For the record, Colette has been officially banned from arranging any “vacations” unless she will be participating. She has now been put on notice.
There are probably very few people who “get” where this blog title comes from – the Canyon Dreams album from the 1990s by Tangerine Dream. I loved the album back in the 1990’s, and as I was thinking of titles it came to me, only to discover that the soundtrack was created for a video about the Grand Canyon – woah. My space-time continuum just folded on itself, and I think I need a drink.
This is a long one. Bathroom break, grab a beer, and pop some popcorn. Or just flip through and enjoy the photos.
Back to “vacation”. Level 4 out of 5 on the difficulty scale (I think that 5 is Mount Everest or maybe a short hike on the surface of the Moon with no oxygen tank), and 300 (okay, okay – only 29) miles in 5 days with 18,000 feet (slightly exaggerated of course – are you sensing a pattern here?) of elevation with 400lbs (also exaggerated, but not by much) on your back? I’m guessing Colette was grinning madly to herself while she was booking this for us.
Now that we have a baseline of where this nonsense is headed, we can start with the backstory. Our collective brains thought that it would be awesome to have a daddy-daughter trip as Shelby finished up school and had some downtime while she figured out where she would be doing her Masters program. What better activity than hiking in the Grand Canyon for a Geology Major?
Soooo – there are helicopter tours, tours where porters carry your stuff, tours where donkeys carry your stuff, day tours where you don’t carry a thing, and lastly – grueling week-long tours where you carry EVERYTHING yourself.
Guesses as to which one we got? If you picked Option E – big guy carrying everything – you would win the prize behind Door Number Two – that prize being a trip of your own, carrying everything including the kitchen sink for five days.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner – Colette picked Wildland Trekking’s Hermit Loop tour for us, 5 wonderful hiking-filled days deep in the bowels of the beautiful Grand Canyon.
Day 1: Bright Angel to Horn Creek
7.3 miles, –3,700ft elevation
So many questions. Where is the Starbucks? Isn’t this the desert? Why is it 40 degrees? Why am I wearing a beanie hat? Why am I wearing gloves? Why did I bring gloves? Who arranged this nonsense trip? Why do my feet hurt already? Are we there yet?
Somewhere, Colette is laughing.
Joking aside, having spent more time that I care to admit in the desert, I knew we were in for heavy temperature swings, triple digits in the days and 50s at night, and the altitude variations of the canyon would provide for more varied temps.
More questions. We’re up here, if we hike waaaay down there, how do we get back up? Why is this pack so heavy? Where are the porters? Where are the donkeys? Is there a helicopter to bring us back up? Are we there yet?
The feet start shuffling. Apparently I’m the only one without the situational awareness. We walk – that way – down that path headed to the bottom.
More questions. Why do these people who are slowly going the opposite direction look like somebody beat them thoroughly? Is the Starbucks up ahead? More importantly, what kind of beer does the bar at the bottom have on tap? Are we there yet?
The feet keep shuffling. As the group is making their way downhill, I realize that it’s move, move, move or risk being lost in the process. I’m pretty sure that our guide Wes is the only one who knows where the Starbucks is, so I figure I better at least keep within eyesight of him.
We’re 4 hours in. I’ve gone through 8 Snickers, 5 Clif Bars, 2 Rice Krispy Treats, 4 chewy bars, and a half dozen other assorted goodies, and I still haven’t seen the Starbucks. Somewhere, Colette is laughing. Down is easier than up, right? Knee flex, knee straight. Hip flex, hip straight. Chiropractor visit, check. Orthopedic surgeon visit, check. Colette laughing, check.
After about 2,200 switchbacks, left-right-left-right-left, red rocks, white rocks, red rocks, more rocks, rocks, rocks, rocks, we arrive at what really matters today – LUNCH!
Part of Wildland Trekking’s hiring process is to ensure that their guides can cook – this apparently is not an easy skill to learn with limited provisioning and limited equipment. They definitely scored a home run with Wes. Part of this home run is that about 10 pounds came out of my backpack (SCORE!) to make our lunchtime spread – cheese, salami, hummus, apples, simply an amazing selection. If he didn’t have that crazy guide beard going, I think I would have had a man-crush right here. Less pack weight, tasty spread, this hike might not be so bad.
Did I mention the drizzle that had been falling on us for the last hour? More questions – I thought this was the desert? Why have I already traded my beanie hat for a rain jacket? Why is it so hot? Are we there yet?
Despite having met the group at our pre-trip briefing the night before, lunch was our first real opportunity to really sit down as a group and start to gel. Nothing like a good rain shower (and the random German tourists) to get the group talking and laughing. If anyone remembers the Odd Couple TV show, well, we formed the odd sextuplet.
Let me set the stage for the rest of this story.
Jenna – One of the Canadian Sisters. The quietest in the bunch, and I honestly thought she was probably the least experienced of the group at first. I’m a poor judge of character, as she is an experienced technical climber and probably had the most outdoor experience of us all.
Jody – The other Canadian Sister. Canadian AF O-4, it was nice to have someone to chat with without the usual fear of acronym overload. Hey, we’ve all been to Moosejaw haven’t we?! Also fit, and experienced outdoors. Someone else who is going to leave me in the dust.
I can’t imagine our 5-day trip with anything less than this group. You get one “odd duck”, one out-of-shape Midwesterner, one complainer, and the whole dynamics would shift very quickly, and not in a favorable way. We really lucked out, and nobody got kicked off a cliff.
Back to moving. More questions. Why can’t we just camp here? There’s a nice table. Where’s the Starbucks? Are we there yet?
The Bright Angel trail is the most heavily trafficked in the Grand Canyon, from the trailhead to Indian Garden where we had lunch. Past that, the crowd starts to thin. The adventurous day crowd makes their way down to the river and back up (which the Park Service does not recommended in a single day), and the backpackers make their way along the Tonto Platform.
Life is better now. We make our way from the obscene descent of the Bright Angel Trail onto the West portion of the Tonto trail across the Tonto Platform, a broad terrace about 4,000 feet below the rim. Here, my longer legs and heavy muscles can make up for what I seriously lack in climbing and descending abilities.
Ah, relatively flat. We’re almost there, right? Just over that next rise, you say? You said that at the last rise. I’m hungry. Dinner soon? I missed the Starbucks. The bar too. You’re lucky that you are the only person who knows the way out of here, or I’d punt you over the ledge 300-style. There better be a beer in this 400lb backpack.
More stops. More rocks. Still no Starbucks. Wonder if we get steak for dinner. Good thing that this scenery is incredible. Do I punt him, or do I wait?
Finally. There. Do we really have 4 more days of this? We’re 7.3 miles in, and we still have 22 more to go. Somewhere, Colette is laughing.
Finally, good news – DINNER! I love dinner. I also love breakfast, lunch, snack time, and happy hour. Dinner is good though. I might not have to kick Wes over the cliff.
We set up our first night at Horn Creek, a dip in the platform where a stream/river/whatever flows down to the Colorado River from the top. Wherever there is water, there is life, and we had green cottonwoods, tadpoles in the pools, and cooler temps for the evening. What’s that about cooler temps? Holy crapz, it’s cold again – break out the beanies for dinnertime.
What do you mean we can’t drink water from here? The water at Horn Creek has a high uranium content from the Lost Orphan Uranium Mine high above, just below Powell Point. I guess it’s a good thing we’re carrying 900lbs of water on our backs.
Back to what matters – DINNER!
We can all visualize what vultures look like eyeing a distressed animal – that’s pretty much what Wes was feeling as we all sat there watching him cook dinner. Lips were being licked, mouths were watering, and the forthcoming feast was fit for a king. Amazing what you can whip up from a backpack and a camp stove!
Post-hike and post-dinner, the conversation, well, pretty much turns to mush. While Wes washed dishes and tidied up the site, the rest of us quietly turned to our tents and quickly faded to black.
Day 2: Horn Creek to Monument Creek
8 miles, -300ft elevation
Can’t. Get. Up.
Everything hurts. Ankles. Knees. Back. Spleen. Spleen? I didn’t even know I had a spleen until this trip.
Wait. What is that smell? Could it be? Bacon?!?!?!? Bacon?????? Man-crush, welcome home. Bacon, really? And coffee?
Nothing hurts any more. There is bacon to be consumed. Must. Rush. Before. Others. Wake.
Maybe instead of punting Wes, I can punt the rest of them and eat their bacon. Hmmm, problem – who’s going to carry all of their gear?
Will share. Until packs get lighter. Then will systematically punt. Mmmmm coffee. I love bacon.
If you haven’t had cowboy coffee, you’re in for a treat. Boil a huge pot of water and dump the coffee grounds in. Let it do its thing. Use a cup, ladle some out, use a filter and filter through into your cup.
Yowza. Kick you right in the pants. Wait, pants kickin’? Yup – kick you right up to the latrine. Between the coffee and the breakfast, welcome to poopin’ in the canyon! All of the campsites we stayed at had composting latrines that get moved in and out by helicopter, with the exception of Granite Rapids. There – wander into the backcountry, dig a hole, and do your business. Save your paper in a ziploc, and dispose of it on the way out. Just like a bear does.
Breakfast is over. These sadists are talking about hiking more! Why can’t we just stay here? There’s coffee. And shade. And everything hurts.
They’re moving on without me. I can’t drink the water here. Wes has the coffee. Guess I’ll stumble along behind them. I wonder when lunch is?
Finally our first glimpse of the Colorado River. Beautiful expanses of rock layers and scrub. I guess this doesn’t suck so much. The trail is relatively flat with no huge inclines or declines.
I’ve realized that I’m like a freight train. No sudden stops or starts. No steep ups or downs. Takes me a while to get moving. Takes me a while to get stopped. But on flat or slight inclines, I can pretty much haul azz and not much can stop me. I’m good with day 2. I have plenty of water, plenty of snacks, and if I stay well ahead of the group I can get some great shots of them moving up the trail. We’re headed to Monument Creek, where I know there will be water, and more importantly – DINNER!
More expansive views, the river along our right, and towering walls on our left. The trail is dry and dusty but well packed and enjoyable hiking. Wes is good about making sure that we stop frequently and rest, as well as hydrate.
Blasted hikers – someone is in “our” spot at Monument Creek. First come, first serve and all. Instead of hiding under lush green trees, we get a spot high up on a platform along the wall. Less shade, much better views. Another fantastic dinner, Wes is certainly doing his best not to get punted. Long day, full bellies, and an early bedtime again for all.
As the thermoclines shift in the evening, a breeze flows down the ravines leading to the canyon in what Wes refers to as the “canyon sigh”. Tonight, it turned into the “canyon sneeze”. We awoke around 2300 with our dome tent flattened into an egg shape, with the ceiling laying on both of our faces. It became immediately apparent that our exposed spot on the canyon wall also provided a channel for lots of sand and silt to force it’s way up under the rain fly and into our tent as the tent was bending sideways in the wind. It’s not much fun getting up in the middle of the night to build a rock wall to block the wind and sand, but it’s amazing how dark and clear the night sky is from the bottom of the canyon. Somewhere, Colette is laughing.
Day 3: Monument Creek to Granite Rapids
1 mile, -300ft elevation
Finally our “down” day. Following our restless night’s sleep, much needed. After breakfast we packed up and headed the mile down the creek bed to the Granite Rapids campsite.
Granite Rapids is a very popular overnight spot for the rafting crowd, where the water creates a large pool with a nice sandy beach. So sandy that we marked our campsite but didn’t put our tents up until bedtime to minimize the amount of sand that inevitably would make it’s way inside them.
Very little to write about today. We all took turns napping, reading, chatting, and generally just letting our bodies rest up for the upcoming hike out of the canyon. Some rafters rolled in during the early afternoon and set up camp, it’s amazing to see what a fancy site you can set up when you don’t have to carry everything on your back!
Another fabulous dinner and early bedtime. Wes commented in the morning how he looked up and everyone had just vanished.
Day 4: Granite Rapids to Hermits Rest
4.3 miles, +600ft elevation
Another early morning. Maybe I can hitch a ride with the rafting crowd. They have plenty of food. And beer. I could change my flight.
The legs and hips definitely feel better after the down day, and I’m glad that I didn’t take the opportunity to do any short hikes around the campsite like some of the others did. As the old geezer in the pack, I feel justified in saying that I need my rest.
The hike down the creek bed was hard on the ankles, the hike back up is even worse. All of the small stones and scrabble make it difficult to push off and easy to twist your foot around. Thank goodness for good hiking poles.
Luckily we’re back on the main trail once we get out of the creek bed, and the hiking gets back into freight-train mode. Left, right, left, right. Somewhere ahead is a campground, and that means DINNER.
As promised, once we left the busy Bright Angel trail, most of our hike has been in solitude with maybe 2 or 3 people passing us on the trail each day. I’m guessing that’s because everybody is camped at Hermit’s Rest! One large group of young college guys from Auburn University, a mom and son we had met at Monument Creek, and a young couple who serenaded the entire campground be belting out whatever tune happened to be playing on their iPod. Not quite the same solitude as we had at Horn Creek!
Still, another enjoyable evening with yet another great dinner. Lots of laughs from the group as we all went into shutdown mode to get ready for tomorrow’s brutal hike up the Hermit Trail.
Day 5: Hermits Rest to the Hermit Trailhead
8.3 miles, +3,840ft elevation
0400 comes early, but you have to get an early start to make time before the sun gets too high. When you’re up at dawn, the sun remains behind a canyon wall for most of your trek up, making life much better for the early risers. We used the last of the food from my pack to make a hearty oatmeal breakfast, also removing about 8lbs of dead weight for the hike up – nice.
We all know what lays ahead, but there’s no sense pulling the Band-Aid off a little bit at a time – rip it off! We pack up and head out, and even with the early hour we’re the last to leave except for the serenading couple. Luckily there’s no singing this morning.
The climb is long and laborious, with frequent stops for snacks and water. The views slowly become more expansive as we climb back up through the layers – the Redwall, the Supai, the Hermit, the Coconino and Toroweap, and finally the Kaibab Limestone at the top of the canyon. Mother Nature lets us know that she’s keeping an eye on us with some sprinkles, and while I waited for the group at the Santa Maria Springs it started to come and go in heavier spurts.
Finally – the last set of switchbacks. We’re starting to see other people who are coming down the Hermit Trail, although they are day hiking to Dripping Springs or Santa Maria Springs and will be coming back up behind us. We all gather our energy reserves and press ahead. Despite the switchbacks, we grind out the remaining steps, only to be greeted at the summit with pea-sized hail and rain! Our shuttle driver John was the favorite person of the day, with snacks and drinks galore.
Was it hard? Hellzyes.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
While I like to gripe, it really is a very cool week, and one that I wouldn’t have missed. Being able to spend a week with people from very different walks of life, in a foreign environment is certainly a mind-expanding experience that everyone should get to enjoy. I hope that Shelby enjoyed it as much as I did.