A Grand journey — Stepping back in time
Note: In planning an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon, I thought of this story from seven years ago, when I joined my daughter for an unforgettable hike down into one the world’s most fascinating natural wonders.
Her blonde pony tail bobbed back and forth, almost in rhythm to the rise and fall of her small back pack, as we plodded down the wide, timbered steps leading deeper and deeper into the canyon. At 8:30 in the morning it was 20 degrees, but if felt colder as wind dodged around the ridges, still in shadow.
It was mid-February, 2006. We were glad there was no snow or ice on the route — called the South Kaibab Trail — leading from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim down thousands of feet to the Colorado River that over millions of years, had carved this remarkable chasm.
The cloudless sky was brilliant blue and the rising sun illuminated the red canyon walls on the North Rim. The sun slowly crept toward us as we descended the switchback trail, step upon careful step.
Conditions couldn’t have been better. In summer, temperatures sometimes exceed 120 degrees in the canyon and even superbly conditioned athletes have been known to get into trouble, requiring costly helicopter evacuations.
Today, the temperature would barely climb above 60 degrees.
I’d never been to the canyon before, nor had my daughter Emily, and we were torn between watching our feet on the steep trail and gaping at the incredible vistas opening before us around every turn. About every five minutes I couldn’t help but stop to take a picture.
“Sorry,” I said. “There’s a photo around every corner!”
“I know,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
After another 20 minutes we took a break to shed a layer of clothing and drink some water. “You’re setting a good pace, but I’m keeping up with you,” I bragged.
“Pretty easy going down on this good trail,” she shrugged. “Think we’ll see any mules?”
“Probably. I think they’re on the trail just about every day.”
I wanted to say how wonderful it was to be on this hike with her without sounding sappy, but the words wouldn’t come out. Instead I said something about what a fabulous day it was and how great it was to be hiking.
She was turned away from me, gazing down slope toward the inner gorge that concealed the great Colorado River. I took the moment to steal a glance at this petite, 18-year-old girl who had suddenly become a woman. Where had time gone? When she was eight, maybe nine, I took her up mountains and on long hikes, including Crow Pass. She was always strong for her size and an eager hiker. I guess I thought our close relationship would last forever. But when she entered junior high, going on trips with dad seemed out of vogue. It became difficult to get her to go anywhere, even when I calculatingly invited her friends. In high school and college she developed a close-knit circle of friends and had little time for old dad. They were good kids who helped each other in many ways, including school work, so I put selfishness aside. I couldn’t complain. She was finding her way as I had done at her age.
We branched off the main trail onto a cross-over route — the Tonto Trail — that would connect us with the Bright Angel trail and finally back up to the South Rim — about 14 miles in all. After about an hour, not seeing the two people who’d been hiking in front of us, Emily turned to me: “Dad, are you sure we’re going in the right direction?”
“We’d better be,” I said with thinly veiled authority. “We should be going west.”
I pulled out the map and oriented it to north — not difficult as we could easily look across to the canyon’s North Rim. “We got down to the Tonto trail and hung a left — just like it says on the map. Let’s confirm it, though. It’s mid-day and at this time of the year, the sun isn’t directly overhead, but slightly south. Judging from the angle of the sun, we’re going west.”
“Okay,” she smiled trustfully, munching on some crackers.
We were about half way in the journey, now on a broad plateau that stretched for miles across the canyon. From above you’d never know the canyon opens to such a vast area. Below the plateau is what is called the inner gorge of the river. We wouldn’t be going that deep on this trip — but far enough, I thought.
Going back in time: Her stride never faltered…I was glad she was leading. We walked another mile without talking. There was no need. I felt it returning, this bond we’d shared so many years ago. We’d pause in silence to glance at the giant California Condors soaring overhead, or marvel at the endless succession of rock formations, layer upon layer, tinted crimson, shades of brown, black, variegated with shelves and cracks, dips and folds from centuries past. Within these looming canyon walls, I felt something odd stirring from within. The canyon was making me feel young.
The trail cut back into the base of canyon walls and there, where springs emerged, sprouted small oases. The green trees, bushes and grasses seemed strangely out of place in the brown, desiccated desert landscape. After another half mile, back on level ground, we walked right up to four elk that seemed indifferent to our presence.
From the time she was little, Emily always liked to graze. In other words, rather than sit down for a large meal, she preferred taking smaller portions throughout the day.
“Here’s a bag of craisins,” I said. “You can graze as you walk.”
“Great,” she beamed.
I could see a side canyon opening up ahead on our left. Distance-wise, it felt like our connection with the Bright Angel trail. We stopped at a year-round spring, Indian Gardens, had a late lunch and filled our water bottles. Craning my neck upward, I assessed the thousands of feet we would need to climb before the end of the day.
“It’s all up from here,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“Good,” she answered. “No blisters yet. How ‘bout you?”
“Fine,” I lied. Over the last couple of miles my arthritic knees had begun complaining. It was good to get off my feet for awhile. A young guy in his 20s was stretched out flat on one of the benches, sleeping, seemingly without a concern in the world. He wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. A couple in their 40s wished us well before heading up the trail.
“We should get to the top about six, before dark,” I said positively. “Even if we don’t, there’s a full moon. On this wide trail, seeing wouldn’t be a problem.”
Her eyes held a trace of skepticism that I’d become accustomed to over the years, almost saying aloud: “I don’t want to be walking this trail in the dark, if you please.”
Her pace hardly slowed on the uphill trudge, and I did my best to keep up. Plodding deliberately, step after step, pausing frequently for more photos, we were at the top by 5:30 — safely dispatched to the land of hot showers, soft beds and sit-down meals. We had plenty of time to clean up, rest and make our 8:15 p.m. dinner reservation at the Park’s oldest hotel, the El Torvo, built in 1905.
One of the most awe-inspiring natural features on earth, among the seven natural wonders of the world, dropped off less than 300 feet from where we sat. The Grand Canyon, a timeless chasm of air 10 miles across. But now it didn’t matter. Something bigger, grander had happened…a weekend, a day on the trail, a few jokes, some memories, some talk about the future, a reconnection with my daughter.
We ate slowly, not wanting the day to end.