Despite three years of hearing the classic iPhone alarm, it has never failed to wake me without a foreboding of the apocalypse. At 4:30am, my eyes opened with terror at the surrounding darkness as I snoozed the noise from hell. I sat on the edge of the bunk in a shell-shocked daze, reminding myself of where I was and what I was to do. It’s D-Day.
I switched on one of the lights and shook out my boots (per the ranger’s suggestion the prior evening) for any critters in overnight slumber. Phew. No scorpions, no drama. In the next half hour, I taped my toes, changed into athletic clothes, woke up the others, filled my water containers, and waited in front of the canteen for breakfast to be served. A dozen of us sat around the long picnic table, fueling up for the big hike ahead. After a couple flapjacks, four cups of coffee, and many “see you at the top” farewells, I was anxious to get started before sunrise.
I walked out the canteen and stretched on the steps, wishing I could extend my stay at this marvelous place. Just leave. You’ll be back. After a quick mental prep, I strapped on my pack, turned on my headlamp, and headed toward the Bright Angel Trailhead.
The next several hours were a blur.
I stopped a few times to chat with hikers at the mile marker water pumps, but resting was not allowed. To get to Utah and meet my AirBnB host on time, I needed to reach my car with inhumane diligence. I kept telling myself, I got this! But as the sun rose higher, my optimism plummeted. I began to feel every ounce of weight on my shoulders; my muscles screamed for a massage; and my handkerchief was too damp for any more sweat. Gross. I passed a few warning signs that read, “Down is optional; Up is mandatory.” How true. It was my decision to go down; it was on me to get back up. Next time, don’t pack pajamas. Don’t pack toiletries. Don’t pack extra socks. Don’t pack sani-wipes. Well, no, sani-wipes are necessary… Next time, pack a hubby. Share the load (i.e. you carry sani-wipes and he carries everything else).
About two-thirds of the way up, I realized I didn’t stop for a single picture nor moment to appreciate the view of what I had left behind. Wow. The river looks tiny from here. So I took a photo of the distant river,
snapped a sweaty selfie,
admired an odd looking plant,
and continued on. Passing an increasing number of people headed downward, I knew I was near the top. Step by step, I got closer to the signpost that marked the end of the trail. And then, I made it.
Reaching the top was nothing like crossing the finish line of a race — no cheering, no announcement, no medal. Despite the uneventful finish, I looked at the time to see what I had accomplished: 10:15am. Roughly 5 hours for 10 miles of 5,000ft in elevation changes under the Arizona sun. In that moment, there was something remarkable about what I felt, realizing I had reset my personal threshold for pain and discomfort. I had a whole new understanding and appreciation for my abilities and weaknesses.
Walking to my car in silent victory, I assured myself I would do it again. Well, perhaps not any time soon. And maybe after marriage.
After a couple hours, I caught myself staring at the status board every minute, expecting his number to flash and read, “Patient out of OR/PR." But it didn’t happen for what felt like days. The once busy family lounge soon became my own private quarters. And there, my thoughts wandered.
What would I regret most?
Was I respectful enough? Was I affectionate enough? Patient enough? Thoughtful enough? Generous? Loving?
How long would I dwell on the “should haves” of missed opportunities?
And for the millionth time, I resolved to Do better. Be better.
But it’s an awful feeing to recognize such self-reliance will fail me yet again. My ambition will be shattered upon our next encounter, exposing the emptiness behind my confidence. And so I know, I can’t do it alone.
When did asking for help become so hard?
Wow… It’s name is no misnomer, I thought, gazing across the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon. Sitting on the edge of its southern rim, I sighed with awe and anticipation for what lay ahead. Thanks to a little luck and good fortune, I’d soon join the 1% of visitors who marvel at the height, breadth, and depth of the canyon from its floor.
Several months ago, I met some German backpackers in Australia who said their favorite U.S. travel memory was heading to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, spending a night under the stars, and hiking up to the other side. It sounded unforgettable.
While planning my trip to the southwest, I wanted to do the rim to rim hike exactly as I had heard; however, traversing the canyon with camp gear for a couple days seemed difficult alone (i.e. I’m weak -_-). I considered attempting it in one day, but I didn’t want to chance the embarrassment of a helicopter rescue due to exhaustion, dehydration, or some other reason for incompetence. I started to lose hope.
But then, I stumbled upon the gem that is Phantom Ranch—the only lodging available inside the canyon with a full service canteen. How perfect! This hike might actually happen.. Excited, I called for a last minute reservation and was quickly informed of no availability. Evidently, people reserve cabins and bunks at least months, even a year, in advance. They told me to try again the week of. And so I did. The day before I left Chicago, with fingers crossed, I gave them another call.
Whoooooooooooooo! A spot opened up in the female dorm. Neato. It’s so on.
Fast forward to the night before, I could hardly sleep. Maybe I was too excited for the hike or still stimulated from climbing Humphrey’s. Whatever the reason, I slept two hours and woke up at 4am to drive into the park by 4:30. I filled my bottles, packed plenty of food, did a quick gear check, and locked the car. I tightened my laces and stepped onto the shuttle that would take me to the South Kaibab trailhead.
During the shuttle ride, the sky turned lighter as the sun prepared to rise. At the bus stop, I hopped off behind a handful of other hikers and jogged to the trailhead. Knowing the sun was just beyond the horizon, I hurried down to the affectionately named “Ooh Ahh Point” in time to catch daybreak. Stunning.
After that viewpoint, I leisurely made my way down, stopping to take hundreds of photos and keeping an eye out for mountain lions.
The changing landscapes offered breathtaking views, and the further I descended, the harder it was to scale the size of the canyons. It was venerably enormous.
The trail had no stops for shade or water, but I was so enamored by the surrounding serenity that I didn’t think much of the blazing sun. That is, until I noticed my pack feeling light on my shoulders. Shoot. My gallon of water was nearly gone, and I realized I was thirsty. Um… I haven’t seen anyone after “Ooh Ahh Point,” and the others might be hours behind… I looked carefully at the switchbacks on the slope ahead of me, hoping to see a slowly moving spot of color. No luck.
I wondered when I should start panicking, as I descended down the canyon. But before my thoughts could get too far ahead of me, I saw a mule train coming up on the other side. Score! People! Animals! Water! I hurried down to meet them and asked the lead rider if she would spare a bit of water. And as the water started to pour from her jug to my bottle, I couldn’t help but think of Oliver Twist. Please ma’am, I want some mo’… And she kept on pouring ‘til my Nalgene was full. Exchanging smiles and many thank you’s, I stepped aside and let them pass.
Focused on getting to my next source of water, I hurried down the trail until I spotted the bridge above the muddy waters of the Colorado river. The end is near!
And soon enough, I made it to Phantom Ranch.
Amidst the neatly planted trees and rustic wooden signs, I admired the charming stone cottages. Did I just walk into a 19th century fairy tale?
I saw the canteen in the distance and walked inside, craving the shade and something cold. Minutes later, I sipped on lemonade while waiting to check in. When the bunkhouse was ready, I headed over and threw my stuff all over the bottom bunk of my choice. I had planned to go for some easy walks and a dip in the creek. But…that bed. So…tempting… And before I knew it, I surrendered to the exhaustion.
A few hours later, I woke up from my nap feeling refreshed and alive, albeit a little sweaty and still quite dusty. I went outside to explore the canyon grounds, read under the trees, and soak in the cool creek waters.
By the time I returned to the dorm, the other ladies had arrived and were busy chatting away, getting to know one another. It felt a little like speed dating, but I enjoyed meeting this diverse group of travelers.
Anyway, with sunset soon approaching, I took a shower and changed into clean clothes. I walked around the ranch and decided to hang out with the sweet and docile mules. A park ranger was walking by when he noticed me inside the corral and asked if I wanted some company. Without waiting for an answer, he swung over the fence and leaned against a post. Okay, that entry was pretty suave… but… now this feels a little weird. Flustered, I said “no” and gave a nervous laugh. Wait, that was rude. Just be friendly. I made a lame excuse about the dinner bell ringing (but really, they have a dinner bell), so I was headed to the canteen. Should I do that cool jumpy thing over the fence too? No. You’ll fall. There’s mule dung everywhere. As I walked out through the proper gate, the ranger asked me if I liked scorpions. Huh? I said I’d never seen one and so he invited me to hunt for them after dinner. Woah, that sounds cool, but potentially awkward? I said “sure”. I mean, come on, scorpions!
After the first hot meal in three days, I was rested, full, and ready to hunt. I invited some women from my dorm to join in on the scorpion search, and we met the ranger back at the corral. Within minutes, we spotted them under and on the side of large rocks. Using blue lighting, they glowed a neon green. Phenomenal. Contrary to any expectations of awkwardness, I learned a whole lot about the national park that evening. And before long, while admiring the milky way painted faintly across the sky, the ladies and I headed back to the bunkhouse. Good night, Day 3.
Today is one of those days when everything seems to go wrong, and it’s frustrating to see my faults at the root of it all.
So here’s a throwback post to my second day of adventures in the southwest, shedding stress and sweat to reach the peak of 12,637 feet.
After a restful night in Flagstaff, I left the hostel around 5am, driving up to the Arizona Snowbowl parking lot. A brisk walk around the lot to locate the trailhead was all I needed to know that Ow.. My legs are kinda sore. Maybe I shouldn’t have hiked Camelback… Eh.. It’s not too bad…
I went back to the car and ate a bagel, watching the sun rise and color the sky. After a moment of admiration, thanksgiving, and prayer, I locked the car and headed off toward Humphrey’s Peak.
The first couple miles were a quick walk up through a grassy slope and series of steadily inclining switchbacks. The trail was easily identifiable… until it wasn’t.
Or maybe I’m just a noob.
At some point, somewhere, before I cleared the tree line, I walked off the trail and got lost. Rather than retracing my steps down, I kept going up, hoping to stumble back onto it. Shoot… where am I going…
Getting tired and freaking out a little, I used my location on Google Maps and a topographical map I pulled up on my phone. A half hour later, I found the trail. THANK YOU Google, Verizon, and God.
As the trees thinned out, I could see the surrounding mountains in the distance and got excited for the view up top. An hour later, I reached the saddle. Whoo! Almost there!
I shouldn’t have celebrated so soon. Within minutes, the clouds started rolling in as I walked through wind and mist over two false summits to finally arrive at Humphrey’s Peak.
And, well, no surprise there… No view. :(
Still thankful to have bagged Arizona’s highest, I headed back down to the saddle to avoid being whipped around by the strengthening winds. I passed a couple solo hikers, telling them about summit conditions and asking if it was any better below. I needed to stop to eat a little something and tape up a hot spot on my left foot. The winds were picking up down there as well, but it was mild enough to rest for 20 minutes. I ate, took care of my foot, and got ready for the descent.
But… Oh no. The liter of water I drank…
And without another thought, selfie, or sip of water, I blazed down the trail until I reached the portable toilets in the parking lot.
4 hours up and 1.5 hours down.
The sudden elevation change really took a toll on my hands. They felt like little balloons, ready to pop. Lovely.
I devoured a lunchables-esque snack of tuna & crackers before changing into comfy shorts and a tee. ‘Twas time to drive north, find lodging near the Grand Canyon, and have an early night. An intense day 3 & 4 were ahead.
After a quick sink-shower at the Camelback Mountain public bathroom, I blasted the A/C and drove back toward Phoenix, giving the previously mentioned security guard a quick wave and smile — must’ve been the post-work out endorphins. Ferocious growls from my stomach signaled me to stop and eat, but no time to waste! I wanted to drive through the Superstition Mountains on the Apache Trail and arrive in Sedona at least an hour before sunset.
Distracted from munchin’ on wheat thins, I drove past the Apache Junction in the wrong direction. I saw the sign in my rear view mirror, pulled a u-ey, snapped a picture, and proceeded onto the beginning of the trail’s 46 miles (managing to chew on a strip of beef jerky between my teeth).
Along the way, I pulled over into what looked like a gimmicky perversion of an old mining town, commercializing on the interests people have in the “wild west”. Still, it made for an interesting backdrop for some photos.
A little further, the pavement stopped and the trail became a rugged series of curves around the mountains, ascending and descending past scenic pull outs and reservoir lakes. Though I should’ve kept my eyes on the road at all times, I couldn’t help but look around at more saguaros than I’ve ever seen before (except maybe when I lived in Texas… but I was 3, how could I remember?)
Anyway, I anticipated some difficulty driving a sedan on rugged terrain, but I really enjoyed it; although, I was quite thankful that following the trail northward meant I’d drive hugging the mountainside, whereas those traveling south could look out their right windows to the potential of tumbling down to an imminent and prickly death. Making careful turns and crossing questionable one-lane bridges, I pulled over several times to take photos of the mountains and cacti.
And sooner than expected, I drew nearer to the end of route 88 and saw the Roosevelt Dam grow larger in sight. I parked in the designated lot and walked over to a shaded bench to scarf down a bagel and a not-so-tasty fruit squeeze packet. The dam itself was impressive, but I found the view better on the other side.
After an hour of stretching, eagle spotting, and hydrating, I went on my way to finish the first day by catching a glimpse of Sedona’s red rocks. I watched the sun set opposite of Cathedral Rock and headed to my hostel in Flagstaff, thinking, hey, what a good day.
After a 5am departure from Chicago and morning arrival in Phoenix, I felt bloated, hungry, and cranky. Ugh, and why was it so humid? Isn’t the arid southwest all about the dry heat?
I picked up my rental car and headed straight to the nearest Walmart, grabbing a bunch of non-perishable foods for the long hikes and quiet drives ahead. Along the way, I spotted the peak of what I now know as Camelback Mountain. I figured a small climb would get my body prepared for an overly-ambitious hiking week. I drove toward the mountain, not really knowing which way to go. Moments after an unpleasant encounter with a sarcastic security guard, I made it to the Echo Canyon parking lot—feeling grumpy and very judgmental about Arizonian friendliness.
A granola bar and handful of nuts later, I filled my water pack and started on the trail. The air was humid, as the clouds rolled in, and I started to wonder if I should ditch this idea and head to Flagstaff.
A couple hikers coming down the mountain chatted me up about Phoenix, Camelback, Squaw Peak, among other things, and they encouraged me to go up top regardless of the lack of view. Hey, they were really nice. I guess not everyone from the area is mean and sassy. heh. A few hundred feet up, bits of blue peeked through the clouds.
By the time I reached the top, the clouds had blown west. Though only 2,704’ above sea level, the summit offered great views over the urban neighborhoods of Phoenix. I would’ve taken more photos, but swarms of little flies kept attacking the sweaty heads of unsuspecting hikers. Not wanting to fall victim, I quickly snapped a couple pictures of the view and descended a hundred feet to an area that looked like a faux summit (to pose for my own “peak pic”).
Despite my moody arrival, things were looking up. Camelback was a great urban hike and a good way to kick off the week.
5:45am - Sat on a rock ledge, sippin’ cheap gas station coffee, as the sun slowly rose to illuminate Horseshoe Bend
And then for a moment, pushing aside my Windy City loyalty, I had the thought that I grew up in the wrong region of the United States.
Horseshoe Bend, AZ