Finding Inner Strength on the Bright Angel Trail

When I was about to turn 50 I decided that I needed to do something physically challenging to celebrate this big milestone birthday, and mainly I had to prove to myself that I was not really 50, even though the calendar did not lie. When it comes to a physical challenge and a beautiful hike, there is nothing compared to the Grand Canyon. That had to be my first choice.  I’d been there gc_08-102before, but only in a passing through type of way, without time for some of the more scenic and challenging hikes.

I have an April birthday and my research showed this was a great time to visit and hike. It seemed that if you go too early in the spring there is treacherous ice on the trail and if you go too far into the summer, it can be hot as Hades. I disclosed my plan to Joe in the fall before my big birthday, and as usual he was up for the challenge. We walked all winter to start training. We put on our thick winter wear and walked and walked until we could easily walk for many miles, and half a day without any trouble. Of course we were walking in Blaine, Minnesota, which had few hills, while our big hike would be in the Grand Canyon, traveling along the steep cliffs descending from the rim of the canyon to the bottom and back up to the rim all in one day.

gc_08-163Hiking the Grand Canyon has been described as hiking a mountain, but you are hiking down the mountain first and then climbing up the mountain to get back to the rim.   It hurts your knees on the way down, as if walking down stairs for hours and it hurts your heart on the way up, as you climb and climb to get back to the top. We like a challenge, so the more we read the more our anticipation grew.

We flew out of Minneapolis excited and full of confidence in our abilities, with our adventure pants packed. I love these types of adventures where beauty meets challenge and I feel even though many people have gone before me and done the exact same thing, I feel like an explorer because for me it is new exciting and different. We had a lot of fun discussions on the way. Some of course were just for fun, but others were deeper delving into a self assessment and an assessment of the two of us and where we started and how far we had come. We had been married when I was 27 and he was 32. We were just youngsters then and now I was turning 50. gc_08-116These milestone birthdays lend themselves well to reminiscence and taking stock in oneself and our accomplishments, as well as looking forward to where we want to go in life together and for myself, my own wishes and dreams.

I have had a favorite saying for many years: “The life you have lived, does not have to be the life you lead.” That can mean many things to different people, but for me it means I can dream my dreams, and no matter what age I can follow those dreams. Whatever status quo I am in, can be changed if I choose to do so. It means I can change and reinvent myself, and no matter how old I am, I can follow those dreams and even create new dreams. It is up to me and no one else. It is never too late to do what you want.

The discussions we had were fun and uplifting, but when we were silent on that flight to Arizona is when I could reflect privately on turning 50 and how a I felt about that. I have never been particularly concerned about the numbers of age, but there was no doubt 50 was significant. I did not feel bad about my wrinkles or other such superficial issues. I was more concerned about the reality that I did not have a twenty year old body for adventures. This had nothing to do with gc_08-115how I looked, but how my body would function from here on out during our big hikes or on physically challenging adventures. It was also a time to take inner stock on what I wanted from life and to reflect. I knew the Grand Canyon with its grandeur would provide for inspiration and reflection.

We got there in the afternoon and reached our hotel. I booked a hotel with a refrigerator so I could freeze water bottles to provide cold water throughout the hike and into the heat of the afternoon, and also provide a cold pack for our sandwiches and ice in the event of an injury. We did some smaller hikes that day and looked at the sites around the rim of the canyon. We rested and had a nice dinner at Grand Canyon national park’s restaurant overlooking the beauty of the canyon in the late afternoon sunset.

As part of my planning I had selected the Bright Angel trail. It is a popular trail down into the Grand Canyon that starts at the rim in the park. As popular as it is, it is steep and challenging and many people only do a small portion and then return to the trim. It is treacherous enough that a
gc_08-106ranger is stationed at the top and questions hikers about how much water they have, and whether they have snacks or lunch and enough provisions to successfully hike the Bright Angel.

They even have large signs that show all of the stopping points along the trail. The sign indicates by words and pictures what one needs in provisions to descend to each stop site and how much you need to go all the way to the bottom and back. The sign indicates that one needs three sandwiches, snacks and six bottles of water to go all of the way, and if one is only going to the first stopping point, than one sandwich and three bottles of water, etc. So we dubbed different hikes the one sandwich hike or the three sandwich hike. We were going to do the three sandwich hike the next day all the way to the bottom and back on the Bright Angel Trail. We felt ready.

The next morning we arose early, put on our adventure pants and hiking boots, and brought along our hiking sandals to have a change of footwear which is necessary to prevent blisters and gc_08-093sore feet on the long hikes. We have learned to change shoes at some point, as it really makes a difference in your feet during and after the journey. Different shoes rub and move differently to give your feet a break. Also, we needed jackets and full hiking shoes, because early in the morning on the rim it was about 50 degrees and mid afternoon when we would be at the bottom it would be 80 to 90 degrees.  We brought our sandwiches and snacks and our frozen water, some regular water and a few bottles of Gatorade to refresh us in the afternoon.

With our provisions placed carefully in our backpacks, and having double checked to make sure we had more than enough, and with cameras and hiking poles in hand, we were off on our adventure. As I have lectured my children many times, always have enough in case you get lost overnight, and be able to make fire. I had plenty of food and water, and the ability to make fire in case of an unforeseen emergency. It may seem overstated in a National park like Grand Canyon gc_08-137and especially on the Bright Angel trail, but people die on Bright Angel every year and each year some get lost and some get airlifted out.

It was still dark, but just getting light when we started. After being checked out by the ranger on duty to make sure we were ready, we started our adventure. As we started we saw mules ready and saddled in a pen to take visitors wanting to ride down to the bottom. I grew up knowing how to ride, but that narrow trail on the cliffs of the Grand Canyon did not look to me like an attractive mule ride. I would rather walk myself. Not only would I be concerned about falling over the cliff, but the saddle sores and tired hips at the end of a ride on a wide mule for hours did not at all seem attractive, but people do it all of the time.

As we descended into the Canyon, the smells of the night dessert were lovely. It was cool and crisp and surprisingly moist. I stopped and took pictures often soaking in the beautiful scenery gc_08-098as we made our way along a narrow trail that hugged the cliffs. We were energetic and fresh from a good night’s sleep, and in that moment I wanted this day to last forever. As I took in the scenery, I also felt introspective. I was turning 50 and that was an amazing milestone.

I reflected on each phase of my life, thinking first of my childhood on the farm and then the fun I had in college. It was there that I worked harder than I had ever worked in my life to get good grades in classes like anatomy and physiology in my training to be a nurse. I learned a lot in a short four years and I continued on with my time as a labor and delivery nurse, and then to law school.

I thought about my family life with Joe and in raising three great kids. As I took stock of my life, I was happy. I knew I had not done everything right or by any means had I made perfect decisions, but I had done well and was proud and happy with not only the accomplishments, but the fun I had, and those times when I skipped work or school and had fun instead. I came to the conclusion that because I had so much happiness to reflect upon and because I could look
back proudly at what I had done with my first 50 years, that turning 50 was inconsequential. I had no regrets.

gc_08-108As we made our way down the canyon, we rested, talked and drank our water and ate our snacks. Our knees were very tired and starting to hurt as we hit the bottom, but the hike was not so difficult that we could not enjoy every part of our adventure. We had lunch at the bottom and rested our feet in the grass. We changed our hiking boots for hiking sandals as the temp was now well into the eighties. After a nice rest we started to head back up.

Hiking up the canyon took some work. Our knees no longer ached, but we had to take our time because the ascent was a workout for our hearts. We also took our time as we had planned and tried to enjoy every step of the beautiful trail. This is where we really appreciated the frozen water battles we had brought which were now just ice cold water to refresh us. As I walked up and up, I thought about the future and what my, hopefully, next 50 years could bring. I vowed to stay fresh and positive in my life and I repeated to myself the saying: The life you have lived, does not have to be the life you lead. I vowed to myself to continue to follow my dreams and not to loose my zest for life.

I found my inner strength on the Bright Angel trail. It was not only the physical strength that was needed for this adventure, but the mental stamina to stay positive and not settle into a lack of appreciation for all that life holds throughout our journey, and not just when we are young. I vowed to stay inspired and strong and to enjoy and embrace new adventures, to continue to love deeply and to spend my most precious commodity—my time on this earth, wisely.

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