The physical sensation of solitude shocked me.
It was my first day hiking in Grand Canyon National Park. On the South Kaibab Trail, I was past the halfway point but still well away from the Colorado River. The only people nearby were behind me and out of earshot, something difficult to achieve in a place visited by 4.5 million people annually.
This is what I’d come for, the feeling naturalist John Muir had described: “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
With a daypack I technically was not without baggage. But, close enough.
It was May two years ago, warm but not hot. I had enough sunblock and water, and I wore sturdy shoes and good sunglasses. So even though I was on a waterless, shade-free trail, I felt relief, not nerves, at being alone. There below the rim, where cellphones don’t get service, I was unreachable by Twitter, e-mail and Facebook. I was even free from the easy conversation I’d been making with three friends as we descended.
In the quiet, I noticed my body in a way I hadn’t before. I heard only my breathing. I saw only the striated red canyon walls, the rust-colored trail flanked by sun-bleached scrub. I smelled only sunblock. I tasted only the plastic-tinged wash of Camelbak-bladder water.
I felt the tightness building in my legs, in my calf muscles and tendons, which had helped me descend thousands of feet along about 5 miles of trail. Eventually I would hike 4,860 feet down 7.4 miles to the river and, just beyond, Phantom Ranch.
The solitude allowed me to think. And later, to stop thinking. It allowed me to look closely. Then later, to stop looking and just be. It allowed me to feel as if I belonged in the heart of one of the wonders of the world.
The Grand Canyon is among the last places I thought I’d feel like I belong.
When I was 15, a family camping trip on the South Rim’s Mather Campground hadn’t gone well. I was grossed out by the cigarette butts everywhere. The crowds were overwhelming.
Lines snaked everywhere: at parking lots, the information desk, the bathrooms, outside the 25-cent showers, the cafeteria at dinnertime and at the post-dinner-tray return.
There even were lines on Bright Angel Trail. Hiking to Indian Gardens, my dad, little brother and I fell in behind other families and I resigned myself to looking at the back of Ryan’s sweaty T-shirt for several hours. On the way out, my face burned with embarrassment as two park rangers checked on us, and as person after person, apparently all healthy, fast and fit, passed us.
Later we voted to end our vacation two days early. I never thought about going back.
• • •
The solitude was shocking also because it’s tough to achieve at the Grand Canyon.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Wilderness Preservation System, commonly called the Wilderness Act. In 1964, Congress sought to protect Americans from our own progress, to ensure the nationwide stewardship of untrammeled spaces. Under this act, a woman could journey to rivers, lakes, mountains and grasslands so pristine she could look out and keep looking — her eyes not settling on anything until her mind itself came to rest.
Years before the act was passed, author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in support: “We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves; we need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce.”
The act didn’t establish the national-park system. That happened in 1916, three years before the Grand Canyon became a national park.
Instead, it enabled the designation and protection of places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, the Ansel Adams Wilderness in California and the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in Arizona, broadening Americans’ free or inexpensive and easy access to what now encompasses nearly 110 million acres of wild spaces.
But the act’s success also created one of the tensions central to visiting the West’s popular but remote parks: We venture to the middle of nowhere to be alone, only to be surrounded by others trying to do the same thing.
At the Grand Canyon, the experience is like this:
In a remote corner of northwest Arizona, four hours from Phoenix and 4½ hours from Las Vegas, the park sprawls over 1,904 square miles. That’s roughly the size of Delaware. The Canyon drops about a mile deep and stretches 277 miles, widening to an average of 10 miles from rim to rim.
But most of its visitors troop through over just seven months: Attendance spiked in July 2013 with 728,543 visitors, followed by August, with 613,479. And the vast majority of them stay in the few square acres called Grand Canyon Village, home to most of the South Rim’s 908 hotel rooms and 327 tent sites in Mather Campground.
From March through early October, hotels on the South Rim operate at about 99 percent capacity, according to Bruce Brossman of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which runs the park’s restaurants and lodges.
This time of year, the gift shops fly through 600 postcards and 1,549 magnets daily. The wait for one of the 1,150 ice-cream cones devoured each day at the Bright Angel ice-cream parlor can stretch up to an hour.
The South Rim sidewalks are like the mall at Christmastime.
They’re packed with Italian, Japanese and other tourists rushing to make it to the five tour buses waiting in the Bright Angel parking lot. They’re dotted with moms wearing infants in strappy BabyBjorns and older men being helped along the uneven pathways by teenagers. They’re swarmed by young families with children too big to carry and too small to hike far.
Even down into the Canyon a mile or so, it’s crowded on the park’s most popular trail, the Bright Angel. Dads hold the hands of gamboling toddlers, women in flip-flops nervously navigate the rocky parts of the trail and even the frail push on, hoping to know some deeper part of themselves by reaching a deeper part of the Canyon.
• • •
Seventeen years after that first visit, one of my best friends invited me to hike into the Grand Canyon. The plan was to take the South Kaibab Trail to Phantom Ranch, chow at the canteen, fall dead asleep in the women’s 10-bed bunkhouse, and set back out the next day on the Bright Angel Trail.
We would join her older brother and his friend, who between them had done the trip more than a dozen times. It would be great, she said.
I immediately said yes, and then panicked. I assumed it would be the same as when I was 15: too hard, too crowded, too hot. But I didn’t say no because I thought no one says no to an invitation to hike the Canyon. The thought mortified me.
So I trained for months by bounding up and down the stairs at Phoenix College’s football stadium, and striding up and down North Mountain. I upped the difficulty of the spin classes I taught twice a week at my YMCA.
In his Wilderness Letter, Stegner wrote of preserving wilderness, even if a relative few are likely to visit. He wrote that for those without the money, strength or other resources to spend stretches of time in these places, it is enough just to go to the edge and look.
At the Grand Canyon, that is what most everyone does. They drive to the parking lots. They walk along the sidewalks and look, disbelieving that there are so few railings or fences.
Sometimes they exclaim and laugh, sharing with friends what they’re thinking. Sometimes they just look in silence.
Others will never visit the Canyon. But just knowing it’s there can relieve their ennui. These are people unlikely to flip over their desks, or skip out on a waitressing shift to take off to the Mogollon Rim, but they know they could. And there’s catharsis there, Stegner wrote.
I didn’t want to be one of those people.
My twin and younger sisters work as national park rangers, and my mom used to. Now she’s a volunteer. I wanted to be adventurous like them. Growing up, I read “Cadillac Desert,” “Walden,” “Julie of the Wolves,” “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” and I craved the insight that came from experiencing nature on its own terms, even if the bunkhouse would be air-conditioned and my friend would be packing wine.
• • •
The Canyon dazzled me. I saw what John Wesley Powell described when he wrote: “The glories and the beauties of form, color and sound unite in the Grand Canyon — forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain.”
The four of us tired-footed into Phantom Ranch just in time for the 4 p.m. ranger talk. We heard a story about how, in 1540, when Hopi guides led Spanish Capt. Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and his men to the Canyon, he miscalculated the river at the bottom as being 6 feet across. It averages 300 feet.
The captain thought his men could run to the river and return with water in a few hours. After attempting for several days, they only ever made it about a third of the way down. The Spanish simply could not fathom the Canyon.
Standing in the shade of a cottonwood tree, sipping an improbably ice-filled lemonade from the canteen, I wasn’t surprised by this story. Who could comprehend this place?
My mind stuck on another fact the ranger had shared: The park estimates only about 1 percent of all visitors spend the night at the bottom.
Turns out I had been wrong; almost everyone says no when asked to hike to the bottom.
That night in the Phantom Ranch canteen, I sat among dozens of hikers from across the country and around the world, eating as much vegetarian stew and chocolate cake as I wanted, exhorted by the servers telling us that mules packed out anything we didn’t eat as trash.
The next day I awoke in darkness, calf-sore and bleary, to be ready for 5 a.m. pancakes and fruit.
Now that I was aware of how few people make the trip, the hike took on a new significance.
At first, I thought how lucky I was. Lucky that my legs were strong, that my back, broken in college, had healed well. Lucky that I lived near enough to make the trip affordable and logistically feasible. Lucky my mom loaned me her daypack and that my twin helped me pick out hiking boots.
But eventually I thought about how I was afraid I’d never marry or become a mom. That I’d never have a great love of my life, that I’d have to be satisfied with just being a doting aunt someday.
I thought about how online dating had begun to feel like a pointless second job involving a lot of hairspray and smiling.
I thought about how much I missed my family. How I longed for them to live closer than Cleveland, Seattle and Mammoth Lakes, Calif. How inadequate Facebook updates are.
I thought about how I was afraid I’d never get better as a journalist, that I’d never be a great writer, or even a pretty good one. I thought about how I was afraid God would think I hadn’t done enough with my gifts because I hadn’t pushed myself hard enough or worked to become smart enough.
I wondered when I’d become so anxious. When I’d become so hard on myself. And why I’d become so hard on God.
I thought about how we go to wild places to forget our problems, or try to use a view to resolve our feelings about them. I thought how sometimes that works. And sometimes doesn’t. And I didn’t yet know if it would work for me.
I had gone into the Canyon to see the natural world, but the Canyon is not a window. It’s a prism, refracting all the parts of a person, not just the positive ones.
Up and up I hiked, thinking how even with these melancholy thoughts, I was grateful to God for this trip. Then I thought whether I was sufficiently grateful to God.
And suddenly, I realized I wasn’t. I could never be.
I cannot deserve the Grand Canyon.
I cannot deserve the Grand Canyon any more than I can deserve my mom, or my God. I felt a relief. If I can’t earn the blessings in my life, maybe I can just appreciate them. Maybe that would be enough.
I didn’t feel totally resolved, but I did feel better. My mind quieted somewhat and I could just be for stretches at a time.
When we emerged from the Canyon a few hours later, we toasted with a bottle of red wine at El Tovar, the grand old resort on the rim. Infused with the contentment specific to great physical effort, we relived our hike. But I was quiet about my introspection.
• • •
In late June, I found myself back at the South Rim. After a few hiking trips the past two years, I’d grown to love the Canyon and wanted to write about it.
My editors agreed to a three-day trip to report on the effort to preserve the Canyon’s night skies, and how light pollution from Phoenix threatens that work.
It was 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and I was standing on the front steps of Bright Angel Lodge. On both sides of the vestibule leading into the main room, people hustled in and out. Carrying several bags, I couldn’t figure out how to slip into the in-stream.
I took a deep breath, twisted my shoulders and squeezed in, murmuring “sorry” and smiling. I kept walking, past lines of people checking in, dodging people leaving the dining room and giant-stepping around backpacks piled at the feet of tourists.
Finally at the rim, I squeezed in at the low stone wall between a middle-age man and a pack of teenagers. I exhaled and looked out over Bright Angel Trail and into the distance.
But instead of focusing on Vishnu Temple or any of the other prominent formations, my eyes settled on the patio of the Kolb Brothers studio, just below the Canyon rim and to my left. At least 30 people were sitting thigh-to-thigh or standing shoulder-to-shoulder for a ranger talk.
At that moment, a woman behind me said, “Look at all those people down there. It’s so crowded here!”
I turned to look at her, guiltily thinking the same thing.
In the next moment, though, I reconsidered.
Yes, the rim was crowded. But I was just like all these other people crowding up the place. I stood at the edge, saying a silent prayer that the wonder of this rim-bound vista would sustain me back in Phoenix in case my work kept me from hiking down.
I turned back to face the Canyon and something clicked.
Suddenly I felt as thankful as I’d ever been on previous hikes:
Thankful the Canyon was so crowded, that so many others were feeling versions of what I was feeling. Thankful for the Canyon itself, and for all the wild spaces the government protects, whether we explore them or just come to their edges and look out.