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.

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Grand Canyon 2014: Night Hike

Our last night in the Grand Canyon, we planned to hike out to Plateau Point from Indian Gardens to watch the sunset. The sunset in the canyon is a lot different than other places. The more interesting place to look is the East, not the West. The way the sun hits the canyon is magnificent.

But people were sore and tired and not very motivated. And then a ranger stopped me and the boys and offered a Junior Ranger challenge. That ranger was hiking out that night but the other ranger could verify their work, only he was leaving early in the morning, so… we decided to do the workbooks instead of hiking. It didn’t take much to convince us.

After the Junior Ranger swearing-in ceremony, my husband and I hiked the short, steep path uphill to the bathrooms. From that vantage point, I could see a great view of the sunset against the canyon so started taking some pictures. The boys ran up asking if we were going to go out to Plateau Point now.

“Please! Please! Can we go?!”

“It’s probably going to be dark before we get out there,” we said.

“That’s ok! Can we go?! Please!”

I looked my husband straight in the eye. Neither one of us wanted to go.

“I’ll take them,” I said, still staring in his eyes. The boys leaped for joy.

We hurried to the campsite (well, they hurried – I hobbled). We gathered jackets and water bottles and headlamps. With excited goodbyes to their sister, we hit the trail.

The first part of the trip was full of excited chatter and a quick pace. I warned them that we likely wouldn’t see the sunset. The Point was 1.5 miles from where we were camping. They didn’t care.

The sun passed below the edge of the canyon and everything turned a shade of gray. The temperature dropped and the wind picked up. I warned them it’d probably be dark and we wouldn’t be able to see anything. They didn’t care.

And I didn’t either. I was walking with my boys and I was at peace. The walking on the gentle, even trail was stretching out my tight muscles. I was comfortable and they were happy.

Before long, we were crossing the plateau and I kept thinking we had to be getting close. We didn’t need our headlamps yet but I was getting concerned about getting too far out. Eventually, Daryl decided that the wind was getting too strong and we turned back. I’m guessing we were probably 5, maybe 10, minutes from the Point. Oh, well.

About 10 minutes into our 30 minute return trip, I busted out the headlamps and fitted them on their heads. Showed them how to direct them to the ground and not shine them into people’s eyes. Then we resumed our walk.

Everyone walked in total silence. It was one part wonderful, one part spooky. As the last person on the trail, I kept irrationally looking behind me as if expecting a crazed axe murderer or rabid mountain lion to jump out of the bushes. The boys weren’t talking anymore, just focusing on the trail.

Then suddenly, Hal farted. The boys giggled. And the rest of the trip was filled with the noises of fake farts and other sounds amusing to young boys. I don’t know how special the evening was for them, but for me, it was magical.

Grand Canyon 2014: The People

Backpacking can be a relatively solitary activity. Depending on where you are hiking, you might not interact with any other humans outside of your crew for several days. However, you have absolutely nothing else to do except interact with those people, so the time is always special.

When hiking in more populous areas, like the corridor area of Grand Canyon National Park, you are going to encounter many, many people. Again, these interactions tend to be very special, even if brief.

Now, there are annoyances, mind you. You aren’t going to like everyone you come across. I could have done without the girl giggling during sex while I tried to sleep. On the other hand, seeing them earlier in the evening, sitting on a bench, staring soulfully into each other’s eyes… while making me want to roll my eyes, also made me smile. They were in love and chose to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon together. So there was a bit of a smile behind the eye rolling.

I definitely could have done without the two women I dubbed “The Valley Girls.” They cut short my attempt at a nap the last full day in the canyon because one of them had chosen that afternoon to show the other one some pictures she had taken. The other one loudly proclaimed, “O. M. G. These are so {shrieking}WONDERFUL!! I can’t believe you brought these. These are just. So. Awesome. I simply can’t believe it.” Every conversation was loud enough for me to hear and I simply wanted to strangle them.

The folks we kept leap-frogging with on the second day were ok. They kept giving us encouragement like “you guys are doing great!” Of course, they lost some kudos when they told me that I sure have some tough girls there. I think they were embarrassed when I said it was actually one girl and two long-haired boys.

Then there’s the perfumed women in designer jeans. Come on, people. I know you are just day hikers, but some of us are actually trying to rough it here and we really don’t need a nose full of your flowery scent to remind us of our own reek.

And there’s the men who asked me if we had flashlights when the boys and I were heading out on a trail at dusk. On the one hand, I appreciated their concern for our well being. On the other hand, I wondered if they would have asked the question if it had been my husband chaperoning the children. I would hope they would but I couldn’t help feeling there was a bit of condescension in the questions.

But for all the annoying people, there’s always really cool people to balance it all out.

One family was hiking with a trail guide. We encountered them on the trail several times, but more importantly, they took the campsite we had initially thought to claim the first night. We had deposited the children in that site and then walked on, found a different one, and had them move to it. That meant when we discovered our children were missing items, it was this family that we checked in with and they had indeed found the all-important walking sticks and sunglasses.

When the kids and I went to the sink by the bathrooms to rinse out our dishes without soap (it was the only night we’d be using those dishes so we didn’t bother to pack soap), a nice man about my age offered us use of his soap and scrub brush. He and I then visited about hiking with kids. His level of friendliness is something I’ve come to expect in the back country.

Another family at that initial campsite was doing a whirlwind Spring Break. I first saw the 10 year old girl limping up the trail to the bathroom and smiled. I knew she was sore.

Sure enough, as we entered the bathroom, her mom was exiting and the girl remarked on how sore she was. I struck up a conversation and learned that they had hiked down that day and were hiking back up the next. And then going skiing.

“I think we might be crazy,” the mom said. Barely able to walk myself, I agreed.

Then there’s the rangers. It takes a special person to be a good ranger and we had incredibly good fortune on this trip. The boys did the Junior Ranger program at Phantom Ranch the first night and the woman who gave them their Ranger vows was great. She made them swear not to whine on the trail and that ranger rule came in handy on subsequent days.

They also did the ranger program at Indian Garden after a ranger stopped me – I initially thought to chastise me for letting my kids be too far away from me. Turns out she wanted to give them the Junior Ranger books.

A different ranger gave them their vows that night and was then hiking out the same morning as us. We enjoyed visiting with him when he caught up to us. I teased him about having planned to leave out earlier that morning. He confessed to being reluctant to leave his coffee.

He then questioned some boys heading down with knives and scarves as if they were going into warfare. They tried to act all macho and insisted they knew what they were doing. “We like to be prepared,” one guy declared as they all hurried to get away from the ranger.

“Are you expecting to fight a mountain lion?” asked the ranger with a twinkle in his eye. We smiled at each other as the boys headed on down the trail.

There is a special comradery on the trail. You find interesting people from all walks of life, with one common trait: a great love of the outdoors and being in the thick middle of it.

Grand Canyon 2014: A Good Night’s Sleep

Nighttime is always the hardest for me on backpacking trips. I simply don’t sleep well on the ground. Actually, especially here lately, I don’t sleep well period – even in the comfort of my own bed. So sleeping on the ground… and without the benefit of the quieting effects of my husband’s C-PAP machine… is terrifyingly daunting.

Our first night at the Grand Canyon, we slept on the rim in Mather Campground. It’s always the worst night because it’s so freakin’ cold up there! We arrived after dark and setup the tents: girls in one, boys in the other.

As I rolled over onto my side, my butt bumped my daughter’s sleeping bag.

“Ooh!” She called out, “You touched me with your bottom! Don’t do that!”

The night was cold and I added layers of clothing through the night. I kept my face tucked up into the sleeping bag. I rolled over frequently to regain feeling in whichever arm had previously been on bottom. I stretched out when my legs felt tight, only to retract them quickly because of the freezing temperatures in the foot of the bag. Sometimes when I’d move, cold air would rush in through the top of the bag and chill my entire body. Oh, and I learned that my daughter snores. I was miserable, pure and simple.

Jane was cold too. By the morning, she didn’t mind my bum one bit. In fact, she was nearly spooning with me when it was time to get up.

Daryl chose that night to talk in his sleep. Shout, actually. And then later pick a fight with his brother. Apparently both of them move a lot and don’t like to feel crowded by the other.

The second night was better. At least it wasn’t as cold. I had trouble falling asleep though. In part because the lovebirds in the campsite across from us had retired to their tent and she was giggling uncontrollably. I contemplated walking over there and asking them to have sex more quietly. When I told my husband that the next morning, I learned that he had been having a similar but less charitable reaction.

That night was also the night Hal did one of his I’m-not-awake-but-I’m-also-not-happy hissy fits. He fussed and fussed and fussed and kicked about while Daddy demanded to know what was wrong and what he could do to help. It was both frustrating and hilarious to listen to.

The final night was the best as far as sleeping went. It was warmer – so warm, in fact, that I almost sweated in the sleeping bag. The primary disruption was Jane waking me up about 4 am to ask permission to go to the bathroom.

Of course, that was also the night that I forgot my phone was still on Central Standard time and we were now in Arizona. I dutifully powered on the phone and set the alarm for 6 am. When it went off, I woke everyone else and quickly packed my sleeping bag and rolled up my Thermarest.

As I got out of the tent and our voices began to rise (quiet time ends at 6 am), Jane asked, “Mom? Did you reset your clock? My phone says it’s 5:15.”

Oops. The two adults decided, much to the children’s chagrin, that we’d stay up but just move about quietly. This ended up getting us on the trail and out of the canyon that much earlier though so I don’t think there were too many regrets once the day was done. And everyone slept beautifully in the hotel room that night.

My Kids Rocked Grand Canyon

Can I just start off this Grand Canyon 2014 Series by saying this?

My kids *ROCKED* the Grand Canyon!!

I don’t think I could have been more proud of how well they did. If you’ve never hiked all the way down to the bottom and back up, you can’t comprehend the scale of their accomplishment. What they did was not easy, and while the path we took was easier than my first trip there, I trained for months and went on several grueling practice hikes to prepare. Thanks to our busy schedule, they did this with virtually no preparation. We just threw them in the fire and they walked through it and came out triumphant on the other side.

When I returned to work yesterday, a co-worker asked me how it went. In the course of the discussion, she shared a conversation she had with another co-worker, an avid backpacker. The backpacker expressed shock and doubt that we had actually taken our kids with us. “And they went all the way to the bottom? With the kids?!” Her genuine surprise was so intense that my friend began to doubt her recollection of our plans.

My kids, particularly little Hal, impressed a number of people on the trail too. They would see him trucking along and smile, then ask how old he is. He’s tall so most people tend to think he’s a little older than he is. When we’d say he’s five, they’d look shocked. And impressed. Any my momma heart would swell with pride.

That’s not to say there weren’t difficulties along the way. Anyone who thinks a five year old can hike for seven miles in a single day, regardless of terrain, without whining at least a little bit or shedding a few tears, is quite simply delusional.

We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park after dark the night before we were to hit the trail. As a result, none of the kids had a sense of what we were getting into when we packed up our tents the next morning. We drove to the Visitor Center, parked the car, slung our packs on our backs, and ran to catch the bus that would take us to the trail head.

Their first view of the canyon came through the bus windows. Jane’s jaw dropped and she uttered a sincere, awe-struck “Whoa.” The Grand Canyon is indeed something on a scale that you cannot come close to appreciating through pictures.

Once off the bus, we checked everyone’s packs, loaded up, and started down the South Kaibab trail. The start of the trip was filled with continued exclamations of “this is awesome”, “this is so awesome”, “look at that!”, “do you see how far down it is?!”, “this is so awesome!”, “are we going all the way down there?”.

Within 15 minutes (yes, I was timing it), we got our first “I want to take a break!” from dear little Hal. No, honey, we can’t stop yet. We still have a long way to go today.

He accepted that and we continued on. You know, people with kids tend to get irritated when childless pet owners follow up their tale of something cute that Johnny did with a story about how Skipper did exactly the same thing with his water dish. But here’s the deal. I’m both a parent and a pet owner and I can tell you without a doubt: They really are almost the same. Seriously. The primary difference is that kids grow up and move out while pets stay dependent until the end.

Hal reminded me of a dog excited to go on a walk with his owner. He zigzagged across the trail, jumped down from the little steps built in to make it easier to descend, even waved his arms around, covering twice the distance of those of us just walking down the trail. He often did this while claiming he needed a break.

When we would stop for one of those breaks, the other two would sling off their packs and sink down on a nearby rock, grabbing snacks and water. I’d look up from the water bottle to see Hal, the requester of the break, the person who simply could not walk another step, climbing the nearby rocks. Getting him to sit down during the breaks was near impossible. I can only assume that he wasn’t tired so much as he was bored with the walking.

Eventually, though, his fatigue would show through. It would come as an explosive reaction to something seemingly minor and he’d continue down the trail in full-blown crying preschooler mode. There were several different triggers: Sissy is leading and I want to lead; Bubba just passed me and I didn’t want him to; I just stubbed my toe on a rock; and my personal favorite, I’m sweating which means I’ll have to take a shower tonight and I don’t want to! That one was easily solved once I determined he was afraid he’d have to shower. “No one is showering tonight Hal. It’s ok. No showers til we get back out. I promise.”

I always wondered what the people we encountered while he was in this state thought about us. I wondered if they thought we were bad parents for hauling this obviously too young kid down into the canyon. But he wasn’t too young. He had a blast. He would have had the exact same meltdowns at Disney World, just slightly different triggers. And it’s notable that he continued to walk while crying. He never once dropped down and refused to go on.

The day we hiked out on the Bright Angel trail was the true challenge for everyone. Jane and Daryl had rashes on their inner thighs, making it uncomfortable to walk. As we got closer to the top, the sun came out yet the cold wind blew. Everyone kept walking though. Especially Hal, who beat us out. He, with those short little legs, and his dad left the rest of us in their dust. The other two started stopping frequently and I’d encourage them to keep going. “You’ve got to push through. Don’t sit down. The more you walk, the sooner you are out. You can do this.”

I told Jane this morning how proud I was of her. She didn’t want to go on this trip, yet she didn’t complain. She stayed in good spirits despite the rash and the blister on her heel and the sore ankles and muscles. I told her she was a strong woman. “Not everyone can do what you did this week,” I said. “That was a significant accomplishment. It’s not easy at all to hike out of the canyon.”

“It’s not like I had a choice,” she replied. “I kind of had to do it.”

“True,” I said. “But it could have taken you a lot longer. We hiked 4 1/2 miles uphill in 4 hours. That was great. You knew you had to climb out so you got it done. It could have taken all day. You could have taken a 5-10 minute break for every few minutes of hiking. You could have sat on a rock and refused to budge. But you didn’t. You pushed through. You all did. I am so proud of you.”

And I truly am. Our trip went so much better than we even hoped for. My kids can do anything they set their minds to. They *rocked* the canyon.

Ignorance and Arrogance

We took our kids, aged 13, 10, and 5, backpacking in the Grand Canyon this past week. The older two carried backpacks with all their own personal gear plus some crew gear. Hal carried his sleeping bag, a few snacks, and a small bottle of water. It was my husband’s and my fourth trip into the Big Ditch, our kids’ first.

I have several blog posts planned about our trip, but for whatever reason, the inspiration to write has been migrating backwards from the end of the trip to the beginning. So while I have three posts ready to go, I can’t run them until I get the ones that belong before them written. Plus, I’ll be a guest blogger on another blog tomorrow – a first for me! – and I don’t want to break up the Grand Canyon series. So I’m holding off. Ironically, the guest post is about a much earlier backpacking experience of mine. I’ll post a link so you can check it out.

Hiking gives you a lot of time to mull things over in your head. Some of the stuff is unrelated to your surroundings but not all of it. I’m often thinking about the people I pass while on the trail as well as things going on at home.

Less than 1% of the visitors to Grand Canyon National Park go below the rim to camp. Many of those that do ride mules to Phantom Ranch. Still others backpack but without as much gear because they, too, are staying in the cabins at Phantom Ranch and eating the food available at the canteen.

That makes people like us, carrying all of our sleeping gear and food and everything else we need on our backs, very rare. As I pondered my reaction to other people and their reactions to me, I came up with incomplete yet maybe workable definitions of Ignorance and Arrogance.

Ignorance assumes everyone else is doing the same thing as you. It can’t imagine anything more. This can be represented by day hikers heading down into the canyon as you work your way up who ask you how far down you went before you started heading back up. They don’t notice that you have way too much stuff on your back to be a day hiker. They are hiking down a bit and then heading back up; therefore, that must be what you are doing.

Arrogance assumes no one is doing the same thing as you. It can’t imagine anyone being as {awesome, cutting edge, brave, tough, knowledgeable, intelligent, fill-in-the-blank} as you. This can be represented by seasoned hikers who (like me, I must admit) assume that everyone they meet is a novice who probably rode a mule down. Or who doesn’t know what they are doing. Or needs their assistance or advice in some way.

I encountered both sets of people on this trip. I pondered my interactions with them and came to the conclusion that perhaps, in a way, ignorance and arrogance are two sides of the same coin. Or maybe arrogance is just a special form of ignorance. Perhaps both are caused by a failure of imagination. Something to consider.