I was in Phoenix all last week teaching a CAD course. Each day, leaving the office was like walking out of a meat locker and into a barbeque. I learned that it was best not to fight the heat. Just relax. Let it envelop you like a thick blanket. In the evenings I’d wander down to the restaurants at the Biltmore Fashion Mall. I was amazed at how hot it was, even in the dark of night.
It didn’t much concern me that I forgot to bring a sleeping bag for my weekend trip. As far as I could tell, I wouldn’t need it. When I got tired, I’d just stretch out on the ground and lay swaddled in the gentle warmth of the Arizona night.
On Friday, I left work mid-afternoon. I stashed my shirt and tie in the trunk of the rental car, and was just heading north when I saw a haggard looking man hitchhiking by the side of the road. He said he was just about to pass out from the heat. I gave him a Mountain Dew, cranked up the AC and listened to his story. He said it depended on whose side you chose to believe, but he either quit, or was fired from his job as a trucker. As I pulled out his worn suitcase by the turn off to route 66, I wished him better luck in the future.
In Flagstaff, as I charged one last meal to the expense account, I thought about the forsaken trucker and I thought about my own good fortune. The contrast was driven home when my waitress brought out a free dessert on account of her forgetting to bring my iced tea. I enjoyed the cake and the ice cream, but as I sat there stuffing my face, I couldn’t help but wonder if the richness of that sweet frosting was, in fact, a feeble match for the richness of experience that my truck driving friend enjoyed roaming the open roads of America.
I needn’t have concerned myself with the free dessert or the supposed lack of excitement in my life. The next day would be my 28th birthday. That restaurant cake would prove to be the last vestige of normalcy in what was about to become my most memorable birthday yet.
I arrived at the Grand Canyon at sunset. I was awed by the views. I felt an overwhelming desire to hike into the canyon, to experience with my legs a magnitude of space too immense to comprehend with my eyes alone.
When it was finally too dark to gaze over the cliff, I wandered over to the visitor center to plan my next day. I wanted to do a pretty major hike, but was conscious of the dangers of hiking too far by myself. Sure enough, the warning signs outside the visitor center reinforced my fears. Some depicted graphic drawings of people hunched over on all fours vomiting from the heat. The bottom quarter of the canyon was referred to as the “Danger Zone”. Signs warned that hikes to the bottom of the canyon should not be undertaken alone, should not be done in the summertime, and should always be spread out over a series of days. Also on display was an enormous map of the South Rim trail network. Each trail was ranked in terms of how much food and water one should pack along. Next to each trail were little pictures of water bottles and stacks of ham sandwiches. The more ambitious the hike, the more water bottles and ham sandwiches one needed to pack along. Hikes into the “Danger Zone” were at least 6 water bottle, 8 ham sandwich hikes.
I ruled out any notion of venturing into the “Danger Zone”, and eventually settled on a 3 water bottle, 4 ham sandwich hike.
With my next day planned out, I returned to the parking lot, and tried to go to sleep on the folded down back seats of the rental car. I soon discovered that at 2100m elevation, nighttime temperatures at the top of the Grand Canyon are significantly cooler than a typical night in Phoenix. For warmth, I put on the black business suit that I’d been wearing all week. Had anyone caught a glimpse of my sharply dressed corpse poking out from the trunk of the car, they could have easily mistaken me for the victim of a mafia hit.
I woke from my fitful sleep at 5am cursing my mistake in forgetting my sleeping bag. As it turned out, the sleeping bag wasn’t the only thing I’d forgotten. I’d also failed to pack any sort of food with me. I’d eaten an apple and a granola bar during the night, and all I had left was a can of 7up and a Camelback full of water. Not having any ham sandwiches to take on my hike, I knew I’d better save the 7up for later.
As the sun rose, I began my decent into the canyon. Awesome vistas opened up at every switchback. On the way down, I came across a sign which actually presented a hiking route leading from the south rim of the canyon all the way to the north rim. The distance was listed at a seemingly doable 38 km. Immediately, I ran through some mental calculations. I knew that the nearly one mile drop down to the bottom of the canyon at 720m and the subsequent climb of over a mile to the top of the north rim at 2500m made my comparison of the route to a standard marathon tenuous at best. Furthermore, my tendency to employ an almost world record marathon pace in my time estimates was being woefully optimistic, especially considering I’d never run a marathon before. But it was too late, the adrenaline was already coursing through my veins and I was just too excited not to try the route.
As I proceeded into the canyon, I encountered groups of hikers on their way back up. Some were dehydrated and struggling under enormous backpacks. As I became attuned to the gaps between water supplies, I became more comfortable sharing the water from my large refillable hydration pack. The site of these ragged hikers clawing their way back up the canyon was definitely sobering. Because I was alone, I was extra diligent about drinking regularly and reapply sunscreen along the way. Despite all that could have gone wrong, my hike was wonderful. Besides the awesome canyon itself, I saw deer, a Grand Canyon rattlesnake, and tons of lizards. I stopped along the way to enjoy a warm 7up, and climbed up over the North Rim at 12:30pm. I’d say more, but the truth is, in the grand scheme of things, my adventure was just beginning.
As the crow flies, the North Rim is about 10 miles from the South Rim, but by road, the distance is 215 miles! There are shuttles back to the South Rim, but they only depart once a day, in the early morning. I knew that hitchhiking would be an option; it turned out to be my only option.
If that old adage is true about your good deeds sometimes multiplying when they come back to you, I might have expected that following my recent deed to the hitchhiking community, I might expect a long procession of cars to file out of the parking lot, throw open their doors and welcome me into their air conditioned splendor. Such was not the case. There was certainly no shortage of passing vehicles, but one thing they all shared was a unified disinterest in picking me up.
I did succeed in getting a few short rides. For a time, I seemed to be leapfrogging with another hitchhiker. Eventually, we met up at the roadside. He was an Austrian named Manfred. Manfred had parked 20 miles outside of the park to avoid paying vehicle entrance fees. He said if we could make it to his car together, he’d drive me around to the South Rim. He then kept walking, essentially leaving me in the pole position. After countless single occupant vehicles passed me by, a family pulled over in an overstuffed SUV. There was barely room for me, but they squeezed me in. It was an awkward task, but I had to immediately start warming them up to the idea of taking on yet another passenger. Just as I began explaining Manfred’s proposal, we caught up to the Austrian, still walking along the road in the scorching heat. The family was generous beyond their means. Somehow, they fit Manfred in too and the bunch of us carried on up to Manfred’s car.
Manfred and I proceeded to drive towards the South Rim. An hour later, we stopped at a gas station for something to drink. I noticed the gas gauge read empty and thought surely we would fill the tank as well. But Manfred wouldn’t hear of it. “Gas will only get cheaper from here”, he said. “Besides, we can easily get another fifty miles out of this tank”. Given the fact that we were in the middle of the desert, I thought it was probable, if not likely, that we would not be hitting another town for 50miles. But I kept these concerns to myself.
Fifty miles later, we were both sweating bullets but regaining hope as we closed in on a small cluster of buildings known as “The Gap”. We pulled in to the gas station hooting and hollering. Our cost saving stunt had only saved us a penny on the per gallon price of gas posted outside the station, but we didn’t care. We were so relieved. However, our relief turned to horror as we noticed the yellow caution tape on the pumps. They were all empty.
The next station was 30 miles up the road. We figuring our fate was sealed, but we resolved to carry on as far as we could go. We took every precaution to save gas, even cutting the engine on descents. This proved to be a good move. The rest of the way was mostly downhill. It seemed like a miracle, but coasting on fumes, we cruised in to the next gas station and once again breathed a huge sigh of relief. We fueled up, but only with a quarter tank.
We arrived back at the South Rim just in time to take in another sunset. I bid Manfred farewell, and at around nine o’clock, I started on my way back to Phoenix.
I was tired and hungry. I took stock of all the things I’d had to eat that day. It wasn’t a very long list. In fact, the only thing I’d eaten all day was an ice cream cone at the North Rim of the park. It’s amazing what a little adrenaline can do to your appetite. (I suppose the 40 degree temperatures might have had something to do with it too).
I stopped at Denny’s in Flagstaff. This was not only my first chance to eat solid food, but it was also my first chance to change cloths and clean the dust off from the hike. I didn’t realize until then, just how filthy I was.
By about twelve o’clock, I was a little ways south of Flagstaff. I had a ways to go to get to Phoenix, but I was starting to feel too drowsy to drive. I pulled into a rest stop on the highway and wasted no time in kicking off my shoes and climbing into the trunk for a nap. At 3 am I woke up. A little later than expected, but I figured I still had ample time to make my 6:57am flight out of Phoenix.
For the first time since stopping, I opened the car door and was a little surprised to hear a beeping sound. It was a lot like that beeping sound the car makes when you’ve left your lights on. “Oh rats” I thought, as I noticed the beam from the headlights illuminating the field in front of me. I turned the key to see if the car would still start. But alas, I had already drained too much of the battery. I looked around the desolate rest stop, and found no one that could help me with a boost.
I ended up calling 24 hour roadside assistance. It took me until 4 am to finally get someone on their way. Ultimately, the truck arrived just before 5 am and I was back on the highway at 5 am sharp, scrambling to make my flight. With 100 miles to go, it didn’t look promising. Again, luck was on my side and I was in the airline check in by 6:30 am.
After such a crazy chain of events, I was starting to wonder what could possibly happen next. Fortunately for me, the next surprise was a pleasant one. I got bumped off of two of my flights. As compensation, I was upgraded to first class and given a total of $700 in airline vouchers. Not hard to take considering all I really wanted to do was lie down in the departure lounge and grab a few more hours of sleep.
On my final flight out of Dallas, I was joined by forty rowdy Mexican school kids. The flight attendant had to ask the man next to me for help in translating some stern phrases into Spanish. I had to apologize as she struggled to control the little muchachos. “It’s all my fault.” I thought, “Chaos follows me everywhere.”