It was Friday morning about 9 a.m. (Arizona time) as I stood across the counter in the Grand Canyon North Rim visitors center from a park ranger who did everything he could to convince me taking a day hike on a trail from Imperial Point to the Kaibab Trailhead was not for me.
"Are you an experienced hiker?" he asked me with the kind of look on his face that showed he thought I was from New York City or Chicago.
"Yeah," I answered. "I have spent a lot of my life hiking around places in eastern and southern Utah. I know what I am doing."
He looked skeptical.
"We just don't want anyone to get lost and this trail you are taking, well it has a lot of ups and downs at a fairly high altitude and in some places doing it alone can be dangerous," he said. "For some people, as beautiful as the views of the canyon and the forest can be, this trail can be a living hell, especially when they do it alone."
I looked at him and wondered who he thought he was fooling. Just last fall I took the 18 mile hike to Mount Timpanogas where the altitude gets thin enough that you can count the oxygen molecules. I had cross country hiked in arid deserts in the middle of July, through the Wasatch Plateau in places where trails consist of a place where water dripped down the side of mountain and in the Oregon Cascades where a hiker can't see 100 feet because of the moss dangling from the branches. I told him I was sure I was ready for a short 10 mile hike through a largely ponderosa forest on a marked trail in a national park.
And so it was I found myself being dropped off at Point Imperial by my wife and our friend who both said the would meet me at the Kaibab Trailhead at between four and five that afternoon. I started out confidently and happily as views of the Grand Canyon popped up around every bend. The ranger had told me that this time of year, in the late fall, with the park getting ready to close., I would probably not encounter anyone. That was just the way I wanted it.
The sign at the beginning of the trail said that it was two miles to the Cape Royal Road, so I knew the first part of the trip would probably take me about an hour. In the first 7,000 feet I took a lot of photos. But things got a little dicey on one ledge when I decided to get really close and I stepped on some rocks losing my balance and dropping both my hiking stick and my camera. I saved the camera, as the thrift store purchased ski pole went off the ledge and landed about 200 feet below. I decided it could be discovered by some braver soul than me at some future time and continued on without it.
However, as the first hour closed, I didn't see the road. I realized I must have been hiking slower than my usual speed so I increased my rate of travel. Another 20 minutes went by and I still didn't see the road. I wondered if I had take a wrong turn somewhere. I got out my binoculars and peered from a ridge top I climbed and couldn't see a lane of black top anywhere. However civilization passed over me repeatedly as tour planes and helicopters broke the silence of the canyon. Despite my concern that I might have taken a wrong turn, I continued on and about 10 minutes later there right in front of me was the road. I crossed it and looked at the sign. It told me that Point Imperial was actually three miles away, not two. I rejoiced, knowing that I was not only a mile closer to my goal but that my speed had not been what was in question. The celebration included a salami cheese roliup and a bottle of water. I then crashed into the forest portion of the hike with a great deal of optimism.
However, about another mile down the trail I ran into a very steep downhill switchback which was totally covered with freshly fallen aspen leaves, still wet from the rains two days before. Undetered I headed down the trail. My first steps proved to me that those glossy little leaves get about as slick as an ice rink after a gambozzi### makes its way around it. I slid and I fell and I literally took a tour on my back of much of that switchback. A few bumps and bruises and a few close calls with fallen pine logs later I found myself standing in a large meadow filled with yellow grass and a sign in the middle of it telling me that I was headed in the right direction and had just put another mile of the trip behind me.
Once again I headed off into the forest, this time following the trail which appeared to be located on an old logging road, long since abandoned and mostly covered with fallen logs. In many places the park service had cut the logs in half and removed them; that was except for the recent falls of which there were many.
In about another mile I reached the top of the ridge and as the logging road ended I entered into a world of blackened trees with absolutely no vegetation surround them anywhere. The well
marked and traveled trail suddenly disappeared into this wasteland. In fact the ground seemed to be covered with dozens of trails all headed in different directions. I looked for various kinds of markings as I headed in what I knew to be the general direction of the Kaibab Trailhead. Every once in a while I would see a sliced log that denoted a trail and would spot a few footprints.
By now I was far enough away from the roads that traverse the northern part of the park that I could no longer hear car engines. But the ever present helicopters and slow flying aircraft continued to buzz overhead. I wandered helter skelter through that scarecrow of a forest, denuded by such hot fires in the last three years that even the pinecones that release their seeds in forest blazes in order to propegate the species, perished. A little concerned, I looked back and could see that I had wandered into this charcoal jungle quite far and it occured to me that if I couldn't find the trail going forward, I would have to retrace my steps to get out of the place. At that point, very suddenly, what seemed to be the the trail I had been following, dropped off a hillside and turned into a muddy wash. That may well have been the trail, but I certainly wasn't sure of it, and since I had never been on this mountain before, I decided to not go any farther until I considered my situation.
I realized that I was now, for the first time in my life, lost in a forest that I didn't know much about. My cockiness about hiking, and my experience, turned instead into a little shogk. I wasn't panicing, but I knew I was now within about two miles of my goal, but I had no idea of how to get there. Most importantly, I wasn't sure how I got to the spot I was in either. Despite the recent rains, which had washed away any trace of the trail I had been looking for even more, my footprints did not show up in the hard packed soil. I sat on a burned out log and thought about my options.
I thought to myself how ridiculous this was. I knew a trail head with dozens of people at it was only a couple of miles away. I knew too that less that about four miles behind me was a highway where a car passed by every minute. And above me, mans flying machines passed over about every two minutes, seemingly so close to the ground that I could touch them. But here I was, in my mind lost in a burned out forest.
I wasn't in a panic, but I was concerned. It was getting late in the day and the sun was beginning to drop low in the western sky. I had to make a decision. One would be to go ahead and hope to find the trail. The other was to try and retrace my non-existent footsteps and fight my way back to the highway, where I might be able to hitch a ride to the trailhead where my wife would be waiting to meet me.
Now what I finally did, doesn't really matter. Obviously I made it back or I wouldn't be writing this. But what does matter is that decisions to take on projects in life are often like my experience on that mountain last week in northern Arizona.
We as human beings will bite off something confidently, and then find it isn't at all what we thought it would be. Some of us continue to plunge forward with our commitment without thought of what our actions could bring later. Others of us, might retrace what we did to get us to the place we are today and either find a different solution or then see the situation in a different light.
In the first action we use our ego, thinking that things will work out if we just attack the problem hard enough. In the other we use our intellect, not worrying that we may not appear to be successful at our endeavor at first, maybe even kind of foolish in the short run, by admitting we weren't as good as we initially thought we were, but living to try another day.
As for the outcome of my hike, I made my ego eat a little crow, took the conservative approach and finally was able to find the trail that had brought me to the top of the moutain and that 1 back to the highway. There after a few minutes of sticking my thumb out, I was picked up by a delightful couple from Michigan who drove me right to the Kaibab Trailhead where I arrived a ha hour before my arranged pickup time.
I could have lied to my traveling partners and said that I ^ waiting for them after a long and successful hike, but I admitted my failure, with the anguish of defeat in my voice.
However, my wife, who is very good at making lemonade of lemons, pointed out to me that by having to do what I did, I actually was able to turn a 10 mile hike into a 14 mile one, with plenty of adventure to show for it.
I guess success sometimes comes to us in unusal and unexpected ways. And failure isn't always what it appears to be.