The morning I would drive to the Grand Canyon, I dreamt I would get a permit to sleep by the Colorado, though the nature of the permit was vague. I awakened at 4, too excited to drift back to sleep. At the backcountry permit office four hours later, I was told the canyon campground had no space, but Phantom Ranch, the rustic hostel with bunks and meal service, did. For the third time that morning (after passing the park entry sign and catching first glimpse), my eyes started leaking. Dipping my hand in the river had been on my mind since my first trip here 38 years ago, and I was about to do it.
On a poster in the backcountry permit office:
After your first experience backpacking in the Grand Canyon you will be left with one of two reactions: either you will never hike again in your life, or you will find that your life up to this moment has been meaningless, and you be forever enslaved by thoughts of returning to this torturous paradise.
The prose is overblown but the message apt. (The meaning of my life turned when I biked up Logan Pass in Glacier 11 years ago.) I zipped through the North and South Rims in May 1980 on a whirlwind cross-continent drive, taking time for a short afternoon hike on the South Kaibab Trail. Laurie and I were here five years ago in January, when the short day, icy trails and a less obsessive itinerary allowed only for a repeat trek to Skeleton Point on South Kaibab.
After packing an overnight (food, clothing layers, toothbrush), I walked off the rim onto Bright Angel Trail about noon for the 9.7-mile descent. For the first couple hours, traffic was busy in both directions. By Indian Garden – the half-way oasis with water, toilets, campground, ranger station, medic (and helipad) and corral – the numbers had thinned, and the terrain leveled a bit. For a while. The bottom half of the walk has three distinct sections: along Pipe Creek starting at Indian Garden, another steep section in the desert, and then along and above the river until the trail crosses and meanders up Bright Angel Creek. I arrived at Phantom Ranch just as the 5 p.m. diners were being seated for steak and potatoes.
After settling into my dorm bunk and cleaning up, I returned to the canteen for the 6:30 dinner of beef stew, salad, corn bread and chocolate cake, served family style. Then Danny, the host, hustled us out so that staff could prep for store/social hour, 8 to 10: beer, next-day snacks, souvenirs, postcards (to be packed out in leather satchel by mule). Very efficient operation. So how does it work, I asked.
A 14-member team does it: cleaning, bed-making, dinner and breakfast for 44 hikers. Work schedule is 10 days at Phantom, four days off (non-shift housing in Grand Canyon Village). Staff members room together. They commute the same way we do: by foot. All jobs rotate. One day you’re making coffee for the early hikers at 3:30 a.m., the next you’re running the post-dinner canteen. The dinner menu never varies: steak and potatoes (and the vegetarian selection, whatever that is) for the early service; beef stew (delicious) for the second. Breakfast is early but I don’t know; I headed out at 4.
The cliffs in the gorge frame the starlight, which is (mostly) sufficient to see the trail. I passed a couple after less than a mile; they had stepped off the South Rim about midnight to beat the heat on their return climb. I stopped for breakfast at Pipe Creek Beach, the last spot for viewing the river. My gaze turned to the receding shadows as the sunshine moved down the cliffs. I’d been walking for two hours before the sun’s rays reached me. By the time I arrived at Indian Garden, a half-hour later, nine hikers had passed me heading down.
Now came the steep section. One foot in front of the other, a couple of stops for snacks, breathers to take in the views. About 10 a.m., as the trail influx really picks up, I’m on the rim.
In the afternoon I’m having an ice cream cone and a conversation with John from Birmingham AL, a soft-spoken, 75-year-old who had made the trek to Phantom Ranch the night before I did, for the sixth time. After his wife last week released him for a solo voyage, he’d gone online, found an opening in the dorm, bought a plane ticket to Las Vegas and made the drive in a rental to the South Rim. His is the character to whom the backcountry poster resonates. This was his last trip, he told me. It was getting harder with age, and he’d slowed since the last one.
It wasn’t as hard as I’d anticipated. I’m in good shape, still something of an endurance athlete, and I’d practiced walking in Big Bend, Arches and Bryce Canyon over two weeks. I’d like to think it’s not my last pilgrimage. My friend Arthur wrote to me: “I hope you feel at home and welcome there, and come out knowing something about yourself you never knew.”
I do feel at home here – I cry at the thought of approaching the Rim. I mulled: Dear Laurie, I could die happy now. But then I thought about Arizona’s John McCain, who’s spending his last days in Sedona, telling friends he loves them and hearing he is loved by them, without any need to run around completing a bucket list. Or his list is simple. Mine is more complicated because I don’t have a date certain. At 59.9, I feel the effects of age, but I assume I will give over to the life of reading and thinking and being, less to doing.
What I do know: I love this hole in the ground.