The sky spreads over us like a sapphire sea studded with stars. We swallow clean, cool air in gulps as we pass through the sweet silence of a world still sleeping. We whisper morning prayers as our flashlights sweep the path in front of us, all the while sinking lower and lower into the canyon.
It is a grudge match of sorts, this return to the canyon. A redemption. We came last year to walk from one rim to the other, rest for a day, then walk back. But illness prevented us from completing the second leg of our hike. So here we are in the predawn hours, treading this same bit of earth where we finished last year, hoping that the training has been enough, that the changes in our packs will serve us well, that we clear the floor of the canyon before it reaches its predicted high of roughly 100 degrees.
Dawn breaks softly, color aching back into things. By the time we reach our first water fill station at Supai Tunnel, we pack away our flashlights. Sunlight creeps over the stones liberating their brilliant hues. All day long I will watch this magic. The canyon–with its layers of white, red, green, and violet stone; its deep recesses that bend light, or catch it and hold it hostage; its peculiar promontories and funky formations that cast long, irregular shadows–is a veritable playground for light.
We reach the floor ahead of schedule, but we remind ourselves that this first portion of the “floor” has a good bit of rough and rugged undulation. (A fact which none of the sources we read ever told us, and was a brutal surprise last year. So I am telling you now.) Two or three miles later, the trail begins a long, comfortable meander along the edge of Bright Angel Creek and the gurgle and plash of water is our constant companion.
A network of old power poles follows the basic outline of the path. Some still have wire wrapped around beautiful glass insulators. My dad, an electrician, used to have some of these when I was a little girl. They fascinated me then and they fascinate me now. I have to resist the urge to shinny up one of those poles and pull one down and shove it in my backpack. Especially the blue ones.
Sometimes the walls of the canyon crowd very close here, thrusting skyward in an unbroken line. They provide welcome shade from the slanting rays of morning sun. Gathered round their feet and growing impossibly from crevices in their sides are an astonishing array of plants. I am constantly distracted by them
We reach Phantom Ranch a little before 11am, almost an hour ahead of schedule. I pull a stack of postcards from my pack for our children and godchildren. These I stuff into a saddlebag which will ride out of the canyon later today on a mule, the only place I am aware of in the U.S. where mail is still carried this way.
We refill our water bottles and eat a substantial snack. 14 miles in already and I am hungry. And here I make my biggest mistake of the day. Summer sausage is a classic trail food. We brought one from home thinking we might need it before we got to Phantom Ranch. I eat half of it, 3 1/2 ounces, reasoning that I need the protein for the climb, and that it is easier to carry it in my stomach than in my backpack. It is too much at once. I will pay for that.
We walk through Bright Angel Campground just before crossing the Colorado River and commencing our ascent. The thermometer reads 95 degrees. In the shade. It is 11:15.
The next 3 miles or so are almost entirely exposed. Shade becomes a scarce and coveted commodity. Every time we find a patch of it, we linger. My stomach full of fatty sausage and the brutal heat are a bad combination. I feel sick. When we come to our first creek crossing I plunge my bandana in and proceed to douse myself from head to toe. I squeeze the water over my head and let it run in cool rivulets down my neck and back. I press it against my face. I slather it along my arms, my stomach. Then, I dip the bandana once more and wrap it around my neck. The relief of this is delicious. And completely necessary. It will make all the difference. My motto becomes: Linger in every patch of shade, dip in every creek. The water in my water bottles is becoming sickly hot. But I make myself drink it. Must drink. Must. Drink.
Indian Gardens is an oasis, literally, halfway between the Colorado River and the South Rim. Native Americans planted crops here centuries ago and now cottonwoods and mesquite grow in the same stream watered soil. We stop here for our first water fill since Phantom Ranch. It is so good to drink cool water again I down my first pint before we leave. We rest for a bit in the shade. I lie on my back and drape my feet across the top of a bench. We visit with fellow hikers and laugh at jokes that only those who have seen the canyon as we have seen her this day understand. Some folks minister to their feet, others share snacks and advice. We leave our oasis refreshed and renewed with just over 4 1/2 miles to go.
I am infatuated with the sky. Always. But especially here. Intense cerulean, the perfect foil for the fluffy white clouds that have been increasing all afternoon. Now and then, a gray one. Interloper. A light mist begins to fall. Gentle. Cool. Most welcome. I turn to take a photograph of the clouds and when I lift my eyes from my phone, I see it. The rainbow. I begin to wonder if there is a limit to how much beauty one person can stand. I am treading dangerously close to that border. I take about 40 pictures, pausing now and then to just exult in this moment. In being right here, right now. Feeling the great goodness of the Father in the air and the mist, in the grandeur of this place, in the excruciating beauty of water bending light, in the strength of my legs and my heart, in the joy of sharing all of this with my best friend.
The last mile and a half prove to be a challenge for Mike. Fatigue, heat, and lack of sleep the night before have conspired to make him feel exhausted and sick. But he keeps moving forward. One step at a time.
As we come to the end of the trail, there are no cheering crowds, no medal around the neck. Just the knowledge in our gut that the work of the day is done. I am as tired as I have ever been. But my heart is full…
*All photographs in the post taken with my iphone. The only one that has been edited is the one at the top. I deepened the saturation a bit to make the rainbow more plain. However, if you look at the rainbow shot inside the post (unedited) you will see I didn’t alter it much. The colors were just this marvelous. If you would like to see other photos from our adventures out west (more than I will ever be able to use here) you can visit my photo album on facebook. I believe you can get to it directly by clicking HERE. I plan to write about day two tomorrow, so come back if you want to know how it turns out. 🙂