PCT Shakedown #2: Solo in the Grand Canyon (1/2)
Last month, my first and only trip to Grand Canyon National Park with guests was canceled because of a snowstorm. I was bummed. I’d been looking forward to it… and craving redemption after the South Kaibab trail wrecked me during my guide training back in January. So, when I drove west to hike Catalina with Alisha, I detoured north from I-40 and stopped at the backcountry office in GCNP to get some permits for a personal trip later in March. The popular campgrounds were already full, but I was able to piece together a three-day, two-night itinerary from the remaining availability outside the main corridor.
Tonight, I’m in Williams. I hike down into the canyon tomorrow, alone. I invited several friends along, but it turns out most normal humans can’t just take off midweek to hike 40 miles in the Grand Canyon. Who knew?
I’m staying in a quirky little hostel off Route 66. There are guests here from Germany, Spain, and China. It’s the first time I’ve traveled hostel-style since before COVID. It feels strange. Could the pandemic finally, finally be ending?
I wake up at 5:15 a.m. in Williams. By 6:30, I’m at the backcountry office in the park, rummaging through my belongings in the freezing South Rim air. I’ve never hiked with a bear cannister before, and fitting it into my pack is like Tetris. I fill up my water at the lodge and take the red line shuttle to Hermit’s Rest.
My descent begins around 8:30. The other visitors from the bus are staying on the rim, so I’m alone. For the first half hour, I wear my puffy and rain pants. The trail is shady but not icy, and I don’t need my spikes.
I’m feeling good, but I keep my pace modest anyway, thinking back to the crippling tightness in my calves after hustling down South Kaibab in January. I was desperately sore for five whole days. The worst part was hobbling around in front of ten other REI guides, none of whom seemed remotely as affected by the descent as I was. So, I take my time. The Hermit Trail is flatter than I expected. After descending the first few hundred vertical feet in stony steps and switchbacks, it wraps eastward along the cliffside at a gentle grade. Once I cross into the sunshine, I can strip down to my shorts and sun hoodie. It’s perfect hiking weather now, but it’s supposed to get hot tomorrow.
What can I write about the views in the Grand Canyon?
Any description of the scale falls short—it’s a place that must be seen to be believed. It feels special to have it all to myself. I only encounter five people in the first four hours. Mather Point can feel like a theme park, and the Bright Angel trail is busy, but below the rim, outside the main corridor, it is quiet and wild.
The trail begins to tumble downward again. In a few places, I encounter damage from erosion and rockslides, but overall, it is a beautifully constructed trail. After working on a trail crew last year, I appreciate the time-consuming, physically exhausting rockwork on the Hermit Trail, and I take a dozen photos of just the ground beneath my feet.
At the intersection with the Tonto Trail, I turn right and begin my journey east.
The Tonto platform is a broad, relatively flat shelf that separates the inner Colorado river gorge from the outer canyon. You can take the Tonto Trail for nearly 100 miles through the Canyon from end to end, but most people use it to travel between the main rim-to-river trails within the park. I’m taking it from Hermit to Bright Angel.
I stop for lunch at Monument Creek, my last reliable water source until Indian Garden. A couple of the campsites are already occupied. I chat briefly with a ranger, then settle beside the creek for a quiet lunch alone.
Silence never used to bother me. On the AT, I split my hiking time between meditative silence and the mental stimulation offered by podcasts, music, and audiobooks. But in the last couple of years, I’ve felt a compulsive, almost panicked urge to fill silence and occupy my thoughts. Driving, showering, falling asleep—all instances when I used to embrace quiet—I always have a podcast on.
But my finnicky new headphones won’t connect to my phone, so today, I hike mostly in silence. It’s actually okay. My mind wanders to uncomfortable places but then continues past them, eventually into not much of anything. This makes me cautiously hopeful that finally, possibly, I’m getting better.
Then, when I’m filtering water from Monument Creek, I’m hit with a powerful wave of nostalgia for the AT.
I’ve backpacked over a hundred nights in the past two years, but I realize that this is the first time I’ve done this—sat on a rock with my water bottle wedged between my feet, squeezing water through my Sawyer—since backpacking in New Hampshire following the AT. It’s such an odd, tiny thing, such an insignificant moment in the backpacking experience, but it’s like that moment in the movie Ratatouille when the food critic is transported through a wormhole into his past by a single bite of his favorite dish.
Suddenly I’m at a creek side in Virginia or Pennsylvania somewhere with my tramily. It’s so routine, the filtering and the laughter. I’m tired. I’m in love. My knee hurts. I’m covered in mosquito bites, and I can’t imagine ever leaving the trail.
Just as suddenly, I’m back again, at Monument Creek. The Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular places in the world, but now I feel with every nerve in my body how alone I am. My friends are not here. Thanks to distance and time and fractured relationships, thanks to COVID, the hiking reunions we imagined when we stood atop Katahdin have not materialized, and likely never will. Of course, life goes on, and people move on, but I still feel a pang of sadness that it will never be the summer of 2018 again.
I don’t regret hiking the Appalachian Trail. The AT (along with a global pandemic) motivated me to take a leap of faith into the outdoor industry, and I’m grateful for it. But leaving the trail behind was hard. The past two years have been even harder. I know I want to hike the PCT, and I’m confident I’ll be able to. I’m less sure of everything that will come after.
I keep hiking, but these thoughts stay with me.
The trail climbs steeply up from the creek, then levels out back on the platform. Eventually, as the sun sinks lower and casts a golden light on the canyon, my doubts are overshadowed by marvel at my surroundings. I reach Cedar Spring around four p.m. No one else is here. I pitch my tent, take off my shoes, and wander around in my flip flops.
I don’t understand how I can feel so filled up with wonder and so hollowed out with loneliness at the same time. It seems like there shouldn’t be room for both at once.
I write in my journal until it gets dark, and then I cook dinner. Last time I was in the canyon, I saw a bobcat. Bighorn sheep, too: mountain lion food. If I were a mountain lion, I would love it here, I think to myself. The cliffs are craggy and full of perfect hiding places. There’s a tiny trickle of fresh water from Cedar Spring. I’ve never been down here alone overnight, and every small noise makes me jump until I zip my tent for the night and snuggle into my sleeping bag.
I fall asleep with a podcast in my ear.
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