As gorgeous as the Grand Canyon is to look upon, its greatest gifts may not be visual.
“On any given evening in summer, but most notably in late June, there comes a moment just after the sun has disappeared behind the rimrock, and just before the darkness has tumbled down the walls, when the bottom of the Grand Canyon gives itself over to a moment of muted grace that feels something like an act of atonement for the sins of the world. This is the fleeting interregnum between the blast-furnace heat of the day and the star-draped immensity of the night, and when it arrives, the bedrock bathes in a special kind of light, the pink-and-orange blush of a freshly opened nectarine.”
Back when I wrote those words, the opening passage of a book called The Emerald Mile that chronicles the world of whitewater and wooden dories at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I was convinced that every sentence was truer than granite. Now, almost 10 years later, I still believe there is nothing sweeter, nothing more calming for the soul, than standing still and breathing in the wonder of the canyon in its finest hour—but with one qualifier.
In writing that book, I spent the better part of six summers apprenticing for a commercial river outfitter at the bottom of the canyon, floating upon the rapids of the Colorado by day and getting rocked to sleep by its eddies at night. Then in late September 2015, I embarked on a thru-hike of the canyon and realized that as you proceed deeper into the matrix of cliffs and ledges that are suspended between the shoreline and the rims, the charms of the canyon during its golden hour fail to register with the intensity they achieve on the river.
The apricot-colored walls rising nakedly into the crooked sky? The blaze of the setting sun? The lengthening shadows cast by locomotive-sized slabs of sandstone? The skittering glimpse of green lizards, the first star that appears in the purple gloaming of twilight, and the last star that blinks away with the pink specter of dawn? The muscular, sluicing, glimmer-gilded surface of the great river itself?
As marvelous as those things are, if you are moving through this world on foot, sooner or later you will come to believe that the bottom of the Grand Canyon is, without a doubt, the most miserable place on the planet.
Starting at the head of the canyon in Lees Ferry and following the river downstream, the opening stretch of our hike was plagued by some of the harshest terrain of the entire journey—a world of shattered stone and savage beauty.
After seven hours of moving across tilted fields of refrigerator-sized boulders and thickets of dense brush, I pitched face-first into the dirt alongside a patch of willow bushes, as good a place as any to set up camp.
To Pete McBride, a photographer and filmmaker who has worked in more than 75 countries and seen just about everything, I must have presented quite the spectacle. I hadn’t even bothered to take off my 55-pound backpack. “Can’t eat,” I mumbled into the dirt. “I’m in too much pain to absorb nutrients right now. Even my hair hurts.”
We’d come less than 8 miles since morning, moving through heat so intense that the rocks were too hot to touch by noon and the glue in our hiking shoes started to melt. The soles of our footwear had peeled away, and the bottoms of our feet were covered in heel-to-toe blisters. The next morning, we had to wrap our shoes in duct tape, then do the same with our feet. But that would be the least of our worries.
As we hoisted our packs and prepared to push on, Pete doubled over with abdominal cramps. Unbeknownst to us, he was exhibiting the first signs of hyponatremia, a dangerously low level of sodium in the blood, which, left untreated, can spiral into seizures, coma or worse. Foolishly ignoring his symptoms, we kept at it until the afternoon of the fifth day, when Pete’s muscle spasms became so intense that it looked as if a mouse were scurrying beneath the skin of his torso. That night, realizing we were in far over our heads, we agreed to bail out the following morning by climbing to the rim, walking to the nearest road and making our way back to my home in Flagstaff.
We had made it less than halfway through the first section of our hike, barely 25 miles in, but our resolve hadn’t been broken. In late October, we went back to the same milepost where we had pulled out and resumed our push. Throughout the rest of autumn and into the early part of winter, we threaded slowly along a set of ledges—some sandstone or shale, others limestone or granite—hundreds of feet above the river and thousands of feet beneath the rims. As we made our way downcanyon, snaking farther west with each passing week, a routine gradually set in.
Each morning, we would stuff ourselves with oatmeal, then set out on a 10- to 14-mile slog. It usually involved several thousand vertical feet of climbing (or descending) impossibly steep slopes choked with loose rubble or dense thickets of thorny bushes and shrubs, which we penetrated by hurling ourselves into the branches until we emerged, bleeding and covered in scratches, on the other side. This would go on all day until the sun began to set, at which point we would find a flat ledge to spend the night. We’d boil some water on our camp stove, wolf down some dehydrated food and then gaze up at the night sky, wondering if we might be moving through this landscape not only for the first time, but perhaps also the last.
As commanding as the canyon is, it’s vulnerable to attack. Along the edges of the national park to the north and south, the uranium mining industry has ramped up efforts to revive a series of “zombie” mines that threaten to contaminate the surrounding water table. The head works of one of these mines soars above the ponderosa and pinyon trees less than 3 miles from the entrance to the park’s main gateway.
Meanwhile, along the eastern boundary of the canyon, a group of developers from Phoenix has been aggressively pushing a plan to construct a 1.4-mile cable-driven gondola 3,200 feet to the bottom at a place known as “the confluence,” where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado commingle with the main-stem Colorado. This place rarely sees more than a few dozen visitors a day, virtually all of them arriving by boat. It is also a culturally significant place for four Native American tribes: Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai and Zuni. The proposed gondola would be capable of delivering up to 10,000 visitors a day to a section of shoreline adjacent to the confluence, where the developers plan to build a restaurant, thereby surpassing every 2½ days the total number of people (about 26,000) who float down the river each year. In 2017, the Navajo Nation declined to greenlight the project, but the developers continue to lobby furiously for its approval.
What kept us going had less to do with policy and more with the growing realization that the interior world between the top and bottom of the canyon was more complicated and wondrous than either of us could have imagined. More than 40 layers of stone, each older than the stratum above it, are splayed between the cream-colored rim and the inky black Vishnu Schist that forms the subbasement. The canyon is more than a mile deep when measured in vertical feet, but its truest declination is gauged by how far it penetrates into the well of time—roughly one-third the lifespan of the planet and a tenth the age of the universe. The uppermost layer dates back 270 million years, a time so far in the past that titanic events in the history of the world—the breakup of Pangea, the emergence of the first flowering plants, the arrival of the 6-mile-wide asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs—hadn’t yet happened when the Kaibab limestone was first laid down.
Grand Canyon National Park, which turned 100 on February 26, 2019, was imagined to be an inviolable oasis of natural beauty. Unlike the legendary thruways such as the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide trail—all of which include the word “trail” in their names—the canyon does not offer regular stops where you can grab a hot meal, shower or pick up care packages. (The only exception is Phantom Ranch.) There are no guidebooks for a thru-hike, so you must be adept at land navigation and route-finding across what amounts to a vertical wilderness. Out there in the isolated bays and promontories, along the high terraces and deep inside the slot canyons, you will spend entire weeks without encountering another human being. And finally, because the canyon’s main corridor is incised with hundreds of tributary canyons, each of which must be laboriously threaded into and back out of, the total distance a person on foot must cover is not 277 miles, the length of the river, but nearly 750 miles.
Over the course of our 14-month odyssey, we would fling ourselves into the canyon eight times: descending for 10 days or a few weeks at a stretch and then climbing back to the rim to restock our supplies and rest. Weeks later, we’d return for another go, always pushing the line farther west. By the end of January, we had rounded the Great Thumb Mesa, an immense promontory that marks the midpoint of the journey. In the process, we weathered a winter storm that dumped a massive load of snow into the canyon. Within hours, a world that just a few months earlier had felt like the inside of a blast furnace was now shellacked in a layer of snow and ice 9 inches thick—terrifyingly slick and unspeakably gorgeous.
Our eyelashes and water bottles sometimes freezing, we pressed on through February and deep into March until shortly before St. Patrick’s Day, when winter began to release its grip and the first flowers appeared. The pale-yellow brittlebush and the scarlet-petaled claret cup cactus were followed by the flame-tipped flowers of the 20-foot-tall ocotillo, a desert bush that evolved in lockstep with hummingbirds.
You’d think that things would have gotten easier, but it never worked out that way. By April, I’d fractured a finger while trying to claw up a narrow slot canyon in the dark. A day or two later, I lost my footing and plunged an arm directly into a barrel cactus, which is studded with hundreds of spines the size of a horseman’s hoof pick. After snapping a photo or two, Pete had to put his camera away to help me stanch the bleeding. The following afternoon, he walked directly into a cholla cactus and nearly passed out from the pain.
As the temperatures warmed, our water supply began to disappear. Our survival depended on potholes, small pockets in the slickrock where rainwater or snowmelt collects for a few hours or days before evaporating. Many of these puddles are brimming with grit, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans known as copepods and the feces of bighorn sheep, but we couldn’t always access the river. Potholes that held water for more than a day were increasingly hard to find. Often, they were so shallow that it became impossible to scoop water with our bottles, forcing us to extract it with a plastic medical syringe. Filling a dozen bottles in this manner could take up to two hours.
By now, our clothing no longer fit. Moving ceaselessly through the terrain burned more calories than we could consume, and we were rapidly losing weight. Our shirts hung in strips from our shoulders. Our pants kept falling down. Our feet and ankles and knees ached so badly that it was difficult to sleep at night.
One night, far out in western Grand Canyon along a stretch of orange-colored sandstone terraces that are smoother than a city sidewalk, I was roused awake by a terrible smell and sat up, convinced that something had crept into our camp and died. Turning on my headlamp but finding nothing, I deduced that Pete, lying about 10 feet away, was suffering from some strange gastro-induced flatulence in his sleep. Then I realized that the stench was emanating from deep within my own sleeping bag. The odors of my filthy clothes and unwashed body had blended into an olfactory cocktail of such toxicity that it worked its way into my dreams. I smelled so bad that I’d been woken up by my own BO.
And yet it was in moments like this, drenched in my own stink and blanketed in silence beneath the glow of 10,000 stars, that I came to know the canyon in its purest form.
The most notorious section of the canyon, dubbed Helicopter Alley, lies adjacent to lands controlled by the Hualapai, a tribe of roughly 2,300 members whose reservation stretches across about 1,500 square miles on the south side of the Colorado River. More than a decade ago, the tribe partnered with helicopter tour operators based in Las Vegas. Throughout a 22-mile stretch of the canyon, as many as 450 helicopters a day pass no more than 200 feet above the river. In such a wild landscape, the visual intrusiveness can be shocking. But the noise they generate is so intense that they can be heard up to 20 miles away.
The choppers don’t simply fly by and then disappear. Many of them ferry passengers back and forth between a series of helipads that line the south side of the river. If you’re floating along or hiking anywhere in this part of the canyon, there’s no way to escape the noise. Each morning, afternoon and into the early evening, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, the canyon is filled with a dull roar that persists without cessation from shortly after sunrise until just before sunset, when the last flight finally disappears and the canyon returns to its ancient self.
This became our signal to stop walking, shed our packs and set up camp. It was then, as water boiled on our stove and the sleeping bags lay unfurled on our tarps, that I could brace myself against a lip of sandstone and take stock of where we were. And it was then, during that lavender hour just as the sun dipped behind the rimrock, and shortly before darkness tumbled down the walls, that I would sometimes recall the words I’d written years earlier about this, the canyon’s finest hour, and ponder how moving through this place on foot had changed how I saw it.
Prior to this journey, my appraisal of this place had been almost entirely visual. Whenever I thought about what made the canyon unique or special, I referred to optics—color, shape, texture, line. Yet, the longer Pete and I were out there, the more we were forced to acknowledge an intoxicating idea. That the most remarkable quality of this grandeur—surely its least appreciated and most vulnerable—might have nothing to do with tinting or complexion, pattern or frame. Perhaps the finest treasure of the canyon is best calibrated not by the eye, but with the ear.
Out there in the westernmost reaches of the canyon, as the second autumn of our odyssey stretched from days into weeks, Pete and I marveled at the wave of silence that washed over the canyon each night. A silence so deep that we were convinced we could hear the swish of blood coursing through the vessels inside our ears. Looking back on that time now, I remember the way the silence descended over the land—and how it descended into me. I was not experiencing the absence of something, but just the opposite: I was embracing the canyon’s tranquility as tightly as it wrapped itself around me. Pete and I badly needed a bath, but we were rinsed in a calmness unlike any that either of us had ever known.
In this way, we continued moving through the cacophonous days and quiescent nights of October. In the interval between the departure of the last helicopter and the arrival of the morning’s first chopper, the silence made a place for itself inside us. Edging ever farther west until finally, on a Sunday morning in early November, we arrived at the Grand Wash Cliffs and, just beyond their portals, the place where the ramparts of rock fall away and surrender themselves to the flat and flinty horizons of the Mojave Desert. As we neared the end, I came to realize that I had touched upon the essence of the canyon in my first appraisal of it nearly a decade ago, but only now did I fully appreciate its muted grace. We carried that silence back with us into the world beyond the rims—a serenity that will stay inside us forever.
Keep the Canyon Grand
Developments proposed around the Grand Canyon, from a gondola to water wells and uranium mines located in canyon watersheds, threaten to irreparably damage this magnificent place, but you can help protect it. Please sign the Grand Canyon Trust petition to voice your opposition to these destructive plans.