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Final destination

Written by Emmy on 7 October 2011

After our picnic, we bid farewell to the Grand Canyon and hit the open road.

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Although the Grand Canyon was our last real destination, the remote North Rim is a bit far from all commercial airports. Since we planned to fly out of Phoenix in the early afternoon the next day, we had decided that we would get a bit closer to reduce pre-flight rush. So we drove the deserted highways of Arizona and made our way to the first real city beyond the canyon, Flagstaff.

Along the way, we passed mesa after mesa, cactus after cactus, and very few other cars. These are the roads that 75 miles per hour speed limits and cruise control were made for.

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The only real landmarks along the way were two national monuments, neither of which I had ever heard of before picking up the area map. Contained within the same 35-mile loop detour off the highway, the Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are definitely removed. Wupatki, where we stopped for an emergency bathroom visit and a NPS passport stamp, is considered a sacred place among many Native American tribes. Sunset Crater, where we arrived after the visitor center had already closed, was formed by several volcanos back when Arizona was a more fiery place.

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We pulled into Flagstaff with storm clouds looming overhead. I had read all about a hotel in historic downtown Flagstaff and so reserved us a room. The Weatherford Hotel was definitely unconventional. I think there were more barstools than rooms in the establishment. Flagstaff lived its heyday in the 1800s during westward expansion. The town was christened on the country’s centennial — how it came to be named after the pole hoisting the stars and stripes. The Weatherford was a relic from that era, which meant that it lacked some more modern amenities. But upon arrival, all we really needed was a long shower to wash the canyon off of ourselves.

After washing up, we headed to Beaver Street Brewery, a restaurant highly recommended by all of our usual sources. We ordered a couple of the local brewery’s wares and tried to stick to local fare as well. We started with the thus appropriately named Arizona quesadillas, which were filled with chicken and served with sides of fresh guacamole and salsa.

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We asked our waiter what he liked best and he recommended any of the flatbread pizzas and one of the house platters. We had already decided he was pretty awesome, so we followed his directions to a tee. We split a southwestern chicken pizza, which was topped with a chicken, tons of veggies and a cilantro pesto (take that, cilantro haters — even if you might not be able to help yourselves). We also had the shrimp taco platter, which we both thought was phenomenal.

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After dinner, we strolled past the Flagstaff train station and decided to check it out. Amtrak was my primary mode of transit between home and Brown, so I became quite accustomed to delays on the Northeast Regional line. But we’re talking 15 to 30 minute delays. Apparently on the western lines, like the one that runs through Flagstaff, delays of one, two, ten hours are basically par for the course. Without an agenda for the rest of the night, we decided to sit on a bench and wait with the angsty passengers of the evening Southwest Chief.

IMG_6345While we were waiting, we must have seen ten giant freight trains roll through. Flagstaff sits on the highly trafficked Los Angeles to Chicago route of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, more commonly known by its acronym, BNSF. I’m not sure I have ever seen so many large aggressive freight trains before. We discussed the politics of transcontinental trains until the Chief finally arrived about an hour after schedule. We waited till the train had departed the station and then we retired for the evening. However, the freight didn’t stop just because we did. The trains ran all night, which was a bit more disruptive than our prior few nights under the stars had been. Price of capitalism?

We woke up in the morning and undertook our largest challenge to date. More strenuous than Half Dome, more tiring than the Grand Canyon, completed on less coffee than Angels Landing: unpacking, cleaning and repacking Dorothy. We managed to do quite a number on her in two weeks. If you happen to rent a black Dodge Grand Caravan in Phoenix anytime soon, just don’t open the stow ’n go compartments.

Before leaving Flagstaff, we managed to sneak in a quick and authentic breakfast at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace. Chaz ordered based upon the restaurant’s name and had a breakfast burrito.

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I followed their tagline — “the house that chilaquiles built” — and went with the traditional Mexican dish of scrambled eggs, tortillas, cheese and green salsa. Both portions were enormous and came with beans, rice, potatoes, lettuce and tomato, and tortillas. Breakfast was delicious, and I’m not sure I ate another full meal for the rest of the day.

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After finishing breakfast, we powered south to Phoenix. Over the course of the drive, we dropped almost 7,000 feet in elevation, a shocking accomplishment considering it never looked like we left the desert. We stopped briefly for gas and then pulled up in front of the Delta terminal at Sky Harbor International Airport. We couldn’t both bring Dorothy back, much as we would have liked to bid her a teary farewell together, because of the sheer amount of luggage we had. So Chaz took our girl home while I babysat what can only be dubbed a mountain of baggage.

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The final count on Dorothy’s odometer was 2,417.3 miles — a fairly awesome feat for two weeks. (Never mind that we flew more miles than that just to get to our starting point.) From the windows of our minivan we had seen deserts and the ocean, packed freeways and empty country roads, mountains and vast flat expanses. We had eaten (and spilled) countless meals in her confines, possibly broken a GPS system we never asked for in the first place, and listened to the same classic songs on infinite repeat. (And happily, we managed all this without damaging the car or earning a single traffic or parking ticket.) But now it was time to board our plane back east.

We flew together to Detroit, where another journey once began and others are likely still to come. “You don’t get to be silver without going to a hub a few times,” Chaz said, when I pointed out this symmetry. And so we hugged goodbye and ran to our separate planes, ending yet another fantastic voyage for the checkpoint.

Emerging from the canyon’s depths

Written by Chaz on 7 October 2011

The alarm went off at 4 a.m., and we were up and striking camp by 4:15. We had made the decision after packing all our things the day before that we could afford to bring the requisite items for making hot coffee, and I was extremely grateful that we did. (Even if we did have to both drink the coffee straight out of the percolator.)

Though it took us a little while to take down the tent, pack everything up and tie everything back onto our backpacks, both of our packs ended up much more securely attached than they had been the day before, when there had been a little bit of uncomfortable shifting back and forth. Given that we had the much harder trek out of the canyon ahead of us, we were both happy about that.

We got on the trail at about 5:45 after filling our water bottles and making one last stop at the composting toilets at our campground. Though the sun was still at least an hour from rising over the crest of the canyon, it was already light out, and we were able to put away our flashlights nearly immediately. We made excellent time, setting a timer to ensure that we took regular stops for hydration and snacking. We took a long stop for more turkey-muenster-avocado sandwiches, and to prop our legs up, which we read helps your body drain waste products out of your leg muscles to reduce soreness. (Ew, though.) We met a few interesting people along the way and enjoyed sharing and hearing Grand Canyon stories.By the end, we were sharing our tips, experts that we had become.

Though the last, steepest 1.7-mile section after Supai Tunnel wasn’t exactly fun, the hike out really wasn’t that bad, and we returned to Dorothy in a mood of extreme triumph by about 10:15. We threw all our things in the car, refilled our water bottles, and headed back down to the North Rim Lodge, where we walked out onto Bright Angel Point to reflect on where we had just come from.

After a few more bathroom stops (that hydration really gets to you), we drove away from the rim to a picnic area that overlooks the canyon for one last meal with a view. We couldn’t resist a celebratory cocktail — we considered that we had more than earned it — and we whipped up the leftovers from Mexico night as well as some macaroni and cheese, doctored to have some Southwestern flair.

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Amazing memories made, we packed everything back into Dorothy and said our goodbyes to the Grand Canyon, grateful for a wonderful visit.

Into the canyon

Written by Emmy on 5 October 2011

On Monday morning, we rose early, ready for adventure. We made coffee at the campsite and started to get organized, but decided that we were making way too much noise for the early hour and so packed up camp and relocated to the trailhead. Once we had parked Dorothy, we got to work trying to assemble our make-shift backpacking packs. To the expert hikers in the parking lot, we must have been embarrassingly amateur — our belongings were spread around Dorothy, we were tossing twine and a knife back and forth, things were falling out of the car and all the while, I kept yelling, “Hydrate!” (I was concerned about our insufficient water intake.)

After over ninety minutes of struggles, we got it all together. Highlights included a percolator strapped to the outside of my backpack and Chaz’s Crocs dangling from his.

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Inside (and outside) of those two packs, we were carrying:

  • One tent
  • Two sleeping bags
  • One makeshift first aid kit
  • Two flashlights
  • Extra clothing, fleeces
  • Crocs
  • Four sandwiches
  • Five waters
  • Six Clif bars
  • Three apples, one banana
  • Two cereal bars
  • One gallon Ziploc cashews, one small bag honey roasted peanuts, one small bag Thai chili lime cashews (collectively referred to as the NUT EXPLOSION)
  • One bag peanut butter crackers
  • One bag cheddar Bunnies
  • One giant tupperware of tortellini and spicy chicken meatballs
  • One Ziploc bell pepper strips
  • Map, permit
  • Car keys
  • Two wallets
  • Two phones
  • Camera
  • Knife, twine
  • Two packs of baby wipes
  • Sunblock, chapstick
  • Trash bag
  • Two toothbrushes, toothpaste, face wipes
  • Two packs gum
  • Ground coffee in Ziploc
  • Percolator, pot, stove
  • Propane, lighter
  • Fire-handling gloves

Puts our previously excessive-seeming Half Dome list to shame. Finally, at 8:03 a.m., only about an hour after predicted start time, we were on the trail.

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We hiked to Supai Tunnel, the first destination along the North Kaibab Trail. Mules (carrying people) go just as far as the tunnel, so we encountered quite a bit of their droppings along the way. The walk was just under two miles and was fairly steep. As we criss-crossed down the hill on switchbacks, I could only imagine — with slight fear — trying to walk back up them the next day.

Just like I had a difficult time imagining what the Grand Canyon would be like until I saw it, I had not known quite what to expect when climbing down the inside. Here was this giant thing and we were going to get in it. The first part of the trail was not entirely dissimilar from hiking down a steep peak, like Angels Landing. What was strange was just that the downhill was coming first. It was an odd feeling to descend on fresh legs.

From Supai Tunnel we continued past Eye of the Needle, a landmark on our map, but we’re not quite sure what it was. We crossed over a bridge and then came to a fork in the road. Roaring Springs was to the left — the endpoint recommended for a day hike — and so we decided to go check it out. We hadn’t realized it would be a detour off the planned path, but figured we’d see what was up.

The springs themselves were not especially noteworthy, but we found a bathroom, a water fountain and a good place to take a snack break.

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We headed back to the main trail and kept walking. We were now far enough into the canyon that the landscape really began to change into one of a desert. The top of the North Rim, at over 8,000 feet, resembles more of a dense forest. Much of the elevation change we endured was at the start of the climb, condensed into the first few segments, but we would ultimately lose over 4,000 feet over the course of the day — the very reason why I kept insisting we hydrate.

If I had been awestruck by looking over the rim and into the canyon, being inside it was a whole other story. Here we were, scaling down the wall of the Grand Canyon. The facts themselves were pretty awesome, plus the view wasn’t too bad either.

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We stopped at Pumphouse Residence, a ranger station complete with a helipad that received equipment drops all day. We tried to make friends with the project managers and park rangers, but they were busy. So we kept on walking. Finally, after 6.8 miles with our packs, we reached Cottonwood Campground. We set up our campsite, one of our more basic but with undoubtedly the best views of all. From our campsite, we could make our the faintest glimpse of the lodge at the North Rim. We had traveled so far during the course of the day, but because our journey had been mostly just downhill, we weren’t actually that far from where we had started.

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IMG_4844We gobbled down a lunch of turkey, roasted eggplant and tomato spread on whole wheat with a side of several water bottles each. We took a little walk to explore the creek beside the campsite and got our feet wet. We sat down on a bench and I announced I needed to close my eyes for 10 minutes. An hour later, Chaz announced it was time to get up. During my accidental nap, he explored our surroundings and made friends with some natives, pictured to the right.

We put on more casual footwear and took a brief 1.5-mile walk to Ribbon Falls, a highly recommended sight of beauty just beyond the campsite. The walk was gloriously flat, a nice change on our feet, and our singular backpack was very light. We carried only a water or two and a few cashews, a downgrade from our earlier heft. As we approached the falls, the path splintered — it seems that no visitors could agree on the best route, and so everyone had formed their own. We followed the most legitimate looking one (and also followed the sound of rushing water) and soon found ourselves in front of the majestic falls, which get their name from the unusual way they flow, appearing just like ribbons.

Hot and eager to cool down, we each took a quick rinse in the falls, which were flowing quite intensely. I gave Chaz a lot of abuse for his Crocs over the course of our two-week trip, but they came in handy in this particular moment.

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IMG_4884After thoroughly rinsing ourselves off in Ribbon Falls, we began to make our way back to Cottonwood. Because it was so late in the day, we were really the only ones on the short trail. Most people begin their hikes very early in the morning so as to avoid the heat of the day. During the summer, temperatures inside the canyon can reach 120 degrees. Park rangers also recommend hiking after 4 p.m., but we’re still perplexed as to why you might want to do the whole hike in the dark.

The distance from the North Rim to the Colorado River is twice that of the South Rim to the Colorado River, the reason why we did not go all the way to the river but many South Rim hikers do. There are also many people who hike from rim to rim in a day, about a 21-mile journey. We also heard in the visitor center about hikers who do rim-to-rim-to-rim in one day, but that’s a journey we’re not quite ready for yet.

Back at Cottonwood, we unpacked our propane stove and began preparing dinner. Most hikers carry down freeze-dried food, but the checkpoint never compromises on cuisine. We had lugged a very heavy tupperware full of leftover tortellini and meatballs, to which we added a few slices of bell pepper. When I played soccer in high school, we always had a pasta party the night before a big game in order to load up on carbs for energy. I viewed this dinner as our personal pasta party, preparation to climb out of the canyon. Never mind that we were both eating out of the pot; we still managed a gourmet experience as we watched the dimming light in the canyon change from desert orange to salmon.

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By 7:30 it was getting dark and we seemed to be losing the battle against a herd of angry bees eager to eat our food. Because we planned to get up before the sun, we decided it was about time to get into our tent. As we climbed in, we could see the stars beginning to shine overhead. I don’t think I have ever seen such a clear view of the constellations in my life.

The adventure spirit of the southwest

Written by Chaz on 5 October 2011

Our second day at the Grand Canyon started early. If there’s one thing I got better at on this trip, it was getting up early. (Actually, it was probably endurance hiking.) But we were in the car heading to watch the sunrise from Point Imperial within minutes after our 5:15 alarm. The cold was extreme, and we were both wearing every layer we had brought.

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Point Imperial is the highest point on the North Rim, and we were joined there by two other extremely intense photographers to catch the sun’s first rays.

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Though we had planned to make coffee at Point Imperial and enjoy the sunrise, our lighter’s premature demise prevented us from doing so, so we hightailed it back to the North Rim to visit the Rough Rider Saloon, which starts each day as a coffee shop before transitioning to a bar just before lunch hour. As we drove, the sun’s new light on the rim’s landscape looked beautiful.

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We took our coffee out to the porch, where we sat on the Adirondack chairs, contemplated the canyon in front us, and began to plan our day. A young man came over to us, and seeing the way we were studying our maps, asked whether we were planning a trip into the canyon. I admitted that I was flirting with the idea of trying a short one, but that we didn’t have any real hiking backpacks, which would make it tough. He encouraged us to try it anyway. He had just completed a “rim-to-rim” hike, and said it was amazing.

Encouraged by this advice, we returned our campsite after replenishing our lighter and chocolate supply at the general store. We packed our bags with snacks and lunch for the day’s hike and drove over to the backcountry permit office to discuss our plans with a ranger.

Though the ranger seemed pretty skeptical of my plan to tie our sleeping bags onto day packs, she encouraged us to go for it. “If it were me, I would definitely do it,” she said. So we headed back to our campsite once more for a dry run of our packing system, using twine to tie our sleeping bags — which were not exactly compact models — onto our backpacks. Lo and behold, it worked, and while our packs were far from light, we decided to pull the trigger on an overnight trip down into the canyon. One quick trip back to the permit office, and we had an official permit in hand for one night at Cottonwood Campground, seven miles down the North Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon.

Our plans finalized, we were at last ready to start our hike for the day. We had decided to tackle the trail out to Widfors Point, which winds five miles through the North Rim forest out to a beautiful overlook. The first two miles were peppered with intermittent views into the canyon, and then we meandered through the forest for the last three before spilling out onto the end of Widfors Point, where we had lunch: turkey, muenster, avocado, cashew sandwiches and our leftover Jacob Lake Inn cookies.

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We hiked back to the car and returned to our campsite, where we went into full production mode for the food we’d need for our trip into the canyon. Once we had a few things squared away, we were ready to relax for the evening, so we drove back down to the rim and ordered drinks at the Rough Rider Saloon to take out onto the porch for sunset. The Adirondack chairs were much more crowded than earlier that morning, but we managed to snag two. The pastel colors of the day’s last sunlight on the ridges of the canyon were just gorgeous.

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We returned to our campsite for a long-awaited Mexico night. We had a full selection of salsa, guacamole, chips and Mexican beer to kick off dinner, and Emmy whipped up a delicious Southwestern-inspired dish of spicy chicken sausage, refried beans with jalapeño, a blend of Mexican cheeses, fresh bell peppers, onion and corn salsa. It was perhaps her best campsite creation, and went very well with our surroundings.

IMG_6247Taken during a daytime encore.

As we cooked, I had to make two emergency runs to the general store as we realized we had neither propane nor graham crackers. But once we were restocked, fed and s’moresed, we headed to bed early, excited and nervous for the odyssey that lay ahead.

First views from the North Rim

Written by Emmy on 4 October 2011

After our brief stay in Zion, it was time to get back in Dorothy and hit the road. The journey to the North Rim wove through very quiet roads. Our map suggested we would pass several towns, but we didn’t find much more than occasional standalone gas-station-slash-motel-slash-convenience-store.

One of those one-stop shops is the famed Jacob Lake Inn, which sits about 40 miles north of the North Rim. The road to the North Rim closes during the snowy months of the year and Jacob Lake marks the turn-off for said road. The Inn is well-known for its restaurant, partly because the food is good and partly because it’s the only place for many miles.

Hours after our Angels Landing climb, we were ready to eat. I thought about ordering a chicken sandwich with feta cheese and sun-dried tomatos, but Chaz told me that was too New York for Jacob Lake, Ariz. So instead, I had the Grand Cheese — a take on the classic sandwich that lived up to its name — and Chaz had the Grand Bull, a sandwich best illustrated by its close-up below.

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We also got a bag of fresh cookies to go, based on recommendations from a park ranger at Zion. We also had been passing billboards advertising Jacob Lake’s cookies for miles.

Many national parks are surrounded by national forests, and the Grand Canyon is no exception. We entered Kaibab National Forest, a vast expanse of flat lands and very dense trees, long before reaching the canyon. Kaibab translates to mean “mountain lying down” in Navajo, which is basically what the canyon itself is. I was expecting desert flowers and cacti and was sort of surprised at how lush our surroundings were, but I guess that’s what happens at elevations of over 8,000 feet, even in Arizona.

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We finally reached the canyon and after briefly stopping in the visitor center, made a beeline for the overlook at the Grand Canyon Lodge. (“I need to see the Grand Canyon right now,” Chaz demanded when I asked if we wanted to set up camp first.) We walked out to Bright Angel Point, a lookout just south of the lodge, in order to get a fuller view of the canyon below.

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I knew the Grand Canyon would be spectacular, but it was hard to imagine how it would really look up close. I had this image in my head of us standing on a true edge, that it would be one straight drop down and visiting would be a balancing act. Though we were suspended on the rim (with tons of railings, mom!), what lay in front of us was less of a sheer drop and more just a vast expanse of truly unique landscape. I could not get over just how big the canyon was. Stretched out in front of us, it was just so captivating and unlike anything I had ever seen before.

We went to the campsite and set up our tent. We got back in Dorothy and drove to Cape Final, another overlook point. We missed some details in our intro at the visitor center and discovered that what we thought was going to be a little walk would actually be a four-mile round-trip hike. Given that it was already late afternoon and we had plans for sunset, it was going to be a little tight. Rather than skip the walk, we decided to “beast it,” and took the path at a speed walk and jogged over some of the flat parts. Even with a brief stop at the end of the trail for an incredible view — video below! — we completed the whole excursion in just about an hour.

We hopped back in the car and motored to Cape Royal, a recommended sunset-viewing location. We brought our baggie of Jacob Lake cookies to enjoy in the dimming light.

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We found ourselves in the Olympics of scenic photographers as everyone around us set up tripods and timers and long lenses for the beautiful sunset. Over the course of our many voyages together, Chaz and I have had the privilege of seeing some truly remarkable sunsets. We ran through a list while sitting atop the canyon, trying to pick out our favorites. It was hard to choose because of how different the landscapes all were. This was no exception; watching the sun dip behind the crevices of the Grand Canyon was truly a unique vision.

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After lingering in the last rays of light, we made our way back the campground for a dinner of pesto tortellini with spicy chicken meatballs. A week and a half into our supplies, our lighter had died, our chocolate turned mushy and our graham crackers stale, so we decided to forgo s’mores till we had a chance to visit the general store. We went to sleep at our usual bedtime of 9 p.m. in order to wake up and explore the next morning.