Hike #2: Going Down to Come Up
Updated: Jan 24
Yesterday’s hike was to the Chimneys in Big Bend National Park. 4.8 miles round trip, elevation change of about 400’, easy trail both in surface and route finding, a very small rock scramble at the destination to achieve a shady and scenic place for rest and food.
The caveat on a trail like the Chimneys is the slight downhill from the trailhead to the destination, which means a slight uphill on the way back. It is easy to overestimate your stamina in the easy quest to arrive at a lovely destination. Nowhere is this more warned-against than at the Grand Canyon.
I thought about the Canyon as I sauntered down the trail in the morning winter sun of Big Bend. It was 17 years ago this weekend that I found myself sauntering down the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River. I was at the Canyon for a two-week training course, and we happened to land it on the three-day King weekend. My hiking buddy ate Grand Teton trails for breakfast, and I was training to hike Mt. Whitney later that year, so we decided to hike the canyon on that Saturday.
They warn you not to do that, to try and hike the Canyon in one day. “They” is pretty much everybody. But I knew we were prepared, and we were. I knew how long I would take, based on my training hikes back home in the Inyos. And yes, those last few miles were a slog. Nothing surprising, though.
I did, however, make two mistakes. The first was when we arrived back at the rim. At the top of the Bright Angel Trail is Kolb Studio, a multi-story historic building housing a book store and a gallery of Kolb Brothers canyon photographs. My hiking partner wanted to stop in and take a look. I set my pack down outside and proceeded to walk down the interior stairs to the gallery area. Upon wishing to ascend the stairs to depart, I found that my legs were done. Somewhere in those few minutes of arrival, my brain had told my legs: good job, yo! We made it. Climbing up that flight of stairs was excruciating.
The second mistake was the dinner reservation at El Tovar that night to celebrate. My hiking partner was happily eating her fancy dinner but I could barely keep my head up. Really, I learned, the only way to celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime hike like that is a hot shower and bed.
Of course the Chimneys were in no way that kind of challenge. But the mind wanders when hiking. Driving allows that as well. I realized I’ve been missing that kind of unstructured mind time—not meditation where the goal is to observe and sweep away the thoughts, but permission to just let the mind wander. The body is working fully, but the mind has only a small job. Even watching the trail is simply a job of the eyes connecting with the feet—very little brain activity involved. And so the memories, the ideas, little math games my mind plays, the reverie of colors in the desert vegetation; the time not thinking about work and obligations and worries. And yet—with all the wandering—still coming back to my breath and the moments of bird song.
And the sun. I think the temperature topped out at 66 degrees on the hike, but it could have been 85 with the intensity of the mid-day sun. This is why I have decided to get down to Big Bend as much as possible this month and next—by March the flatland hikes will be too hot. I’m an old desert hiker, so I’m prepared. But I confess I was surprised by how hot it felt yesterday.
Or maybe I was surprised anew by the reality of going down to come up. Despite my experience with the phenomenon, that last half mile was a slog. Can I blame it on my new hiking boots causing a hot spot on my little toe? Can I blame it on my face mask, donned to pass fellow hikers? Or am I just a bit rusty?
The Russell brothers assure me: “At least if the species has lost its animal strength / its individual members can have the fun of finding it again.”
Ah, my animal strength. My birthright. Rewarded again by chips and queso, going to bed with dreams of the next hike, adding tasks to my weeknights to keep my Saturdays free. Where has this wild animal inside of me been? I know she has been off doing other important things, but I welcome her reëmergence in this way.