I tied my permit to my pack, hoisted that weight of survival over my shoulders, and headed out the door into the unknown (with a vending machine Gatorade stop first on the docket). “Good luck in the depths of the Canyon. I believe that you can do this.” A note from my roommate lay folded in my journal – an unnecessary weight I was willing to carry with me if it meant my solitude could be captured to some extent. I was hiking down in to the Canyon to spend my first overnight…on an unmaintained trail…on a side of the Canyon I had never been on…all by myself. I was nervous but I was excited, ready to prove to myself that it wasn’t a bad idea.
Hermit’s Trail starts from Hermit’s Rest on the west end of the South Rim. You take a forty-minute bus ride from the Village out to Hermit’s Rest and head down an 8-mile hike to Hermit’s Creek. I could have gone another 1,000 ft all the way to the river but I decided the creek would be a feat in and of itself for my first solo overnight. I worked that day and arrived to the trailhead late – about 5:30PM. I know myself and figured I could make up the time by running down instead of walking, a thought that turned out to be a serious overestimation of the quality of the trail. I began my way down, eyes affixed to the ground in order to avoid the infinite number of twisted ankles that could have arisen even in the first ten minutes.
I saw an older couple standing next to a tan male that was seated on the ground. As soon as I approached them he begged me, “water! Do you have any water?” I pulled out my liter Nalgene and handed it to him. He took several large gulps before handing it back to me. He told me he had been with two friends who were still down the trail; they had been climbing up without water for over two hours. The couple that stood next to him asked “Do you maybe have water for us as well?” I gave them some. Only after they had all drank their fill did they ask where I was going. When I replied “Hermit’s Creek” they all gasped and asked if I had enough water to get myself to the bottom. I smiled and said, “I’m going downhill,” before continuing on my way. Ten minutes later I found the tan guy’s friends both collapsed in the shade and handed them my Nalgene before they even had to ask. “You are an angel, a water angel,” one of them said, “I wish I could repay you.” You can repay me by never coming down here unprepared again, I thought, but just smiled and let them finish the Gatorade (so much for stocking up on electrolytes). I continued on. Ten minutes later, I came across two more men who, unsurprisingly, asked me for water. By the time they were done I had one liter of water left to get me the 6.5 miles to the creek; it was time to start hauling. I didn’t see another soul for the rest of the trail. Every single one of them asked about me and my needs only after they themselves had drank their fill
The trail could have been a lot shorter had it been steeper, but instead it was a several mile long traverse across open canyon wall. The Bright Angel trail is tucked back into an alcove making the Canyon seem a lot smaller than it actually is. Hermit’s Trail was out on an open face of the Canyon; opening up an expanse of wilderness I had yet to experience. I could see for miles and miles and miles and everything about it felt lifeless.
As I hiked the traverse through the red rock layer I talked to the Canyon (because who else would I talk to down there?!) When I first arrived here, I had taken my time to listen to what he had to say, to listen to what his voice was emphasizing, and for the past four weeks I had been hearing the same thing every time I went down past the rim: “Don’t trust me.” I held my hand out gently and let it pass over the ridges in the rock to my right. I nearly felt him screaming in response to my gentility.
“Why have you come here?” He asked.
“I want to learn how to be alive,” I replied.
He cackled back at me, “You! You know nothing. You are just one little girl and you know nothing.”
“Then teach me,” I whispered, “Teach me so I can know.”
We went on like this for hours, me bending at his feet asking him what it’s like to be so vast that no one can touch you. He told me that all he does is hurt people, that all he knows is the extreme, that people don’t believe the warning signs until it is too late. I told him I know what it feels like to be rocky in every corner.
Around mile 5, I came across a rockslide area, a possibility I was aware of but still unprepared for. I lost the trail. I could see maybe 200 meters ahead of me where the trail picked back up but in between me and that safe haven was a steep, loose, uncharted slide and I had less than one liter of water to get me back to the top should I choose to turn around. I heard the voice of someone both a mentor and tormentor from a past season of my life reminding me as he held my bloody hands that the only way to know how far we can go is to go beyond ourselves, to break our own boundaries and lose the premeditated edge of “this is where I want to stop”. And even though I disagreed with a lot of his philosophies, I still believed him when he told me that pain is the only median of growth that provides real outcomes. It was with those words that I started scrambling.
I was holding onto hands that kept letting go and all I could do was keep my eyes on where I needed to be: the other side. Three ridges lay between me and a sign of civilization but the open face of the Canyon meant wind and the loose rock meant instability and I did what I do best which is to keep moving and moving and moving until the ground beneath me started sliding and I grabbed a plant that was very sharp but I held on and I managed to anchor myself enough to wait out the slide. I had tears in my eyes and I thought about
the kid from our ministry at Zion who had fallen and I thought not today, not me, not another one and I turned back. My hand was swelling from anchoring itself to a cactus, and as I stood where the trail ended and my arrogance began I asked this Canyon “is defeat the lesson I am supposed to learn today?” He did not respond. I began walking backwards, calculating how painful it was going to be to hiking 5 miles uphill on less than a liter of water when my insides twisted around inside of me and pulled me back. I looked with a bigger perspective and thought, I am the girl who finishes what she starts. And then I saw a cairn. It was small, almost impossible to see, but it was there and it looked stood on terrain that looked passable. I chased after that direction with great vigor, knowing the last half hour had just cost me the chance of approaching camp in the daylight. I booked it down onto the Tonto layer in the last hour and as the sun set and I put my headlamp on I started running again.
I finally reached Hermit’s Creek around 8:30PM and quickly filled my water bottles and poured in purifying solution. I sat next to the creek slowing my heart beat down and thanking Jesus for the gift of gravity when I heard a voice call out “hello!” and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned and saw a skinny, goofy man approaching me. He apologized for scaring me and then asked if I had a purification system. His name was Dewey and he had been camping down here for two days and was about to run out of water even though he still had to go up. I lent him my purification drops and he sat down beside me to fill his jugs.
He looked at me and said, “You are like a lake princess, a river siren.” I wasn’t sure what he meant but I smiled and thanked him anyways. We could both tell his words weren’t working quite right so he kept trying. “As soon as I saw you kneeling down by the creek I knew you were a spiritual creature. You are like a woman rising up out of the Ganges, a baptism in the Jordan River.”
I told him about ACMNP and how I was here to help people understand God by showing them His majesty. Dewey lit up like a candelabra. “If your ultimate goal isn’t to love God, then you are wasting your life,” he told me, “everything else is meaningless.” meaningless, meaningless, meaningless, it echoed, echoed, echoed. He left me to my solitude and returned to his camping, saying he hoped to see me on the way up.
I pitched my tent and ate some dinner before lying down to pursue a relationship with sleep that was never going to work out. I tossed and turned all night long, listening to the sounds of the creek and the bugs that never showed their faces and the wind that imagined itself intertwined with the unforgiving rock walls
around me. At one point, I woke up because I thought someone as shining a flashlight into my tent but it turned out to be the brightest full moon I have ever seen. My alarm went off at 3AM (gotta beat the heat) and just as it did, my body said, “no, here is your deep sleep” so I turned it off and set it for 4:30AM.
4:30AM came to me like the dream where you are falling and just as your heart comes out of your mouth you wake up. I woke up and ate some breakfast, filled my water bottles again, sat with my feet in the creek for a good fifteen minutes to calm down an inflamed big toe, broke camp, and started heading up the trail at 5:30 after the sun had already risen. My legs immediately began groaning under the future of this hike and weight of a pack instead of just water. And then not fifteen minutes onto the Tonto layer, I saw him.
This is the part where my story becomes not my own, and with that I am not so sure how much I should share. But I will share what is my own and leave the rest up those who now know grief better than I do.
I saw him rising up out of the landscape like a ghost from my youth and I thought Nothing about him belongs here. He was an older man, darkened with a life overseas, carrying nothing but a reusable grocery bag. He walked steadily but slowly; barely even stopping to register that I was there.
I said “good morning” and asked where he was going. He told me that he was very mad and wanted to sue the Grand Canyon for not having a place to cross the river. He had a room on the other side and had come down yesterday trying to cross the river. 11 miles, I thought, you are at least 11 miles from the nearest bridge, where did you come from, where did you come from, where did you come from. I thought of the 7 people from yesterday and asked if he had any water. He held up an empty gallon jug and said “no”. I told him that Hermit’s Creek was just fifteen minutes further down the trail and that he could drink the water from there, “God bless you, without that I could be starving, God bless you” he repeated it. Don’t bless me yet. I told him that if he wanted to get out of the Canyon he should turn around and follow the trail upwards, that it was 8 miles to get out. And then we parted ways.
I felt sick, I felt like something was wrong, I felt like the top wouldn’t be the same top I had left. I turned around once more and saw him walking down towards the creek. I inhaled the molten lava hundreds of miles beneath my feet and used that heat to run the engine of my legs uphill. I don’t know what I was thinking other than “I have to reach to the top and tell someone about that man”. I passed Dewey on the way up and asked if he had seen him. He had not. He saw the worry on my face and said “God sent you to be there, God will sent someone else who can help, that’s all we have, you are already blessed” how can you know that, how can you know that, how can you know that.
I continued on, passing three people who had come from the Tonto layer early in the morning. They too had not seen the man. I began to wonder if he was even real. My mind had invented things before that had not been there, but this? A talking human being? That was too much even for me, the girl who was known for being frayed around the edges, the girl who used glue to hold herself together, the girl whose sanity the universe has never respected. I thought about how anyone who would hike down a trail with no water to camp at the bottom of a desolate canyon completely alone has to be somewhat cracked to begin with. Maybe my cracks were letting out a little more light than usual. Either he was real or I was actually crazy. I hoped to God it was the latter.
I made it out of the Canyon in 4.5 hours and headed straight to the desk at Hermit’s Rest.
“Can I speak to a park ranger, please?” I asked.
“If you want to talk to a parkranger, you’ll have to go to the ranger station in the village,” the employee said.
“Then can you call search and rescue for me, please,” I said.
I spent about twenty minutes talking to search and rescue on the phone describing in great detail the reasons I was calling and every aspect of the encounter
Two of my friends picked me up from the bus stop in the Village. I hugged them, threw my pack in the back of the car, climbed into the passenger seat, and cried.