“In a strange kind of way, lifeless landscapes have so much to say.” —Porcelain Raft, Shapeless and Gone
April on the Front Range had record snowfalls, so a trip south to the desert made sense. Joe had a planned rendezvous with his uncle in the Grand Canyon and my apartment sublease was up and I needed a long, hot run to get ready for Transvulcania next month, so figured, why not?
Joe’s and my first road trip together was the 22hr epic out to Western States in 2010 where he drove the entire way; the long, crooked arm of the law shamelessly profiled our unkempt, hirsute visages half-way across Nevada (thanks to the “Runners To Watch” section in the WS100 Handbook, we were able to finagle a warning); and I learned the meaning of Joe’s moniker “Joe G FM”—with his olympic abilities as a conversationalist, we never turned on the radio in over 1000 miles of driving.
Last Thursday, this particular trip started off in classic style. After a well-intentioned break-of-dawn shakeout jog up in Gold Hill, we made our way down the hill to Boulder, but managed to not really hit the road until after mid-day. And then only 90min later, we, of course, needed to satiate our mountain running jones with a lap on Manitou Springs’ Incline/Rocky Mt. in the midst of a snowstorm.
Our goal for the day was to make it to the Four Corners area, which we quickly amended to Durango. Having gone to college there, Joe is familiar with the place, and when we rolled in desperately bleary-eyed shortly after midnight he directed us to a vacant cul-de-sac-cum-trailhead as a convenient spot to park the Roost for a few hours snooze.
Of course, only a couple hours later, Durango’s finest rousted us from slumber with a rap on the window and blazing spot lights:
Officer: “There’s no camping within city limits.”
(Me, more than a bit punchy with sleep, to Joe): “Are we camping? Is this camping?”
Joe: “We just got in late and are taking a quick nap before going for a quick run in the morning and leaving early.”
Officer: (After running my plates and confirming the car wasn’t stolen, I suppose.) “Ok, well, we just had to make sure you weren’t axe murderers from Texas. Next time, just sleep outside of city limits.”
He was about as cool as a police officer could be in that situation. A few hours later we awoke to annoying +10F temps, but got out for a little jog on dry mountain bike trails before grabbing some coffee and a croissant at Jean-Pierre’s and hitting the road.
The Desert Southwest—specifically the northeast quadrant of Arizona—is an exceptionally bleak place. There’s little to no vegetation, the road stretches on for as far as you can see, and the landscape is only broken by the occasional sandstone tower or cliff band. Towns are infrequent and when you do get to them, it’s usually just a cluster of gas stations and fast food joints.
But there is something about such open country that is exciting and feels uniquely American. I remember chatting with Kiwi ultrarunner Vajin Armstrong last year when he commented how the American West was so great for its ease of road tripping. He specifically cited the wide open spaces, spectacular landscapes, cheap gasoline, and high-quality roads. Having spent all my life out here, these are all things that I essentially take for granted, so despite the unsettling sense of exposure I often feel when driving across desert expanses like Nevada and Arizona (especially when it’s hot), I am grateful for the concurrent sense of freedom that the open road; an affable, like-minded companion; and a full tank of gas provides. Almost unexpectedly, we are soon turning west onto Highway 64 and buying a pass into Grand Canyon National Park.
We are meeting Joe’s uncle, Dave, and Oregon friend, Nick, at the Canyon. The plan was for Joe to accompany his uncle on his first Double Crossing, and Nick would do whatever his recently-tweaked metatarsal would allow. He’d end up doing the full R2R2R the next day with Joe and Dave. The Canyon has a way of inspiring and luring you in like that, and Nick is the kind of fellow who is wont to respond to such inspiration.
After a short jog to shake out the drive and meeting up with Dave and Nick, we drive to Yaki Point for a look at the great rift itself in the evening light. We park on the side of the road, and jovially amble our way through the pines and junipers on the South Rim until, BOOM, the yawning void and rococo striations and glowing temples catch us almost by surprise. Good god, what a spectacle. It’s been almost five years since I’ve been to the Canyon, and this is too long. The scale, the magnificence, the dramatically exposed geology—it all adds up to make this one of those truly unique and special places on the planet. Something about the stark, transition-less contrast in the landscape resonates deeply with me. One minute you’re strolling through a high desert plateau, the next—with basically zero warning—the world drops away and what lies beneath is a fantastical, almost incomprehensible wonderland. Running to the other side and back seems so improbable. This combined with the seductive pageantry of the geologic layers makes such an act overwhelmingly compelling. The Canyon seems like such a forbidden place that the fact that there is a totally reasonable means by which to truly engage with it makes doing so impossible to resist. As we make our way back to our simple campsite in the National Forest, I’m giddy about the next morning.
Waking up is easy because Arizona is an hour behind Colorado time. My set-up for the day is simple: shoes, socks, shorts, sunglasses, Buff, 12 gels, 4 S! Caps, and two bottles. I chug a bottle amongst the tourists at the trailhead and leave without water. One bottle is tucked in my waistband, the other strapped to my wrist; the initial downhill is relatively short, so I’ll just fill at Phantom Ranch. We’re relaxed at the start, but charged with the potential energy needed for the day’s efforts.
At 6:55am I drop off the rim and quickly find a comfy, sustainable rhythm. The knee I re-hyperextended in an avalanche a couple weeks previous isn’t giving me any issues and the trail is far smoother and more gradual than I remembered from five years previous. My perspective on terrain has certainly changed a lot in the last five years—especially the last two years—and I skip easily down the waterbars and switchbacks. My descent is only slowed just above the river by a pair of slow-moving mule trains hauling supplies down to the Ranch. It’s early in the day so I remain unfrustrated by the pause and hit the bridge crossing the Colorado River in 46min. This is a full 7min faster than the last time I ran a Double Crossing, so I decide to just go with it and see what the day brings me. My legs feel untouched as I scoot past another mule train on the north side of the bridge and run the 7min up to the Phantom Ranch Cantina/water spigot (:53). I spend a minute filling my bottles here, so leave at :54 elapsed time.
On the run through the narrow canyon leading to Cottonwood Campground—the next significant landmark along the route—I just try to slot into a sustainably quick groove, taking short, quick steps and steadily drinking my water. I know it will only be 75min or so to the Roaring Springs Residence and I want to be sure I arrive with empty bottles. The trail is very smooth and untechnical, so I’m able to take in the ambience of my surroundings while largely dissociating from the physical effort. Bright Angel Creek rushes loudly on my left side and steep walls tower above me. I avoid glancing up to the distinct band of Coconino Sandstone just below the North Rim; I’ll use it as a motivating benchmark when I get to it, but right now it seems too far away to even contemplate.
I pass Cottonwood’s water spigot at 1:54 and know it’s no more than 15min until the climb kicks up for real at the Roaring Springs Residence. I get there in 2:09 and spend one minute chugging water and filling my two bottles. The climb up is much less steep than I remember and in general is very runnable as it snakes higher and higher, tight along the western wall of the canyon. Many runners are out in the canyon today, and it’s energizing to cross paths with them, knowing that other people are out there each having their own meaningful experiences with the place. The trail steepens leading up to the Supai Tunnel (2:56) a couple miles below the rim and above there I go to a hike a lot more often as my running muscles fatigue and I try to keep the effort level relatively moderate.
I tap the North Rim kiosk at 3:22 elapsed time and immediately turn and start back the way I came. Everything is in efficient working order and I’m generally having a blast, but I only have ~10oz of water for the run back down to Roaring Springs. When I finally get there (4:04), I’m feeling pretty battered and I’m sure to chug a couple bottles of water before filling and leaving at 4:06. I really have the urge to sit down here–my legs are still getting used to sustained, continuous running this spring and I’m feeling it. Less than 10min later I cross Joe, Dave, and Nick on their way to the North Rim. The ache in my legs has been enough that I’ve largely abandoned any hope of running a fast time, so I gladly stop for a minute or two to check in with them and see how their day is going. Spirits are absurdly high with them, and Joe says I look like shit, which is pretty much what I feel like. I pose for a hammed up photo with Dave and then sink back into the gradual downhill grind to Phantom Ranch.
Most of the way there I have to remind myself that it’s OK to just take it easy and poke along, but I keep a decent pace going, mostly because I’m desperate to get there and rest and drink some water. Which, after what seems like a very long time, I finally do. This section up to the Ranch was a grind, but a nice reminder of what running hard for a long time feels like. The ache in the legs, the need to be constantly forcing in 100 calorie pockets of sugar, monitoring the need for salt…it’s all familiar but something that I’ve missed over the past six months.
I get to the water spigot at the Ranch in 5:08 and sit down in the shade as I chug three full bottles of water. After refilling, I jog towards the river at 5:12 elapsed time and can tell the stop has done me good. I’m eager to see what the uphill holds for me, and enter the tunnel at the south end of the bridge right at 5:19. The last time I did a Double Crossing I blew up pretty badly on the final climb and it took me 1:51 to get from the river to the rim. I’m hoping I can go faster than that today, but know that nothing is guaranteed on this last hill, especially with the sun blazing.
I immediately fall into an efficient rhythm of hiking and running. The water at the Ranch is obviously hitting my system and I feel like I’m getting stronger and stronger, even having to hold myself back a bit at times; it’s especially energizing to be engaging the hiking muscles after running for so long. I get to Tip-Off–where the Tonto Trail crosses the South Kaibab–in just under 30min from the river, and I feel great. I’ve done this climb several times as the finish to other long runs in the Canyon and know that a :55-1:00 split from Tip-Off to the summit is totally reasonable. Right now, I feel more than strong enough to make that happen, and with my 5:49 accumulated time I briefly have visions of not only breaking Dakota’s record (6:53), but of taking it into the 6:40s.
Ah, how quickly things change. Less than 15min later I’m veritably staggering along. I hit a gel, hoping for a quick boost, and it doesn’t sit particularly well. I know what I really need is probably another liter or so of water, but I’m nursing my final 10oz, knowing I still have 2500′ of vertical to cover before I’m done. Most of the rest of the “run” up to the South Rim is a frustratingly weak hike/stumble. The equation in endurance sports is simple—given the appropriate fitness you just need water, sugar and salt to keep the engine humming along. However, lack in any of those ingredients and things will predictably grind to a halt.
I manage to avoid completely blowing up, though, and after an 1h10 of effort from the Tonto I finally jog up the final switchback and tag the kiosk at the South Rim. Done. 6:59:24. The Canyon wins again, but this run is definitely a confidence boost going into the start of my racing season next month at Transvulcania. Joe, Nick, and Dave end up having a truly epic day, finishing late, late in the evening with a more than 15hr outing and 4hr final ascent from the river, but Dave got it done and never lost his ability to flourish his dry humor.
Despite refueling with midnight burritos, we all awake Sunday morning feeling pretty rough. Nick and Dave head back south, but Joe and I are eager to squeeze in one more date with the Canyon before pointing the Roost toward Colorado. Saturday we’d made our obligatory traverse of the uber-popular corridor trails, but today is about exploring another part of the canyon.
After finally locating the “trailhead” for the New Hance trail (there is no trailhead, per se, only a couple random pull-outs on Highway 64 near where a trail unceremoniously heads off into the woods toward the rim and eventually drops in), we spend too much time grumbling and groaning and complaining about our various aches and pains but eventually hobble off into the junipers, ready to descend back to the Colorado River. The trail turns out to be a real joy. There’s a route, but it is thin and sketchy, tucked beneath tree branches and thorny underbrush and technical, loose footing.
Our sore legs take a while to get coordinated, but soon we’re out of the shade of the rim and past the cliff bands and trotting down some smoother singletrack into a wide wash at the mouth of Red Canyon. Near here we pass a woman and a ranger hiking up the trail with large packs. They are, of course, incredulous at our near-naked appearance—we’re shirtless and each carrying a single bottle—and are eager to offer us liquid and food. We graciously decline and instead hustle the final 3mi down to the green-hued Colorado.
Here we pause for a couple of dunkings in the frigid water, say hello to another pair of folks who are camping on the shores, and get to work returning the way we came, scaling the 4500′ of vert back to the rim. The sun is hot, so at the head of the wash we are thankful to chug several bottles of water at a meager spring before refilling and resuming our grunt back up to the highway. This taste of the Canyon’s more “primitive” routes only whets my appetite for more in the hopefully near future.
It’s 2pm and Joe and I need to be back in Boulder no later than 10am the following morning. We’re sleep-deprived, sunburnt, sore, thirsty, and hungry. Time to hit the road. It turns into an endless journey punctuated by an unexpectedly outstanding milkshake and double-shot of espresso at the Peace Tree Cafe in Moab, Joe ODing on fast food, exhaustion-induced delirium soon thereafter, and finally a submission to sleep shortly after midnight at a rest area in Glenwood Canyon. We awake at 4am and I assume the wheel for the final push, but our progress is slowed dramatically by a blizzard on Vail Pass. We make it through at 20mph, stop for yet more coffee in Silverthorne, find the Eisenhower Tunnels to be mercifully tame conditions-wise, and finally roll into Boulder a little after 8am having replaced the storm clouds with gloriously lit-up Flatirons.
The sun has rejuvenated me, so I drop off the McNuggets-induced ill and virtually catatonic Frenchman and immediately make my way to Chautauqua for a trifecta of Flatirons, hoping to beat the incoming storm. I’m shirtless at the start, but finally am caught in the inevitable onslaught of snow about half-way up the 5th Flatiron. I don my jacket and scamper to the top and downclimb before it gets too wet, but then stubbornly wallow my way through the cold and snow to the summit of the mountain before finally descending back to Chautauqua and warmth, dryness, repose.
All in all, it was a glorious trip, full of adventures, miles, big hills, fellowship, and new experiences. Ultimately, though, there were several moments—whether it was while traversing a truly grand canyon, escaping with just a warning, or surviving a snow-bound mountain pass—where we were able to feel like real-life heroes. Challenges were met, we recognized our agency, stepped up, and our lives were richer as a result. That’s the difference between living and drifting. And something about getting away from home for even a short while really helps bring that into focus.