I’m getting over the flu and a ridiculous cough, Kam has been imitating a bronchial seizure for months and John was actively not being active, so we decided it was time to slog across the Grand Canyon again. Honestly, it was just time to get away from work and daily life to go somewhere beautiful.
We arranged to meet John at a Park & Ride in Riverside that ended up looking like a good place for a gang war or a discrete biological weapons lab, but not such a good place to leave a car you wanted to be there when you got back. So after driving hours in traffic we elected to drop John’s car in Palm Springs and head out the 10 before going north. I only mention this because it reflects the extraordinary level of planning we put into these trips, or at least the extraordinary level of enthusiasm we bring to not planning anything, ever. It’s more exciting that way.
After leaving San Diego at just before 6 pm, meeting John at around 7:45 pm, we did some drivin’ and arrived at the South Kaibab trailhead at 3:15 am. I had not slept more than 30 min, John maybe two hours, but to her credit Kam had sacked out in the backseat and slept like a baby. This I mention because she was exceptionally pleasant the entire hike, while I was grumpy as Donald Trump when Twitter’s down. John was, of course, John. He’s like a physical constant; he just is. And what he is is awesome, even when he’s not, which is a real talent. Just sayin’.
We started down the trail at exactly 3:45 am. It was about 35 degrees at the rim with bright stars in a velvety black sky. We were going hike 21 miles down the South Kaibab, across the Colorado River, and up the North Kaibab to the North rim and back again, totaling 42 miles — the shortest way to do the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim (R2R2R). Other than that, our plans were just to look at the pretty rocks and not be at work.
Things we always forget about the South Kaibab at night: (a) it’s dusty as all get out, and you can always (and I do mean always) see a haze of dull brown pulverized dirt hovering in Brownian suspension right in front of your face just before you inhale some long eroded part of the canyon wall (b) the dust is monochromatic and coats the trail so effectively that the flat light from you headlamps makes judging distance and footing almost impossible and you’re constantly twisting your ankles (c) the entire trail is basically long-spaced mule stairs with hollowed out ruts that make it impossible to keep a regular hiking or running cadence even if you can dodge the mule poop (d) there are a trillion of these stairs (counted and certified by Price Waterhouse) and (e) it’s still beautiful to feel the vast emptiness around you. And sometimes, deer come out of nowhere and scare the hell out of you. It’s great.
Seven miles to Phantom Ranch just north of the river, where we refilled on water and ate a little breakfast just after dawn. Seven more miles through the box to Cottonwood Campground (where the water was on), interrupted only by overflow from Bright Angel Creek that raced across the trail in a thick brown torrent. Another mile or so to Manzanita Rest Area (previously known as the Pumphouse or Pump House or Chez Pump) where we refilled our water bladders and ate some more. And then the slog began up toward the North Rim, which is the hardest, most beautiful and my favorite part of the hike.
Bright Angel Creek is spawned by a spring that bursts from below the redwall just northwest of the pump house. Normally, there is one clear, steady rapid that provides clean water for the entire canyon. Now, there were seven distinct dirty yellow falls tumbling down the lower canyon and into the creek below. I’ve never seen it flow like that before or that jaundiced color. It was almost like the snowpack was forcing water through the porous rock too fast to properly filter and clean.
All along the trail, other waterfalls rained down from melting snowpack higher up the canyon walls. On a hot day, there was an abundance of water. Strange to think that in a few weeks all the snow and most of the water will be gone, and the canyon will turn into a deadly brick oven.
John slowed down on the way up, a bit more than normal, but there was no rush. We were passed by a nice woman on her own heading up to the North Rim for a dayhike from Phantom Ranch. She was rocking some sassy knee band-aids, so we’ll call her Bandages. Next, we were passed by a dude in all black and knee braces, so we’ll call him The Ninja. Then three jaunty ultra runners with no packs, very little water and way too much energy that we’ll call The Motherf***ers. Kidding. They seemed very nice.
Somewhere in here John admitted that I was right about something. It’s written down now, buddy, so you can’t take it back. I. Was. Right. I don’t remember what it was, but I nailed it.
After dodging through some brisk waterfalls and taking a nice rest above the Supai Tunnel, we encountered the first patches of soft, wet snow but we never needed trekking spikes. At the North Rim, there were several feet of lumpy, fast melting snowpack, but it was still warm enough for shorts and t-shirts. Bandages and the non-MFs passed us on the way back down before we topped out, but The Ninja was at the trailhead waiting for a buddy that was way, way behind him. Way.
We sat. We ate. We groaned a bit. A girl we’ll call Jaunty McJaunty Shorts (JMJS) showed up a few minutes later looking way too fresh and energetic. She somehow managed to convey in a few seconds that she’d never been there before, she had gotten there in only eight hours (a fairly good run-hiking time) and her husband (Mr. JMJS) was lagging somewhere behind her. Apparently, he was not an uphill kinda guy.
As we started down, we ran into The Ninja’s long-lost companion, a nice guy on the fluffier side (not judging; it just makes the hike harder) who looked more than a wee bit winded. Considering that they were doing the longest R2R2R (46 miles via Bright Angel vs. South Kaibab both ways), it was going to be a long day for them. We didn’t see them again that day, but as we later slogged up with South Kaibab, I hoped they had found some secret energy store and were already powering beers at the Bright Angel Lodge.
Mr. & Mrs. JMJS caught up to us just about the tunnel. They asked about BA vs. SK again (it was an ongoing debate and I’m not sure why, as they were parked at BA, but I guess she was more comfortable going back up the way they came), and I recommended BA again because, well, car. Ending up at SK trailhead in the middle of the night without a ride sucks, not to mention the trillion stairs of doom you have to climb to get there. Then she said something about toe socks, stopped, and disappeared behind us.
At the pumphouse we refilled various empty things and emptied some full things and suddenly La Familia JMJS was back. They did a far more efficient pit stop and took off ahead of us. Señor JMJS looked a bit shell-shocked. Apparently he had bad knees, and wasn’t a downhill kinda guy.
Somewhere in here John may have admitted I was right about a second thing, possibly related to “7 billion people who comprise the dominant species on a planet to which we owe a debt of stewardship” and “beavering” but that just doesn’t sound right so I may have been hallucinating.
We caught up to Bandages at Cottonwood, and she stayed with us until the creek crossing where we momentarily caught up to JMJS and then set the all-time record for stream crossing sloth. Apparently not taking our shoes off the first crossing had resulted in all manner of blistering and hot spotting and general foot dismay. So of course we had to carefully examine our smelly feet for a prolonged time, during which time a large portion of the canyon eroded (denuded, technically) and washed down the stream next to us. Bandages & JMJS were long gone. We never saw Bandages again. I never did figure out what she’d done to her knees, but they did not slow her down.
After Cottonwood, we got our fast march on, caught up to JMJS Inc., lost them again somehow I can’t remember, and were soon doing a militaristic synchronized power walk through The Box. The sun started to fade and we caught up to Herr JMJS again (Frau JMJJS, which I think is now politically incorrect, was a bit ahead of him as always). We asked how he was doing and he said, “slow,” but he said it with a smile, so there was till hope for the marriage.
When we caught up to JMJS herself, she asked about BA vs SK again and she said something about not being comfortable alone out there. I think what she meant was that she was worried about ascending a new trail (BA) in the dark, but it was hard to tell. We honestly got a bit worried about them, but they said they were fine so we marched onward into the narrowing, dusky canyon. At one point, I looked back and there was a weird tall shadow behind Kam. I did a double-take, looked again in the gathering dark, and realized it was JMJS marching right along with us. Her husband was nowhere to be seen. She dropped back immediately — Kam heard her call her husband’s name — and vanished into the darkness. Kinda freaked me out.
After the interminable final portion of The Box, we arrived at Phantom in the dark to find a dozen or more people waiting outside the closed store for beer or other goodies. Inside, I assume bandages was finishing dinner. Team JMJS showed up a few minutes later, did a power transition, and took off toward BA. We stayed just long enough to stiffen up and put too many electrolytes in my water. I was also oddly sleepy. It was as if I hadn’t slept in days. Weird.
The hike up did not start well. Oh, wait, we had our final meeting the the Autonomous Social Collective JMJS. They were putting on mole skin at the trail junction sign by the Bright Angel Campground. I tried to imagine how they would tell this story to their kids. I wondered if they were ever hike together again. I wished I felt as energetic as she looked. Honestly, I was going to miss them.
Then the hike up did its not-so-well starting. Normally, and yes we’ve done this exact same nonsense enough times for there to be a normal, John gets a second wind on the Black Bridge (isn’t that a Led Zeppelin song?) and blasts up toward the Tonto a powerful little engine that can. But this time he, well, got slower. And slower. And stopped. He said something about his stomach. He sat down. I did some mental calculations. We might get back to the car at dawn. I tried to imagine driving back to San Diego after this hike without any sleep or a shower. The smell alone would probably kill us. I’d have to burn the car.
John stood up, walked a little, swore a lot and then sat down again. I wondered if you could bivy in the Grand Canyon without being eaten alive by the cliff squirrels. I could feel myself losing my sense of balance as my brain tried to sleep as I stood there. Stupid brain. My stomach said something gassy and nauseating. Stupid stomach. I wondered how The Ninja and Fluffy were doing. I inhaled some dust. Kam looked passively up at the night sky as the earth turned. You remember the seen in Contact when they’re going out into space and they just go on and on and on and on and you want to kill yourself? It was a bit like that. Stupid Jodie Foster.
John took a salt pill, and just like that, he was cured.
Well, if not cured, at least capable of walking. Every step involve a lot of grimacing, grunting, swearing, muttering and something that sounded like a curse on my unborn children. But he kept moving and gradually, almost imperceptibly, the canyon released us up into the cool night air of the South Rim. Where it was again about 35 degrees, the stars were painfully bright and it felt great just to be alive. Except for the smell. Dear lord.
On a side note, John’s socks somehow made it into our hermetically sealed laundry bag of smelly death and thus back to our condo and our washing machine. Well played, John. Well played.
But I was still right about all the beavering. It’s got to stop.