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Backpacks and Switchbacks

So, I spent a week hiking around Utah and Arizona with my family.  Not a bad idea, really, except for the fact that it was, like, JUNE.  In fact, I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon on the first day of summer.  Then I fainted from heatstroke.

I met my family in Las Vegas, where it was about 105 degrees, then we drove to Utah, where it was perhaps slightly hotter, and then wound up in Arizona, where temperatures were in the low to mid 400's.

Still, it was fun.  The scenery was beyond belief as we first visited Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and then Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  I did lots of hiking and spent some quality time with my parents and sister, and I'll be writing about some of these experiences as they come out in therapy.

One experience I haven't blocked out was my hike into the Grand Canyon on Friday morning.  While my family decided to take a walk along the rim, I chose to descend into the canyon itself on the South Kaibab Trail, a three mile round-trip hike with a 1140-foot change in elevation.  It was described in the Grand Canyon Visitor's Guide as a "steep trail," with "no water," and "little shade."

Before starting my descent, a sign warned me of temperatures reaching "118 degrees in the shade," which didn't sound so bad. I mean, there was little shade anyway, so I figured I could avoid it.  Nice try, shade!

Another sign told me to use caution near the trail edges, one informed me I should step aside and be silent if I encountered a mule train, and a third instructed me to sit in my car during a lightning storm.  Sadly, I hadn't brought a car, although it would have been a good idea.  I always enjoy hiking a lot more when I'm doing it in a car.

At least I had water, two Gatorade bottles full of it, which turned out not to be enough, because another sign informed me that I needed to bring at least a gallon.  Another sign told me I was far to skinny and weak to ever make it back up the trail, and yet another told me I'd never get a date unless I did something about my wardrobe, I mean, just look at those shorts I was wearing.

These were some very negative signs.

Still, I set off, feeling vaguely adventurous and possibly manly, down the steep, gritty trail.  The first thing I noticed was the huge amount of mule poop.  It was incredible.  When these mules reach the bottom they must be the size of housecats, because they expel the majority of their mass during the descent, from the looks of things.  The mules also seemed to sense the most beautiful and scenic spots on the trail at which one might rest and reflect upon the glorious view, for that's where the highest concentration of poop was.  At least it kept me moving.

As I hiked a bit further down, I started passing people who were on their way up, people who looked, well, completely miserable.  I knew the proper protocol and gave them the right of way, but none thanked me.  They just shuffled on past, breathing heavily, soaked in sweat, their eyes glassy and unseeing.  I asked one kid, who was leading his unresponsive and exhausted-looking family, how far down they'd gone.

"Cedar Ridge", he told me.  That was how far I was planning to go as well.  The kid was about fourteen, and I'm twice that, as well as a pack-a-day smoker.  Still, I couldn't quit now, because I knew the signs would mock me.

Further down, a park ranger came up the trail towards me, but when I stepped aside to make way, he waved me off, gasping: "No... it's... okay... I've... gotta... catch my... breath..."

This worried me.  Here I was hiking down a trail that a park ranger couldn't even climb back up.  Plus, I'd be making the ascent two hours later when the sun was right overhead.  It was troubling.  I almost turned back there, but then I realized, hey, maybe he's not a real park ranger.  Maybe this was some crazed canyon hermit who had murdered the real ranger, then taken his uniform and buried the ranger's horribly mutilated body.  This cheered me up, and I continued.

Finally, I reached Cedar Ridge, and took a picture.

You can see O'Neill Butte there on the left, and you can also see that despite walking downhill for over an hour, I was nowhere near the canyon floor.  You can also see what I had to climb back up:

That didn't look like fun, so I wanted to press on, despite a sign that told me if I hadn't started my hike before 7am, I shouldn't even think of going any further.  I had started at about 10am.  The people who I had passed earlier, the ones looking like they were on a death march, had probably started around 7am.  Still, I wanted to keep going.  As I was trying to make up my mind, a crow landed on a rock behind me, and cawed ominously. 

Then it cawed forebodingly.  Then, warningly.  Then threateningly.  After that, it just got annoying, so I pressed on a bit further.

I went down about another quarter mile, and might have continued, but a mule train was heading up in my direction.  Not wanting to be buried in an avalanche of turds, I decided to turn around and begin the ascent, hoping I could stay ahead of them.

Anyway, I made it back up even faster than I had made it down.  Sure, it was hot, it was tough, and it was exhausting, but I did it.  And I think it's because I'm a smoker.  We have an advantage, I think, because we're used to being out of breath.

And we always have an extra-strong urge to get to the top.