My fascination with the Grand Canyon began when I was 12 years old. My grandmother took the family on a tour of the West aboard the Santa Fe Super Chief. Our first stop was Williams, Ariz., and the canyon was etched in snow, a stark contrast to the burgundy, red, pink, brown and tan of its walls, buttes and plateaus.
I returned 50 years later for a brief stop and a mile-and-half hike down the Bright Angel Trail. It was spring and I could see the trail in the distance, snaking its way to the Colorado River. And I knew I had to return and walk to the bottom of the canyon. It struck me as a spiritual place, like Lake Superior, designed to demonstrate to the self-important how puny a role we play in the scheme of things.
I came back in early August with Don Shelby, my friend and adventure guide since we met in the WCCO-TV newsroom in 1979. We’ve been on three canoe trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and a horseback expedition to Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Shelby is good in the outdoors: Confident, calm and controlled — especially in the face of the unexpected.
And I was not expecting what happened as we hiked down the South Kaibab Trail toward the Phantom Ranch on a sunny Saturday morning. I had just fallen, for the second time, on my tailbone and struggled to get to my feet with my pack and one gallon of water. I knew this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, not at our age. (Shelby is 68 and I’m 75).
The trail was rocky, steep and treacherous because of the monsoon rains the day before. You had to step down a foot or 18 inches in some spots, from a log into a puddle and onto a slippery rock. I had hiking poles to lean on but, after that second fall, I seemed to lose strength in the quadriceps muscle of my left leg. I couldn’t stand on it.
We weren’t even halfway down and I was feeling beaten, bothered, bruised and beleaguered. I called for Shelby, who helped me to my feet and carried my (and his) pack for the next half-mile. As I hobbled along, I was overcome with second thoughts: What made me think I could do this in the middle of summer — the temperature in the canyon’s gorge reaches 106 degrees — and well beyond my middle age?
I did spend four months preparing, training of sorts, hiking 25 miles a week, carrying a 15-pound pack, walking up and down hills around Carver Lake in Woodbury. But that’s not the Grand Canyon and this wasn’t like the trail I remembered from my visit in 2003.
By the time we crossed the Colorado River on a suspension bridge, I had my pack back and discovered, if not a second wind, at least an extra breath to keep me going to the ranch, our bread and bunkhouse for the night. Before we got there, Don and I sat down on a rock and had a heart-to-heart, senior-to-senior chat.
“Nim,” he said, “if that left leg of yours doesn’t get any better, you can’t walk almost 10 miles up and out of here. We’ve got to think of what the alternative might be. And you can’t let false pride get in your way.”
I agreed, and we continued another mile to the Phantom Ranch, where we learned that NOT walking out of the canyon meant spending a couple of days at the ranch (probably on the bunkhouse floor because the beds were already reserved), waiting for a mule to come down from the rim, and spending $900 each for the one-way trip.
The ranch bunkhouses were not fancy but they did have air conditioning, and we crawled into our top bunks and let the cool air blow over our worn bodies. Our mood brightened. Then I got a letter from my pack that my lifelong friend Jim Shoop had written, to be opened only when we got to the ranch.
“Congratulations, guys,” he wrote. “You made it down as I knew you would. I wish I could have made it with you but that ship has sailed for these old bones. Just in case you might need a little extra inspiration for the trek back up, I thought you might enjoy these words from the guy who first saw what you just did.”
Then Shoop added this quote from John Wesley Powell: “The glories and beauties of form, color and sound unite in the Grand Canyon — unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountains …
“It is a region more difficult to traverse than the Alps or the Himalayas, but if strength and courage are sufficient for the task … a concept of sublimity can be obtained never again to be equaled on the hither side of Paradise.”
It was as if Powell, the 18th-century U.S. soldier, geologist and explorer, was speaking directly to us. With the additional inspiration of a St. Christopher’s medal from the Visitation nuns of north Minneapolis, tied to Shelby’s pack, we decided we would walk out of this canyon the next morning.
We got up at 5 a.m., ate a breakfast and started our trek along Bright Angel Creek before the sun was up. The path would rise 4,400 feet in 9.3 miles. It took us 14 hours — 12 if you take off the hour we spent at Indian Garden, the halfway spot where we soaked our shirts with spring water, filled our bottles and rested our feet.
And another hour at Three-Mile Resthouse, which we spent huddled with a dozen other hikers during a sudden monsoon rain. By the time it was over, small, brown rivers were pouring down the canyon walls, and I worried the trail would be slippery.
That didn’t bother a French couple who took off with their infant daughter in the husband’s backpack. We followed five minutes later. The trail was fine. However, Shelby and I were a little short of fine. We tackled the last 3 miles one step at a time, two switchbacks at a time and, finally, 15 minutes at a time.
Before we hiked the last 50 yards to the canyon’s rim, Shelby called a halt. Let’s do it with style, he said, and we were fairly sliding and gliding — looking good for no one but ourselves.
In retrospect, this trek was not for bragging rights. Shelby’s already climbed mountains, carried canoes, run rivers and battled elements. And I can’t brag about taking a half a day to hike 9 miles. No, this trip was for a better understanding of the life I’m trying to live.
I went to the Grand Canyon because I thought it was a spiritual place. It is. The colors are brilliant. The shapes are amazing. And the silence is overwhelming. I went because I’m alive, not ready to pack it in, tuck it up or turn it over. I went because two old friends could once again share a trail — and a tale.
And, yes, I’m kind of pleased that in the 18 miles down and up, we did not see another pair of hikers who came within 20 years of the 143 Shelby and I had accumulated between the two of us.