The Grand Canyon

Our first heavy winds were in Nashville, a thunderstorm that bent the trees in balletic anguish, pulled mud up from the ground and into the air, left a brilliant quiet afterward. I wrote about it in one of the first posts of this trip. Nashville was later devastated by tornadoes, just a few weeks after we left. Wind, it seems, has been everywhere. The day we paddled across Chokoloskee Bay and out of the Everglades was full of wind, an easterly wind in our face sculpting the shallow water in frothy brown pinnacles that would sometimes combine into heavy rolling waves that our canoe would pitch up against and slap down upon. On Santa Rosa Island in the Florida panhandle we sat on an empty beach, beneath darkly gathering skies, while a cold wind blew across the sand. Several days in New Orleans were bleak with wind and rain, days we spent entirely inside, listening to the cheap plastic chairs on our porch slide around on the rough concrete and smack continuously against the iron railing, the rain percussive against the windows. New Orleans, of course, endured one of the most devastating hurricanes in American history. In Austin, the day before SXSW was canceled because of the coronavirus, we played tennis in heavy winds, trying to time our ball tosses to depressions in it, thankful for the windscreens that were fraying at their edges and the cutouts of their vents. In Ozona, Texas, we ate lunch in a public park, huddling our picnic items together to give them resistance against the wind, which we tried to block with our broad backs. In Marfa, Texas, at another public park, it was the same, though the low white noise of the wind was this time punctuated by the sound of a nearby rollerskater swishing up and down a halfpipe whose plywood also buckled audibly in the wind. The wind took a tupperware out of my hand at an overlook in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico (I was able to retrieve it before it sailed over the side of the mountain). In eastern Arizona, heading north on route 191, the wind brought up a dust storm whose squarish, totalizing mass we were just able to drive past before it crossed the highway from the west. In the Petrified Forest, a ranger told us we might experience wind, but we already knew that; we hiked the badlands and fossil deposits in unwavering expressions of it, searching for the narrowest wash in which to put our tent, which we then guyed out at every available tie, perfecting our taut-line hitches (that night the wind eventually ceased and the stars hung still in the sky like droplets of condensation). At Bright Angel Camp in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we watched the wind give our scant few neighbors in their open creek-side camps earnest hell, their tent doors flapping wildly, their poles bending under heaving gusts, dust blowing everywhere (earlier we opted for the more sheltered canyon-side camps, because of the wind). I’ve felt the wind blow right through my jackets, burn my face, and sting my eyes with grit. I’ve heard it punching against bedroom windows, tautly snapping our tent walls, crackling against the side paneling of our car, and whistling beneath the roofbox above our heads as we’ve cruised down the highways. Here in the Mojave Desert, a full day of it brought tremendous rain, then snow. It has, for much of this time, been terribly windy. But now, as I look at the yellow grasses of the desert, the wind is dead still.

~

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The switchbacks of the South Rim

The day we climbed out of the Grand Canyon began optimistically. We were up at daybreak with ease, enjoyed coffee and a calorie-dense breakfast of tofu scramble, and got our camp struck and feet on the trail by 7:30am. We had about 9.5 miles and 4200 vertical feet of gain in front of us to top-out on the South Rim, but we’d already been doing numbers like that this trip and were feeling energized. We’d eaten all of our food except the snacks for that day and knew we could fill our water en route―our packs were somewhere in the 12-pound range, about as light as we can get them. We sailed. The first mile contouring the river distracted us with a beautiful play of dawn-lit clouds, and the 1500 feet or so of the Devil’s Corkscrew, which climbs out of the bottom-most Vishnu Basement layer, went by in a blink. Before we knew it, we had hiked through the beautiful shale canyon that marks the lower entrance into Indian Gardens camp, where we took a break and enjoyed some snacks (fighting off some very habituated squirrels that reminded us how crowded with people the area usually is).

The weather was bright and crisp, but we knew they had been calling for a new system to blow in, colder temps, rain, and probably snow. Over the North Rim it already looked installed, heavy charcoal clouds teetering atop the canyon edge. By the time we finished our snack, those clouds were draining like bath water south down into the canyon of Bright Angel Creek, which was were we had been spending most of our time on this trip (the northern half of the popular “Corridor,” though it was hardly peopled at all when we there because of the coronavirus). And those earlier, golden, dawn-lit clouds we enjoyed on the river bottom were starting to thicken into a dark paste. We left Indian Gardens, hiking up. Within minutes, we ran into two other parties heading down, and they told us the rangers were closing the Corridor to all hikers, permits or no, at noon (this was part of escalating coronavirus closures; we would be one of the last groups, save the few parties still in the canyon completing their itineraries, to be in the canyon). After another 20 or 30 minutes the lower canyon was thick with hanging moisture, a wall of it maybe 2000 feet high, just transparent enough to still see bits of the North Rim walls through it. Above us the skies had grown into an even, whitish-gray, a suspicious color, like the sky were muffling something―luminosity, moisture, ions. We climbed, the temperature gradually got cooler, and when we reached the Three-Mile Resthouse (that would be three miles from the South Rim, so three miles left for us to go), I watched the temperature gauge hanging on the picnic shelter move very slowly into place right over 30F. It started to snow very lightly.

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The Devil’s Corkscrew bottoming out in the Vishnu Basement

We climbed more. It was still going well, and we didn’t have much left to do, our eyes on the massive wall of Coconino Sandstone just above us that marked our homestretch. But the snow was picking up rapidly, and we didn’t know the status of things―especially our camp for the next few days―at the top; we had only heard on the trail about the Corridor closure, and even then we didn’t know if that information was totally accurate. We only saw two or three day-hikers, mostly just popping down for a quick look. We kept hiking. The wind got more insistent and more erratic; the snow was really coming down now, blowing chaotically against the canyon walls. We kept switchbacking up, making it through the first tunnel, then the second tunnel, and eventually could see the lodges and walkways of the South Rim. By the time we topped out, it was just about blizzard conditions, wind and snow whipping across an almost completely deserted trailhead and parking lot.

We threw coats on pretty quickly. The bathrooms were closed with chains wrapped around them, and I ended up peeing in the mule corral (I really had to go; no mules there). We walked the extra half mile or so to the backcountry office, where we had parked, and tried to recomabobulate ourselves as quickly as possible to keep the snow from blowing too badly into the open cardoors (it still accumulated an almost absurd amount for how fast we were moving). We started the car and sat with the heaters on us for a few minutes. Then we drove down the road to the Mather Campground where we had reservations for the next couple of nights (making a quick pit stop at the in-park grocery store, which was now gating and limiting customers; its gift section was closed, and I was a little upset that I had not purchased the “I Hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim” sticker there earlier, thinking it bad form to buy a boast before the deed was done). We had camped at Mather on the front-end of our trip, and even then it was almost deserted. This time it was completely deserted. There were new signs posted on the bathroom doors; my wife jumped out to read one, and sure enough, they had closed the campground, just that day.

We weren’t terribly surprised (nor had we been excited to camp in a snowstorm), but we still had to figure out what to do. As we looked at our phones, we saw another message: our AirBnB reservation for the following month in Yucca Valley, CA was also going to get canceled, San Bernadino County having issued restrictions on short-term rentals because of the coronavirus. Cell phone service was very spotty, so we drove out of the park and found a McDonald’s. We parked in front of it and leeched their wi-fi to communicate with the AirBnB host. I booked us a room at the same Comfort Inn in Flagstaff where we stayed before the Grand Canyon. We drove south, out of and away from the snowstorm (though the mountains of Flagstaff were snow-capped; earlier in the Grand Canyon trip, I gazed at them, exhausted, from the North Rim).

We got to Flagstaff, ordered a deep dish pizza, took hot, hot showers, and hashed out a solution for California with the AirBnB host. Our original reservation was shy of a full month by three or four days, mostly because it abutted another reservation. But since that reservation, too, had been canceled, we were able to extend our stay, signing a bona fide month-long lease instead of using AirBnB. This put us into long-term status. We felt sketchy about the workaround, but we were getting increasingly anxious about sheltering-in-place. We were already carrying most of the supplies we needed for a long time, had been in remote locales and away from people for almost all of the coronavirus escalation, and exhibited no symptoms of the virus (at that point lack of symptoms still seemed like a reasonable assurance). And Yucca Valley itself is fairly remote, the property we were going to rent sitting on five acres. It was the best option. We signed the lease, wired the money, and holed up in the Comfort Inn for a couple days of movie marathons and takeout before making the drive down out of the Colorado Plateau and into the Mojave Desert.

~

We almost didn’t go to the Grand Canyon at all. Our doubts really cemented on the drive from the Painted Desert into Flagstaff. All along the highway signs were warning of winter weather, snow and ice on the roads, which was surreal because we were smack in the middle of the desert. But as we approached the mountains of Flagstaff, we could see it was socked in. By the time we made it to the Comfort Inn, it was snowing heavily, and it continued to snow all through the night and the next day, depositing about a foot. This was something of a resonant warning, and it mixed with the strange feeling of being in a nearly empty hotel and going to roped-off restaurants and shelf-bare grocery stores, which was our first urbanish experience of the effects of the virus closures (we mostly stayed in our hotel room, making plans, watching movies, and doing a lot of stretching).

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A view of snowy Flagstaff from our hotel window

The coronavirus response in the Southwest, as in other rural parts of the US, was later than in the cities, and up until that point it hadn’t seemed to effect the operations of the parklands we had been visiting very much. We had been in the mindset that these were sparsely populated areas where social distancing was built in, and that we could travel responsibly by keeping any necessary interactions (gas stations and grocery stores) at a minimum and practicing the appropriate distancing and hygiene measures. But the virus, and the response to it, was, of course, moving rapidly, and we began to question the prudence of going to one of the most popular National Parks in the country, which itself seemed to be changing its messaging nearly every day. And then there was all that snow. We called the backcountry office, and to our surprise they were pretty encouraging. The ranger we spoke with said everything was weird, but that the backcountry was still open, and he assured us that we could easily alter our itinerary because of weather on the fly, making it all sound fairly casual. We weighed his response against some of the increasingly cautionary messaging on the park website and, after some deliberation, decided to wait out the weather an extra day in Flagstaff then drive to the park to get a feel for the place before deciding whether or not to drop into the canyon.

When we got to the Grand Canyon our first impression was definitely surreal. No staff were at the gate to take payment or control entrance; we knew that would be the case, but it still felt weird, like a free-for-all. The visitor center was, of course, closed, as was everything else, including most of the bathrooms, with briefly worded closure signs printed on office paper. Elsewhere there were a few larger posters, on information boards and at trailheads, describing proper social distancing measures, but that was pretty much it in terms of any official park communication, and there certainly weren’t any rangers or other staff anywhere to be seen. It felt eerily empty and quiet, though there were just enough visitors wandering around to create a kind of inherent community bound by confusion. People seemed unsure what to do, what was available, and yet there was the Grand Canyon, right there (it was sunny and warmish now, the snow mostly melted), and so one ought to go take a picture.

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Organizing our backpacking food in our hotel room

We went to the campground, which was, as I mentioned before, fairly deserted. It was kind of beautiful unpeopled, its terrain sloping gently beneath giant ponderosa pines, dotted with picnic tables and woven through with narrow asphalt roads. There were a few other campers, one group, humorously enough, immediately across from our site: they were a young couple who worked hotel and restaurant service in Houston; they found out they both lost their jobs on the drive to the canyon, which was otherwise supposed to be a long weekend for them.

We got our camp together and headed to the backcountry office to see if there was any other information posted. There was just another very shortly worded sign: they were no longer issuing permits (up until that point, you could still call and arrange an itinerary, and they would either email you a permit or slip it to you under the door), but those with existing permits could proceed with their itineraries. That was us; we talked it over and decided to go ahead with our trip. I think about this moment of our decision a lot, not because it was ill-fated but because we had to make it in the midst of a fairly widespread confusion, what ended up being the process of the world seizing up into the global quarantine we are in right now. The Grand Canyon, like most National Parks, is now completely closed, but that happened in gradual steps, which we followed closely in the days leading up to our trip. First, large audience events like ranger talks and films were canceled; then the Geology Museum was closed, and the visitor center. Then they stopped issuing permits for commercial river trips. Lodges were closed. Shuttles went to seating-room only, then were canceled completely. The backcountry office closed in-person permitting, then all permitting. Then Phantom Ranch closed (surprisingly late, but it is an independent concessionaire with its own rules and imperatives). Later they would close the Corridor trails, then cancel Corridor-only backcountry permits, close the front country campgrounds, and eventually the entire park (canceling any remaining backcountry permits).

The National Park Service guides individual parks in their procedures and has provided some shared boilerplate in response to the pandemic that most of the individual parks now have on their website. But individual parks still have―as they always have―a fair amount of their own jurisdiction, and the specifics of their closures has varied. Some have end dates. Some are ticketing anyone found within them. Some you can still hike into. And every National Park Ranger is different. Hikers coming up the canyon as we were first descending into it warned us of a distraught ranger near Indian Gardens who was basically telling people to leave. We never saw her, and the rangers we did encounter instead went about as though nothing were different, checking our permits, reminding us of camp rules and backcountry guidelines, and even helping us alter our itinerary. The piecemeal closures and differences in messaging and tone were difficult for us to interpret, especially given our somewhat unique circumstances. It seemed pretty obvious that traveling and being in anything like a group was irresponsible. Yet we had nowhere else to go that wouldn’t require yet more traveling, and a relatively deserted Grand Canyon seemed like a good assurance of being away from people, as the rest of our time in the Southwest had proven. The Grand Canyon was our home, for that moment at least, and we decided to shelter within it.

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A nearly vacant Bright Angel Camp and Phantom Ranch

We spent six days in the canyon. We hiked one of the most well-known itineraries there, the “Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim,” pretty much a yo-yo route from the South Rim to the North Rim and then back. We made two alterations. Typically hikers will drop in at the South Kaibab trail and return via the Bright Angel Trail, using a shuttle to get between them. Since shuttles were canceled, we just did it both ways on Bright Angel. Our second alteration was day-hiking the North Rim. Often hikers will camp one night on the North Rim, but all we had done for days was watch it get hammered with snow, so we decided to stay at Cottonwood Camp for two days, day-hiking from there on the second of them―no need to schlep a heavy(ish) pack up to and camp in a wintry version of the North Rim, the trade off being a pretty substantial day-hike of 14 miles and nearly 9000 feet of vertical change. So our final itinerary was as follows: Bright Angel Trail in, Bright Angel Camp night 1, Cottonwood Camp night 2, Cottonwood Camp night 3 (day-hike North Rim), Bright Angel Camp night 4, Bright Angel Camp night 5 (a “zero” day, a beach day), Bright Angel Trail out. It’s about 50 miles and something like 18,000-19,000 feet of vertical change in total (I’ve struggled with IT band issues, so the vertical is always very much on my mind, and one of the near miracles of this trip was almost no knee trouble at all). We saw a few trail-runners attempting it in one day, which I learned is a thing, a very insane thing.

The emptiness felt eerie at the South Rim, but it felt special down in the canyon. Watch videos of a rim-to-rim hike: it’s a conga line (especially on the switchbacks near the South Rim). Everything in the Corridor is setup for people: large camps, water stations, lots of resthouses and bathrooms. Crowd management is crucial, and everywhere below the South Rim were (sometimes comically illustrated) signs warning of fatigue, heat, and exhaustion (“Down is optional; up is mandatory”). The first day of our trip we saw a decent amount of people, but nothing like I’ve seen in videos (we always appropriately distanced). Our fist night at Bright Angel was with about five or six other parties (the camp has 33 sites, so it was about 1/5 full). By the next day, at Cottonwood, it thinned out even more, and we settled into a cohort of three other parties (two couples and a small group of young men) with whom we shared roughly the same itinerary.

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The Colorado River (and both bridges) near Bright Angel

The day we hiked to the North Rim was especially empty. We went early. My wife had no designs on completing the North Rim (though she still made it almost to the top, stopping at the Redwall Bridge), and we separated a few miles in so she could enjoy her hike and I could keep up pace to get it done. It took me about four hours to get to the top, and it was snowy indeed, about four or five feet of it. But I’m grateful for how good the conditions were. The weather had been very iffy the whole trip, but that day had dazzling blue skies, which, coupled with my exhaustion, sense of accomplishment, and the fact that I was the only person up there, made for a pretty sublime sojourn. And the North Rim is beautiful, the approach a series of tight canyons, floating pinnacles, and dizzying ledges (the South Rim is also beautiful, but a bit of a simpler climb up a relatively straightforward wall). I enjoyed the solitude and beauty for about 15 minutes then realized I wasn’t the only one up there, just the first, one of the couples from Cottonwood soon audible a bit below. They topped-out, too, and we enjoyed the accomplishment for a moment together, then I left them to enjoy their own solitude and headed back down.

Our last full day in the canyon we did no hiking. We went to the beach, spending an hour or two making little “Andy Goldsworthy” sculptures with river reeds and sand and drumming up a menu and grocery list for our hunker-down period in California. We were staring off at the river when suddenly, almost comically, a man popped out of the grasses and onto the sand next to us. We started chatting with him. He lived there and worked at Phantom Ranch. The ranch had closed about a week earlier, but employees could stay in their lodging (if they left, they would have to go through a two-week self quarantine upon returning, so in a sense they were encouraged to stay). We talked about how empty it was, and we mentioned that we were happy to trade having a drink at Phantom Ranch’s cantina for less crowded trails. At this he immediately jerked toward his bag, dug into it, and offered us a beer. My god. This initiated hours of conversation, our new friend tossing us beers over the social distance. Touching someone else’s possession felt irresponsible, but the enticement of cold beer on our last day, with the sun high and hot, was too strong. We learned all about the dynamics of the concessionaires, their relationship with the park rangers, what visitors (“peeps”) are like, a dozen other hikes we could do in the canyon. He had hiked the PCT two years before. We talked about our sabbatical. He pretty much offered us jobs there. I invited him to join me on my Alaska traverse.

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A vertiginous ledge near the North Rim

As we’ve dreamed of our time in the Grand Canyon, socializing was going to be a big part of it. We did want to have drinks at Phantom Ranch. We wanted to talk a whole bunch with other hikers, just as we had been talking with folks up until the social distancing measures were called. We knew it was supposed to be busy, maybe annoyingly so, but that’s what we were planning on. That day at the beach realized at least some of that sociality, and while we checked it with distance and caution (apart from handling the beers), it still felt really good (this is, incidentally, the second time that my wife and I have “partied” on the fly with National Park concessionaires).

In hindsight, that moment now feels like the crumbling edge of a past world. Since then, we’ve interacted in-person with: the front desk at the Comfort Inn in Flagstaff, an employee at Oregano’s pizza in Flagstaff, a cashier at the Whole Foods in Flagstaff, a cashier at Von’s grocery store in Yucca Valley, and the service manager at the Ford Dealership in Yucca Valley. All of these people are risking their health to keep things from totally falling apart, and I can’t ever thank them enough. Otherwise, the world is becoming invisible. This feels almost literally so, as though the ground were evaporating in front of us with every step we try to take. A lot is going to change for our trip. Of course a lot is changing for everybody, in chaotically disparate ways, and I keep trying to decide if we are lucky, or unlucky, to be on this trip during this crisis. What a weird question to have.

―Yucca Valley, CA, April 10, 2020

View a fuller set of photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/SIqPEOwfSsuTxVFjTn5zTg.RLZGFy5aBrQf9-fZXvk9to