The most useful thing I ever learned from a ranger: don’t be afraid to use three points of contact if you need to.
Or even five, I thought, as I vigorously brushed dust from my behind, after I scrambled down from a rock perch after the mules had passed.
“Are you sure that’s not six points of contact?” she said.
“Naw,” I replied. “Five. They are joined at the hip.”
What can I write about a once-in-a-lifetime trip into the Grand Canyon? That I want it to go on forever? That I want it to be more than once? That I am so stiff I can hardly walk? That a river beach is a wonderful thing for the feet after seven miles on a rigorous trail that goes down, down, down, always down?
I have found to really experience a place – to feel I know it and have really seen it – I need to go on my own two legs. And so I did.
Heeding the good instruction of those who have gone before, we descended via the rigorous South Kaibab Trail.
“It is rated difficult on all the hiking sites,” she said, “but there IS a trail.”
Speaking from the perspective of a wilderness guide, a trail mitigates the difficulty measurably.
“I don’t want to take another step down, ever,” I said, after six miles and the onset of wobbly knees. Wobbly knees? Shaky legs? This feeling that my legs will uncontrollably buckle under me at any minute? Over sixty years of use and suddenly I can no longer trust the calves and quads to do my bidding?
“I’m down,” I said quietly and philosophically as my body involuntarily seated itself in the dust with a soft “whump” after an encounter with a pebble of miniscule size.
She came back for me and we jolted on downward. I hiked the South Kaibab. Check one off on the list. I remain convinced it is a trail every hiker should experience once in a lifetime. And only once.
When I return, I will take Bright Angel both down and up – despite its additional
two mile length.
But oh, the views. Will I ever forget that first view of the Colorado River rippling emerald green in the canyon a few thousand feet below? Will I ever forget setting my sites on a sandy beach way below and saying, “There. When we get there we will take off our boots and soak our weary feet in the Colorado River.”
Nor will I ever forget the many fast hikers who passed me on the trail, and those slower whom I passed, convening for dinner after dark and hearing, “Of the roughly five million people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, only one percent descend below the rim – and a lesser percent make it here to Phantom Ranch, congratulations!”
I will long remember the sheer luxury of clean feet in the shower house at night and sleeping on an adequate bunk with Egyptian cotton hotel bedding. How else could I rise before dawn on day two and head back up to the rim?
My knowledgeable and experienced friend was right. You want more than one night’s sleep and turn-around time at Phantom Ranch. You want a few more days to explore other nearby trails and vistas. You want to be able to truly relax and feel the luxury of a location visited by presidents (at least one) and other anonymous folks wealthy enough to travel in by mule and have their duffels transported by the same. And that will come, in time, with more financial success and more accrued vacation time.
But, for now, we enjoy it on a weekend. We haul our own duffels. We travel on our own two feet.
We open our souls to the beauty and our bodies to the workout and the goal. I feel it in every muscle. I know the location of every bone in my body, whether I can name it or not. And was it worth it?
Yes. Yes it was.
Cherry Odelberg writes a blog about putting one foot in front of the other - hiking for life.
You can read more of her writing at cherryodelberg.com