Last week, on my 60th birthday, I ran across the Grand Canyon.
More precisely, in terms of distance, I ran halfway and walked halfway. In terms of time, one-third I ran, one-third I walked, and one-third I staggered.
But I got across.
Thirteen hours after stepping off the south rim, I stepped onto the north rim.
It was an idea that came last year sometime. As I turned 60, I wanted to do something that would set an example of fitness for my children, and which would give me a chance to prove myself to myself. Also, I figured, when you get to be 60, it’s not time to put things off.
It’s the fourth quarter of life, and it’s time for the hurry-up offense. You’ve got to throw for the end zone on every down.
Further, I figured, I had never run across the Grand Canyon, and if I didn’t do it now I’d probably do it never.
So last Thursday, after checking my suitcase at the front desk of the lodge where I’d spent the night, I walked to the head of the Bright Angel Trail and, under a full moon at 2:30 in the morning, started to run.
I should have had my headlamp on. Not that it went poorly, but it went slowly. So half an hour later, I took off my hydration pack, in the dark on a trail on a precipice, and fished around in it for the headlamp. Plenty of Clif bars and Gu packets, a poncho and a space blanket, a chemical ice pack, wound-packing powder, a Ziplock bag of salt pills and Ibuprofen, some spare batteries, and, finally, at the bottom, the headlamp.
Which made life easier and the pace faster, and in moments I was running down switchbacks at a pretty good clip, the world invisible and enveloped in black everywhere except directly in front of my feet.
Which was good, because I am afraid of heights. Terrified of heights.
The afternoon before, after I checked in, I walked to the trailhead so I would know the way. I did not look over the edge, and when I took a picture of the beginning of the trail, I stood far back and enlarged it on my phone.
Nearby, there was a group of young German men lying and sitting about, clearly exhausted, presumably from hiking the canyon. I asked where they had been, and they told of spending the day going down the South Kiabab Trail and back up the Bright Angel Trail. They had gotten to Phantom Ranch, a campground on the floor of the canyon, their turnaround point, at about 9 in the morning, and they said it had been 115 degrees then.
That concerned me, as I hoped to get to Phantom Ranch at about that same time, but I had hoped to move through the bottom of the canyon before the day’s extreme heat kicked in.
So I opted for an earlier start than the 5 o’clock I had planned for months.
My alarm went off at 2 and I was running a half an hour later.
In a wonderful darkness that obscured the vast drop all around me. I could see outlines, I knew the general contour of the canyon, but it was all blackened nonspecificity. I would have to deal with it sometime, but not now, and not until I was in a situation where I would be forced to push through my fear.
I adapted to the trail quickly, and happily passed the rest houses at a mile and a half and three miles. Occasionally in the distance I saw flicks of headlamps, campers coming out of the canyon before the heat of the day. We would pass briefly, exchanging greetings and encouragement, and asking if we needed anything. I quickly came to recognize the red of eyeballs reflected back at me. A kangaroo rat and, coming at me on the trail, a mule deer buck which I thought was human and which I hailed, “Good morning!” There were also nighthawks, sitting on the ground or on rocks and, when bugs were drawn to my headlamp, swooping in past my head to feed.
It was dark as I came through Indian Garden, where hikers camp on land historic to modern and ancient people alike. The massive wall of the south rim towered behind, and as I looked back the moon set below it.
I intended to pray as I ran, and the first hours were prayers of rejoicing. At my strength and fitness, at the back that didn’t hurt and the knee that wasn’t swollen, at the health and prospects of my children, and, as the sky lightened and the canyon became visible, at the exquisite beauty of the place.
It was astounding, but everywhere. Grandeur in every direction, to such an extent that it was the overwhelming norm.
On I went through plunging switchbacks, meeting an increasing number of campers getting out ahead of the heat, two groups presided over by grandfathers who were clearly overtaxed and physically spent, but emotionally strong and loving. One man, who I engaged in conversation because I knew he needed the rest, inquired about the condition of various grandchildren who had gone ahead and who I had previously encountered on the trail.
I hoped that someday the others in those family parties would, probably in their own senior years, remember and recognize the struggle and love of those elderly men.
And then some more real running on tough terrain and, almost by surprise, there was the river. The Colorado River. On the interior of bends, back from the water, there were cobble fields with stones the size of basketballs. On the exterior of bends, there was sometimes sand, where inflated rafts beached and where, maybe a couple hundred feet higher up, hiking boots and running shoes slipped and plowed.
John Wesley Powell, born in the town where I live, was on the Colorado River in the canyon exactly 150 years ago in one of the great explorations of the West. I thought of him as I ran across the foot bridge and a raft of vacationers below looked up and smiled and waved.
At Bright Angel, there was a lush fig tree covered with fruit.
At the Phantom Ranch at 7, as I drank from the spigot, got some calories, and took the first salt pills of the day, a bell rang and a man announced from the front steps of the trail house that breakfast was ready for the dozen or so campers and that included bacon and eggs and they would be eating family style at one table. In a corral to the south, the mules were saddled and rested and ready to take the newly fed folk back up to the south rim. Atop the employee lockers to the north, one of the mule wranglers had his boots out in the air, heavy and beaten up, with laces and the leather fringe, and a badass hand-tooled strap securing the spurs.
Phantom Ranch is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Anywhere from there is up. And on the route I was taking – Bright Angel Trail to the ranch and then North Kaibab Trail to the north rim – it’s the gateway to The Box. That’s a seven-mile stretch running pretty much straight north between the sheer walls that hem in the see-through waters of Bright Angel Creek. It is a long, hard test. In The Box, there is no water but in the stream, and it has the properties of an oven, with heat coming in not just from the sun above, but from the rocks on either side of you.
At least that’s what they say in the YouTubes and in the pamphlets.
The heat is dangerous everywhere, but it waits for you in The Box.
I only checked the temperature once, and that was before 5 o’clock in the morning, at Indian Garden, where it was over 80. That early and that high in the canyon, I expected it to be cooler. But there was nothing I could do about it. The temperature was not something I could control, it was just something I had to endure.
Oddly, I never felt hot. I recognized differences in temperature. I knew it was at or well north of 100 sometimes, but never was the heat an unpleasant or hurtful sensation.
But in The Box I fought it hard.
You do that with what you eat and what you drink. You need lots of calories, lots of liquids and lots of electrolytes. I started taking a salt pill every half hour, I ate Clif bars and sucked down Gu packets full of calories and sodium, and I hit the water hard. I had two liters of water on my back, plus two 18-ounce bottles of sports drink. Thus far I had taken a little bit of the water, drinking from the occasional spigot instead, and was leaving the sports drink for an emergency.
In The Box I drank those two liters dry.
And I stopped running.
About halfway through, when I was past 13 miles in, and the grade was a gradual incline over the ups and downs of topography, I mostly stopped running. I didn’t want to overheat, and I wanted to spare my still relatively strong legs for the climb out.
That let me look around more, and marvel in the beauty of the place. I looked at things large and small, the various peaks, ridges and buttes above, and the small stones and plants and rock layers below. That’s one of the things about the Grand Canyon, and life in general, it is breathtaking both in the macro and in the micro – in its overarching grandeur, and in its minutest detail.
In The Box I was overtaken by a young man from Tucson, spending a long weekend in the canyon, and I met a group of three Army buddies. Two were 55 and one was 56 and they had been Special Forces together. One of them is still a cop in Tempe or Mesa. They were three or four days and 63 miles into their adventure. We thanked one another for our service and shook hands and went our separate ways.
And before long I came out of The Box at Cottonwood Campground.
That’s 17 miles in with seven more to go. But they were seven miles up, and I knew that this was where the hard part began.
I filled my hydration pack at Cottonwood, and drank from the spigot until I was uncomfortable, and sat on a picnic table to eat Clif bars and Gu and talk to an unusually large lizard that scampered back and forth on his tiptoes.
I started doing that as the morning wore on, talking out loud to no one, to God or to myself. At one point in The Box I noticed a small seep, just inches across, in which no plant had taken root to enjoy this bounty of water in what is essentially a desert. I expressed profane surprise, I lamented the waste, and I speculated on the mathematical probability of no seed ever having gotten purchase on this small spot of vital soil while all about every other sustainable nook or cranny was bursting with tenacious life.
I knew that, though I felt strong, my mind was a little weaker. Nothing to worry about, more like a gauge on a car, telling you how things are running under the hood.
And then I put the hydration pack back together, took some more salt pills, drank some more from the spigot, and started up the trail.
And “up” is the word. From that point, for the seven miles forward you have to go, you also have to go a mile upward. In the heat of the day, almost always in direct sun.
A mile and a half past Cottonwood Campground is Manzanita Resthouse. It is a spigot and a chalkboard and a bench. And if you like crapping in a bucket, a bathroom. I saw on the board the Latin motto of the Special Forces, left by my friends from earlier. I scrawled my own note, sucked from the spigot, and pushed on.
And took a two-by-four across the face.
In my planning and studying, I knew about The Box, and I saw it as the monster. It was, other than straight altitude gain, the big challenge in a non-stop crossing of the canyon. But I had foolishly not recognized a larger challenge – and that was, the 3.7 miles of intense daylight climb from Manzanita Resthouse to Supai Tunnel. It was a bear I didn’t see coming.
By this point, the trail snakes upward and switches back and forth, often on the edge of cliffs, in an unrelenting climb up the side of the canyon. Gone are the miles of towering walls on either side of you, now you are scaling the edge of the canyon, with broad vistas but dizzying drops, and never a level stretch to rally your strength.
This where it got hard for me. Mentally and physically and spiritually. It kind of pains me to even recount it. But I recognized early the game had changed, and I went to my water hard, and started taking two salt pills every half hour. My fear of heights came on and I began to think the wind would blow me off the trail. I unfastened one of the bottles of emergency sports drink and drank half of it. Then I drank the other half. All while climbing up the trail, looking down now on vast structures that earlier I had looked up at. Then the two-liter bladder in my hydration pack went dry and I began sitting down. Every 10 or 20 yards or so, whenever there was a rock of the right height, I would sit down, and steady myself, sometimes feeling faint, repositioning myself so as not to fall off the edge or hit my head if I passed out.
I ate more Gu and drank half of my second bottle of sports drink and kept going forward.
At a certain point I had to stop sitting down, as when I did my thighs would cramp, something that had never happened to me, and I would be in a great deal of pain struggling to stand back up to make it go away.
But I was building back. I could feel the calories and my mind was clearing, but I figured Supai Tunnel – the next place with water – was about a mile away, which was at that point 45 minutes of shuffling and climbing.
And then I did something calculated.
I drank the last of my bottle of sports drink.
I was out of fluid. I was all in on making it to Supai Tunnel and its spigot. And that had not been my plan. My plan had been to never drink all my fluids, to always have a reserve in case of injury where I had to hole up, or in the event of dire circumstance for myself or others.
But I didn’t think right then that I had the luxury of a reserve. I needed that liquid in my bloodstream, not on my back.
And it worked. Though the misery didn’t end, and the waxing and waning of energy continued, I didn’t hit bottom again. I climbed that mile and I made it to Supai Tunnel, a short hole cut in the rock for the trail to pass through, and stood in its shade talking to a man from Australia whose girlfriend had not shown up for their long-planned weekend in the canyon. He mostly seemed upset to be carrying food for two in his backpack.
By the time I got to the spigot, it was surrounded by a group which had just come in the 1.7 miles from the north rim by mule. I started talking to two brothers from Minnesota, 23 and 20, out for three weeks exploring the national parks, a last romp before responsibility took them both away. There were more people, come in on mules, or taking the short hike down from the rim. They seemed amazed that I had come across the canyon.
I ate more Clif bars and sucked more Gu, and filled my pack and my two bottles with water, my legs still hurt like hell, and the now omnipresent heights frightened me, and I felt woozy on a ground that was nowhere level, but I got up and pressed on.
Supai Tunnel is as far as the mules go from the north rim, and the trail from there to the top is pulverized by their hooves. Instead of walking on hardpack or rock, you now are in a powder that gives way and shifts, making you dusty and dirty and getting up into your lungs when the riders pass. The trail is also in worse repair, often just a wooden framework of timbers you hope will hold you. All on the side of what is now a very high mountain.
By this point, the yuccas and cactuses of the canyon had been replaced by the pine trees of the rim, and the folks on the trail were more walkers than hikers, maybe doing a mile or two at most, one lady even walking with a cane. There was one very kind family of Asian heritage, and a couple planning a three-day crossing of the canyon themselves. A dad with a couple of little girls.
And a rock, by a parking lot, with a sign.
Saying that it was over.
That 13 hours after I ran down into the darkness, I had come out into the light, that the canyon was crossed
and the quest was over.
I had not died. I had not needed to be rescued. I had not quit.
As a practical matter, I still had to walk 1.7 miles to the lodge, but the Grand Canyon had been crossed and it had been crossed by me.
And I have been thinking about it since, just as I contemplated it while I did it.
Certainly, it was a vain and wasteful undertaking. Such a spectacle is not healthy or balanced and is more about ego than adventure. It was money that could have been spent more usefully for my family. It was analogous to the red sports car other men buy to pretend they have not gotten old. It was a pretention. It was a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am at arguably the most spectacular place on Earth.
I went to a place where millions of years are on display in an effort to prove that a new decade doesn’t matter.
Perhaps it is the pattern of the years of our lives. You start strong and ebullient, then have a long period of sustained work, and then the pain and struggle of the climb to whatever glory you believe awaits you when you are done. Maybe the Grand Canyon is like other things in life – it’s a lot easier to get into that it is to get out of.
Perhaps it is to lay up in the bank of my mind the memory of persistence, to encourage me through another climb of land or life.
Maybe it is to tap my children on the shoulder, over decades to come, and call them to fitness and adventure.
Maybe it was to prod me closer to the God with whom I so freely spoke in the canyon.
I’m not really sure yet what it all meant.
But I do know this. If I could do this one thing, so can you.
Not my particular quest – running across the Grand Canyon – but your particular quest. Of any sort. Neither age nor circumstance are automatically obstacles.
And the only sure way to fail is to never try.
So, please, try. Whatever it is. However you are inspired. Whatever your quest might be.
Just go try.
And remember to keep up your calories, hydration and electrolytes.