It’s 2:30 a.m. and hushed voices of a dozen sleep-deprived backpackers echo in the crowded gymnasium. Headlamps flashing, we pack up our soggy gear and mentally prepare for the 10-mile hike out of the Grand Canyon. I’ll admit to being nervous, even a little scared—the threat of flash floods compounded with exhaustion weren’t exactly a recipe for success. My feet were blistered from hiking in the 106-degree heat three days before on our way into the canyon, my back sore from sleeping on a hard floor with no padding (I’d only brought a hammock to sleep in), but my spirit felt light. Something about an uncomfortable adventure brings out the best in me—it’s as though through a bit of suffering I revel more in my aliveness. We start walking, the darkness slowly becoming less absolute. The rain had stopped—the roar of flash floods and spontaneous waterfalls from the night before had subsided, and we crossed our fingers it wouldn’t start up again until we were out of the danger zone where the canyon widened several miles ahead. About half of our group of 22 was with us—the others had voted to wait out the rain back at the camp we’d occupied for the last two nights. Despite the three hours of sleep and the busted feet, we were in good spirits, laughing and chatting our way up the trails, and for the umpteenth time that trip I marveled at the depth, grace, and grit of this assortment of women. Choosing to spend four long, hot, challenging, sweaty days backpacking down to Havasupai in the Grand Canyon last July wasn’t something I’d normally find that fun, given my general disinclination for overly warm environments. That, however, wasn’t the most uncomfortable part. This was an Instagram meetup, the first, and so far the last of which I’ve attended being a somewhat shy person, and I was there with 20 other women, none of whom I knew prior. There were a few I’d been following on Instagram, but witty posts and pretty photos don’t always equate to sparkling personalities and a can-do attitude. I said yes, though, because I had no good reason not to (and the beautiful waterfalls at Havasupai looked unreal—I wanted to verify for myself that they really were that color). And I wanted to know—could backpacking in a tough environment with that many strangers be fun? We’d met at 3 a.m. in a parking lot, having planned to hike in early to avoid the intense heat that comes with the sun in the Grand Canyon in July. Ten meandering miles later we found ourselves in Supai, a small village where the Havasupai Tribe has lived for over 800 years. We picked up our group permits and made our way the remaining few miles just as the temperatures started to really rise; by the time we got to camp beside the river, my toes were burning through my shoes on the hot sand. My question was answered that first day—we made fast friends with each other, and spent that first day frolicking, cliff jumping, and sunning below the famous Havasu Falls and exploring the other waterfalls nearby. I fell asleep that night in my hammock, lulled to sleep by the sound of the passing stream despite the 90-degree heat. The next day we made our way downriver another 4 miles to Beaver Falls, thunder and lighting accompanying us the last half mile. Undeterred, we waited it out just long enough and we were rewarded with the entire falls to ourselves, the sun struggling to emerge from the clouds. The dark skies weren’t letting up, and by the time we made our way back to camp, the stream was rising and had turned a wild dark red from sediment upstream. Flash flood warnings ensued, and about half of us elected to leave and try to make it out so as not to get stuck down there. We made it to the village, at one point even outrunning a (very) small flash flood as it came down a wash. It was eerie, though, with waterfalls and rockfalls echoing across the canyon, and when we got to Supai we were advised not to head out. We weren’t the only stranded hikers, and the villagers generously offered us the use of their new gymnasium to rest our collectively soggy bones. That was how I found myself doing my best to sleep on a bare gymnasium floor, uncomfortable but grateful for the roof over my head. There are a lot of cliches that seem to emerge again and again in so many stories I read online—that life begins at the end of your comfort zone; challenge makes you grow; say yes to things that scare you … And yet there is so much truth to it. Saying yes to that trip started off a chain of events that have changed my life and grew my confidence in more ways than I could have imagined. I’ve never been at ease with large groups of unknown people, and that I could drive 12 hours to do just that and enjoy myself enormously shifted my perspective as to what’s possible. Havasupai is a sacred, wild place, and one I can’t wait to visit again—and that trip remains a good reminder to say yes to the things that scare me.
What happens when you go beyond your comfort zones to hike Havasupai with a group of strangers in the dead of summer? Great adventure for starters.