Barb on the S Kaibab Trail: there was still a bit of rain while we descended but at least the sun was now up.
A Journey of Discovery
For me, doing the 46 mile (74 km); 11,000’ (3,400 m) elevation gain; Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim, 2 day hike at the Grand Canyon isn’t only about completing the athletic event but it’s also about the journey. With each crossing between the north and south rims of the canyon, we experience multiple, overlapping journeys, which is why we keep doing it. It’s different every time: affirming, awe-inspiring, and filled with unexpected discoveries and delights.
Exceptional Grit Award
In my book, every person who treks from either Grand Canyon rim to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River, or beyond, deserves a True Grit Award. The folks on the 3 possible trails range from guys our age that require 24 hours to make it one rim to rim crossing to the fastest-known-time holder who made the round trip in under 6 hours. There are the packs of deservedly proud, ponytail flipping coed trail runners and speed walkers from the regional colleges; exhausted backpackers with huge loads; wildly undertrained and unprepared people of all ages; and the unremarkable, middle-off-the-pack hikers like us. One of the things I ponder each time on these deep inner canyon trails, regardless of the distance they travel, is “Who has the most grit?”
The thriving bike guy doing the Arizona Trail (check-out his upper arm muscles).
This year my game to identify the hikers to receive my new Exceptional Grit Award was easy, with 3 sharing the top spot. First up were the 2 guys cycling the 800 mile-long Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico through the Grand Canyon. They stuck to the official route, which required going up the most difficult trail, the S Kaibab. It’s our favorite trail in the Park, but we don’t strap bikes onto our backs.
Bikes aren’t allowed on Grand Canyon trails, like is usually the case in the National Parks, so they carried their bikes the entire 22 miles with about 5,000’ of elevation gain. Their 90 pound loads had been topped-off by including hiking shoes and poles for this segment that was less than 3% of their journey. We took photos of the 2nd of the 2, who looked far better than the lead man.
The first cyclist was a frightening sight. He was bent 90 degrees at the waist so his torso was about parallel to the trail; sweat was dripping from the tip of his nose; he looked crazed; and we wondered how he would make it. His partner commented that other hikers had been giving his buddy ‘stuff’. Like us, I’m sure that they were worried for his wellbeing and did what they could to help him.
In contrast, the 2nd guy looked like he was working hard but in it for the long haul. His posture was more ergonomic and he seemed to be doing it on strength, conditioning, and attention to his body. We guessed that the lead biker was accustomed to going into a detached, manic state and pressing on regardless. Independent of their style, both exhibited exceptional grit.
The 3rd recipient of my Exceptional Grit Award easily went to the blind backpacker. Ironically, after recently reading a story about a person suddenly becoming blind, I’d assessed these Grand Canyon trails with that disability in mind and decided the rough terrain and big step-ups and step-downs would make it too dangerous. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
The late 30’s woman was sandwiched between 2 men, with the leader repeatedly announcing “There is a blind hiker behind me.” Nothing about her affect revealed her blindness and I’m sure that her safety required alerting unsuspecting oncoming hikers to yield to her. The guy bringing up the rear seemed like he was free to enjoy the scenery but no doubt his job was to manage overtaking mule trains and speedy trail runners.
Mule trains are a part of the inner canyon trail experience.
Once in our warm, cheery Western Cabin on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at the end of the first crossing, I reflected on the stream of little events that had made me extremely contented and had triggered waves of gratitude during the day.
A few days before we launched on this Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim event, a friend had forwarded a New York Times article about contentment. The 85 year old man telling his story was still a powerful, driven athlete but he had been struck by the observation that he lacked the contentment of some of his sedentary or disabled friends. He was healthier than they but he had missed the boat on a skill that he could see was extremely useful in coping with aging.
With that story freshly in my mind, I was taken by how many factors were contributing to my contentment that evening and most had their origin in the help from others. We’d had a mini-crisis 2 days before our event and my speedy scenario running and the kindness of strangers saved the day. A landslide on Hwy 89 had closed the road, which meant that our bag of food and dry clothes that we’d paid to be transported between the South and North Rim would arrive several hours after our hoped-for bedtime of 7 pm instead of at the usual 6 pm.
A phone call to the front desk at the North Rim Lodge resulted in Patrick saving the day: we would send our bag a day earlier, which was against the shuttle company’s rules, and Patrick would pull our bag aside without them knowing it, which wasn't against the Lodge’s rules. We’d had to finish our packing in 90” when we thought we had all day, but much to our pleasure, we had responded without any errors, making for even more contentment.
The heat was on in our cabin when we arrived weary, damp, and becoming chilled. “Ah, more gratitude for the courtesy of strangers.” Our room had a bathtub, which I treasure when I am exhausted. On days like that one, standing to bathe seems overwhelmingly difficult, and we both purred with delight before, during, and after our tub time.
Our cabin was well lit and appointed, unlike the drafty, dark, unclean-feeling Pioneer Cabin we had in 2017. Getting any room on the North Rim is highly competitive and we were delighted with the benefits delivered by the $50 premium for this better room. I’d cringed at the price difference when booking but we quickly decided that we’d try for one next year. The pleasantness of the space allowed us to be more relaxed and more efficient while we rushed to organize for another 5 am departure the next morning. We were grateful that the lack of availability had forced us to buy up.
Indeed, we were very pleased with our athletic performance and navigating around the half day of drizzle and occasional ’sharp’ showers but the deepest sense of contentment came from kindness we received from others that had made our day so satisfying.
A Secondary “Mission Accomplished”
The Joyous Side of Pain
I’m the only one I know who would consider the 3 hours of pain I endured going down the 7 mile S Kaibab Trail from the South Rim to the Colorado River and the 7-8 hours that Bill put up with the next day from the N Rim to the river, as a gift. But one of my strategies for aging well and maintaining or advancing our athleticism is to gradually and methodically root-out body problems that are lurking just below the surface like these clearly were. I always hope that if we keep pushing out our edges farther and farther that we’ll expose imbalances and asymmetries in non-catastrophic ways and in time to prevent a significant injury. So far, the plan has worked and the slightly nauseating pain we both experienced on this event was ultimately a victory for us.
Our new QL kit: a mini ground cloth & ball.
My familiar experience with the QL was probably related to the mild low back pain I’d experienced on recent hikes that I hadn’t recognized as being an irritated QL. For Bill, the punishing nature of the QL was an entirely new experience which started that morning with pain in his sacro-illiac joint in his right hip. When Bill’s right QL went into spasm, the muscle shortening severely tilted him to the right. It was also my right QL that became viciously cranky, but it seemed to go slack instead of going into spasm, tilting me strongly to the left.
I’d frequently experienced this QL induced pain and tilting when descending San Jacinto Mountain in Palm Springs, but I couldn’t crack the code for it then or now. But both having a severe form of the same problem at the same time was instantly empowering and I knew that we had a potent opportunity in our hands. Instead of me wrestling with it alone, it was a ‘two heads are better than one’ situation. We had twice as much data and we had both similar and opposing experiences. We are proven as a powerful problem-solving duo and we were both highly motivated to dispatch this problem at the same point in time. This was the perfect chance for us to eliminate this from ever being an issue again.
Checking out different online videos and reading descriptive pieces written for several audiences, we had the new information we needed to speed along the morning after completing our event. I was looking at Bill stretched out on our trailer floor and moved a leg and repositioned his head trying to get him “squared up.” In the past, my effort was an annoyance he tolerated; on this day, he was intrigued.
Bill jumped up, stripped off his shirt, and asked me to examine his alignment. The distortion in his back was so indescribably bad that I began snapping photos to show him. I’d nagged him about his bad posture and alignment for decades, but the tilting from his lingering QL spasm horrified him. He assumed that it would be impossible for him to repeat the big event in a week as had been the plan for the year.
In the photos, it was easy for Bill to see the folded skin at the waist on his right side, the pronounced drop by inches of his right shoulder compared to the left, the mismatched position of his 2 shoulder blades, and his head that was turned and shifted too, too far to the right. I took photos of him several times that day and the next to document the rapid, though incomplete, improvement from his trigger point work on his muscles and fascia. Our best guess was that he’d been a mess for years and the QL spasm had accentuated all of the misalignments.
We were encouraged by the rapid improvement in his body from our newly learned interventions and knowledge and assumed that he would soon be better than he’d been for years. Of course, it will likely take 6 months to a year to unravel all of the layers of imbalances, but as long as he stayed with the program, he shouldn’t have another severe event with his QL.
Bill on the gray mat massaging his QL using the ball under him—the lifted leg makes it intense.
My long history of spending endless hours working on my tissues meant that my problems were fewer in number than Bill’s and less deeply entrenched. I’d been able to maintain my speed through the pain. Unlike Bill, my body had rebounded on the trail. Bill had had to stop multiple times to make it down to the river. Sitting for 5-10 minutes and doing gentle side bending cut the pain enough that he could go on but it added close to 2 hours to our already long day. Bill certainly had needed to rally more grit than I to make it down to the river.
In addition to positioning us for mastery over future QL crises, our success on the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim validated my hypothesis on developing structural and physiological resilience. I had hoped that even though our best training for the October event was while in Palm Springs for 3 months over the holidays, that we could increase the resilience of our bodies so much that it would persist for 7 months, which it did.
Over last winter, we were approximating Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim by doing two 20-milers back-to-back, once a month, for 6 months. The elevation gain was often half of what we’d do in the Grand Canyon and the trail surfaces were generally much easier, but I’d hoped that we’d nonetheless increase our durability and resilience. At last, we were enjoying the sturdiness and the persistent capacity for abruptly heightened output that some life long athletes that we know take for granted. Yippee!
That resilience was underscored by both successfully completing the 2 day event without injury and feeling well the day after. When we first started doing demanding, all-day hikes, we’d be physically exhausted and mentally snowed that evening. Malaise and a slightly hung-over feeling would dominate the following morning. But those nasty reactions to the extreme output were now a thing of the past.
Spending 12 hours on the trail the first day and 14 hours the second day, plus being short of sleep 2 nights, did take its toll, but only slightly. We were slow to get going the next 2 mornings and were content to do body self care and putter about the trailer on the first 'day after'. The next day however, after having a slow-paced morning, we were back out on the difficult S Kaibab trail to let our constantly-being-remodeled bodies adjust to the latest modifications while in movement. We seemed to be fully recovered by the end of Day 3, which is when our appetite returned as well. We were confident that we’d do equally well during our 2nd event a week later but were grateful that our bodies had 3 more recovery days for deeper healing. The arbitrary recovery time was dictated by the lodging reservations, not by what we thought was prudent.
And the bad boys were on the trails too, like this dude illegally operating a drone.
Several years ago, we began polarizing all emotional upsets into either being business matters or personal crises. It’s so easy for both of us to become consumed by the drama of bad things happening, which does nothing for our wellbeing as individuals or as a couple. We learned that being very strict about sorting our dramas into the proper category wildly improved our emotional health. A key part of the strategy was making the choice binary: it’s one or the other, no parsing the issue any smaller is allowed. It’s the same wisdom but more compelling than coaching oneself: “Don’t cry over spilt milk."
We’d both been having good success with this binary model and it was clearly reducing our scattered energy, our distraction from what is most important, when I unexpectedly realized I’d truly mastered the approach. It was 5 am on the cold, rainy morning in early October while in the shuttle bus to the North Kaibab Trailhead on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when I looked down and realized I’d lost my wedding ring. Shock, horror, shame, frustration, and ‘What to do?’ confusion swept over me.
A quick survey of the hurried morning limited the possible places my ring could be to being in the van seating area with me, in the back of the van with our packs, or back at the dimly lit Lodge where I’d sat retying my shoe laces while waiting for the van. It didn’t turn-up when we searched the van while unloading so it was most likely in the Lodge. I’d been chilled on that 33 degree morning in the cool Lodge, so presumed that it slid off my hand and on to the floor unnoticed.
There was no phone reception at the trailhead to ask the staff to look for it and when Bill suggested that we ride back to the Lodge to search for it, the driver promptly nixed that idea: the next 2 van trips were fully booked. I declined the offer that then would have significantly delayed our hike. What was expected to be a 12 hour hike turned into 14 hours and the search for the ring would have set us back an hour and a half. I didn’t know then that Bill’s back problems would slow us down but I always like to leave a buffer for the unexpected and the ring search would have consumed it in the first 20 minutes of the day. I asked the driver to request that the front desk staff search for the ring but estimated the odds of him doing so was close to zero.
It was a tug-of-war between honoring our current relationship by going ahead with this much anticipated epic hike as planned versus the 50-50 chance of retrieving a possession from the past that was loaded with sentiment. I surprised myself with my quick decision to go forward with the planned event of the moment instead of improving the odds of clinging to a possession. After all, the man who was associated with that symbol was in front of me, which was the more important point.
While we headed down the steep trail in the dark, in the rain, and on the mud, I was pleased by my comfort with my quick decision even though I seemed open to criticism for being too detached, too heartless. But as my mind time-sliced ruminating on the personal failure represented by the lost object and navigating the mud and rocks on the always difficult trail, it became clear that I had mastered our coping strategy: I had spontaneously delegated the loss to the ‘business matter’ category without having to label it as such and declined to obsessively berate myself for the carelessness. Always before in aggravating situations, I’d had to consciously convince myself that “It’s just a business matter” whereas this time, I acted on the assessment without having to arrive at the conclusion by formally naming it. This time, the conclusion was spontaneous.
Reflecting on the whole incident and on my process underscored how important it is to only give oneself 2 choices for categorizing upsets, to make it black and white. We generally define a business matter as a predicament that can be fixed with money, events like careless damage to a vehicle, spilling coffee on a keyboard, missed opportunities, inefficiencies, and regrettable purchases. Personal crises are irreversible deteriorations in health and true catastrophes. If we allowed a 3rd, intermediate category, the monetary loss and the shame and humiliation of losing my wedding ring would have given space for self-criticism to flourish.
Descending the S Kaibab Trail by headlamp with the first wave of Rim-2-Rim hikers.
After a few hours of wearing one of my new rings on each hand to test them out, I entertained the idea of having small collection of additional, cheap souvenir rings instead of a new piece of proper jewelry. Looking down at the new ring on my left hand was triggering a morphing emotion from “I lost my inscribed gold wedding band” to "I bought this ring at the Grand Canyon after doing our first ‘proper’ Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim together.” The 2 rings would also allow me to establish the optimal size for my hands that shrink and expand during the day should I want to spend more than $10 on a new one.
Two days later while sitting at my computer in our trailer, I noticed that my new, adjustable, $10 ring was slipping off of my finger even in the heated space. I realized that finally, 35 days after stopping my last mini-dose of a long-acting anti-hypertensive drug, that the puffiness in my hands was gone. From late April until now, my ring couldn’t/didn’t slide off of my finger when I was cold, like it had for decades, even when removing gloves. I now understood that losing my ring in the Lodge was facilitated by the unnoticed reduction in swelling. These necessary but so far intolerable medications had cost us the price of the ring, the cost of e-bikes needed for me to ride a bike at all last summer, and a tremendous loss in sense of well being. Who would ever anticipated all of those incidental expenses from very inexpensive drugs?
Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim + Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim
Cleared to Repeat
We’d had such a joyous, exhilarating, and affirming time last year when we did our first Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim with a 2 night layover that we decided to book the needed reservations to do it again in 2018. Of course, we’d give ourselves new challenges in 2018, which were making the trek with a one night layover instead of 2 and doing it twice in a little over a week—just because I could get North Rim lodging for 2 one-night stays.
We’d never seen Big Horn Sheep in the Grand Canyon but the brown grasses turned vibrant green from the excessive rain bought them out.
Doing it Again
Like with our successful epic hike done a little over a week earlier, we didn’t have that thrill and elation that came with our first Rim-2-Rim in 2016 on the second pair of crossings in 2018. We were incredibly pleased with our accomplishment 2 years ago and relished having additional regional hiking credentials. And indeed, they were credentials that we cashed in on 2 months later when we joined the Palm Springs area hiking club. Being able to flash Rim-2-Rim instantly vetted us for inclusion in the hardest club hikes on Day 1 instead of being blessed by hike leaders to work our way up to the increasingly more difficult hikes. That was huge: if we’d had to have incrementally proved ourselves, we likely would have bailed on the club.
With completing this rather arbitrary challenge of doing two Rim-2-Rim-2-Rims back to back, we had something more profound than new credentials: we had the deep satisfaction of knowing that our bumper-car approach to increasing our training and fitness was working. As we were getting were getting older, our strength, endurance, resilience, and metabolic adaptation to exertion were all improving. Affirming our do-it-yourself strategy was by far the most important aspect of our hiking successes.
Bill raised the obvious question during one of our needed rest breaks on the 4th of the 4 twenty mile plus days: “What’s next?” But of course: "Why would we settle for plateauing when we we’re still improving?” It was a worthy question for which we had no answer.
Neither of us have the knees or backs for carrying more weight in our backpacks and the Grand Canyon’s hiker support services are divine. Indoor lodging on both Rims and a private contractor’s shuttle between the 2 Rim’s for both hikers and unaccompanied luggage were perfect for allowing our athleticism to flourish with a minimum of strain. Increasing our speed is always a worthy challenge but a new venue would be even better.
The unseasonably heavy rains turned the typically green Colorado River brown from all of the run-off. (The Silver Bridge is barely visible in the background.)
We hit a particularly bad streak in our first month in the Flagstaff/Grand Canyon area this October. The remnants of Hurricane, then Tropical Storm, Rosa provided the first 10 days of intermittent rain and downpours; then some nasty business circling around and down from the East came through; with a final blow from a cold front dropping down out of the northwest. A guy hiking out in shorts from the Colorado River on our last day of our series of big hikes summed it up: "We had rain 9 out of 10 days on our rafting trip.” We, however, were the lucky ones. Flash floods were occurring all around us, including in tourist hot spots like Sedona and Antelope Canyon.
Relocating, A Bit
Our 2 week allotted stay inside the Grand Canyon Park was up so we returned to Flagstaff for another week, then it would be back to the Park for an additional 2 weeks, weather permitting. The major North Rim services began closing the day we hiked out on October 15th, so our biggest hike would be similar mileage but less wearing by doing a loop from the South Rim down to Phantom Ranch and back.