I’ve never gone into the wilderness seeking solitude, à la Thoreau. And if I were seeking solitude, I certainly wouldn’t hike the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon. But when the opportunity arose to invite myself on a hike, I jumped at the chance. I felt fortunate that my invitation was accepted. There would be six of us total, my in-laws, three of their friends, and me. I’d only be joining the group for two of the six nights – a long weekend instead of a full week in the Canyon – which meant I’d hike out solo on the third day while the rest of the party continued on to Cottonwood Camp. At some point in the past, before having children clouded the memories of before I had children, I’d hiked the Bright Angel. I couldn’t tell you what year, or even what season.
The Bright Angel is, without doubt, the Canyon’s most-traveled trail. The trailhead is right there at Grand Canyon Village and so the first mile or so below the rim is crammed with tourists: families with young kids, older folks, and Europeans and Asians speaking lovely and sometimes unidentifiable tongues – and of course, the mules. Because it was so crowded, I had to remind myself not to be righteous. These people were looking for an experience similar to what I was seeking. They deserved to be there as much as I did. And really, they all were friendly, cheerful, and rightly awed.
Our first night would be spent at Indian Garden, a campground four and a half miles from the rim. Because the first three miles consist of switchbacks, the trail cuts back and forth, back and forth, inside a side canyon. Before we even traveled a mile on the trail we can see Indian Garden, its vibrant green cottonwood leafing out, punctuated by dozens of fuchsia-bloomed redbuds. And as the crow flies, it appears close. But all those switchbacks make for slow, deliberate travel, and Indian Garden doesn’t get much closer the farther we hike.
Kirk and I hike together, having one other Canyon hike in common. The conversation is easy, as we joke and get to know one another a little better. We stop, here and there, for M&Ms, jerky, and water; to stretch and catch our breath. We look below, to see if we can spot Judy, my mother-in-law; we search the trail above for Bill, Barb, and Mike, my father-in-law. Mike’s knee has been temperamental as of late, and we know he will be slow.
Again and again we turn at the end of a switchback, and Indian Garden hovers, mirage-like, still the same distance away. We arrive at the Three Mile Resthouse, and the switchbacks finally peter out. With Judy we hike the last mile and a half out over a plateau until we reach Indian Garden.
The redbuds buzz, not so much with bees but with color. Fuchsia is not a color common to the Canyon. Reds, browns, oranges, and yellows dominate, interspersed with dark juniper green on the rim and sage green of prickly pear lower in the Canyon. But this purple-pink is so garish, so beautiful, and so fleeting. Within a week or two it will be gone and even memory will question its existence when the heat of summer rises up. Was it a dream, those fuchsia redbuds vibrating against the almost-lime-green of the new cottonwood leaves?
We select our campsite and set up. Bill and Barb arrive, followed by Mike, who is hurting and tired. We murmur our concerns to one another, and he rests and readies himself for tomorrow’s descent to the Colorado River. Afternoon falls quietly, the sun’s light subtly changing the colors of the canyon walls. Kirk and I decide to hike out to Plateau Point, a three-mile roundtrip to an overlook down sheer walls to the river. Without our packs we move quickly and effortlessly, noticing small seas of prickly pear just weeks from bloom, and sprinkled with yellow and pale pink wildflowers. We reach the overlook as a group of tiny rafts navigate the rapids 400 yards below.
Back at camp, preparations begin for dinner and cocktail hour opens. Kirk, Bill, and I each have brought bourbon; Mike has pre-mixed bourbon and sweet vermouth for Manhattans and has even packed a small bottle of maraschino cherry juice to flavor this drink. We taunt him about how uncouth this is, but Mike does things his own way and is proud to stand out from the crowd. He shares a bit with me, and I have to admit, it tastes pretty damn good even if it is a little too warm, and I decide that I might have to stop teasing him about this uncultured way to imbibe. And this is why I hike: the camaraderie of the meal, the jokes that we share (again and again), the stories exchanged, the solving of the world’s problems. Night descends accompanied by laughter and the tightening of muscles. One by one we creep off to our tents, the stars shimmering in numbers we don’t see above the rim.
We repeat the drill the next day, setting up camp at Bright Angel Campground after descending the Devil’s Corkscrew (much less ominous on a cool spring morning than the name implies) and crossing the Silver Bridge over the silt-laden Colorado.
And so, on Day 3, when I begin my solo hike out, I think I am well-prepared and ready for a solitary experience on this trail. I start early enough, cross the bridge, and follow the river for a while. I meet up with three young men who are friendly enough at first. I point out a pair of deer I see at the mouth of Pipe Creek, just ahead. But as I hike ahead of them, and they talk amongst themselves, I begin to feel uneasy.
They joke about women, within earshot of me. They engage me in conversation and veil their stories in obvious, transparent lies. I pick up my pace and don’t look back. They meet up with me again at the River Resthouse, and again, I charge ahead, ready to climb up the Devil’s Corkscrew before them, wanting to leave them in my dust. I wouldn’t say that I was actually afraid. But I definitely felt vulnerable. And it bothered me, that here, in this vast wilderness, I didn’t feel safe walking alone. Isn’t that how I’m supposed to feel in the city?
I made it up to Indian Garden, and then up those interminable switchbacks without seeing those three again. And the drive home, while long and boring and lonely, was ok. It took me nine and a half miles of hiking and more than two hours of driving to pinpoint exactly what Day 3 lacked. The reason I go hiking: the camaraderie.
Next time, I just might bring enough of my own Manhattan (pre-mixed, of course) to share with Mike.