A Tale of Two Trails – And So It Begins

South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon,

I don’t know when the seed was planted.

My family went to the Grand Canyon when I was a kid. Maybe it was then. It was a road-trip; California to Michigan. We didn’t stay there, only passed through. I remember my dad yelling at me to stay away from the edge; he was deathly afraid of heights. I also remember the colors of the canyon. The reds and browns, purples and yellows,  streaked and smeared across the canyon walls and sky.

I wanted to stay there, next to that canyon. But we didn’t. After walking to the rim to take in the view, we loaded back up and continued the drive. I haven’t thought about it in years. The memories are fuzzy, like a dream. I wonder if that was when the seed was planted.

It might have come later when I first learned of the Phantom Ranch.

Pouring through the pages of the AAA guidebooks each summer, I dreamed of all the places I would go. Road trip itineraries, national parks, theme parks, roadside attractions, all contained between the covers. I spent hours thumbing through the well-worn pages, so filled with possibility, dreaming of escape.

It was in one of those guidebooks I first learned about the mythical, to me anyhow, Phantom Ranch located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, reachable only by mule. The idea of riding a mule to the bottom of that vast canyon and spending the night was magical. It never occurred to me that someone might arrive at that place powered only by their own two feet. The seed may have been planted then; at the very least it got some fertilizer and a little water sprinkled on it.

Regardless of when it was planted, it broke through the surface and sprouted on another road-trip some thirty-five years later although this time around I’m the parent of two grown kids asking them not to get too close to the edge.

Our Grand Canyon adventure was a stop on a much longer road trip, just as it was on that trip from my youth.

Starting at the Visitor’s Center, we head out to Mather’s Point for what will be our first view of the canyon. Stepping onto the point the magnificent vastness spreads before us.

It is awesome! And I mean awesome in the strictest definition. The word’s overuse in popular culture has nearly rendered it meaningless. Defined as extremely impressive or daunting; causing a feeling of fear and wonder or inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, great admiration, or apprehension. That is what we’re experiencing.

Mather's Point, Grand Canyon, Author standing at viewpoint
Mather’s Point, Grand Canyon National Park

Walking along the Rim Trail and through the Grand Canyon Village, we find the Bright Angel Trail trailhead.

Peering over the edge reveals a seemingly endless number of switchbacks. A bride poses against a small tunnel carved from the rocks a couple of switchbacks down. Tourists in flip-flops and sandals line the most upper parts of the trail with an occasional dusty, sweaty, hiker using trekking poles and carrying a backpack thrown in the mix. Heads down, with a look of fierce determination, they make their final push to the top.

Joining the masses, we walk towards the tunnel only to turn back after three or four switchbacks, trudging back up the quarter of a mile or so. It’s getting late, and we need to head out. Hopping on one of the shuttles that run continuously through the park, we head back to the car. An older couple boards after we take our seat. Older than me anyway. I think. The fact that I may be delusional about how old I look has not escaped my notice.

Taking the seat in front of us, they sit, slumped against each other. Filthy, frizzy-haired, and slightly overweight, each has a set of trekking poles. He carries a backpack that is dropped unceremoniously in the aisle. They look exhausted, but happy…content. I can’t stop staring. I ask if they hiked up from the canyon floor, they smile, and he says yes.

I find this troubling.

I consider myself to be in reasonably good shape, but I was winded after completing the three or four switchbacks of our “hike.” He tells me that they went rim to rim. I have no idea what that means, but it seems self-explanatory. They sell a t-shirt in the gift shop that says it. It must be a thing. Fascinated, I want to hear more.

The hike was something the couple had dreamed of for years. Twelve hours to come down from the north rim, and fourteen hours to come up the south. They left her backpack at Indian Gardens, a campground located about halfway up the Bright Angel Trail. She couldn’t carry it any longer, so they loaded any necessities from her pack into his. Disembarking at the next stop, they slowly walk towards their hotel, leaning in towards one another. I watch them until they’re out of sight.

The rest of the road-trip goes by quickly. I’m still thinking about that couple on the flight home. The seed that’s been planted…it’s growing. Slowly and surreptitiously.

Months later, while out with friends, I mention the Grand Canyon and how I might like to hike it one day.

This is the first time that I’ve said this out loud. It sounds both enticing and absurd to me as the words leave my lips. Immediately, my friend Carver, exclaims “I’m in!’  A quick Google search reveals that reservations for Phantom Ranch are secured over a year in advance. This gives us plenty of time to train and prepare. Several glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon later, it’s settled. We are going rim to rim!

Phantom Ranch only takes reservations the first Monday of the month, and they go quickly. When the morning rolls around, I’m seated at my desk, eagerly dialing the number at 10 AM my time. A woman picks up on the first ring; the first available date is December 4. A little over one year away. Worried about the weather in December, I ask what we might expect. Patiently explaining that there is no way to tell, she goes over the cancellation policy.  Full refunds are issued up to two days before the trip. I book our stay at Phantom Ranch.

Moving on, she inquires about accommodations before and after the hike. I was so focused on Phantom Ranch that I had given this little thought. She gets us into the Bright Angel Lodge the night before our hike as well as the night we hike out. I can barely contain my excitement.

Next, she asks what trails we’ll be using.

I proudly tell her that we’ll be going rim to rim; after a pause, she explains that the roads to the North Rim close in October. Sensing my disappointment, as well as my lack of knowledge and experience, she informs me that most people go down the South Kaibab Trail and return on Bright Angel. I immediately tell her that that’s our plan, silently vowing to google it as soon as I hang up.

A few more questions and we’re all set. She gives me a confirmation number and wishes me luck before hanging up. My phone dings as I receive a confirmation email.

This shit just got real.


Click here to read what happens next.




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