Our itinerary isn't too ambitious: 42 miles in four nights, but as always, the canyon miles come harder than others. The trek from the Tonto trail junction down to Hermit Rapids is far rougher than I remember, and the beach itself has been invaded by willow, a far different story than when I was here last. We stumble into camp in time to see some Canadians take on the rapids. They have 18 days on the river, and as we settle into our camps, falling asleep to the roar of the water, it's hard not to wish we had longer, too.
|Granite Rapids camp|
We have hit a mysterious warm spell in the canyon, with no ice or snow to navigate at the trailhead, and although the evenings drop into the thirties, the daytime temperatures soar enough to allow for a hiking skirt..in December. We hike back up the Hermit canyon to the Tonto trail, taking it across and back down to our next camp at Granite Rapids. There are few people on this section of trail, and we have the river mostly to ourselves. A shooting star blazes across a full-moon sky. How lucky we are, I think.
|My happy place: The Tonto trail|
My trail companions are as mesmerized as I am. Blue Dot speaks of growing up in India, where people walk for a purpose. Just going for a hike like this is mostly unheard of. Even Camel and Good Stuff, who have been here before, recline in their folding chairs ("only a pound," they defend their choice of burden) and take in the interplay of water, rock and sand.
On the third day, we slog back up the gravelly wash to the Tonto and ten miles east to Horn Creek. Only one party per night is allowed to camp there, and the silence is absolute. A small creek, said to be radioactive from a long-abandoned mine near the rim, trickles below our tents. Tempting fate, we drink from it anyway. This is not what we will die from, we tell ourselves.
As we reach Indian Garden campground on Day 4, the solitude and peacefulness is broken. Ninety people share the Bright Angel campground with us. Disregarding the warnings not to hike to the river and back in one day, hordes of day hikers, some in designer jeans, take it on. At first, I am tempted to veer off onto the East Tonto instead, but then I decide to embrace the experience. This is "glamping" at its finest: flush toilets and wine at the Phantom Ranch cantina. I lie on Boat Beach until the sun fades; it is nearly seventy degrees.
On the last day of the year we pack up and head out. Good Stuff has claimed that I will bolt for the rim, because I always do; I have said I won't, but in the end I can't resist. I come upon a man in jeans, who starts running when he sees me, reluctant to let me pass. Game on, buddy! I think, and he is forced to concede (sorry, you can hike faster than me and I will let you go, but running so a woman doesn't pass you isn't cool). I climb nine miles and five thousand feet in four hours; I want to know if I still can. Like all good trail companions, we have allowed each other the freedom on this hike to go solo for a few hours if we choose. I savor this. People who get it are hard to find.
I have thought that this, my tenth time in the canyon, might be enough. I am tired of the Corridor crowds, and I have beaten a path between Hermit and Indian Garden several times. What remains are the harder, more remote trails: Tanner, New Hance, South Bass. I am not great on the slippery downhill, and am not sure if I want to attempt these. But as I arrive on the rim, I know that I am probably not done with the canyon. Not yet.