Bright Angel and Kaibab will resonate during conversations of best known trails within the Grand Canyon. Echoing tides of tourists that white-cap respective trailheads, also endears Bright Angel as the stormiest sea, until you submerge yourself toward the lower canyon and the crowds become muted from existence. The majority of these canyon-gazers hit an invisible wall at the mile-and-a-half rest area, psychologically or physically beaten as their brain finally interprets the expanse of a crack in the world, that doesn’t look so hard when you’re comfortable at the top. Technically, it’s not difficult to hike the canyon if you do it right. Heading down in the late morning crosses swords with a blazing sun, which torturously squeezes the thermometer levels as fast as your backyard gas grill. Heat, dust, dehydration, lack of shade when it matters, all suffered accusations as I barely made it out of the canyon on my first hike, three years ago. The uncomfortable truth of it was that I just didn’t respect the surroundings and let my ego dance around assumed skill and fitness. People die here and I seriously concerned myself with being another statistical trophy of nature, if I sat for longer than a minute and let sleep suffocate me. I’m still here, and more in love with the canyon than ever before.
The trail spoke to me that day and changed how I thought of myself. It changed how I prepared for this kind of trip and also how I engage descents and summits. Pre-dawn movement around 3am or 4am usually powers my legs back over the rim, long before noon threatens to transform delicate skin to a resemblance of spit-roast. Circumstance had this year’s descent later at 5:30am to allow my travel partner to view the South Rim sunrise and by time Indian Garden was passed, the sun already arched for the tops of our heads and fueled the dusty heat to 85F. Minimal groups of hikers heading to Plateau Point had long since passed my accommodating pace, not interested in viewing the scenery but instead talking about school, life back home and everything you come here to forget. Two groups of girls were in the smallest of t-shirts, revealing shorts and no other protection. Some people had no food or water and I develop a reflex concern, over the lack of respect shown to the terrain. I still wonder if they made it home without any damage to their body and whether they even conceive of the wonderland they’ve passed through. The mule train is taking respite and their overweight cargo sit in the shade, shoveling snacks into gaping mouths, expiring complaints of heat and tiredness with every other breath. I want to confront them, to demand they give something of themselves to the trail, before they can ever earn the right to bemoan it’s often harsh ecosystem. I want to make them stare at the aged mules, who have long lost their will to imprisonment and routine of hauling paying clients. Let me witness the smallest whisper of care, to know that I’m unjustified in my outrage. I look into the vacant eyes of the darkest mule and start to lose my anger; it looks like a smile is contorted to its long face and I understand. Empty your mind, let it all go and the canyon will free you.
I’m distracted by random pieces of garbage tossed into the cacti and carefully recover the items to place in my backpack. My mind is starting to empty again and gains communion with the path. Within those thoughts, I’m introduced to native tribes that once used this area as a source of living, not entertainment and picture silhouettes, quietly saddened in disapproval of invaders, who blindly pass through an abundance of spiritual growth. I want to ask some of these hikers why they’re here, why they took all the trouble and preparation to get to the trail, only to treat it as a business commute, shuttering senses until safely home.
Nearing the top, the crowds are again prevalent, some carrying babies, a dog in a bag, street shoes, black sweaters and layers of makeup; I’m never sure whether to laugh at the lack of intelligence, or be concerned over which one would be the next casualty. Attitudes change and people become less willing to interact or pass pleasantries – hikers lower on the trail will nearly always make eye contact along with generous words and a look, which communicates an understanding of what trails like this are for; they honestly and wholeheartedly get it.
Bright Angel is like a drug, revealing enlightenment for those who engage with its internal conversation. I’m still addicted and still in love, yet it’s not an adolescent crush or childhood needs from a parent, it’s a bi-directional transaction accepted by each party on the day they joined in mutual respect. Leave some piece of your heart and spirit within the canyon and it will forever leave something within you.