Arizona & The Grand Canyon
"There are no rules, only traditions."
So said the the waitress at our Mexican restaurant in Downtown Tempe, AZ.
Two days earlier, Kel and I were eating turkey dinner with our family. It was Christmas. And, on Christmas Day, 2018, I surprised Kelly with a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon.
"Surprise! You have 24 hours to pack."
The Grand Canyon, or 'The Big Ditch' if you're hip enough, is a 277 mile long magnet of wonder, attraction and adventure. It is 18 miles wide and one mile deep. And, it's been on our radar for years.
Well, actually, "our radar" is a little innominate.
You see, Kelly is pretty astute at picking up what I'm laying down...even if I don't know what I'm laying down. She is my most indulging person ever and, to her, there is no such thing as a plan. I can pretty much count on her to buy into whatever scheme I'm selling...which changes frequently.
So, a couple years ago, when she said, "what about driving to the Grand Canyon in the van", my reply was, "go on."
You know that scene in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", where the ladies conspire to make the Dad think an idea was actually his? Pretty sure some of that took place here.
Anyway...anyone can visit the Grand Canyon. And anyone can hike around the trails. But, if you want to stay overnight in the canyon, which is generally required to achieve hiking all the way down and back up again, you need a back country permit. These back country permits are only given out via a lottery system. So, ever since she mentioned it I had secretly been applying for backcountry permits.
This year, I got lucky.
For New Years eve! In the grandest canyon of them all.
Like I said..."Surprise! You have 24 hours to pack."
We left rainy Vancouver and headed for Phoenix. The flight was uneventful, which in air travel terms is a good thing, and I managed to grab some shots of Mount St. Helens from 20,000 feet.
We had two nights booked in Tempe, AZ, before we would make our way through Flagstaff and on towards the Canyon village in a rented Kia Forte. Tempe surprised me. Its a cool college town with friendly people and a very walkable downtown area.
Like most places in AZ, Tempe has that beautiful Blue sky. The kind of sky that looks like someone put an Instagram filter over everything you look at.
Colours pop, the air is dry and vibrancy is cranked up.
At night, just as the sun is about to go to sleep, it looks like every scene could have been an alternate photograph for the Eagles' Hotel California album cover.
So, one morning, in downtown Tempe, I got up early, grabbed my camera...and spent the day just taking shot. After shot. After shot.
I shot the sidewalks. I shot the store fronts. I shot the Salt River as it snaked through Tempe Beach Park. I shot a very cool Ferrari parked in a downtown parkade. I shot in colour. And I shot in Black and White.
I was alive! And I was practising my craft.
And, as the twilight tickled time and space, and moved the occasion from moment to memory, Kelly and I climbed the Tempe Butte and I shot that magical Blue Arizona night sky.
It was afterwards, when we were discussing the best times of year to visit the Grand Canyon, when she (the waitress) said to Kel and I, "there are no rules, only traditions".
I loved this. I told her (the waitress) that I was going to steal it. She smiled...and brought us two more Mexican beers.
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is 3.5 hours, and 7500 feet in elevation, away from downtown Tempe. Essentially, you leave the greater Phoenix area and just keep driving at an incline until the air gets thinner and the temperature gets colder.
Two adults, hiking gear, food and a rented 4 cylinder engine in these conditions is a struggle. It's kinda like watching all those B-list celebrities on all those "dancing with the stars" types of shows. Most of them get the job done...but even the casual observer can tell when you're trying too hard. Our Kia was not happy.
We had booked a room for one night at the Maswick Lodge in the Canyon village. The plan was to stay the night so we could organize our gear and hit the trail down early the next morning.
Personally, I'm not a fan of tourist traps. The $12 beers. The bus-loads of day-trippers. The ignorant jack-ass throwing rocks over the canyon rim not understanding the big deal when people explain "there are hikers on the trails down there". The Canyon did not disappoint. The canyon delivered all of this. In spades.
But, I will say this. Get past it.
Because if you do, you will see the very reason why so many bus-loads do make that pilgrimage.
The lodge, the train tracks and the village itself are historical in their own sense.
But the Canyon? The Canyon is otherworldly.
The way the orange dirt gives way to pink rock which in turn supports the weathered trunks of shrub roots and trees. The way the mountain Ram allow you to pass on the trail and the Ravens guide your way, dancing on the thermals.
You will see the The TWO BILLION YEARS of the Colorado's craftsmanship.
But you will feel the magic and the mystic of the Supai and the Pueblo and the Kaibab.
Our permit was good for two nights in the canyon. This meant we would hike down and set up camp on day one, spend the next day exploring and then tear down camp, hike the 8 miles out and drive back to Phoenix on the morning after our second night.
The hike in was gorgeous. It was what ski bums call a perfect blue-bird day however, the weather reports were calling for a wet system to come in.
Phantom Ranch has huts you can rent and a canteen/restaurant. The unbelievably cool thing about Phantom Ranch is that you can actually make dinner reservations. They have two "seatings"; the 5pm steak dinner or a 6:30 Stew. While lodge and hut guests eat at Phantom Ranch as part of their package, hikers can also make dinner reso's and this is an excellent option for backpackers upon their arrival, eliminating the need to make your meal after a long day on the trail.
The dinner is served "family style" around one large table and you sit with other guests from around the world. We had the steak dinner and bought a $7 bag of M&M peanuts for dessert. IT WAS AWESOME! The Phantom Ranch dinner is a highlight experience and I absolutely recommend it if you ever make it to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Throughout that night, and the next day, the weather did turn bad. The rain did come. And so did the cold. Like, minus 16 cold. The rain turned to snow and, at times throughout that night, we had to bang snow off our tent to stop it from pooling into water and entering our cold but cozy accommodations. We stayed warm by heating up water on our camp stove which we poured into our Nalgene bottles and then tossed those into our sleeping bags.
We were stuck in our tent for that entire second day.
We played cards. We read books. And we talked. And we talked more.
I love these kinds of moments. They are intimate and revealing. And it wasn't disappointing in the slightest.
Kelly and I will always remember spending 16 hours together.
In a tent.
At the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The upside to all this snow was that it made for the most beautiful scenery for the hike out. How lucky were we?!
Just Kel and I.
On the Trail. In the Grand Canyon.
No rules, only traditions.