Honeymoon Part II – The Grand Canyon

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I have to admit it’s a bit funny to still be writing about my honeymoon.  I can’t keep up with myself.  In the last 10 days I have been in 8 states, on the road, traveling by foot, train, plane and anything in between.  My honeymoon was weeks ago, but I still haven’t written about the BEST part of it – our trip to the Grand Canyon.

After two years in Australia with Aussies constantly asking us questions about the U.S. like, “Are you afraid you’re going to get shot all the time?”, and referencing our general fatness, it was hard not to get a little bit of a chip on our American shoulders.  We decided to make our honeymoon a bit of a tour of discovery (mostly for me) of America’s proud landscapes.  Obviously the Grand Canyon was the first thing on the list!

So, the Grand Canyon!  We drove there early in the morning from a weird little town in Southern Utah called Kanab.   Kanab was apparently a mecca for making old western movies back in the day.  Now it appears to host a number of tourists running the gamut between Zion and Grand Canyon – and little else, with the exception of two subpar steakhouses.

We left Kanab, and drove for about two hours before we stopped for breakfast at a charming little diner called the Lees Ferry Lodge, on the edge of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.  We sat waiting for our breakfast with another couple and before long we got to chatting about why we were there.  Turns out they were celebrating their 50th anniversary, and there we were about 10 days into our marriage.  They shared a few words of wisdom with us before we went on our way.  It was a special moment, alone in a desert diner, sharing a common love of wild places and the people with whom we explore them.

When we made it to the south rim, we still had much to do before we could embark on our trip.  First we stopped at the visitors center to check out some information, then on to the backcountry office to grab our permits to camp at Bright Angel campground in the canyon’s bottom (secured four months in advance!), then back to our car to gather our backpacks, change our clothes, and then on to a shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead.

The South Kaibab trail is the newer and more rugged tail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s a bit exposed, and a little gravelly, which makes it a bit hard on the legs for 7 miles of downhill.  I was worried we wouldn’t make it down until dark so we practically ran down,  making it in about two and a half hours with lots of daylight left.  (Note:  There is a severe overabundance of caution from rangers at the Grand Canyon to the extent that their advice is barely even applicable to young, fit, ambitious hikers and should be taken with a large grain of salt.  Had we listened to them, we never should have left the rim! )

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the hike.  I was actually underwhelmed by the view from the south rim.  It’s too difficult to really understand the canyon’s depth and expansiveness from there, where nothing can be put into perspective.  But, thankfully as one hikes down into the canyon, the depth, color, and topography begin to expose themselves.

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The canyon is absolutely breathtaking, and it becomes more so the deeper one ventures in.  By the time we were within view of the suspension bridge across the river, I was smitten – both with the place and with Rick for bringing me to it.  We made our way down, through the dark, narrow tunnel of rock, and out on to the bridge.  It was an incredible journey.  To stand above the powerful Colorado, watching it course below us, and look up at the fading light in the canyon was pure magic.  I was so entranced by the colors, the warmth, and the welcoming air of this little oasis amidst the starkness of the desert.  It’s incredible.

We wasted no time trotting into Bright Angel campground and setting up a camp next to Bright Angel Creek.  For the next two nights it kept a constant bubbling soundtrack to our adventure.  The noise of water, the sound of deer grazing, and the lushness of the area surrounding this confluence of the Bright Angel Creek (named because it was one of the few sources of palatable water in the canyon) and the Colorado, gave the place a romantic, peaceful aura.  We loved it.

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The next day we hiked twelve miles round trip to Ribbon Falls, a side canyon on the way up to the North Rim.  The hike is beautiful and culminates in a falls that come cascading over the canyon rim above, splattering onto a green, algae covered dome of rock that has been hollowed out by erosion over time.  Though it was cold, I couldn’t resist tearing off most of my clothes and going for a dip, which included ducking into the rock cave behind the falls and exploring.  Nearly hypothermic afterwards, I laid out on the sun-baked rocks until Rick almost lost it worrying about me getting sunburned.  So, off we went.

We decided midway down that a steak dinner sounded preferable to our meal of quinoa, so we swung by Phantom Ranch on our way down, and asked to join the guests for dinner.  Apparently it can be difficult to get a reservation, but when it’s your honeymoon things fall into place a bit more easily. 🙂

We made ourselves comfortable and put away several beers, justifying our growing buzz by telling ourselves the mules that carried down the beer would appreciate our efforts to lighten their load. Then we had a great steak, went to a late evening ranger talk, and toddled off to snuggle up in bed and listen to the creek gurgling beside us.

Bright and early the next morning, Rick and I headed out and up the Bright Angel trail.  This route is the more traditional way down the canyon, originally used by the Havasupai tribe, and then later used as the standard route until the South Kaibab was constructed.  It is a steady climb of about 10% grade for 10 miles.  So, though we made it up relatively quickly, we were pretty tired when we reached the top several hours later.  By that time, we felt fully justified in craving pizza and beer.  We made our way to Flagstaff and found just that.

Flagstaff is an adorable and artsy little college town.  I’m not sure how it never made it on to my radar, but after our time there I would never pass up an opportunity to visit again.  Though we had originally planned to spend the night meditating in vortexes in Sedona, we were easily lured into staying in Flagstaff for the night and traipsing from one outdoor shop to the next with warm drinks in hand.  We decided to spend the night in an old hotel called the Weatherford.  Unbeknownst to us, it did double time as a VERY popular bar. By the time we were heading to bed (8 pm ) the bar was just getting going.  Our “European style” bathrooms were an amusing sight as I waited in line in my PJ’s to use the toilet, surrounded by girls dressed for a Friday night out.  But, even with the noise and the ridiculousness of sharing our hotel floor with a bar, we still had a great time.

The Grand Canyon and Flagstaff were the highlights of the trip to me.  It’s hard not to become reflective when the sandstone walls constantly remind you of your smallness and impermanence. There is something romantic about being in love and happy in the face of such confronting evidence of your own insignificance. With eternity echoing in the stillness all you can do is hold your lover, best friend, and life partner and savor the glory of being alive and vital in the wild, unblinking world.

Full of gratitude.  🙂

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Honeymoon Part 1 – Zion National Park (Angel’s Landing, Observation Point, and the Subway)

Our honeymoon was so quintessentially American.  We planned it that way.  After two years traveling abroad, we felt it was time to do some of the great American trips for our glorious return.  This meant hitting up some of the wonders of the Southwest including Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon.

We spent 9 days in the Southwest.  We began our trip in Las Vegas.  And Vegas, to my mind, is equivalent to the first ring of hell.  It’s gaudy, and trashy, and gross.  I hate gambling, and worse than that I hate the depressing sight of other people gambling.  Everyone in Vegas appears to think their personal experience is the only thing that matters.  People walk into you.  People smoke inside.  People wear clothes that make me queasy.  In Vegas I decided that perhaps I don’t really like people, as a general whole.

The one highlight was seeing the Cirque du Soleil show, “O”, which incorporates an element of water – a giant pool!  That was amazing.  A few years ago while on a canyoneering course in Escalante, I met a diver for the show and as he described the responsibilities he had: diving through and around moving equipment, providing oxygen to performers while they are underwater, and orchestrating the show’s logistics from the depths. I was pretty interested in actually seeing the show. Thankfully, we did just that.  And, it was a true highlight.

As soon as we rented our car and began to head out of the city bound for St. George, Utah my stress levels diminished noticeably.  Poor Rick must have thought I had buyer’s remorse the first few days of our marriage.  I was so moody!  Part of that moodiness was coming down from the adrenaline rush of the wedding weekend, but it also derived from some complicated emotions that came up in the days just prior to the wedding.  I had been contacted by an old love, with a strange and heart wrenching letter.  It tore at me, and truly made me miss my someone who was one of my closest friends, who no longer is in my life for important reasons, but who nonetheless means a great deal to me.  I needed some mental space to take in the incident – and Vegas was not the place for that.

Luckily, we headed to Zion National Park after a night in the beautiful little town of St. George, where we stayed at the most adorable little historic B&B.  Once in Zion, we set up our campsite and began hiking.  The first day we did Angel’s Landing, which was amazing and terrifying for me since I am not a lover of heights.

Here’s a pretty good summary of why I was terrified:

A glimpse of why this was a scary hike
A glimpse of why this was a scary hike

We also did the Narrows, which is an incredible hike in a narrow slot canyon. Unfortunately, we hadn’t brought the appropriate gear to do it right by walking up the river the full distance.  We went a short distance into the river, and decided it would be best to turn back.

The next day we hiked to Observation Point, up from Weeping Rock through Echo Canyon.  It was a very scenic hike and also a good climb.  We ascended about 2000 feet up a series of switchbacks to the top of the canyon and then cruised for a while along the rim. Altogether the hike is about 8 miles.  Along the way there were some incredible views of slot canyons below us and wild sandstone striations.  When we reached the top of the canyon and walked out to the point we were greeted with the first snow we’d seen all season and a great view of Angel’s Landing from above as well as the winding Virgin River carving through the valley.  My decision to wear shorts was pretty questionable at that point, so we hurriedly finished our lunch before we dashed back to the bottom.  When we arrived back at the canyon bottom we felt that we still had some gas in our legs, so we headed to the Emerald Pools for a short hike of about 3 miles.  It was a pretty walk, but nothing compared the previous three hikes.  Though a small perk was that on the walk back along the Virgin River we startled several rutting bucks which made for some excitement.

Our final hike in Zion (and my favorite!) was a hike a bit more off the beaten path, which required a permit from the rangers.  It was a slot canyon called the Subway, which can be accessed many different ways.  We chose to hike up into it from the Left Fork, which is a less technical route –  a perfect fit for us as Rick hasn’t done previous canyoneering and in November the water is icy cold.  After descending about 400 feet into a boulder-strewn wash, we slowly made our way up the valley until the canyon narrowed and the river began to cascade over several falls.  We climbed the falls as the canyon walls rose around us and then turned a corner to see “the Subway” looming in front of us – a giant bulbous opening at the bottom of an otherwise narrow slot canyon.  We explored the pools formed within the subway itself and began to make our way into the more technical sections above.  This is unfortunately, where our hike ended as the cold water and air temperatures made it too risky to continue without more serious canyoneering gear.

The Subway was my favorite for a few reasons.  The hike in as we made our way up-valley was warm, sunny, and the turning cottonwood leaves brought beautiful splashes of autumn color to everything.  The terrain was diverse, ranging from loose scree, sun-baked sandstone, and black metamorphic rocks in the early part of the canyon, to fractured sandstone and sculpted slot canyons as we moved upriver.  Along the way we navigated technical hiking over icy rocks strewn across the drainage by countless flash floods.  It made for challenging and endlessly exciting hiking.  It brought me back to my childhood of exploring the ravines around my parent’s house – getting wet, climbing up and over logs and rocks, squeezing between boulders, and searching for the right foot placement each step of the way.  I was certainly never bored!

It felt good to get out and really hike for several days.  With my focus shifting to yoga over the past year, I haven’t worked my legs the way one does hiking in quite a while.  It felt good to have a pack on my hips, my big old boots on, and to pound out the waves of emotion that come with all that we have done over the last few weeks – from moving, and riding the adrenaline wave of the wedding, to coming down in the oddest of all places for that: Vegas.  Pounding out the miles with Rick, silently thinking, or passing commentary on the landscape around us or the book we read together really helped to forge a bond between us.  This kind of trip is what we love; moving our bodies, seeing new places, and immersing ourselves in the land.  It was such a joy to experience beautiful Zion with him.

Of course, Zion was just one part of the trip.  The best part, the Grand Canyon, will have to be discussed in another post!