The simultaneous buzzing of the iPhone alarms signaled go time. As Ash and I wiped the residue of a restless night’s canyon dreams from our eyes, my heart began to race. This was the day that I had been dreaming of for months. As my partner and I approached the trail head, a sense of pride washed over me. Here we were, two free spirits, destined to roam, united in the Arizona desert. Our less than traditional paths finally merged. Behind us we left a past of addictions, and reckless decisions. The Canyon represented new challenge, of our own doing, but this go round we had plenty of life experience and training to carry us through.
Fueled by the dawn’s seductive light, I began to rip down Bright Angel. Before I could get too carried away, Ash reminded me of the mileage and terrain ahead. “I know you are pumped, but we gotta keep our pace in check” she cautioned. Her miles of experience brought a reality check that I had coming. Thankful for her gentle reminder, I gained control, slowed my pace, and focused on breathing.
Why did I feel like I was breathing from one lung? “This ain’t Rhode Island,” I thought. Sea level sucks became my new mantra. Left foot “sea,” right foot “level,” left foot “sucks”, repeat went my knobby trail runners down the dusty path. We passed packs of hikers on our descent. Each group offered a warm welcome as they simultaneously shook their heads at our flamboyant display of enthusiasm for the run. “You girls are running this trail?” a group of backpackers shouted as we ran past doing our Bear Grylls impersonations. High on the Canyon, we flew past the throngs.
The sun rose higher and higher. We sang, laughed, and soaked in the earth toned surroundings. The blooming cacti, coupled with the green of the vegetation along Indian Garden, provided a soothing contrast. I was surprised by the cool, lush oasis along the canyon floor, and I certainty didn’t anticipate the splendor of the mighty Colorado. Viewing the river from the pages of my Backpacker and Outside magazines hadn’t prepared me for it’s impressive volume. Seeing it’s brilliant colors for myself, I realized that those damn dams influence the river in a profound way.
We crossed the Colorado via a cable suspended bridge. Impressive in flow and volume, the raging river was even more powerful beneath my feet. Beyond the bridge, the donkey corral stood, devoid of any activity. I noted that the mode of transportation for many to the canyon floor is by way of jackass. Fortunately for us, early departure from the South Rim meant avoidance of the piles of poop and trail crowding. “No thank you” I thought, this path is meant to be explored on my own two feet.
Phantom Ranch was the next park structure we came to. It offered shade, a picnic table, restrooms, and the most amazing lemonade. Quite the oasis, it was also home to Patrick the “poop man”. Even though his title evokes snicker, I marveled at the fact that he got paid to live in paradise. Poop Patrick was very hospitable to us, promising beer on the return trip. We thought it best to trade our beers for lemonade IOUs.
Noting Phantom’s Canteen closure at 4pm, we pushed towards the North Rim. The trail along this section wound through steep vertical rock walls, and finally opened to exposed desert terrain. No water sources until Cottonwood Camp, we were thankful for the fill-up at Phantom.
The midday sun beat on us from above. The previously sheltered trail unfolded as I had expected it to. This was the desert landscape I had anticipated: small shrubs, cacti, and sand, no shade. When we reached a stream crossing the trail, our bandanas were immediately dipped in the cool water. As we washed the salt and grime from our faces, we began to assess our progress and the time.
Up until that point, we cheerfully zipped along the trail, swapping stories, creating characters(the infamous Dangemon and Roofus evolved: deserts do produce heat induced delusions!). Our focus was on the present, we flowed with the Colorado. So when we reevaluated our progress, miles done in X amount of time + miles left to be done, we began to realize that Ashley’s fuel may not be sufficient without a resupply at Phantom Ranch.
Pressing on, we arrived at Cottonwood Campground, our next water resupply. Here we met two ladies who, like us, were enjoying the GC together, but were backpacking it. They expressed concern for us on our journey. We promised to stop and check-in on our way back to the South Rim, and then we parted ways.
The climb to the North Rim began gently, much like an into foreign language class: challenging, yet doable, to seemingly insurmountable. As we climbed, my quads screamed “who the hell turned up the heat?!”
At this point we had decent mileage on our legs. I was feeling every one earned along the rock strewn trail. The sun, once high and bright, was casting longer shadows of a different hue. If refuel was critical, and we had no way of determining exact miles left to summit the North Rim, assumption was no longer an option.
As if on cue, we paused and questioned our dedication to the pursuit of the North Rim at any cost. We had planned for months. Phone calls, emails, Skype sessions, flights, road trip, all for this one goal. Our hearts were in for the kill, but was it meant to be?
Without a handy Magic 8 Ball, the AA duo was at a loss. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, but don’t want to” Ashley questioned me cautiously. “Yes, I imagine so” I stumbled. It had been verbally acknowledged. The exchange of doubt was undeniable. It was us, the trail, and God. No aid station, and no way out but Bright Angel. This was not another running shoe sponsored event. We created this adventure. We were responsible for any outcome.
We said a prayer asking for guidance, knowing in our guts what we needed to do. Tears were shed. The adventure was ours. Ashley and I grabbed a couple of rocks from the trail, and began our journey home.