Ed & Marilyn 'The Happy Wanderers' travel blog

I promised to share the story about our first backpacking experience in the Grand Canyon. It is eleven pages long, so I have decided to break it up and post it on several consecutive days.

I hope you don’t mind.

I also hope you enjoy the experience. Come hiking with us.

Note: This story took place in 1989, in celebration of our 27th wedding anniversary.

Finding a shadow on the trail from an overhanging rock I stopped to wait for Marilyn to catch up. As she approached I saw that her face was red and strained. I made her take her pack off and poured some of our remaining water over her head, then soaked our neckerchiefs and headbands, ordering her to wash her face and neck in the luke warm water.

I was beginning to wonder if the 50 pounds I was carrying and the 25 pounds Marilyn was carrying were too much or if we were just too old to be doing this. What should I do if she were unable to go on? Should I leave her here with the packs and the water and go on to the ranch alone to get help? I got her into this. I was responsible and it was obvious that she was hurting.

We had trained for this trip for five months. I hiked more than 200 miles, at least 160 of those miles with a backpack on, carrying up to 60 pounds toward the end. We read everything we could find about backpacking in general, and backpacking the Grand Canyon in particular. We asked questions, made phone calls, wrote letters and took great pains to choose the proper equipment. Still we discovered that we had not over-trained and this experience was tougher than we had imagined it would be.

But our careful preparation paid off. We saw one hiker come out of the Canyon on a mule (This is called a “dragout”). We heard an emergency call for a helicopter to rescue another hiker who was injured and out of water, with only a candy bar remaining for food. We saw a photograph of a backpacker’s body on the trail. He had died from dehydration. We witnessed many foolish people who started hiking the trail without food, water or proper equipment. The first-aid kit we carried was used to treat other hikers for blisters and headaches. We shared our water supply with a man and his two children who had no idea when they began their day-hike that the trail would be so steep, the sun so hot, and the lack of water so severe.

We found it difficult to sleep the night before starting our adventure and spent a fitful night, both of us awake before daylight.

Finally, unable to wait any longer, we dressed, checked our equipment and supplies one more time and drove to the Maswik Lodge for breakfast. We had planned to eat a large breakfast for energy, but our nerves prevented us from having more than coffee, orange juice and a muffin.

After breakfast we rushed back to our cabin, rechecked our gear for the final time, hoisted our packs to our backs, put the key to the cabin on the desk, and closed the door to security.

For the next three days everything for our survival in this hostile environment would come from the packs on our back. We walked the one quarter mile to the bus stop to wait for the shuttle to take us to the Backcountry Reservation Office where another shuttle would take us to the trailhead for the South Kaibab Trail.

Marilyn was quiet and I could feel her apprehension about the unknown challenge ahead. I tried to reassure her with words of encouragement but these were usually received with silence or only a word or two in replay. In a way I was grateful for her obvious case of nerves because it forced me to focus on her feelings and I didn’t have to face my own doubts about what lay ahead. The shuttle ride to the trailhead was very quiet. Perhaps we weren’t the only ones whose thoughts were turned inward. All those on the shuttle seemed to be asking themselves, “can I really do this?”

Once at the trailhead a flurry of activity began as hikers and backpackers “saddled up”, hoisting packs to their backs, snapping buckles and tightening straps. Some put on sunscreen, others made a quick visit to the nearby toilet facility, and most paused for a photograph in front of the trailhead sign before starting down that very first switchback on the South Kaibab.

Less than a mile down the very steep trail we left the shade of the rocky cliff and entered bright sunshine. It was there that Marilyn made a disheartening discovery. She had left her sunglasses on a rock near the trailhead after removing them to put on her pack and failed to pick them up again. This seemed to be an ominous sign as the sun became hotter, the trail dustier, and switchback after countless switchback lay ahead.

The scenery however was beautiful, changing with every turn. Stops to take pictures doubled as rest stops for us. One and a half miles from the trailhead was a rest area called Cedar Ridge, with a chemical toilet similar to the old fashioned outhouse except that it had no roof and only three sides. The open side faced away from the trail and Marilyn commented after using the facility, “the view from the seat is breathtaking”.

We noticed that the steepness of the trail caused us to always be "putting on the brakes” with every step. The weight of our packs pushed at our back while gravity pulled at our front. The first part of our body to notice this phenomena was our calf muscles. By the time we reached the second rest area at the Tonto Trail Junction, approximately four and one half miles from the trailhead, these muscles were screaming for rest.

Only a short distance down the trail from the Tonto Trail Junction was a landmark called “The Tip-off”, which overlooks the Colorado River. From here we could see the Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel Campground, and even rafts for the float trips beached far below us. Although we had nearly three miles to go, the sight of our destination cheered us. After a ten minute rest and more water to drink we pushed on.

After each rest stop it was more difficult to start moving again and our muscles were reluctant to move our legs, once we allowed them to stop.

We had resolved before starting this trip that it was the journey itself which was the real experience, not the destination. But with each painful, downward step, each agonizing breath, and each switchback which failed to bring that destination into view, the destination gained in importance.

Near the bottom of the Canyon, with the suspension bridge across the Colorado River in view, the temperature on the thermometer carried under the flap on my backpack read 99 degrees F. We had consumed two and one half quarts of Gatorade and three and one half quarts of water during our journey so far. As we stopped to rest every fifty steps or so, the destination rapidly became our top priority.

Marilyn must have recognized the concern in my voice when I asked her if she could go on, She said “I’m okay, I can make it. I’m sure not going back UP that trail.”

I reassured Marilyn that we only had a few more switchbacks to go before entering the tunnel which opens onto the suspension bridge. Our campsite destination was only one-half mile across the Colorado River from that bridge. That tunnel was shade and a place to rest before the final push to Bright Angel Campground if we could just get that far.

Marilyn was able to reach down inside and summon energy reserves she didn’t know she had, and we started toward the shade of that tunnel determined not to stop until we were inside.


We decided to walk to the far end of the tunnel where a hot breeze might help since the temperature inside the tunnel was only a few degrees less than the inferno outside. I helped Marilyn off with her pack, then took mine off and found our one remaining full water bottle. The five and one-half hours of hiking, mostly under the blazing sun, had raised the temperature of our water supply to “warm” and it tasted of the plastic water bottle in which it was carried. As we passed the water back and forth, drinking large amounts, we knew we were close to our destination and no longer had to conserve our supply. I had the water bottle in my hand and started to look for a rock to sit down on when we heard a cloppity, clop, clop we instantly recognized as the sound of a mule train entering the other end of the tunnel. Since we could reach out and touch both sides of the tunnel at the same time and the long suspension bridge was only wide enough for people to walk single file we had only one choice.

Quickly the water bottle was put away and we grabbed our packs, swinging them to our backs with a groan as the mule train came into sight. Nowhere to go but back into the sun, across the bridge, and down the trail into camp. With the mule train following close behind, we walked across the swaying bridge sometimes lurching like drunks with the motion caused by the mule train. At least those mules had four legs with which to balance themselves on this swaying suspension bridge.

Part II will be posted tomorrow. Life is Good!

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