Editor’s note: First Person is an occasional series of stories by readers and Star Tribune staff members on adventures in the Minnesota outdoors and beyond. Stories of 600-700 words will be considered. Send them to email@example.com, and include your name, address and phone number. Photos will be considered, too.
In April 2014, I did a solo backpacking trip out West. It would be a journey of the soul, mind and heart.
I hiked in the Grand Canyon on the Utah Flats along the Phantom Creek and cattle route. The route starts behind Bright Angel Campground near Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. While quite a few go off-route to a place called Hippie Camp, few venture the rest of the way to the cattle route descending back down to Bright Angel Canyon, at which point one has to navigate Bright Angel Creek to rejoin the well-established North Kaibab Trail.
One reason is the difficult terrain which, while only a 1,400-foot elevation gain starting at 2,513 feet, involves frequent ups and downs. Another reason is the unreliable water source, which was not flowing when I did the trail, thus requiring 2 ½ days dry camping (carrying all my water). And trust me, cattle don’t go down the final ascent to Bright Angel Creek, at least not the way I did it. The weather varied from 50s to 70s during the day, although one day it was cold enough to snow but not stay on the ground. The temperature at night was in the high 20s to 50s.
I spent eight days backpacking down in the Grand Canyon, four days of which were off-route, meaning no trail. When I say “no trail” I mean mostly no trail but an occasional animal trail and very few cairns (small stacked stones marking the trail) for miles. Initially my longtime extreme backpacking buddy, Doug, was planning to go with me, but he got too sick and had to cancel. I decided to do the trip anyway, with Doug’s assurance that I had the skill and physical endurance to do it. I agreed after talking to several rangers who had done the route.
What I discovered on the off-route portion is hard to put into words. It was much more than a solo trip, much more than a simple challenge. The mental stamina required was beyond anything I’ve done before or will probably ever care to do — alone — again. Some journeys, I believe, are never intended to be done alone. They are meant to be shared. The rangers told me afterward that it is an intense trip and one they do in groups owing to navigational and terrain challenges. They actually had been worried for me, even though they knew I had the right skills. That said, Phantom Creek became a trip where I never really felt completely alone. I felt God there in the buttes and the silence. I felt my Grandma surrounding me in the wide open spaces reminiscent of her prairie home. And I felt her in the wind. I came to a new level of peace and understanding of her passing.
The trip itself was physically challenging, though it didn’t appear to be on the map. Crumbly shale, traversing 60-degree slopes, and going up or down steep sections while circumnavigating the fingers or feet, if you will, of the buttes was constant. In other words, simply staying at one level wasn’t easy.
You would think no trees would be sweet, right? Nope. There was cactus growing like grass all over. And one day the wind actually blew me off my feet several times. That’s the day my cap blew off, and I never did find it! I finally decided to wait out the worst of it. Then I followed a deer trail covered in cat prints (as in cougar) — a bit unnerving.
The most challenging day mentally was the last. I needed to find a single cairn to descend out to the North Kaibab Trail. When I found it, I blew it a kiss and thanked God — I thought I was home-free. But then there was some light bouldering and lowering the backpack though the steep creekbed until my route ended at a sheer 1,000 foot, impassable drop. Well, I thought, I sure hope the global positioning system works, because this is not the way out! I found the way several miles away and down another steep slope.
I think these types of trips test mental stamina more than any physical preparation one can go through. Alone, you have only yourself to talk through the tough times. That’s OK for a time, but I really believe it’s much better with someone beside you. Not saying I won’t do solo trips ever again. Just not this kind. Probably.