Shivering in the predawn chill, wind whistling around the top of the North Kaibab Trailhead, we shuffle our feet as we wait for all to assemble before heading down into the depths. To the north, two bright planets hang just below the moon, which was full only three nights ago.
We have been friends for more than 30 years – all of us worked on the North Rim in the 1970’s. We try to get together every now and again. We decided we should do this rim-to-rim now, since we all still can. None of us had slept well – the excitement of seeing each other, catching up with old friends, and organizing our gear. We attempted vainly to sleep, thinking of the arduous days ahead, listening to the wind toss the tall ponderosas of the North Rim outside our Western log cabin.
Finally we start down the trail, our headlamps bobbing in the darkness, swaying from side to side as we use our feet to Braille our way down the trail. Soon ambient light filters in, trailside boulders emerge from the dark, soft sunlight touches the cliffs above. We are amazed to see cliffs above us, having forgotten how quickly the North Kaibab drops in elevation. At Supai Tunnel, layers of warm clothes are stripped away. Our party spreads out, two apparently with rockets in their socks, never to be seen again until Phantom. The other three remain within visual range behind me, shouting halloos and waving all the way down the switchbacks. But at the bottom of Roaring Springs Canyon, I am suddenly alone. What a blessing, to be alone in Mother Canyon.
Sounds permeate my being – the gush of Roaring Springs, and the entrance of the Bright Angel Creek. Ravens glide and squawk, their cries echoing off the walls. Roaring Springs is heard long before its white waters burst forth from the side of a cliff on the left of the trail. Canyon wrens practice their downward scales, with little kissing sounds at the end. The Bright Angel becomes one’s constant hiking companion all the way to Phantom Ranch. Hawks whistle, carving arcs in the sky, moving in and out of the side canyons. Soft winds swirl around switchbacks, delightfully cool still. Skittering toenails of lizards scratch at rocks. Rushing by, a tiny one clenches an enormous grasshopper, easily as long as the lizard’s own body, crossways in its jaws. Another one, much larger, has half of a small butterfly dangling from its lips, quickly dispatched with a swipe of its tongue.
Where the lemonade stand used to be, there is now a 2 story, composting toilet. (I recommend the top floor) A water spigot, shade, and even a picnic table and chairs make this too inviting to pass up. I revel in the sound of the creek. It’s so delicious to contemplate getting into it later.
Cottonwood Campground finally comes into view, a relief of lush green after the stark desert above it. It’s the mid-way spot on the North Kaibab – a place to fill up all water containers, douse at the spigot and hit the restrooms. Little campsites nestled between trees create shady spots to hide from the relentless sun. The campground is mostly deserted. Today’s hikers have already left, and tonight’s groups have yet to arrive.
Insects shrill loudly to announce the rising temperatures. Whew, it’s a scorcher out there away from the shade of the trees. I spend some time at Ribbons Falls. What a treat to hear such flagrant spewing of water in the burning desert. Life comes down to its essentials here. Need more sunscreen. Keep sipping that water. Keep nibbling -it’s time to eat more. And, TRUE salvation is to shimmy into a sopping wet T-shirt fresh from the Bright Angel Creek. Ahhhhh. To hear the creek running beside the trail helps with the illusion of coolness. The creek shows the power of water, the carving out of its banks, the rolling of huge boulders. Amazing to look into its crystalline waters and see individual rocks – shiny, rounded, colorful varieties, all with their own stories to tell about where their lives began and how they arrived at this place in the creek. And then, to immerse in it, cool water sluicing down my body as the creek speedily makes its way downhill – wow. Such a simple gift – cool water in the desert.
The gift of hiking alone in the canyon is it frees the mind to engage in philosophical thinking. Before the questions are fully formed, the canyon often provides me with answers. My life seems so much clearer when stripped down to its bones here. “Leave it as it is, man can only mar it,” Theodore Roosevelt said of the Grand Canyon. And this is why. There must be a place where we can go to clean out our mind, gather our thoughts and prepare to cope with that other world out there, not the real one here that we’re hiking through.
It’s so hot in the Box. Every scrap of shade is lingered in and appreciated. Every rock I try to sit on has recently been exposed to the sun, too burning hot to remain seated. I slog onward, thinking becoming slightly muddled, and somewhat surreal. Waves of heat rise and engulf me like a public bathroom electric hand dryer. I look up at exactly the right moment to see Phantom Rock, bigger somehow than I remember, as if someone had gone up there and shoved rocks under the base to make the pedestal taller. Within 500 yards it’s vanished behind the taller cliffs.
The delta to Phantom Creek is much larger than I remember, dark brown sandy beach dotted with creek rocks and strewn with huge cottonwood logs. I pause to contemplate the size of such a flood necessary to move this tremendous amount of debris. I’m suddenly grateful for this hot, sunny day with no chance of thunderstorms.
Arriving at the Ranch, I fling off my pack, quickly change into my bathing suit, trot down the hill and sink into the creek. Ahhhhh. Dragonflies swoop and dive, copper-colored, lacy beings with sentience. The metallic looking head of a dragonfly swivels to watch me groan with pleasure. My body temperature finally drops below 150 degrees, and I start to feel more human than lizard. I’m stiff, but not really sore.
It’s always a surprise to see how much food I can put away after such a long hike. Phantom Ranch food is always delicious, the staff always delightfully friendly. Hikers sit in the cool of the lodge, drink copious amounts of cold water, send postcards, play card games, peruse books about the Grand Canyon, and swap tales from the trails.
On our intervening day off, we play in the waterfall up Phantom Creek. No one in our group had ever been there before, so I lead the way, and promise a great reward for their efforts with their footsore bodies. We all take a turn in the pool and in the waterfall, leaving reluctantly only when the sun starts to bore its way into the narrow slot. A well rehearsed ranger talk helps to while away the afternoon. Evening shadows drape themselves down the canyon walls, but cool air remains elusive. Restless sleep that night, even our dreams are coated with trail dust.
With our all too brief of a sojourn at the Ranch, we take our leave in the relative cool of the early morn. The rest of the group opts for the Bright Angel Trail, while I head to the Black Bridge. A canyon wren serenades me across, accompanied by the powerful roar of the Colorado River. The sound of rushing water follows me up the Inner Gorge, suddenly turned off as if by a switch above the Tip-Off. I pant my way through the Red and Whites, and wonder if the Trail Crew has played a cruel trick on me, adding several more switchbacks in my absence. Topping out at Skeleton Point, I greedily suck my boxed juice, the nectar a delightful shock to my parched throat. I sit by the rock that affords that final view of the river and the Ranch, the campground still enveloped in shade. It’s pleasant to be on the South Kaibab where I know every twist and turn, every opportunity for shade. The packer who had passed me going down in the Inner Gorge now passes me again, making much better time than I. Heart Attack Hill finds me pulling over again for the dude mule string, this time including fun interplay with a rider who has his bandana pulled over his nose and mouth. I put up my hands, in the classic hold-up position, and he demands my watch and ring. I wasn’t wearing a watch, and refused to give up my wedding rings. He tries to hold me up again when they pass me above Cedar Ridge, but states that he doesn’t do as well when he tries to hold up the same person for a second time.
Cedar Ridge boasted two friendly PSAR volunteers who squirt me with their spray bottle. OOOOh, what a thrill to have water dribbling down my hair, face and neck. With a damp T-shirt, I know I can make it now. Trail Crew is banging away at rocks on Windy Ridge. Never mess with anyone who breaks rocks for a living. I’m trudging now, resenting the fresh, crisp day hikers, with their drinks in cups still clinking with ice. They don’t even know where Phantom Ranch is, have no concept of the magnitude of hiking I’ve done. Rumbles issue from clouds forming on the South Rim. I catch lightning strikes out of the corner of my eye on the North Rim. Cloud cover finally coalesces, providing shade on Switchback #3 in the Chimney. Staggering to the top, I see a group of Japanese tourists crowded around their guide, uttering sharp exclamations as they try to comprehend the canyon’s statistics. An American couple sees my disheveled condition and asks me how far I hiked. I glance back at the canyon, my hand flung toward the North Rim. “All the way across, through the heart of the canyon,” I tell them.
And I still have all Her gifts, right here in my heart.