Our Trip West: Hiking Day Two

We are just a few days into the Coronavirus Social Distancing that was prescribed for the state of North Carolina. Our kids started ELearning yesterday, Thursday, and have come to the end of their first week at home. We haven’t been stuck inside because our weather has been glorious. We’ve been going for walks after dinner every night. There is no baseball or softball or dance class to run off to. (Although our lovely dance studio has been offering online classes so the girls can still practice and stay connected to their teachers.) The past two days my husband and Lucas (and at times our oldest daughter) and I have been sharing our workout time. We’ve been running in the neighborhood and waving to our neighbors from a safe distance. Last night we grilled dinner and ate on the back porch. I am grateful every day that we live in a neighborhood with lots of space for neighbors to be outdoors and still distanced from each other. I am grateful every day that we live in North Carolina where our beautiful weather makes the outdoors in March easily enjoyable. I have always known I was a little introverted, but this past week, surrounded by my family, has just proven how joyful this lifestyle is for me. Lots of time with my family and a slowed down schedule amidst a gentle routine at home is basically my recipe for delight. There are a lot of things we normally do that we are missing right now, but I’m also breathing in this new way of life deeply. There is certainly silver lining for those who are staying healthy through this social shift.

But before the Coronavirus shutdown, we were on an adventure. So technically our kids are completing their second week away from the classroom. We are completing our second week together as a family but distanced from most people. Perhaps that extra time to settle in is why this week feels so comfortable. It also has meant we haven’t really had to adjust back from Pacific Time. We are getting the full stretch of evening and sleeping past the early morning alarms while the birds sing outside. By our second full day of our West Trip we were still living on Eastern Standard Time in Mountain Standard Time. We had spent the previous day adapting to a new time zone and Daylight Savings Time all at once. But our first morning of waking up at Yavaipai Lodge we were still pretty firmly on EST. Which meant when we rose at 7am in was only 5 am locally. It meant we were able to sleep and gently wake, eat our trip-standard breakfast in the hotel room of bagels and bananas (and coffee.) The first mission at each new lodging was to figure out the type of coffee maker available and procure good coffee for that machine. It turns out that coffee must be a theme for National Park travelers because the hotels/lodges supplied remarkably good coffee (just not enough of it to satisfy my husband who is constantly asking “do you want another cup?”)

The kids were quickly dressed and ready to hit the trail and watch the sunrise. We climbed into our rental van and drove into Grand Canyon village and lucked into a parking spot surprising close to the Bright Angel Lodge. This would also be the site of the trail head for the Bright Angel Trail. This was the first trail we would encounter on this trip with “Angel” in the title, though it is not usually the one we talk about now. That morning, as we headed to the trail head and watched the sun begin to rise over the canyon, we saw many more people than we would see on the trail over the course of the day. Many visitors were willing to rise, stand outside their hotel room, and watch the wonder of the sunrise. Not so many were willing to hike into the canyon to enjoy it. I had read a stat before leaving for this trip that of the more than 5 million visitors to the Grand Canyon each year somewhere close to only 10% actually hike down into the canyon. It was our goal to not just SEE the canyon to but to experience it; to hike it.

That morning on the Bright Angel, the sun was rising and the ground was frozen. As we hiked down the first sections of the trail there were stretches that spent much of the previous day in the shade and those were covered with ice and slippery to navigate. For other people. We had our YakTrax. Except Lily, who had one and usually had just lost one on the trail. I circled back to look for hers so many times that I think I put an extra mile into the hike. Ironically, when we finished the day, the family member who was without two functioning YakTrax was me. I had busted one toward the end of the trail and had to venture later to the General Store to buy a replacement pair. (If I had known they would be so readily available I probably wouldn’t have fretted so much about whether to buy them, though in the end, by being prepared, I saved a lot of money and the hassle of buying them on the trip before we hit the trails.)

The Bright Angel Trail had several destinations or turnaround points along its way to the Colorado River at the base of the canyon. At the top of the trail there was a sign warning about the dangers of trying to make the full hike in one day, especially during the heat of summer, which we were clearly avoiding. The benefit of coming before the peak season was emptier trails and more comfortable weather, but it also meant water was not available at all of the points along the trail where it would be in the summer. The weather made that a more than reasonable trade off. Whenever you start off a hike with a family and five small kids, the hikers around you, particularly those who were already struggling and considering or actively turning around, feel the need to comment on the age of your children and the “bravery” or “ambition” of the parents. I do not like those people. It is a classic case of judging a book by its cover, and frankly, unsolicited parenting advice. (I get my worst case of unsolicited advice, given to me passive-aggressively through a child in a few days. It was the low light of the trip. I’m still mad.) The spirit and kindness of our fellow hikers would change dramatically as we got further into the trail, as it always does.

Our kids are not novice hikers. They aren’t beginners. When we search for trails we had to stop looking for “family friendly” as a descriptor or we would come up with a series of 2 mile flat, often paved, “treks”. No, thank you! Each year there is a little adjusting to the skill level of the youngest in the bunch; this year was the first time we could say “goodbye” to the hiking backpack as William hit the ground running. (Last year he would hike for a big portion of our routes, but eventually needed to be in the backpack. This year it wasn’t until the ascent that he sometimes climbed onto Nick’s shoulders for a stretch.) But we had typically set out to master 6-7 mile mountain hikes. They could hang.

However, they are still kids. And they still fall sometimes or whine. And one kid in particular is a screamer. When Grace is in nature she is at her best. She loves the outdoors. She loves being the “lead dog” on the trail. But when she falls, she falls hard. And on this hike she fell HARD. She tripped and, I am told, hit her head HARD on a huge rock. I was a little ways back, walking with William, when I saw her fall and heard the SCREAM. Nick as close by, but she wanted me…so I tried to hustle up to my girl and calm her. The nearby hikers became the worst helicopter hikers, asking if she was okay, and offering that we should turn back. Here’s what I know about my girl: the louder the scream, the more it’s her battle to pull herself back to balance. Injuries for her usually hurt her confidence more than anything, and that makes her mad. And she HATES the attention that comes with a fall (except in the form of a hug from me.) She does not want to talk to anyone, although adults struggle to let a kid cry without bombarding them with questions and well-meaning conversation hoping to distract. Here’s what else I know about my girl: If I hold her, give her a minute to calm down without talking about it, and then threaten to “throw that rock that tripped you” or “yell at that roller skate for falling” she will giggle, hop out of my arms, and run back to whatever she was doing before. This is why Lucas is so good at comforting her. He just holds her hand and doesn’t talk about it. Despite the other hikers’ reactions, which would have had you believe Grace was going to need to be airlifted back to the top of the trail, Grace voted that we keep going to the next milestone. She didn’t complain again for the course of the hike.

This particular trail set us up for beautiful views (even more breathtaking than the trail before it) and a feeling of accomplishment. Our final distance was around 11 miles according to our app and honestly it felt hard. It was also so invigorating, and SO CLOSE to attempting that long hike to the bottom. When we finally got to our turnaround point an older man who had hiked up from the river told us we were within a mile of a beautiful stop at the bottom and 5 miles from the river. His encouragement almost convinced us to try. But we had a lot of days of hiking left on this trip, and, like the signs said, “going down was optional, coming up is mandatory.” So we turned a little early, but not without a fire being lit in many of us to get to the skill level where we could take 2-day backpack hikes and stretch out the adventures. We are not there yet (when we camp it still involves air mattresses and a Big Van full of coolers and chairs and other “gear”) but we were certainly proud of our ability to enjoy this much of the canyon with the other “real” hikers.

As we neared the top, and the end of the hike for the day, we started to encounter more and more “pretend” hikers. These were the tourists in flat bottomed Nikes, or worse, carrying gear they had no idea how to use. This included the woman carrying a large tripod that she didn’t know how to collapse. Or the woman in white capri pants and ballet flats. These are the people the warning signs are for. Our very favorite warning sign was near the top of the hikes at Grand Canyon. It featured a shirtless, sunburned man crawling along the trail and throwing up. We lovingly called it “Puking Man,” and it became a landmark to let us know we were almost to the top. Victor (as we decided to name him) had failed to account for weather and bring proper hydration on his hike. We did not want to be like Victor. On this day the ice and snow at the top of the trail was far more dangerous than the heat and as we finished up our hike we had to navigate around a woman who had fallen on the ice and become injured. She was wrapped in a foil, thermal blanket and, though smiling and laughing, awaiting a Ranger Rescue. Her unfortunate accident did give me a reason to tell the older woman embarking on the hike in her shoes more suited for a day at the mall that it was quite icy and someone was injured on the trail. She turned to her friend and said “Good. Let’s turn back. It looks like there’s MUD on the trail, too!” Pretend Hikers.

After the hike, and midday shower (where we got in the habit of changing into the clean clothes we planned to hike in the next day) we decided to venture to the Desert Watch Tower. We stopped along the way at the Tusayan Museum and Ruins. We just happened to get to the beginning of the ruins walk as a Native Archeologist began a talk about the Pueblo Indians and their community. It was such an incredible opportunity to hear about the ruins from an “own voice” perspective. We had adjusted from our normal lives back home enough that we were looking around as we walked and taking time to take in our surroundings and so we were able to appreciate a beautiful view of the San Francisco Peaks from the ruins. At the Watch Tower itself we were able to climb to the top to see out over the canyon. It was breathtaking. I was so glad that we hadn’t missed out on this stop in the park.

As we drove back from Tusayan, we had to once again think about meals. We had eaten sandwiches on the trail and all of our hiking and sightseeing left us HUNGRY. If you have kids and maybe especially a big family of kids, you may be like us in your desire to eat at restaurants that won’t be stressful to your family and where your family won’t be stressful to those around you. And once we find such a place, we tend to go back for more. For this reason we returned to the Yavapai Lounge for the second night in a row. Dinner was lovely. The kids were exhausted and we were ready for bed. I think it was probably 6 pm local time. My one regret from our time at Grand Canyon was that we never went out at dark and looked at the stars. We couldn’t seem to stay awake long enough!

Since it was our second and last night at Grand Canyon we needed to be packed up and ready to check out of our room before we started the hike the following day. I like organization and a plan so this part was mostly my job while Nick made sandwiches for the next day’s hike. When we had set out for the trip with our one carry-on bag each we didn’t entirely account for how filthy our outer layer of clothing would be each day. We started to realize we needed two categories of dirty clothes: re-wearable and FILTHY. Our inner layers and filthy clothing went in one suitcase that would remain in the van for the remainder of the trip and not be opened again until I conquered my biggest task, Laundry Mountain, upon our return home. Bags were loaded up for our trip to Zion, hiking backpacks were loaded up for our last hike at Grand Canyon and it was lights out on Hiking Day 2.

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