True Adventure

Evening over Grand Canyon  2019 Lif Strand

For me a true adventure must be an extraordinary experience that shakes my world off its axis. There has to be an element of risk that come from the potential for real danger associated with venturing into the unknown and even unknowable. There has to be challenge, both physical and mental, that forces me to draw upon depths I hoped were there but could not know without starting forth on the adventure.

It’s not enough for an experience to be only risky, or only a challenge, though. A true adventure is one that allows me to become a new person for the duration.  Hopefully some of that will stick with me afterwards.  Hopefully I will find myself changed forever, a little or a lot, for good or for bad.

I’ve done Grand Canyon twice before and it did that for me then.  Grand Canyon 2019 was still true adventure for me.

Now, just a week from having last seen it, the impact of that incredible view has faded. That’s not too surprising, because unless I’m actually looking at it my mind shies away from its immensity. Photos simply cannot convey the hugeness of it, whereas being there and standing literally on the edge of the rim and looking out to the enormity of size and age is mind blowing.

My human mind is just not capable of holding onto the enormity of the Grand Canyon any more than it can hold onto an instant of pure bliss. These are transient states of extreme intensity, and to dwell in them unprepared would  fry my poor brain.

Part of what delivers the intensity of Grand Canyon is the extreme contrast. The south rim is nearly a mile higher than Phantom Ranch. In January it’s deep winter at the top but already on the cusp of spring at the bottom. Restaurants and room service and crowds and traffic at the top, hours when you might see no other human being on the trail and then only a couple dozen fellow trekkers at the bottom. All the amenities of civilization at the top, primitive, even survivalist, conditions at the bottom.

And more.

Morning sunshine on a distant bluff at Grand Canyon  2019 Lif Strand photoThe Grand Canyon is rich with nuances of earth tones but the deep shadows confuse the eye. One moment the sun glares off the snow and it’s time to put on sunglasses and remove gloves and hat and scarf. The next, after stepping down and around an outcropping, it’s too dark to see and it’s winter again.

I go down and down and down and the river is never getting any closer and I know I’m going to be out on the trail forever, but suddenly it’s there, a brown, roiling mass of water that feeds me the energy to shout over its roar.

A couple days later I’m slogging up the trail, each step a stab of pain, my lungs burning as I try to suck in enough oxygen to keep going, and I look up to see crayon-colored hot-air balloons sailing through the clear blue sky above.  I pass a velvet-antlered buck that placidly chews spears of green grass , unperturbed as I walk by him just a few feet away.

Young deer ignoring me on the trail  2019 Lif Strand photo

I stare at the colors, the distances, the age, the amazing extraordinary beauty, and try so very hard to hold it in — but like a deep breath I soon must let it go.

Now, a week later, Grand Canyon is a fading memory. I learned some things: I was more prepared to do this hike than the first two times, but I was not prepared enough. I didn’t need to hurt so much. I didn’t need to forget so quickly.

And yet now I’ve healed and find myself stronger than I was before.  I’ve been nudged off center — not far, but enough that I’m forced to find new balance in my life.

It’s a good thing.

So yeah, Grand Canyon was a true adventure for me.  I can’t wait till I get to do it again!

 

 

Trip through time

Photo of the approach to Indian Garden, Grand Canyon 2019 Lif Strand Photo

Approaching Indian Garden (halfway point) 2019 Lif Strand photo

And so the day came and the adventure finally began

Laura and I stayed at El Tovar, the huge 100+ year old resort hotel built by Fred Harvey on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Originally built with 103 guest rooms and 21 bathrooms, now there are 70 some odd guest rooms, each with its own bathroom — a big improvement. Although I had made reservations months ago for the two nights before and the two nights after the hike, they couldn’t give us the same room for both stays, which was actually okay.  It wasn’t as if we would be leaving our stuff in the room for the two nights we were hiking — not without paying for the room. Rather expensive way to go, especially since the bellman stored our luggage for free for us anyway.

The first two nights’ room was on the “Terrace” level, which at any other place would be called the basement. Except there is one level lower (at least) that really is the basement. Our room had two full sized windows that looked out to the main entry of the hotel, and yes, it had a bathroom of its own, complete with small black & white floor tiles and pedestal sink and not enough places to place or hang things.

We dined early, both of those first two nights in the Harvey House Cafe in the Bright Angel Lodge, about a quarter mile to the west of El Tovar. The Rim Trail, which overlooks the Canyon, was full of tourists speaking in many languages. This being January, it wasn’t packed as it would be in warmer months, but we still had to keep our eyes open to not bump into folks. People tend to just stop where they are when captured by the view. They have to try to comprehend the immensity– truly an impossibility — and to capture something of the grandeur in a photo. I was certainly guilty of stopping in my tracks, too.

I’m also already guilty of forgetting what we had for dinner. I remember the table we sat at, but darn. Food is not that high priority for me that I’ll necessarily remember what I ate. Mostly I want to enjoy the taste and that’s good enough for me.  [later note: spaghetti & meatballs… so good I got it again the last night, second dinner was a chicken dish that was only okay because the chicken was dry].

I’ve already mentioned accidentally soaking my backpack that first day we were there, so I’ll move on to the night before our descent to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch.

As per usual I couldn’t sleep, not the eve of a major life event, and not in a place I’m not used to, with all its strange noises, lights, and occasional people walking by just on the other side of the door. So that’s likely why I was awake to hear one not-so-strange and most unwelcome sound, which was that of a mouse chewing on something. I flashed a light that way but of course saw nothing (note to self: you never will see anything as small as a mouse on a mouse-colored carpet, across the room, by dim flashlight in the middle of the night, if you aren’t wearing glasses).  Okay, maybe my imagination.

Of course that meant I now really couldn’t sleep. The second time I heard that noise I decided it wasn’t my imagination and even if it was I had better just move my pack from the floor to the tub in the bathroom. I figured if there actually was a mouse it wouldn’t bother making the big leap over the side of the tub.

When my head hit the pillow I was finally able to sleep. If there was a mouse, it would go to Laura’s pack and not mine, and she’s a deep enough sleeper that it wouldn’t wake her.

Hey, I was tired.

Monday morning, time to get on the trail

The next morning I discovered my pack had a hole chewed in the mesh that held dark chocolate Kisses in a plastic bag. The hole was about an inch in diameter. The plastic bag had not yet been breached. Laura’s pack had not been touched.

We packed the stuff that was staying and headed downstairs to El Tovar’s dining room for some grub, watching the trees bending with gale force winds under scudding clouds that soon began dumping sideways-falling snow. I ran outside at one point and snatched a photo of a brief break in the clouds that allowed the rising sun to bathe the canyon walls in orange glow. I ran back inside even faster, shivering. [Photos will be posted on Facebook after I get home and can use my office computer]

We had decided on Bright Angel Trail for both ways for a number of reasons, including that South Kaibab — the trail I’d taken down into the Canyon two times before — follows a ridge much of the way. Exposed, the wind would be brutal. We were told that South Kaibab was extremely muddy, too, but I don’t know why I paid any attention to that since it was extremely muddy before and we got down it just fine.

Wind or no, I don’t think if I do this hike again I’ll take Bright Angel either direction. It’s beautiful, but even in winter it’s got more people on it than I like. South Kaibab does have more steps built into the trail but I don’t know if that’s as bad a thing as I once thought. Seems to me there aren’t such prolonged distances of super steep on South Kaibab. The top 3 miles of Bright Angel is killer steep!

Later Monday morning — NOW we’re hitting the trail

We were weenies. We didn’t even get to the trail-head till 10 a.m.  Even then it was bitter cold with gusts that came darn near to blowing me right off the icy path.  Visions of sailing out and then down, oh, maybe a thousand feet or so flashed through my mind. Did I mention that there are no safety rails just about anywhere in the Grand Canyon? It’s part of the charm. Anyway, we wore crampons for secure footing (wonderful things, those) and we had our poles. I’m a believer in layers so I wore many layers (if I’d have gone off the trail maybe I’d have bounced my way down, unharmed) so I was actually comfortable temperature-wise. Even if I did look like a bag lady in winter. No disrespect meant towards bag ladies.

The trail was so steep at that point that it only required working our way down a few switchbacks before the cliff itself blocked the wind. All right! We were on our way! A year’s worth of planning and more and here we go!

Almost immediately we started meeting people who were coming up from Phantom Ranch. Ten miles and they were already at the Rim.  The animals.  We had traveled a whopping half a mile by then.

photo of trail leading to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon 2019 Lif Strand photo

Last few miles before the Colorado River. Pipe Creek (maybe) at the bottom of this photo. 2019 Lif Strand photo

Going down was great until the last few miles before we reached the Colorado, when my right IT band made itself known, particularly at the point where it attaches outside at the knee. I thought I had worked that out through adjustments in posture and the way I moved my body, but no. Each time I stepped down and my weight transferred to my right leg, the ligaments or whatever at the outside of my knee felt like someone had taken a blowtorch to them. I kept telling myself it wasn’t an issue because the pain would go away quickly.  Until it didn’t.

Fortunately we hit that long, long two mile stretch along the river that’s not super steep anywhere (though an amazing amount of ups and downs anyway for a river trail) and I was able to ignore the pain. We reached Phantom Ranch, supposedly just under 10 miles in trail descriptions but 13 miles by both Laura’s and my Fitbits, in 6 1/2 hours.

Let me tell you, it was hard waiting for the second seating dinner (stew) that night. We both crashed right after. In spite of sharing a dorm with Laura and eight other women (a group of friends, young, and very giggly), I fell asleep quickly and slept like a log.

The next day I was impressed at how my calves weren’t cramping as they had the first two times.  Was it because South Kaibab trail has got so many steps vs Bright Angel, or was I was simply in better shape for it this time? Nah, more likely it was the tremendous amount of ibuprofen I ingested after the descent.  Whichever, I pretended I didn’t feel my IT. I kept working the ibuprofen. I pretended it wasn’t way too soon to be smug about lack of pain.

So Tuesday was our break day at Phantom Ranch. After a yummy second-seating breakfast, Laura and I decided to take a short, easy hike to loosen up. We ended up going up a steep, not well maintained trail that goes to a lookout over the Ranch. Bad idea. The sets of tendons/ligaments on the outsides of both knees were stabbing me at every step, so we turned around and I managed to hobble back to the dorm. After a hot hot hot shower, I spent most of the rest of the day either laying on my bunk reading or sitting in the canteen/dining room reading. And counting the hours till the next dose of ibuprofen. By dinner I felt good as new.

Truth. I did feel good.  The outhouse toilets are two-story solar powered composters and I was fine running up and down the stairs. Whoever invented ibuprofen is my hero.

Ladies and gentlemen: the second act

Next morning breakfast was at 5:30, first-seating. None of this lazy 7:00 second-seating stuff. Laura and I gobbled down our food like a pair of starving beasts, but before we could get our butts back to the dorm to get our stuff and hit the trail, we were treated to a talk by our server, whose name I unfortunately never caught.

Phantom Ranch, if my (admittedly faulty/selective) memory serves, has fourteen (or maybe it is seventeen) full-time, year-round employees who live and work down there at the bottom of the Canyon. Everything that can be packed in by mule – food, supplies, replacement parts — is packed down the Canyon by pack string. All the garbage and anything else that can be packed out by mule goes out the way it came in.  The repairs and maintenance, plus cooking, cleaning, etc., is done by the staff that lives there. As far as I could tell, most everybody does a lot of everything.

Each meal is served by one person (maybe two sometimes but I only ever saw one). The first night we were there thirty-seven people (including me and Laura) enjoyed an excellent beef stew dinner, family style. Please pass the bowl, may I have the cornbread, who wants salad, is there any butter left?

The routine is the same whether breakfast or dinner (lunches aren’t served): Meal times are strict. You’ve paid in advance for the food and for the time you’ll eat it. When it’s your meal, you gather with the other hikers and river rafters at the (locked) canteen door, chatting, moaning about sore muscles, talking about the trail with friends and strangers. Something about being there erases social barriers. No conversations are private. If the words can be overheard then anyone can add their two cents. There’s no rule, it’s just what happens when you’re living in such close quarters.

Suddenly the dinner bell rings. The light over the door goes on and the door is opened. Out steps that meal’s server, who gives The Lecture Part 1 which pretty much goes like this: You’ll come in and give your reservation name and the number in your party. You’ll be told where to sit. At the end of the meal pass your plates, glasses, and utensils down to the end to be picked up by your wait person. You have about 45 minutes to eat. Wine and beer available on the honor system, pay your server before you leave that meal.

At the end, when most of the dishes have been sent down to the end, your server will speak again. Not so much Lecture Part 2 as a little chat. I’m not sure the servers have anything specific they’re supposed to say because it seemed this was time to share their thoughts on whatever a topic they chose, long as it was related to the Canyon and maybe Phantom Ranch.

No matter how full the room, the moment he or she opened her mouth all talk stopped. We listened intently. Sometimes it was a bit about the history of the place. One woman told us what I’ve told you above — how many people worked there, how long the longest had been there, that when they had days off and wanted to get to the rim, they hiked it.

A shortish, older, dark-skinned man with graying hair was our server for breakfast on the morning we left. Laura and I had rushed in a little late, so we missed hearing him introduce himself so I can’t share his name, more’s the pity. When he spoke I could barely understand his thick accent, so I really had to focus to get what he was saying. I know I missed some of it and probably misinterpreted much of it, but that’s not important. What was important was the whole concept of the spirituality of hiking the Canyon.

He explained that the Canyon was sacred, had been since prehistoric times — long before there was a Grand Canyon National Park, or a Phantom Ranch, or tourists. He said the Canyon wasn’t just steep cuts in rocks that people negotiated to get to the Ranch, but ancient oceans they passed through, seven of them. That we who hiked the Canyon were part of the sacredness of the place as we chatted and laughed our way down and then huffed and puffed our way up again.

He told us up again was part of the sacredness. Up again was the only way out. The only way. No one could do it for us.  His last words, as he scrubbed his hands together and let us go, were: “Rejoice, rejoice, you have no choice.”

The little bit of laughter at that was uneasy.  What he said gave me shivers. I felt blessed. And then he kicked us out so the staff could clean up and get ready for the second-seating.

Wednesday, 6 dark 30

We were on the trail. Our red hikers’ flashlights helped us avoid stumbling over the rocks. The moon was bright overhead but where we were going was mostly in blackest shadow that not even the silver reflected from high up the canyon walls could relieve. The temperature was mild, in the low 40s, cold enough to be glad of the layers and the gloves.

I hadn’t gone very far when I realized that I was fooling myself about the pain. It wasn’t gone. It was there and it was just as bad as it had been two days before. Going down even the mildest of descents already made me whimper. I kept reminding myself that we were ascending the Grand Canyon now, and it would mostly be up.

You’d be surprised how much down there is in up.

We shed our jackets where Pipe Creek hits the Colorado River, two miles or so from Phantom Ranch. The sky was grey now, bright enough to negotiate without supplemental lighting, which was good because the clip on my light wasn’t nearly as reliable as it could have been and it had dropped off of me several times.

We had forded the smallish stream four times, with me only getting one toe wet, by the time we the first steep climb out of Pipe Creek [note: I might be wrong as to its name — you’d think there would be detailed maps here but there don’t seem to be]. Energy-wise I was feeling pretty good. I was concerned about the ITBs but long as I was going up the pain was no problem.  No problem I kept telling myself.

Uh huh.

When we got to Indian Garden I took more ibuprofen but didn’t eat anything because it had only been three hours since breakfast. Laura said she wasn’t hungry either.  Foolish me, breaking my own rules about making sure to eat on the trail. Foolish Laura, for taking my word for it being too soon to eat.  In my defense, I did swallow more ibuprofen. And electrolytes. And Vit B-12 energy supplement. I washed it all down with about 8 oz of water. That’s a meal, isn’t it?

As we started up again we met our first hiker coming down headed for Phantom Ranch. I don’t know when he left the Rim, but I liked it that we’d met each other at the mid-point of the trail instead of down at the bottom.  I was feeling kind of smug that at that point nobody from Phantom had caught up to us. Of course, it is not a race so who cares about those things.  Besides, the hardest part was ahead of us and that’s where we’d be passed by anyone who’d come up on the Bright Angel.

The first half mile out from Indian Garden was not bad. My ITBs were definitely unhappy, though. And then we hit the tough part, where the switchbacks are, where the stairs are, and where steep is given a new meaning.

By the time we reached Three Mile Resthouse (three trail miles from the top) I was in agony. Not only were my ITBs hurting but so were the backs of my knees. And up into my thighs. But worst, and most scary for someone who (I suddenly and inconveniently remembered) had had hip surgery on a second hip — the one that was now stabbing me with pain each time I put weight on it — less than two years before.

Imagination can be a wonderful thing except when you use it the wrong way.  I was finding it harder and harder to pretend I wasn’t hurting and easier to dream up the worst possible scenarios.  Had I caused a stress fracture of my pelvis? Was my hip dislocating because of overuse to the point of abuse? Was I going to do myself serious, perhaps permanent damage?  Would my legs just give out?

But there was always this to keep me going:  Did I have any choice but to take one more step, and then another?

No, I had no choice, not one that was acceptable to me. Over and over I told myself, rejoice, rejoice, I have no choice.

When I was endurance racing my horses on those 100 milers, when I would be riding in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, maybe in the fog and wandering around off the trail (that happened), or maybe facing a short fence that needed to be only stepped over but my horse absolutely refused to go forward and the clock was ticking and I wondered if I’d have to ride back the 60 miles or so I’d already come (that happened), or when I gave my coat to a junior rider and ended up with hypothermia (that happened), or when I was in such pain that I believed I could not go on (that happened and was happening right now), I did go on because I believed I had no choice but to keep going.

Oh, all right, of course someone could rescue me on the trail at Grand Canyon. I had been rescued on endurance rides, too — sometimes that’s just what happens.  But the belief I had to keep going had kept me going more often than not.  The belief that I had no choice but to keep on keeping on.

We were less than three miles from the top and day-hikers were skipping and laughing their way down to Indian Gardens — one guy was running down the trail — but so what. Hikers we’d had breakfast with that morning, and who started out an hour or more after we did cruised on by up to the Rim, but so what.  That was their hike and this was mine, and that was what mattered to me.  My hike was to go on, step by step. I would make it to the top on my own two crummy legs, thank you very much. Yeah, I moaned. Sure, I groaned. I felt light-headed with pain (or maybe hunger, hmmm?). I felt nauseous at times. I feared my legs would not hold me up anymore and I would plunge down the cliff.

When I wasn’t whining, I was chanting. Rejoice. Rejoice. No choice. Rejoice.

Step. After. Step. After. Step.

Laura did not make fun of me. She says she was huffing and puffing and was dealing with fatigue and painful joints, and maybe so but I didn’t hear any complaints. I couldn’t hear anything over my own gasping for air.

Rejoice

It took forever, but we made it and Laura’s watch said 12:30.  Wait — 6 1/2 hours from Phantom Ranch to the South Rim? That painful climb?  It took us no less time to come up than to go down? How is that even possible?

There was no brass band. No welcome committee. No confetti. Laura thought she had a couple airplane shots of Bailey’s but she couldn’t find them in her pack, so we couldn’t even celebrate before we took off our crampons. So there we were at the top of the Grand Canyon again, just two unfashionably disheveled older women with packs and hiking poles. The tourists were still taking selfies, the babies who didn’t want to be there were still crying, the couples were still ignoring the view for each other, and the tour guides were still bellowing at their charges. It was lunch time. We couldn’t even check into the hotel.

While we leaned against a stone wall, stunned, trying to figure out what to do, three guys stopped to ask if we thought they could get a cabin down at the bottom.

At the bottom? Phantom Ranch? Did they have reservations?

No, but…

No? Well forget it. You don’t get to stay at Phantom Ranch by just showing up. You don’t do the Canyon just like that. You make reservations. You plan. You condition. You work for the Canyon. You suffer for the Canyon.

No, of course we didn’t say all that. We wished them a nice hike. Then we headed for El Tovar’s bar.

About ITB Syndrome (ITBS)

The Iliotibial band (ITB) is the connective tissue (ligament) that begins from above the hip joint and that extends to the shinbone on the outside of the leg. ITB syndrome is a common overuse injury when there is repeated squatting kind of action involved — such as descending stairs or a steep slope down into the Grand Canyon. The whole ITB can become painful, or just the hip or knee. It can come to feel like your whole leg is on fire or maybe the hip joint you had replaced has failed. And wouldn’t you know it, ITBS is more common in in women because our hips are often tilted in such a way that knees can turn in slightly.

You can get therapy for ITBS that won’t go away or you can get steroid shots in the knee or hip area or wherever the pain is that keeps on keeping on.  Or you can rest and take ibuprofen, and then stop being stupid and instead up your level of squatting type action gradually.

photo of morning light coming through a bathroom window at El Tovar 2019 Lif Strand photo

Morning light streaming through the bathroom window of El Tovar Hotel room         2019 Lif Strand photo

Rejoice, for I had no choice but to take a photo of the bathroom just because the light was beautiful this morning and because even though it hurts to walk, I’m already scheming on when and how to get back to Grand Canyon to do it again.

 

Eve of chaos

So this afternoon I accidentally soaked my pack and everything in it.  Later I had problems with my cell phone and finally gave up in frustration (WHY does Apple have to make everything so complicated?  Please stop asking for my !@#$%! ID every time I want to do anything!).  Then I spilled my dinner all over the table.

Full eclipse would be awesome to stay up for but it’s overcast and supposed to snow tonight.

Here I am in the room, just 12 hours before I want to be packed and on my way to chow down before heading out.  Yes, lots of things have gone wrong at the last minute but hey, that’s on schedule.  That’s how it was with endurance racing, when the night before I always despaired that I could even saddle up much less get on and ride 50 or 100 miles.  And yet morning would come, I’d tack up and get on my horse’s back and head out anyway.

So that’s the way it’ll be tomorrow, come rain, snow, sun, wind, damp gear, forgotten stuff, or not.  I’m not headed for Mars, after all, just the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Laura was singing happy birthday to my sister Dede. Honest.

The adventure begins… tomorrow!

Clothes/gear that's going to Grand Canyon laid out on a bedMy hiking clothes and gear choices have changed somewhat since the last time I posted but not by a lot.  I’m tired of thinking about what to bring, what to wear — I just want to DO IT!

The stuff is laid out in columns, as you can sort of see.  Column #1 (left) is stuff I’ll wear/use at the rim before and after.  The trekking poles separate that stuff from the stuff that’s going down.  Column #2 is what I’ll wear the day of the hike.  #3 is what’ll be in my pack.  #4 is what goes in half of the duffel bag that will go down by mule (Laura’s putting her stuff in the other half).

There are a few items missing from the photo, and some items will be used on the rim and on the hike as well, plus you can’t see all the chocolate that has been added since I took the photo — but what’s on the bed is pretty much what’s getting put in the car tomorrow.

Toilet paper roll with cardboard core removedPro tip (I’m not a hiking pro but I’m a girl — when I want toilet paper I want enough toilet paper).  Take the cardboard core out of your TP roll and squish it flat.  A not-huge roll squished flat will fit in a sandwich bag.  The sandwich bag is then placed in a quart sized ziplock bag for used paper.  DO NOT LITTER!

Everything that was on the bed in the photo above fits into four bags, only one of which is stuffed full (the rim bag).  As I mentioned, the duffel will also have Laura’s stuff in it.  The weight limit is 30#.  The bag with my items weighs 9#.  Laura says hers weighs about the same.  So we can add 10# of chocolate if we want.

I’ll be taking tons of photos, but I can tell you already that there is no photo that even begins to convey the absolute awesomeness (as in gobsmacked-inability-to-grasp-it-awesomeness) of the Grand Canyon.  See you on the other side!

One week and counting!

B&W photo of winter morning (c) 2019 Lif Strand

It’s a grey winter morning, suitably dreary given my mood.  I’ve got a million details to deal with and there’s only a week left before we start our decent of the Grand Canyon.  I know I’m vastly unprepared to take on this tough a hike.  I know I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.  There’s so much to worry about that I wish I hadn’t signed up to do this.

What?  Me worry?  You bet.  I’m a chronic worrier.

Nothing is straightforward about my life.  I’m the one responsible for everything.  If there’s going to be hay in the barn, I’ve got to haul it in.  If there’s going to be water in the storage tanks I’ve got to pump it up.  If there’s going to be water in the house, I’ve got to pipe it over.  If the house is going to stay warm in winter, I’ve got to schlep the wood inside and then keep the fire going.

And I’ve got critters.

My cats are ancient and one of them seems to be on her last legs.  My horses aren’t quite ancient yet, but all but one are in their mid-20s or older, and my youngest (8) has to be watched closely because she’s prone to laminitis.  Izzy the boxer 2019 Lif StrandI’ve only had my dog, Izzy, for three weeks and already I’m leaving her in the care of someone else.

What if Izzy feels abandoned?  What if she runs off? What if the road is so bad that my sister and brother-in-law can’t get in here?  What if something happens to the horses?  What if my cats have problems?  What if the house gets too cold and my plants die?  What if… what if..

I’m suffering from pre-gig nerves.  Stage fright, you could say — last minute second-guessing that can wreck the show.  Or at least make me dread doing something I really want to do.  I’m also a person who likes to push the envelope.  The combination is nerve wracking.

Fortunately I have coping mechanisms in place.  Coping, mind you — I can’t just make these feelings go away.  But years of endurance racing plus the discipline of living outback as I do have taught me enough about how I’m feeling now to let me get through it.  I can remind myself that I really am prepared, that my adventure will be an adventure regardless of how it turns out, and that I’ve already experienced terrible things that have happened at home while I was gone and survived it.

I can remind myself to focus on the facts, and to appreciate where I am right now.

  • FACT:  Just two days ago Laura and Izzy and I hiked nearly 12 miles and I had no problems whatsoever.
  • FACT:  My sister and brother-in-law love dogs and are looking forward to spending time with Izzy.  She will be loved on. She’ll get to go in the truck with them, go on walks with them, and will sleep near them at night.
  • FACT:  My horses are healthy, have thick coats and are in good weight.  They could go a week without eating and not starve to death.  There’s enough water in their trough for them to make it that long without it being refilled.  And I know that my sister and brother-in-law would hike in if they couldn’t drive in, anyway.
  • FACT:  My cats really are old – the oldest is 18 –and they aren’t going to be around very long no matter what.  This isn’t the first time they’ve been left alone and they’re not so starved for attention that they won’t hide when Dede & Jeff come into the house to check on them anyway.
  • FACT:  My plants can go to Laura’s house — she’s got “normal” heating — and the ones too large to move will either make it or they won’t, but they’ve survived a cold house before.
  • FACT:  I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon before with two bum hips and I managed it.  I’ve got good hips now and I’ve conditioned more.  Okay, hiking the Canyon’s not going to be a piece of cake, but it definitely will be a slice of pizza.  (Sorry.  I’ve had pizza on my mind.)
  • FACT:  I know from the past that mere minutes after this adventure is over I will be plotting and planning on doing it again.

Anyway, while this blog post today is mostly venting, it also serves to shore myself up even though a wee part of me wants to curl up in a ball and hide.  I have learned through experience that caving in means missing out on the kind of life I want to live.  Besides, security is a foreign feeling to me in so many ways that I might as well choose adventure.

But there’s a price that I pay for that adventure.  I can accept it or not adventure anymore.  That’s just the way it is, and to one degree another, that’s true for all of us.

 

 

 

Backpacks

Osprey backpack

Laura and I are splitting a duffel bag for the mules to haul down to Phantom Ranch this time.  It’ll be filled with what we’ll need for two overnights and one day in between.  Nevertheless, I will want to carry enough stuff with me on the trail that I’ll need more than a fanny bag.

I’ve listed some of the things that’ll be in my pack already.  Did I remember to mention water and lunch?  You wouldn’t think that those things plus first aid and whatnot would amount to much weight, but it all adds up.  And as with boots and clothes, I’ve got to condition myself to carry the backpack, and not just a mostly empty one like I’ve been doing.

Problem is, I do not like backpacks, so I have been mostly figuring that I can deal with mine another day.  Hah!  Pretty soon it’ll be Canyon time and it’ll be too late.

I have a very nice backpack, an Osprey, that an REI backpack person made sure fit me.  I like it well enough – it’s lightweight, it holds as much as I need to carry for long day hikes, it’s got pockets and places to clip things – but I still don’t like it when it’s on my back.  It feels like I’m in a body cast, and because I hadn’t yet found the sweet spot of strap adjustments too often my shoulders and neck end up hurting after wearing it, even with nothing much in it.

I do understand that if I don’t start using the pack now and figure out the perfect adjustments, then come Grand Canyon I will suffer.  I’ve already done that twice and I really do not need to do it a third time.  So the last hike Laura and I took I wore the blasted thing on a climb up our local volcano (a post for another day maybe).  Even though all I was carrying was water, and not much of it, my shoulders and neck still hurt.

So, okay, time to get serious.  In three weeks we’ll be starting down Bright Angel Trail.  I can’t put this off any longer. I’ve just got to hike with a loaded pack.  But of course, having made the decision, we’re suddenly having Real Winter here, with nighttime temperatures below zero, and snow.  Consequently I’ve had little desire to abandon the wood stove for hiking.

Too bad, so sad, my days can no longer be spent sipping hot toddies by the fire (not that they ever have been). The day after Christmas is called Boxing Day, and this year I got a new dog, Izzy — a boxer! — and she needs exercise, so that’s motivated me to get outside in spite of daytime temperatures in the low teens.  I gotta admit, it’s beautiful out there.  Bonus: Walking in snow provides more bang for the exercise buck, even when walking in tire tracks made when the neighbor rancher comes in to break ice on the cattle tank outside my gate.

A snowy winter afternoon

Today I had even more motivation than Izzy to get outside.  Laura needed to go into town so I asked her to pick up some things for me.  I would meet her at the county road and she could hand over the few items I wanted.  Essentials only, of course.  I would be hiking with Izzy, not driving, and I’d be wearing the backpack so I could not only more easily carry the items back, but also carry some real weight in the pack.

I was shocked when Laura handed me the bag, though.  How could three items weigh so much?  But heck, if I couldn’t carry this stuff, then what would I do for the Canyon?  In three weeks I’d need to carry about a half gallon of water and that alone would be four pounds.  Oh yeah, you say four pounds isn’t much, but then there’s the lunch, the chocolate, the first aid kit, and the rest of the stuff — it all adds up.  Maybe it wouldn’t be as much as when we carried everything down to Phantom Ranch the first two times, but still…

So I loaded up my pack with the excessively heavy three items and hiked back, fiddling with the straps the whole way until, like magic, it didn’t feel like I was suspending bricks from my shoulders anymore.  Success!  Not only that, but when I came back, I weighed the pack with the groceries still in it:  12 lbs.  No way will I need to carry that much weigh at the Canyon!  Double success!

For the record, my pack with first aid and other stuff that basically lives in it all the time weighs 4 lbs.  So the essentials that Laura picked up for me weighed 8 lbs.  Bananas and cheese weigh more than you’d think.  The bottle of wine couldn’t possibly weigh very much.

And then there was a mini-split bottle of Cupcake Prosecco that Laura had put in the bag as a surprise for me to toast the New Year.  Why, that alone must have added 7 lbs to my load, right?

Happy New Year to my Patrons and to all my reader friends.  In the immortal words of Mr. Spock:  Live long and prosper.

 

 

It’s never too lace

Photo of boot lacing

Early lacing configuration

Laura and I were aiming for making it up to the fire lookout tower on top of Escudilla Mountain this coming Friday.  We’re getting closer to our Grand Canyon hike and both of us have been feeling like we need a real test.  The hike from Hulsey Lake up to the top of Escudilla Mountain (or near the top, where the tower is) is about 11 miles round trip.

To compare:  the hike from the top of Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch is 9.9 miles one way.  The altitude change at Grand Canyon is the big deal. It’s 4380 feet from the rim to the Colorado River.  Hulsey Lake to the fire tower is “only” an altitude change of about 2200 ft.  Of course, the tower is at something like 10,866 ft, so that counts for something, right?

Plans change, though.  But more on that later.

Rant: Why why why do we humans do what we do?

I’m trying hard to not let myself get outraged every time I see the destruction caused by the 2011 Wallow Fire.  So much of the forest is gone forever (well, at least my lifetime) and it’s there, in my face, every hike up from Hulsey Lake.

Photo of Wallow Fire burn area

Wallow Fire burn area

We aren’t getting as much precipitation in the southwest as we used to.  Aspen is taking advantage of the newly available real estate but there’s little evidence of regrowth of conifers.  It makes me crazy that people (read environmental nonprofit organizations that do no environmental work other than file lawsuits) have been so dead-set against logging that the USFS has not been able to maintain forest health through thinning or reduction of hazardous fuels — so now whole forests burn down and wildlife is killed and, oh yeah, homes and human lives are taken, too.

Way to go enviros.

And it’s too late now.  The problem can’t be fixed, even if there was a way through the bureaucracy and litigation. Mother Nature has reacted to what we created with our socio-economic/political approach to management of natural resources, which may benefit humans in the short run but it sucks in the long term. The forest’s gone and it’s uncertain if it will ever come back.

But enough of this, I’m getting myself all worked up.

I’ve learned to look between the dead skeletons to the land itself, to the long views of ridges and valleys that we can still hike, and the far distant mountains that call to me.  I don’t think of myself as someone who wants to be at the top of mountains, but if and when we get to the Escudilla fire tower we’ll be very close to the peak of the third highest mountain in Arizona. If it’s clear we will be able to see as far as Flagstaff, something like 100 miles away.

That’s worth a lot.

View of the White Mountains of AZ

Equipment update

Boots

I discovered a major thing… alternative lacing.  Experienced hikers will no doubt roll their eyes (duh) when I say I have just now, after all these years and so many miles, discovered that I don’t have to lace my boots the way they were when I brought them home from the store.

Yes, it’s true!  I can lace my boots any old which way I want.  There are no lace police to stop me.

I should have guessed as much.  I mean, kids walk around with their laces just flopping rather than being threaded through those holes and hooks and D-rings.  It took a long time for my brain to connect what I had seen with my desire for happy feet. When I finally did, naturally I googled it.

Of course there are YouTubes and, for those of us who can still read, web pages with instructions on how to lace hiking boots.  As I’m a fan of learning via reading rather than by watching, here are a few links for you to try out: REIBackpacker, and GoreTex. They’re not the only ones, of course, but hey, you can Google it yourself or find some YouTubes to look at.

So, about that lacing.  Apparently there are not only alternatives for that, but there are options for tying those laces.  Who knew!

I have been experimenting on my Vasque boots and my Skecher hiking shoes.  Surgeons’ knots!  Window lacing!  Boot heel lock!  But wait — there’s more!

Last time Laura and I did the long hike at Hulsey Lake in AZ when I was wearing my Vasques, I got a heel blister from rubbing.  Little did I know that the cause is the same for heel blistering and feet sliding forward in the boots and smashing big toes (at minimum – my smashing involves three toes on each foot).  I discovered that I needed to lock in my heel, which I had attempted to do by just tightening the heck out of the laces, thereby causing all sorts of discomfort while not actually solving the problem.

So I studied the advice and then I relaced.  I hiked some, then changed the configuration several times till at last — oh my!  Hiking boots that fit like socks, with lots of wiggle room for my toes but without my foot moving all over the place.  Zowie!

I also figured out that there’s a reason for hooks being where they are, and D-rings, and plain holes, and leather lace tubes… they’re not just for decoration. Why don’t boots come with instructions?

Photo of Osprey backpack

Backpack

I decided to dig out my old Osprey backpack.  It’s old in years, but not that old in miles.  I haven’t used it since a week-long hike in the Gulf Islands, less than ten years ago I think, but still.  It’s been mostly stashed in a bottom drawer of a chest that otherwise contains fabric for wall hangings.

The day pack I’ve been using just isn’t working for me.  It’s meant for someone who’s taking a stroll rather than someone who’s going out for a whole day and might need to haul some real stuff along, like first aid, water, snacks, gloves, extra vest, emergency blanket (the foil kind), and last but not least toilet paper. Having to dig around to find what you want means that you have a hard time finding anything.  It means taking the pack off for the least little thing, like throat lozenges.

The day pack also was uncomfortable loaded up.  I never could find a comfortable balance between the weight carried on my hips vs. on my shoulders.  I suspect that is partly because the day pack isn’t long enough for my back, but no matter.  Not enough easily accessible pockets means it’s a reject for Grand Canyon.

I thought the Osprey would be overkill for a day hike, but it turned out to be wonderful not loaded down like it was when we hiked the Canyon ten years ago.  Then I was carrying everything I needed for three days.  Now I’m carrying just what I need for a day hike because we’re getting our overnight stuff down to Phantom Ranch via the mule pack train.

Hey, why not?  Mules gotta earn a living, too.

Change of plans

So now we’re not going for the fire tower on Friday.  Laura’s had something come up and needs to stay home that day.  Plus yesterday we accidentally went for a ten mile hike.

Laura lives about four miles from me.  Sometimes we hike out from our houses and meet halfway.  Yesterday the intention was for us to meet up so I could give her some KT Tape to try for a pulled muscle.  Each of us would then get in a quick four mile walk while accomplishing an errand.

It’s a measure of how conditioned we’ve gotten that after I handed her the tape and we chatted about that for a moment, I mentioned that I had planned on walking a little further just so I could rack up a bit more distance.  Well, when we got to the first logical turn-around point, we decided to walk just a bit more.  And then after that bit — a bit more than that.  Ultimately it amounted to over nine miles of hike, and when added to my ranch chore steps my Fitbit told me I had covered 10.55 miles yesterday.

Not bad!

What with Christmas prep plus my getting ready to welcome a dog back into my life (a story for another time), we’re putting off the fire tower hike till another day.  I’m not too worried about the change in our training schedule.  I think I’ve gotten the equipment issues mostly settled and my capacity to hike the distance needed has been reached.

But the up and down, that’s another thing.  That’s the real challenge of Grand Canyon, after all.  It’s not just a hike in the woods.

 

 

Grand Canyon Countdown

Photo: Headed Up, 2018 Lif Strand

In just under seven weeks I’ll be leaving for Grand Canyon.   That means one month and seventeen days to prepare.  It means forty-eight days.  Not that I’m counting.

Yesterday my friend Laura — who’ll be doing the Canyon with me  — and I repeated a hike from the week before.  We started out with breakfast in town.  Hiker’s gotta fuel up, don’t you know.  Then we drove up to Hulsey Lake in the Apache National Forest in Arizona.  The lake is at 8,620′ altitude, and we were aiming to go as far as we could in an  hour and a half up the road that goes up the western side of Escudilla Mountain, the peak of which is just shy of 11,000′.

Escudilla Mountain is an old volcano, as are many of the peaks around here.  Part of it is wilderness, most of it was burned in the Wallow Fire in 2011.  It’s kind of depressing to see how much of the forest is gone.  With climate change it’s likely to never grow back.  I try not to dwell on that, but when you’re hiking through it, it’s tough to not get really pissed off that the US Forest Service puts so little into reducing hazardous fuels and thinning the forest to limit the destruction of wildfire.  Of course, it’s worse to the east, in the Gila National Forest… but I digress.

Photo: Dead pines destroyed by fire

Moving on...

Yesterday was the first day of December, and the weather decided it was close enough to winter to hit us with snow and wind and darned cold temperatures.  Around here it’s so dry that snow sublimates, that is, it goes from solid directly to gas.  In other words, it doesn’t bother to melt, it just disappears.  So while we started out at Hulsey Lake in the snow in late morning, by mid-afternoon when we returned it was mostly gone.

Both of us had been disappointed the week before with our performances going up the mountain on this same route.  We were huffing and puffing and had to stop several times to catch our breath.  During this past week I figured out that we were just going too fast for the steepness of the road.  So we agreed this week we would walk for the same amount of time — 1 1/2 hours — but we would maintain a slower, evenly cadenced pace.

It worked like a charm!  I had expected better results but not nearly so much better.  In the same amount of time we were able to go nearly a mile further up the mountain, and we did it without gasping for breath like we had done last week.

I gotta tell you, we both felt pretty darned good.  Not only had we just cruised up the mountain, we were at 9500′ altitude when we turned around, at that point about four miles from the lake.  True, we were still three miles from the fire tower, but that’s a hike for another day.

Photo: High country -- 9500 ft, 2018 Lif Strand photo

Equipment report: Cruel boots

Starting from the ground up, my boots.  These are the ones I’ve described before.  Last week I wore Skechers hiking shoes… or maybe they’re just athletic type shoes.  No matter, I’ve done a lot of hiking in them since I got them a few weeks back and they’re really comfy.  Not meant for cold weather, but so nice to my feet that I was hoping I could use them for the Canyon.

But no.  My feet slide forward in them going downhill no matter how tightly I lace them and my poor toes suffer for that.  Maybe somebody can give me a hint how to lace them a different way to help out with the problem.  Anyway, this week I wore the Vasque boots, which I’ve been wearing on and off around here so my feet would get used to them.

I like the boots, but ever since my hip replacements a couple years back my IT bands have been bothering me.  The iliotibial band is “a thick bunch of fibers that runs from the outside of your hips to the outside of your thigh and knee down to the top of your shinbone. If your IT band gets too tight, it can lead to swelling and pain around your knee.”  (WebMD)  In my case the pain’s not at my knee, it’s halfway up my outer thigh starting at the knee.

It hurts.

The boots are heavy and they aggravate my IT band issue.  The specific muscle is the one that lifts the upper leg, so every time I wear the boots I’m lifting more weight than I’m used to and by the end of the walk I’m in pain, especially the right leg for some reason.

Sure, I’ll build up to the boot weight after a while but meantime… ow!  Smashed toes vs. IT band syndrome.  Sheesh.

But enter the marvelous invention of KT Tape!  It’s an elastic therapeutic tape (KT is just one brand I happen to use, though I’m auditioning another, Physix Gear) and following a YouTube instructional video I learned how to apply it to my Vastus Lateralis, which is the largest of the four quads that form the IT group.

(Note:  I’m no doctor, so don’t take any of this as gospel.)

Yesterday morning I applied the tape as directed to my right side IT, did not put any on my left.  This morning my right doesn’t hurt, my left does.  So let that be a lesson.

But wait!  There’s more!

Double socks.  When I first came across them I thought they were weird.  I mean, I see the point of wearing two pairs of socks, but I never can get them on so that the first socks don’t end up feeling like they’re choking my toes.  I was given a couple pairs of double socks and yeah, I’ve worn them — but mostly because two socks are warmer than one.

But now I have seen the light.  Or I will.  Yesterday when we turned around to go back down the mountain I was paying attention to my feet to see if they’d slide forward in the boots.  No, they didn’t — but I discovered a blister on my left heel instead.

Pro tip: I would have noticed the blister sooner but the pain was masked by a sticker in my sock that I just refused to take my boot off one more time to look for.  So take note that if you want to avoid blister pain, a judiciously placed sticker in your sock will do a fantastic job for you!  Recommended: Genuine New Mexico high-country stickers, needles, and/or spines, though twigs will do.  Just contact me and I’ll send you a selection for your very own.

Yesterday I wore a pair of SmartWool socks.  If it ain’t SmartWool it ain’t no wool at all for me.  Well, that’s not true.  I’ve discovered (very pricey) alpaca wool doesn’t itch either, so I’m thinking my problem has something to do with sheep, which basically I have no use for in any which way.  Sorry, sheep lovers, but that’s my truth.

Anyway, I wore the (one layered) socks, which are multi-colored stripes and I love them.  I’ve worn them many times before, and yet:  blister.  I know this would not have happened if I’d been wearing the double socks, which are a boring gray.  Not like my multi-colored SmartWool.

Oh well, I’m not one to choose fashion over comfort, so I’ll be ordering more of the double socks soon.  And you know I’ll be wearing a pair next hike.

More equipment:  The name of thy clothing shall be Layers

I have hiking pants that I’ve used in the past — lots of pockets, and they unzipper to become shorts.  However, since comfort is the name of my game, I find jeans with some stretch in them work even better.  The jeans don’t have cargo pockets, which I would like, but I don’t like that the hiking pants aren’t stretchy.  After a bunch of miles things like that become one more irritation.  Plus no way am I going to be wearing shorts at the Grand Canyon in January.

My jeans are loose enough that I can wear silk bottoms under them, but on the other hand the windy 32° or so up at the top of our hike didn’t make me fell I needed them.  Maybe if I spent my time sitting in a hunting blind I’d feel differently, but I’m not.  (PS — there were lots of hunters up there.  Elk beware!)

And then, over my torso, we have the layers.  I’m a believer in layers.  My inner thermostat is finicky so it seems I’m always just a bit too cold or warm.  Starting out from my skin I was wearing a long-sleeved silk top, cotton turtleneck over that.  One Polartec vest and a lined fleece jacket that my sister bought uswhen she and I and my other sister hiked the Canyon in 2009.  The vest was for warmth (I was carrying a second one in my backpack) and the jacket was to cut the wind plus provide another layer.

Note that the vests and jacket have zipper-closure pockets.  Highly recommended!  If you put stuff in your pockets and remember to zip them shut, then you won’t have your cell phone fall in a pond like mine did the week before.  But that’s another story (cell phone was fine).  Also while waiting at on the Safeway cashier line yesterday afternoon I discovered four M&Ms in my jacket pocket.  Who knows how long they were in there, but see?  They didn’t fall out even though partway up the mountain I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist.

Yes, I ate the M&Ms.

I had a fleece watchcap for my head as well as an alpaca (yes!  I splurged!) headband.  Most of the time I was too warm to need them, but coming back down and walking into the wind they were absolutely perfect.

And let’s not forget the fleece gloves!

Loves my fleece, unless it has spent any part of its formative time in close association with a sheep.

Even more equipment: Sticks, pack, electronics, etc.

Let’s start with the phone.  It was fully charged when I left the house in the morning and yet its battery was sucked dry by the time we were done with the hike.  I think this was because there was no WiFi on the mountain (gee whiz, go figure) and probably my phone was wasting battery power searching for what wasn’t there.  Or maybe it was the nifty altimeter app I was using.  Or maybe…

No, it was not the dunk in the pond the week before.

Who knows why about the battery.  I have one of those portable phone battery chargers somewhere.  I’m sure I could find it if I looked.  But in the meantime, Airplane Mode is my friend!  It is too sad to want to take a photo and have zero battery left.

Backpack:  I was using a small day pack that is meant, to be frank, for couch potato hikers.  Sorry spuds, but if you plan to be out all day and don’t want to be burdened with a huge camping pack, then the day pack you want isn’t basically a pouch with a few pockets.  None of which is accessible without taking the pack off.  No rings, no extra straps, no nada.

I’m going to either use my Osprey external frame that has gone down to the Colorado River with me twice or I’m going to find a better day pack.  This year Laura and I have agreed to put our overnight stuff for Phantom Ranch in a duffel that goes down on a mule’s back, not ours, so day pack is all I need.  Just not the one I have.

In the day pack:
First aid kit
Toilet paper + plastic bag for used paper
Garmin GPS (technically not in the pack but attached to the outside)
Compass/whistle/thermometer combo
Visor (why didn’t I use it when I needed it?  Because it was such a PITA to get stuff out of the day pack)
Wrist wallets (for ID, money, car key, etc.)
Throat lozenges
Water

Shoulda been in the pack:
Cell phone charger battery thingie
USB charging cable
Chocolate (little did I know there were M&Ms in my pocket but four?  No way that’s enough chocolate)
Prescription sunglasses (the glare off the snow was wicked!)
Pencil/pad (I meant to put them in, just forgot)

Under consideration to bring:
Second cell phone (why not — it’s not activated for cell but it’s got a camera)

Hiking sticks:
I don’t know how I lived all my life (till the first Canyon in 2008) without using hiking sticks.  Mine are Komperdell trekking poles, the kind that extend rather than fold.  I bought rubber tips for them, but I don’t know why — I like the carbide tips on mine.  Not only do the tips stay put, but I could use them as spears if I had to.  Girl Scouts always gotta be prepared.  By the way, when I first got the poles I didn’t know how to use them — height adjustment is important!

That’s all, folks

What I can get away with on a day hike isn’t, of course, the same as when I’ll need to do on the Canyon hike.  All the trails from the Rim to the River are longer, steeper, tougher, more intimidating, and so outrageously breathtakingly beautiful that a conditioning hike is never going to be that quite a challenge.  Between now and then, though — and right up to the last second — I’ll be making adjustments.

I leave in just under seven weeks — have I mentioned that?

Photo: Laura's shadow, 2018 Lif Strand