Going Downhill

I didn’t plan to go down into the Grand Canyon the day of my forty-fifth birthday; that was just how it turned out. It was cold and windy at the top at 6 am when my husband and I began our descent. I was excited, but wary of going on my first backpacking trip ever.

At the top of the Canyon, we were met with a grim message of what can go wrong if you aren’t prepared for the experience. There was a story posted of a woman who had survived the Boston Marathon, but met her end after woman backpacking in the Grand Canyongoing into the Canyon without the necessary supplies: enough food and water and a map. Mentally, I made a note of our provisions: water–check, food–check, map–check, and thanks to my Cousin Steve’s insistence, walking sticks–check. We were sure we didn’t need sticks, but Steve owns a camping store in Flagstaff, Arizona, so we heeded his advice and brought the sticks. Last, but not least, sherpa (aka husband)–check.

We went down the South Kaibab Trail, a known, but not insanely popular trail. We did see other people on our descent, but not throngs of people and no mules. I couldn’t help but notice that going down included a lot of going up; the trail was not an even one.  There were some areas of loose rock that slipped as you navigated the trail. It took some deep breathing to keep my fear of heights in check.

At one point, we met with a man who was forking off to a different trail. He was a local who made the solo trip in and out monthly. After we separated from him, my husband casually remarked that he had originally planned to have us go down that trail until a ranger explained that we would have to fill out paperwork with our names and identifying features. To identify our bodies. If we fell off the cliff.

The temperature and our moods picked up as we made our way down.  We stopped for lunch and though it has been said before, we were overwhelmed by the amazing view. We signed the visitor log in an oasis-like shelter where people remarked that only people who went into the Grand Canyon truly experienced it. I felt like one of the privileged few.

We arrived at our campsite, an isolated spot by the side of a steep canyon by early afternoon. We set up camp and sat by an idyllic stream nearby.  The temperature was perfect, the water clear and drinkable, other people out of sight. It was perfect.

The second morning, I woke to legs that were screaming with pain. I had not realized the  amount of strain on my legs from walking downhill. Luckily, we were just exploring the area that day, not backpacking, but still the effort of moving my legs was considerable. We walked to the Colorado River where we met many generous rafters (the people on the river are happy to give) who gave us lunch and beer, I stood in the 54 degree water for as long as I could bear it, reasoning that it was as close as I could get to putting ice on my quadriceps.  Again, we marveled at the wonder that is the Grand Canyon.

Despite my attempts to appease my muscles, I found myself in even worse shape the following day, and this was a 11.6 mile hike day–not a terrible distance, but a challenge with my backpack and unhappy legs. I found myself struggling to go down the shallowest incline, but all right on the flats and uphills. I was grateful for the walking sticks which took some weight off of my knees. The sun bore down on us fairly hard at midday, so we took a brief siesta in a shady spot. At four pm we arrived at the oasis that is Indian Gardens.  If our previous campsite was charming and isolated, this was well-outfitted and a social paradise. They had cool water piped in, nice clean bathrooms, a pool you could sit in and friendly people sharing stories. We chatted with a father and daughter on a day hike and a group of happy partiers.

I’m not sure exactly what motivated us to keep going that night. It might have been the thought of navigating Bright Angel trail with hordes of other hikers the following  morning, worry about the warm temperatures, or the idea of trying to pass by mules on a narrow trail while wearing a backpack. But, honestly, I think I was afraid of how useless my legs would be the following morning. All I know is that when my husband said off-handedly, “We could just walk out of here tonight,” it seemed like the right thing to do. And while the walk out involved a lot of groaning and panting by me and one pronouncement of “I’m not invincible, you know” on the part of my husband, going uphill we seemed to gain momentum. We climbed 3000 feet over 4.6 miles in three and a half hours.

It was a physical and psychological challenge,  and it was days before I was able to walk without pain, but for a first backpacking trip, I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful and ultimately satisfying experience.


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