Sunday, March 8, 2020

We did it!

Thursday night, we flew into Vegas. We took our first ever Uber to the Excalibur, which became my first (kind of negative) impression of Las Vegas, so maybe it's not surprising that I was excited to hightail it out of that city on Friday morning. The room was inexpensive; that's about all it had going for it.

Friday morning, we rented our little white Kia and headed for Arizona. Brian and I thought it would be a flat, desert drive, but it was a really beautiful four hours. We detoured down historic Route 66. I sent a pic to my parents - tell the kids we're in Radiator Springs! 

I typically approach experiences with low expectations (so am generally pleasantly surprised), but I admit I had VERY high expectations for my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. I expected to be positively blown away, overcome with awe. Instead, I climbed out of the car, walked as near to the edge as I dared, and was seized with fear. I pictured one of us flying headlong into the depths. Brian was confidently standing by the edge, but I felt cold and scared. There's something about heights that compromises my faith in physics. I grasp my phone more tightly than usual, fearing that the power of gravity will strengthen and exert a magnetic pull, tearing it from my hands before I inexplicably tumble after it. As Brian drove along Hermit Road (on one of the very last days it was open to public traffic), he eagerly peered out the windows at the surrounding views. Even though he's an excellent driver, I kept my eyes glued to the road in case it suddenly swerved dangerously. What if he accidentally drives us off the edge of the canyon?

I changed my shoes from my cute flats to comfortable running shoes, put on a winter coat, and kept getting out when we pulled off at each outlook. My second impression - I'm sorry to say - was, yep, it looks like the pictures. My third impression was, How in the world can we possibly hike down? That prospect seemed impossible as I surveyed the steep, rocky cliffs. Brian took a photo of me crouched by a low wall, afraid to stand up fully. I felt truly embarrassed, but also... I mean, that's who I am.

After fajitas in Tusayan, a lovely night's rest, and a delicious hotel breakfast, we assembled our packs, checked out, and headed back to the Grand Canyon National Park. We parked by the visitor center and took a shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. We chatted with a friendly couple from BC who were packed light, with water and trekking poles, and planning on hiking down South Kaibab and back up Bright Angel that same day. "We're hoping six hours?" she estimated. I was impressed. I never saw them again; they probably ran the entire way down.

With a deep breath, we began the trek down! It was mentally difficult for me, especially when Brian almost ate it on a patch of ice covered by dust. We were so high. Over the next few hours, I grew more comfortable with stunning dropoffs and steep declines. My body tolerated the downhill hiking just fine (I personally didn't find it true what I'd heard - "it's the downhill that's the worst") but my darn pinky toes! I never would have thought those tiny toes would be my weak link. By the time we made it to camp, my little toes felt like they were on fire. Brian loves having good, sturdy boots, and he'd bought me a really nice pair of Schnees a few years ago. But they felt like stiff Army boots that day. I regretted not carrying a pair of tennis shoes to change into at the bottom. If I could change anything about the trip, it would be having worn the boots around the house for a few weeks before the hike - and maybe still carrying some different shoes down so I didn't have to hobble barefoot to the bathrooms. We set up camp, and I was cranky. I wanted to hike to Ribbon Falls. The camp was nice, but it wasn't particularly gorgeous, our neighbors were smoking, and I didn't want to sit there for the last half of the day. But I wasn't sure if my feet could take another mile, let alone thirteen more, especially considering we still had our ten-mile uphill hike out the next morning. I felt so frustrated. I wasn't sore or tired anywhere else. Just my tiniest toes.

Brian held my hand and helped me, barefoot, into the creek, which felt like barely-melted snow. The cold took my breath away. "This will help your feet," he insisted. And soaking them for several minutes really did. Ever well-prepared, he gave me duct tape to wrap around my toes after drying off my feet. The soak plus the duct tape fortified my toes and they did not get any worse. We set off for Ribbon Falls around 4 PM. It was a lovely, easy hike in the shade of the canyon, the breeze blowing coolly and the creek running beside us. We alternated between pleasant conversation and companionable silence. It was at these quiet moments that I really pondered the magnificence of this place. The phrase "deep calls to deep" kept repeating itself in my mind; as I took in the seemingly infinite capacity of the canyon, I felt such a longing for the love of God to fill my heart in the same measure. I want so badly to be a channel for the measureless love and goodness of God to flow into the needs of this planet, and the magnificence of that place powerfully reaffirmed that desire. (These experiences, I've found, are often followed by bouts of depression and feelings of failure, which I have been working through since coming home - I suppose those are the highs and lows of life!)

We reached Ribbon Falls right before sunset - the bridge was out, which meant we'd have to cross the river. I had heard the falls described by others as "the prettiest I've seen," but from my view on the opposite side of the river, they looked like a trickle spouting from the mountain. I admit I was miffed. I knew I was going to slip on those slick boulders and fall in, soaking my socks and dooming my feet to blisters on the 6.5 miles back home. I had left my trekking poles back at camp and stubbornly refused to cross: "Take a picture and bring it back to show me; I'll sit here." Brian crossed first, threw his poles back across, and hollered, "I'm not letting you stay there! We walked all this way." Muttering under my breath, I managed to cross, grabbing his hand at the end and narrowly avoiding a swim. The easy trail had disappeared and we hauled ourselves up piles of boulders to eventually make our way behind the falls. It was a magical spot and well worth the headache! We enjoyed it for several minutes, took pictures, and made it back across the river before daylight was gone. This time, we took off our boots and waded across, re-icing our feet and sitting for a minute to eat some trail mix. We hiked back in the darkness with our flashlights, stopping every now and then to admire the brilliant stars. We collapsed into our soft sleeping bags and were asleep by 11:30. 

The next morning, we laughed about how sore we were. We ate and packed leisurely, setting out around 9:30. All along the way, I admired the views around us, including the trail itself and the beautiful way it snaked back and forth up and around the canyon. It still amazes me that it's possible to hike down into the Grand Canyon and back out - two different ways at least! We both agreed that South Kaibab was more picturesque, with grander, more sweeping overlooks, while Bright Angel was more tucked into the canyon, albeit less steep. 

Honestly, I'd love to see it all again.

I had expected the hike out to be the most difficult for me, and it was. The sun was hot, my feet were aching, and my toes were in pain. Yet we were both in good spirits, encouraging each other and joking around about our misery. We took lots of little breaks. Brian likes to hike and talk, or just listen to the sound of nature, but I relied heavily on music to keep me going. Thankfully, I'd packed my earbuds. I would say I was doing great until we reached the Three-Mile Resthouse. I was under the assumption that we had less than two miles to go when we arrived there and discovered it was three miles to the trailhead. We took deep breaths and pressed on. I didn't get gloomy until the trail became icy, and now that we were up so much higher, my fear of gravity overstepping its bounds and powerfully sucking me over the edge returned. Every step felt like a risk, and every switchback revealed what looked like a hundred more switchbacks to go. The next time we sat down, I lamented to Brian, "I don't think this trail ever ends." As we sat, we saw a young girl (no more than ten) dressed in tiny shorts, a bathing suit top, and tennis shoes, trekking fearlessly over the ice, alone, carrying an iPhone that was playing a Harry Potter audiobook. I was simultaneously afraid for her safety and inspired that I - with my tough boots and trekking poles - could definitely make it up without slipping off the edge, if she could. (We saw her reunite with her parents further up the trail.)

And then - a corner - a final incline - and suddenly, we were done! We'd made it! It was instantly freezing when we emerged from the protection of the canyon. I suddenly understood why almost everyone we'd seen on their way down was wearing winter coats and hats while we had t-shirts. We donned coats and gratefully boarded the warm, crowded shuttle that would take us back to our car.

That hot tub back at the hotel felt AMAZING.

On Monday, we went back to the Grand Canyon for one final visit. We drove along 64, finally winding up at Desert View. The building there is incredible! Our favorite stop along that route was Moran Point. I left feeling very saturated with the Grand Canyon. One final stop back in Tusayan to pick up some t-shirts for the kiddos, and then we were on our way back to Las Vegas for the last night.

I had a blast on the way back. Brian was preparing to interview for a new director position in two days, and I had such a good time grilling him with practice interview questions. We stopped at the Hoover Dam, which was unexpectedly beautiful. That's the last adjective I'd have thought I'd use to describe the Hoover Dam, but it's true. We didn't have time to take a tour, but we walked across the dam and admired the monument. And I must say, the bathrooms were very impressive, too.

We arrived in Vegas at dark and drove along the Strip for a bit before we had to turn in the car. My opinion of Las Vegas shifted that night. The Excalibur isn't a very nice place to stay (and honestly, neither is the Luxor, where we spent that night) but the Strip was fabulous! It took at least an hour to check into our hotel and make it to the room. I wanted to call it a night and eat the rest of our trail food for dinner, but Brian insisted we'd regret it if we didn't walk the Strip and get dinner out. We limped down to the Bellagio and back, bonding over our insanely sore feet and winding up at Shake Shack for dinner - which was predictably awesome. I loved that walk, despite the pain. Everything on the Strip is so extra. I would have loved to walk a lot more had our feet felt better; I would have liked a little more time in Vegas.

I was ready to go home the next day. I missed the kids, and I felt like we had enjoyed a luxuriously long time away. My parents had put the kids to bed for six nights, had taken them to church and school and extracurriculars, had driven us to and from the airport... they were true MVPs. We spent the day traveling home; when we told our Uber driver that we were from Michigan, he scoffed. "WHY?" But home is home. The trees are bare but spring is in the air, and the best of the year is yet to come.

Joe was having his second brain surgery that day, and I kept checking my phone for updates. His experience contrasted so sharply with ours that I felt guilty. The surgery went well and the surgeon removed most of the newer tumor growth. But his recovery has been slow; as of today (Sunday - five days later) he is still on the EEG tracking residual seizure activity. It's been a strange several days since our return. I have felt tired, sad, and drained - though also very happy to be home. Life is such a rich composite of emotions.

I am profoundly grateful for this trip - to have experienced the Grand Canyon so thoroughly, to have seen new sights, and to have tested my hiking limits, and all with my best friend. I am very thankful to be here.