August 27, 2016

A Hole in the Ground: Tackling the Grand Canyon in a Day

Join Austin Aslan as he crosses the Grand Canyon in one day during his 800-mile thru-hike of the Arizona National Scenic Trail.

One week and 79 miles into my recent Utah-to-Mexico thru-hike of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, I happened across a hole in the ground.

Unlike the first conquistadors who once stumbled to a sudden, unexpected halt along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim (oh, to have been a fly on the horse’s mane for that moment!), I knew this hole would lie along my path. I’d slipped into its depths before. But there’s no bracing for your next-first glimpse into that timeless, singular gorge, no matter how often you’ve previously gawked, stupefied, down into it.

man on the edge of the Grand Canyon

I had been well prepared for the launch of my two-month long, solo adventure. I studied the maps and surveyed sources of water along my route. I had provisioned myself with homemade dehydrated meals, equipped myself with the best footwear and dry outerwear, and packed the latest in hyperlite product technology.

Intellectually, I had known that to explore the length of Arizona, it would also be necessary to explore its depth. But here I was, staring down the barrel of my first attempt at crossing, in a single day, the 21 miles of trail between the North Rim and South Rim, and my feet and shoulders were on the cusp of knowing it, too.

north rim of Grand Canyon

My body shuddered in anticipation.

The Northern Arizona basecamps of Prescott and Flagstaff are my native stomping grounds. I’ve descended the Grand Canyon a dozen times over the years. I found love along the Colorado River, started dating my high school sweetheart wife behind the outhouse at Indian Garden campground 22 years ago. Our daughter, when she was 8, joined me on a backpacking trip down to Phantom Ranch along the South Rim’s Bright Angel Trail. We climbed back out via the shorter-but-steeper South Kaibab Trail, originally developed for mules.

But those adventures had always unfolded over several days, with time to spare for things like sit-down lunches and flower-smelling, and photography. I had always liked the idea of going rim-to-rim in a single shot but had never seriously entertained executing the near-marathon challenge myself.

I was satisfied to let the athletes own that thrill.

This time, however, unable to secure a permit for the dates of my passage through the national park, my Arizona Trail thru-hike forced me to tackle what I had considered to be an Olympic feat. Twenty-one miles in a single day, down the North Rim, through Phantom Ranch, and back up the grueling switchbacks of the South Kaibab Trail—all while carrying a backpacker’s full suite of accessories and gear.

I spent a night overlooking the North Rim, resting and visualizing my triumph, and then launched over the edge before dawn the next morning amid the generous fanfare of a horde of impressed bus tourists. I descended 6,000 feet in just over 14 miles, then gained the elevation back after another 7-mile ascent. My bucket-list item and I trudged to our finish line in total silence and star-studded darkness after 14 hours of effort.

Grand Canyon hiking trail

The Canyon is so deep it contains a kaleidoscope of ecozones. Dropping from the North Rim, I moved from snow-patched, mixed conifer forest through ponderosa pine, through a juniper-oak woodland and a sagebrush plateau, and finally into desert scrub, complete with shocking heat. Braving the footbridge across the muddy Colorado and climbing up the other side, the transitions were reversed.

Along my 60-day trek from Utah to Mexico I would trudge and saunter and leap and climb and stumble through every one of these ecotypes, but now I was previewing them all in a single day.

It was as if someone took the full sweeping diversity of the Arizona Trail and collapsed it into, well, Cliffs Notes.

Something wondrous happened within me during my epic passage through the Grand Canyon that my full hike along the length of the state would never quite reproduce.

hiking in the Grand Canyon

Descending through layer upon buried layer of compressed sediment into a hole 277 miles long, 15 miles wide, and more than a mile deep, I began to lose touch with my sense of self. I could feel what I was: a speck of strangely organized amino acids drifting into infinity. Simultaneously, time itself unraveled. As miraculous a collection of matter as I was, I sensed that I amounted to naught but a momentary flash of inspired cohesion against the backdrop of chaotic eternity.

Imperceptibly slow forces worked for eons to carve the astounding beauty all around me. To embrace this reality was to truly, finally, glimpse my insignificance.

I thought often throughout that day how this whole swath of the earth had once been a seabed. And not only once, but time and again. The waters rose, washed in through the coordinates at my feet, deposited silt, receded. Over and over, until finally the land itself fused into rock under its own weight, lifted, raising sandy beaches into the sky to dry and to harden into rock and to crack apart into a vast, unrelenting landscape of sculptured, windswept gardens. Only then did melted snow from the far distant, uplifted Rocky Mountains meander through here, plucking one bonded sand grain from the next, and carrying them, day by day, out to ever-shifting sea.

How small I was, and so minuscule my works, against such vast industry.

And yet for all the humility I felt that day, the Grand Canyon is an equal opportunity ego-enhancer, as well. We, human creatures, demonstrate a remarkable capacity to consider ourselves important, and the Canyon, in its particular way, brought me satisfaction, too.

Surfacing the South Rim to quiet pines silhouetted against the milky cosmos, my smallness ballooned into welcome pride. Trekking rim-to-rim in a day was not my only victory that night. The South Rim marked the finish line for two other new merit badges: the longest single day of backpacking I had ever done and the completion of my first 100-mile solo march.

I dropped my pack, aware that I still had 700 miles to go before reaching Mexico. The ascent had proven to be an uncharacteristically slow and moody climb. My pack had seemed to gain pounds with the miles. The heat had boiled my brain.

This canyon was indeed grand, so big and timeless and beyond my mortal reckoning. But there’s nothing like the reward that comes from perseverance and hard work, and for me, the Grand Canyon has always remained synonymous with audacity, ingenuity, and accomplishment.

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