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Backpacking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim (to Rim)

I quit my job. It was a job that paid well, had great benefits and involved working with exceptional people on meaningful activities. But it was also a job where I watched people get too comfortable, stagnate and actively subscribe to one way of thinking to the detriment of many.  It was a place where people go to work their entire lives: to start and stay all the way to the end. And that is a very good life path for most, but it just did not feel right for me. So when my day-to-day started involving meetings where valid ideas and innovation started taking the back-burner to micromanagement and narrow thinking coupled with a painfully slow pace, I knew it was time to jump. 

Black Bridge

And jump I did. After more than a decade, I said goodbye to a team -a family really- and a program that I built or helped build. I left behind ideas that were still seeds and investments that could...WILL... make a difference. I let go of people I care for deeply and a way of life that I was proud of.  It is a deep hole that is healing with the support of family and friends, and time.  

"Everyone's medicine is different." This is wisdom taken from yoga teacher training (maybe the best training I have ever had). This, along with "you have permission to do what you need to do" and "there is enough room for everyone to shine." At this odd and important juncture in my life I am lucky enough to have the life experience and self awareness to know that there is good medicine for me, that I can shine again if I take a moment for myself, to process and be healthy. 

I know my medicine comes with footsteps and fresh air, simplicity and quiet, adventure and challenge. 

It would have been so much better for me to have freedom during the summer; to spend quality time with myself and also with the kids while they are free, too; exploring and adventuring during the West's sparkling summer months. But I could not have done this in the summer or, for that matter, even if I chose a week later in February. The universe, or the trail, provided the opening right now, to walk across that majestic, monumental chasm that is the Grand Canyon. 

All by myself; to think about life and purpose, ego and humility, work and family. To take my medicine.

When I arrived at the backcountry office on February 9th at 8AM on the dot (exactly when they opened) it was 12 degrees Fahrenheit.  As I warmed up inside, I held my breath until the ranger finally said they had wide backcountry availability and I could really just choose the path I wanted. After sharing my plans, she printed my permit and asked multiple times if I hiked a lot. I'm sure she would have understood if I had said, "yes, it's my medicine; and I'm looking forward to the kind of medicine that entails walking up and down 9,000 feet over forty-four miles."  I just answered yes because I really do hike a lot. I hike most days, in fact right across the street, sometimes less than a mile and sometimes more than ten miles.

After some discussion about where to leave my electric car, we decided I should plug in at Maswik Lodge and take the shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead; and I should get going because the trail to Bright Angel Campground takes 4-6 hours. So that's what I did. I was advised by the shuttle bus driver that South Kaibab trail had no water so I refilled one last time and...lets gooooo! 

Day 1: South Rim to Bright Angel Campground (Phantom Ranch), 7 miles, 4,700 feet down

I can’t help but howl as I step out onto a corner—where I seem to be standing on a cloud looking down on...heaven? The majestic, layered, vast, expanse of earth opens up her arms and welcomes me.  Here I am, doing this thing I've wanted to do for so many years in this profound, spiritual, important place.  Am I real? Is this really happening? 

Down, down, down, down I go until I think I can take no more steps down and then there is another layer, level, switchback and then another...down. But I glimpse that great blue-green river and she calls me toward her. She would sweep me away and show me all of her powerful secrets. She is the maker, the creator, the artist and engineer behind the whole thing, infinitely persistent, still creating despite, or in spite of, us and oh she is powerful. An extension of all that power that comes with the ocean and the moon. Respect that power.  

I make it down, turn the last corner and I am not dead but nearly. Legs so full of lactic acid that they feel like stumps and that toe—that one toe feels like it’s breaking and un-breaking with every step. The sun is shining and filling me up with what I need, though. Cross the bridge, the black bridge, evaluate its ingenuity—one of many feats to come; pass people on the beach, so wanting to jump into that inviting blue-green beauty but wiser to the temptation: too cold, too powerful. Next I find…structures?, a helicopter dropping…wastewater treatment equipment?, and more people. People who are fixing the wastewater plant, other hikers, rangers and horsemen and women. It’s amazing that this little community exists here, at the bottom, all on foot or mule or boat, without the help of cars and cranes. 

At Bright Angel Campground, I chose a very odd campsite, probably the least private site. It sat at the entrance of the campground and next to the bridge that leads to Phantom Ranch--so many people passing by. But I would not change this because there were no trees to cover the starry night sky. And, the other sites may have had visual privacy but there were many other campers. Sound travels, too. I had nice conversations with at least two other backpackers (both also hiking solo) because they were curious about, really could not understand, my site choice. Ha!

The bottom feels like being in the inverse Rockies. Not a canyon, not enclosed, but with tight enough walls, like steps of mountains.  Beyond the mountains you can see are so many more mountains. And, oh my, the Colorado River: elemental, essential, ancient and big--what this river has seen over time!--powerful but fleeting. The ranger for the evening program at Phantom Ranch reminds us that this one blue orb is all we've got. This Colorado River is all we've got, too.  Protect it!

What would I do if I could do anything? 

Day 2: Bright Angel Campground to Cottonwood Campground, 7.2 miles, 1,540 feet up

Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Campground make up a bustling sort of town, with full time staff, cabins, animals and a canteen. The campground is lovely; has flushing toilets and running water. They are rebuilding the water treatment plant that is down here at the bottom of the canyon, at the intersection of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River. 

Today is my easiest hiking day and I need an easy day--so much soreness in my quads and calves from stepping down and down and down again yesterday. The first two hours are through "the box" which tracks Bright Angel Creek through a tight, high-walled canyon. It is cold. The sun did not show until 11AM. The trail engineering is, again, well done including multiple bridges. After the box, the trail opens into proper desert; an offshoot of the grand canyon, which is very much part of the grand canyon but carved by a tributary to the Colorado. It is hot but not too steep and not too many steps; not much shade, amazing rocks. The weather is nearly perfect here, albeit more extreme hots and colds, like the desert does best. I like more colds. More hots and I melt.

Cottonwood campground does not have running water but it has very nice, more private and quiet sites. There are many fewer people here and I only talk to one person all day. I filter water and dip my feet in the cold creek...ah, blissful, for swollen, sore feet. I am already starting to feel the stink and grime of hiking life. Rivers make hiking so much better. Rivers make life so much better. Water is life.

By 6:20PM I am all bundled back up with puffy coat, gloves and a hat watching the sky turn pink, purple and then blue-black. Pushing to stay awake long enough to see stars. But the moon has other ideas.

What's my medicine for today? I think we all have a gift and we all have things that we love but they might not match. I love walking and taking pictures, going on adventures and sharing with others but I'm not sure that's my gift. I also miss family and want them to be here. I can't be away very long, I need to be there, I only have so much time to spend with them. So I think my love for walking and wilderness needs to balance my love for family and work.

Day 3: Cottonwood Campground to the North Rim, 13 miles, 4,200 feet up, 4,200 feet down

It's my longest day and I woke up early in the cold with significant anxiety at whether I'd be able to tackle so much up and down for so far in short, winter daylight hours. But I have to try. Fortunately I just have a day pack and the rhythm of walking came quickly. I stopped to fill up water at Manzanita Rest Stop wondering if I had entered an uninhabited world. I hadn't seen anyone since early yesterday but that's nice! Finally, I pass a few gnarly backpackers climbing straight up Roaring Spring. What are they up to?

The sun did not show until about halfway up the trail but I enjoyed the cool, not cold, ambient temperature. The trail views on North Kaibab are just indescribable, breathtaking, with places literally carved out of the rock wall, sometimes with a thousand foot drop. I hugged the wall. Springs poured ice out of odd site. I had to climb over a particularly big, frozen outflow. 

I was planning to fill up water at Supai Tunnel but water was off and restrooms were closed so I made due with what I had left. The last two miles were ice, snow and mud and I forgot traction. Ready to be at the top, it was a  grumpy last stretch of slipping and sliding. But I did it! The top was covered in many feet of snow but I had a teeny bit of cell coverage so texted Kris a few pictures and updates which took about 25% of my phone battery.

Coming back was like flying and I started to see trailrunners and other hikers.  So I'm not alone after....oh! it's Friday. I splurged more battery and listened to music as I soared all the way back to camp. At Manzanita, the gnarly backpackers from Roaring Spring were camped out next to the ranger station. What ARE they up to?

I was back at camp with just a bit of time to dip my feet in the creek again....soooooo good!  And the sky put on it's show while I ate delicious ramen with a few remaining crunchy green peppers.

What would I do if I could do anything? Strip away all of the material habits and wants and life gets really sweet: eat, sleep, be with loved ones. Enjoy beauty. Support, listen, give hugs, find solutions, be happy. True, pure, soulful and sincere happiness. It's that easy. i doing something meaningful? Am I accepting responsibility, making a contribution for me and for many others with my minutes here on earth? Am I offering my gifts for the larger collective purpose? Do I need to do that now? What of the investments I've made so far? What do I need? Companionship, nature, love, challenge, time, patience.

Day 4: Cottonwood Campground to Indian Garden, 12.2 miles, 1540 feet down, 1300 feet up

It's another long day with a heavy pack, albeit lighter heavy pack. I was not as anxious about getting to Indian Garden as about all those steps back up to the South Rim from Indian Garden. I woke with a headache and very hot in the middle of the night so slept in just a bit.  On the bright side, I was awake to see the stars (with a bright moon). Not so bright side, I was a little groggy waking up.

The flat walk back through "the box" went fast and I passed many people.  Phantom Ranch looks so different in the light of mid day. Busy but still very quiet. Lovely. I planned to stop for lunch by the River but the picnic area was closed for water treatment plant construction so I found a sandbar and dipped my hot, sweaty, feet feet in the roaring, cold Colorado. Cold and refreshing. No one else was doing this. Why?!  

Silver Bridge

I found a ledge on the River Trail for lunch and watched a group of rafters glide by. They don't seem very humble. Perhaps they wear their masks well. How could you not be humble with that monster of a river pulling you down the canyon? Pipe Creek beach looked nice but there were many people enjoying so I kept on. The up wasn't so bad and Bright Angel trail is just beautiful. It follows Garden Creek for a good portion which was gushing, roaring next to the trail and filling up some parts, making for interesting rock hopping. 

Indian Garden campground is not lovely. The sites are too tight with nearly zero sound or visual privacy. But they have ramadas for each site which would be nice in the hot, sunny summer. I only spoke with one person yesterday-- just to say he wouldn't need gaiters at the North Rim. I think I enjoyed the silence too much and now Indian Garden campground feels too full and close to people--every movement can be heard and seen by everyone!  Cottonwood was definitely the best developed campground. Next time I'd like to stop at the Phantom Ranch canteen. 

I had dinner with the canyon at sunset somewhere off of the Tonto Trail. I'd like to walk the Tonto Trail and camp at undeveloped sites, maybe even on the beach. I need to win the lottery to do that and who knows when I'll have flexibility again so I took advantage of a bit of Tonto at sunset.  

Day 5: Indian Garden to the South Rim, 4.5 miles, 3,040 feet up

I have a long drive home and am anxious to make as much time as possible today so I pack up and hit the trail by 8AM.  There are already several runners heading out and I pass a few groups of hikers and backpackers on their way down. The trail is well graded with nice milestones made from the 3 mile and 1.5 mile resthouse(s) which make for a pretty smooth walk up to the top.  There is one spot near the top where several inches of water are frozen over the trail with a 30 foot drop on the downhill side.  People are stuck on the other side or sliding down on their butts. My traction works but it's definitely sketchy. 

At the top I take a moment to relish what lays in front of me. This was good medicine.  The Canyon welcomed me with open arms and helped me feel confident and capable. The Colorado River is a good role model. She acts humbly behind the scenes, working tirelessly, persistent and powerful.  

I left a lot in the canyon and took more with me. This is a special experience, a special place. But, gosh, I miss my people and I'm ready to be home with them again.

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