The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Three

At the Borders of Your Skin

The most important and confounding fact about getting ready for hiking in the Grand Canyon is this: You've got to start being ready before you can start getting ready. This is not a typical vacation trip, nor an entertainment. You can make lists of everything you might take, plan travel routes you might follow, choose days you might go, but all of them contrast starkly with the state of being that is starting itself.

Before your read on, heed this Warning: The Grand Canyon trek is addictive. You will, each time you return, "grin stupidly," as David says, "happy to be back." Don't do this at home, kids.
There are lots of books that can tell you what you must learn to prepare for a desert hike, including lists of equipment purchases, menus, checklists, dangers to avoid, physical preparation, safety tips, and "tread lightly on the earth" hiking styles. These are good. Go buy some. There are also some excellent guidebooks full of splendid photos and much useful but always out-of-date information (water moves boulders). But buy some of these books, too.

First, though, get a Grand Canyon map. Then photocopy a map of your town or your own block--somewhere you walk (walk?) regularly--and scale it to the size of your Grand Canyon map. See how small it is? Now, imagine climbing over all the buildings in your bitty neighborhood map. Now, imagine climbing over the buildings while carrying ten bags of flour. Now, imagine climbing with the flour, but you are covered in sweat and grit and haven't had (and won't have) a bath in three days. Now, imagine this dirty you climbing with your flour bags, and it's 95 degrees in the shade, and there isn't any shade. Now, imagine hot, dirty, sweaty you has but a few glassfuls of lukewarm water and the nearest faucet is several miles away. Still want to go?

So forget comfort as you have known it. Your rewards are not of the couch. Sure, if you backpack already, you know lots of this stuff, but don't get smug. Remember, you're middle-aged now. All that's keeping your failing body and weakening mind focused is desire. Leg weights won't help you (and will probably throw your back out, as they did mine), and lots of jogging, running or walking up hills (or, silly you, stairs) will only seduce you into believing you're ready to hike down the Hermit Trail. You aren't.

But if your being is ready and your body is still considering the hike, you'll need a few practical items. An important one is a permit to stay overnight in the Canyon; get this not more than three months in advance from the Backcountry Reservations Office (P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, Arizona 86023-0129). You've got to tell the BRO exactly where and when you want to hike, which means you'll need their hiker's planning kit. Call them at 520-638-7875 (if you can get past the voicemail system) or more reliably, write and ask for one, tell them you've never hiked there before, and when you get the information package, read it all--every word. People really die in the desert, and the Grand Canyon is an inverted mountain and a deep, hot, harsh desert with water far at the bottom. Though six million people visit the park each year, once you leave the Canyon rim, civilization falls behind quickly. You'll notice voices fading within minutes, and the sound of gentle wind and calling wrens will replace them. This is beautiful--Nature's sweet ploy to reclaim your mind, heart and (if you haven't read every word) your body as well. The photos of human remains on the BRO walls are pleasantly sobering; I especially like the snapshot of eyeglasses and nothing else.

A Rescue A rescue at Monument Creek

Plan to hike in the late spring or early fall. Winter is out (see Snow on the Trail) and summer is, well, stupid. You'll need water enough, without being a novice hiker trying to practice the art of caching water in precisely that special place--just out of sight from where they'll find your skeleton.

Do not expect to carry lounge chairs, gas grills, Coleman lanterns, or coolers. Forget the beer. If you believe you need these things, please return this book and plan a nice picnic by your lozenge-shaped pool. Remember, Canyon hiking is a state of being. Nobody will stop you from being a hiking dilettante, but if carrying out week-old used toilet paper makes you squirm, pop that Bud & turn on yer tube; I got some great Nash'nl Geagraphic specials fer ya. Otherwise, start getting in physical and attitudinal shape ... today.

Okay, let's say you are ready to go and you're tired of this avoidance patter. Examine a current roadmap to find some easy, direct and efficient travel routes so you are fresh when you arrive at the Grand Canyon; fly there if you can afford it. Get several trail maps. Trails Illustrated makes a good one that's plastic-coated (you won't believe how sweat dissolves paper maps), and the U.S.G.S. topo maps are fine, and some come in plastic. If you can't read topo maps, it's a good idea to learn, because all the guides and trail descriptions will refer to directions, contour lines, and geological features that look at first like absurd--and innocently insignificant--abstractions. This is no expressionist art. A couple of unassuming squished-together lines can represent a 200-foot drop when you get there, while that seemingly straight trail marking can lead you over an exhausting rollercoaster of dry washes.

Finally, no matter what brand-name patches you sport on your pack, you still have to pick up your permit at the BRO on time (assuming you still have to pick up your permit; this rule keeps changing). Ranger Tim canceled David's permit because he was three minutes late, even though he'd had his reservation for six months and needed to travel 2,700 weary road miles for that precious Tyvek document. Sleep the night before in one of the cushy Village cabins if you like, but to get some feel for the area, choose the Mather Campground, where a diabolically ingenious topological engineer made it possible to squeeze hundreds of campers into a tiny space, while retaining some sense of the great outdoors (except for the Winnebagos). Then get up early enough to be at the BRO on time.

Wait. You're not ready to go into the Canyon yet, nor are you ready to leave this chapter. You must still have a belief in real preparation. On paper at least, know your routes; these are never accurate because of the changes made by rockfalls and water (the latter because of level variations from the Glen Canyon Dam far upstream), but having a sense of where things should be found will help guide you. Take an afternoon to hike in Arches Park or day-hike down the Bright Angel Trail into the Canyon itself--just to get the sensation of time, space, heat and your body. Know the warning signals of dehydration, which are subtle and terrifying. Hike with somebody.

We older types are fond of being self-assured and certain of the wisdom born from our experiences, so our mistakes of stupidity are compounded by mistakes of arrogance. But even these mistakes can be made up for by smart thinking, and most of all, by observation. Here are just a few examples.

-- Our friend Lewis took a friend down a Canyon trail, the two spending the night on a romantic sandbar at the Colorado River. What's wrong with this story? They lost their shoes to the river as it rose over the sandbar during the night; next day, they hiked out seven miles ... barefoot, but alive.

-- David relates how he set up his sleeping bag on a nice flat spot that other, older hikers nearby had avoided. What's wrong here? His near death from hypothermia followed as rain filled the dry creekbed in which he slept and the temperature dropped into the forties (the story's told in Mad But Alive).

-- David and I came upon an attractive, nicely matched designer couple wearing attractive, nicely matched designer backpacks ... and a National Park Service rescue helicopter on its way down to them. Their error? Ignoring signs of dehydration on what appeared to be a pleasant, cool day. She was helicoptered out (there's a photo above); he, still healthy, was told to hike out, alone.

-- Finally, Stevie and I cleverly hitched a raft ride past a washed-out trail segment in order to avoid searching further for an obscure up-and-over trail. See a problem here? We spent an extra day stuck, quite alone, between two washed-out trail segments--one behind us and one we hadn't expected ahead of us--at the end of the rafting season. Tucker crossed our path, showing the way he had come, or we'd be but skeletons today (described firsthand in Snow on the Trail).

This chapter is part of your state of being. Start now. You may turn the page...

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.

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