Part 1: Preparation
I regularly pull a tarot card to ascertain a new perspective on everyday predicaments. As I shuffle the deck I meditate on a question. What do I need to know about _____? What viewpoint am I missing in regards to _____? I then let intuition tell me when to stop rearranging the cards and confidently choose one. The one that feels right. I place the card face down as I repack the deck back into its box. Then I flip the chosen card over and let it offer me a new viewpoint.
At two different times while training for a long hike in the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim and back, I asked the deck for advice on the coming adventure. Twice I pulled the Seven of Wands, and four times I pulled The Emperor. It’s rare for me to pull the same card for the same question and I’d never before done it multiple times. I took more heed than usual.
The Seven of Wands is a reminder of self-trust. The Emperor is a similar card, albeit more focused on trust in general. It also delves into decisiveness and clarity of mind. All these reminders were super relevant considerations during my arduous training over the past six weeks. They also proved to be enormously useful this past Monday as my best friend Katie and I began our Canyon adventure after talking about it for nearly ten years.
Running ultras taught me that the goal of the race is never as simple as getting to the finish line. It’s more about making it to the next aid station, reevaluating things, then repeating the process. If I do this right the end is more likely to come, but still, it’s never a sure bet. Because there’s always extenuating circumstances. Like gnarly trail inclines and declines I could have never fully prepared my body for. Or rattlesnakes holding fast across a narrow path. Or how inadequately my body has digested the previous night’s pesto bowtie pasta dinner. And of course, there’s always the prospect of a cloudless 80° day flipping into a blizzard within hours. Anything can happen, and its possibility is worth my attention.
I’ve always found external comforts easy to take for granted. And when coupled with some of the best scenery on the planet, all logic, at least in my case, may very well go out the window. On this hike I was extraordinarily fortunate to be with someone who isn’t duped by blue skies and a pack full of sugary snacks. Frankly, if it wasn’t for Katie, I’d likely have needed a mountain evac. And not for the first time.
Part 2: The First Miles
We had planned to hike on Tuesday but the forecast called for snow. So we worked our plan back a day, rebooked overpriced hotel stays, and drove north from Phoenix less than 24 hours after touching down from our respective cancelled or severely delayed Southwest Air flights. Then, at 4:30 a.m. on a cool and breezy Monday morning blanketed by stars, while my stomach swirled and cold sweat formed on my brow, we bid Katie’s dad adieu in the South Rim parking lot and began our long descent along the South Kaibab Trail.
Our upgraded headlamps illuminated orange walls and drilled tunnels into the night. We marched carefully, knowing that the trail’s edge dropped into a pitchy abyss. Less than a half hour in, I was already imagining my plunging death. Wouldn’t be a bad way to go, I thought. At least he died doing what he loved, people would say.
As the sky glowed hints of sunrise, we stopped to chat with a man leaned against a smooth rocky wall. The joint between his fingers mixed aromatically with spicy desert creosote. It was still too dark to make out the details of his face, but his voice was all smiles. “I’m doing the Arizona Trail,” he said. “Trying for the FKT, unsupported. Record’s currently at thirteen days. People say that time can’t be beat.” He motioned to his backpack. “Started with this sucker at eighty-three pounds, and now it’s seventy. Feels light as hell, man!” I told him I hope to never again carry a pack even half that weight, which made him shrug and laugh through his scraggly beard. “Good luck,” I said as we hiked away. Before we turned out of sight, he shouted, “I’m gonna prove them all wrong!” A tiny fiery dot burned suddenly bright before fading back into the pitch.
The Colorado River came into view as distant canyon tips caught fire. A flood of cold chocolate milk easing through smooth pink stone. From high up it all stood still, as if waiting. I took a slew of photos, none of which did the vantage point any justice. I considered the moment of moving water I captured with my camera. How its strength and enormity will someday soon be a forgettable trickle. Just a bit of runoff sinking into a patch of dusty earth. At that point, what will have changed about its essence? Will it have gained anything? Lost anything? Or will it just be gone?
A passageway through rock spit us onto a suspension bridge that spanned the river. We walked slowly across the flat surface and took inventory of our bodies. “I feel great,” Katie said. “But we should probably drink some water.” I agreed. Always smart to drink before thirsty. I, however, also needed a third privy stop. “There will be something ahead at Bright Angel. And Phantom Ranch beyond that,” Katie said. This was good news since I’d likely need both.
We’d lost about 5100 feet of elevation in sevenish miles. The terrain had evened out just as my legs started to quiver. Which was weird because it usually takes three times that distance to make my muscles spasm.
Part 3: The Path
The majority of my past adventures have included intentional choices to keep me off highly populated trails. I liked (and still like) the idea of being in harder-to-get spots or attempting harder-to-do things. In real time this has manifested on roads less traveled, literally or figuratively. My thought process was often validated by an occasional interaction with a fellow traveler who fit into the who-I-am-trying-to-avoid box. Like the woman in Thailand who, when she had to wait in a long line for a Myanmar travel visa, kept shouting, “But I’m an American! We don’t wait like this in America!” Or the couple I encountered after a desert backpack trip in Southern Baja who motored their garish Winnebago into the tiny dirt pullout at Rancho Santa Inez and kept the screaming motor running as they surveyed locals in loud, extra-slow English,”Are you Inez? Are you Inez?” I never want to be that traveler. So popular trails like the Kaibab or Bright Angel have never been near the top of my list.
This is likely why it took so long to make this trip a reality. To me it summed up all I ever tried to avoid: A prominent route with big parking lots, crowds, well-marked trails, snack bars, groomed campsites, and mid-route flush toilets. In retrospect, I realize how shortsighted this was. And also how selfish it was to project my snobby preferences on my then life partner. Hiking the Grand Canyon was one of the few things in our ten year relationship that Katie was ever fired up to do. I could have easily embraced it and supported it. I could have joined in her excitement and we’d have done this hike long ago. Instead, like so many times during our tenure, I only considered myself. Which, unsurprisingly, was a major factor in our ultimate split. Waiting until we broke up to finally say yes to this hike is loaded with so much feeling. There’s excitement, sure, and there’s certainly joy to spend a day outside with a dear friend. But these uplifting givens are twinged with guilt and regret, too. Like I’m desperately trying to make up for being so self-centered for so long. Like hiking the trail is a kind of apology. One made too late.
Still, when Kent, my best travel buddy from back in the day, learned of my plans to attempt a rim to rim hike, he texted, “Won’t there be a lot of knuckleheads out there in October?” I assumed there would be and said as much, but I never dreamed how busy the trail between Bright Angel and Cottonwood Campgrounds would actually be. It was a veritable thoroughfare for a solid ten miles. People of all ages, shapes, and sizes, collectively enjoying the grandeur of one of Earth’s most breathtaking locales. All of us, ants on an anthill. None better or worse than the next. Solitude remains my preference, but this hike was a humbling reminder that none of us are really different, after all. And if we think we are, we’re kidding ourselves. We’re just a bunch of people out here seeking happiness wherever we can find it. And what a gift, I think, to live in happiness in a place like this even in the midst of a global pandemic. I wanted to stop right there on South Kaibab and tell Katie how sorry I was for all those years of me me me. I wanted to rewind time and infuse the past with the present. But that’s not how life works. I have to change to grow, and in order to change, I have to lose something. I paid a big price for this growth, and though I am better for it, it hurts my heart to know how I got here.
Part 4: Enough
In the midst of the backpack traffic jam, Katie interrupted stride and paused on the trail’s shoulder. “I’m going to bring this up,” she said, “not because it’s something I want to do, but because it’s something I think we ought to keep in mind.” She pointed at the sky above, so clear and cloudless and blue it bordered on navy, black even. “That’s definitely not the sort of sky that makes you think a storm’s coming, is it?” I stared up and wondered how it could be so empty. “Tom, I just want you to know that doing the rim to rim to rim is not something I need to do,” she said. “More than anything else I want to enjoy this hike. I’m not out here trying to suffer any more than is necessary.” Her words took me by surprise. Nothing, besides maybe a weather report we last checked in the hotel some six hours prior, had triggered this sudden mention of turning back early. I promptly rejected the idea and suggested we just keep on charging, even as my stomach continued to do backflips.
We walked the next few miles in silence. My stomach cramped and my disdain for slower hikers grew heavier until the hike turned burdensome. I tried my best to remain neutral about Katie’s comment, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she was simply doing what many people do in the midst of a long endurance event. I asked her if she was simply looking for a way out. “Entertaining the prospect of quitting is common and a slippery slope,” I said. “Once you start thinking about it, it makes it easier to throw in the towel.” I explained that part of what makes the end feel so good is knowing you beat down thoughts that will inevitably challenge the body and mind along the way. I also asked about her personal tendency to step back when the going gets tough—which only made for another quiet few miles into the Cottonwood Campground, where we both regrouped and put everything on the table.
Neither of us wanted to turn around, so we decided to charge ahead and keep talking about it. Blue skies or not, it made good sense to contemplate the winter weather in the forecast. The long final climb up Bright Angel would be a real drag if we had to do it in blizzard conditions. We agreed it would be better to not press our luck. Still, we kept climbing past the crowds, and began the seven mile ascent of North Kaibab. Each step was a step closer to the half way turnaround.
I took the lead and let adrenaline push us uphill, faster and faster. Six miles to go, five miles to go. I hoped our speed might trick the good sense right out of us and we’d find ourselves at the top of the North Rim with no choice but to endure the return. With maybe four miles to the top, a few back to back bitter 40 m.p.h. gusts nearly took off our hats. We stopped, sat on a rock with our shoulders pressed together, and decided to call it We’d done eighteen miles so far and would have more than that back to the Bright Angel trailhead. It would be a big day either way. “Sometimes less is exactly enough,” Katie said. Her words hit me just right. We hugged, congratulated each other for what we’d done, for what we still had to do, and put our quads to work. Again.
Part 5: Guts
Winds picked up as we backtracked through the busiest parts of the trail. Tenish or so miles back through Cottonwood, Phantom Ranch, and eventually landing in Bright Angel Campground for an extended and much needed break. My intestines had finally relaxed after a marathon’s worth of grueling miles, and my appetite was suddenly in full force. We lounged at the intersection of Kaibab and Bright Angel as I devoured my last two tortillas loaded with peanut butter and refried beans, a bag of smashed strawberries, a Clif Bar and pack of orange Gu Shots, some BBQ chips, and a liter of Hammer Perpetuem.
Water had been prevalent on this trail, and Katie and I were both well-hydrated yet still making sure we stayed that way. Even on well-resourced trails like this, everything can change on a dime. I put a couple GUs, some packs of fig newtons, and a Pro Bar in my pants pockets for easy access on the final climb, then refilled my empty water bottles one final time as dark clouds displaced the sapphire sky.
We crossed the Colorado River again, interrupting a family’s photo shoot half way through the narrow bridge. Driving wind hurled down the canyon from the north and blew me and my pack square into the dad’s chest. Everyone shared a laugh. Katie and I continued on, and as distance grew between us and the family, I wondered if they’d use their photos for a holiday card. Something about this made me feel nostalgia for family—something I wondered if I’d ever truly have. Their happiness, their togetherness, it all made me feel a little sad.
Part 6: Forgiveness
The Bright Angel Trail is known to be easier, less steep but a bit longer than its counterpart, South Kaibab. From the canyon’s bottom, it begins gradually and skirts the river while offering overwhelming views. Looming clouds and low light made everything more picturesque as we navigated an early flat section. For the first hour of the trail the only word I uttered was a gulping, “Wow.”
Then we started to climb. And even though Kaibab has the more severe reputation, after nearly thirty miles my legs couldn’t tell the difference. The sky released an occasional sprinkle, but nothing to be concerned about. Not yet anyhow.
Once again I took the lead. The climb shot straight up where glowing headlamps marked the rising switchbacks like constellations. “Look. The big dipper,” I said. Katie and I agreed to hold off on any unnatural light until we absolutely needed it. And before deploying our white lamps we’d first try using the red bulb option to longer preserve our night vision. It’s amazing how well we could see when we gave our eyes a chance to get used to the dusky remains of light.
As I took a long stride up a mid-trail erosion wall, a familiar sound reminded me of a southeastern summer. The alien buzz of a singing cicada. But a cicada? Here? That didn’t seem plausible. I leaned in for a closer look, my eyes darting within the scrub, then jumped back when I locked onto a triangle-shaped head, which was a dead giveaway. “Oh shit!” I hollered as a two foot rattlesnake gently shook its warning again. From a safe distance we watched as it inched its way off the trail before disappearing into the brush.
We both had hoped to see a rattler, but wouldn’t have predicted we’d do so as the evening cooled. Last time I encountered a rattlesnake on a trail was back in 2010 when I was running in the San Gabriel mountains just north of Los Angeles. It was a big, decorated thing, much longer, thicker, and more aggressive than this tan Grand Canyon variety. It coiled into a spring as I stood mortified, unsure what to do.
To this day, I deeply regret my failed efforts to remove that angry snake from the trail. First I gently tossed rock to its side, hoping to nudge it along. But this only aggravated it more. Then, overtaken by fear and impatience, I hurled another stone. This time at its body. The toss was a direct hit, which sent the poor beast shooting upwards—its body completely airborne as its fangs struck blindly at air, sending sprays of venom in all directions like a garden sprinkler.
Ever since then I’ve been offering energetic reparations to every snake whose path I cross. The white-bellied black snakes back home, the rat snakes along the Centennial Trail in Spokane, or any other I happen upon—I always give them as much space as possible as I try to ensure their peaceful passage. As they slide away, I reiterate how doggone sorry I am to have violently offended one of their pit viper cousins a decade ago for no good reason. For more than ten years I’ve been praying to snakes.
As we left the Grand Canyon rattler, I lost my breath as my eyes filled with water. The snake had graciously done what snakes and all animals do—it gave warning. Established a boundary. I took heed and it went about its business. The interaction felt freeing. As if a ten year weight had been lifted. As if finally, after all these years, I’d been forgiven.
Part 7: Stay Close
At Indian Garden Campground, 4.5 miles from the top, we stopped to refill bottles. Katie’s phone had service so she texted her dad with an ETA at the trailhead. A group of young men we’d seen at Bright Angel Campground were resting adjacent, and one joined us at the water spigot. He told us his group was wrapping up a walk to the river and back. When we told him about our day’s events, he said, “Woah. That’s intense. Maybe someday I’ll do something big like that.” He then asked if we had rain jackets. We did, but they were still packed away. “None of us brought anything like that,” he said. “I hope the storm waits for us to get to the top.”
I thought of this guy and his group the next day while buying some postcards at a South Rim souvenir shop. Posted on a wall was a sign with a photo of a young, handsome, white man with a little soul patch beneath his full lips. A standard, forgettable, frat boy sort of image. Below him was a banner saying, “Do You Look Like Him? If So, Be Extra Careful!” A subsequent description explained that the majority of people who encounter serious trouble while hiking the Grand Canyon are males between the ages of 18-40. It was vague what sort of “trouble” the sign was referring to, but I imagined it came in all shapes and forms. Including inadequate gear. Ego often cancels out good sense.
Katie and I peeled out of Indian Gardens without delay and almost immediately stopped again to don our rain parkas, winter hats, and gloves. The previous sprinkles had quickly turned into rapid and giant drops, and the air temperature dropped at least twenty degrees. I guessed it was probably 30°F, but increasing wind definitely chilled it further, especially against sweaty clothes. My body temperature was compromised. I quietly panicked as I dug deep to lift my knee to reach each high step.
The last two hours were a slog on a slippery trail. Rain fell harder, so did an occasional burst of sleet and wet snow. Katie took the lead and kept the gap between us tighter than when I was out in front. The physical energy and mental acuity drained out of me until each step was a confusing grind. None of Katie’s words about remaining mileage and time were computing. The only thing keeping me moving was the hope that Katie’s dad, David, had received her text and would be waiting at the top with his car engine running.
Katie was pretty sure we’d passed the 3-Mile Resthouse, but I knew not to get my hopes up as a sign ahead reflected the glow of our headlamps. Distances and speed in the dark, especially in inclement weather, can be deceiving. It’s easy to think I’ve gone farther than I actually have—and learning that a particular stretch was actually a fraction of the distance it seemed is enough to make me want to curl up into a ball on the trail and let the world take me for good.
The sign, however, gave us the opposite. It was the 1.5-Mile Resthouse. Only a mile and a half to the top where David, in my driving dream, would be holding the car door open. I ingested my final two GUs, vanilla and salted caramel, slugged a bellyfull of Perpeteum, and fist bumped Katie. “Let’s wrap this motherfucker up,” I said. We covered the final stretch in twenty minutes and were greeted at the top by an empty parking lot and hurricane winds. I immediately started shivering uncontrollably and ran to a nearby shelter. Katie checked her texts. Her dad was parked with his flashers on. We saw nothing from where we stood, so I ran amok, back and forth across two parking lots until I saw the flashing beacon down a nearby stairway. “He’s over here!” I shouted to Katie. Seconds later we sat protected from the weather in his heated car. His joy further warmed the enclosed space as Katie shared details of the final stretch and I shook wildly in the backseat.
David had lugged all our bags to the hotel room, and after a shower and some non-trail food we knocked on his door to commiserate. We took a finish line selfie on his room’s queen bed, then shuffled our restless legs back to our room as the rain outside turned to driving snow.
Part 8: Perspective
We imagined we’d wake up to a white dusting, certainly not the 5+ inches of growing accumulation and blizzard-like winds and temps that greeted us through our balcony glass. After a morning yoga session and a cup of shitty hotel coffee, we joined David for a snowy walk. In my memory the previous night’s drive from the trailhead to the hotel took a half hour. But it was, quite literally, a stone’s throw from the hotel’s main entrance. Close enough to for us to walk to in a matter of minutes.
The three of us were riding a high. I, for one, marveled incessantly at the steepness of the Bright Angel Trail as it disappeared down into sideways-blowing flurries. “We did that?” I said. “Holy cow.” Cozy and warm in our puffy jackets and dry gloves we walked tightly together, expressing gratitude for all that happened, and had to happen, for us to be out here on this blustery morning. The sort of morning which, ironically, seemed perfect for a short little walk.
If it wasn’t for Katie’s pragmatism, we may both have a proper R2R2R notch in our belts. But considering what I endured in those final hours, it would have likely come at a terrible cost. At the very least, it would have been a grueling and unenjoyable slog as we suffered the strain of an unseasonable pre-winter storm. Or worse still, in my case at least, a bout of hypothermia.
But we ended at the perfect time. Katie, per usual, wrapped the journey feeling fresh. I imagine she could have easily motored through the extra ten miles we left behind, but such thoughts didn’t even cross her mind. She did what she set out to do—happy to still be happy at the end. She proved that less is, in fact, sometimes perfectly enough, which is a lesson I’m still learning. But because of her and her wise perspective, I’m also feeling genuinely grateful for and pleased by what we did, too.
Turns out those preceding tarot cards were spot on. Self-trust, decisiveness, and clarity of mind. All came into play and paid off as my best friend and I backpacked more than 38 miles in just under 16 hours in the depths of the Grand Canyon earlier this week. It was easily the toughest the hike I’ve ever done, and yet one that even barely five days removed from it, is already etched in my brain as a wonderfully fun walk in a beautiful place with one of my favorite people. And really, what more does life need?