We’re up at four. It’s still midnight dark, the stars bright overhead. We hike by headlamp as blackness turns to shades of gray. We reach the rim five seconds before the sun crests, spilling light over the canyon. We stand in awe, watching the shadows flee. We follow the rim to the trailhead, dodging tourists, as golden light runs over golden rock.
Shadow and I hike together, despite our different speeds. The canyon is too special not to share it with someone. We drop down, on trail rutted by mules, passing tourists and being passed by trail runners. Shadow takes my photo at every lookout point. It feels like a vacation more than a thru-hike. We only have nine miles to do today, and they go quickly despite our photo breaks. We pass between layers of rock, traveling back in time towards the Colorado river far below us.
It’s 10 am by the time we reach the river. The last hundred feet of descent feels like hiking through an oven. The air down here is hot and still, and so, so dry. We pass a few people beginning the climb back out, their faces red, sweat evaporating before it can bead. “We’re going to have to get up early tomorrow,” I tell Shadow. I don’t want heat stroke, not down here.
We wander past green cottonwoods to Phantom Ranch. We try to buy lemonade and cold brew coffee, but the man serving us won’t let us pay once he finds out we’re hiking the AZT. “You’re on a pilgrimage to the most sacred place,” he tells me. He means for the native people who’ve lived here for longer than memory, but his words ring true on a personal level too.
Seven years ago, before I’d hiked ten thousand miles across entire countries, I spent twenty four days rafting through the Grand Canyon. I left Lee’s Ferry scared, unfulfilled, unhappy. I didn’t find myself in the canyon: that’s mumbo-jumbo nonsense used to sell memoirs and backpacking courses. I still leave the wilderness with more questions than answers every time. But the canyon made me realize I needed to take a different approach to life. A house and career and relationship was never going to make me happy. I needed to sit on the banks of the river and watch the milky way line up perfectly with the canyon walls above. I needed to watch the moon wax and wane, from flood light bright to fingernail sliver. I needed to feel that rhythm. I needed to listen to the birds, and watch the bighorn sheep run from our raft. I needed to live in a single moment, even if that moment was unpleasant or scary or painful.
So when I left the canyon, I left my career, I left my safe house and my comfortable life. I set out on other journeys: none like the canyon, but on each one, I found that peace that only comes in wilderness. In many ways, I found the AZT lackluster, unable to live up to my expectations. It suffered from not being the Great Divide Trail, my favorite hike so far. But all of the flat, boring, unmemorable trail was worth it just for leading me back to the canyon. Like the CDT, the AZT is made up of incredible, life changing places, strung together by uninteresting trail.
We sit and drink lemonade until I struggle to sit still, then head down to the river. A thermometer by the campground gives us the shade temperature: 104f/42c. I think back to my heat exhaustion day on Mount Lemmon all those weeks ago. I felt so awful and it was only 93f. I dunk my head in the Colorado: icy cold, despite the oven air. We sit on the boaters beach for a long time, until a raft group shows up. “I hope you have a beer for me,” an older kayaker grumbles. I tell him I hiked here from Mexico, so he’s far more likely than me to have beer on those big rafts. A young woman bounces over with a PBR. “I hate hiking,” she tells me. “Better you than me.” I sit in the shade of a tamarisk bush, sand between my toes, and drink my beer. It’s a perfect day, in a place I love as much as mountain peaks.
The day doesn’t really cool, the rock holding the heat. But as the light fades, we head to our campsite for the night, halfway between the beach and Phantom Ranch. Neither of us sleep, kept awake by the constant stream of hikers flashing headlamps over the rock. Night is the best time to hike when it’s so hot, so it’s hard to blame them. I toss and turn until three, when I hear Shadow move. There doesn’t seem much point trying to sleep more, so I pack up. The air is still stifling, though it cools quickly as we hike by headlamp away from the river. The moon is close to full, and silvery light turns the red rocks gray. It’s bright enough to see by. Even nighthiking, we don’t miss out on the views.
Close to Cottonwood camp, we make a detour to ribbon falls. The bridge is out and the trail is unmaintained, but I don’t pause. We push through spiky creosote bushes, and scramble over smooth slickrock. A thin stream of water tumbles over green moss, and a narrow goat track leads behind the falls. It’s a magical place, a secret grotto. We’re the only hikers here: unmaintained trails and wet feet scaring away all of the others.
We rejoin the trail and the hordes of people, climbing steadily as the day warms. We pass the ranger who gave me candy, now on backcountry duty, and she tells us to be careful in the heat. We pause in every shade patch until we reach the rim. I head with Shadow to the walk-in campsite by a little store. I’d thought about leaving the park today. It’s only another 12 miles. But I’m so tired from my bad night. And from here, the trail is flat and boring again, winding 75 miles through pine forests to the border. It’s hard to turn my back on the canyon, so I don’t.
The walk-in spot is on the edge of the north rim, overlooking the canyon. We leave for a few hours, for showers and laundry and all of the crappy food that the little store has, but return by sunset. I sit and watch the colors change as the light shifts. I could spend a lifetime doing this, I think, and it would never get old.
I say goodbye to Shadow in the morning. It’s been nice to have some company, especially on a section where scenery trumped miles. But now it’s time to go, to run, to race to the end of the trail so I can get home to Shake’nBake. I’m still so tired, exhausted from days of poor sleep, but I hike fast. I detour to a fire tower where Edward Abbey once worked, ironically on the edge of a burn. The wind howls through the trees like a banshee, tossing the paneling on an abandoned shack at the base of a tower. I don’t linger: this place feels violent, haunted in a way that true wilderness never does.
The trail hooks around, back to the canyon rim one last time. The canyon is massive here: wide rather than deep, with a desolate plateau for miles above the sharp river canyon. There’s no shade and no water visible for miles. Shadow’s route takes him down there, and something twists in my heart- a desire to cross the trailless desert, zigzagging through the canyon. Maybe it’s time to do the Hayduke.
I stop after another marathon, at a camp spot mostly out of the screaming wind. In the morning, as I put my shoes on, I notice a strange lump under my sock. I pull it down carefully. A blister rises on my ankle, high above where my shoe might rub. The skin is red and angry, a rash surrounding the raised skin. Crap.
I think back to the AT, where blisters rose on my calf and hives covered my legs for weeks. I’d been exhausted, a bone deep tiredness from walking seven thousand miles in two years. Somehow I’ve stressed my body to the same point in just seven hundred miles. I check my phone: I should finish the trail tomorrow. I hiked over a hundred miles on the AT after the blisters started. Can my body hold out for two more days?
A burn scars the landscape, and I hike quickly through it, worrying about my ankle. A biker passes me, and then another. It’s strange for such a quiet section of trail. The third biker stops to explain: they’re a supported tour group, and there’s even more behind. I flip flop with two of them. They easily outpace me on the flats and downhills, but there’s plenty of burnt trees to clamber over, and that’s far easier to do without a bike.
The last of the bikers pass me: a group of six women who are so stoked to be outside that their enthusiasm is contagious. I hike alone, apart from a lone coyote wolfing down some unlucky animal just off trail. I pass the trailhead where the bikers are camped. A man out for the weekend picks his pack up from his car, and I stop to chat with him. He offers me a beer, pulling one icy cold from his cooler. I slide it into my pack’s mesh pocket: it will be perfect to celebrate with tomorrow.
The trail spits me out on dirt roads to follow a fire detour. I camp on the side of one just outside of a burn. My last night on trail. I should be sad, but in reality, I’m impatient. I have so many more adventures planned for this summer, and now that I’ve passed the canyon, the best of the AZT is over.
I follow the detour in the morning back to the trail. I spend half the time looking over my shoulder, expecting the bikers to catch me. The miles tick down, until there’s just one left. The trail switchbacks steeply down an open hillside. Ahead of me is Utah: red rock undulating to the horizon. My heart aches- I’m ready to be done, but I also wish I could hike forever. I make one final turn, and then the monument is in front of me. I reach out and touch it, and the trail is over.
There’s a man in a van at the trailhead. He gets out as I set down my pack. I wave him over and ask him to take my picture.
“How far did you come?” he asks me. “All the way from Mexico,” I say. Words are empty in the face of so many miles. “Wow, you did the whole thing!” He’s excited for me and I smile. “So, where do you go from here? Is someone picking you up?” “I have to head out to the road and hitch,” I say. There’s a band of dirt running through the desert. I’ve been watching it on my hike down the hill. I’ve seen a single car. “I’d have to check with my clients, but maybe we can give you a ride. You’d have to wait for them to bike down, but we’re going to Flagstaff.” “That would be amazing!” I tell him.
I sit and drink my trail magic beer while I wait for the bikers to arrive. They offer me snacks- cheese and crackers and clementines. Once everyone is here, we pile into the van and begin the long drive south to Flagstaff.