Bright Angel Creek Canyon from Rim Trail
Mav at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Leaving Flagstaff

I’m writing today from the library of Northern Arizona University. With my backpack and casual clothes, I pretend that I fit in. But who am I kidding: I’ve barely seen any black folks during this entire excursion, let alone on this campus. Lot of Native Americans though.

Race stuff aside, I’m already missing Flagstaff. It’s another perfect weather day, and the women at the Downtown Diner are as warm as ever. There’s another waitress today that I hadn’t met previously. She too is from Virginia, but Alexandria this time. We gab about her trek here, the relocation of her family and her siblings. “I couldn’t raise my kids there,” she says of metro Washington. I nod, as if I really understand.

Yesterday’s trek back into the Grand Canyon was relaxing. I’d figured out the mile count of the previous day’s hike: 5.7 of the 8 miles of the Rim Trail. No wonder I ached. My knee was throbbing, and I had to stop at a general store in Tusayan to get band-aids for developing blisters. I worried about how I’d hold up for the planned descent into the Canyon. It was an easy excuse to simply sit and read after the long drive while I stretched the leg out.

So that’s what I did for my first hours back on park ground. I sat first at Yavapai Observation Station, reading with the sweep of the Canyon and the beautiful day as my backdrop. A tour of Africans — Kenyans maybe, but I didn’t ask — goes by with their white guide. One of the party gives me a long stare, and I realize that I am drawing attention for simply sitting on my duff rather than peering over the rails into the Canyon like the rest of the tourists. It’s around 12:30, and I’m hungry, so might as well go.

I find a precious parking spot right behind El Tovar. Plenty others decided to eat there too, so it was a half-hour’s wait in the bizarrely decorated hall — an historic hunting lodge with the required mounted animal heads on dark log panels. I’m finally reading Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which my book group took up some months ago. It’s hard for me to tear myself away from it, honestly, so my salad and Indian fry bread / taco salad meal get picked at while I thumb through. (Um, I don’t recommend the apple dessert there. Thick and gummy.)

It’s near 3 p.m., and if I want to do that hike down into the Canyon, I have to let the book go. I shove my book into the trunk of the car, make sure I have two bottles of water and little else to weigh down the backpack, and I head off for the Bright Angel Trailhead.

The information guide states that hikers should plan two times the amount of time going down into the canyon for the return climb. I know that there is a rest house 1-1/2 miles down and I shoot to get there or turn back at a 45 minute mark. Frankly, I didn’t think 45 minutes would be enough time to get there, but I didn’t want to underestimate the labor it would take to climb back to the rim, even on switchback trails. I set off.

Hans had heartily recommended the below-the-rim hike for its perspective on the canyon and, wow, no kidding. Despite the mule droppings and the folks just walking a few feet in with small kids and flip-flops, it’s easy enough to feel elated by a sense of accomplishment as the cliff walls shoot higher and higher above you. Everything about the hike charmed: the college-aged maintenance workers raking rocks (hey, someone has to do it), the color of the canyon walls, the fellow hikers breezing down and the fellow hikers wheezing up. I’ve got a goofy smile on my face most of the way down, but I’m seriously watching the path too. One trip on a loose rock and it’s a busted nose or a slip over into the canyon.

Or, at least, that’s what my wild imagination offers me.

All the water I sipped over lunch is nagging the old bladder. I skip the plan to just turn back at 45, and focus instead on getting to the toilet and water station. I stop a climber on the way down with “Do you speak English?” Not an unreasonable start as I’ve heard Japanese, French, Vietnamese, German and plenty else I couldn’t recognize. Not only does she speak English, I’m just a few switchbacks above the station, she says. I’m excited…ABOUT A TOILET. I curse myself for not thinking ahead on that matter, but walk on.

Just before the station, the trail turns a beautifully rusty orange. It’s soft, so I am kicking it up and practically dancing in it. It’s the Orange Brick Road to my OZ reststop. I pause to take a photo of the toilet sign and climb the steep steps. My knee is still a bit sore but, oh well, no way but up!

It was little more than 45 minutes down, and I surprise myself with just over an hour back to the top. I creep the entire way, “just one foot in front of the other.” (Indeed, the old Easter special with the bunny singing that line plays over and over in my head. That, and I am counting my steps, 1-2-3…) I am passed by expert hikers who’ve climbed from farther below the canyon; I pass people who believe they are expert hikers and who’ve pushed themselves too quickly. I imagine that my chubby-thighed self is an annoyance: “How can she do it?” they groan. My imaginings keep me motivated when my calves and thighs are burning.

Near the top, I get an ungodly burst of energy. It’s like my lunch-fuel decided to kick in. I ride the wave to the top, and quit only when I am back past the trailhead. Two women in their mid-forties stop me with “How far’d you go?” To the rest station, I reply with a big smile. “You did that?!” I respond with an even cheesier grin, if you can imagine.

I’m in a wicker chair on the patio of the El Tovar looking over the canyon just a minute after that exchange. I’ve fallen asleep just one minute after that, and don’t wake for 20 minutes.

Guess the hike tired me out.

I decided against staying for dinner. The previous night, I’d driven back in the dark. I had the iPod playing, but — damn my wild imagination — I worried about hitting a stray deer. Ok, not so imaginative, as one did leap into the road in front of my car on the way up. I had plenty of breaking room, and was more pleased than scared at the time. But that was daylight.

Despite my fear, I had pulled off the road shortly before the small town of Valle to take a look at the night sky. I must admit it: I was terrified. The road was COMPLETELY dark, COMPLETELY silent and the sky was brimming with stars. I was out of the car for just seconds, looking up into that expansiveness and feeling very, very small. I dashed back in.

I figured that I would redeem my cowardly-ness, by taking into the Lowell Observatory open house. They were starting at 7:30, so leaving the Grand Canyon shortly after 5 should have given me plenty of time. All would have been on time, but I spot what I thought was a very realistic elk statue near a Tusayan hotel. It turns its head and I realize THAT’S NO STATUE.

I turn the car around and join the throng of shutter-happy tourists. I take a picture from my window, and then a couple walking near ask me “What is it?” and takes my camera to get a closer shot. I yell, Not too close! and shake my head in amazement as some big guy strides up. I’m driving off and watching him in my rearview mirror. He’s gotten even closer, and I wonder if I will read about him in the next day’s news: Grand Canyon tourist gored by elk.

Film at 11.

My phone just rang, and I’d forgotten it was on. It was Mark who, learning that I am sitting in front of a computer screen, chides me for being a geek. “Can’t you do that when you are home?” It’s all about discipline, I reply.

Ok, ok. Let me sum up by saying that, after another nap and a quick shower back at the hostel, I took the dark road drive out to the observatory as planned. It was beautiful, and a lot less frightening to share the night sky with other admirers. I even met some people: Alexis and Greg who were traveling from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Jay, who was driving through from seeing his son in Pomona and heading back to Hastings, Nebraska. I even got to hang out with Jay back in Flagstaff and hear about his near-retirement joys and old-musician blues.

If you’re listening, Jay, here’s a shout-out.

Off to Sedona…

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