The next step in the journey brought us to a sturdy Park Service bus waiting nearby. According to guidebooks, this bus would carry us to the top of the South Kaibab Trail. Amy and I climbed up the steps and down the narrow aisle lugging our backpacks loaded with sleeping mats, clothes and food. The water, a gallon for each of us, gurgled reassuringly in plastic bottles.
We sat down near the back of the bus. After waiting for late arrivals, the bus driver closed the squeaky door, started the bus, glanced at the rear-view mirror and shifted the gears. The driver, a frumpy, middle-aged woman with hints of gray in her hair, started her route with a slight lurch of the bus. Even at this early hour, several people got on and off at various trailheads and scenic overlooks that lined the rim of the Canyon. The driver seemed relaxed and friendly.
I felt a mixture of rising anticipation and panic sweep over me as we moved from the known into the unknown. One part of me felt giddy with exhilaration as we neared the trailhead. Another cautious part inside wanted answers and a reassurance I could not supply. This voice began with the usual question, “Now what did we forget to pack?” Other questions nagged at me beneath the surface. “What am I doing? Am I getting in way over my head?” I felt embarrassed and reluctant to share my reservations with Amy at this early stage of our journey.
Amy silently gazed out the window as the bus bumped along. Several other people on board spoke quietly, but with eager, nervous voices. One younger couple sat quietly, staring out at the passing trees, clear sky and a few scattered park buildings. Time seemed to shift during that ride to the top of the South Kaibab trail.
Even through the windows, the views from the top of the Canyon were magical. The elevation on the South Rim of the Canyon reached over 7,000 feet. At certain points, we saw visitors walking along the edge to admire the scenery. I had visited the Canyon just once during a winter vacation to Arizona with my ex-wife just a few years before. Unfortunately, the trail was icy at the time and we cautiously hiked down only a short distance before turning back. Like most awestruck tourist, I spent the previous visit walking along the rim, snapping too many pictures and admiring the views from the top of the Canyon.
As we gazed out the window of the bus, I could catch glimpses of the same views that enchanted me years before. I recalled that at certain points along the rim you could catch a glimpse of the Colorado River almost a mile below, although the folds and contours of the Canyon walls usually hide it. During the ride, all of our plans for hiking down into the Canyon took on a new reality. I finally realized in the pit of my stomach that we were really going on this trek and that we were going to be descending an entire mile in elevation — carrying a heavy backpack every step of the way.
To calm my inner turmoil, I reviewed once again why we had chosen the South Kaibab Trail to reach the Colorado River. For one thing, it offered a rich history. The South Kaibab consisted of a six-mile hike down a steep track first used by natives who, legend has it, followed a game path into the Canyon. Later, in the nineteenth century, miners searching for gold and silver widened and developed the trail. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the mines proved unprofitable and the miners abandoned them. However, the trails the miners developed became popular with the growing number of tourists drawn to the Canyon. During the 1930s, the park service started improving and maintaining a number of these trails into the Canyon, including the South Kaibab Trail.
The South Kaibab quickly gained a reputation for its beauty. Many hikers selected this route because, unlike other popular routes, it often followed ridgelines and offered a number of unobstructed views of the Canyon. However, the trail proved demanding. It was very steep in places, with numerous steps and switchbacks hewn out of ancient layers of rock. Most guidebooks rated the hike as “very strenuous” and warned that there were no water sources available along the route. Because of its attractions and shorter distances than the other routes, we planned to hike down the Kaibab and then to stay overnight at Bright Angel Campground, near the Colorado River. We would spend the next two days hiking up the better known, but much longer Bright Angel Trail to return to the rim of the Canyon. This option was less steep than the South Kaibab and offered several water sources. On the journey up, we would spend the night at Indian Gardens, a campground located halfway up to the rim.
The jolt of the bus and the sound of the door opening at our destination produced a moment of panic mixed with excitement. Like parachutists heading for the open door of the airplane, we picked up our awkward packs, shuffled forward and stepped out. The trailhead began at one end of a large parking lot near a scenic overlook called Yaki Point. Several people got off the bus with us. They knew exactly where the path began and eagerly started down while we lingered at the top. From the edge of the rim, I noticed the hikers followed a narrow footpath. The trail wound down through layers of gray and red limestone and then vanished into the awesome depths of the Canyon.
As the bus rattled off with a lingering cloud of exhaust, a strange, unsettling silence gradually emerged at the top of the Canyon as if even sound itself disappeared. Somehow, it did not seem respectful to start down without pausing. I knew I was not only poised at the edge of an experience that would change my life, but I also sensed that I was about to enter a place of mystery. After all, when you reach the threshold of a holy place, it is appropriate to hesitate, pause and gather yourself before you enter. You do not go into a great cathedral talking loudly and snapping pictures. When Moses encountered a burning bush, he took off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. In the East, you remove your shoes out of respect before you enter a home. Some religious traditions carry this practice even further and they encourage earnest seekers to wait outside and pray for three days before they enter a holy place. In that spirit of awe and respect, we paused for a few moments before stepping into this sacred space.
A large raven, one of the biggest I had ever seen, sat on the branch of a nearby juniper tree that leaned far over the Canyon rim to the left of the trailhead. As we started toward the trail, I recalled that in many native traditions the raven is an omen for a journey. Some traditions view the raven as a teacher or guide, while others consider the raven to be a trickster that you ignore at your peril. The eyes of this raven appeared alert and wise, like the guardian of some great mystery. She seemed as old as the gnarled tree on which she perched, her gnarled claws holding tight to a worn branch that swayed with the occasional gusts of wind that swept across the rim. As we walked toward her, she turned her dark head slowly, peering at us as if she was taking the measure of us and the distance between us.
When we drew too close, she raised her head and gave a loud and awkward “Caw-Caw” – a wild, almost challenging cry that broke through the silence and then disappeared into the Canyon without an echo. Then, unhurried as an old fisherman casting a net into familiar waters, she gathered herself and hurtled her body out over the rim of the Canyon, her black wings shimmering against the clear, morning sky. Her body swooped down for just a moment before her outstretched wings caught and rode a warm thermal of air that rose like a great invisible exhalation from deep within the Canyon walls. As I watched her soar away over the Canyon, I felt as if I had stepped into a vast and
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