Today’s miles: 5.7
In the brisk morning air, we walk to the backcountry permit office. My body is buzzing with anticipation, like there’s some electric energy sparking off of the Grand Canyon just over there. We expected a big line of permit seekers (as with most other national parks we’ve visited), but GCNP’s permit system reduces that considerably, so we wait outside for an hour all by ourselves, only to finally be told that no, we don’t need to register our car with them. Now we have a bunch of extra time, so we hop a shuttle to the visitor’s center to eat second breakfast [I am STILL dreaming about the breakfast burrito I ate. It was shockingly good. –Cyn] and ask a ranger there about the possibility of permits for a loop hike after we finish our rim-to-rim. We wander out to Mather Point, crowded with people (yup, we’re wearing our masks), and look out across the canyon. It’s hard to fathom that we’ll actually be hiking down in it soon, and harder still to imagine hiking all the way from the North Rim, which I can barely even make out from this viewpoint. Cyn is full of jitters and anxiety about the canyon portion of this trip.
Our shuttle is a 3+ hour ride, and we’re both grateful that the driver is friendly but not too chatty. It’s a long time to be in a car with a stranger. He points out Little Colorado Canyon as we drive past it, and laughs delightedly as we both gape in astonishment. I’ve not been around canyons much, and it’s difficult to wrap my mind around the visual field: how the ground just suddenly drops away, the inverse of a mountain. We drive through the Navajo Nation for a long time, where handmade signs are posted at the ends of driveways urging neighbors to stay home and to get vaccinated, a reminder of how systemic poverty and inadequate infrastructure–state abandonment– multiply the pandemic’s damage exponentially. The Vermilion Cliffs rise up in the distance ahead of us, impossibly large escarpments that we will drive along as we turn west toward the trailhead. Soon the driver stops so we can stretch our legs on Navajo Bridge. It crosses over the Colorado near Marble Canyon. The river below is a silty deep green color; above us, a California condor glides back and forth, and I crane my neck to watch it. It’s close enough that I can see its bright orange bald head, this endangered giant. We stare upwards, breathless, until it finally swoops away and we return to the truck. [I feel so lucky that we got to see one of these birds. –Cyn]
We follow along the Cliffs, spotting more condors in the far distance, and then turn down a bumpy dirt service road that requires very slow driving. [Longest 19 miles ever. In a car at least. –Cyn] At last, a sign marking the state line between Utah and Arizona, and our trailhead for the Arizona Trail. The driver takes our photo at the northern terminus marker and drives away, and we are just the two of us now, full of familiar eager nerves. We delay for a short snack and a stop at the trailhead privy. Then there is nothing left but to hike our first steps of this trip.
It’s hot, but there’s a regular breeze. Right away the trail makes a steady climb. We take it slow, turning back frequently to look at the mountain range in Utah behind us. This section has suffered a recent fire, and we hike through somewhat desolate landscape on continuous switchbacks. Cyn struggles with the altitude as we climb, and we begin to take regular short breaks to breathe. Partway up, another thru-hiker passes us. His trail name is Medium Salsa, and his partner is slackpacking him in this early section, so he’s carrying very little with him. We’re both a bit jealous. Our chat with him provides a longer break from climbing, which lets Cyn’s lungs fully recover, and we are glad to finish the remainder of the uphill portion shortly after. I’m also grateful to move beyond the burn section into juniper trees and other green vegetation now.
We hike a gently rolling trail to our first water source, a small concrete wildlife drinker that is not very gross at all, to our relief. We eat a snack and filter a few liters here, and then hike almost another two miles before settling on a campsite. There’s plenty of flat ground, but it takes a little searching to find a spot relatively free from rocks and spiky plants. I haven’t pitched our two-person tent in quite a long time, and spend many minutes adjusting and re-staking the lines. In the end it’s still not a very good pitch, but sufficient. [Toby’s obsession with the perfect pitch is mostly adorable and only occasionally infuriating. And to his credit the tent hasn’t come down on us yet. –Cyn] We are curled up in our quilts before 7pm, looking ahead at tomorrow’s miles and possible water sources, still full of anticipation for the coming days.