Grand Canyon 2014: Up is Mandatory

Society has rules. Life flows better, for the most part, when people follow the rules. Now, I know that some people get a kick out of not following rules and oftentimes it’s not a problem. Until it is.

Backpackers and hikers have rules. Or trail etiquette, as it’s often called. One of the most fundamental is that people going uphill have the right-of-way. If you stop and think about it, the reason is obvious. Going uphill is work. Constant downhill can be trying too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s always easier for a downhill hiker to move out of the way or stop and then start again.

My husband likes to laugh at me while we are in “the corridor” of Grand Canyon National Park. The corridor is the “tame” below-rim portion of the park. The two main camps there are staffed. One even has a canteen and cabins. People can ride mules down to the bottom. This area gets the most traffic. But the bulk of the people are what we call “front country” people (as opposed to “back country” people, who you find backpacking and sleeping rough outside the corridor).

I get easily irritated with front country people. My husband once asked me several years ago, shortly after we entered the corridor after hiking for days outside it, “What’s the matter? Are there too many front country people in your back country?”

Most of them are easy to spot. Or smell. Perfume? Really? You put on your perfume and makeup before hiking down into the canyon? You styled your hair? Designer jeans? Wait. Are those dress boots you are wearing? Are you really carrying your purse?!

One thing that really makes them stand out though is their ignorance of trail etiquette. Trail etiquette is particularly important in the Grand Canyon. Why? Think about it. Most hiking areas either have varied terrain or you are hiking a mountain. When hiking a mountain, you go up while you are fresh and new and come down at the end. So even if a downhill hiker doesn’t pull over for the uphill hiker, the uphill person probably, maybe, hopefully has the energy to put up with it.

In the Grand Canyon, however, going uphill is the last thing you do. And it’s a beast of an uphill hike, no way around it. They have great signs all over the tops of the trails that say “Down is optional, up is mandatory.” And if, like us, you just spent several days on the trail, you are starting that uphill hike already sore and stiff and tired. And no matter how much fun you had while you were down there, you are so ready to be out. Oh, and since they are starting at the top – usually later in the day than you – and you are starting at the bottom, you encounter most of them in that last mile. When you’ve lost any sense of humor or patience.

I become a belligerent trail hog at that point. I have the right-of-way. I get to choose where I am. If you pull over and stop moving, I look up gratefully and say thank you. If you don’t, I tend to puff up like a cat trying to look bigger. My elbows go out to the sides as I work my trekking poles. I put my head down and barrel forward, straight up the center of the trail. Given the opportunity, I’ll bump you.

One perfumed woman in pink turned with an indignant “Excuse me?!” as I brushed past her, my face red and sweaty, a fully loaded large pack on my back. Finally! A chance to rant.

“Uphill has the right-of-way!” I called back.

You have the right-of-way?” she asked, incredulous.

“Yes!” I said, turning back to look at her, “Uphill hikers always have the right-of-way.”

I wondered if she’d get a slight hint of why that is during her walk back up. Of course, if she only goes a mile or two down the trail and isn’t carrying anything with her (apparently, it’s up to her man to carry her water), then she can’t fully appreciate the growing desperation I was feeling. She can’t appreciate that my thirteen year-old daughter is in tears and my ten year-old son says he can’t make it. She can’t appreciate that I am struggling not to join them in that mental black hole, despite this being my fourth time to exit the canyon. She can’t appreciate why people like her make my blood boil while I’m trying to hike up and out with burning muscles and fatigue taking over.

During that moment, it doesn’t do any good to remind myself that it’s just ignorance. They aren’t trying to be rude. It’s not that they are self-absorbed jerks who can’t follow the rules or consider what’s going on around them. Or… is it? I walked out of Wal-Mart today with my tote bag of groceries. I had trouble exiting because a horde of nearly a dozen people – at least 3 or 4 distinct groups – were entering through the exit doors. There was plenty of room over at the entrance doors, but that would have forced them to walk a few extra feet, and what does it matter if the woman trying to use the exit has to wade through a thick sea of bodies? So, no. Sometimes I think it wouldn’t matter if those front country folks knew trail etiquette. I’m still not sure that all of them would respect it.