Carrying the World on Your Shoulders

October 2015

Ribbon Falls

Ribbon Falls

“Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking; you have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.”    —Cindy Ross


One reason young people are encouraged to backpack through a region, a country, or a continent is to learn how little you need to get by in this world. All of your essentials—food, clothing and shelter (and maybe money)—you carry with you.

Last week, I got my chance to embrace such simplicity. My goal was to come out of the Grand Canyon a different person than when I went in, and I knew that could only come about with some discomfort.

First though, I needed to shed some weight.

The Bitch and Her Sister Sacks
My friend Tracy called her 50-pound backpack “The Bitch.” Dory’s weighed a little less but looked more menacing on her tiny frame. Margi and Maxine somehow carried their weight without it looking difficult. Me? I never warmed to my 42-pound backpack, let alone gave it a nickname. It broke on the first morning of use and failed to fully accept it had to haul contents beyond its official capacity.

In the months and weeks leading up to our epic hike, I cut corners. I simultaneously trained for a half marathon, so I skipped many weekend invitations to hike with a weighted backpack (which I bought way too late, anyway). I never practiced pitching a tent or boiling water from camping gear. I got lucky my last-minute-purchase sleeping bag fit both my body and the trip’s night temps.

I tried to make up for my lack of preparation with enthusiasm, which was easy to do going down the South Kaibab Trail. Every turn brought stunning vistas and a few gut-wrenching drops.

It was on the second day, with on-and-off rain showers and a gradual climb toward the North Rim, that I hit my low point. My pack was slowing me down. Straps tore into my shoulders, smothered my heaving chest and shifted awkwardly around my aching hips, causing my legs to quiver. I stopped often to unload this huge burden and talk myself into making it just one mile more. Or half a mile. Maybe even a quarter.

Through unexpected elevation changes, rocky ridges and swift-moving stream crossings, I sweat profusely and cursed to myself. I knew my future health and happiness depended on both acceptance and adjustment. Plus, I had no choice but to gripe and bear it.

Going the Distance
A little later than expected, we pulled into Cottonwood campgrounds. I learned how to set my tent (which would be saturated from torrential rains that night and flooded by a leaking hydration pack the next).

Unable to sleep, I walked out into the quiet darkness around 11 p.m. and watched lightning and thunder move toward our inner canyon, feeling simultaneously vulnerable and invincible. The following night I rose from my tent at 1 a.m. and just stood in damp sandals and dry undies staring up at the stars, listening to a roaring creek and realizing this serendipitous wakeup was a gift.

By the time we packed up a day later for another campground, I felt stronger, more competent. My pack by then weighed only four pounds less (wet gear will do that). But the future felt lighter, my load more manageable.

I was ready to hike a mountain in reverse.

Hello and Goodbye
On the 10-mile trek up the Bright Angel Trail, I gained mental momentum with each mile. It helped that it was cool and clear for a change. Hours after reaching the top, celebrating with ice cream and my first shower in five days, I realized we’d each undergone a transformation, especially those on our virgin voyage through one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

It remains to be seen if our vows to become more fit and organized, and all those goals left unspoken, gain traction now that we are back in our regular routines, rife with daily distractions, family stress, unrelenting work and endless errands.

Now I know the challenge was never how to hold it together while in the Grand Canyon. Rather, it was how to hold on to it once I returned.