Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Grand Canyon

I woke up to the dog in the room behind mine barking, relentlessly, the owner seemed to be absent, which seemed unlikely given the ungodly hour. It was 5am and with a solid nights sleep behind me my body refuse to return to sleep so I began my day. It was just before eight when I hit the road, and quickly I realized my ill timing. Phoenix morning rush hour traffic crept along, costing me a good half an hour. After days of virtually empty roads I was unprepared for the demands of city traffic and was soon jostled from my calm state in to a full frenzy, trying desperately to avoid the insanity that was unfolding around me. Eventually the traffic thinned as the city quickly disappeared in my mirrors, once again I was out in the desert, empty desolation surrounding me. 

Soon the road climbed upward and within a couple minutes I was cursing along 6000ft able sea level, the desert plants replaced by evergreen forest stretching out across the rolling landscape. Snow covered the forest floor, the dark green of the trees contrasting with the pure white snow. It was a relatively short drive, and with the changes in landscape the drive went by quickly. Soon I was pulling through the plethora of tourist shops and restaurants that exist just outside the park. I pulled into the park and followed my usual routine, go to visitor center, get map, plan hikes, drive to hike. 

The air was chilly but not cold, the sun making up for what the air temperature lacked. I headed out to Bright Angel Trail, which is one of the most popular trails in the park that descends into the canyon. Immediately I was struck with the sheer number of people. Anyone who has been to the Grand Canyon, or any other major national park, during the summer, would laugh at what I was referring to as “a lot of people,” but I had spent the last two days nearly alone in the wilderness, and had had Carlsbad Cavern practically all to myself. I walked down the trail, more and more perturbed with each friendly “hello,” I received, angry that I didn’t once again have the place to myself. I had become spoiled with solidarity. 

Further down the trail the passing of other people became more and more infrequent and eventually it felt like indeed I had the place to myself. to one side of my the red and grey cliffs rose to the pristine blue sky, the the other side the world fell away, revealing a cascade of colorful rock layers, stretching out forever. The walk down was easy and fast moving as one would expect. I choose to walk down over 2100 feet, a hike that was six miles round trip. At the bottom on my descent the cliffs rose up thousands of feet, the stratification of the colored layers thrust above me. I sat in a small alcove, the temperature was much cooler, cold even. I grabbed my stuff and started my climb out of the canyon. Phoenix traffic had put me behind and I estimated that I would conclude the climb out about 45 minutes before sunset. 

I started up the path, instantly my legs reminded me of the effort they had put forth over the past few days. I pushed on, there really is no other choice, as the park signs say “Going down is a choice, coming up is mandatory.” I hadn’t seen any other people for awhile and was starting to enjoy myself, when I turned a bend and was face to face with a deer. We stared at each other awkwardly, both waiting for the other to make the first move. She stared deep into my eyes, her white tail raised in alert. She stood not moving, as did I, not out of some respect for the beautiful creature, but because I really was unsure what my options were. I must have blinked or twitched because she bolted down a steep slop and disappeared as quietly as she had appeared, hidden by the thick brush.
A view of part of the trail.
The lower half of the trail is made up of awful red dust, the wind started to stir and kicked up the dust, making breathing, which was already tedious due to the altitude, difficult. I must have been setting a decent pace because I started to catch up with other hikers, they were all couples, I was alone, it hadn’t dawned on me how weird it was to just be alone in these parks. I slowed my pace to match the couple in front of me, stopping more frequently to snap pictures, both because it was beautiful, and because it was a break from the hike. Half way up I scurried over some rocks to a pinnacle and had lunch, the canyon looked so peaceful, so untainted by the problems of the world. An eternity sat across from me, staring at me with the wise eyes of eons. The temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun dropped from the sky, I craved the rays of sunlight that showered the canyon walls across from me, leaving me in the cold with the ice formations which had yet to melt since the last snowfall. 

Although daunting the path was boring, lacking any of the excitement of the previous days climb, and I decided to take it upon myself to rectify that. The path basically just climbed back and forth up from the canyon floor, knowing this I surmised that if I were to climb the steep slopes I should eventually reunite with the trail. Worse case scenario is I would climb back down, having wasted my time. I started up the slope, instantly finding obstacles, exactly what I wanted. I tucked the camera away and returned to my rock climbing ways, navigating myself up the steep climb. A few times I came to places that seemed undoable, but I explained to myself that if the deer could do it then so could I, and I proved myself right. The higher I climb the more convinced I became that I had made a error in judgement, but I continued up, convinced I could just climb the cliff faces a thousand feet if need be.

Eventually I reunited with the path, and realized I had cut a good quarter mile off my trek, reinvigorated by my climb I hurried up the path, urging myself on by lying that the end was just around the next bend. Soon I made my way out of the shadows and the warm sun on my skin gave me a boost of energy. More people were at near the top, expectedly, and their presence made me unwilling to take any pictures so the last half mile breezed by.
This couple had me take their picture, not this picture, this is just a creep pic.
In the parking lot a small wall, maybe three feet in height, stood between me and my car, unwilling to go around I lifted myself up onto the wall, tearing my pants in the process. After three days of strenuous hiking my pants gave out in a parking lot. I laughed, changed my cloths and head lunch. The sun was low in the sky by the time I got back on the road, I took a drive down a road that lead to some additional hikes and lookouts. Each lookout was covered in people, I stopped only a few times before realizing I had almost no tolerance for the hordes and headed off. As I made my way towards the park entrance the sun was setting. I decided that I would see the sunset whether or not it entailed dealing with the throngs of other visitors.

The air had cooled considerably and a cold wind was blowing in as I made my way to a lookout. I arrived just a couple minutes before sunset, only a few other people remained, braving the biting wind in order to see the sun sink in the distant horizon. I sat along a ledge and watched quietly as the sun slipped away, the end of another day. 

I stopped to grab dinner and by the time I finished the sky was dark. I had a three hour drive ahead of me. Although it was dark it was still early only eight at night. As I drove the stars in the sky became distracting, forcing my eyes away from the road and into the heavens. I pulled over to take it all in. I was completely alone in utter darkness staring up into the heavens. The stars were infinite, billions of tiny flickering lights dancing in the sky. I ended up standing staring at the stars for nearly 45 minutes, unmoved by the cold air, enamored with the beauty that existed above me. 

When I returned to the car my extremities were nearly numb, “it was totally worth it,” I thought to myself as I drove down the road surrounded by darkness, unable to see but a few feet off the shoulder of the road. I don’t like driving at night for the very reason that you can pass by something amazing without even realizing it, and on this drive I sensed the beauty that the darkness hid, and that I would never see.

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