Hiking deep into the Grand Canyon, silence echoing off the million year old stones, I expected serenity. The hushed peace that gives you chills. That “I feel smaller than an ant” moment. And after hiking six miles along the Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point, I craved that moment…for something to stir inside of me.
I had been traveling for a little over a week when I finally arrived at the Grand Canyon and I still felt off. I had planned this vacation for over 3-months and I had PLANNED to have a good time. It was practically etched on to every line of the 10-page itinerary I created for the trip.
Stop A. Get out of car and take happy-go-lucky photo in front of historic site C. Laugh at silly photo.
But so far, all I was feeling was alone, and lonely.
I’d wake up, make some coffee, sit back in my camp chair by an empty fire pit and tell myself, “sit back, relax and just enjoy the morning, the moment, the scenery, the parks.” But like clockwork in 15-minutes, I bounce back up to grab my itinerary and trail guides, which I had shoved in the glove box the night before declaring to myself that tomorrow I’d be more “spontaneous.” I should have just scheduled that for each day’s activities for how spontaneous my trip had been so far. Instead, I’d pack my pack, read my map, and hike, hike, hike. Make it to the end of the trail and then hike, hike, hike back – hardly even looking up or stopping for more pretend-happy photos.
So when I finally reached the Grand Canyon, the third National Park of my trip, I really, really wanted to feel something – especially on a hike I’d been dreaming about.
Then I didn’t.
I didn’t feel small.
I didn’t feel anything.
I literally stood on the edge staring down into the abyss – the Grand Canyon sprawling around me for miles in all directions, geological history encasing me. And nothing. It was just me. No sound, no moment.
I sat on a big rock, sucking on hard gummy bears, and watched a curious squirrel. The purple and green cacti, which cracked and grew silently in the sun, continued to crack and grow silently in the sun.
So finally I packed up my bag, put my camera away and turned back up the trail, my toes pointing toward the rim. Only 20 minutes had passed.
About a half mile into the return hike as I neared Indian Gardens, a beautiful and lush oasis where a spring bubbles out of a fault line crack in the canyon wall, I started to feel something. It began in my knee and slowly worked up to my hip. My heart beat faster. And with no sympathy or romantic notion my body backhanded me another blow. That feeling turned into a dull throb in the side of my knee then a searing pain with each step as an old hiking injury that had been haunting me since January returned for another round of beating on my ego. (Read about this hike up Table Mountain)
But pain is powerful.
Standing at the base of the switch backs that steeply led up to the rim, 3-miles and 3000 feet above, I didn’t have much choice. As all the signs warmed at the trailhead to Bright Angel, “Down is optional, Up is mandatory.” So up I went.
Focusing on each step – left, right, left, right – and trying not to drag my foot or knock a rock loose that may twist my hip and knee, I worked my way up almost trance like. Stopping every 20 minutes or so to catch my breath or stretch my leg, I’d look over the canyon and ponder the layers, the crevasses, the patterns of erosion then I’d continue on.
By now, it was late-morning and more and more tourists and hikers were coming down the trail. I could hear their boots and joyous voices before seeing them round the bend ahead. “It’s only up from here,” a group up the trail kept chanting as they passed a hiker working their way out of the canyon. Each repetition pulled me out of my awkward, upward electric slide. A few normal steps. A breath.
Even in pain, I made good time. Passing the 1-mile house only a 1.5 hours from setting out from Indian Gardens, I pushed forward until I hit a major bend in the trail. Pausing briefly to rest my backpack on a ledge, I noticed a large flat boulder perched in the sunshine overlooking the trail below. While I wasn’t hungry, the spot was calling my name to stop for a moment. So I dug my squashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich (my primary diet for the past week) and sat and soaked in the warmth.
The north rim of the canyon was splashed in noon sunshine and the opposing gorge cut in and out forming an intriguing reoccurring pattern. Down below, I traced the trail leading out to Plateau Point, where I had stood just hours before. It didn’t look all that far away. But wow, “the perspective is different from up here,” I remember thinking.
After scarfing down my sandwich (maybe I was hungrier than I thought), I continued the final push to the top. For the first hundred feet or so, I didn’t even notice, but something was missing. I felt limber. I felt light. My knee pain was all but gone.
The last mile is always the hardest – and the Grand Canyon is no exception. Gaining over 1,000 feet, the switch back trail was grueling, the rim disappearing like a heat wave illusion and melting into the sky; but by this time I had a smile glued to my face. My calves and quads were burning and my breath burst out like a broken down exhaust fan, but my knee wasn’t aching so I could’n’t be happier. I was in the moment, feeling the trail, savoring the landscape on all sides.
Reaching the summit, I made my way around the Disneyland like crowds – masses clumped together in matching T-shirts and children attached to leashes resembling some sort of fuzzy animal. Finding a bench near the trail head, I sat down as a wave of pride, exhaustion and sweet surprise passed over me.
Yet instead of looking back down the trail, I just sat still and examined the horizon.
The next morning, sitting in my camp chair, coffee in hand, near that same empty fire pit, I felt like myself for the first time on my trip. I felt settled, okay in my solitude. The knee tight – a reminder of the climb the day before – but the pain, gone.