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THE GRAND CANYON AGAIN October/November 2017

Some Where To Be
Belatedly, we decided to dive south to Palm Springs after our big Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hike in the Grand Canyon, like we did last year. We hadn’t thought that far ahead in our rush to get to the Grand Canyon, but it was the obvious next thing to do. There we could make the epic Cactus-2-Clouds hike, which like Rim-2-Rim, we did for the first time in 2016.

It’s a slick trick to do the 2 events back-to-back. We cultivate altitude acclimation on our approach to the Grand Canyon, then top it off with a minimum of a 2 week stay there. We sleep at 7,000’ on the South Rim and at 400’ in Palm Springs. The Palm Springs hike however summits just under 11,000’ so we value the acclimation. Unfortunately, Palm Springs was still smoking hot. Our target hike date of October 19 was in a swath of 100+ degree temperatures and they wouldn’t start dropping until almost November.
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At about 12,000’ near Flagstaff: gale force winds shaped the frozen dew on the face of this rock.

“We have to be somewhere” is a constant reality of our traveler's lifestyle and after again pondering the few options that would retain our acclimation while we waited for Palm Springs to cool, we decided to attempt booking another 2 week stay at the Grand Canyon. In deference to the 2 week limit in the park, we moved to nearby Flagstaff for almost a week while we worked on the second set of reservations in Grand Canyon’s Trailer Village.

I felt like I was in nearby Vegas playing the slot machines. Multiple times a day I’d check online for a cancellation and shriek with delight every time I hit the jackpot. Gradually, I filled in all but 3 nights of a 2 week stay. Using a similar process for the no hook-ups campground, Bill booked the missing 3 nights.

It wasn’t pretty, however. The first week we’d be moving to a new site for 6 of the 7 nights and we’d be squeezing into 30’ forest sites at the campground with our 28.5’ trailer. But it would work. We’d lose an hour or more out of each of those move days but at least we had a plan, we had somewhere to be. And there is no place we’d rather be in the fall than in the Grand Canyon, so it would be worth the considerable inconvenience.

I called directly to the check-in kiosk at Trailer Village a few days before our arrival and asked if they could “work on it.” I’d been scolded by the reservation phone bank for asking but knew the women at the kiosk bent over backwards to accommodate their campers. Luckily and unknowingly, I spoke with Debra, the woman with the highest authorization to fiddle with the reservations system. I was blown away when we arrived: she’d managed to put us in a single site for the entire 2 week stay in Trailer Village. Yo Debra!

“Roughing It”
While settling in for our second stay of the year in Trailer Village, we couldn’t help but remember the neighbor from our recent visit. Dave had said “You’re really roughing it!” when I mentioned some of our trailer lifestyle routines, like using the public toilets instead of pooping into our toilet and holding tank. It’s a refreshing, sometimes bracing, little ritual that increases the level of hygiene during sewage dumps. Dave didn’t even know that there were public toilets in the campground and was shocked that we had a shower in our humble, 28’ trailer. I’m sure he didn’t even hear that we had had a satisfactory shower in our previous in-bed truck camper and had a mini-tub in our current trailer. We chuckled privately because we feel like we have a comfortable, cozy lifestyle that is far from roughing it.
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Another neighbor had a clever utility trailer with an integrated, drop-down tent.

Indeed, Dave's 45’ rig was big, flashy, and still perfectly shiny at 2 years of age with a Ducati motorcycle mounted on the back and a Jeep Grand Cherokee in tow. Having recently seen an RV show preview on TV, we guessed that his rig was in the $650,000 range. We received our reality check the next day when we learned online that his only-made-to-order, Newell brand coach, had a $2 million base price! And “No, he didn’t invite us in."

Not surprisingly, it was immediately obvious when chatting with Dave, who was probably 10 years younger than us, that we had different priorities. He’d tried to talk the park clerk out of our reserved site for improved reception on his satellite dish. In contrast, we selected the specific site because we knew that the cable connection worked and the tree canopy wouldn’t shade our solar panels should the electrical service fail the 2 nights we were on the N Rim.

Coincidentally, Dave was taking a mule ride down to Phantom Ranch in 2 days, the day we’d be going on an out-and-back to the Ranch on foot. Further afield, he was comforted by recently hearing that if you get cancer, it’s all because of your genes whereas we are on the bandwagon that promotes the power of lifestyle choices to alter gene expression, good or bad. Indeed, there are so many different ways to live in the world and for the lucky ones like Dave and us, it is all about choice.

Small World
Our two October experiences in the Grand Canyon included quite the string of “it’s a small world” encounters. Our first hike down to the Ranch and back during our first stay (the day Dave was riding in on a mule), we ran into a Canadian hiker from the Palm Springs area hiking club we joined last winter. He was an oncoming hiker heading for a rafting trip and commented to Bill about our latest weird minimalist shoes. He and Bill didn’t recognize each other but when I heard his voice and said “Roger??” it was suddenly old home week. Too funny.
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Bill, Barb & Roger on the Bright Angel Trail.

Next up was on the day after our hike from the South Rim to the North. We were walking on a popular North Rim trail that connects the 2 commercial areas there and bumped into Jim, the 100 marathon guy we’d invited to share our picnic table the day before when we were all headed towards the North Rim. They weren’t going back to the South Rim the next day like us, but were camping another night there. This ace athlete honored us with asking our opinion about using poles to decrease hand swelling when hiking, with the short answer being “Yes."

About 10 days later, when we had left the park for a 6 night stay in nearby Flagstaff, Jim’s friend Steve recognized us on the trail. Well, actually I believe that he recognized our Furoshiki shoes that had also caught Roger’s eye. Steve and his wife also had joined us at the picnic table but he had said absolutely nothing to us. I guess he listened to the shoe conversation and made note. We only slowly recognized him after he spoke up on the Humphreys Peak trail.

Like with our first 2 week stay in the Grand Canyon, at the start of the 2nd stay, we headed down to the Ranch for our bread-and-butter big hike. At the river, I saw an older woman seated in the shade, burrowing into her pack. From afar I said “Val?” and when she looked up, I knew it was Val. From Great Britain, we’d intermittently hiked from the North Rim to the South on her first day in the Park and now, she was doing a slightly shorter loop than us and we again hiked with her part way up to the Rim on her last day there.

Yet Another Subgroup
One of the fun discovery games while in the Grand Canyon has been learning about all of the various categories of guests. On the rims, the vast majority of visitors are only there for a few hours or perhaps a night. If you look carefully, you become aware that very few, less than 1% the rangers say, venture off of the rim at all. The backpackers, trail runners, and day hikers are barely noticed as they quickly disappear over the edge.
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These wild Vibram Furoshiki shoes do turn heads.

Once on the trails below the rim, you slowly understand the range of activities in which people are engaged, especially if you make the 6+ mile journey to the river. You may see 1 or 2 mule trains a day carrying carrying rocks for trail maintenance or Phantom Ranch guests or hauling supplies to and garbage from the Ranch. If you are lucky, you’ll see large, colorful rafts of guests taking 9 or 21 day runs down the Colorado River like Roger was doing.

With time spent on the trails, you learn to differentiate backpackers, day hikers, trail runners, and tourists, tourists that are likely over-extending themselves by impulsively heading down without a plan and perhaps no water. Then there are 2 groups of people that are hard to distinguish: the excessively prepared day hikers and the ultralight backpackers. Amused by the challenge of correctly identifying them, I started inquiring and this year I discovered a new subgroup, the ultralights on holiday.

Last fall, we learned about the ultralight backpackers, specifically those doing the 2660 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The gold standard for them was a 12 lb base weight pack, including their pack, tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat. They then allowed 2 lbs/day for food and were loathed to carry a drop more water than they had to have to survive. Once we learned of this subgroup, we tried hard to spot them. However, it quickly became apparent that essentially all of the Grand Canyon backpackers that we saw were old school and commonly had enormous 50, 60, or 70 lb packs.

But at the very end of October, we encountered 2 of these 12 lb base-weight hikers in the canyon in a single day. The first looked like she could have been a day hiker but that didn’t fit with the time of day and her location and so I engaged her. Indeed, she had completed the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles on the East coast), had taken 2 months off, and was now doing the Arizona trail (800 miles). She had an injury and was now lagging well behind her group. Doing Rim-2-Rim wasn’t an event, it was another just trail on her route. (By comparison, we hiked about 1,700 miles in 2016).
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A favorite, classic view from the S Rim.

Later in the day, I spoke with a recent college grad from Georgia who looked like a dead-ringer for an ultra-light. He had done part or all of the PCT and now was on a road trip in the West. He’d heard about the Grand Canyon crossings and popped in because it was handy. No big deal for him, unlike for us. He loaded up with 3 days worth of food to do his Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim with 22 lbs. By comparison, we are pleased to have trimmed our day packs to 13 lbs, including our standard issue of 2 liters (4.4 lbs) of water. Both of these young hikers had made their crossings after the services on the N Rim had closed until spring.

We repeatedly cringed upon seeing that our best times this year on our classic training day hike, the Rim-Ranch-Rim, were noticeably slower than in 2016 when we had been laser-focused on training for our first Rim-2-Rim in the Grand Canyon. In 2016, we’d had a conditioning plan, we implemented it, and it worked. We did the big hike without injury and had fun doing it. We were stupid from weariness that evening, though even that distress had slowly improved with each training hike.

I’d noticed over the summer in the Dolomites that on the few hikes we repeated, we were slower in 2017 than in 2016. We stewed about whether it reflected a more casual attitude about our endurance hiking or if aging was starting to be a drag on our performance. And when we resumed making the Rim-Ranch-Rim training hike in 2017, our best times were slower than our slowest times in 2016. Amusingly, we felt tip-top. We felt especially nimble and secure on the difficult footing, we felt like we were faster, and we were less depleted by the effort than previously but the easily quantifiable measure of time said we were consistently slower.

But exactly one month after completing our first 20 miler after a 4 month lapse, we posted our fastest times ever on the familiar route. We shaved 13 minutes off of about 3 hours when descending the difficult S. Kaibab Trail and sliced about 20 minutes off of the approximately 5 hour ascent up Bright Angel Trail. At last, our perception about our speed matched the numbers. In addition, we’d improved our uphill time between the first and 4th 2017 efforts by almost an hour.

And even more amazing, 2 days later when we repeated the first part of that big descent, we shaved another 9 minutes off of our time to the 3 mile point, from 69 minutes to 60. I was on Cloud 9 because that was my breakthrough day. I’d been riveted on my technic for years every time we descended on that trail. I envisioned that some day I’d float down it like a trail runner instead of pick my way down like an old lady.

Finally the deep tissue work I’d been doing on my lower body for almost 2 years and the experimenting with gait adjustments snapped into place and I did nearly float over the hundreds of difficult log steps. Only occasionally did I have to stop to carefully negotiate exceptionally difficult spots. Other hikers on the trail heard my thundering hooves and stepped aside to let me through without my asking, like they do with trail runners. My flying poles and intense concentration conflicted with the look of my big new purple sun hat and sun sensible clothes but they all knew that I was doing something that they hadn’t yet mastered, and in sandals.
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My new Bedrock Cairn sandals & the toe socks I used to break them in on a couple of 20 mile hikes.

We’d set times that would be hard to beat in 2018 but at least we could leave the Gand Canyon with our heads held high. The abrupt improvement also boded well for the even more arduous Palm Springs Cactus-2-Clouds hike we’d do in just over a week.

Simultaneous with our recent efforts to rapidly refine our core workouts, weekly training routine, descent footwork, and speed, as well as shedding unwelcome pounds from our bodies, we realized that the payoff for this big push would plummet in a week. The Grand Canyon’s Rim-2-Rim crossings and the 10,400’ elevation gain Cactus-2-Clouds hike are truly our epic hikes of the year. Colorado’s 14’er hikes (something like 52 hikes over 14,000’) and California’s Mt Whitney are primarily summer hikes, which don’t fit with our current seasonal rhythm. It’s surprisingly difficult to find other big hikes in the West that are a logistical fit for us. So, after a 6 week push to altitude acclimate and peak for the year, it would be over. We’d slip back to hoping to do 20 milers at least once a month but otherwise would focus on fast-paced, shorter, lower elevation, social hikes with the Palm Springs area club we joined last year rather than competing with ourselves.

Touch-and-Go in Palm Springs
We’d leave the Grand Canyon on a Sunday for Flagstaff where we’d restock our refrigerator, get a 4th leaking trailer tire in 2 years repaired or replaced, and buy Bill’s first pair of Bedrock Cairn sandals. Then it would be 2 long driving days to Palm Springs where we’d stay a week for the better rate at the RV park.

The next morning after our arrival in Palm Springs, we’d be out the door at 4:30 am to knock out the Cactus-2-Clouds hike. I again vowed to limit the trail talk with strangers, hoping to better last year’s time of 15 hours. The following day, we’d attend a hike leader planning session with the hiking group we joined last year and on Monday, our last day, we’d join our hike leader recruiter for a hike in the nearby mountains. Then it would be another search for “somewhere to be” for 2 weeks until our December 1 return to the Coachella Valley for a 3 month stay—we weren’t yet ready to make it 4 months.