Rachel's phone alarm went off at 4:30 am and we fumbled around in the dark for our flashlights.
A voice penetrated through our thin tent, "You girls awake?"
We folded up our tents and retrieved our sagging bear bag from the tree and then headed back down the dirt road towards the Grand Canyon. We loaded up on juice and coconut water in the car and discussed strategy.
"Alright now before we even think about stepping foot in that canyon I need you girls to make a promise. If one of us gets hurt, we turn around. No questions asked. No blame. We all go in together and we all come out together."
"Now you may have to drag me out. You ready for that? Do you girls know CPR?"
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," we thought.
The buses start running from the Visitor Center an hour before sunrise and we were determined to make it into the canyon for the first glimpse of light. As we parked, others emerged from the dark, laden down with packs and walking sticks. When the bus pulled up in front of the visitor center we all boarded, some in pairs, some alone, some packed in for an overnight, and some just coming for a morning pilgrimage to the coveted sun worshiping stop at Ohh Ahh Point.
Standing at the top of the canyon you're acutely aware of the gathering chill that winter will bring. We layered up with light jackets and daydreamed about the 100 degree weather at the bottom. The sky was already starting to pinken as we started down the South Kiabab trail.
The pilgrims took off from the start at a rapid pace, 6:12 am was the time to beat, and the clump of long distancers followed behind. The pack thinned out quickly as everyone set their rhythm and started down the steep earthen steps. My knee cried out immediately, a night of sleeping in a tent had cramped my body and it was not prepared to support the weight of a downhill pack full of canned peas and full bladders.
Ohh Ahh Point is a forward-pitched .9 miles down from the rim of the canyon. I trailed behind Jim and Rachel, babying my knee for the coming 12+ miles still to traverse before bed.
A shard of light hit the rim of the canyon to our left. How had 6:12am come so fast?
Before we could even get in position for our sunrise picture the light was already pouring over the lip and down into the canyon like hot, desert gravy, coating the rocks in orange sunshine.
Not far around the bend we came to Ooh Aah Point and stood with the other worshippers hooting at the sun and taking in the endless peaks stretched out before us.
Another half mile down into the canyon you hit Cedar Ridge. The day hikers who got a little extra hyped by the sunrise turned back here, leaving the rest of us eating our breakfast on red rocks. After using the last bathroom on the trail down we swung our packs, already slick with sweat, back on our backs and headed down further.
Eventually the path flattens out a little and you hike through a yucca stand, their one and only bloom slicing into the sky like mini desert sky scrapers.
Much of the hike down you spend looking at your feet, maneuvering your walking poles and just praying your knees don't give out. Finally almost half way down we could just walk and enjoy the spectacular views.
Scoutmaster Jim kept us on a pretty tight schedule though. With 10 miles still ahead of us until our final resting place at Indian Gardens there wasn't much time to tarry.
But there is always time for goofy snapshots.
How do I describe my uncle Jim? Delightful, as Rachel said? Incorrigible, as my aunt would jokingly say? Or just darn goofy?
As we got into the car back in Flagstaff, headed towards the canyon Jim grumbled in the back seat.
"I paid fifty dollars for these things and look at them. The lenses fall out. You think you're getting the good stuff when you go to Sam's Club and it's just as bad as the cheap ones."
"Worse dude, my lenses don't fall out," Rachel corrected.
He fumbled the lens back into place.
As we pulled into the gas station to fill up Rachel glanced in the rearview mirror and caught sight of Jim sitting stoically in the back.
"You look like a pirate," she laughed.
"Yeah ok," he laughed back. "You girls need anything inside? I'm going to get some coffee."
"Nope we'll wait here."
Jim walked into the gas station, one eye shaded black, one naked for the world to ogle at.
"Do you think he knows?" Rachel asked.
"How could he not?" I replied.
Jim came back with his coffee and slid into the back seat.
"Alright, we all ready?" he asked.
"Just about. Where is your other lens Pirate Jim?" I teased.
"What!" he leaned forward to look into the rear view mirror.
"Well no wonder the lady in there looked at my like I was an alien! Why didn't you say something before I went in looking all goofy? That wasn't very nice. Not nice at all."
Rachel and I threw looks at each other of "wait, is he joking?"
"How can you not tell the difference? One eye is black and one should be getting blinded by sun."
"I told you these things are no good," was all he said as he dug around the back seat for the missing lens and then pushed it back into place.
On our way down we crossed the cowboys on the pony (well mule) express bringing up mail from Phantom Ranch and bringing own food and other supplies.
After dropping over 2,000 feet into the canyon we finally started to feel like we were making progress and the sight of the Colorado river had us celebrating and hooting for our well earned canyon beer and lunch soon to come.
Our first look at the Colorado River - a muddy affair. Just before coming to Arizona there had been a marked period of rain that ushered all this mud into the usually more pristine riverbed.
In the home stretch to Phantom Ranch all that's left is to cross Black Bridge, stick your feet in the Colorado and then drag your tired bones to the shaded respite of the bottom of the canyon.
Frequently we took breaks to guzzle a little water and try to force down some nuts and dried food. While had worried all the day before about not brining enough food, we found it almost impossible to eat enough of the vast stores we had brought. The frigid 50's at the top were quickly climbing to the 90's and 100's at the bottom of the canyon. Sweat, hiking and a full stomach just don't mix. It was all we could do to force down water really.
We finally made it to the bottom and relief was palpable. We unslung our packs that had bloated with sweat on the hike down, and ran out across the thick mud to feel the cool of the river.
But what lay another half mile around the bend was the best part. Tired, hungry, getting grumpy, we strapped out packs back on and headed for Phantom Ranch.
Originally, the plan had been to sleep at Phantom Ranch and then hike out the next morning, splitting our hike neatly in half. Instead we had to use the Ranch as a resting and refueling zone.
The last half mile to the Ranch felt the hardest. Getting to the bottom had felt like victory and to hear there was more until we rested felt like torture.
As we rounded the bend from the muddy Colorado and the striped red mountains of the canyon wall we were greeted with green. SO MUCH GREEN.
Once inside we treated ourselves to Grand Canyon beer and oreos, wrote some postcards for the mules to take back up the next day, and then promptly fell asleep on benches and picnic tables.
As we got ready to go I headed to the bathroom one last time. The door was locked so I sat on a rock and waited. When I head the lock slide back I jumped up and a girl with glasses and a bright yellow bandana tied around her head popped out.
"Hey do you know where the water is down here?" she asked.
I pointed her in the right direction and she thanked me and disappeared.
I didn't think anything of the meeting until deep into the hike the next day.