Grand Canyon… Believe the Hype

For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here

It’s as if the Grand Canyon sucked out my soul, tied it in a knot and then repeatedly slapped me about the face with it. The magnificent beauty of this undoubtedly spiritual place has left me humbled, I feel exposed and vulnerable, stripped to the very core of my humanity. With the raw beauty of this mighty canyon burnt into my brain and branded on my conscience, a definite benchmark has been set against which I shall likely judge everything that follows on this journey down to Tierra del Fuego.


Sunrise on the Grand Canyon from just below Yuma Point, Boucher

A few days ago I hiked out onto the south rim of the Canyon, ending nine days living inside a world wonder and geological masterpiece. I worked hard to get myself to this National Park, but the investment was quickly justified through smashed expectations and unpredicted returns. Those nine days hiking within the Grand Canyon can go down as not just some of the best days of this tour, but also some of the most thought-provoking of my entire life.


Sunset on the Grand Canyon on the descent towards Indian Garden

Words and pictures will always fall short in attempting to describe and understand this freaky behemoth of nature. Several days removed, I am still reeling from the shear emotion of my time within it. Something in that Canyon caused my brain to warp, setting in motion powerful thought trains that have shaken many of my belief structures to their core. My mind and heart have been levered open by the violent shift in context and perception forced on me by the geological history of the Canyon and its resultant topography. The rock strata of the Grand Canyon lay bare the passage of time, rubbing in our faces the fleeting insignificance of a pathetic human existence and prompting the inevitable wonder after what actually resides beyond the limits of our consciousness.


Sunset Volcano National Monument

Since battling my way out of Flagstaff into a cold and unforgiving headwind on February 4th, I have been on a real journey of discovery. Taking an indirect route up Hwy. 89, detouring around through Sunset Volcano National Monument, Strawberry crater Wilderness Area and Wupatki National Monument, I then forged west on Hwy. 64, up the hill into Grand Canyon National Park. Save for an exhilarating 2,000 foot drop out of Sunset Volcano, the vast majority of this cycling was punishing. I was forever buffeted by cold headwinds, suffered from the lack of shoulders on Hwy. 89, had to really search to scrape out a cheeky camp spot on Hwy. 64 and ground my way up the wearing 3,500 foot climb to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It is psychologically challenging to move north when everything (weather included) is telling you to head south, but I knew my time would come. Pumping my way up out of Wupatki National Monument I was cursing ever having made the detour, but these feelings were quickly lost to the wind as I was spat out onto Hwy. 89 and the realisation that the alternative and direct route would have been miserable. In retrospect I am really glad of exploring the Sunset Volcano and Wupatki Monument areas for they offer up some exhilarating geography and real history. In a country forever neglecting its pre European heritage, it was refreshing to encounter the Wupatki ruins and pueblo buildings dating back to the 1100’s.


Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument

I stole my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon on arrival at Desert View, a National Park village at 7,400 feet on the south rim of the canyon and the eastern end of the 27 mile  Desert View Drive, from Grand Canyon Village. That morning I had stopped at Little Colorado Gorge for breakfast and been bowled over by this tidy ‘little’ deep and steep feature. As my introduction to Canyon country, this seriously wetted my appetite for the main event. Even though, I was still in no way prepared for the vastness of what loomed at me from behind the trees at Desert View.  On arriving at the Canyon rim exhausted from a tough morning, I was in no way ready to confront the Canyons majesty. Shivering and hungry from my exertions, I instead settled into a couple of hours recharging. But once fed, warmed and gathered, I conceded the time was right, I was now  ready to unleash the Grand Canyon on my senses.


Native pride in front of Little Colorado River Gorge

Shermy rolling at my side, we strode out onto the fenced viewing area in front of the tower at Desert View. What met my eyes also slammed into my body as the  resulting vista steamrolled through my senses. Stunned and intimidated by a landscape revealed beyond the scales and comprehension to which I’m accustomed, I was unable to do anything other than put  hands on hips, fix an inane grin and chuckle uncontrollably. A great wave of emotion saturated my entire being and I knew I was in for something quite special.


The Colorado River and Grand Canyon as seen from Desert View

When I see an iconic and beautiful mountain for the first time, the marvel that strikes is one with empirical precedent, a variation on a theme I know and understand.  The impact is immense but slightly constrained by experience. If I try to imagine seeing Denali having never seen a mountain before, I imagine the effect to be one similar to that which met me at my introduction to the Grand Canyon. The emotions that surged  on  meeting that mountain, May 21st last year were turboed when the Grand Canyon struck.  I had nothing in my experience to hang this mighty vision on, so I just stood and stared, baffled by an inability to comprehend the eroding Buttes, dark and savage creeks, and broad broken plateaus.  Rendered in the sharp colours of geological evolution and poka dotted by vegetation, these forms appeared infinite and more than a little alien. 277 miles of Canyon up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep takes some time to take in… when I eventually left the place  ten days later the scale was starting to sink in but my emotions were still swollen by awe.


My first evening views of the Grand Canyon as I move west from Desert View

After a liberal sprinkling of gawping interspersed with some interesting chats, my Desert View bubble burst before the increasingly pressing demands of finding somewhere to sleep. It is illegal to camp without permission on Grand Canyon National Park land and I was for once prepared to respect  this rule. It was only a little bother to ride 15 miles west along the rim and then drop a mile down Rd. 310, the Arizona trail into the Kaibab National Forest and free camping. A cold night punctuated by a warm morning sunshine led me into a relaxed day touring west to Grand Canyon Village.  Coasting the humps and bumps of the south rim road I took in every vantage point  on route  to  the village grocery store, lunch and then the Backcountry Information Centre.


A warm morning after a cold camp in Kaibab National Forest

It had always been my intention to spend some time hiking down in the canyon. Opportunities like this are the very reason I cart around hiking shoes, gaiters and a 30 litre backpack. As with everything I have on tour, this equipment was subject to intense research and months of pondering. For a time I knew of every hiking backpack on the market, as I do with every piece of equipment I look for. I established a set-up that would allow me to use just a 30 litre pack to hike with full self-sufficiency in any reasonable weather for I believed about 3 or 4 days.  I now know that I can carry sleeping bag, tent, cook gear, waterproofs and enough food to keep me going about a week. Yet again I have found myself  smug with self-congratulation on gear choices… one of my more attractive qualities I’m sure.


This guys exceptional good looks made him the perfect candidate to model my backpack

I didn’t really know much about the specific hiking opportunities of the Grand Canyon but was soon enlightened by the good folk at the Backcountry Information Office. An ideal start was deemed to be hiking down the steep South Kaibab trail to spend four nights by the Colorado River at Bright Angel Campground. There are good day hikes I could do from that base that would allow me to ease my cycling conditioned muscles into the different art of hiking. If this proved me to be hiking strongly then I’d step out on something a touch more adventurous. With the plan in place, I put down $10 for the backcountry permit and $5 for each night in the canyon. Although happy to fork out for this, it did serve to reinforce my anger at the prices some crappy campgrounds try to charge (but I never pay). A prevalent theme for that night as I had no intention of paying the $15 for Mather Campground, the only available camping facility on the rim.


After a snowy and free night at Mather Campground, Grand Canyon Village

As in the summer the Mather Campground offers a $5 Hiker/Biker rate I figured I’d just pitch up and use this as my out should a Ranger pounce. I always concoct a back story for my camp spots so that if I get caught out I have at least convinced myself of the righteousness of my trespass. I waited until dark and then cycled into the camp ground.  As I looped through the site my eye was caught by a small group with a fire, they looked to be perfect ‘victims’ for a cold night but were soon trumped. I dove into the trees to stealth myself a spot. It was then that a familiar form caught my attention, there through the trees my headtorch was reflecting off two luminous hoops… bike tires. Without consideration I made a bee line for them and was soon chatting to John Schraufnagel (aka ‘The Screw Nailer’). A little older than myself, John shared the same deeply tanned face and was immediately identifiable as a fellow bicycle tourer. The first tourist I’ve met since  Bryan in November, it was a rare treat.


Hanging out with fellow cycle tourist, John, the morning of my descent into the canyon

John invited me to share his pitch and we blabbered at each other deep into the night. Riding a Surly Long Haul Trucker (just like every other f***er), John has looped down the Pacific coast and around, at this time heading north into Utah. We hit it off straight away and turned out to have a mutual friend in Justin Smith. John had met Justin, my riding partner through much of Alaska and Canada, on the coast south of San Francisco. I had guessed it was Justin the moment John mentioned he’d met a guy heading to Tierra del Fuego as all other PanAm riders are much further south than us. Justin is presently taking a  little working holiday from his tour but will eventually be regaining his southerly momentum.


Heading off down the South Kaibab Trail

After a snowy night and a morning hanging out with John, I had reorganised myself to hiking mode, stashed Shermy with the Backcountry Rangers and was ready to enter the Grand Canyon. The shuttle bus dropped me off at the top of the South Kaibab trail and just after 15:00 I started my descent. It had always been my intention to hike down to Bright Angel Campground as the sun went down and in this I was successful. With a break for a late lunch I helter skeltered steadily down the steep South Kaibab switch backs, arriving at the Colorado River just after 18:00 and reaching camp under virtual darkness. It was an exhilarating hike down flavoured by threatening storm clouds that dropped water on the north rim but were fortunately blown eastwards before hitting me. In the changing evening light and with the quick descent rate of the trail I was constantly bombarded with new shapes, tones and forms. This first hike opened me up to the different layers of the Canyon and already gave me a perspective on the scale of things.


Storms hit the North Rim as I descend the South Kaibab

My four nights and three days down in Bright Angel camp were relaxing and social. My Ranger contact up on the rim, Matt Slater, had urged me to find this guy Sjors (pronounced Shores) that has been volunteering in the Canyon for over twenty years. I did so and was lucky enough to spend some good times chatting with this fascinating fella over the next few days. Passionate for his wildlife, Sjors is a story-teller and all round interesting character. Having spent so much time down in the relative seclusion of Phantom Ranch one could conceivably expect Sjors to be a bit ‘special’ but no, he’s better put together and adjusted than most. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to spend time with him and flattering that he should take an interest in my little bicycle tour. Definitely a character whose  decisions should be noted, I am grateful to him for offering up knowledge of the area and letting me accompany him at ‘Sjors Point’ to look for Condors.


Monitoring Condors with Sjors. I saw a couple but not on this outing

The weather was fresh and sunny, helping me to thoroughly enjoy my days down at Bright Angel. By day I alternately hiked up the North Kaibab to Ribbon Falls and back, up an unofficial trail to a beautiful spot I shan’t reveal for it deserves to remain unspoilt, and a way east along the Clear Creek trail. These enjoyable hikes were interspersed with a lot of thinking and a fair bit of socialising. I have started to really enjoy visiting National Parks for the people it brings me into contact with. By satisfying my compulsion to talk to as many people I can around camp and on the trails I came away with some more new friends. One such recruit was Erika, the Law Enforcement Ranger down at Phantom Ranch. Erika was great value, helping me organise my onward hiking, offering an insight into the life of a Grand Canyon Ranger, and generally being fantastic company. Most other people I met were more or less local, comparatively few tourists come to the canyon in February. This seems crazy considering the fine weather I had but highly conceivable now when I look out of my Flagstaff window on a sea of fresh white snow. These folk included  the Flagstaff Nordic Centre guys who camped up next to me after cross-country skiing to the north rim…I understand they maybe the first to do so this season.


Life after lunch on a day hike from Bright Angel Camp

On my third evening in the Canyon I was chatting with Erika and Sjors when this gaggle of attractive ladies strode past. There was no way I was going to let them get away without me talking at them for a while. I’d also heard there were a couple of interesting Canadian chaps in camp. I was making my way to befriend the Canadians when I passed the ladies camp site… I never got to speak to the Canadians. Instead, I became acquainted with Ryanne, Vanessa and Erica, whom I consider collectively as the ‘Flagstaff Angels’. The type of women that sleep under the stars, win card games they don’t understand and winter hike in shorts, these three brightened a couple of my days in the canyon. Led by Ryanne, an ultra experienced hiking guide, the ‘Angels’ are the hardy breed of woman you’d hope to meet deep inside the Grand Canyon but feel lucky to find elsewhere. I really enjoyed their company and generosity before they left camp a day before me, moving the 5 miles and 1,400 feet up to Indian Garden. I would catch them up the next day, completing the remainder of the Bright Angel trail up to the South Rim in their company.


It was my fifth day in the Grand Canyon that I hiked out from Bright Angel the 9.5 miles and 4,400 feet up to the South Rim. Once I made it out I enjoyed a beer with the ‘Angels’ before picking up my new Backcountry Permit and stocking up with groceries. Surfacing from a few days in the Canyon on a Saturday is amusing in that you step from the feral mindset concurrent with potentially aggressive wilderness into a hue of cologne, shiny shoes and generally plump motorists.  I love these juxtapositions, contrasts that boldly reinforce my life decisions and remind me of the motivations behind my current freedom drive (or cycle).  Many of the motor tourists will offer congratulations and marvel at returning hikers, while the hikers, if they are anything as bigoted as me, will return the gaze with derision and pity. I was accordingly glad to be heading back down into the Canyon, toppling the South Rim and hiking the icy trail as the sun set. After a good hour of night hiking I reached Indian Garden, my home for the night. Relaxed in the knowledge that I’d have somewhere to stay on my return through Flagstaff (I’m currently encamped in Vanessa’s living room, sheltering from the heavy snows outside), I set out on the second phase of my Grand Canyon adventure.


The Tonto Plateau and one of the creeks that intersect it

The next four days were spent hiking west along the Tonto Trail, then up and south along the Boucher (pronounced Boo-shay) Trail. These days were more like what I had been expecting to experience down in the Grand Canyon. Shouldering all my gear I hiked freely, constrained only by the availability of water. By this time I was hiking well and thoroughly enjoying the sensation of my feet across the ground. My first day out of Indian Garden the Tonto took me on its way across the Tonto Platform, west along the Colorado River. The trail was interesting, forever turning corners as deep creeks cut into the platform and rewarding superb views from the rim of this Inner Gorge. After about 12 miles I wondered down Monument Creek for a night sleeping under the stars on the Granite Rapids beach, nestled in snuggly beside the roaring river. Joined by photographer, Mike, the strong filling moon illuminated a gorgeous night at 2,420 feet.


Home sweet home at Granite Rapids on the Colorado


Christy & Kate. the ‘Jolly Nurses’

Hiking the final stretch down to Granite Rapids I had met Christy and Kate, a pair of nurses who were busy establishing their camp at the head of Monument Trail. I would meet them again the next morning, Valentine’s Day. Hiking the Canyon for the first time, the ‘Jolly Nurses’ were on an ambitious schedule, a  situation not aided by their accidental decision to detour 2.6 miles around trip to Granite Rapids. This worked out for me though as I had them to colour my mornings hiking. We put in 3 miles of climbing together before the merriment came to an end and they left me to laugh their way up the Hermit trail towards the South Rim. I on the other hand continued another 8.5 miles west along the Tonto before connecting with the Boucher that would take me a couple of miles down Boucher Creek to another sandy riverside spot at Boucher Rapids. Alone in the depths of the Grand Canyon, sleeping tentless beneath a powerful moon, I felt blessed by my situation. I was finding it difficult to understand just where I was… under a perfect sky deep inside the mighty Grand Canyon… where the hell did it all go so right!?!


Stocking up with 5 litres of water at Boucher Creek

Waking to the sun rising on another beautiful day I broke my usual routines, spending the first hour of my day in the sleeping bag staring in awe up at the huge sky and Inner Gorge cliffs. The Grand Canyon (and Flagstaff by association) is the first place I have come to on this tour that I really don’t want to leave. As I lay there that morning this desire to settle was very much on my mind. I could feel my emotions starting to jostle as the finite reality of my time in the Canyon really started to dawn. Thus followed  a slow morning just enjoying the moments and feelings of Boucher Rapids. It was 11:00 before I finally shouldered the pack and retraced my steps up Boucher Creek, and onto the Boucher Trail that over the next couple of days would deliver me up to the South Rim.


Looking back down towards Boucher Creek from Boucher trail

The Boucher trail is billed as ‘arguably the most difficult and demanding of the south side trails’ and ‘best left to highly experienced canyon hikers’. People I’d been meeting kept bigging up the trail and rightly so, for it really did provide the icing on the cake of an incredible time in the canyon. Not as physically demanding, challenging nor intimidating as I had imagined, this trail still shows immense imagination and delivers incredibly fun and varied climbing. As a fit and experienced hiker I certainly found this the most rewarding trail I trod. The variation in and intimate passing through various rock strata offer a connection with the landscape that the other trails fell slightly behind in achieving.


Summit of Whites Butte

Enjoying pulling a few technical moves on the climb up to Whites Butte summit I sat just below the summit cairn to take down lunch and digest the awesome vista that spread easterly down the Colorado river. That afternoon I climbed through the Redwall at Travertine Canyon to pitch up just below Yuma Point.  I settled on a leisurely two-day ascent in order that I may be able to take a night at this point, ‘one of the finest upper canyon camps with soaring openess’. The views were indeed unrivalled and as the sun sank on the day, light began a riot of reflections and colours, further ingrainng my reluctance to leave.


Looking back on Whites Butte and the Travertine Canyon from the Boucher

Rising on my final morning in the Grand Canyon I was one day short of a full two weeks without a wash and all too aware of my own stench. Wearing the same cycle shorts for a couple of weeks without washing is an experience I’ve got used to and pails into insignificance next to hiking in the same socks for eight days. With momentum behind you, such discomforts are seldom noted, but once the end is nigh and a potential shower on the horizon the shocking reality of ones own personal hygiene can really hit hard. Luckily events would soon overtake any dwelling on this situation.


Now that’s what I call a camp spot… looking west from my pitch just below Yuma Point

On this, my farewell to the Grand Canyon, camped up in one of the most breathtaking places imaginable, something happened to me that I still cannot fully explain. The spirituality of the canyon, the emotions of the last nine days and cumulative daily challenges of the last nine months, all combined, colluding to mentally disarm me, literally bringing me to my knees. Maybe spiritually driven, but probably just the breaking of an exhausted soul, my mental fortitude temporarily departed leaving my nerves raw and exposed to the majesty of the Grand Canyon vistas. As the sun rose, writing the story of a new day on the Buttes below, my mind went to a place it has never been before; the Grand Canyon either broke me or made me, I’m still not entirely sure.


Dinner time on my last evening in the Grand Canyon

Preparing breakfast in the way I have done for months, I gazed out over the Canyon, immersing myself one last time in this, my new perception of heaven. Surrendered to my mind I was rudely bought back to reality by my boiling pan. Only then did I realise that a tear was slowly drying on my cheek. I’d been thinking of my dearly departed Grandfather and interpreted the tear as his blessing for my tour. Compartmentalising the episode I set about eating my breakfast and enjoying my usual morning cup of tea. As I ate I watched a light show that will forever leave Las Vegas in the shade. The rising sun would find space between the jagged forms of the Canyon, creeping through to dance on vertical cliffs, rolling scree and handsome Buttes. Everywhere I looked I was reminded of the futility of the human condition and the power of the world I’ve chosen to invest in understanding. All my efforts and decisions to this point were justified and then immediately swiped away from under me. Without any warning I suddenly found myself falling, not from my perch above the Travertine Canyon, but from my fragile grasp on rational comprehension.


Sunrise from below Yuma Point

My entire body started to convulse as tears ripped through my eyes. I lost myself to my weaknesses, my strengths and the burden of my very existence. Something in me couldn’t take it any more; provoked by beauty and driven by exhaustion my mind  decided to vent, leaving me a blubbering wreck, unsure  of rationality, my own sanity and just about everything else. This release was not bought on by self-pity, nor motivated by obvious sadness or joy, it was an impulsive display of emotion like I’ve never experienced before and hope never to do so again. At the height of the episode I caught myself looking up to the skies and shouting ‘Is that you God?’… what the hell was that all about?!? I don’t want God in my life, its okay as it is thank you, but for a moment I’m sure I understood religious conviction. I have never come close to comprehending the possibility of absolute conviction to a belief in any God, but for a moment it all seemed to make sense. Most disturbingly, it appeared obvious in the same way as rational science. What was confusing to me was that it could be doubted. A window had opened into the mindset of devotion and I saw how alien non-belief is to the blessed. Religious persecution and aggressive promotion of belief structures suddenly seemed to make more sense and my acceptance of a general spirituality gained a razor-sharp focus.


Touched by madness… tortured by beauty

It took a good hour or so for me to gather myself. Pacing around camp muttering  inanely in a pathetic attempt to box up what I’d just experienced, I eventually regained my composure and started moving. This episode shook me up but I think I’m doing a good job of brushing it under the carpet. I put it down to a tired body and mind that shifted my perceptions, rather than a genuine move towards  any religious dogma. I openly accept some spiritual basis in my world (just read my post on the Dalton Highway) but I’m not prepared to accept an organised church… don’t worry Mum, I’m not about to run off and join the priesthood… biology obliging, you may still get grand children!


Painted skies over Yuma Point

Fortunately I met Ken, Kelly and Ryan on my way out of the canyon. Having just made their way up the Hermit trail, I’d like to say they were a godsend but I fear that may be inappropriate. They interested me and following the machine like hiking of Ryan out onto the rim, my mind was distracted back to reality. The weather was coming in with gray skies, whipping winds and a drastic fall in temperature. A storm was about to envelope the Grand Canyon and I was getting out at the perfect time. After dropping in on Hermits Rest, Ken drove me back to the Backcountry Office to be reunited with Shermy. It was great to get my hands on her, she felt sturdy and reliable, a grounded return to what is now my ‘normal life’. The weather forecast looked bad for the coming days so I was more than willing to accept Ken’s offer of a ride all the way back to Flagstaff.


One National Park I’m really not going to forget in a hurry

And so within a couple of hours of emerging shaken from nine days feral living in the Grand Canyon I suddenly found myself in the middle of civilised society. With a scratch of the head and rubbing of tired eyes I reaquainted myself with the tangible and admitted the dream was over. Decamping to a coffee shop, I called the ‘Flagstaff Angels’ and in no time was making friends with Vanessa’s two friendly dogs and settling my stinking frame into a comfortable sofa. After two of the most incredible weeks, normal service had resumed… I was in the comfortable house of another exceptionally kind and generous host, drowning in the affections of dogs and sheltering from a fresh dumping of snow.

I suppose now I should think about cycling down to Mexico… this is supposed to be a bike tour after all.


10 responses to “Grand Canyon… Believe the Hype

  1. Nathan,
    You are reminding many of us of what we have in our backyards, from the Redwoods to Yosemite, and now the Grand Canyon, and of the enlightenment of succumbing to Nature’s splendor. It is proving very rewarding for me to read of your accounts as I dabble for a bit in the real world away from our amazing cycle escapades. This has me not only dreaming of my continued journey south on Sue’s back, but also of some exploring by foot. Keep rollin’ my friend!

  2. I’ve been home from my Canyon meditation for a couple of weeks. Finally made time to read your Canyon writeup and look at the photos. Topnotch! “Touched by the madness” is an appropriate phrase. But it isn’t “madness”. Its sanity.

    Here’s the best part: what you touched in the Canyon will stay with you. And when you return (there’s really no choice in the matter), it will all be fresh and new.

    I certainly don’t want to compete with your photos, which are uniformly excellent. But I do have a couple of moonlight shots from Granite Rapids which you might like. If there’s an easy way to get them to you, please let me know….Mike

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