Oh Canyon, thou art a heartless wench. We awoke at first light, as usual, but immediately packed up our wet, muddy gear for the last time, rather than having breakfast. We tried to clean our gear and ourselves the best we could, since we were headed back to civilization. But there was no hope. Dirty and smelly don’t even begin to describe the state we were in – gross only slightly more appropriate. Bodies, clothes, shoes and gear that were wet most of the time, but hot and sweaty when we weren’t, didn’t make a pleasant combination. Nonetheless, we were headed up and out of Horn Creek, over the last hour and a half of the easy Tonto Trail, to have a hearty breakfast at Indian Garden just before heading vertical all the way to the South Rim. With no coffee in our system, we trudged to Indian Garden. I’m not sure that anyone spoke. We were all too busy taking in our last intimate views of the inner canyon, a rare vantage point that few get to enjoy, and wishing we had coffee.
Indian Garden was immediately identifiable in the distance, a lush valley of trees and greenery at 2000 ft elevation. This was our first baby step back into civilization, after the glorious canyon compost toilet, of course, with a water spicket, a picnic table and another composting toilet with real walls. Indian Garden is a major destination for the strongest day-hikers at the base of the 5-mile Bright Angel “highway” (a hard-core remote backpackers disdainful name for a popular, easy, wide, man-made and maintained, well-traveled path) that winds down from the South Rim right outside of the Visitor’s Center. I was so excited about “walking out” of Bright Angel. I had been haunted by visions of clawing and climbing our way out the Hermit Trail we scaled down on Day 1. Kyle warned me to not get too excited, it would still be a tough 5-mile slog with exhausted bodies straight up the 3000 ft elevation gain, which would have been just under a mile if drawn with a straight line, rather than never-ending switchbacks. I was undeterred. I had overcome pain, fear, panic, and dread and an assured safe victory, and a warm shower, was clearly ahead. Kyle, true to form, saved the best warm breakfast for last – scrambled powdered eggs and hash browns. I had seconds. My nephew drank his first cup of coffee with breakfast, in honor of his 13th birthday. We rinsed our dishes before eating off of them, removing the “trail spice” of dirt and dust we called extra flavor.
Camp kitchen restowed, we went “packs up” for the last time – intentionally ignoring the bruises on our hip and collar bones from the repeated bucking of heavy pack straps. We all started off at a fast clip, but quickly fell into our usual separation – Christy and my nephew out front, my son in the middle, me trailing in the rear, with Kyle right behind me encouraging. After the first mile, we began to pass day hikers nearing the bottom after an early start to their day to outpace the coming heat. The higher we climbed, the crowd grew, tourists out enjoying the first continuously bright sunny sky in days. We were spectacles, fielding curious questions, our large packs (surely not our smell and condition) indicating that we were not just day hikers, but back country survivors. The first mile passed quickly, the second much harder. The third I took more frequent stops. The fourth mile I kept going only because there was a mule train bringing supplies up from Phantom Ranch and I was determined not to walk behind mules. As we approached the final mile, my old friend Panic returned. My legs were spent, so heavy and weak that they barely responded to the commands from my brain to move. My heart rate was inconsolable, no matter how I breathed – gasping deep breaths prohibited by the claustrophobic pack. I was so hot and nauseous, my arms weak from trying to use the trekking poles to pull myself forward. I had neither cried nor threw up yet, but here I was a mile from the Rim and fighting both, ready to give up. I knew Christy and the boys were already at the top, packs down, shoes off, enjoying success. Desert distances playing her cruel tricks, each hard-fought switchback brought me no closer to them. I was a failure, unable to walk up a @#$@#$ highway, surrounded by sweet-smelling, hair-fixed, clean-clothes wearing, Starbucks-carrying, smiling day tourists holding the hands of small children, all of whom I hated just a little bit. I felt utterly ridiculous. This morning’s regretted eggs in my throat, tears in my eyes, every heartbeat pulsing in my head and ears, I finally hugged the inside of the last turn and could see the top. I mustered the pride to actually pick up my feet up off of the ground for the last 30 steps, just for victory’s sake. I had reached the Rim.