Recently, I turned a business function into an adventure. Rather than handover wads of cash to blackjack dealers in Las Vegas, I saved my greenbacks and took two days off work for an extended weekend in the Grand Canyon!
A business function in Vegas doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, crank up the envy a bit more (hehe) because I was there to launch our (Stoic Studio’s) announcement trailer for The Banner Saga 2 at The Game Awards!
We had a blast meeting old friends and new, dancing, drinking, and eating amazing Japanese cuisine at Shibuya. But after shenanigans on the Strip were over, it was time for a solo-adventure to the Canyon – a 4.5-hour drive east towards the deep maw of Arizona.
After a late start, I rented a car, bought some food and water and made it to the Hoover Dam in time for the final tour of the Dam Powerhouse. Lake Mead (a perfectly-named lake for a writer working on a Viking game) is beautiful in and of itself but is dwarfed by the magnificence of the Hoover Dam. With its four intake towers protruding well above the lake’s surface and it’s mighty, 726-foot high concrete wall, it’s nothing less than a man-made miracle.
The tour instills a sense of American patriotism and bolsters one’s faith in the abilities of mankind as a video and the guide tell you all about the hardships and engineering feats required to construct this stationary beast. To class this story up, I peed off the Memorial Bridge which crosses the river and overlooks the dam – it stemmed from 95% necessity, I swear!
I slept in the car that night (green Kia Soul for old times sake) – this aspect of my travels is probably the most debated with others and I fully understand it’s not for everyone. Heck, it might not even be for me, but I’m stubborn enough to stick with it and it sure saves money and time.
An early breakfast of a cinnamon-raisin bagel with peanut butter and a banana fueled me on a very scenic drive towards Flagstaff. Seeing the moon hang above high-desert cliffs as the sky changes from black to purple, to pinkish orange and on into blue is definitely a treat. Add misty fog along the lower regions and it becomes magical.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I expected from the Grand Canyon National Park, but as I made my way to Mather Point for my initial look at this natural wonder, I was overwhelmed by the size and grandeur of it all. You can look at my photos and read my words but they will fall flat compared to your experience there (and I encourage everyone to go). Hearing about this place my entire life did not prepare me for how moving it truly is. Red, yellow, brown, white, and green striations, thousand-foot drop offs, rocky protrusions, and an unrivaled openness.
It couldn’t get better, right?
Wrong. Though walking part of the Rim trail while chatting and taking pictures with three traveling nurses I met there was cool (really funny chicks with no shame!), it was nothing compared to entering the Grand Canyon the following morning.
I “camped” that night – set up my brother-in-law’s tent in the 40 degree (F) evening chill, climbed in the sleeping bag and grimaced at not bringing a sleeping pad. For three hours, I listened to really good singers in a nearby campsite and then coyotes yipping nearby until my hips (I’m a side sleeper) could no longer take the cold, hard ground. I left the tent out but took the sleeping bag into the car and curled up in the back seat for a few more hours of shuteye.
At 9:15am, I started down the South Kaibab Trail with a 2-liter Camelbak pack, my new Lifestraw Go Water Bottle, trail mix, a couple of granola bars, and gum. I wore sunscreen, a t-shirt, a thermal shirt, a flannel, and a windbreaker, with a scarf, jeans, and a toque. My newish Merrel hiking boots and wool socks were glorious. Tip: I’d swap the jeans for prAna Convertible Pants, lose the flannel, and make sure the shirts were a little more wicking.
Descending from the Rim to the Colorado River (roundtrip is not recommended by the park and for good reason…but I did it anyway) is time-traveling geologically-speaking, and an exercise in appreciating the complexity of layers, artistically-speaking. Colors become bolder as you head downward, small ledges become massive outlooks, the weather warms slightly and your calves feel the strain. Mule droppings are also plentiful.
A DriftingDrew First: a short video link of —> me overlooking the Colorado River! <— (Not sure why the links in this theme aren’t underlined) **EDIT: I was just informed this is not the same Colorado River that runs to Austin, TX. Sad panda.
5,000 feet of elevation change later, you’re crossing a suspension bridge over the Colorado River. A ranger told me some sort of storm was taking place north of the Canyon because the water was raging and reminded me of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.
Phantom Ranch, the place at the bottom where sane people camp for the evening, is equipped with a cantina and friendly hikers. It’s like a slice of heaven there with golden-leaved trees lining a postcard-perfect stream. A woman gave me a flashlight for my return journey and wished me well (everyone I met from that point on looked very worried about me heading back up so late – it was only 1:30pm…heh, only).
I returned to the Rim via Bright Angel Trail because people told me it was less steep, if a bit longer. A bit? It’s 2 miles longer and it’s less steep until the last 3 miles! About 30 minutes from Phantom Ranch, I met a young man on the trail taking photos of the river. He had an adventurer’s spirit from the moment we said hi. He asked if Phantom Ranch was worth it and told me he felt like he “had to get down there for the story later”. I can’t help but respect that.
I saw waterfalls, drank from the stream (via my Lifestraw, of course), rested, and had plenty of time to miss a former traveling companion of mine (I’ll be honest, the image of her in front of me and beckoning me to keep going helped a lot). A man named Roland – probably 15-years my senior – caught up with (and quickly shot past) me on the trail. He’d made this hike annually the last four years and thought I looked like a tourist on my first hike. He gave me a few tips (mix salt into orange juice until you can taste the salt but not to the point of it being overpowering – this is a drink that instantly boosts you) and then took off, wishing me well.
The sun set as I approached Three Mile Resthouse – that’s 3 miles down from the Rim – and unfortunately my camera’s battery ran out. It was a beautiful sunset, coloring the canyon in every shade of red, pink, orange and purple you’ve ever seen. The gifted flashlight saved my life (it was a packing oversight to not have one and I will never hike again without one) as I avoided cliff edges, donkey scat and large puddles of urine in what would’ve otherwise been complete darkness.
My left quad and groin started cramping along the way and I had to rest frequently. A light below me turned out to be Adam, the adventurer I passed at the bottom, and he really helped me push onward and upward – probably emerged 30 minutes faster because of him (got out around 7:30pm). It was an added bonus to make a friend on the trail and we even treated ourselves to a steak/burger dinner afterwards.
Seventeen miles roundtrip and 10,000 feet of elevation change from top to bottom to top again. All in a day’s work. The 4.5-hour return drive to Vegas immediately afterwards was brutal, but I had an 8:20am flight, so it was coffee and thoughts of the future all the way back.