Age is just a number. That’s what we like to say, and so it is. Just a number. A reckoning of the years we’ve walked the earth. Nothing more.
And yet it is more.
As that number that defines our accumulated years ticks up, another number is ticking down. And there are moments in our lives where that becomes just a little more real. Turning 50 was one of those moments for me. I’ve been setting hard goals and pushing toward them since that particular number cast its round shadow on me a couple of years ago.
My Grand Canyon goal followed closely on the heels of 50. A group of my friends was planning a rim to rim hike for October, 2016. It was a diverse group. Several of them had already done it and others were attempting it for the first time. It was exactly the sort of experience I wanted to add to my list. My son, Connor, 21 at the time, jumped on board. He loves outdoor activities and this was right up his alley...a mother/son activity we could both get behind.
I began training...Jazzercise, long hikes in Red River Gorge, endless stairs...and then, unexpectedly, in July, 2016, my son tore his ACL in a simple game of pick-up basketball at the park. Even with immediate surgery and rehab, there was no way he would be ready to make the strenuous hike by October. He was devastated, and there was no way I was leaving him behind. But that’s how it is with worthy goals. Achieving them isn’t easy, and obstacles have to be overcome.
Our friends went in October, and we cheered them on from Kentucky. We were sad, but we knew the Canyon wasn’t going anywhere, and several members of the group had made this an annual trip. October, 2017 was only a year away.
So we waited, and we kept rehabbing and training.
In spite of my year-long, nagging anxiety that something else would come along and deep-six the trip, October rolled around again, right on time.
The expression on my face here is real euphoria. I was standing on the edge of the Canyon and on the cusp of a bucket-list achievement. Waiting an extra year just made it that much more poignant.
Connor’s euphoria expressed itself differently. He climbed the highest rock like the fearless soul he is and surveyed the world he was about to conquer.
And what a world… This is the North Rim. Far fewer people visit this side of the Grand Canyon. It’s harder to get to and is without the tourist trappings of the more-popular South Rim.
The closest convenience store is 20 miles away. There is one lodge with rustic cabin rentals.
…reflecting off the back of the lodge…
…and reflecting off our faces.
We spent a chilly and restless night in our cabin. The temps dropped down into the 30s overnight, but the challenge of the morning is what kept our brains turning in circles.
We gathered at the North Kaibab Trailhead, took a group pic and hit the trail by 6:00am.
And that was the last I saw of several of my hiking buddies until dinner that night on the South Rim. Connor, his girlfriend, Kirsten, and her mom, Megann took off like a shot while I was still adjusting my gear, but it was all good. Everyone had to find their own pace.
I spent the first twenty minutes or so alone on the trail. Ironic, as it turned out. I spent the last dark hour alone on the trail as well. The sun rose quickly over the Canyon and it was stunning in the early morning light.
I stopped to put my headlamp away and several of my friends caught up with me. We hiked together for the next 18 miles or so. Each pic marks our progress from the North Rim and into the Canyon.
The first five miles are a serious descent. Generally, I’m completely phobic of open heights, but it was so incredibly beautiful, that even my fear was overwhelmed.
Every time, we turned a corner, I gasped.
When you reach the Manzanita Rest Area, it starts to level out some. I need to take a minute and give a huge shout-out to the National Park Service. The trails are well-maintained and the facilities at the rest stops are meticulously clean, much cleaner than some high school bathrooms I’ve seen. Potable water is available all along the way at these stops, and while you still have to be cognizant of your supply, you never go more than 7 miles without a water stop. By the way, this is why we went in October. The temperature still varied from 35 on the North Rim to 88 at Phantom Ranch, but it didn’t get close to the mid-summer highs in the 100s.
My shoes were awesome. Another big shout-out to the gentleman at J&H Landmark Outdoors store in Lexington. He measured my feet and recommended my shoes and what seemed, at the time, like exorbitantly priced inserts. Worth. Every. Penny. Other than the simple pain of pounding the ground for 24 miles, I had zero foot issues. Most of my compatriots had blisters, and at least one lost both big toenails.
The next 9 miles were my favorite of the hike. Our steep descent was down a finger called Roaring Springs Canyon, but for this particular leg, we were on a long, sloping descent down Bright Angel Canyon which stems off the main Canyon with the Colorado River. It was straight up gorgeous.
Check out the old-fashioned telephone lines. They are part of the National Historic Registry and can't be removed.
I took a lot of pics of rocks, but they were really amazing rocks. This one looks like a face.
And this one, like a Greek temple on Mt. Olympus.
Connor was the only member of our group to take a side trip a half mile off the main trail to Ribbon Falls.
The upside was that I did see him on the trail when he popped up over a ridge, moving fast to catch up with Kirsten and Megann. He was made for this place. I’ve never seen him more in his element.
When we got to the section of the Canyon known as The Box, we imagined that we were in The Lord of the Rings. We also decided that there were not enough female characters in that story. (Your conversation spans a wide range of topics over the course of 13 hours.)
We saw a really cool snake here as well. Google told us later that it was a King Snake, not venomous, and the kind that eats the ones who are. I like this guy.
Phantom Ranch is at the end of this leg of the journey.
This is 14 miles from where we started on the North Rim. We ate a sack lunch that we ordered in advance. It was all prepackaged food, but let me tell you, a little roll of beef summer sausage never tasted so good. I was also able to take off my shoes, wash my feet with baby wipes, and put on a clean pair of socks, a little thing that made a huge difference in looking ahead at the next 10 miles, most of which were up.
We passed a mule train in the corral as we were leaving Phantom Ranch. Part of the group passed them on the way down and had to step aside. My little group just had to dodge mule poop, and there was a lot of it to dodge.
Fifteen miles into the hike, we finally saw the Colorado River.
The footbridge was cool, although several members of the group were freaked out by its side-to-side sway. My fear was that I would drop my phone through the metal grating, so I held it with an iron grip as I took these pics.
We gained a little elevation as we followed the river for a mile.
And then shit got real.
7.8 miles to the South Rim, all up.
And more Switchbacks…
I really hate switchbacks. I took several pics looking down and backwards at this point because it was more encouraging to see how far I’d come than to look ahead at how far I had to go.
This may be the funniest informational sign I’ve ever seen. It’s in four languages. A reminder that only the most fit and most prepared should attempt to go to the river and back in one day. Mind you, I had come almost 20 miles across at this point, so it was timely.
Indian Gardens is the last major stop on the way to the top. 4.5 miles to go. Again with the signage… Aggressive squirrels are a problem when people continue to feed them in spite of the warnings.
I’d begun to pull away from my group before Indian Gardens. My natural uphill pace was a little faster than theirs and I wasn’t leaving anyone by themselves. Except myself. And that didn’t seem like a problem…at least not immediately.
Being by myself was fine at first, even nice. I was pushing ahead hard at my own pace. My legs were feeling strong and I was making progress. Another shout-out here… Jazzercise strength training… For those not in the know, it’s not what you think. We don’t prance around in leggings and leotards… It’s real and hard core and my legs were ready for this hike.
So no, my legs were never the problem. It was my head. I made several mistakes. The biggest one, other than going it alone, was that I quit hydrating properly. I didn’t use a camelback (I will next time), and getting to my water required me to stop and either take off my backpack or reach around uncomfortably to the side pocket. That became more effort than it was worth.
I was driven. I just wanted to finish. I quit taking breaks. Stopping was a pain in the ass anyway. Getting back up after I sat down was becoming too hard, and the weight of my pack was starting to sit heavy on my lower back. So I didn’t stop.
This was the last pic I took in the Canyon. The sun was setting, and the light was beautiful. I was leaning against the cliff face behind me, reminding myself that I had made it 22 miles at that point. Two more miles were nothing. I walk my dog at least three every day of my life. Piece of cake.
It wasn’t cake. It was arduous and dark and scary. I waited too long to put my headlamp back on because I was in serious denial, and then I struggled to find it on the dark. A group of ladies I didn’t know came up behind me and used their headlamps to help me find it. I might have stayed with them, except they slowed to a crawl as we moved up the steep cliff face, so I went on ahead.
At one point, I heard rustling up ahead of me, and when I raised my head to point my headlamp in that direction, a big-horned sheep crossed the trail 10 feet in front of me. Kirsten took this pic before it got dark.
I don’t know if it was the same guy or not, but it certainly sent a shot of adrenaline through me as I imagined him butting me off the cliff. He went on his way, probably rolling his eyes at the stupid human gasping up the trail.
It's hard to describe what happened in my head on that last mile or so. It was getting colder, and the wind was kicking dust in swirls around me. I swallowed enough of it that I started coughing immediately, and then developed acute bronchitis shortly after returning home. The ache in my feet and back was becoming more pronounced.
The physical discomfort was definitely wearing on me, but it was the abyss looming two feet to my left that did the biggest number on my psyche. I could feel the drop-off pressing against me like the gaping maw of hell. I hugged the wall, trying not to think of the snake and the lizards I had seen crawling all over the walls earlier that day. I kept my headlamp pointed down on the ground in front of me, and I kept my legs moving.
That strategy finally paid off. At some point, I could see the lights of the Visitor’s Center on the rim, and even though it seemed like they weren’t getting closer, they did. Cell service returned during this stretch as well. My phone started buzzing like a swarm of bees in my pocket. I pulled it out and saw that I had missed 63 text messages and several calls. I shoved it right back into my pocket until I stepped over the rim. Texting while standing on the edge of space is not in my skill set.
In spite of the drama and trauma of the last miles, my only regret is that I finished alone. I can become single-minded and driven in a way that some might call obsessive (just ask my husband), and I let that cheat me out of the experience of stepping out of the Canyon with another person and sharing that moment.
But I did share the moment shortly thereafter. Our intrepid driver, Sonya, found me in the dark and reunited me with my family. And the next morning, we all celebrated together.
My ever-supportive husband secretly sent medals with Megann, and she awarded them to us in the morning. He later tried to apologize for the cheesiness of them, but I didn’t consider my medal remotely cheesy. I earned it, and I appreciated the acknowledgement.
And forgive me the brag, but I suspect it will be a minute before my Fitbit reads like this again, and anyone who is a slave to that little piece of plastic on his or her arm will totally get it.
I don’t know what the next thing out there on the horizon is yet, but what I know for sure, is that there will be something. One number is ticking up, and another is ticking down, and I’m going to live.