of spoken words. He seemed as content as I felt, but I did worry that he might be in more pain than he was letting on. For the past few weeks he's experienced sharp pain in his upper leg, near his hamstrings. When Dad complains about pain, I know it's bad, but he claimed he only felt it when bending over or sitting for long periods of time. While hiking, he felt much better. A few days later he would be diagnosed with a bulging disc impacting the nerve in his right leg.

 He's now trying conservative treatments, and hopefully they will work. But a bulging disc can be terribly painful; it's impressive he managed a Grand Canyon crossing with this issue. I thought back to something Dad shared with me while I was still in high school, about meeting a 68-year-old man on the knife ridge below the Pfeifferhorn in the Wasatch Mountains. He marveled at the man's strength and hoped he could still move so well at that age. At the time I could not picture my dad as a 68-year-old man. It really won't be long, now.

 Dad's nerve pain seemed to stay away, and we moved at a steady clip past Phantom Ranch and through the box canyon towering over Bright Angel Creek. Even on cool days, this spot is often an oven. But the morning cloud cover remained, and temperatures stayed stunningly mild for September. I don't think it was ever much hotter than 70 degrees.

We planned our usual lunch spot at Ribbon Falls, a mile-long diversion from the main trail. Signs at Phantom Ranch indicated the bridge was out, so we cut across the canyon early and made our way through a tangle of tamarisk and the creek crossing. My Dad and I make a humorous team when it comes to off-trail navigating, but he found a way across and did not get his feet wet. I was not so lucky, but then again I was mostly worried about falling on my bad wrist, so I was not really trying.

 The sun stayed away for most of the day, but it came out briefly at lunch time, just long enough to provide a warm spot to sit on the rocks beside the falls, and enjoy the sparkle of cascading water over brilliant green moss.

 We continued up the canyon and caught a view of the broken foot bridge. It was really broken. I couldn't fathom the kind of flash flooding that would have to occur to cause that amount of damage to a sturdy bridge that had been in place for years, well before my first trip down the Canyon. I wondered if anyone was around to see it happen.

 Then it was just up and up and up, on this perfectly cool afternoon with continuing beautiful light at a relaxed but steady clip. We speculated on our fastest crossing, so of course I went home and combed through past data. This was our second-fastest trip since I started Strava'ing (2011), with a moving time of 7:31. Our fastest was the second crossing in 2016, but that included no faffing around to cross the stream or a side trip to Ribbon Falls. I have my good years and not-so-good years, but Dad seems to only become stronger — especially now that he spends so much of his time hiking. Someday we may end up on a R2R2R "run" of this canyon, but I mostly doubt it. Dad seems to be all about the love and the enjoyment, with only the tiniest bit of pride about performance. I think his friend Chad nearly has him talked into a 50K, though.

One of my favorite aspects of traditions is the way time seems to stand still within them. Here in the Grand Canyon, surrounded by the expanse of light and shadow, cliffs carved by millennia and changing before our eyes, I still feel like that 25-year-old in her cotton tank top and New Balance road shoes, eyes wide and heart fluttering. I have no doubt I'll feel the same when I'm 50, if I make it that far. 


  1. So glad to hear you're still doing R2R with your Dad. We did it last year, but this year didn't happen because the kids and their kids had plans and commitments. I'm hopeful for next year though. Your Dad's hiking buddy is smarter than one of my coworkers from years past. He rolled his ankle at about the same point but decided to "tough it out" which had the predictable result of causing the rest of his group to hang back with him until they all struggled out the North side 14 hours later in the pitch dark cold, close to hypothermia. When they got back to the office with their adventure tale, I lit them all up explaining how his selfish actions placed them all at risk.
    Maybe we'll see you at the North Rim again next year.

    1. I agree with you. Such an injury isn't worth the risk when most difficult effort comes at the end, especially when others might need to take on the the responsibility of helping you out. That would be horrifying for me, if I were the injured one. Hope to catch you along the corridor again soon!

  2. I've branched out from the corridor but even so there is something magical about the canyon, even on the trodden trails. I hiked Sk to BA via the Tonto with my dad when he was 70. He can't do it anymore, so cherish those times with yours.

    1. Dad and I had plans to make a couple of loops of new-to-us trails from the South Rim in 2017, but the trip didn't work out that year. Perhaps someday, but I admit I'll miss the corridor, even though I've been through it so many times. This year seemed especially charmed, with perfect weather on a Saturday, and surprisingly uncrowded. We were only passed by 3 runners total! Haha. But I agree with you about cherishing every trip. You never know what the future holds.

  3. "He simply wants to experience life at its brightest edges, and ride the exhilarating waves through every crest and trough."
    Jill Homer

    Thanks for that crystallizing frame of intention for life. Could not agree more! That you can share that with your Dad is a gift.

    Jeff C

  4. What a wonderful tribute to your dad. As our culture slowly loses its adherence to "tradition," it is refreshing to see an outdoor one...still going strong. And that you don't feel pressure to fill the vacuum with "words" speaks volumes of your love for one other.
    Box Canyon

  5. Great story (AGAIN) Jill! I never get tired of your pictures, even if they seem the same as every other year. Gosh, I REALLY need to do this one day! I'd actually love to do the R2R2R (so we park and eventually come back to the car) wouldn't have to be in one day...can you camp down IN the canyon? (as in, R2R2bottom and camp, then back up the next day?) that would be pretty cool if you can. I look to your dad as a real hiking machine! And I think it's very cool he's now retired and doing what he wants now...I can't wait for my time (about 3.5 years and counting). I just don't see how I'd be bored...SO much to do, so little time! I've got a LOT of bike touring and bike-packing on my to-do-list, just need the time (and money). You are very luck to still be able to do this with your dad...enjoy every moment!

    1. You can camp in the canyon, but the spots need to be reserved well in advance — or you need to get lucky with walk-in reservations. I'd like to do that someday, but I also am deterred by the amount of extra planning it will take. One of my dreams is coaxing both of my sisters to join Dad and me on a R2R one of these years. My mom would love to travel down the canyon on a mule. That is admittedly not for me, but perhaps we'll all try to arrange such a family vacation, someday.

  6. I love to read of this tradition that you and your dad have - visiting such a spectacular outdoor place together every year. My dad is in bad shape so reading this made me smile. Keep on having fun with your dad! It sounds like you and he have similar outlooks on life - not too surprising, is it?

  7. I understand the R2R record now stands at 2:39, pretty incomprehensible....


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