My Grand Canyon Experience (1995)
Carol Norris Vincent

“You, what?! Bill, I’ve never done anything like that in my life!”

My husband had just told his three college buddies that we’d be delighted to hike into and out of the Grand Canyon with them and their wives. (We’d only been married two years, and he hadn’t yet learned never to agree to something without first discussing it with me!)

All of us were in our late 50s in 1995 and “fluffy”, as my husband calls those of us who are overweight. A less likely group of hikers you would never see, but we “girded up our loins” and began a year-long training program for the arduous trip. Each couple began daily endurance walking, and once a month we met in one of Indiana’s state parks to tackle the difficult trails. We purchased all the latest hiking gear, read everything we could about the canyon, and felt we were ready. (All of the men were engineers, so the question of whether we had planned well enough never entered anyone’s mind!)

As the time drew nearer, some of us began to have serious qualms about our ability to make the hike — a seven- mile hike down a steep and rugged trail called the South Kaibab, complete with numerous switchbacks and precipitous drop-offs, and a ten-mile return hike up the Bright Angel Trail. Some of us recounted our nightmares of falling off the edge of a cliff or crawling on hands and knees to reach the top.

The day for the hike into the canyon arrived, cold and crisp with snowflakes in the air. But we knew that we were hiking down into desert country, so we layered appropriately. Actually, we were so laden down with all the layers of clothing, jugs of water, emergency first aid equipment, cameras, binoculars, tape recorders, hats, and walking sticks that we resembled something out of a horror movie.

We were merry as we began — trying to psych ourselves up that we could do it; we had prepared; we would help each other. But the group quickly divided into the “gazelles” and the “tortoises.” Two couples took off rapidly, eager to prove that they could make it to the bottom in less than the average seven hours. ”See you at the bottom,” hollered Charley, as he took off with Barbara in tow. The other two couples paced ourselves, knowing that just making it was more important than how fast we made it. Bill calmly told me, ”You can do it, Carol. I know you can.” And I gritted my teeth and said to myself, “I sure hope so!”

As we wended our way down the canyon, we gradually began taking off layers of clothing. We met four women in their 40s who were doing the hike as a lark — they had not prepared as we had, and two of them already had blisters on their feet.

At our lunch break, we met a man we dubbed “Grandfather” and two of his 20-something grandchildren. We learned that he was 78 and had made the hike numerous times, each time taking with him one or more of his children or grandchildren — a sort of rite of passage for the child who was physically and spiritually prepared for the journey. We also saw the young people in park ranger uniforms running down or up the trail, and discovered that they made the trip once a week in just a few hours. We really felt like pikers!

The day wore on, and we got more and more tired. Leroy yelled exhuberantly, “Hey, there’s the Rio Grande; we ought to be at Phantom Ranch soon!” Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the canyon, was our destination for the night. But we trudged for hours after that, some of us putting elastic wraps around our weakening, aching knees; and some just plodding on with determined looks on their faces.

At Phantom Ranch we knew hot supper, cold drinks, a hot shower, and beds were waiting for us — but, Lord, would we ever get to Phantom Ranch! Seven hours after we began our journey, and just as we saw the sun beginning to go behind the canyon walls, we arrived at the ranch. We found our accommodations — a bunkhouse for the girls and one for the boys. Fred said, “We don’t want you girls to bother us” — like we could have even if we’d wanted to! That night, the sounds emanating from the bunkhouses were conscious groans combined ”with unconscious snores. Beds never felt so good in all our lives!

Getting ready for our trip back out of the canyon, we were joined by a charming couple. Neil and Elaine said, “You folks look as if you’re having fun. May we join you on the hike out?” Neil had only one arm, and he joked that he was descended from John Wesley Powell, the famed explorer who discovered the Grand Canyon and who, of course, had only one arm due to a Civil War injury.

Our return trip began before dawn, for it was a ten-mile hike up the Bright Angel Trail, and we had been told that we should count on double the time going out that it had taken us to come down. There was no choice but to make it out as best we could — helicopters were only for heart attack and broken leg victims; and you can’t ride a mule out if you’ve walked down. Norita quipped, “I don’t suppose the escalator is working today, either!” We were fully expecting a 14-hour, tortuous hike. But we laughed and joked, trying to convince ourselves that we would make it to the top by nightfall — and hot supper, cold drinks, warm bath, and soft beds awaited us at the lodge.

It was harder just to start on the trip up: all of us were afflicted with the famed Kaibab shuffle — the manner of walking in which your hips can’t really move any more, your knees behave like the Scarecrow’s in “Wizard of Oz”, and you feel as if there is ground glass in every joint in your body!

We trudged on, ever upward. About half-way up the trail, we spotted the flag on top of the lodge — but it never seemed to get any closer. And still we climbed up and up and up.

It became a serious concern that some of us could not make it, so our one-armed angel (as we had begun to call him), took the lead along side the slowest one of our group. (We had decided that we would all stick together and had put the slowest ones at the front.) He began reciting poetry; we remember especially Kipling’s “Gunga Din” for it seemed so appropriate to how we were feeling. He urged us on, spouting positive, cheery verities and not letting us feel that the park rangers would find us someday, dead on the trail for lack of strength to make the trip.

As we neared the top, the altitude began to affect us more and more, and we could no longer talk without gasping for breath. We drank water voraciously, for the altitude dried us out even more than the unaccustomed physical effort. Our training had really not prepared us for the incredibly steep, rough trails we were on. At last, we reached the paved part of the trail near the top and knew that we were within a quarter mile of our destination. A sudden burst of adrenalin boosted us to the trail’s end where we posed for a group picture — and then went to our rooms and sat in bathtubs filled to the rim with hot, steaming water.

Was it worth it? I haven’t even mentioned the incredible beauty, the awe-inspiring sights, the fantastic variety of plant and animal life, the grandeur and magnitude of all we saw. Yes, it was worth it. Will we do it again? Not on your tin-type, honey!

After Note: This trip was taken 22 years ago. Within a year I began having symptoms of post-polio syndrome. What triggers it for many polio survivors is that “straw that breaks the camel’s back” — I had over-used my body and what muscles remained were damaged now beyond recovery. I still count this trip as one of the highlights of my life.