The rest of our trip flew by pretty quickly, even though the days felt long most of the time. Jay and Britni met up with us in the Grand Canyon for the weekend, and together we went on a 3-mile hike into the canyon (6 miles round-trip), walked the rim, and took a shorter trek on Bright Angel.
The Grand Canyon far exceeded my expectations in ever way. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was vastly different than the phenomenal trip we had there. Maybe I felt jaded or despondent about visiting there again after not feeling totally “wowed” the last time I was there as a kid. Or maybe it was because of how over-hyped the whole Canyon is. There are a gazillion advertisements lining the highways near the Canyon, plus tours, souvenirs, and swarms of tourists. So many different companies compete for your money and time, and try to to rope you into whatever it is they’re selling. Compared to the peace and tranquility at Zion, the Grand Canyon could be Las Vegas. At least, that was my expectation the closer we came to the rim and our lodge at the park.
Instead, though, we met the friendliest hikers on the trails and sought peaceful, isolated viewing points along the South Rim. We chattered with overnight backpackers about their experience as we hiked down and they made their way back up. Sure, there were probably 50-100 hikers we ignored on each trail for every couple we spoke with, but all it takes is a brief friendly interaction with a fellow adventurer to make me forget how frustrated I am hiking in inadequate footwear without a water bottle…and they expect to make it to the river below.
Sam kept talking about wanting to walk rim-to-tim someday, or at least camp at the bottom and then come back up. I had no inclination to do this, ever, when we arrived, but the more time I spent on the trails and taking in the magnificence of this place, the more I found myself realistically dreaming of the same adventure. Even just the little bit we trekked into the Canyon made me want more, to delve deeper into the vast plateaus and forests below. Camping along the banks of the Colorado River is one of my bucket list items now. It is a journey I want to take someday and experience for myself.
The best choice we made, although it was expensive, was renting a room at the Yavapai Lodge and sharing it with Britni and Jay. This allowed us the freedom to get a decent night’s sleep but still hike all day, watch the sunset, and wake up early for the sunrise. On Monday morning, we perched out near the rim at Pima Point all alone and witnessed the fading stars, glowing horizon, brilliantly-colored clouds, and at last the rising sun. We saw the longest, brightest shooting star I’d ever seen burn through the atmosphere with a neon-green tail for three or four seconds. The whole world felt right there, at my fingertips and as far as I could see, expansive and full of wonderful mysteries. Even though I knew there were hundreds (maybe thousands?) or people viewing that same sunrise over the canyon, it felt entirely ours. I never anticipated that I’d find that kind of comforting solitude at one of the seven natural wonders of the world and such a popular destination on a holiday weekend.
The night before that sunrise (Sunday), we had an easier day of hiking and wandered around the village after venturing on an icy, snow-slicked Bright Angel trail. We allowed plenty of time to stake out the perfect spot as far west as possible for the sunset. We plopped down off Hermit’s Trail at Hermit’s Rest. After we all set out phones to time-lapse mode to capture the sunset, everyone else indulged in red wine on the rocky ledge. I wanted to try and take a photo of the beautiful scene laid out before us—neon skies, clouds on fire with dazzling pinks and oranges, the purple haze filling the stratified sandstone and limestone waves inside the Canyon’s crevasses—but it was impossible to capture. The majestic grandeur of this place is not something that can be shared in a story or photograph. It can truly only be experienced.
This is what I tell myself every time I sleep restlessly the night before flying, or when turbulence rocks the place for what feels like forever. I am more nervous about flying now that I remember being before, and I don’t know why. But if I ever want to see and touch and marvel at every place I want to visit in my life, I know I need to get on a plane. I need to experience those things for myself. I want to live a rich, full life and share these memories with the people I love in the moments they occur. I consider myself very fortunate to have Sam with me, because he is a champ traveler and we balance out adventures well. Together, I know we will do many great things in the time we have, and I work hard to put my personal flying anxieties aside so we can go out and see the world.
After the Grand Canyon, we headed south to Sedona. Oak Creek Canyon gave us a run for our money. We anticipated a flat, easy walk in the canyon’s basin near the river, but the trail was iced over at many points and if it wasn’t icy or muddy, we faced a rapid river that was difficult to cross.A few prior visitors made haphazard bridges out of logs and fallen tree branches, but the further we trekked the fewer places we found to safely cross. Eventually we were alone and still five or six river fords to the end of the trail, and we knew we still had to come back.
We’d see one family of eight or nine people that seemed to run all the way to the end and back, but other than that, no one went deeper into the canyon than the two of us. Our feet were chilled from removing our shoes and boots to ford the most recent river crossing, and we knew the route back would be even more treacherous. Gnawing on some Clif bars on a log near the next crossing, which was far too rapid and unappealing for us to even attempt, we felt deflated for having what felt like our first failed hike. We didn’t make it to the end, and we had to turn back before seeing what the innermost part of the canyon looked like. Recognizing that it was only a matter of time before our feet got wet, we tried crossing the stream on the logs and makeshift bridges on the way back, but at certain points we waded in our boots through ice-cold water that came up to our shins. When we finally made it back to the car way later than we anticipated, we were chilled, wet, exhausted, and relieved.
Even though Oak Creek Canyon felt like a failure when we first recognized we wouldn’t see the end, hunched over on that log at our turnaround point, it was one of our most memorable afternoons from the whole vacation. I accidentally dropped a tree trunk on Sam’s shoulder when we tried to build a safe passageway across the river at one point; we were challenged by the elements more than any other hike; we had to communicate with each other and fellow hikers in order to find the best route along the trail. I experienced that hike in a way I rarely experience many things in my life, and reflecting back on it not makes me feel grateful for how much it kicked our ass. By the time we made it to Sedona, I was ready to sleep for a long, long time.
Sedona was strange. For one, the tourism industry there reminded me a lot of Leelanau in a strange way. It felt like the exact same type of small-town, touristy-feeling village as Empire or Glen Arbor. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, I’m just saying it felt eerie to have a sense of familiarity in the middle of Arizona.
We had a great dinner with Aunt Char and left early the next day, trying to fit in a hike before driving back to Las Vegas for a final night. Our attempt to see Cathedral Rock was a major failure, since we took a wrong turn early along the trail, and even though the hike we did was really enjoyable our legs were beat after six days of strenuous hiking. Deciding this was one of those “journey is greater than the destination” kind of moments, we opted to skip seeing Cathedral Rock and enjoyed our hike for what it was. The hot sunshine in Sedona felt good, and it was just enough exercise to help us settle into the car for the next four hours as we made our way towards Vegas.
Driving back to Vegas, we opted to extend our trip by 20-30 minutes by taking a detour along Historic Route 66. I’d always wanted to drive part of Route 66 (maybe even the whole thing someday), but for now we’d have to settle for just a small section of this historic highway.
To me, it was one of the most remarkable parts of our trip in an entirely different way that everything else we saw. There were small towns completely abandoned—one cafe just shut down sometime after July 2015 based on a poster in their window and the half-opened cooler still filled with pop cans—and others barely had a pulse. The road was quiet and almost completely empty. We only passed a few dozen cars along the 80 miles we drove between Seligman and Kingman, and the road cut straight through the desert around us like a black ribbon.
There were still a few attractions littering the Route and most all of them catered to the tourism industry that motivates people to drive the highway every year. We stopped in and purchased a few small souvenirs, but for the most part we parked the car along the side of the road and photographed the buildings, cars, and gas stations that someone simply walked away from years ago and never looked back. I felt a mixture of heartbreak and nostalgia for an era long ago that I never even knew, but somehow felt it was a part of my story because it is a part of this country’s narrative. It made me think about the people still clinging to these towns and why they decide to stay when everyone else has left. That’s the funny thing about home, I guess: it will always be yours, even if there’s not a reason to stay there anymore.
Now that we live in Chicago, I want to drive Route 66 west towards Springfield and St. Louis, just to experience it on the eastern side. The Route starts very close to where I currently work, and just seeing the signs for the Historic Route 66 makes me to be on the open road with my thoughts, a tent, my husband, and a lot of time. It makes me want that freedom of leaving everything behind for the great unknown that lies west of the world I know, even if I don’t think I could ever fully abandon all my responsibilities. I’ll probably never do it, but this road makes me want to want that, and maybe that’s enough.
When we arrived in Vegas, we walked around the Strip and looked at the shiny, saccharine buildings aiming to instill a sense of wealth and importance in its patrons. After all the magnificent natural wonders we’d spent the past week admiring, Vegas made us feel tired and depressed. We sulked back to our room after weaving between all the different smoke-filled hotels and let our hearts adjust to civilization again. That night we held each other close as we fell asleep, a small reminder that the best things in life are worth the journey and perseverance. I relished the beat of my heart and the beat of Sam’s heart, knowing that this is all I truly need to be happy.