This is the second of a two-part article.
By Donald Schell
From coffee at North Rim Lodge at 5 we took the shuttle to the trailhead. We were up ahead of the sun, but the soft light seemed to shine from the tall pines and pop from the snow beneath them. Our first two miles down were so steep my thigh muscles seemed to burn just above my knees. If my legs were already getting shaky had our training been adequate?
Then we passed through a tunnel, a passage for us or for a mule train cut through the red rock and the incline gentled. We hit a steady rhythm and walking felt good again as we descended in switchbacks and across cliff faces through pine and aspen forests down to the beginnings of shrub-like pinyon pine and desert scrub. Sometimes our trail followed natural stone shelves, where a layer of sedimentary rock withstood erosion better than other layers above it.
One of those sections, maybe a quarter mile, had me huddling closer to the edge. My companions were unfazed. “I’m okay, I’ll just be a little slow,” I called out as I switched my walking stick to my left hand, looked ahead and toward the cliff rising above us and walked deliberate steps, trailing my right hand against the smooth vertical wall of stone to my right. Even in those moments, the rich reds and oranges and gold of the rock seemed to sing.
The North Rim’s profusion of alpine wildflowers was behind us, and we moved into another band of flowers, spindly cliff-hugging flowering shrubs were also brilliantly in bloom, purples and whites. And the Century Plants were in bloom, their exuberant single stalks towering above the perennial that would remain for hikers later in the season. We chose to hike in May because it’s when the North Rim Lodge opens, and May and October (just before the North Rim Lodge closes for the winter) offer the most hope of temperate weather at the bottom of the canyon. But May gave us a constantly changing palette of wildflowers for our whole descent from 8000 feet down to the flowering cactuses at 2500 feet.
Truthfully the combination of physical challenge with a quiet reflection on mortality was part of what drew me to this hike. Park Service warnings sharpened the poignancy of that and pushed toward fear, but it wasn’t cheating death that intrigued me, it was simply feeling mortal and small as we descended into the overwhelming presence of something much older and more enduring than me or us or even mankind.
Hiking guides we’d read warned that the last four miles before Phantom Ranch could be brutal. The stone in The Box, as those four miles are called, is half the age of the earth, far, far older than any fossil. But the stone itself, twisted and sculpted of sediment and lava and formed and reformed under millennia of relentless pressure, looks as alive and organic as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church.
Bright Angel Creek continued to roar with the authority of a real river, but only from sheer volume of water. We were almost down to the level of the Colorado, following a gently descending path cared in the cliffside of The Box. And the grace of it? This narrow, dark-stoned canyon within the Grand Canyon could be stiflingly hot. Often, we read, people found the last four miles an eternity. On May 22nd it was only pleasantly warm, with a steady encouraging breeze masking and then accentuating the roar of the creek.
The Phantom Ranch staff greeted us with smiles, pointed us to a cabin with comfortable beds for the night, gave us the very welcome key to the shower house, and confirmed out reservation for sittings at their hearty dinner table.
We had made our descent in ten hours. Several people had passed us on the way. The four of us had talked and had taken some photos, greeted a mountain goat, reminded each other to drink plenty of water, took plenty of rests in the shade and had eaten our electrolyte-balancing snacks. We had also walked sometimes for an hour in awed silence. We were elated.
Days and weeks since confirmed what we felt that evening – that we’d done something that would continue to unfold in memory.
But we weren’t done. Next morning Phantom Ranch we took our places for the 5 a.m. breakfast service, thanked the kitchen for our sack lunches, and set out again before sunrise to cross the Colorado River on the Silver Bridge. From the river and the beginning of our climb, we watched the sun touch the cliffs far above us and hiked in cool shade for a couple of hours. We pushed to get to higher altitude before it began to warm up. We had nine or so miles to climb up 5000 feet up to the North Rim.
Many more hikers descend and re-ascend the South Rim, so there were more people on the trail our second day. And the higher up the Canyon we climbed, the more day-hikers and obvious excursionists we saw, people dipping into the canyon without water or hiking gear. My feet, by the way, felt great. And occasionally I caught sight of another almost barefoot Five Toe footprint ahead of us.
Sometimes people passing would say, ‘Ah, you’re the Yeti we’ve been following.’ ‘There’s another who’s a real big foot,’ I’d say, pointing to the larger foot prints when I could find them in the dust.
As we neared the top, the hikers and runners who were doing the whole distance, rim to river to rim in one day were passing us. They were doing in ten hours (or less) what had taken us twenty. I was glad for them and glad for our slower pace and conversation and the support and encouragement we’d given each other.
We emerged from the Canyon with plenty of time for a shower, a very welcome nap, and leisurely dinner at El Tovar.
At sixty-four, the oldest in our group, our passage felt like a timely descent into and beyond our mortality. Though we enjoyed greetings and brief chatting exchanges with others along the way, sharing encouragement and even shyly acknowledging our awe at what we were seeing and sensing around us, we knew we were passing through a place where death had come and would come again, and into a womb, passing through strata where life had evolved to a place that touched the beginnings of our death, a place of birth where our life and love felt renewed.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.