Day 43: Kismet at the Grand Canyon

I woke up this morning under a canopy of Ponderosa pines outside the national park.  As I watched the tops of the tall trees sway back and forth with confidence in the wind, I couldn’t help but think of the strength of their roots and wish to tap into their tenacity.

All the noise I heard in the night came from nature – the wind, the rustling of trees, birds chattering, insects rattling and chirping, deer making their way through the woods… I’d made reservations 60 miles north on some Hipcamp land, but the Kaibab National Forest beckoned me to stay within her quiet confines.  It’s funny for me to think back on the first time I “boondock” camped on public lands.  I was just this side of terrified and thought every noise was an animal or – worse – a human coming to menace me…but I was determined, finding peace in Grandma’s moon outside my window.  By now, these secluded spaces are my favorite finds and offer me the best night’s sleep.  (I look for the moon in all her phases keeping watch on me from above.)

Later this morning than I would have liked (darn that tricky border between the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones!), I set out to explore the scenic drive along Cape Royal Road, stopping to take in vistas along the way and hike the Cape Final Trail.  It was a tranquil hike, for the most part, flowing with rolling hills out to the rim of the Canyon.  I was frustrated by the grumpy faces of nearly every single hiker I met but grateful they were relatively few and far between (excepting the group of 20-some of the unfriendliest hikers I’ve ever met, spread out along the trail but identifiable by their matching shirts proclaiming “I don’t know these people”).  For the most part, I hiked alone, in quiet contemplation.  Visiting the Grand Canyon and looking out upon her majesty felt like something of a dream to me.

I’d been thinking of Karen last night and into today.  She was one of the other riders on my mule outing yesterday and was traveling with her daughter and grandsons.  The whole group of them made me smile and feel like I was a part of something on our ride, and I’m so grateful for those moments of connection out here.  There was something about Karen specifically that reminded me of a couple of dear women I’ve been lucky enough to call friends in this life, and I wished I’d gotten the names of her daughter and the boys (who, by the way, were much better at riding mules on the side of a canyon than me!).

Wandering toward the last of the look-outs, I heard someone call my name and looked up to see none other than Karen and her family.  I surely lit up at the sight of familiar and SMILING faces!!  The North Rim isn’t as ginormous and crowded as the South Rim section of the park – at least that’s the impression I get – but I was still surprised to run into someones I “knew.”  We caught up on our day and shared stories then went our separate ways, or so we thought…then an hour later, as I was heading into the Park’s public showers, I met them again, and we knew we were meant to share dinner together.  The Universe must have brought us together again and again for a reason!

It’s not very often I treat myself to fancier dinners on the road, but the occasion called for a splurge.  I’d been debating about where to spend the night (in my reserved spot up north or back in my secluded spot in the forest) and was grateful to Karen for making my decision for me – we’d eat and then I’d boondock nearby.  We managed to snag a table at the restaurant at the Canyon Lodge, where visitors apparently make reservations months in advance, sharing a dinner of trout and venison and pork and chicken and playing my favorite high-low game (What was the lowpoint of your day? What was your highpoint?), which they call “Thistles & Thorns.”  We drank wine and shared traveling stories and even talked a little politics (carefully, of course) and splurged on rich desserts.  I felt like I’d encountered kindred spirits in Karen and her daughter, Bridgette, and something tells me we’ll keep in touch.  And as far as kids go, I found Anders and Carston delightful and entertaining (even when their mother didn’t).

Once again, the greatest beauty of my trip comes not in solitude but in connection.

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Day 42: Muling Around

I can’t believe I’ve been wandering for six weeks.  To be honest, I never thought I’d make this journey a reality.  It was more than six months in the making, and plenty of times, I thought it would never happen.  (I’ll always remember a friend sending me the meme of the unicorn lying on her back in a psychiatrist’s office; “You have to believe in yourself,” the doctor told her.  Thank goodness I surround myself with people who believe in me!)  I feared I might chicken out a week or two in, yearn for the comforts of home, and call it quits then go right back to doing what I was doing; even if it wasn’t satisfying, it was familiar.  But I didn’t; I’m still going!

Yesterday I made my way from the Petrified Forest to a campsite north of the Grand Canyon, then I headed to the North Rim of the park this morning.  All the people in the know say the North Rim is the way to go, since 80% of tourists visit the South Rim.  The views there might be slightly more spectacular, but I won’t know the difference, at least not this time around.  We’re looking at a canyon a mile deep after all; it’s bound to be incredible from any vantage point.  Plus, after Yosemite, I prefer to avoid the crowds!

First thing the gal at the Visitor Center suggested I do is look into taking a mule ride down into the canyon.  I’d heard of this, but I never expected to do it…and I had all kinds of questions and concerns.  Is this humane? Are you kind to the mules? Do you take good care of them? Do they get to run and play in a pasture? Do they live a happy life? And are we taking advantage of them by riding them like this?  I just don’t want to be unkind… I hoped she’d be honest and understanding, even though her job obviously depends on selling tickets.  I was completely sincere, and, fortunately for me and my conscience, so was she.  She put my mind at ease…and I followed up by reaching out to a vegan friend to get her perspective.  When she fully supported my ride and even said she’d do it herself (“Those mules are working for their dinner, just like the rest of us.”), I gave myself permission to fully embrace my excitement about the adventure.  

I haven’t ridden a horse in years (I’ve never ridden a mule, but I’m told it’s easier).  I rode horseback with my aunt a couple times as a kid then went on a trail ride in college, but this ride was legit.  And the guide and “wrangler” didn’t really give us much in the way of instruction, just trusted we knew the ropes (and reigns).  The trail was steep and rocky and full of switchbacks, and I wondered what the heck I was thinking when we started going down.  It definitely took some time for me to settle in (I just kept telling myself Relax into the experience. Look around. TRUST.), and once I did, it was an incredible vantage point from which to see the sites!  Someday I hope to hike the canyon rim-to-rim (maybe in the moonlight…and definitely not by myself), but this time around, I was happy to let Ally (my mule) do the leg work – and grateful for a fun wrangler and a great group of fellow riders.

Good companionship makes beautiful places all that much more special.