Hike Recap: Grand Canyon

I thought the gal behind the counter at REI had a smirk on her face.

She knew that after a year of their suggestive selling I had finally caved and was purchasing a store membership along with my hiking pants, sweatshirt, and Camelbak. I now had no choice but to come back to the store for my future outdoor sports needs if I want to get that sweet dividend when March comes around. I had taken another reluctant step toward becoming one of those suburban weekend warriors I simultaneously admired and despised.

Our trip into to northern Arizona had been planned weeks in advance. All the items I was purchasing, along with the latest issue of Triathlete magazine, were to prepare me for the somewhat-impromptu 13-mile-plus hike into the Grand Canyon that was added to the itinerary 4 days prior. I was simply along for the ride. My wife's workplace was planning a Rim to Rim hike, but her department thought the 26-mile hike route sounded like too much. Her coworker, an experienced hiker, had chosen the shorter route that we would take on. I had completed a Ragnar Trail race several months prior and hiked up a few of the local mountain ranges. I was pretty sure everyone else joining us had even less experience than me. 

I laced up my trail shoes at a time of day when normally I would be awake only if I were writing a concert review for a show from the night before. As we took the park shuttle to the South Kaibab trail, a collective sigh of relief came over us when we were finally certain that no rain or snow would greet us. The sun hit the red rocks as we looked down at the hole in the ground carved out over millions of years of erosion. There's no way to put the majesty we were about to experience into words, so I refuse to even make the attempt.

All the hikes I've been on start with an incline, but we were immediately greeted with a 4.5-mile descent. A large number of switchbacks sent us weaving back and forth down the canyon walls. The precipitation from the night before had created puddles of water all along the stairs nature had constructed, so my calves got a lot of work as I tip-toed my way down to avoid the moisture that had collected through the night. As we neared the bottom, I was glad I had bought those hiking pants from REI when I slipped and fell ass-first in a puddle. The quick-drying polyester meant the only thing that I would be drenched in for the remainder of the trek was embarrassment. 

The rising sun played with the rocks surrounding us, causing the shadows to create lovely photo opportunities that we took with our cameras and smartphones. We marched onto the Tonto West trail as if we were Hobbits walking toward Mount Doom preparing to throw a mystical ring into a volcano. We hummed Disney songs and the themes to Game of Thrones and The Wizard of Oz. The landscape changed from rocks to lush green vegetation as we came upon a small stream where I hopped across wobbly stepping stones, clutching onto anything I could grasp so I wouldn't fall in. Giant, shady trees greeted us as we approached Indian Gardens to eat lunch. We were nine miles into our hike, but the bulk of our efforts, the remaining 4.5-miles up the Bright Angel trail, awaited.

A mile into our final third, my heart began to pound out of my chest. Bruises had started to form around my ankles and my calves and quads felt weak. Earlier I had landed on my right foot in a way that caused my knee to bend back farther than it should. I wanted to quit, or at least have the hike end sooner than later, but the only way out was up. I didn't want to hold up the group, but I needed to sit down and lower my heart rate.

Helicopter rides up to the top of the canyon are expensive, so the routine we would follow for the rest of our ascent would be this: hike three-quarters of a mile then rest. We weren't alone in our strategy as we leapfrogged hikers all along the trail. It was reassuring to overhear even the experienced hikers expressing their feelings of weakness as we climbed up. 

I began to realize something about myself as we neared the top of the canyon. It wasn't anything close to the personal truths Reese Witherspoon's character experienced in Wild, but it will make my future endeavors easier: I have an inherent fear that people will think I am weak, and I will overexert myself in order to prove them wrong. This fear comes from years of battling my weight and not finishing things I started for so many years before. Toward the end of my Bike MS ride, I didn't want to stop and regroup just two miles before the finish, even though I knew I needed to. Now it was happening to me all over again. Hiking nearly 14 miles certainly proved I could be tough, but I needed to realize I should be smart too. There was no need to be a hero, and seeing so many of our fellow hikers sit along the trail with us to regain their strength for the next leg was validation enough.

Ice cream awaited us as we finally reached Grand Canyon Village, and we drove to Flagstaff for a celebratory dinner. We toasted each other and our fearless navigator. The manager of the restaurant asked me about our hike. When I described it, her first question was, "This was a two day hike right?" 


"You guys are crazy!"

Most people shared her assessment and judging from the feeling in my calves, they're probably right. I haven't felt like this since my first marathon. The accomplishment I feel and the lessons I've learned far exceed the pain. And my sweet REI member dividend is coming in March.

For those interested in such things, the data from my Garmin is here. Instagram photos are here.