“the shock of the real”

En route to Observation Point, Zion National Park, 09.2011.
En route to Observation Point, Zion National Park, 09.2011.

“A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch [Arches National Park] has the curious ability to remind us–like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness–that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”

Edward Abbey, “Cliffrose and Bayonets,” in Desert Solitaire; A Season in the Wilderness (1968)



dipping my duct-taped toes into insanity

Some context for your Thursday morning…

I rolled out of bed at 10:30 this morning (yes, it does happen…occasionally) to find my electronic “Weekly Escape” update from Backpacker Magazine in my inbox, featuring the headline, “DREAM IT, DO IT: The John Muir Trail.” Needless to say, my undying urge to go forth and adventure seems scarcely appeased by the fact that I will be departing on Sunday evening for 1,000-mile-long thru-hike across the Alps in Italy, Austria, Germany, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, France, and Monaco. In my recent quest to find easy outlets for procrastination from packing three months of gear into a 58-liter pack, I started skimming Michael Lanza’s December 2007 article, “The Hike: John Muir in a Week.” In light of my recent overnight offensive into the wilds of the Grand Canyon, my interest was piqued by Lanza’s concern for his hiking partner’s stamina and his buddy’s subsequent response: “No problem, just a little vertigo I get hiking in the dark. I’ll be fine.” Sounds familiar. Upon perusing a few more paragraphs of Lanza’s all-too-resonant article, I stumbled upon the following commentary:

“Which, inevitably, started me thinking about long trails. I soon learned that fit hikers going überlight were sailing “America’s most beautiful trail,” as the JMT is often called, in just 10 days. A Muir Trail veteran told me that “30- to 40-mile days are totally doable.” Unfortunately, where another hiker might think that pounding out 31 miles a day for a solid week sounds just slightly over the top, I’m like Evel Knievel contemplating the Grand Canyon: My altered brain chemistry rationalizes, “How hard could that be?”.

My sentiments exactly. With ample training, food, water, and planning, and perhaps most importantly, an early enough start time, what could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot…but then what is adventure in the absence of some genuine stumbling blocks? And furthermore, despite my friends’ chuckling and insistence that I am “insane” (or a “raving lunatic,” according to SK), I would haphazardly argue that I am simply dipping my duct-taped toes into the reservoir of possible “ultra-hiking” experiences.

Post-Grand Canyon, I certainly identify with the passions–and desperate rationalizations–of the ultra-hiking camp. My raw blisters thus started to pulsate when I read the following response in the “Readers Comment” section below Lanza’s article:

“Is the purpose to enjoy the serenity, vistas, and nature…or to break a record? I am all for going light but much of this in my opinion is so contradictory to the backpacker philosophy of take your time and smell the roses?”

I am firmly in the camp of soaking up all the beauty, but I would offer the following: first, the possibility of achieving a fine and tangible balance between reveling in the natural splendor of your environs and maintaining quite a sustained pace; second, in accordance with the truism that “there’s a time and a place,” the consideration that fast-packing and “smelling the roses” are equally worthy, but are simply on different planes; and third, the premise that moving at a superhuman, almost-Dean Karnazes pace could somehow heighten the already-life-giving experience of being in and experiencing nature.

Before heeding Lanza’s call to the wilds of the John Muir Trail (which doesn’t present any of the solar problems that reign high and mighty in the Grand Canyon and in similar environs), I may try my hands and feet at quite a craggy course across Zion National Park…start time, hours of car-sleeping, and quantity of sausage rounds to be determined.

How hard could it be?

Special thanks to a certain ZBOK for a steady stream of inspiration. For a clearer image of this terrain profile, click here.

Disclaimer: I wrote this post from the comforts of my own bed with the shades safely drawn. 

“you know you’re not supposed to do that, right?”: raving lunatics in the grand canyon

Note from the National Park Service: “Under no circumstances should you attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day! Do not hike during the hottest part of the day.”

SK peered mischievously over my shoulder as I perused the official Grand Canyon National Park website on yet another graybird Maybird day in Alta. Forced out of Guatemala by the imposition of marshal law in response to a massacre committed by Mexican drug lords in the northern Peten region, SK had traveled west to pay me a surprise visit during my last week in Little Cottonwood Canyon before heading to the Alps for the summer. Needless to say, our adventure together–insane, impromptu, and a complete whirlwind–was quite befitting of the circumstances that brought an abrupt and unfortunate end to his travels in Central America. While SK had expressed enthusiastic interest in a quick trip to the stunning red rocks of southern Utah before organizing ourselves for an even grander adventure, I was markedly less exuberant. Upon leaving the Wasatch for a quick “holiday weekend” in sunny California in the middle of the ski season, I had fallen victim to an insufferable stomach virus that relegated me to a friend’s bed in a college dorm for 19 hours. (Of note: that is an extreme assessment from a lady who has battled GI distress in Africa, Asia, South America, and beyond.) When SK spotted the above stern warning, which is issued in multiple locations on the official Grand Canyon website, he ruled out both the possibility of a few short, but rigorous hikes in Zion National Park and that of spending some time in our portable lounge chairs–footrests included–with ice-cold, ice-brewed beers in hand. The decision had been made…at least in SK’s mind.

With tents, sleeping bags, a bin of Nalgene bottles, some hiking garments, a stove, utensils, pots, and pans from my kitchen (courtesy Cuisinart and Kitchen Aid, quite camping-appropriate), ten bananas, an overwhelmingly large sack of oranges, a spread of condiments, a loaf of bread, four pepper-crusted sausage rounds, avocados, ample salty snack foods, a life-size box of Emergen-C packets (the best we could do to appease a knowledgeable ultra-runner friend’s warning that we wouldn’t be able to replenish salts and potassiums readily enough in the desert heat), twelve Snickers bars, three varieties of Clif products, a generous stock of beer that would tragically spoil in the ambient car heat, a shiny plastic cooler, and four two-gallon water dispensers tossed haphazardly into the trunk of the vehicle, we headed south…without any definitive plans. In our frantic pre-departure preparations, I made a point to stash an extra container of windshield wiper fluid in the backseat, but declined to check the engine oil or to bring a back-up supply along for the ride. (I’m no car mechanic, but I’m fairly certain that an engine oil shortage would have posed a more pressing problem for us and for the fate of our adventure than a scant windshield wiper fluid supply.)

After fueling up in the bustling metropolis of Beaver, Utah, we decided to head to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon…and to go big…a framework that I would continue to attribute to–or blame on–SK.

Lovely views abounded on the drive south. We were a bit bummed to be spending such a beautiful day on the road (especially in light of the persistent graybird Maybird weather), but we would soon get our fill…and then some.

Upon arriving at the North Rim, we made tailgating and eating our afternoon priorities. Despite the fact that we had eaten almost constantly during the six-hour drive to the North Rim, we figured that we should shovel in calories before setting out on the hike…which would surely dash our appetites. We felt somewhat out-of-place in our parking lot perch in the presence of camera-laden tourists and those who required golf-cart transportation to make the harrowing trek from the parking lot to the lobby of the not-so-swanky, but still-a-hotel Grand Canyon Lodge. Even so, SK and I cranked up some tunes, and set to work carbing up, hydrating, and packing in ungodly quantities of sausage and cheese.

After satisfying our seemingly bottomless appetites, we made the tourist trek from the main parking lot to Bright Angel Point, a stunning viewpoint from which the North Rim falls precipitously away from higher ground. A National Park Service sign informed us that spotting the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks (visible in the distance in the above photo) proves a rare treat with pollution levels limiting the visibility of the horizon. I was excited to see some snow accenting the mighty red rocks–which represented quite a shift from my daily environs in the Alta white room.

The obligatory sibling shot, a foolproof pleaser for the parents. Our smiles/grins would soon crumble into the rabid expressions of raving lunatics. But in spite of the imminent physical and mental challenges, we soaked up grand sunshine, pristinely bluebird skies, and views that I feel compelled to label with a hackneyed “surreal.”

A man, his perch, and his humbling surroundings. “Surreal.”

Sign at the Grand Canyon North Rim Parking Lot: SLEEPING IN CARS IS PROHIBITED.

The above sign, staked in multiple locations around the main North Rim parking lot, was fundamentally at odds with our game plan–which was fundamentally at odds with the warning posted in multiple locations on the Grand Canyon website. When I write that we had determined to go big, I mean to say that we planned to sleep for a few short hours in the car (why waste time, energy, and resources on camping?), to rise at 12:45 a.m., and to begin the taboo 30+ mile to the Colorado River and back in the extreme dark of night.

“Car-camping…minus the camping. So really just ‘car’.” We thus relocated our caravan to the North Kaibab Trailhead parking lot, where we set up camp behind the trunk of the car.

Stoked on the MSR WhisperLight stove that he had procured for cheap in Central America, SK took the reins of our curbside kitchen, and set to work boiling some water. As SK tended to the pasta and I chopped pepper-crusted sausage and avocados (the exorbitant calories would surely equate to extra love on the trail a few hours later), National Park Service vehicles entered and exited the parking lot at least five times. Upon some quick scoping, I realized that we were tailgating–and preparing to bum–in a parking lot located adjacent to the ranger headquarters. An added challenge? Sure.

Energy in a bowl.

After placing our dirty pots, pans, bowls, and utensils into a plastic bag and tossing said bag carelessly into the trunk, we climbed into the same seats in which we had already spent a significant chunk of our day. In anticipation of some ranger snooping in hot pursuit of parking lot sign violators such as ourselves, we cunningly spread our sunshade across the windshield, and fully reclined our plush car seats. It was time for some shut-eye, however limited by our surroundings.

SK articulated our insanity quite aptly upon our uncomfortable reveille at 12:45 a.m.: “Are we freaks?” To which I responded: “Well, yes, of course.” As our alarms sounded jarringly from the center console, we had each been enjoying some quality REM sleep. But it was go-time, and we reluctantly traded our dreams for personal battles against the midnight chill of the windswept parking lot and the breakfast spread that we had assembled in the trunk prior to bedtime: for each adventurer, a peanut butter Clif Builder Bar (20 grams of protein? yes, please!), two bananas, half of a Nalgene of water, and a packet of Emergen-C. Needless to say, we were still digesting our dinner feast of orecchiette with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, sausage, and avocado, and we felt like cows chewing cud as we stomached some instant energy.

After dodging a potential headlamp/flashlight calamity (it would have been a calamity, indeed, as there wasn’t even a trace of moon accompanying us on the trail), we each loaded our daypack with eight liters of fluid and quite the smorgasboard of caloric treats, many of which would return to the car with us at the conclusion of the adventure. I cranked down the laces on my boots, SK tightened the straps on his Keen sandals (yeah, about that…), we switched on our GPS device for the advantage of mileage and elevation stats, and with that, we started sending down the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on the highly exposed North Kaibab Trail. (We only fully appreciated the exposure on our return ascent in the sun–and heat–of day. Our relentless and rowdy middle-of-the-night descent had guided us to the edge of 1,000-foot precipices and inhospitable gullies. Talk about no-fall zones…)

We arrived on the banks of the Colorado River at around 6:15 a.m. after hauling [mostly] downhill for approximately 16.1 comfortable-enough miles. While SK contemplated pinky toe amputation and completed an impressive duct tape procedure, I chewed morosely on a Snickers bar. SK punctuated our bouts of delirious laughter with a follow-up remark to this midnight commentary on our zeal (read: insanity): “We are raaaaaving lunatics!” I was much too humbled by the 16-mile ascent ahead of me to experience the full extent of my disappointment that the Colorado River hadn’t been wilder…grander…a closer reflection of the romantic image that I had generated in my mind during the sixteen miles downhill. The clock was ticking; it was time for forward motion. In our tired haze, we realized that the high overhead cloud cover would afford us some added protection from the notorious Grand Canyon sun. Well, that, and the fact that it was still only 6:15 in the morning. As we passed the Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch en route to a long, narrow, and demoralizing canyon, we became the quick recipients of “good morning” greetings from countless other hikers. Yeah, it had already been quite the morning…

A glimpse of the aforementioned “long, narrow, and demoralizing canyon.” Or, perhaps more accurately: “Gatorade Canyon.” We arrived at the mid-point of this segment approximately 45 minutes after departing from the River. Stated simply: I did not feel well. At all. I thus declared to SK with as much verve as I could muster in my feverish reverie that the time had come to pour some of the contents of our life-size, two-liter bottles of Gatorade into our well-loved Camelbaks. Things went predictably uphill from there…

Oh yeah…the Grand Canyon was humbling in its craggy splendor. I felt compelled to consciously remind myself of my surroundings along the way, lest my exhaustion overshadow the grand beauty. Somewhere in the pictured vicinity, I announced to SK that I would be taking a siesta under the shade of some shrubbery upon arriving at the Cottonwood Campground, our projected lunch location.

Lunchtime lunacy. I arrived at the Cottonwood Campground for lunch at about 9:00 a.m. to find SK stealing some horizontal time on a lovely wooden bench…despite his previous strong words about my ambitious napping plans. Eating is quite a holy experience in our family, but on this particular occasion, SK and I were uncharacteristically doleful about the gastronomical challenge that presented itself: somehow stomaching peanut butter and banana sandwiches and/or tortillas oozing with Nutella. We did the damage that we could muster, and after exchanging some pleasantries with passersby (all of whom thought that we were complete lunatics), we set out for the “final” haul: ~9 miles and 5,000 vertical feet of ascent. With less of a vengeance than we would have preferred, we started the uphill slog, and agreed to meet next at a flat spot near a span bridge where we had heard a man snoring loudly at 3:30 a.m.

The face of pain and commitment: earning the ice cream and salt fest that would soon follow. At our final checkpoint, SK and I groaned loudly, gagged on the raspberry Clif Shots that I insisted we consume, and cranked up some tunes (desperate times call for desperate measures). While SK woefully reported that he had narrowly dodged a surprise rockfall a few hundred yards prior, I shared some less-than-coherent thoughts about what I perceived to be a quasi-competitive spirit on the trail.

Random female hiker: “What time did you start hiking this morning?”

Me (begrudgingly): “Ummm, at around 1:30. I’m at around mile 28.”

Random female hiker: “Oh, so you went to the River. You know you’re not supposed to do that, right?”

We knew.

The North Kaibab Trail as seen from the FINAL “final” climb, during which I was passed by a gentleman in a Canadian tuxedo (jeans on jeans) and another in jorts (those would be cut-off jean shorts). I was clearly full of life and energy. As I mounted the final knoll leading to the all-too-familiar parking lot, I spotted SK grinning unabashedly in my direction. Against my initial instinct to shed a few tears of unbridled joy, I instead gave myself a once-over: Gatorade residue on face and arms? Checks. Clif Shot (like Gu) on face and chest? Check. Salt encrusting my body from head to toe? Check. A few salty, sweaty smiles and hugs later, we tossed our tired packs in the backseat, and sped off to the north–determined to be eating a certain pasta, sausage, and avocado dish in our Alta kitchen by 9:30 p.m. Now that was crazy.

Total hours away from Alta: 38.

Total miles driven: 800.

Total hours in the car: 14.

Hours slept: 2.

Total hours on the trail: 12.

Start time: 1:30 a.m.

Total feet of vertical ascent: 7,300.

Total feet of vertical descent: 7,300.

Total miles hiked: 32.2.

Toes amputated: 0…but that was a close call.

Liters of water consumed per person: 8.

Varieties of Clif products consumed: 3.

Sausage rounds consumed: 4.

Number of “real” food items consumed: 0.


1) If you would like to chat with SK about the rationale behind this plan and its execution, please let me know, and I will direct your inquiries to him.

2) Heed the word of the National Park Service. Do not attempt to hike to the river and back in one day!