A painfully full bladder rose me from unconsciousness more quickly than is my usual habit. Damn, it was cold. I pulled my cell phone, covered in a layer of morning dew, from the tent’s pouch and tucked it and my head back under the sleeping bag. I wiped the screen: fifteen degrees, with a feels-like of nine. I had not been the most enthusiastic camper prior to this trip, and having to bear cold mornings to relieve oneself was a primary reason why. Early morning light filtered through the tent. We had ambitiously planned to wake up in time to see the sunrise (at the appropriately named Sunrise Point), a plan that had been more enticing the night before. Now that we had missed the show, there was no obligation to start the day quite yet.
I bargained with myself. I would play one round of a game on my phone, then force myself into the cold outside the tent to use the bathroom. I died with unexpected speed, which I assumed to be the universe’s way of telling me I was doing irreparable harm to my bladder. I rolled the sleeping bag, ensuring I couldn’t get back in. Most of the camps were already broken down and emptied. I made my way across them to a mercifully warm bathroom.
After a cold but starry evening and fitful sleep, we woke to see our breath mist in the air before our eyes. More accurately, Y woke up, got dressed, built a fire and had breakfast well underway well before I had got around to leaving my sleeping bag, let alone breaking down our camp. The backwoods shakshuka was delicious. Thusly fueled, we set off for a few of the vistas available along the 18-mile road that runs through Bryce Canyon National Park. We started at the very end of the road at Rainbow Point and worked our way back. There is no real way to convey the immensity of the landscapes here. Just as a city, with skyscrapers glittering in the sun, is perfectly engineered beauty, its antithesis in nature is as captivating. It is no mistake that this section of the country was the very last to be surveyed and mapped. It still feels unexplored, and there are assuredly parts where none have tread for dozens of years.
We followed the canyon road to its end at Rainbow and Yovimpa Points, then hiked the short Bristlecone Trail. It felt good to move a bit in the biting cold, and J entertained me with stories about Ebeneezer Bryce as we walked. A Mormon carpenter, sent to homestead the region, Bryce had built the road we had just driven on as a means of procuring firewood and timber from the plateau. His cattle grazed in the amphitheater below, which he referred to as a “helluva place to lose a cow.” It has been so long since lightning caused a natural fire in these woods, that no similar bristlecone pine forests exist in the world. We passed rangers bundling up fallen branches for use in a controlled burn as we made our way to the point.
Bristlecone pines grow slowly and can endure harsh conditions, allowing parts of themselves to die and erode in order to sustain life in a small portion. Yovimpa point is punctuated by one specimen, 1600 years old, a few live branches growing from a barren husk. 9100 feet up, the view is expansive, stretching out 12 miles, past Horse Mountain. The oranges, pinks, and whites of the hoodoos are vivid against the pine forests below. Their erosion is caused by the forming and melting of ice, and exposed tree roots along the rim, have been used to measure its rate at a foot every 60 years.
We exited the park into the town of Bryce Canyon, a tourist trap established in 2007 to provide lodging and fast food for those too delicate to camp. We passed through Red Canyon, literally, veering through tunnels cut from its coral cliffs. The severe landscape opened onto equally gorgeous meadows partitioned by small creeks. Tiny towns appeared every few miles, and we were relieved to break up Utah’s vast nothingness with gas stations, restaurants, and fine art galleries outfitted with Kokopelli signage and other Native American appropriation. A brief pause in Kanab, Utah’s Little Hollywood, allowed us to refuel the car, our supplies, and our stomachs with a slice of razzleberry pie a la mode at a local greasy spoon. The short drive to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim was serene, and we were quiet, lost in our thoughts as we advanced.
The rest of the day was given over to driving South and out of Utah, a state that seemed to loom over the whole trip. Alien, powerful, and unsympathetic to the petty quibbles of modern humanity, the region has a distinct pulse and character. Whether it was foreboding or excitement to reach Ecuador that much sooner, well before our time in Utah was over, I was itching to leave. After a stop in Kanab for groceries, we unceremoniously crossed into Arizona, though our lives were no less elevated than before. The drive towards the Grand Canyon from the North first takes you through Kaibab National Forest, Land of Many Uses. Kaibab begins as a wide plain, swatched in iron-rich dirt, pale yellow grass and gray-green scrub brush. I would gladly rock that palette.
As we passed the entry gate, I began to have butterflies, a sensation the jaded don’t generally experience. Y reached over and grabbed my hand, sensing the psychic ripples in the car. The finale, the climax of the trip was upon us. Even Moab, only a week prior, felt like it was a world away. We arrived at the Visitor Center, outfitted ourselves with information and hiked the brief but terrifying trail to Bright Angel Point. While I am not especially afraid of heights, the walk was pushing it. Wanting to run but having to pause and thoroughly weigh out the pros and cons of such a move only to force yourself into a deliberate stride surely builds an obscene amount of character.
It was amazing to have reached this goal let alone with a true partner. Having hit this lofty benchmark, I felt that many of the trials and tests to come will be handled with a verve and relative ease neither of us will ever be wholly conscious of. We are changed, and changed together, a tribe of two.
We arrived at sunset and took the short trail to Bright Angel Point. Despite being paved and wheelchair accessible, the trail’s steep dips and rises in elevation left us wobbly. We used caution along the sheer dropoffs of the narrow path, wondering aloud at what veteran roller derby grandma would have the grit (or upper body strength) to roll their way to its end. Even after weeks of taking in so much majesty, the sight was undeniably breathtaking. The scale of the canyon is awesome, and and we could see the San Francisco Mountains, 66 miles away. Standing two miles above the Colorado River, the air was strangely still. This was intense and intimidating. At least it was for us. All around us tourists climbed over guardrails and onto ledges, seemingly unfazed by the precariousness of their situation.
A ranger let us know about dispersed camping in the Kaibab National Forest, where primitive sites were nearby and, more importantly, free. We filled our water bottles with fresh water from the Roaring Springs 3000 feet below, passing roaming Bison as we exited to find a spot before dark. Not wanting to brave another night below freezing, or spend two hours the next morning trying to convince myself to leave my sleeping bag, I firmly suggested we sleep in the car. J, an Eagle Scout, was mortified by the proposition. He is quick to repeat a saying of his father’s, “There are people you would camp with, and people you wouldn’t,” and I was rapidly becoming grouped with the latter. However, I pleaded my case, and soon we were reclining beneath our sleeping bags, mapping out our plans for the next day over a dinner of gummi spaghetti and amaro.
We drove back into Kaibab, pulling off onto a back road to slum it in the car- neither willing nor appropriately outfitted to brave another evening in the low teens. We sipped Amaro Nardini before bed, excited for the next evening and the promise of warmer weather, a fire, and hot food, down from the high elevation of the North Rim. We woke early, surprisingly well-rested for having slept in the car, albeit a car the size of a hotel suite. The plan was to drive back into the park and down to Cape Royal to take in a series of views of the North Rim. Because of the early hour, we effectively had our run of the park.
We awoke to the tail end of the sunrise peeking between spindly trees. The road to Point Imperial bore a sign warning large vehicles to stay off due to narrowness and high winds. As we took the first tight curve a tour bus approached us from the oncoming lane. It was snug, but we had it mostly to ourselves at this hour. We reached the point as the passengers to the only other vehicle there were loading up, leaving us to enjoy the highest point on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim uninterrupted. The wind was violent on this side of the Walhalla Plateau, buffetting in stark contrast to the previous day’s scene. We looked out on Mt. Hayden until the gusts and freezing temperature spurred us back into the car.
It was windy and more than a bit chilly, but the privacy and silence were well worth it. We started at the highest vantage, Point Imperial, at 8,803ft. The beauty of the Grand Canyon is in its emptiness, its cavernous grandeur. It is a conglomerate sleeping giant that continues to slowly shrug and tremble into still larger canyons and cliffs with every passing day. At Cape Royal, despite the haze looming in the middle distance, the South Rim could clearly be made out, some ten miles away, along with mountains emerging from the sky, deep, deep into the haze of the horizon.
My appetite for the view was tempered by my heart rate, and I again moved cautiously and deliberately. We took in Walhalla Outlook, then Roosevelt Point. At Roosevelt Point, as we were enjoying the view, a raven flapped down onto the fossil of a pine tree and began speaking. I moved in slowly and took some pictures, which they didn’t seem to mind. The bird had three distinct phrases, and each felt important, entreating us to take all that surrounded us in, earnestly and respectfully. The raven stayed at their post as we departed, perhaps sharing wisdom with the sparse morning travelers haunting the outlook. Our last stop, Vista Encantada, was more notable for the perfect picnic we had, watching the nigh-perceptible shifting of the canyon before us. A simple meal of tomato and cheese on lightly dressed bread was perfect as the wind slowly sailed around us.
As we finished our meal, it was clear that the initial trickles of the floodgates were upon us. We were more than happy to head out of the park before the cattle call was made and cars unloaded, breaking the spell of the serene and placid majesty of the canyon. We found ourselves headed back into Arizona. Utah was quite the experience, but the promise of civilization was coddling me like a security blanket. After having my dependence on those creature comforts put into perspective, I am at ease with that nugget of self-knowledge.
The Colorado River was a sliver curling through the canyon, a silver reflection of the morning sun through Angel’s Window. It had been named the River Red due to the heavy sediment carried by its churning waters, described once as being “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” Now the Glen Canyon Dam held the sediment upstream, creating Lake Powell and emitting emerald green waters. We hiked the short trail over the window to Cape Royal, where the canyon opened onto an amphitheater of sorts. The morning was absurdly clear, and we studied the rock “temples” spanning the ten miles between its rims, visible in intricate detail.
We made our way back through the pinyon trees, sagebrush, and currants to the car. Cars full of tourists were ignoring the one-way signs directing traffic through the lot. Vehicles were taking advantage of the park’s relative emptiness, pulled the wrong way into turnouts and swerving down the center of the narrow road. Not to be upstaged on their own turf, even the fauna seemed to want a chance at making the drive difficult. Songbirds congregated on the pavement waiting until the car was frightfully close to make their escape. I chided their impaired survival instinct but mused they were at least keeping me to the 30 mph speed limit.
We scanned the Unker Valley for the horseshoe where the Ansazi spent their summers farming, and chatted with a Raven in a tree. Gazed upon the unique formation at Roosevelt Point, named for the “conservationist president” and creator of our public lands. At Vista Encantada we broke for lunch, enjoying our sandwiches with only the squirrels and ravens for company. The canyon is so vast, the only way to get to the South Rim is by going 240 miles around it, through the city of Page. It being the only city between the two points, accommodations there were scarce and expensive. Exhausted by our breakneck pace the last few days we decided to spend two nights camping in Glen Canyon, a half hour outside the city.
We followed the curving road out, in hopes of setting camp with plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely afternoon. The road had become more congested, littered with families in rented RVs and little experience handling them. We hoped they were at least earning the gratitude of their loved ones, so their terrible driving would be to some end. Suddenly, we heard a thwack on the front of the car, amid a flurry of fleeing birds. We sat silently, for what seemed like a long time. Finally I spoke, “I killed a bird in the Grand Canyon.”
We overshot our original mark of Marble Canyon, but took advantage of it and pulled off to see the Horseshoe Bend, swarming with tourists. The unobstructed precipice was more than enough for me, and we quickly turned back, walking up the hot, red, sandy hill, weaving between slower bodies in every skin tone imaginable. While I generally abhor the hoi polloi, it is certainly striking to consider the thousands of people crossing even greater distances than we have to partake of the natural wonders of the planet we all share.
The Vermillion Cliffs of Grand Staircase-Escalante stop abruptly at Marble Canyon, standing strikingly against the yellow brush of the valley below. We stopped for gas and I took advantage of the pause to shed my navigational duties for a nap. I awoke as we were coming up on Horseshoe Bend, half an hour past our destination. I forced J off the road and into the parking lot, a manic sea of vehicles jutting in every possible direction. We found a spot near the outskirts, shut off the car, and began a pointed debate about what duties are to be expected from a navigator. Recognizing this detour was a scheduled stop for three days from now anyway, we got out to stretch our legs and work out some of our annoyance.
Back down from elevation, the day had grown hot, and we stripped off layers as we joined the masses climbing the dunes to the bend. Signs warned of the danger of standing near the ledge, as the rock underneath was eroded in places. J passed me the olive branch of his water bottle and we were able to once more joke at the idea of pushing one another over. Somehow the trail was uphill in both directions, and we arrived at the car sweating, but excited, at least, for a warmer night in the tent.
We ventured back to Glen Canyon, where I got to enjoy the scenery I missed the first time. We were on Hopi Reservation land, and stalls bearing signs for jewelry, pottery, and buffalo jerky whizzed by. The road cut through the cliffs and back into the canyon. Just before the gas station where I had fallen asleep J turned right, into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. I hopped out to study the park map. I spotted the location of the campground as well as some promising looking trails and a beach to explore. A Subaru pulled up behind us and a man stepped out. He looked first me, then the Suburban, up and down as he came toward the map. I wanted to point out that the car was a rental, that we didn’t even own a car, or a house, to wave my miniscule carbon footprint in his smug little face. That was another problem with this thing, it garnered attention. The people who were impressed by it were materialistic and inconsiderate. The people who were offended by it were, well, us. I got back in the car without a word, not wanting to press an already spiraling afternoon, and we made our way to camp.
We drove back towards Marble Canyon, pulling off to camp at Lee’s Ferry, a National Recreation site. We settled on a site and prepared dinner, enjoying the last of the Old Heaven Hill Bonded and having some Manhattans for dessert. After a lengthy and increasingly less lucid conversation into the evening, we looked at the stars and Milky Way one last time before putting ourselves to bed.