South Kaibab trail: my first real hike. We packed our 65-pound packs and showered the night before to save time. At 5:30am we awoke, dressed, checked out and grabbed breakfast when it opened at 6. We hopped on the 7 am Hiker's Express to the trailhead. My brother and father were in high spirits but I am not so enthusiastic. I jokingly toss out a Star Wars quote: "I have a bad feeling about this." I have never carried a real pack before, but I am greatful for how it is expertly balanced to rest on my hips and tailbone, saving my shoulders from bearing the hefty weight. Much of that weight being in the form of 3 liters of water, accessible by a tube, and an additional 1.5 liters in an ultralight bottle. There are granola bars, high-energy sugery foods like raisens/craisens and high-protein snacks in the form of beef jerky. There are also freeze dried meals for dinner and breakfast and an extra meal just in case. I carry changes of clothes, a bit of cold weather gear. There is a rain cover, jacket, and over-pants should the small change of rain the next day pan out. Other assorted camping equipment iscarried to balance out the weight distribution between each of the packs in our party. Father and Brother's pack contents largely mirror my own. However, they both carry a tent (I will share with my father) and balance the weight out by holding more of the food in my pack. My brother's pack is the heaviest due to his decision to carry both a larger waterbottle and an additional one. By 7:40 we are off.
The trail begins with a fairly steep descent in a feature that would ultimately prove to be its defining feature: switchbacks. A switchback is a section of trail that works much like the famous winding road of San Fransisco, whipping back and forth. But they are much tighter and rather than a smooth incline they consist of elongated steps. They allow for great drops in elevation in fairly compact space.
What should be a beautiful rising sun in the canyon is marred by an overcast. My brother is excited. This is apparent in the way he pulls away from my father and I, much to my disapproval. We try to explain to him that he will wear himself out, but he argues his heavier pack makes this his natural pace and thus it less exhausting that if he artificially slows his pace. He ignores requests to pause at the corners of switchbacks to wait for us to catch up. I follow the lead of my companions and setup my pair of walking sticks to help my balance. My father has to help me access the poles from pack. In this pause, my brother slips out of sight even to looking down on further switchbacks.
By 9am we reach the first break point. My brother has finally decided to wait for us here. This first section of the trail had seen an elevation change of approximately 1,100 feet downward. The cosy little stop provides me some nice opportunities to photograph a squirrel and bluebird as well as a chance to drop the weighty pack and sit. My father speaks to my brother about sticking together while I observe the path we will take past a massive mesa.
We set off again after about 30 minutes and the initial switchback gives way to a meandering, sloping path hugging close to the canyon wall. As the grand mesa looms close, we stop at a pile of rocks for a quick snack break and a chance to take off our packs at about 10:20. Continuing on past the mesa, the overcast disappaites to reveal a fully risin desert sun.
The path begins to alternate between long swaths of mild descent and sudden clusters of switchbacks. The steps on these switchbacks are not small steps! They are worn and uneven. Their height is more like that of your grandmother's old home. I using my poles to steady my steps down and press on are weight on them. These paths wrap around portions of the canyon that jut out from the wall as the canyon's shape mutates. Now, even the mild slope are increasingly uneven and worn deep enough that I am up to my knees in their rut. There are more rocks on the path and the threat of stumbling looms menacingly.
The path is taking a heavy toll on our knees and legs. I am relying more and more on my sticks to serve more like canes. The heat is beats down on us as we at last arrive at a break point. We set down on rocks in the shade of the last set of restrooms until the campground. The plateau of the rest area has a rugged beauty, contrasted against the noxious mud oozing out the lower floor of the cesspit-like restrooms. We stomach the stench of the foul building in exchange for shelter from the harsh light and finish off the last of the shared bag of beef jerky, leaving only the jerky bags specific to my brother and I. We are drinking more water, this time laced with powdered gatoraid.
I take a quick hit on the last chance restroom. The disgusting second floor is bare-bones. You excrete directly into the pit of the first floor where bacteria are breaking it down into a "humus-like soil" according to the Phoenix Composting Toilet sign. Without even the hand sanitizer dispenser of the waterless restroom at the trailhead, we use a sort of hiker's wetnap. This has to be stored in a ziplock designated for trash we carry with us. Pack it in, pack it out.
I am increasingly weary and ask to extend our stop. It is now that I learn from my father that this is not a beginner's trail. After about 30 minutes with the extension, the noon day stops and I am pressed onward.
The descent from here is a brutal series of switchbacks. My canes dig into my palms. My body is tense and I am falling behind my family. They stop to wait periodically before pulling ahead again. My desire to photograph this trip only serves to further my isolation. My teeth grit and my hands squeeze the handles as I hammer the poles into the ground. It's not a beginner's trail? There are easier ways down this dreadful canyon? I knew this path was steeper yet shorter than the path chosen for the next day's ascent, but why had my father chosen this path at all? The aching pain fuses in these thoughts to burning resolve. I resolve to be done with this whole mess.
Steeled and numbed by my focus, I catch up to my compatriots waiting around a corner. Sensing my increasing frustration, my father asks if there is anything they can do. A terse "keep walking" is my only reply. They are beginning to feel the weariness I already know as I begin to pull out ahead on a series of mostly smooth downward stretches. I know we are past the halfway point on this 7 mile journey. All I can think about is it ending.
My eyes behold a muddy, ugly torrent in the distance; our first glimpse of the river. Moving forward, the brief respit of the straight path gave way to a vast series of even more brutal switchbacks: the devil's staircase. My picture-taking is increasingly a token effort. The descent into hellish red rocks pairs well with the descent of my thoughts. I know who I'm mad at. I know who is to blame for this. I have let myself be herded into this, spending a thousand dollars on equipment for a hobby I have little interest in. I let others decide the path to take and set the pace. I am to blame for my predicament. It is my fault for not expressing myself. I am mad at myself for failing myself.
The staircase takes its toll on all of us. Steely resolve degenerates into machine-like procession; my program is dictated by the path. The sight of a suspension bridge over the river gives us our goal. The repititious stepping sears our knees and legs with pain. My pack is malaligned, digging into my clavicle, and has been since the last break. Only now do I notice it but my desprite desire to see this end keeps me from stopping to have it fixed. The diabolical path melds flesh to mindless mechanistic motion, granting it again a painfully organic inconsistency. When at last we reach the tunnel before the bridge, my walking sticks have fused with me. I am a great lumbering beast, hunched over elongated forelimbs. My camera swings below my neck as misplaced, grotesquely oversized testicles meant to ward off competitors. Exhausted, my descent is complete at 2:45.
The wretched beast continues a mindless pursuit across level terrain for another 35 minutes. At last, its den is found in a sandy space by a creek, zoned out by stones. We setup camp.