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Grand Canyon, AZ Fall 2023.

Being There
I smiled thinking that Monet might have enjoyed painting the clouds above the Grand Canyon’s desert scape as much as I enjoyed looking at them. To step out of our huge truck after the slow, 2-hour drive from Flagstaff pulling our trailer and twirl around under the parade of flat-bottomed, fluffy-topped clouds made my heart sing. The sight of them is both calming and uplifting. “They are just clouds…” but against the backdrop of my long-ago, Pacific NW upbringing, they are heartwarming and a good omen.

Puffy clouds are so ordinary and yet, the vocabulary of my childhood was weighted towards distinguishing between heavy overcast skies and light overcast; and between drizzle, showers, rain, and gulley-washers. There, puffy, discreet clouds were a rarity and thick, solid, gray skies were the norm. The sight overhead of sparse, puffy clouds registered in the child in me as the stuff of fairy tales and portended magical times lie ahead.

This October, like we always do regardless of possible perils of rainstorms and snow, we enjoyed our time at the Grand Canyon. Other people drive into the park from Sedona for a few hours or arrive on the train from Williams for a visit of the same amount of time, then with a sense of satisfaction, check the National Park off of their list. We instead measure our time at the Grand Canyon in multiples of 2-week stays, the limit in the trailer park.
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Clouds suitable for Monet’s attention over the Colorado River & Phantom Ranch.

We revel in the thin boundary our compact trailer provides between us and the occasional high winds, possible rain or snow, and the clueless herd of elk that stroll inches away. We watch for first morning light while doing exercises on the narrow floor, perhaps wearing a puff jacket while waiting for the interior temperature to rise to our idea of comfortable, and see the sun disappear behind the pinyon pines and junipers while eating our simple, home-cooked dinner. Between the rising and sinking of the sun, we will have spent 2 to 10 hours walking along the South Rim or deep into the canyon. The Grand Canyon allows us time to rejuvenate ourselves in the middle of our always-busy fall itinerary and it’s a highly anticipated, pleasant, annual interlude.

Are You Walking, Rucking, or Hiking?
We walk and walk some more while in the Grand Canyon. If we are lucky, we each log 40-60 miles a week. In the Park, like everywhere we go, we sometimes must apply ourselves to be fascinated, rather than bored, for those many hours. If we’re walking on paved routes and aren’t on the steep dirt and rock trails, we might listen to podcasts or books, though I prefer to let my mind search its troves for treasure to contemplate. One recent study object while walking was introduction to the word “rucking.” We thought we only walked and hiked, but recently decided we were also ruckers.

The newly revived term for an old exercise form, rucking, is a method that has been used for hundreds of years by militaries to condition troops for long outings carrying weight. It doesn’t feel exactly right to call ourselves ruckers, but sensing a need to our distinguish hikes from less destination-oriented, long-distance walking, we’re trying on the new handle.

For me at this point, differentiating the 3 forms of movement is more of a gray-scale exercise rather than one of identifying abrupt boundaries between categories. For us, walking is up to 5 or 6 miles with a 2–3-pound pack containing water and also having a place to stash clothing layers as the conditions change, perhaps including a rain jacket. Our walks are often in an urban setting. In contrast, hiking for us has always meant getting sweaty and usually dirty. In places like the Grand Canyon, hiking always results in red dust collecting between our toes and it being up to the knees on our pants. An average, light weight pack with plenty of water, lunch, poles, and semi-emergency supplies, is usually 8-10 pounds for us. We had uncomfortably lumped what were rucks in with our hikes, but we decided to include in this new category our events for which we carried more weight than on walks, may or may not get dirty, but will likely get sweaty.
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Bill was all smiles after his PB (personal best) on his 18-miler to the river & back.

We delved into other people’s details on rucking in our ongoing effort to “stay modern” and so we’d know what others were talking about. The one substantive change triggered by pondering rucking while I walked was to up my pack weight to about 10% of my body weight, about 12 pounds, on my rucks.

Ten percent of your body weight is one person’s opinion about the minimum pack weight for legitimate rucking. Our drive has always been the opposite, to reduce pack weight, but doing a “proper” ruck pries open another opportunity for me. Adding pack weight on long walks is a simple way to add breadth to our cross training. We, however, will forgo the proper, $100+ rucking packs specifically designed to carry non-function weight (like rocks instead of lunch) and ever so slowly increase our packs weights on rucking outings. I’m not sure Bill is onboard with this, but at least the information is in the air.

Athletic Performance
Bill was a shining star this fall in the Grand Canyon. Bill completed 2 pairs of Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hikes in a little over a week, logging personal best times for some of those crossings. He accumulated close to 100 miles and 22,000’ of elevation gain in those 4 long days of hiking with only 5 days of relative rest between the pairs. He survived hours in the near 90° temperatures on the first pair of hikes when at the bottom of the canyon and was met with more tolerable 80° temperatures there a week later. I felt triumphant to have hiked one of those 4 crossings, the 2nd one, on the cooler week. Bill was spectacular; I only stayed in the game, but we each congratulated ourselves and the other for what we accomplished.

For months, I was in the peculiar situation of steadily regaining my health after my catastrophic back failure on Christmas Day almost a year ago, and yet often times, I was tragically worse. While in Flagstaff in mid-October between 2-week stays in the Grand Canyon, I had a disastrous failure in which I painfully and slowly shuffled to a road for an hour where Bill could pick me up in the truck and drive me the additional mile home. I hadn’t even walked 3 miles on a relatively flat trail with a light pack and, with a single step, I could barely move. A few weeks later in the Grand Canyon, I did a successful 5-hour hike but shuffled for an excruciating 2/3’s of a mile from the shuttle bus to the trailer and was in miserable pain for another 90 minutes while doing my best to break the cycle. And yet, I was also generally feeling enough more stable that I began doing 10” of daily resistance training that had felt out-of-bounds for the last year. Go figure. I tried to make sense of it every day and couldn’t.

Arizona Trail Bike Race
According to its website “The Arizona Trail Race is an unofficial self-supported bike packing race with no entry fees, no prizes, and absolutely no support”. At last, we had the story behind the 4 different dudes with mountain bikes precariously loaded on their backs while they traipsed through the Grand Canyon segment of this 800-mile route from Mexico to Utah. First seeing these guys a few years ago, but only knowing they were doing the Arizona Trail, had epitomized what we loved about the transcanyon culture: it’s a relatively safe playground where adults can go thrash themselves, perhaps testing their limits, on their own terms. All the people engaged in their sport while in the inner canyon are viewed as crazy by at least some of the other guests on the trails, and yet we are all committed to our chosen endeavor for our own reasons.
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Always an enchanting sight: predawn headlamps on the N Kaibab Trail switchbacks.

While Bill was in the middle of his 18th crossing between the 2 rims since 2016, someone asked why he kept doing it, why didn’t he settle for doing it once or twice. He neatly summarized the long story like never before, “If I can do this, I can do any hike I want.” We do strive to have the needed level of fitness in reach year-round to do the hike between the rims in one day and that objective in itself helps get us out the door every morning.

Following the research about optimizing health and “health span” had convinced us that for fitness, the magic lies in output well above the public health recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise a week. We cherish the annual opportunity to be inspired to keep pushing ourselves by bikepackers, trail runners, backpackers, and other Rim-2-Rim’ers, to keep after it, to keep striving to be the best we can be. “Exceptionally successful aging” is still our goal, and it requires more robustness than the standard recommendations.

Safety
Communication
Because of my mysterious orthopedic malady, we’d been largely walking separately since the first of the year, including during our 3 summer months in the Dolomites. My decades-old mantra “We don’t acquire each other's disabilities” mandated that we both pushed to excel, to be our best, but I was often reduced to 60-75% of Bill’s pace and my big-event metrics were usually 50% or less of his.

We were both acutely aware the safety ante would be significantly raised on our solo hikes into the Inner Canyon at the Grand Canyon National Park, significantly more so than anywhere else that we hiked all year. Our favorite trail, the S Kaibab, was the “rugged individualist’s” trail in the Park compared to the more heavily traveled Bright Angel Trail near where the train and tour buses unloaded their guests.

The S Kaibab Trail was decidedly more dangerous than the Bright Angel. There was no water available on it between the S Rim Trailhead and the Colorado River about 3500’ and 7 miles below; there was little shade; it could be desiccatingly hot even on a cool day because of the relentless sun exposure; there were no ranger stations; and rarely, a ranger in sight, unlike the Bright Angel. You were on your own. You weren’t totally alone, but fellow hikers usually had little of anything to spare, including water, time, or energy.
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We used our Garmin inReach Mini’s & phones to keep in touch while in the canyon.

This prospect, the conflict of the S Kaibab’s beckoning call and its relatively greater survival challenges, prompted Bill to invest more time and money in our Garmin inReach Mini Satellite Communicators we’d carried for several years. The devilishly difficult-to-use devices left me flummoxed and I knew little more than how to turn them on and off and how to activate the SOS signal in a dire emergency. Amusingly, my shame from my ineptitude diminished when a Garmin-employed trail mate confessed that my skills equaled hers on the Mini, though she was quick to elaborate by saying she worked in a different department within Garmin.

We quickly learned that Bill focused his study on exactly the right place, which was bypassing the button activated functions on the Mini in favor of using the Earthmate phone app which was much more standard. Further research and experimentation revealed that throwing money at it, not just time, was well spent.

By upgrading our monthly service contracts on each of our 2 devices, we could receive sent messages in 10 minutes or less, versus perhaps an hour later on the basic plan. Suddenly, we were able to effectively communicate with each other reasonably promptly throughout the day, reassuring us that the other was still alive and well. On our joint Rim-2-Rim day when Bill finished more than an hour ahead of me, he texted me through the Mini with our room number, easily saving me the 30 minutes of delay for check-in at the N Rim Lodge desk. At last, the very expensive inReach Mini’s that had gotten more expensive by upgrading our contracts, were delivering the communication capacity we had longed for when we bought them several years ago.
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At last! A Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake!

Amusingly, we realized having our inReach Minis hooked to our packs by our ears, where they had to be in order to detect their incoming and outgoing message beeps, was a symbol of competency. When standing face-to-face with a ranger who was cheerily questioning each hiker when they exited the shuttle bus at the Kaibab Trailhead, I noticed she didn’t query me, the only solo hiker and the oldest one there, and a woman at that. In hindsight, I’m sure the Mini was all the trail cred she needed. (She also had one.)

When I finally volunteered a one-liner summary of my experience which concluded with, “I know what I’m doing” she replied, “I’m sure you do.” My turnaround for the day was to a point where she had been deterring others from going, but it was fine with her for me to go there alone. It was nice after all of these years having our capacity and competency be doubted to be sporting an immediately recognized marker for our expertise.

Other Park Hazards
I had it on 2nd hand information that rock squirrel bites were now the #1 injury in the Grand Canyon and they were the most dangerous animals in the Park, and I believed it! Never mind the bears and coyotes.

The rock squirrels had gotten SO aggressive and worked in teams to lure and then attack tourists. When one jumped in my lap when I was looking away and another could not be fended off when I repeatedly jabbed it in the chest with my trekking pole tip, I cursed the visitors I’d seen PETTING them. Of course, the visitors first wooed the little monsters with people treats, then petted them for the photo op. Never mind all of the Park Service posted pleas and warnings not to feed them.

I’ve always admired the Park Service’s resolve in letting visitors kill themselves if photo-happy tourists chose to be so foolish. We routinely see guests go over or under barriers to teeter on the edge of the canyon and exhibit other poor judgement, but at least those solo stunts only directly affect the perpetrator; the cluelessness with squirrels however left a legacy that out lasted their visit.
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The Colorado River sporting its proper green color.

Sights to Behold
Aside from the aggressive, disease-carrying rock squirrels, there were many other things in motion to catch our eyes while in the Grand Canyon. I spotted the 2nd coyote that we’d ever seen in the Park and, like coyotes usually are, he was moving too fast for me to snap a photo. He kept looking over his shoulder while he shot by me and beyond. The big horn sheep on the S Kaibab trail and the many elk and deer lounging in the RV park had become too ordinary to usually prompt our cameras. We couldn’t however resist taking a few photos of the Colorado River flashing its gorgeous green color; it always saddens us when rains or an upstream water release turns it to its muddy red alternate color. We always feel a little cheated not to see its iconic green color, but we were thrilled to only see its intense green hues while we were there this fall.

I was in luck when spotting my first, rare, Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake heading out in front of me on the lower segment of Bright Angel Trail. It’s only the 2nd of our 9 rattlesnake sightings in which the snake was in retreat. The other had just poked its nose out of a pile of shaded rocks and did a tight U-turn, perhaps only out 3” from its fortification. This pink one however, was in full sun, scooted from the center of the trail to skirt along the nearby rock wall, then climbed the wall as only snakes do. Curiously, this one didn’t stand its ground, but I later read that the pink rattlers are generally more calm than other subspecies.

The other visitors to the Grand Canyon are always a sight to behold in themselves. We love the flood of international tourists plying the Rim Trail. I delight in their glee, their excitement when looking into the canyon and taking photos of themselves and of each other. This season, German-speaking, French-speaking, and Asian tourists were the most conspicuous. Once again, the young Asian women took my annual 1st Prize for the most fantastic fashions. Our other spectacle was experiencing the annular solar eclipse on October 14–perhaps more rare but more predictable than the fashions.
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The young Asian women always take my annual fashion award on the S Rim Trail.

Snow
Lucky us, it didn’t snow in the Grand Canyon while we were there this fall, but we learned we were the beneficiaries of last winter’s exceptional snow fall in the SW. The accumulation was so great in the Grand Canyon that on the N Rim, several private, single-wide mobile homes and a park service cafeteria roof collapsed under the weight of the snow.

We didn’t learn about the structural damage in the park until we arrived in October, but we had followed the late opening of the N Rim lodging and other services, as well as the N Kaibab Trail to the N Rim, in the spring and summer. Usually, the N Rim roads and services open in May, but in ’23 there were successive delays postponing the openings into June and July. Among other things, significant repairs had to be made to the N Kaibab trail because of rockfall and landslides.

We couldn’t get all of the facts we needed to be certain, but as best we could surmise, our Rim-2-Rim hikes this season may have been made possible by these spring snow delays. The word on the trail from the park rangers in the fall of ’22 was that there might not be a Rim-2-Rim season in ’23 because of the $200 million Transcanyon Waterline Project spanning between the rims and yet, the trails were open as usual for us this fall.

We were pleased to have been spared the oppressive noise by being in Flagstaff for a week when 58 sling loads of supplies were brought into the Park by helicopter for the project over 3 days. Upon our return, Bill spotted the equipment on the Bright Angel Trail where most of the pipeline work will occur. In addition, construction of 2 huge water tanks and a water treatment plant located on 2 sides of our RV park were ongoing for both of our stays.

Water pipe breaks can be a daily occurrence in the park at times and this massive, long-overdue project, is expected to position the park for managing its water supply for the next 50 years. With every visit to the park over the next 3 years, we’ll be checking online for information of how the evolving construction will impact access to our playgrounds: the 3 major trails connecting the south and north rims.

It’s a Wrap
Our time in the Grand Canyon is one of the cherished intervals in our year during which we have the best opportunity to capture bits of peacefulness and joy and we apply ourselves to indulge in those moments. Aging and changing times are making it harder but, while there, we pushed back on news of the wars and political chaos to nourish ourselves, even while feeling like the world was closing in on us. While the bliss of being in our beloved National Park lingered, we had an eye to next year and hoped we’d still treasure our time there.
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The massive water treatment plant being constructed across the road from Trailer Village in the Park.

Our annual kick-off to our SW US hiking season always begins with a week in Flagstaff, followed by a second week in Flagstaff between 2 two-week stays in the Grand Canyon. The focus of our time in Flagstaff has always been on hiking but, this fall, endless controlled burns in the area were immobilizing.

Because of the extremely toxic air, we were cheated out of much of our anticipated time on the steep trail to Eden Lookout to tune our bodies for hiking between the rims of the Grand Canyon. Begrudgingly, we shifted our focus to our other Flagstaff activities, like making unexpected repairs to the trailer, topping-off our pantry at better prices than within the Park for our 2 weeks there, discovering what we had forgotten to bring and what we shouldn’t have brought, as well as getting up to date on our covid, RSV, and flu vaccinations.

We hope the powers that be managing the fires around Flagstaff will devise a new strategy for next year that doesn’t involve encircling the city with a half-dozen blazes at a time—blazes that suffocated us. This year, we shortened one of our week-long stays by 2 days and locked ourselves in our trailer for a total of 3 days while the city was engulfed in wretched smoke. Only 70 miles away, the Grand Canyon National Park usually is smoke-free, and only once have we dealt with smoke and fires there, but the Park restricts one’s length of stay.

We like to think that we are resilient in the face of change, but it’s challenging. We wonder if as hikers, we’ll be displaced by the pipeline project in the canyon next year. I hope my athleticism will be restored so I can again challenge myself while romping alongside Bill on our favorite big climbs in the Canyon and abroad. I hope my attention next year will again be undistracted from the fluffy clouds that delight me so when in the high desert by unpleasantries.

Moving On
We reflected on this year’s triumphs in the Grand Canyon, shoved the worries for next year into the shadows, and looked towards the abrupt culture and climate shifts of relocating in the Joshua Tree National Park area in 2 days. We were too late to get the necessary reservations for our usual 2 weeks in the mountains around Idyllwild in southern California, so it was off to this familiar default location. Grocery shopping and doing 2 weeks of laundry were the practical matters at the top of the list. Then, we’d confront the challenge of transitioning to new rhythms for hiking in the desert for the winter before relocating to Palm Springs at the end of November.