Some simple math:
40 long lonely road miles along Highway 67–closed for the season–across the snowy Kaibab Plateau. Sunset at the north rim of the Grand Canyon at 7:30. If this particular human can walk comfortably at 3.25 miles an hour (with loaded backpack, of course), while taking minimal breaks, what time must he leave to watch the sun go down?
No matter, no matter. Let’s just say, “get up before the sun and start walking as fast as you can.” Which is what I do.
There’s a small glow to the east, between the Ponderosas. A few large birds make their way through the dawn and disappear among the canopy. The thick forest gives way to a broad burn area where a massive fire cut through the area decades ago. Patchy snow settles between downed logs. Grass rises up quick and easy–resourceful and sparse. New trees stretch out, each of them making connections, vying for resources, respiring in the sunlight. Somewhere in the tangle of it all rests a shallow concrete well, dug out of the ground and full with water, and this is my aim in the pre-dawn hours.
As I walk south, toward the canyon, snow grows thicker. Legs grow weary. Plows have come through and made enormous drifts on either side of the road and I use my trekking poles to whack at it. Ice and snow spray up and wet my face. This is how I pass the time. I listen to music–Phoebe Bridgers–over and over until I’ve memorized the lyrics to all the songs. When I think I can’t go any farther I remind myself what it’s like to run long distances and how easy it seems to cover 100 miles (only a little pain and suffering), then I sit down right in the middle of the road and eat 20 cookies. Imitation Oreos, the kind with white and dark cookies and the synthetic sugary middle. It doesn’t really taste like any kind of food I should be eating, but suddenly the soreness in my legs goes away and there’s energy in my muscles. 7 more miles, 6 more miles. Somewhere I reach the crest and begin going down, but still no canyon view. The sun is low, and when it breaks between the trees is creates an impossible glare–hot and blinding. I check my GPS watch, keeper of time and daily miles. 38.75, it says. Up ahead, according to NPS signs, the campground.
As I limp into this tiny abandoned town, complete with bathrooms and showers, cabins and hotels, a man in a curiously expensive car rolls up. “If you’re looking for water, its over there,” he says and points to a building about 100 yards away. He’s remarkably handsome with his hundred dollar haircut and clean button down shirt. I want to ask him if he knows where he is and tell him L.A. is just beyond the desert, over that way. Instead I settle for campground directions, which he’s happy to give in great caffeinated detail. Honestly, its more than I can take at this point (Is he a movie star? Hallucination?). My watch reads 40.4, so I smile and say thank you.
The campground is eerie in that strange post-apocalyptic way I’ve seen a few times out here. So much space set aside for humans, yet nobody to claim it. Just quiet trees and twilight. I wander for a few moments, looking for the best place to camp so that a nosy ranger out for an evening stroll might miss me entirely (I don’t have a permit to be up here–not that it matters or anything–but park employees can be fickle sometimes). Then I spy a strip of land leading out to the south, and a woman sitting on a picnic table. Beyond her, the Grand Canyon, glowing in the evening. Maybe a little late for true sunset, but close enough.
The woman turns out to be section hiking the Arizona Trail to Flagstaff and we chat about our respective lives while we eat. She offers me half of a nearly-rotten avocado which I can’t refuse. Eventually she wanders off to a small building with working outlets–us hikers covet electricity as much as we do sugary calories–and I limp over to the little camp I’ve made. My legs twitch and ache, so I take an ibuprofen and say a small prayer to the gods of muscle restoration for a speedy recovery. There will be no rest for the weary–tomorrow I hike from one rim of the canyon to the other in a ferocious drop and rise of 6,000 feet. The sun–that great racer–has set and I manage a contented sigh as I think to myself: