ain’t nothing but a canyon mile

You never know what you’re capable of until you take yourself to the edge.  You don’t really know who you are until you break a little (or a lot).

After months of inactivity, thanks to the need to recover from a chronic running injury, naturally we decided to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon for our Christmas holiday in 2016.  No big deal.  Piece of cake.  Easy as pie, and all the other cliched platitudes about the relative lack of effort such an undertaking might entail if one doesn’t think too hard about the actual task at hand.

Neither of us had been to this National Park, which is supposed to be (and is) one of America’s treasures, a place of wonder and beauty and mystery.  Luckily we got a permit for our first preference itinerary, and the planning ensued.  Meal planning, getting there planning, clothing planning, gear management and acquisition (such as crampons and gaiters, thanks to winter conditions).

Along with regular purchases of gear came constant monitoring of weather patterns. When I say constant, I mean looking at the forecast each morning, reviewing historical performance and searching for other myriad predictions. Snow was the main problem. Lots of snow.  And chain restrictions and icy trails. Over the few weeks leading up to the trip, we thought we were going to get snowed out, or stranded.  Two days before we were supposed to head out the weather was still changing, still unpredictable.

When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon for our first night of camping in the cold, under the stars, a shroud of fog had veiled the landscape.  The adventure on which we were about to embark remained hidden from us. There was no canyon, no plunge of land going down for one vertical mile.  There were no layers of geologic time, no cliff faces.  There were only the dense particles drifting before us as we walked along the path at the edge of the South Rim.  They stuck to our clothes, our eyelashes, my glasses. The air coated us in its heavy breath.  It was only after we ducked into one of the lodges for a beer, only after we reemerged that the fog had retreated a little to give us our first hint of the scale of the canyon, and its vibrant banding color.

Veiled Canyon

Veiled Canyon

Giddy.  Smiling and not even minding the other people who were rushing to the railing’s edge to take their photos with selfie sticks.  We looked at each other, and grinned at what we were about to descend into.

That night, snow flurries flirted at the South Rim as clouds raced across the sky. We caught glimpses of the stars through the wounds in the clouds, and tried to light a fire with wood that refused to burn, even though it was dry and the kindling was good.  As we drank port wine amid the pine trees, fresh snow dusted the ground and cold infused the air with biting teeth.  We fretted about putting up the tent, not wanting to start off with wet gear.  We fretted about the cold.

Our second day at the Grand Canyon was the real beginning of our adventure.  We parked at the backcountry office, checked our gear one last time and took the shuttle, with heavy packs on laps, to the Bright Angel trailhead.

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Gear management

Though it was early, a regrettable number of people in designer boots or simple sneakers already populated the trail.  And what they were there for was not what we were there for.  Photo ops.  Daring pictures. Claiming the space and polishing their brand through two-dimensional captures. Being there for some people was less about the experience itself and more about documenting you were having the experience, all with an eye toward curation of who you want people to believe you are rather than who you are.

But these travel companions were temporary, as elevation is the ultimate filter.  Past the Three Mile Resthouse, we encountered few people.  They tended to be thoughtful and quiet, and had impeccable trail etiquette.

After lunch near Indian Garden, the weather shifted once again.  A drizzle began, which would plague us for the rest of the day.  It was at this point when I realized the Canyon had invaded my muscles and my bones. Already.  On day one before we were even halfway to the Bright Angel Campground.

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Jessica’s last happy moment for the day

The Canyon’s extreme nature also emerged.  The elevation, the terrain of varied rockscapes, the water, which was everywhere.  I was hot one second, and freezing in the time it took to take off my beanie and gloves.  Rain, rain, and rain.  My mood steadily declined until I plodded on in silent rancor.  I was acutely aware of the muscles in my legs by the time we reached the vista for what’s called (we would later discover) the Devil’s Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a long rambling switchback descending further into the Canyon floor.  Before even reaching it, I wondered how in the hell I was going to get back up to the rim.

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The Devil’s Corkscrew (photo was taken on the climb back up)

A. started talking about heading back, but in my mind the only way was forward. So we did the Devil’s Corkscrew, and we came to the next Resthouse, and we finally saw the Colorado River, angry with mud and swollen by the rain, and there was no sign (none, not a single evidence) of the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge.

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Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (photo taken heading back out on day 2 in the Canyon)

I wanted to cry.  By the time we reached the bridge (which took an excessively long time and what felt like another mile of traversing), I was in the gutter.  Legs: agony. Pack: a burden. Body: barely propelling itself forward. Emotional and psychological states: despondent.  Crossing that bridge with no indication of how far the campground was, I did start crying.  I had nothing left.  I hurt, I wasn’t having fun, and for the first time in my life, I had encountered my true edge.  I had reached the limit of my ability, and I wasn’t sure I could get myself out of the Canyon.

This was my threshold.  Every time we step through a door, we cross over a threshold. Most of the time it isn’t the physical crossings that impact us, but the mental ones. Afterall, thresholds mark a transition from one state to another.   We can feel when we encounter a boundary, just the same as we can feel when we’ve overcome that boundary. I wasn’t very grateful at the time, but now I cherish meeting that significant threshold.

Why is hitting my breaking point a gift?  I got to experience how I genuinely react in an extreme situation. Those reactions were not dressed up or contrived; they were 100% me. I got to see what my body could do, and understand better what I wanted it to be able to do.  It helped realign my expectations, and devise a plan to improve my overall conditioning.  And it revealed that my mind was powerful, because in the end determination was the only thing that got me back on my feet.

The next day, we awoke to clear skies, and the sun dancing on the edge of the mesa far above us. The aspens were chattering, and the world was quiet, and peaceful.

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It was at this point we made a conscious decision to enjoy the hike up to Indian Garden. We would take photos of the beauty surrounding us, take our time getting up to the next campground, take the time to solidify our memories of this amazing adventure. Indian Garden was a beautiful oasis to hobble around, and the next day we got up and ascended back to where we had come from, but not from where we started.  Later we would call how tricky it is to judge and cross distance in the Grand Canyon “a canyon mile”.

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