Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road. …
Song of the Open Road
Would that it were so. Most of us have sworn off the open road during our confinement. So I thought you might like to live vicariously, as I relive vicariously a couple of my past journeys. This one took place in July of 2003:
Rim to rim. Has a certain rim, I mean ring, to it. What did I do on my summer vacation this year? I hiked the Grand Canyon — rim to rim.
So did my son — and 12 others. It was somebody’s idea, and we tagged along. Hiking the Grand Canyon was nowhere near the top of my list of things to do before I die. It wasn’t even on the list.
Now it’s near the top of my list of accomplishments.
I’d been wanting to do something “outdoorsy” with my son for many years and this seemed a perfect opportunity. We piggybacked onto a group of priests, nuns and friends who take trips like this every year. They had hiked the canyon 21 years ago in their prime. Now they wanted to do it again. One wonders what one is capable of at 51, but these folks were even older, which made the whole adventure sound doable.
Late July isn’t the optimal time for such an excursion. The bottom of the canyon gets a tad hot — 115 degrees hot — with virtually no shade. We started on the North Rim, which feels much more like a national park, and hiked down, down, down the North Kaibab Trail through layer upon geological layer of brown, then red, then green sedimentary rock for some 5 miles.
After lunch and a liberal dousing in the ice-bucket cold of Roaring Spring at Cottonwood Campground, we faced seven waterless miles beneath a blazing afternoon sun. This kind of thing is officially contra-indicated by National Park personnel, who try to scare people out of the hike or at least into over-preparation.
We fit the latter description. Slathered thick with sunblock and each lugging a gallon of water (mixed with electrolyte powder, which tastes terrible when warmed by said sun), we single-filed across the sagebrush and cactus, scattering lizards, but, happily, no snakes (though I did pack a snakebite kit just in case).
I felt exposed, even endangered — not something I’m accustomed to in my annual suburban life cycle. The snatches of shade we found seemed, at the time, like God’s greatest miracle (after icy streams). We collapsed into our bunks at Phantom Ranch, exhausted from 12 hours on the trail and after drinking our weight in cold lemonade long into the evening.
The next day, after a session of guilt-free breakfast gluttony, we crossed the Colorado River and began the long climb up Bright Angel trail toward the South Rim, pushing our bodies to maximum mechanism.
My son was actually appreciating — even awed by — the surrounding grandeur, and generally fulfilled my fondest fantasies of father-son bonding.
Our hiking ensemble featured a full range of characters, including 72-year-old “Wild Bill” Davis, an Oblate priest from San Antonio, who sprinted the final hundred yards of the hike with fists held high. Hiking the Grand Canyon at 72 is amazing enough, but this guy actually postponed prostate cancer surgery for a week in order to join the expedition. A longtime rabble-rouser, he spent the last few miles accosting every South Rim tourist who crossed our path. “Are you an American?” he asked. “Then write your congressman. This trail is a disgrace.”
He was right. Deeply rutted, the step up to each timber was much higher than necessary for weary hikers. You could see where federal funding cutbacks have caused corner-cutting.
After one lengthy break, Davis pulled on his pack and shouted, “That’s enough ecstasy. It’s time for some more agony.”
He was right again. Hiking the Grand Canyon is about going rim to rim, agony to ecstasy. It doesn’t fit in the comfortable middle where we live our risk-averse lives. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There’s something to be said for that. On the final few switchbacks, I looked back on how far we’d come and felt something I haven’t felt for awhile — a deep sense of pride. And more than a little ecstasy.
Two weeks later, the tingle hasn’t subsided.
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys …
To look up and down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you …
All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments — all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe …
Forever alive, forever forward.
Forever forward indeed.