Today would mark the beginning of the most insane physical and mental 48 hours of the entire AZT. Waking up, I had no idea what would happen.
Janna and I were up at dawn, ready to high-tail it to Tusayan in order to get some hot breakfast. It had rained pretty much all night so the earth outside the Triplex was soaking. We managed to pack up in a 15 minute span where no rain fell, immediately followed by a drizzle the moment packs were on.
We jumped back on the dirt forest roads crisscrossing the southern Kaibab National Forest. Not 0.5 later and we began to sniff the distinct odor of woodsmoke. Suddenly, we the road we were walking on was flanked on both sides by charred and actively smoking trees from a controlled burn. Flames still shot up in places spooking us into how close we had unknowingly slept to this controlled fire last night.
Thick blankets of clouds hung low drifting among the tops of the ponderosa pines making up the forest around us. The temperature hovered in the mid-40s as mist and rain fell on concurrently. We walked through the woods, soaked, cold, and eager for the promise of an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. At some point, I picked up reception and talked to Harrison, filling him in on our location as we crossed a field of sage. Several miles later the sound of distant cars heralded the town as the double-track opened up into a larger road. We walked slowly and carefully next to several large male elk laying next to the trail, all slowly chewing plants, watching us intensely but unwilling to budge when they had become so accustomed to gawking tourists.
With that, a spread of barbed wire fence appeared in front of us leading into the back area of a large RV park. We carefully opened the barbed-wire fence and as I scooted through, a barb caught on the front mesh of my bag and completely disgorged the contents as a full rip seared across. My water filter and empty Platypus bottle fell out. I quickly placed them back in, grabbed some Tenacious Tape, and attempted to secure the ripped mesh closed again. That task accomplished, we walked quietly through the sleeping RV park, past the behinds of several large buildings, and spilled into the street of downtown Tusayan. Tusayan is a very small, but real gateway/tourist trap town just outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. Charter buses, throngs of cars, and a large number of people all made their way towards the park entrance just north of the traffic circles in town. Amid the hotels and gift shops lay a number of restaurants, including a Mexican one that fellow hikers has recommended as having the BEST all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Chilled from freezing cold and rain, we entered the restaurant and saw the most INCREDIBLE spread of food I could possibly imagine.
We paid the very reasonable price and began stacking up multiple plates of pastries, toast, jams, sausages, bacon, pancakes, fruit, eggs, yogurt, and multiple cups of hot chocolate to warm the body and provide even more calories.
To this day, I consider that one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten in my life. Hunger truly is the best seasoning.
We consumed plate after plate of steaming hot breakfast food, putting back the calories and macronutrients; my legs soaked up the energy and protein, urging even more consumption. I took a picture of myself per Harrison’s request right before I ate. The selfie is below to which Harrison described myself as a “Sad Aging Vampire.”
After consuming several plates of food, Rand and his friend happened to walk in and we laughed and caught up with him. He assured us the easy opportunity of getting a permit in the Grand Canyon as AZT hikers. Several other thru-hikers we had talked to occasionally also entered, some indicating they were taking a Zero Day here to stay in a hotel before the push to the end. Janna and I played with the idea, but decided to keep our schedule of hiking into/sleeping in the Grand Canyon tonight, exiting onto the north rim tomorrow, and making 18-20 mile days to meet our ride with Darren on the following weekend.
Filled with food, completely dry and warm, I felt a resistance to leave the welcoming restaurant and plunge back into the rain. But we had to get to the Backcountry Permit Office to see what we could grab. The rain had abated while we ate, but now it was more cold and raining steadily as we exited. We crossed back over the road, carefully returned to the AZT via the barbed-wire fence, passed several lounging elk, and found ourselves paralleling the highway of cars steadily heading into the park. The AZT passed through a culvert under the cars and joined a paved bike path on the other side.
We felt relaxed, moving lazily along the paved path, feeling secure and dreaming of the first views of the Grand Canyon to come. Janna was walking ahead of me on the path when she suddenly stopped, turned and faced me, blood running down her face. Her nose began gushing a severe nosebleed - the worst I had ever seen in my life. Blood didn’t lightly trickle, it kept a stunning and worrisome flow. I had her sit down on a boulder adjoining the Tusayan Bikeway, her head cocked slightly with a hand applying pressure across the nasal ridge. Even then, it seemed to do little to abatement. After 10 minutes of holding, she released the pressure and a massive blood clot exited, smacked the ground, and a flush of new blood began anew. I retrieved gauze from the first aid kit which we used to plug her nose while she applied pressure again. I was getting a bit worried as we were now approaching 20 minutes into the nosebleed. Thankfully, the clot kept this time. When she removed the pressure, it held and we began cleaning up the blood that covered our feet and clothing.
While we had been trying to control the nosebleed, I had kept a watch on the sky as a swath of grizzled clouds began to swirl and move quickly overhead. One cloud after another moved so fast overhead, that I knew a storm was boiling on top of us. As soon as the last blood was wiped, I whipped out my phone and accessed the weather app only to have the weather warning go audibly sound as a severe thunderstorm warning shaded our area. Within two minutes of the end of the nosebleed, loud thunder clapped from afar. We quickly pulled on rain layers and began to walk. The speed of clouds flying overhead made me very alarmed and want to walk faster. We were so close to the Grand Canyon, yet it felt like obstacles were being thrown left and right at us. With that, a volley of lightning strikes and reverberating thunder began to strike around us turning the drizzle into a torrential downpour as temperatures plummeted. The nearness of lightning strikes was so bad that we ditched our packs, separated from one another, and found uniform groups of trees to stand near. The thunder roared, the freezing rain completely soaked us, and adrenaline pumped for the worst storm we had been through yet.
After 10 minutes of razor intensity, the storm that rolled in quickly now ran out just as fast. The torrential rain sizzled into drizzle. The thunderclaps and strikes gained distance from us. Cold and wet, we gathered our items and now made time to the Grand Canyon. We were hoping to get to the Backcountry Permit Office earlier than later, but now it was becoming early afternoon. The bikeway passed through an old stone and metal arch signifying the boundary line for Grand Canyon National Park. This simple archway was actually the original entrance into the park, now replaced by the car-friendly one. A few miles later, and we came into the outskirts of Grand Canyon Village. Given the time, we decided to forgo grabbing a spot at the hiker/biker sites and immediately head for the permit office. We jumped on a park bus and recognized some fellow thru-hikers. One turned out to be a girl we had lounged with on the Gila River way back in central Arizona. We caught up and it turned out she worked for a summer at Denali and knew a common friend. She was actually skipping the Canyon and returning to Phoenix as she her trip’s time was up, and she needed to return to work.
As we jumped off the bus at the Backcountry Permit Office, Bilbo jumped on, literally at the same time. We laughed, hugged him, and told him we hoped to see him later in the day. We walked the half-mile or so over to the office and entered the warm climate-controlled room.
Two lines of hikers deep with AZTers stood in front of us. I was rather shocked. It turns out that the storm and rain we had been stuck in for the past two days had led to an inversion at the Grand Canyon. This meant the cloud layers had stayed below the rim walls, filling it like a fog sea. In an effort to prevent accidental death from walking off a ledge, the park service had prevented hikers from heading down. This, combined with the desire for AZTers not to hike down in the proceeding days’ storms, meant a large bottleneck of AZTers had built up. Now, everyone was making a go of it, looking to head down into the Canyon tomorrow. Inside we saw Frisbee and Stubs again! We hadn’t seen them since Oracle and were surprised we had caught them as they had been covering 20 - 30 miles a day for weeks. It turns out Stubs had gotten sick and they had taken two weeks off in Flagstaff to recover. It was great to see them. However, the line of AZT 750 bikepacking racers and AZT thru-hikers suggested permits were going to be tight. Instantly, I had a feeling of unease about our ability to acquire one.
What happened next is something I didn’t see coming. I’ll avoid detail here as there is little constructivism that will come from posting it. There were some unpleasant interactions with another individual that lacked respect and left me feeling belittled. The consequences of this interaction were hotly digested and dissected between the two of us over the next few days. Regardless, I’ll fast-forward and say that by the time we walked out of the Backcountry Permit Office an hour later, we and the other AZTers behind us found ourselves permit-less and facing a gauntlet day tomorrow that would require a cumulative 36 mile descent and ascent into and out of the Grand Canyon in a day followed by a 10 mile hike outside park boundaries to disperse camp.
This stressed me out big fucking time.
No camping permit achieved, we now found ourselves in hardcore adrenaline-planning-mode. Our original plan of taking the afternoon off to relax, sleep in, and do a leisurely hike down was replaced by a need to cover 36 miles beginning in the middle of the night. My mind became a checklist:
I felt like a bee racing this way and that. Bilbo entered the Backcountry Permit Office as we left and we gave him the bad news. He luckily had time to spare and adjust his schedule. We shared our itinerary with him and made plans for Janna to see him this summer when she headed to Washington D.C. It was to be our last time seeing him. We exited the office and the rain began to fall almost dramatically. The wind and cold kept the temperature hovering in the lower 50s as a high and we jumped on a bus to head to the post office and general store.
Once out, I was pacing back and forth frothing with thoughts. Janna calmed me down and said we had this: we just needed to get done what needed to be done - go stepwise. First, we got our boxes from the Post Office. Our last bags of dehydrated beans - it felt monumental. Next, we went into the general store where we ordered hot chocolate and took turns shopping around the store grabbing what we needed for the next several days. The store let us use some indoor chairs and a table to unpack and repack food. All the while, we continued to eat. Unfortunately, my appetite began to wane hard as my thoughts became clouded with the reality of what tomorrow would require. We finished, went outside into the blowing cold and caught a bus over to Mather Campground again. We got approved for a hiker/biker site and went to go setup in a large group of bike tourists, backpackers, and bikepackers. The storm that had hit us earlier in the day had ripped a massive limb off a pine nearby that crushed a building and crews were at work chainsawing it apart.
Food secured in animal-proof bins and the shelter setup in storm mode for a long night of promised rain and cold, we caught another bus to the South Rim. From there we caught our first glance of the Grand Canyon on this trip (see photo above). As evening approached, and with it more drizzle and cold, we grabbed dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Canyon. Had it been any other time, I would have relished the superb eating views. However, I could barely stomach dinner as my appetite was flat gone. Janna, having accepted the inevitable tomorrow more-so than I, ate heartily. I was freaking jealous.
Post dinner and a meal I barely ate two bites from, we exited the restaurant into the deep dark of twilight. Massive storm clouds had blown in all evening. In the dying light, we caught a glimpse of a winter storm pummeling the North Rim across the chasm. On the slightly lower South Rim, we found ourselves on the bus back to the campground, heading immediately to bed. Once in the Triplex, a series of sleet and thunder continued to hit us until I restlessly drifted into the shallow sleep of stress to come.