Were You Ever Scared? Part One

I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person. I like to think I’m the sort of person who makes good choices. The kind of person who thinks ahead.

Most of the time.

Beach and RocksAfter a beautiful hike along Twelvemile Beach, I decided to see the namesake of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The park literature was quite clear that the best way to see the rocks was by boat. However the boat rides were inconvenient and time-consuming, and I asked the ranger at Miners Castle if there was a good hiking trail I could take to see the pictured rocks. She pointed to the Lakeshore-North Country Trail that runs the length of the park. The trail clearly stretched for miles, but she assured me that the best view was within the first two miles. “You’ll know it when you see it,” she explained.

The trail took awhile to get going, but before long I could tell I was walking parallel to the lakeshore and high on the cliffs above the Pictured Rocks. I saw a small side trail that led out towards the edge, and I got my first look at the rocky shore. It was beautiful. The little trail could barely reach out far enough to see the view, but it was there. I went back to the main trail and encountered another side trail only a few minutes later. It had solid footing and a nicer view. I started taking pictures. By the third trail I visited, I had a completely unobstructed view. I admired the gorgeous painted rocks and began to wrestle with another problem.

“Well this seems like a great way to accidentally kill yourself,” I said out loud to no one in particular.

The sand was loose and sloped off the cliff edge. This was not an official trail stop, which meant there was no safety railing. There wasn’t even a ranger planning to stroll by, and I hadn’t seen another hiker the entire time. What I could see was a long hard fall into the water below.

Red WallIt wouldn’t take much. I little loose gravel and a poor choice in footing and I’d be on my side. A little more gravel and I’d be sliding towards the cliff edge. I’d be picking up speed, so it wouldn’t be so surprising when I failed to stop myself. Dying upon impact was certainly a possibility, but it wasn’t a certainty. A clean drop into a deep patch of water and I might not even be injured. Of course there was no beach down there, only rocks. Perhaps I’d be better off swimming away from shore and hoping the adrenaline would keep me going until I reached a real beach. If I swam towards the rocks I risked being slammed up against them. Even if I was only injured, the blood loss might be enough. If I were extraordinarily lucky another hiker might be stupid enough to walk out far enough on the same ledge and see me on the rocks. Assuming that happened in the first two hours, and it only took them 30 minutes to get back to civilization, and it only took an hour to get the boat out to me, and 30 minutes to get to shore, and another 30 to reach the hospital, I was looking at a good four hours of bleeding on a rock being pounded by waves.

Yes, it’s a pretty morbid set of thoughts for a young woman to have while walking in a park. However these thoughts are fairly typical for me. And this wasn’t even the worst instance. That would be the next day, in the Porcupine Mountains.


Twelvemile Beach

Path in the WoodsI was alone on the beach.

Completely Alone.

I had seen it on the map: “Twelvemile Beach.” It sounded beautiful, and I was looking for a good hike out to the water. I started fresh in the morning, though not unreasonably early. There were a few cars at the trailhead and I figured I’d run into others hikers as I went. It took the better part of an hour, and I crossed many forks in the road along the way. Each time there was a little wooden sign pointing the way to the trail I was on, the trail that led to Lake Superior.

The hike was beautiful, serene. There were tiny streams and ponds. Giant boulders shaped by time. Strange plants that belonged in a movie about a foreign world. After a while I could tell I was getting close. Maybe I could hear the water, or smell the change in the air. I don’t remember what it was exactly, only the inarguable feeling of being near the great open water.

SignageI came to a clearing with three small wooden signs. There were four different trails listed on the signs. None of them were the trail I was on, nor were they pointing to anywhere I was trying to go. The path straight ahead was unlabeled, and I briefly considered how far I would be willing to go down an unlabeled path without confirmation I was heading in the right direction. The water felt so close. It couldn’t be that far. I walked forward on the path, and within 25 feet the dirt turned to sand. I pulled my shoes off to get through a steep bit of loose sand, and walked past the trees just beyond it.

And there it was. Lake Superior. She was beautiful.

Footprints in the SandI looked as far as I could in each direction and could see no one. There were no people, no boats, no buildings. There were no other trailheads, and no footprints in the sand besides my own. With shoes in hand I strolled down the beach, sand coming up between my toes. Just like at the Shipwreck Coast Museum, the water felt dangerous and inviting. The waves were constant and crashing, but just small enough to make you think a quick swim wouldn’t be so bad. I wondered if she’d ever managed to snag any hikers off this trail.

After walking for a while I reached the passable limit. The sandy shore became a rocky one, and the waves crashed up several feet in the air. I took a few pictures and marveled at the water’s power and reach. I turned to walk back, amazed to still see no one. I followed my own footprints, sometimes finding that they’d already been washed away by the waves.

Crashing WavesWhen I reached the trailhead I stopped to take one last look at the empty beach. It’s not easy to find somewhere so beautiful, so easy to get to, yet so void of human influence. On my way back I came upon another solo female hiker stopped at the same confusing set of signs that had flummoxed me. I was about to let her know that she was only a minute from the beach when she made the right decision and passed me by. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had decided to leave at the exact right moment to have my entire beach experience to myself, and to allow her to have the same. Her moment wasn’t to last however, as I watched a group of three German hikers pass by towards the beach only a minute or two later.

Shortly before I got to Michigan my sister insisted I add another song to my Road Trip Playlist. It was Simon & Garfunkle’s “America,” and I have to agree that it’s a great song for driving across the country. I would play it in my car while driving past big open farm fields, and I would hear Paul Simon declare that “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” When I hear that line, I think of Twelvemile Beach and my footprints in the sand. I think of hiking through the woods and fighting off the chill in Sault Ste. Marie and that night I woke up to the sound of some unknown animal snoring just outside my tent back in Interlochen State Park. It felt like I was in Michigan forever, but certainly not for too long. They told me to see the beaches of Northern Michigan, and I believe this is what they meant. They meant the beaches that seem too unreal to believe. When I close my eyes I can still see the water. Michigan seems like a dream to me now.

Panaramic Beach

Lesser Known Curses of the Solo Traveler

I still had most of the day ahead of me when I settled in at my campsite at Little Sand Point. The campground is one of many surrounding Piseco Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. With plenty of time to spare, I asked the man working the ranger booth about nearby hiking. He recommended Panther Mountain as the go-to destination, since the trial head was just down the road from camp. I went back to my car and started to put together my hiking pack. It was almost lunch time so I made myself a sandwich to eat at the top, and added a few extra snacks and two bottles of water (one for the hike and one for the sandwich). And of course my usual hiking gear: binoculars, sweater, pocket knife, first aid, etc.

I parked at the trailhead and saw a pair of elementary schools kids pulling up with their grandparents. Their group would end up passing me on the trail, as would a man with a baby carrier on his back. When faced with the prospect of being passed by a four-year-old who was insisting on climbing the whole thing by herself, I started to wonder when hiking became so hard. I made it up and down the Grand Canyon, what had changed? Was it because there was too much in my pack? Had I been spending too much time in my car this week? Why was it suddenly so hard?

Families on a HikeI decided to take the difficulty as a sign, and an opportunity. I’ve always had trouble being too focused in hiking, looking at my feet instead of the scenery. I sat down on a nearby rock and let the four-year-old and her parents pass me. I took a sip of water and admired my surroundings. After a bit of time I started up the mountain again, but when I saw the little girl, I stopped. I had decided I would go no faster than the four-year-old. She would be my pace car.

When I finally made it to the top, an area known as Echo Cliffs, I was the only one without children and/or a baby. I took a seat on one of the large, warm, flat rocks and ate my lunch while taking in the view of Piseco Lake. It was clear from the conversations the young boys were having that this was not their first time to the top. I started to wonder if I had psyched myself up for a hike, while everyone else saw it as a fun walk. Perhaps I should have taken fewer things with me. At the same time, I was hiking alone. That freedom comes with certain responsibilities. I can’t afford to be unprepared. I had no way of knowing how crowded the trail was, or how close assistance would be.

View of PisecoPerhaps the real lesson is the futility of comparing yourself to others. Had I been alone on the trail, I probably would have felt nothing but accomplishment upon reaching the top. I wouldn’t have wondered if other people would be able to do it faster, or if knowing the area would have changed my preparations. I would have just gone on a hike, as I’ve done so many times before. I shouldn’t let other people’s hikes damage my own. Perhaps that’s the curse of the solo traveler: you’re always alone, and you’re never alone.

I drove back to the campground and decided against renting a canoe. The day before, looking out upon the quiet beauty of Brown Tract Pond, a solo canoe ride sounded heavenly. But at Piseco the lake was too big, the waves too large, the wind too cold. This is yet another curse of traveling alone: your standards for enjoyment shift. Had I been with other people at Piseco Lake and got invited to jump in a kayak with them, I probably would have done it. Paddling around with friends will be fun almost anywhere. But by myself, Piseco didn’t look fun. Brown Tract would have been fun. It was peaceful and still and nestled far away from boaters and skidoos. I suppose it seemed like a lake worth paddling alone specifically because there was no one around. But there were so many people at Piseco, a solo canoe ride just sounded like work.

I considered going for a swim but opted to stay on the dock due to the previously mentioned wind, waves, and cold. No one else was swimming anyway. After a nice chunk of time sitting around doing nothing I decided that tonight was a good night for s’mores. I had been engaging in a complicated relationship with s’mores on this trip. Every time I started a campfire I wished I could have had a s’more. It’s a Pavlovian response to campfires I’ve spent years building up. But I had limited space in my car and no other use for marshmallows. Graham crackers make for a good road snack and I can make any number of chocolate bars disappear, but marshmallows only ever come in one size of bag, and it’s always too many to eat by myself. However we all have our breaking point, and by the time I hit Piseco Lake I was sure I didn’t want to watch another campfire go by without roasting a marshmallow or two.

Piseco LakeI went to the tiny nearby store and picked up my supplies: a box of graham crackers, two chocolate bars, and a bag of too many marshmallows. I looked around to see if I needed anything else and a woman asked where I had found the s’mores fixings. I pointed to the bottom shelf in the corner and she discovered that I had grabbed the last bag of marshmallows. The clerk told the woman and her family there was another store about ten miles to the north that would probably have some in stock. I bought my groceries and walked out to my car. I looked at my big bag of marshmallows.

“Well this is stupid,” I muffled to myself, and went back inside. The father of the family was standing near the door. “Do you need a whole bag of marshmallows,” I asked him, “or would half a bag work?”

“Half a bag would be plenty,” he said with hope in his voice.

We went out to my car and I portioned out half the bag into a ziplock . He gave me a dollar for his half of the marshmallows and thanked me. I couldn’t have imagined a more elegant solution to my excessive marshmallow problem.

I had more logs than usual so I started the fire early. I found a nice, solid stick and used my pocket knife to whittle it down into a high quality s’mores utensil. I ate my dinner. I waited. Something that we don’t often consider is that sitting around and watching a campfire is only fun in a group. Watching a fire by yourself produces a finite quantity of enjoyment. As the coals of my fire finally began to make themselves known, I started on my s’mores. I ate four of them, which is more s’mores than I ever recall eating in one sitting while growing up. I would have eaten more if I could have. But maybe that’s the other curse of the solo-traveler: it’s easy to overeat when you don’t have to share.

I should have bought more chocolate.

Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part Three: Up is Mandatory

The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part One: Eat All the Things
Part Two: Whose Dumb Idea Was This?

SignsAbout an hour before the alarm was set to go off, the temperature finally dropped low enough to make it worthwhile to get halfway into my sleeping bag. We hadn’t eaten all the food allotted for day one, but opted to take all of the extras in our packs rather than stick any in the mule duffle. In our minds it was still possible that we would get halfway up the canyon before one of us would break a leg and we’d need to survive on food ratios for days as we awaited rescue. At least, that’s how I justified bringing twice the recommended amount of food. I don’t know what Nikki was thinking.

After a successful breakfast and a slightly late start, we were at the trailhead at 6AM. The first 30-60 minutes is spent crossing the river and getting to the lowest point of the Bright Angel Trail on the south side, which means that the map shows no elevation change between the trailhead and the first water stop. There is no net change, but the trail does wander up and down a lot, something neither of us were thrilled with after four hours of straight downhill the day before. When we got to the water stop, we did as instructed: soaked all of our clothes to keep cold, sat in the shade, ate a snack, and drank some water. This process would be repeated more times than I could count.

Katrina on the Bridge

We saw more people in the first two hours on the Bright Angel Trail than we did on the entire Kaibab Trail, which makes sense considering the easier slope, water stops, and outhouses that Bright Angel provides. Stopping so often meant we would pass and get passed by other hikers time and time again. My sister and I can be pretty competitive, if not with each other than with those around us. It was hard being passed by a family with young kids early on, but after a certain point we overtook them and they never caught up again. They may have been full of energy at the start, but kids just don’t have the staying power. Suckers.

We made it to Indian Gardens before the heat of the day, as planned. Indian Gardens is an oasis in the canyon, and has been since the earliest canyon tourists. In addition to drinking water and bathrooms, Indian Gardens has a lot of trees for shade. We found a nice picnic table and ate a few choices pieces out of the sack lunches they’d given us at Phantom Ranch. After an hour, Nikki suggested we keep going. It was just after 10AM, the official start of the heat of the day. Absolutely everyone and everything had told us not to hike at this time, save for the one ranger the day before. That ranger said if we felt good and stayed smart, we could hike through the heat of the day. I was hesitant, but Nikki had it in her mind to reach the top before 4PM so we could pick up our duffle before the mule barn closed. I found this idea to be utterly insane, but the first three hours hadn’t been as draining as I had expected, and I did feel fine to keep moving. The worst that could happen (we hoped) was that we’d get worn out and have to wait out the day in a less comfortable and less beautiful spot. We loaded up our water and went for it.

We made it about 15-20 minutes before we had to stop. We found a place in the shade to sit, ate a snack, and drank some water. I was concerned about getting stuck, and tried to ration my water a little just in case. We started moving again. We would pass by other hikers, which gave me solace that we weren’t the only ones stupid enough to hike in the middle of the day. Of course, they were all going downhill. We were the only ones dumb enough to go up. Another 15 minutes went by and we stopped again. When you include the breaks, we were going at the speedy pace of 0.5 miles per hour. Of course, the elevation change for every half mile was about 300 feet. Each time we finished our break and stood back up, there was a brief moment where I could feel all the pain in my body at once – the blisters on my feet, my worn out calves, the sore shoulders. For a short second the rest of the journey seemed absolutely impossible in my current state. But I took a few steps, settled my weight back into my feet, and kept going.

Nikki leads the wayNikki led the way most of the time, which was for the best. She could keep a faster pace, and my competitive nature meant I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to slow us down. One could argue that because she had been training for a half marathon and doing yoga every day she was in better shape than I was, which is probably true. But I know that wouldn’t have mattered. When Nikki gets it in her mind to do something, no amount of pain or hardship will stop her. When she graduated high school and decided to move to New York City without a job or apartment lined up, almost nobody believed she would make it. They would make well-meaning jokes, saying she would be back home within a month. I knew better, and so did my mother. I suppose because we had both seen what happens when Nikki decides she is going to do something. And this time, Nikki had decided to climb the Grand Canyon.

We made it to our next stop, the Three-Mile Rest House, and took another long break. There were a lot of people at the Three-Mile Rest House, since it’s about as far as most rangers would recommend you try to go in a single day. I still had plenty of water, which meant my rationing was unnecessary. I still had plenty of food, but I already knew the amount we took was too much. I kept us at the rest house a little longer than Nikki wanted, because I was still concerned about us being in the sun so much. I was being overly cautious for sure, but it seemed appropriate against Nikki’s overwhelming determination.

One of the pages I’d read on the Grand Canyon website listed the “Ten Essentials” for hiking in the canyon. Most were obvious, like water and salty snacks. A few were things a casual hiker might not consider, like a rain jacket and flashlight. Number ten on the list was a Positive Attitude. Nikki embraced this wholeheartedly, and whenever she sensed I was having a hard time (or perhaps whenever she was), she would remind us that we were going to be fine, because she had the number one essential item: a positive attitude. I would remind her that a positive attitude was number ten, but that seemed generally irrelevant. She also got a kick out of being named “Team Leader” on our permit since she was the one who made the reservation. “As team leader, I think we can make it to the top by 4PM. You know why? Because I have a Positive Attitude.”

During one of our shade and food breaks, a man stopped by to chat with us. When we told him we had started our day at the bottom, he pulled back in surprise, “Wow. You guys look fresh.” This was delightful news to us, since we were covered in sweat, dust, and creek water. My shoes were so filthy they’d changed color twice in 36 hours. I think he sensed how surprised we were that we looked good. “Did you see The Frenchman?” he asked.

Apparently there was a man from France hiking up from the bottom that day. He didn’t have a real backpacking backpack, so he was carrying his sleeping mat in his hands the whole time. According to our new friend, The Frenchman and his lady looked absolutely ragged.

Up is MandatoryWe kept our breakneck 0.5 mile-per-hour pace for the next stretch of trail. We saw one of my favorite signs in the park, informing the reader that “Down is Optional, UP IS MANDATORY.” The park does a lot to try to discourage people from making bad decisions, a department known in the park service as Preventative Search and Rescue (PSR). They place signs at key spots where they know people will be when they are about to make a bad decision, such as right before the Three-Mile Rest House, or a few minutes down the South Kaibab trail. In addition, they have PSR Rangers whose job it is to walk up and down the trails near the top, asking people about their hiking plans and making sure they’re prepared. The PSR Ranger at Three-Mile didn’t ask us anything, probably because she saw we were coming up and not going down (by the time people are walking up, they’ve already made most of their bad decisions). However at the 1 1/2 Mile Rest Stop, a PSR Ranger arrived after we did, and started talking to us as we were filling up our water bottles.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Great,” I told him, “We’re almost there.”

“Well…” he replied, “It’s a long way up from here.” He was looking at me the way I look at my Sunday School kids when they ask to use the glitter.

“But it’s short in comparison,” I told him, “We started at the bottom.”

He told us to be careful because it was hot out, and I tried not to laugh at him. No kidding, I hadn’t noticed. Nikki felt like we hadn’t convinced him. I thought he just wasn’t used to ending encounters without a warning.

Nikki Photograhs a cactusDespite our confidence after several hours of successful hiking in the heat of the day, we were still a bit nervous. We had been told many times that the hardest part of the hike is the very end. And we still had that coming. To make matters worse, the very end of the hike is also when you start to encounter tourists. It is astounding what some people will do when entering a serious situation with a lighthearted attitude. We would see people walking down in flip-flops, tanks-tops and shorts with no water and without so much as a hat to protect them front the sun. We saw children running so far ahead of their parents that we started to wonder if something had happened to them on the trail and the kids just didn’t notice. The day before one of the rangers said she once saw a woman on the trails in sparkly high heels trying to feed a granola bar to a rattlesnake. On our way up we overheard a PSR Ranger talking with some women about their hiking plans. The ranger helped them do the math based on the time of day and how long it would take them to get to their destination. “So do you all have flashlights?” she asked. The women stared blankly. “Well,” she continued, “with your current plans it will be dark for the last hour of your hike. If you don’t have flashlights you might want to turn around sooner.” The PSR Ranger passed us and continued up the trail at a speed that would have seemed fast on level ground. Nikki’s competitive instincts kicked in and she immediately sped up. I had to yell up to her to slow down. “She’s a ranger, Nikki, she does this every day. And she didn’t start at the bottom.” Nikki agreed and slowed down, but I could tell she didn’t like it.

As we got close to the top, it was emotionally harder to take breaks, even though we knew we had to. The canyon is deceptive, because the layered ledges make it impossible to see the top for most of the hike up. All you can see is the top of the next level. What’s more, it’s hard to maintain a sense of scale, because you’re not used to being so close to rocks and walls that huge. It’s easy to look up, see a ledge, and think you’re almost there. In reality, you still have 3/4 of a mile to go and it’s time to take a break.

We were munching in the shade on one such break when we saw him: The Frenchmen. He was unmistakable. He was holding a sleeping pad in his arms, and he looked awful. Both of them did. For a brief moment I considered the possibility that the park dresses people up like refugees in order to scare would-be hikers from venturing down too far. They really looked bad. Like extras from a movie about the Exodus from Egypt. After they passed by Nikki turned to me and asked, “How did they get that dirty? We aren’t that dirty.” Later on we would pass The French on our way to the top, and we never saw them again, Nikki pointed out that not only did we beat The Frenchman to the top, we did so looking “fresh.”

As we approached the summit, the people around us became more reckless, worse dressed, much louder, and more numerous. The hiker we met the day before was right: you do start to hate everyone you see. They don’t know what you’ve been through. They won’t be able to handle it. Lucky for us, Nikki still had her Positive Attitude.

Finally at the TopWhen we finally reached the top, we hugged and yelled, and asked a woman to take a picture of us in front of the trailhead. She seemed oddly unimpressed with our accomplishment, though at that point everyone seemed to be under-reacting, since I felt they should have been throwing a damn parade.

Of course Nikki couldn’t help but point out the time. It was just after 4PM. The walk to the car would take an extra ten minutes, so we wouldn’t get to the mule barn in time, but that didn’t matter. It was 4 o’clock. We had hiked a vertical mile in just over 10 hours, including breaks. It was two hours less than our estimate, and it was exactly when Nikki intended to get to the top. God help us if she ever decides to do anything truly destructive to the world.

Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part Two: Who’s Dumb Idea Was This?


The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part One: Eat All the Things
Part Three: Up is Mandatory

Worried Face

After practicing our McKayla Maroney impressions at Hoover Dam and grabbing an interesting meal at the Road Kill Cafe (“Do you wanna sit at the bar or the bullshit bar?” asks the 14-year-old boy who is old enough to take your drink order but not old enough to fill it), we made it to Grand Canyon National Park. We got to the mule barn just in time to give them our duffel bag, and went to the backcountry office to ask the rangers a few last minutes questions. Nikki saw a sign that showed 71% of fatalities in the canyon are men and remarked with complete sincerity, “That makes me feel better. We’ll be fine.” Of course those statistics are undoubtably based on the fact that far more men hike than women, but I didn’t want to be the Debbie Downer. We wanted to check out the rim before heading to our hotel, so we drove over and pulled in at the first overlook point we could find.

The Grand Canyon is exactly as massive as you think it is, and probably looked bigger to us because of how much time we’d spent in anxious anticipation. We took pictures and nervously joked about how it wasn’t too late to turn back, when I told my sister, “Hey, this was your dumb idea.”

“No it wasn’t,” Nikki replied.

“Yes it was,” I said. “You’re the one who asked about coming along, and you said we should hike the Grand Canyon.”

“Yeah, but you’re the one who told me about Phantom Ranch and needing lodging at the base.”

“Wait, so this wasn’t your idea?”

“No, I thought it was yours.”


Katrina Watching the SunriseWe woke up the next morning at 3AM in order to park the car near the ranger station and catch the 4AM shuttle to the trailhead. On the recommendation of the website, we would be taking the South Kaibab Trail down, and the Bright Angel Trail back up. At least twenty other people were on the bus with us, and with the exception of one couple that hiked down just far enough to catch a good view of the sunrise, all appeared to be headed to the bottom. The South Kaibab Trail is beautiful and constantly winding around. We never knew where we were headed next, and often had trouble figuring out where we’d been. The Kaibab is also incredibly steep and rocky. Downhill climbing can be very difficult, and occasionally I could feel it in my knees. We never saw anyone climbing back up the Kaibab, and we couldn’t imagine trying. There’s absolutely no water, you’re in the sun almost the whole time, and there’s only one bathroom.

I had gotten it in my head that it should take four hours to hike down. When talking with Nikki on the trail she told me everything she read said six hours, and I realized I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten the four-hour estimate from. We made it down to the bottom in six, just in time to jump fully clothed into a stream as the heat of the day approached.

The Colorado River from aboveMany people have asked me about the Colorado River, which is the only reason I’ll bother mentioning it at all. It is a big river at the base of the canyon. It is large and green, and they recommend against swimming because of the current. It was fun to look for it on the way down as a way to gage how far we had left. At the base, we crossed a large pedestrian bridge of the Colorado to get to Phantom Ranch. When we left the next morning, we crossed another bridge to get back to the south side of the canyon. Other than that, we never really saw it or hung out near it. The clear, cold, waters of the creek running just below our campsite were plenty for us.

After eating lunch, settling in, and sitting in the creek for awhile, Nikki and I opted to take a nap for most of the afternoon. We set out a tarp in the shade near the creek and caught up on the sleep we missed by getting up at 3AM. When my half of the tarp creeped out of the shade I got up and wandered around for a bit, eventually attending a ranger talk on the California Condor. The Grand Canyon hosts one of the few existing flocks of California Condors, and in addition to learning a lot of other sweet things about the nearly extinct scavengers, I learned how to properly distinguish them from other Grand Canyon birds. Perhaps we’d catch a glimpse of one on the way back up.

130 DegreesI went back to the campsite, where Nikki was talking with the enforcement ranger (the ranger who makes sure you have your permit in order). We asked her a few questions, and talked about our plans for the next day. We’d been told many times not to hike between 10AM and 4PM, but we had gotten some conflicting information about how far up we should plan to be when we stop for the afternoon. After sizing us up, the enforcement ranger said to aim for the Indian Gardens rest spot, but that we could probably keep hiking “if we were feeling good.” This was a surprise to us, since we’d been told time and time again not to hike in the heat of the day. The next day Nikki and I would come to the conclusion that they give everyone the safe advice, but after seeing that we were both young, fit, and not at all suffering after the hike down, the ranger figured we’d be okay. It probably helped that when the ranger stopped by, Nikki was in the middle of a Bikram Yoga session, which she opted to do in the sunshine. The sunshine temperature was 130 degrees, which is 25 degrees hotter than hot yoga is meant to be. Of course, Bikram also requires 40% humidity, and we had 1%.

We had a great meal at the lodge and got to talk with some of the other hikers. It’s a lot of fun being down at Phantom Ranch. You are a member of a very exclusive club. It’s possible to ride a mule train to the base rather than hike, but the mule ride isn’t a walk in the park either. Everyone at Phantom Ranch had to work to be there, both in planning and in physical exertion. We were warned by another hiker that as you get near the top, you start to hate everyone you see. They’re all tourists who have no idea how hard a Grand Canyon hike is, and have no respect for the place they’re visiting. He turned out to be right, but more on that in the next post. After dinner we went to another ranger talk, this one about a pair of brothers and their adventuresome and photographic history with the Grand Canyon. The interpretive ranger leading the talk offered to grab her black-light and take people on a quick scorpion hunt after the talk, which I was happy to participate in. Nikki and I opted to leave the rainfly off the tent, and slept on top of our sleeping bags since it was still 90 degrees outside. We set our alarms to get up for the 5AM breakfast, and fell asleep looking up and the night sky and wishing we knew more about astronomy.

Hiking the Grand Canyon, Part One: Eat All the Things

The following is part of a three part series on Hiking the Grand Canyon.
Part Two: Whose Dumb Idea Was This?
Part Three: Up is Mandatory

Food As Packaged

On the assumption that trail mix sold at the top of the Grand Canyon would be $50 a bag, my sister and I opted to do all our food shopping in Las Vegas. Buying snacks for our hike was one of the strangest grocery experiences I’ve had. We read on the canyon website that we should bring a lot of food, enough to eat 300-500 calories per hour. It also said to bring salty snacks to make up for the salt your body loses in sweat, and junk food items like candy and chips because they will be calorie dense and (emotionally) satisfying. Nikki had been training for a half-marathon and on a fairly strict diet, and I’d been doing my best to keep my junk food in check knowing the lure of the road side convenience store. But there we were, standing in the Fremont Street Walgreens, looking at labels to find the most fattening, high calorie, salty junk foods possible.

There was beef jerky, Oreos, trail mix, peanut butter crackers, Swedish Fish, Chewy bars, Gatorade, and so much more. We also tried to factor in what I already had in my car (raisins, dried fruit, etc.) We had pre-ordered a dinner, breakfast, and to-go lunch from the kitchen at Phantom Ranch (the lodge at the base of the Grand Canyon), but without knowing what would be in the lunch we planned as though we wouldn’t have it. I got out a calculator and Nikki and I got to practice our mental math skills trying to add up the total calorie counts for what we had in our basket. It was plenty. More than plenty.

Food for two DaysBack in our hotel room we grabbed a box of plastic sandwich bags and got to work separating out the food. The goal was to make individual bags that would hold about 400 calories worth of a particular snack. That way it would be easy to compare how many bags you’d finished with how many hours you’d hiked to ensure you were staying within the 300-500 calorie recommendation. Once it was all bagged up, we compared the number of bags with our predictions for how long the hike would take. We had way too much food.

Next came the packing. We opted to get duffle service, which allows you to pack a bag of stuff that you don’t need on the hike itself and have it sent down on one of the daily mule trains. We compared lists we’d made, adding to them as we thought of things. We figured out what could go in the duffle (sleeping bags, tent, Gatorade for the second day, etc), and started to divvy up the rest. We had shared items like a pair of binoculars or a tube of Neosporin. Other things we doubled up on for obvious reasons, like rain jackets and flashlights. For those who enjoy this sort of thing (like me), here’s the lists I made to help us pack:

In the Duffle:

  • tent
  • sleeping bags
  • Day Two food
  • change of underwear/shirt
  • flip-flops
  • books

Nikki’s Pack:

  • water bottles
  • gatorade
  • rain jacket
  • flashlight
  • extra socks
  • ankle wraps
  • stingeaze
  • sunscreen
  • snacks
  • toilet paper
  • water purification tablets
  • Neosporin
  • hand sanitizer
  • signal mirror
  • ibuprofen
  • camping permit
  • map
  • writing pad
  • phone
  • ID/credit car/cash
  • toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)

Katrina’s Pack:

  • ankle wraps
  • water bottles
  • gatorade
  • rain jacket
  • flashlight/batteries
  • extra socks
  • lipbalm
  • phone
  • camera
  • car key
  • ID/credit car/cash
  • journal
  • snacks
  • spray bottle
  • mole skin
  • bandaids
  • gauze
  • binoculars
  • swiss army knife
  • trowel
  • hand sanitizer
  • toiletries (extra contacts, glasses, toothbrush, etc)


  • sunglasses
  • hat
  • underwear
  • sports-bra
  • hiking shoes
  • socks
  • long-sleeve button-up
  • tanktop
  • pants
  • bandana
  • trekking poles

Looking back now, our packing was generally good. With the possible exception of buying and bringing too much food, we hit the sweet spot between having enough without carrying too much. Anything we didn’t use was the kind of thing you bring hoping you won’t need it (first aid, signal mirror). A few things stand out as being really handy:

Non-FoodFlip-flops – We had these in the duffle so that when we got to the base we could give our feet a break from the hiking shoes. It was Nikki’s idea, and I’m very glad she thought of it.

Bandana and Long-Sleeve Shirt – Both of these were recommended by the park website. It’s the desert, so even through it’s hot you’re better off covering up your skin to avoid sun exposure (think about how people dress in middle eastern deserts). The added bonus of these two items is that you can easily remove them and soak them with water in a stream or at the water pump. Known officially as evaporative cooling, you’re essentially doing what your body does when it sweats: getting moisture on your skin so the evaporation process can cool you off. It’s so dry in the desert most sweat evaporates instantly, so your body needs a little help.

Trekking Poles – Nikki was worried that trekking poles would be more of a nuisance than an asset, and I was worried about how many we should get if we got them (one each? two? three to alternate between us?) We asked a ranger at the backcountry office who told us without hesitation to rent two poles each. I noticed the benefit within the first two hours down the trail, and Nikki soon agreed. The poles take pressure off your knees and leg muscles, as well as allowing you to stay balanced while using less energy. Easily the best $12 I spent.

So we were ready. We were scared, but we were ready.


Prelude to a Canyon

A few months ago, not long after I told my family about my trip, I got an email from my big sister, Nikki. She asked when I expected to be at the Grand Canyon, and if I was totally committed to it being a 100% solo road trip. We lucked into a camping permit for the base, and started making plans for the big hike together.

We have family outside L.A., so it made sense for her to meet me there and drive through Las Vegas to the Canyon. Nikki stayed a night at an AirBnB just south of Griffith Park, and suggested we hike up through the park in the morning before heading down to our aunt and uncle’s house in Huntington Beach. We parked at the famous Griffith Observatory (see: Rebel Without a Cause), and began our walk up. We talked about the various warnings we’d seen on the Grand Canyon website, and discussed our respective packing lists. We were both nervous about the big climb, and talking about scorpions and tourniquets and water purification tablets didn’t help. I keep reminding both of us of what the website said: every year people of all ages and abilities hike to the bottom of the canyon and back up. There’s no reason we can’t do it.

Us and the Hollywood SignThe smog over L.A. was thick, and we could just barely make out the Hollywood sign. We snap some photos and get on the road to our aunt and uncle’s house just south of the city. Nikki is in the middle of doing 100 Bikram Yoga classes in 100 days, and she’s invited our aunt to join her for a class in Huntington Beach. Aunt Karen is very nervous, and we keep trying to tell her she’ll be fine. I opt out of going, as I’ve done plenty of hot yoga in my life as it is, and the two take off for the nearby studio. I stay at the house doing some much needed laundry, and my Uncle John comes home. He went shopping after his golf game, and has seven or eight cigars to put away, After much Tetrising to try to make them fit in an already full cigar box, we conclude that he’ll just have to smoke one right now. When the ladies get back Nikki insists that Aunt Karen did great, while Karen is thinks she was terrible. Either way, it seems like she’ll give it another shot tomorrow after we’ve left.

We have a nice dinner at their house, joined by a neighbor as well as one of our cousins who swung by after hearing we’re in town. It’s nice to be among family, if only for a little while. We spend a good part of the day trying to reach my grandmother on the phone. My grandparents recently moved into assisted living, and they haven’t set up the new voicemail yet. For some reason, it seem like they never answer their phone. This is baffling to most of us, who know that they’re at home most of the time. Eventually we get through and make arrangements to go out to breakfast the next day, inviting some good family friends to join us.

The next morning Nikki and I head over to the retirement home, where Nonnie and Papa are sitting outside waiting for us. In the last three years, Papa has been suffering from dementia. He’s good at playing along and still greets people with a smile, but it’s clear he doesn’t know who you are. They came up for Easter and I spent some time sitting next to him, whispering people’s names when they would come over to greet him like a scene out of The Devil Wears Prada. My mom says that he still knows that her and Karen are his daughters, but he can never remember which is which. The only person he’s never forgotten is Nonnie, and in recent months he’s been stuck to her like glue, asking where she’s gone if she so much as leaves for the ladies’ room.

I get out of the car and hug Nonnie. I go over to hug Papa, but introduce myself first, “I’m Katrina, I’m your granddaughter.” While I wish he didn’t have to go through this, it doesn’t bother me that he doesn’t know who I am, at least not as much as it seems to bother everyone else. I know it’s not about me, and I know he can’t help it.

We go to breakfast, joined by my “Aunt” Betty (a lifelong friend of my grandparents), as well as her beau and her daughter Cindy. I’ll be staying with Cindy when I get to Kansas City, so it’s nice to see her while she happens to be in California. Nonnie orders for Papa, and we all chitchat through breakfast. Afterwards we go back to see their new place, which is much bigger and nicer than retirement living that I’d seen before. Nikki and I go through the room, looking at old photos of the family, some of which we’d never seen before. We talk more, take pictures, and nag Nonnie about calling the phone company to get her voicemail set up. Papa sits in his chair, clearly unaware of who all these people are. Nonnie says sometimes he asks her when they’re going home, because he doesn’t remember that they’ve moved. He doesn’t seem to let it bother him so much, which is good.

Whenever I’m around Papa these days, I remember a conversation from three years ago. I was in Ohio with him for his 69th high school reunion. At the time he was losing his sight, and Nonnie had recently broken her pelvis and wasn’t able to accompany him on the trip. My Aunt Jean took Papa and I to meet some old high school friends of theirs, Mary and Betty. I was blogging about the trip at the time, and I recently looked up what I wrote about that day:

          Eventually the conversation turns to Jim Kesler, as it has so many times this week. Jim was a schoolmate of Papa’s, and I’m beginning to think a very good friend. They graduated the same year and Papa says he calls Jim about once a week. But last year Jim had to be moved into a place called Seneca House because he could no longer take care of himself. While I was bored in the flower shop last Tuesday, Uncle Bob and Papa went to visit him. He was sitting alone at a table, staring into nothing. They asked him where his room was a he said he didn’t have a room, he lived there at the table. He said he never moves and they just bring him his food and he doesn’t even need to work for it. He didn’t know who Uncle Bob was at all, and though he remembered a friend named Warren Rainey, he kept talking about how Warren was out in California. He couldn’t see it was Papa standing in front of him. Bob and Papa didn’t stay long.
          Betty says she is hoping to get out to see him soon, she hasn’t been able to in some time. Papa tells her she really should. “He’s just sitting there, happy as a clam,” Papa says. They started to talk about Jim and others they’d known with near jealousy. After all, it’s not the man with dementia who suffers, it’s all the people who have to take care of him. I know none of them are seriously envious of Jim, but I’m starting to understand how they could be. Papa knows full well that he’s losing his sight. He knows he can’t walk as good as he used to, he knows his wife is at home in a hospital bed once again. He knows his body won’t let him travel around for too much longer. Papa, Jean, Mary, and Betty all know full well all the things they can’t do anymore, and will never do again. But Jim is sitting happily in Seneca House, in seventh heaven and pleased to have all his meals for free. He doesn’t remember the things he’s forgotten, and he has no idea what he’s lost.
          “That’s the way to go if you’re gonna go,” Papa says.

That trip was the last time I got to spend with Papa before he started to deteriorate. I read what I wrote and it’s like foreshadowing out of a movie. But it’s that same conversation that I credit with making me want to go on this trip. Mary was the woman who told me that you have to “go while you can.” So here I am, going. I may be fooling myself to think that forgetting your life gives a kind of freedom before death, like Papa suggested. But at this point, it’s better than the alternative.

Out On the California Coast

I left Bandon and headed down the coast bound for the California Redwoods. When I was in junior high my family went on a vacation driving down the coast, and I remember stopping to see the strange and massive trees along the way. While I don’t remember exactly where we stopped, I’m fairly certain it was at the Trees of Mystery. The name may have eluded me, but I certainly remember the 49-foot-tall talking Paul Bunyan statue out front, with matching Babe the Blue Ox. I pulled over to take some photos, and an eight-year-old boy was talking to the giant statue.Jaden and the Ox

“What’s your name little boy?”



“No,” he laughs. What a silly mistake to make. “Jaden! J-A-D-E-N!”

“Jaden, my mistake.”

“Does your bull talk?”

“It’s an ox, and no he doesn’t.”

“Have you ever been to Canada?”

“I did once, but I didn’t much care for it. They talk funny up there.” The adults all laugh.

“What does your bull eat?”

“It’s an ox.”

“Can I ride your bull?”

“It’s an ox. And no you can’t.”

This went on for several more minutes, and included more repetitions of the dry statement “It’s an ox” before Jaden’s mother intervened to suggest to him that perhaps someone else would like to talk to Paul Bunyan for a while.

I went to check out the Trees of Mystery ticket prices. While the idea of reliving my old family trip was intriguing, the prospect of doing it alone wasn’t. Neither was the prospect of being around that many screaming children, or paying $15 to do so. Besides, I didn’t have reservations at the campground I wanted to stay at, and since it would only be my second attempt at camping I wanted to be sure I had a spot in plenty of time.

Big tree towards the sunI got to the Elk Praire Campground around 3PM, and picked out my spot (as it turns out, the spot across from me was never filled, so I could have arrived at any point and still gotten a site). Elk Praire is great, because despite being a fully developed campground, you’re surrounded by huge old trees and all the trappings of the forest. There was even a small, slow-flowing creek right by my tent.

With so much of the day left, I decided to go on a hike through the surrounding trees. There are many hikes around Praire Creek Redwoods State Park, ranging drastically in length and difficulty. I knew I didn’t want to go too far, and I knew that I was most interested in seeing the biggest, oldest trees I could. So I picked a three mile hike called the Cathedral Trees Trail, which seemed to fit my qualifications. I drove over to the trailhead and filled my backpack with some light hiking gear: water, a few snacks, a sweater, camera, small journal for notes, and a whistle. The whistle is for safety, since I’m hiking alone. For those interested in doing anything similar, keep in mind that your whistle should be on your body, not in your bag. The times in which you’ll really need it are the times when you might not be able to reach your bag.

The trailhead for the Cathedral Trees Trail is at the home of what’s known as “Big Tree.” It’s absolutely huge, and anywhere from 1500 to 2000 years old. I overheard the ranger explaining that they can’t know for sure, since tree rings aren’t reliable on very old trees due to breakage, internal rot, and new growth. I snapped a few photos and headed off on the trail.

Me and the Big TreeThe forest was beautiful and serene. You can hear the trees creaking under their own weight. The park is so large and there are so many trails, it doesn’t matter how crowded it is, you still won’t see many people. I was hiking for two hours and only saw four people on the trail.

I got back to camp to find a large high school group had taken up residence not far from me. Nothing makes a person want to have children less than being forced to be around other people’s kids on vacation.  It’s difficult to keep your tranquil reverence for the beauty of the forest over the sound of screaming 16-year-olds. At least my campfire was a success.

Latourell Falls

On the advice of National Geographic, I decided to spend the bulk of my waterfall time with Latourell Falls rather than the much more known (and crowded) Multnomah Falls. Latourell is in a state park right on the Historic Columbia River Highway in Northern Oregon. You can see the falls from the overlook in the parking lot, where I snapped a few photos and took a look at the park map and information.

The lower falls photo spot was listed at 0.3 miles up, and the upper falls at 0.8 miles. I figured I could do 0.8 easy (because I forgot the whole “uphill” aspect), and started up the trail. As I went up, the trail got muddier. At one point a small stream of water was going right across the path and I had to choose my steps carefully to avoid soaking my shoes. The area was idyllic and green. I can’t think of a better time to use the word lush. I could hear the water to my right the whole time, and I could sense the drop off on the side of the trail. I thought there would be a great view soon, once I got to a spot where the trees thinned out.

I let my thoughts wander, I hopped over a downed tree, and I got thirsty. I began to regret not bringing my water, but it seemed like such a short hike and it wasn’t even hot out. After a while I noticed that the rushing water sound was coming from a creek, and I realized I must have passed the top of the falls. I remembered the upper falls having a bridge the went right over the water, so I figured it must go over the creek. I couldn’t be far.

As I kept going my eyes would catch flashes of the creek just 20 or 30 feet below. I started to get tired, and the lushness was losing it’s charm. While the trees were beautiful, they were also thick, and I had no idea how far I’d gone. I hadn’t looked at the time when I set out. Had I been very smart, I would have remembered that my camera tracks the time photos are taken and I could use the pictures I took from the base of the falls to know that I’d been walking for more than half an hour, but that brilliant idea wouldn’t come to me until much later.

There was a small group hiking ahead of me, and sometimes I would look up to see if they appeared to have crossed a bridge yet. I looked up one final time, realized there wasn’t a bridge in the immediate vicinity, and decided to turn back. I was on a schedule, and after all, waterfalls are always more interesting from the bottom than from the top.

As I walked down, I saw a bench I hadn’t noticed on the way up. I must have been too focused on the trail. It was one of those dedication benches, with a long quote from the dearly departed engraved on it. I read the quote, then turned around. Benches usually face something, after all. This one, it turned out, faced a fantastic and clear view of Latourell Falls. It was exactly the view I had hiked up to see, and I had completely missed it. I looked at the trail and saw the small stream of water I’d worked so hard to avoid before. That must have been it. I was so focused on staying dry that I missed both the bench and the view. What an unfortunate coincidence that they would be in the same place. I took a few pictures and kept heading down.

On the left: where I was looking. On the right: what I was looking for.

On the left: where I was looking. On the right: what I was looking for.

And there was the waterfall again. And again. The view continued almost the entire way to the base of the trail. It was intermittent, but it was there more often than not. I had been so focused on the muddy trail and on carefully putting one foot in front of the other, I’d missed the whole thing. In my memory, the trees to my right were too thick to see through the entire way up the trail. Even after I went back down and discovered this to be completely false, I can’t replace those trees with the truth in my memory. Because in reality I was never looking up at all. I was looking at my own feet, and my brain made a picture of the world around me. Because my eyes weren’t looking up far enough to see the falls, my mind invented trees.

When I think about the implications of what I did, I keep remembering the phrase, “That’ll preach.” It’s something I’ve heard said among my fellow young adult Episcopalians when talking about a line of thinking, philosophy, or ideology that one could easily turn into a sermon. I could tell this story and talk about how we get so focused on little things, especially negative things, that we don’t notice the big things. I could talk about the need to slow down and take in your surroundings, or how important it is to be present in the moment. I want to encapsulate the experience into some witty phrase, like “Can’t see the waterfall for the mud.” But something seems forced in all of that. Maybe because I feel like I’ve heard this story before, with any number of morals tagged onto it.

I re-wrote several endings to this post, some hopeful and some depressing. I got a little carried away with myself and had to keep deleting and writing the ending over again. Which might be an indication that the good and meaningful parts of a story sometimes take longer to process.

For now, there’s really only one lesson I’m sure I learned. Focusing on something doesn’t always improve results. I still got mud all over my shoes.

Who Knew the Grand Canyon Was So Popular?

It has occurred to me from time to time that I can’t do this whole thing flying by the seat of my pants. While many who have come before me have encouraged me not to over-plan, even they will admit that sometimes reservations must be made. While different sources will tell you different things, most will agree that making concrete lodging plans about two weeks in advance is usually enough. My guess is that will be the case for most places I want to stay on my trip. Except of course, for the biggest one.

Not long after my blog was public, my sister emailed me asking when I was going to the Grand Canyon, and how important the “solo” part of my solo road trip was.  We quickly hatched a plan for her to take a few days off work to meet me as I pass through Vegas, drive to the Grand Canyon, and hike the length of it as a team. I knew hiking all the way to the bottom and back was no small feat, but I also knew that hundreds of amateur hikers do it every year. I figured as long as we were prepared, we’d be fine.

I asked my sister to look into lodging at the base of the canyon (you can’t go down and up in a single day, so you must either camp or get a room in the Phantom Ranch hostel at the bottom). Meanwhile, I was listening to ranger podcasts and reading up on the “must pack” lists to ensure we wouldn’t get heat stroke or lose all our salt by sweating. The more I navigated the national park’s website, the clearer it became: if you want to hike the full canyon this summer, you should have been planning last spring. Phantom Ranch makes a point of opening reservations no more than 13 months in advance, and tells people to expect the phones to be busy the first few days of every month due to the mass of reservation calls they get when next year’s beds are opening up. So of course, Phantom Ranch was full.

Though the thought of lugging a tent and sleeping bag up a vertical mile sounded abismal, I was willing to try for a camping permit. My sister sent in the request form, and I resigned myself to the thought that it would never happen. I started thinking of alternative plans. A week went by.

Then one day I’m at work and see that I’ve got a voicemail from my sister. I play it and the first thing I hear is her singing, to her own invented tune “We’re hiking the Grand Canyon!” Apparently even the man who booked it was shocked that they still had a spot open. Our camping permit allows us to pitch a tent at the base of the canyon, and now we’ll try to get a reservation for duffle service. Explained to us as “half a mule,” duffle service is a way to get a small amount of luggage down and back up the canyon without strapping it to your own back. If we can swing that as well as a few meal reservations at Phantom Ranch, this whole thing just might work out perfectly.

This may seem strange, but somehow I after hearing such fantastic news, I ended up with the song “Sixteen Bars” stuck in my head. In subject matter it’s from out of left field, but by the end of the song I feel like the sentiment of trying so hard to get something impossible is spot on to how I feel right now. We’re doing this.