Staring over the rim of the gorge, my only thought was, Well this sucks.
Twenty assorted Boy Scouts mulled around, checking each other’s gear, tightening ropes on backpacks, and filling bottles and mouths with water. My borrowed backpack was already slung over my shoulders and buckled tightly in some very uncomfortable places. Every time I shifted my weight to resettle the mound on my back, a delicate pinch would produce needles of pain. None of the older kids seemed to have this problem, but the occasional flinches visible on the younger boys’ faces told me I wasn’t alone in my discomfort.
The group shifted into gear as our best hiker, a well-built teenager with solid footing, took the first few steps onto the nearly-vertical trail ahead of us. He stumbled and his mountain of a backpack listed dangerously to his left, dangling for half a second over the sheer drop to the bottom of the canyon. Not the best omen starting out.
I’ve been told that the Grand Canyon is beautiful. In postcards, bright green and yellow cacti contrast the brick-red soil it grows in. The sun shines brilliantly as it nears the horizon and the caption says, “Greetings from one of the 7 Wonders of the World!” Looking at the Grand Canyon must be quite enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but the view is quite different when hiking into it. Staying alive meant watching my footing, so the red dirt beneath my feet transitioned into an eyesore after the first 30 feet. The colorful cacti became all too real if I stumbled in the wrong direction. The brilliant sun wasn’t anywhere near the horizon, so it too created a hazard as its heat forced beads of sweat to cluster in my eyes, making the whole “avoiding death via walking off a cliff” portion of the hike that much more difficult.
After the first quarter mile of tricky descent, the canyon leveled out, notifying the troop that the hardest part of the trip was over. The remaining 9.75 miles of flat terrain lay ahead, but I didn’t get my hopes up. “Flat” did not rule out brambles, streams, sharp rocks, mule crap (yes, mule crap), and of course, the cacti and the sun.
Our hiking party divided clearly into three categories: the athletes, who had the superhuman ability to hike without breaks, the couch potatoes, whose parents saw the Grand Canyon as an opportunity to force these poor souls into exercise, and the regular human beings, who walked faster than those waddling behind us and slower than the automatons in front. This third group, largely composed of in-shape nerds and hardcore intramural sports-players, quickly found issue within its own members. Many wanted to stick with the other two groups, either pushing themselves beyond exhaustion for 10 miles or pushing themselves beyond boredom after frequent breaks with the slowpokes. Many of us set our own pace, leaving this middle group rather spread out over the remainder of the hike. Solitude later turned to our benefit in regards to bathroom breaks, as the sparse foliage would not provide enough cover from a large group.
Fast forward through miles of desert turned to grassland turned to forest. The final stretch extended before us as we condensed once again into a full group. The heat was more bearable, the cacti left behind, our packs a fraction lighter from consumption of trail food and water. Arguing amongst the troop had died down, mostly considering it required extra air to talk. All taken into account, our excursion was going pretty well. We were almost there, people had finally shut up, and no one I cared about had died along the way.
Our first night at camp, it rained. Our second night at camp, it rained. Our third night at camp, it hailed. I had a wonderful learning opportunity. Apparently touching the roof of your tent while the outside is wet allows the water in. There was no fourth night at camp. Even darker clouds from the west made our leaders nervous, so we returned the remaining equipment to our backs and marched out. We knew better than to talk, or even to think, as we shambled across the canyon floor, keeping our eyes down and our spirits lower. Shockingly enough, it rained. And continued raining. Until it hailed briefly, before returning to our previously scheduled rainstorm. At least it wasn’t too hot on the way back. There was no complaining as we walked through flowing creeks with our already-soaking shoes plastered to our feet.
Moist forest turned to slippery grassland turned to slushy desert. After 19.75 miles, everyone looked up. Standing before us was an old enemy, even more menacing than before. Towering as tall as the canyon itself, streaming with trails of rainwater, promising disaster at the slightest mistake, was the quarter mile stretch we first walked upon entering this godforsaken land. In a moment of dramatic flair, the athletic boy who initially set us out on this path turned to face us. Rainwater streaked down his face, making lightning bolt patterns across his bronzed skin. Mud clung to his shoes and halfway up his legs, reminding us all of a Spartan warrior’s leather greaves. He raised his walking stick to the sky and lightning flashing, illuminating the fierce determination in his eyes.
“For Troop 78!”
He turned and charged the path, backpack flailing menacingly on his back. The rest picked up the war cry and stampeded behind him. Many were lost as they slipped in the mud, often taking out whatever poor soul was behind them. I hurdled over one of the smaller scouts, rejecting the temptation to watch him continue rolling to the bottom. In other words, things were going well.
The fight continued. Brave warriors continued to fall to the might of the path monster. Yet we fought on, many of us gaining ground, a spot of asphalt appearing just ahead–a chink in the giant’s armor. But the gods of the Grand Canyon frowned upon us. Maybe it was the branch we cut that was blocking the path. Maybe it was the spilled trail mix back at the campsite. Maybe it was the shoe that got washed down a river. We didn’t know, but we did know they were displeased as a fog of frigid fluorescent flakes fell upon us.
I slipped; my pack dragged me to the edge. I thought it was the end. My life flashed before my eyes. There was a disappointing lack of hiking experience. At the last second, I lashed out and grabbed the nearest plant in my path. My grip was strong, as if the plant itself were holding me fast. My last thought before the pain registered was, Damn it.
Blinking through a mixture of tears and snowflakes, I used the cactus to hoist myself onto the asphalt.
With the last of the survivors pushing the wounded onto the parking lot and blood drizzling from my hand, I looked out yet again at the beauty of the Grand Canyon. I reflected on my trip, and was surprised to find that I learned a valuable lesson. Something deep inside me stirred, and I was moved to tears. The sun broke through the clouds illuminating my face and the moral of the story:
Fuck the Grand Canyon.
Lucas Selby is a creative writing major at Arizona State University. “A Pleasant Hike” is his premier in nonfiction.