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Though the poppies are blooming in the cracks along Hollywood sidewalks, my head is stuck in the winter of a recent heartbreak, when my college roommate calls and says she and her boyfriend are coming west for the weekend. They plan to hike into the Grand Canyon, spend a night at Phantom Ranch, and hike back out the next day. If I can get to Phoenix by 8am, I can join them. I’m 24 and always ready for adventure, so I hop in my car with a sleeve of Ritz crackers and a backpack and head to see one of the wonders of the world for the first time.


It's a sunny 70-degree Saturday in May when we begin our steep decent down the ten-mile Bright Angel Trail. On the first thirty or so switchbacks, I’m fine. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt with a sweatshirt tied around my waist. I have my girl scout canteen and a tan suede fedora that appeared adventurous when I bought it in Venice Beach, but with the sun beating down on my head, its unaerated impracticality is obvious in the beads of sweat dripping down my neck.


That, however, isn’t my biggest problem. My biggest problem is my shoes. I have on pink and white high tops. Ankle support seemed important for such a trek, but these cheap faux-leather fake-athletic shoes came from Payless and are clearly not meant for hiking.


But I’d been raised in the school of make good with what you have. We put Wonder Bread bags in our sneakers and called them snow boots. We made kick-boards out of discarded Styrofoam cooler lids at the community pool. We played badminton with broken tennis rackets and sycamore balls. Our skateboard was a piece of plywood sitting atop two old roller skates.


Those make-goods made for cheap fun. This make-good is going to cost me. We are about three hours into our six-hour trek and my toes are pounding into the front of my shoes. My pink cotton slouch socks are damp in the pleather. Blisters are forming and my toes feel as bruised as my heart


Krissy and Eric have hiking boots and Eric has a legit trekking backpack. He’s thrown my flimsy Jansport with my toothbrush, sunscreen and pajamas into his bag, saving my back from the extra sweat.

The scenery is wondrous. Arid and striped in shades of red, orange and umber, carved out over an extent of time that is unimaginable. The crevasse of sadness that had hollowed me out as my ex fell further into drug and alcohol addiction begins to soften in the awesome beauty of the place, each step takes me further from the pain of a shattered relationship and more into my present discomfort.


We move to the side as a caravan of donkeys go by. I have never before wanted to ride a donkey, but today, I want to hijack that jack ass. With my bandana protecting my lungs from the dust, I look the part of the bandit, and I have an achy, aspirational daydream in the matter of minutes it takes the cavalcade to pass, a vivid vision of pushing a rider off the ass and onto his own, and hopping aboard. Surely there are sandwiches in his saddlebags that will taste better than the trail mix and fruit leather we hastily grabbed at 7-11 before our descent. But I refrain from my darker impulses and continue the trudge, on the lookout for petroglyphs and tiny patches of shade from the occasional scraggly juniper tree.


When we finally get to Phantom Ranch, it’s an oasis. There are camp chairs and beer. Big vats of chili and the smell of skillet cornbread. I peel off my socks and five of my toenails are purple. I have a dozen blisters. Uphill won’t be as bad I reason. I can do this.


The cabin is rustic with bunk beds that are surely uncomfortable, but we are so tired, we sleep like babies on Benadryl.


The next morning, we awake to the crack of thunder. Now this is 1991. I guess there was a way to check with the National Weather Service, but none of us thought to do that. It’s the desert after all. It doesn’t rain in the desert. That is why it is called a desert, we reasoned.


But it is pouring. And we are unprepared. We don’t have rain slickers. And my soaked shoes have very little tread. I am slipping on the mud just walking to the mess hall for scrambled eggs.


A park ranger offers up black trash bags to protect us from the elements. Which is great at first. But black trash bags aren’t breathable and after a mile or so of suction-cup-stepping up the steep path, we tear off those damned bags, panting in the heat. But it isn’t hot. It might be 40 degrees, and like our lacking knowledge of desert weather, we also don’t understand altitude and are surprised to find the temperature dropping as we rise toward the rim. Within an hour, it begins to snow. I am now grateful for my silly suede hat with icicles forming on the rim.


We are trudging in a fudge ripple of snow and mud. Krissy and Eric are arguing. She’s miserable, he’s cranky and I’m silently third wheeling just ahead of them like a stabilizing tricycle tire, occasionally tossing out pep-talk reminders that each step means we’re closer to the top. My feet are numb. Which I guess is better than pain, and as they argue I am starting to feel grateful that I am NOT in a relationship.


I pass a large boulder. Krissy sits down on it. “I can’t go any further,” she declares. I agree. If the rock were a cave, I’d crawl into it and sleep until the mid-summer thaw. But I also know that if I stop, I’ll get even more cold and my toes will surely be frostbitten. I take a swig of icy water from my canteen.


Eric says something pettish at Krissy. She snaps back.


I’m going to keep going,” I say, “See you at the top?” They both nod, perhaps glad to be rid of my positive platitudes. Fake it till you make it.


I slip through slush for a few more switchbacks, clinging to the canyon walls to avoid the steep cliffs when I notice the snow is really sticking. I’m wearing all my clothes from the day before, my pajamas and a pair of sweatpants and soon the snow is well above my high tops.


I stop to rest at a view point and take in the beauty of shrubs laced in white against the sandstone and mudstone walls. I pull off my ripped plastic poncho, revealing my Carolina sweatshirt. Two guys are standing at the railing and one says, “Did you go to UNC? Our best friend from High School went there.”  These guys are from St. Louis and Carolina is a big school, but amazingly their best friend is a friend of mine. What are the chances? I hike the rest of the way with them, grateful for the conversation that propels me forward.


When we get to the top, I remember Eric has my wallet is his backpack. My new friends buy me a warm pair of National Park socks, soup and beer, and we thaw out by the fireplace at the El Tovar Lodge, watching the mid-May blizzard through the picture windows.


Three hours later, Krissy and Eric trudge through the door. That is its own wonder of the world. That they made it. That they wandered into where I was waiting in a time before cell phones. I lost eight toenails after that trek, but I gained a couple new friends, a confidence in my ability to conquer both the elements and the grandest of canyons and a core knowledge that my broken heart and feet would one day heal.

As shared at Story Salon on May 1, 2024.


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