Five or six million years ago, the Colorado River started digging a gorge in a 270-mile stretch of what would eventually be known as northern Arizona. As the gorge grew, it carved through 1.7 billion years of rock. Countless tributaries joined in, etching twisty, turny paths down into the ever-deepening canyon.
As the layers stripped away, the canyon’s beauty increased. Over the eons, the Yelp reviews ratcheted up the flattery until the only fitting word to describe the majesty became, “Grand.”
I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of awe when I arrived at the end of the little wooded path leading from the Yavapai Lodge to the edge of Grand Canyon.
For a while, I dated a woman who put value in “sacred moments.” When we were having a good time, she’d abruptly pump the brakes so we could “appreciate the moment.” I found the practice cute although occasionally deflating—but it made complete sense now. I felt a primal need to stare at the vista, to will my neurons to create as many synapsis as possible so I could forever remember what I was looking at. It seemed pointless to take a photo since I’ve seen thousands of shots of the Grand Canyon and none of them moved me this way, but I did anyway.
I had my then-16-year-old daughter Cassidy to thank for witnessing this spectacle, even though she had elected to stay back in the hotel room to catch up on her Instagram.
Cross Country, Covid-style!
When Cassidy first learned that I made it past half a century without seeing this natural wonder of the world, she insisted we include it in our cross-country trip to Missouri to see my parents, my sister, and her family for the first time since the pandemic hit.
The road trip had been on-and-off for a while. Thanks to COVID-19, the two of us, with my wife and her kids, had been forced together as a family unit with an intensity that none of us were prepared for. Over the year, our relationships intermittently deepening and crumbing as the tributaries of teenage rebellion and parental incompetence weaved their paths. I was up for a road trip from the moment I suggested it in August 2020, but during a rough September 2020 Cassidy decided it best if we just flew. She was probably right at the time. Then things improved between us, in part because I learned this neat trick called “listening,” and she decided in January 2021 that a week in the car with old man might be fun. I happily obliged.
The itinerary called for less than 48 hours at the Grand Canyon, so we planned to spend the following morning hiking—an activity with a broad range of definitions. For me, a hike typically means double digit miles, triple digit elevation, and as much discomfort as possible. For Cassidy, it could mean a sashay to Whole Foods for a Yerba Mate. Tomorrow’s hike would probably fall somewhere in the middle, only with discomfort guaranteed given the forecasted 100+ degree heat.
Equipped with half-a-dozen maps that the ranger piled on us at the front gate, along with the tear-resistant 261: National Geographic Grand Canyon North and South Rims Topographic Map that I’d purchased a month previous because I really like to buy things, I narrowed our possible routes down to two choices, Bright Angel Trail or South Kaibab Trail. Bright Angel offered “some shade” and water stops every three miles. South Kaibab offered a “steep trail, no water, little shade.” While I was overwhelmingly drawn to South Kaibab, I decided on Bright Angel, since it aligned with my plans to keep Cassidy alive until at least her 17th birthday.
We agreed on a six-mile hike. I explained that the first half of this adventure would be going down and the second half would be going up. I also explained that up tends to be harder than down and that it’s required to complete the hike. As a sign at the trailhead would warn us the next morning, “Down is optional. Up is mandatory.”
She said that she was ready for it.
I pre-filled our hydration bladders the night before, also packing us almond butter and honey sandwiches made using a loaf of bread my wife Marilyne made us for the journey. We agreed to an early start to beat the heat. Sleep came easy to both of us thanks to exhaustion from the seven-hour drive from Los Angeles and mild depression from the unbelievably greasy Mexican dinner we’d choked down in the neighboring town of Tusayan.
Elitist and proud!
The morning started with last-minute negotiations regarding the term, “an early start” but we still managed to hit the road a little after 6:30am. I hadn’t been clear with Cassidy as to how we’d travel the two miles to the start of the hike, but the view from the rim inspired her, as did the flat cement sidewalk, the groovy geological interpretive signs, and the relatively cool temperature of 86 degrees. How hard could this be? She agreed to add two miles to our hike, but only after I swore on a stack of bibles that we’d take the shuttle back to the hotel afterwards.
From the second we hike the Bright Angel trailhead, the views were mesmerizing. The rocks lining the switchbacks shifted from bright this to vivid that as we descended through the geographical eras. The crowds were light and filled with people struggling down the path in their Vans or sandals as they desperately sucked at the single-use Sparklets bottles that they’d purchased as an afterthought at the gift shop atop the Canyon. Meanwhile, we skipped about spryly, Cassidy in her Nike running shoes, me in my Altra Lone Peaks, sipping from the tubes of our fancy Camelbaks. It’s rare that my internal critic allows me to feel like the fittest guy in the room and even rarer that I feel like the best equipped. I decided to create a variation of the “sacred moment” called the “elitist moment” and bask in it.
Even Cassidy admitted that she was glad she’d taken my advice and left her usual Obama-era Chuck Taylor hightop sneakers back in the hotel room.
What’s more, it was hard not to thrill at all the wildlife. A couple elk had greeted us outside our hotel room and a family of mountain goats saw us off at the first switchback. About halfway down, a mule train caught up with us. At first, I was disappointed about being outpaced by mules, but then I learned that it was a government mule train operated by two full-on, legit cowboys delivering supplies down to the ranger stations, which is super bad-ass—far more bad-ass than a dude and his kid on a day hike outfitted in REI’s summer collection, so I ended my elitist moment and let them pass.
At first, the walls of the canyon offered shade, but that shade evaporated as the sun crept higher in the sky. By the first water stop, Cassidy was starting to fatigue. She took a much-needed seat on a fallen log.
By now, we’d encountered a few properly equipped people, but they’d all been going up. When I asked one of them why, she bemusedly explained that she’d started her hike at 5am to avoid the heat. She then walked away shaking her head, enjoying her own elitist moment.
The point of no return, more or less
The water stop spigot was locked at a permanent slow trickle, so we had plenty of time to discuss our options as I filled the bladders. I explained to Cassidy that our adventure was only going to get hotter. We could clearly see the next water stop, a little, green pitched roof down below. I pointed it out to her and explained that her father was weirdly competitive and probably had a touch of OCD, so we could either turn around now or continue to their original goal, the next water stop. What we could not do, under any circumstance, was start for the next goal and then give up halfway. Halfway is not all the way.
Cassidy assured me that she was aware of my abnormalities, along with half a dozen more that I had yet to discover, and that she wanted to continue.
We set out for what initially seemed like a quick mile-and-a-half. It was not. The proximity of the hut was an illusion dispelled by countless switchbacks and blistering direct sunlight. I checked on Cassidy repeatedly, scared that she’d want to turn around, but she kept going. The crowd thinned further, with most of the Vans and Sparketts set opting to turn around at the first water stop.
We arrived at the green-roofed resthouse to find it filled with a school group—all very well equipped, I might add. Cassidy plopped down and pulled her almond butter and honey sandwich out of her pack. The chaperone for the smartly-dressed kids approached me, asking if I happened to have an inhaler. A girl was having an asthma attack a bit further down the trail.
I didn’t, but I remembered a work crew a quarter mile back that included a couple rangers. I offered to see if they could help.
Cassidy rested up as I trekked back. One of the rangers, a younger guy, perked up at the call to adventure. Of course, he’d help! I headed back at a quick clip. The ranger kept up with me easily, so I picked up the pace. He returned the favor. This pattern continued until philanthropy shifted into competition. We were neck-and-neck at full sprint by the time we got to the resthouse. The chaperone gave the ranger directions, and he was on his way. She looked at me with gratitude. “You’re amazing! Thank you!” she said. I accepted her complete misunderstanding of my ego and thanked her back.
I then looked at Cassidy, who was still recovering, and smiled. She had a much more solid bead on her dad. “You are weird,” she mused.
I wanna be a cowboy
After filling our water bladders again, we headed up. I felt a certain lightness. We had no choice but to complete our goal, so I could put my OCD aside. Sure, I was itching to continue down the trail to the Colorado River, but I tucked that notion into my, “Things to do with Marilyne someday” mental file and continued my day with Cassidy.
That said, my daughter was having a very different experience. She’d already pushed her fitness limits on the way down and now she had to go up, with the thermostat turned up 20 degrees.
Still, it seemed like she was having fun. There were plenty of other folks suffering up the canyon and, no matter which direction you looked, the beauty was remarkable.
We made reasonable progress back to the 1.5-mile spigot, managing to fill up our bladders before a rush of families. We sat and watched the chaos as dads filled up bottles, kids spilled bottles, and moms lectured kids for spilling bottles. A couple of urban millennials pulled out their multitools and set to work on the spigot to getting it flowing “better.” we had to leave; It was the only way we could keep our mouths shut.
We fell in with a few friendly non-multi-tool-wielding millennials and the mule train. The temperature was now in the 100s, floating down to a merciful 99 degrees in the shade. Everyone around us felt it, except the mule train cowboys, who seemed impervious despite head-to-toe denim and leather. I chatted with the cowboy in the back. He grew up in Williams, a little town 56 miles due south and had worked with horses his whole life. In other words, the broken-down Stetson and floppy mustache weren’t affectations. He was a real, authentic cowboy.
Though suffering, Cassidy was amused by my hero worship. After I’d peppered the guy with a thousand questions, she told me to stop being such a “fan girl.” Lucky for her, I didn’t have the chance to speak with the front cowboy, who I would eventually learn was a bronco buster in the eighties and had appeared in Marlboro man ads even though, “he never smoked the shit.” I would have completely lost my mind talking to that guy. Fan girl, indeed.
The motivating power of Dr. Pepper
As we got closer to the top, we separated from the mules and the other hikers. We travelled from shady patch to shady patch. Cassidy was in over her head, but there was no complaining. At each stop, I dug deep into my motivational toolbox for bon mots to inspire her. This proved a challenge since my motivators run along the lines of “move your ass” or “what are you, some kind of fragile flower?” Not what she needed to hear. I had nothing. I decided to just be present with her, letting her have her journey although occasionally reminding her to hydrate.
Each time we rested quietly in a shady spot, my silence allowed me to watch her collect herself, to regroup and prepare for the next stretch. She was going to do this, no matter what. I was proud
Eventually, with one final push, we crested the trail and set foot on sweet cement. We were all smiles, sunshine, and extreme thirst. We bypassed the 20-deep line waiting for ice cream and went into the nearest gift shop, where Cassidy got a well-deserved Dr. Pepper and a little pin that read, “I hiked down the Grand Canyon.” I got a Coke.
We walked out the door. I looked nervously towards the shuttles. For some reason, buses have always challenged me. I can’t count the times I’ve climbed into one, confident that I was heading the way, only to end up going the complete opposite direction.
“Have a seat in the shade,” I offered. “I’ll walk back to the hotel and come get you in the Subaru.”
Cassidy looked at the bench and pondered for a moment. “No, that’s okay,” she said. “It’s only a couple miles. I’ll walk.”
We walked along the edge of the Canyon and drank our drinks. Suddenly, Cassidy stopped. “I did that!” she declared resolutely. A smile spread across her salt-crusted face. “I just hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back and no one can take that away from me.”
I smiled back and toasted her with my now-empty soda can. “That’s right, kiddo,” I said. “No one can take what you accomplished away from you.”
And no one can take what she accomplished away from me, either.