Down and Up

20140315_111041To say that the view of Grand Canyon in Arizona is spectacular simply states the obvious. Sure, one could do without the scores of tourists in their street clothes, hopping on and off buses taking them along the rim, but once you take the trail and head down, then it is just you, other fellow hikers, and that breathtaking work that Master Time has wrought relentlessly to make it beautiful.

As you head down, the temperature is chilly, the wind can make you shiver, the sun is not yet on top and therefore you descend in the shadow, adding to the autumnal atmosphere. Unlike most of the other hikes one may do, you first go down in Grand Canyon, trying to reach as far as down as your time and strength allow you to.

I headed for the Hermit trail. However, this is not the typical hike also in another sense: the direction is not unwavering. You start going down, and it is very steep at first. Then, it kind of flattens, and for a while it takes you alongside the canyon, then it goes up again, before finally heads decidedly towards the bottom, where the Colorado river awaits the happy campers. I did not make it to the bottom, didn’t have the time and therefore did not carry the appropriate equipment with me. My goal was to enjoy the hike, about three hours or a great place down, whichever would come first, then rest and head back. Hence I plunged downhill headlong, planning to be back after four more hours. The plan worked perfectly. To a point.

The not-so-rapid Hermit rapids

The not-so-rapid Hermit rapids

I am going down at a face past, I feel good, the landscape is awesome, I have all I need: four bottles of water, fruit, vegetables, crunchy bars. The hike is reportedly difficult, as per the Grand Canyon guide, but to me it looks the typical alpine trail, and therefore I am ready for it. Looking around, I see first-hand the intervention of mother Nature on itself, to touch one of its work, to re-draw it, change it. Hikers aside, only few living beings are on sight: lizards as ancient as the land I am walking upon – or so they look, by the hoariness of their skin – or colorful birds that sing at your passage, not in fear, rather mockingly. I take pictures of the stunning panorama, but they cannot really capture the magic. After a couple of hours of descending along the walls of the canyon, I reach a plan, fully in the sun, that heads obliquely down, not many signs telling where. 2 hours and 40 minutes into my hike, I see a sign, “Hermit rapids”, I decide that fits perfectly what I planned, and there I go. Not much of rapids, actually, but there is a large boulder dangerously hovering over the creek, under which I find much-needed shadow… and some unrequested worries: what if this large rock decides it is time to fall right now, after millennia of motionless posing? I rest awhile, restock some energy, eat, drink, and off I am towards the finish line, back above the rim.

The first time I check, it is only 40 minutes later: I am going very fast, have already traveled the entire sunny plane, and am again on the wall. This time, however, the sun is on top of me almost all the time. It’s early afternoon, there’s no way to hide from it. I keep going, I meet people heading to the river, their tents on their camelback, some of them are very young, not so sure how ready they are for that, but they are in groups, someone must be Canyon-proved, I think.

20140315_101231An hour later I start feeling tired, I have water and food with me, I keep hydrated my body, but there are signs that I haven’t experienced before. My ribs are aching, I realize, only on the left side. Funny, no back pain, the usual feet pain at your first hike after a long inactivity, but now luckily I am heading up (not all the way, however, it is still an up-and-down-and-up again hike) and the feet are under less stress and friction. I start thinking that I need to describe this experience, and how. The sun is now at the peak, and it complicates the ascension. The pain on my ribs has now also transferred to the right side, the sun is making me sweat under my newly-purchased “Grand Canyon AZ” hat, through my also newly-purchased sunglasses.[1] And I outrageously start thinking that this kind of pain, along with the determination to reach one’s goal, whatever it is, the top of a mountain, the bottom of a canyon, or simply survive an ordeal, may be vaguely similar to what people undergo at the hands of brutal cops, or young immigrants to Italy, placed in modern-day concentration camp. Or people all over the world, for that matter, anytime they did not simply comply with an unacceptable, not-understandable order.

The pain does not go away, and you have yet to reach your destination. There is no stopping there where you are: you just want to free yourself from the torment you find yourself in, and move on with the rest of your journey. I keep moving on, but my head is not as light as this morning, my knees are a bed of prickles, my thighs as stiff as my feet. All the way I am now thinking that that must be how Benjamin felt while doing hashish as he planned (but did he?) to write about such experience. My post comes out very smooth and oneiric, and, ça va sans dire, it does not look like this one at all. Things I had… dreamed while hiking back are gone, perhaps with the drops of sweat I left along the hermit trail. The most literary drops I have ever sweated out…

When I reach the last part, the one I knew all along that would be a killer (I have noticed the faces of those hikers I met at the beginning, how vanquished they were, but only upon my own calvary they came back to haunt me…), I am happy that I am finally there, as happy as someone who knows that in order to rest he needs to hurt himself hard. I go on. I have never been passed on either way, downhill or uphill, but as soon as I approach the last ascent to the stars I passed by two guys happily biting their apple. They look very fresh. Five minutes later they will freshly pass by me, while I am resting under one of the few shadowy place, courteous of a lanky tree, on this part of the hike. I hardly understand what people say to me by now, I just utter some sounds, such as when two other guys stumble into me at the very end of my agony. At one’s question: “How is the way backup?”, I simply grunt: “Aaah…”, and they recognize the mark of the place. “Same answer everybody else gave us!” I wish them good luck, then, silently.


[1] I need to thank my friend Peter for his advice about how to be over- rather than under-prepared while hiking. You never really know what challenges loom ahead out there.

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