There’s a great deal of walking, almost without purpose, in the Bible, as though the function of the trek itself is a journey to bear witness to the beating heart of God. I’m not sure what it means, but it stirs my wonder.
Albert Einstein advocated for ‘aimless’ walking as a means to regenerate the mind. He walked a mile and a half to and from work. Not because he had no means of transportation, but because he wanted to. The act to him was considered a sacred ritual. To others, it was another aspect to his strange quirkiness.
It took me until I was thirty years old to start hiking. I’m not sure why I got into it. I only know that when I’m in the midst of a hike, I feel my finest self personified, my soul fulfilled, like tears of satisfaction, finally, from ages upon ages of movement coming to a still.
I recently moved within a couple hours of the Grand Canyon, and on one of our first hikes together when my girlfriend Audra said she’s wanted to do the rim to rim hike at the Grand Canyon, we began actively training.
Every weekend we packed up Grandma Bertha—a 2006 Chevy Cobalt I purchased from my paternal grandmother—with a tent, water and protein snacks, a backpacking cook-kit, cooler of beer to reward ourselves at the end of the day and a mind to witness nature in truest and purest form, and walk through it.
For eight months, we hiked and camped weekly. At the North Rim, Bryce Canyon and Zion.
We were preparing ourselves for the granddaddy of them all: The Grand Canyon.
The rim to rim hike at the Grand Canyon covers about 23.5 miles depending on which trail you take, and is not recommended to try and complete in one day.
People have been carried out by emergency helicopters and carried out by other hikers. It takes, on average, twelve hours to complete.
For some reason, I did not take into consideration that we might fail.
The day began in late October at three in the morning, waking up at the motel, filling up our hydration reservoirs and canteens with filthy brown water, that almost made us vomit.
We got to the parking lot of the South Rim an hour later and walked a half mile to the trail head, in the dark, in the cold, against howling wind. It was thirty degrees. I was shivering. My first thought walking out the car door was, ‘Shit, what a goddamn mistake.’
Eight hours later, in the valley, with no shade, the sun would strike us at ninety degrees.
Though it is said that less than 1% of Grand Canyon seekers hike it rim to rim, there were easily 500 other brave, stubborn or infinitely more prepared souls than us, trekking alongside us. A team of mules passed us by, cutting through switchbacks, releasing urine and feces as they set foot downhill.
Words don’t do it justice, the way the sun rises and hits on the Grand Canyon. It’s simply a masterpiece. An essence of infinity and the never ending triumph of nature beams against your gaze and all but brings you to your knees in the utmost act of humility. I waited for the crying to come but it did not come. It was early. We had about twenty more miles to go and we moved on.
By the time we reached the bottom, six or seven miles in, our energy was okay, but Audra had shin splints and blisters swallowed my feet and we were fixing to crack.
We would joke early in the hike, ‘Once we get half way, we can turn around.’
By the time we got halfway, it wasn’t even remotely funny. Unsettling fear kicked in. We realized we might not have been ready to take on this challenge and are very likely fucked.
We were exposed by the sun and began the long journey uphill to the North Rim.
The miles got harder, our pace slowed to total dullness and light was vanishing. It happened as slowly as it did rapidly, like a fantastic magic trick played Mother Nature’s finest.
The Autumn sun began to sneak away from us. We were hurting too much, still had too long to go, to appreciate the immortal beauty of the hike. We were losing daylight, ached like hell, could barely take another step, had to sit and rest nearly every ten minutes. It was like we entered the eternal gates of Hell, led by no man, only ourselves and our fighting spirit.
At one point, after digging in my bag for cheese crackers and only finding peanut butter, I cried out like a child, “is there only fucking peanut butter or what.” I knew even at the time, this following thought was dramatic but it came across my mind like a wind pushed by the winds of hell. I thought, ‘I want to die.’
There’s a bridge three miles below the North Rim trailhead. It’s called the Redwall Bridge and I can’t count how many times we hiked down and back in preparation in the dead, stale heat of Summer. Obtaining that holy sweat from pointless walking. I knew once we hit the bridge exactly how far we had, three miles, and that we could finish, even if it took five hours in our pitiful condition.
By the time we reached the bridge, we had found ourselves somewhat among a fraternal bond of others doing the same as us, at a similar pace. Beginning before sunlight, coming to the end of sunlight.
It was strange, almost funny. It was as though we’d known each other for many years. We had on headlamps in the coming darkness, spoke to each other with natural tones of wisdom as though we had each lived many years longer than our age, all over the course of one day. We discussed what brought us here, shared banana chips and walnuts, and a special few who miraculously had the energy were able to tell funny stories, making the others laugh, as painful as cracking a smile even was. It was like another world for a small moment, and it almost felt like we were each kindled together by this one thread, wandering without a literal means. I felt like I could take a step back, view us from a removed perspective and see a tribe of olden-time pioneers in this new world, in its most ancient form.
The last three miles are the meanest, most wicked. It’s because by the time you embark upon them, you are physically and utterly dead. Not even the excitement of being so close, or finding a second wind can save you. Three miles, something like 2000 feet of elevation climb. You climb switchbacks through dying trees and the trail becomes layered with ice. It takes forever.
It was ugly and graceless. We literally felt sick by the time we finished. I had the cold sweats and Audra vomited. We had talked all day about drinking gin and tonics when we finished and by the time we made it home, we drank a glass of electrolytes and passed out, not enough energy to wash our filthy bodies. I was in so much pain I wanted to cry. I can’t remember ever hurting so bad.
It had been a dream of Audra’s for as long as she can remember. 23.5 miles, give or take, for no real literal or practical reason at all. In the journey, we saw maybe the finest Mother Nature has to offer.
I’ll never do it again, not even if I’m paid to. But I don’t have to anymore, it’s been done. I doubt if anybody truly cares, nor should they. But it means something to Audra, and it means something to me too.
It was not until we drove back to the South Rim to pick up my car the next morning, that the heavenly beauty of the Grand Canyon in its vast scope grabbed us by the senses. It was almost seventy degrees, around noon and we were fixing to have a burger outside on a patio with a few beers. I was sore as hell and it felt good. Audra agreed.
We pulled over at a roadside view and stepped outside. The wind crossed us, pure and crisp and perfect as it were the breath of God.
The Canyon looked like it had been perfectly written by Walt Whitman, a hushed myriad of creation beyond this world and also defining this world, the womb of earth and the grandfather of earth, beautiful and powerful, almighty golden-blood tinged rock towering a steeple unto the skies that shined in bright colors of aqua blue and translucent yellow and wet blood, the river cutting through it like a mythological snake, appearing as a painting of holy-vision proportion, appearing almost alien, appearing, finally, of absolute earth, all captured in one moment by our eyes, all of it been coming into being for the past 2 billion years.
I took a deep breath. Audra and I looked at each other and smiled and the sun stung my tears.