While my shoulders were sagging from unexpected relief, I said to Bill “It’s so good to be here!” A wave of softening rippled through my body and being once we’d settled our trailer in the Flagstaff, Arizona KOA RV park. I paused in our doorway, enjoying the sudden, deep, sense of calm and certainty that had been so hard to come by since the pandemic began for us in March. I’d felt more at peace in Albuquerque than I had in Fruita and this relocation from Albuquerque to Flagstaff was even more soothing.
Almost a year earlier, I’d reserved our favorite site in the back corner of the property, under the tall ponderosa pines, a few steps away from the trailhead to the best hiking in the Flagstaff area. This site had the perfect mix of additional park amenities; of almost being on the trail to Elden Lookout; and of being isolated from the highway and rail noise.
We laid over in Flagstaff for a week at the end of each September to prepare for our first 2-week stay in the nearby Grand Canyon. It was always a very purposeful visit and this layover was one of the few annual traditions that had survived the considerable disruption of the pandemic.
Strangely enchanting: hiking on a newly opened trail below Elden Lookout.
After initially being rebuffed, we were very lucky to have squeezed ourselves into the busy schedule of one of the 3 RV repair guys in town. The first mobile repair man didn’t want the job and referred us to the other mobile guy that he stated was notorious for price gouging. He advised that we nail him down on the price and hold him to it, which seemed impossible for our 2 jobs that could easily morph into big projects.
The 3rd and last resource, “Buddy’s Welding & RV Inc,” wasn’t a mobile operation but he was only a mile down the road from us. We had to disconnect and pack the trailer like we were hitting the road to obtain service from Buddy but he promised he would finish the job in time for us to sleep in our trailer that night. He was able to do the most pressing repair, the door hinge issue, for $57 in a little over an hour, but he couldn’t get a replacement bath tub for 6 weeks. We were elated to have the door repair completed before we encountered rain and presumed we’d easily replace the tub once in Palm Springs. We later discovered we could have had Amazon deliver a tub to Buddy’s in a few days, but that might have alienated Buddy, so we let it be.
Grand Canyon Prelude
In 2020, melancholy displaced our usual nervous excitement when we anticipated beginning the first of our two, 2-week stays in the Grand Canyon on October 2. At this time in previous years, we were obsessing over the details of our high-stakes overnighters to Phantom Ranch or the North Rim. We always aimed to bolster our confidence with perfect preparation, which included fine-tuning our bodies for the epic athletic events and having our gear and logistics in exquisite order. We’d known for years that we could compensate a bit for athletic shortcomings by excellent planning and having light-weight, well-selected gear. The necessary lodging reservations at the Ranch or the North Rim were hard-won, often taking the better part of a year to secure. These iconic hikes in the Grand Canyon were our motivating, fitness high points of every year.
A first: using our folding camp chairs to both add training weight to our packs & improve social distancing at lunch on the S Rim.
For months, we’d been taking every new data point about the coronavirus and using it both to institute our own best practices for staying safe from it and to evaluate the foolishness of staying in a cabin on the N Rim. Hundreds of times we discussed “Should we or shouldn’t we?” The final, short answer was “We should be able to do it safely but it’s not worth the risk.”
Dying from the virus was one issue but the more likely and more awful bad outcome would be one of us becoming a “long hauler”. The number of robust years ahead of us was shrinking fast and the possibility of whacking some of them with long term heart or lung damage from a coronavirus infection was too big of a penalty to accept for repeating a prized event. Our recent experience with performance drag from inhaling wildfire smoke helped underscore the point. We reminded ourselves that we’d done the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim event a number of times and likely would do it again in 1 to 2 years without the risk of COVID-19. “Why take the risk?” became the refrain.
Concurrent with “Should we or shouldn’t we risk coronavirus infection?” was the matter of our conditioning. Our typical conditioning for the huge hikes in the Grand Canyon was doing 20 mile hikes with 5,000’ of elevation gain carrying 15-20 pound packs and occasionally doing 2 such hikes 2 days in a row. The months of 100° or near 100° temperatures in our ‘long leash’ hunkering down near Grand Junction, CO had us limiting our hikes to 8 miles and even doing 2,500’ gain was hard to come by. We still logged our targeted 40 miles/week of hiking but we knew that it wasn’t the same as doing 20 milers.
To make matters worse, a chronic buttock muscle problem of mine exploded this summer. It had been largely, but not completely, controlled by bursts of massage twice a year for years. Because of the virus, I’d basically gone without professional intervention for a year and it was disastrous for me. We didn’t need another data point to swing our votes to canceling the epic hikes, but my muscle issues did count as another pandemic-related reason to not cross the canyon.
Welcome shade on the S Kaibab trail on a 90°+ day.
On October 5th, the day we had been booked to begin our 46 mile, 2-day hike between the rims, we gasped upon learning that 102° was forecast at the Colorado River, at Phantom Ranch. Had we embarked on our planned event to the N Rim, we would have hiked for 8 hours or more in 90-100° temperatures each day. Even our consolation day hike part way down the canyon included about 5 hours of temperatures in the 90s.
The following day, which would have been our return to the S Rim after a night in a cabin on the N Rim, the California wildfire smoke was thick enough that I struggled against shortness of breath through most of our relatively flat walk along the rim at 7,000’. Had we made the crossing, I would have pushed at my limit for hours and hours to overcome the dual drags of the extreme heat and smoke to complete the second half of 46 miles in 2 days. On one hand, it was a little validation of our decision to cancel the 2-day event for other reasons than the pandemic but it didn’t go so far as to make us feel lucky to have opted out. The other lesson was how many good reasons it had taken for us to really reconcile ourselves to cancelling these 2 back-to-back hikes.
Weather and other wildcards, like forest fire smoke, make any “all-or-nothing” activity a gamble but the pandemic had effectively doomed our treasured annual event months earlier. Not spending the summer in the Italian Alps had trashed our usual training because the big elevation gain hikes that we needed for conditioning weren’t accessible to us in the States. Nowhere could we find the 5,000’ of elevation gain we needed to condition our bodies to back-to-back days of climbing and descending. It turns out that having trained all summer in 90° heat is what was needed on October 5 but it was too much misery, too many days to have trained for those conditions on the chance that it had utility.
Such a pretty place! The view from our favorite picnic spot below Tip-Off on the S Kaibab Trail.
I’d been wildly unsuccessful in updating my notion of “fresh air” in 2020. In my 30’s, I’d been horrified to learn that generally, indoor air quality was poorer than the outdoor air quality in the worst cities in the world. The expressions from my childhood like “airing out” and “letting the fresh air in” took on new meaning ever after.
Later in life, our 20 years of overseas travel exposed us to the commitment of Austrians and Germans to similar attitudes, which extended to all bedding being hung out the open windows in the mornings, almost no matter what the weather. But the brutal summer heat and then wildfire smoke in 2020 informed me of the foolishness of such notions. Buying an indoor air quality monitor in September consistently reinforced the obsolescence of my revised values: often, the cleanest air was indoors, the more toxic air was outdoors. Sadly, my impulse was still to open the doors and windows for the fresh air.
Not surprisingly, wildfire smoke haunted us at the Grand Canyon this year as well. It was manageable, not horrible, but it added to our base of experience that there was no where to go in the West to escape it. It also reinforced our sense of empowerment by having both a highly effective air purifier and an air quality monitor in our trailer.
Quite unexpectedly, one of our gut-wrenching conclusions from being in the Grand Canyon during the 2020 pandemic was that we NEEDED to go to the Alps each summer for our health, it was no longer a luxury. Our favorite areas in the Italian Dolomites would occasionally have a bad air day when the winds brought pollution from the industrial south, the Po Valley, but that was the exception. Urban air pollution wafting into the Alps was one thing, weeks or months of heavy wildfire smoke in the US west was quite another. And we needed that combination of highly accessible, steep mountains in clean air to achieve our peak fitness.
It was disappointing but not surprising: we confirmed that maintaining our goal of hiking 40 miles a week or 2,000 miles a year wasn’t good enough, that we needed significant elevation gain in addition to the distance to retain our hiking durability. Our weekly elevation gain this summer had dropped from around 10,000’ to less than 5,000’. And years ago, we’d heard from disappointed hikers that using a machine like a stair-stepper was insufficient for uphill conditioning and of course, it does nothing for habituating the body to the hours of brutal descent. My first introduction to the hidden world of Rim-2-Rim hiking was hearing the exhausted utterances of a man slumped in a wooden chair at the Phantom Ranch Canteen who said “I’m so tired of going down hill.”
Yielding to the mule trains on the S Kaibab that are a part of the inner canyon experience.
With all of our life-changing pandemic fitness woes, we did cash-in on one unique opportunity while simultaneously at our highest level of altitude acclimation and heat adaptation. Even at the Grand Canyon in early October, like almost every hike for 4-5 months, we were hiking in 90° temperatures. And our altitude acclimation had more depth and duration than ever before. We spent almost 5 months in Fruita, CO at 4,500’; almost a month at 5,500’ in Albuquerque, NM, and then a week at 7,000’ in Flagstaff, AZ. We would spend a total of 6 weeks at 7,000’ this fall with 2 of those weeks being in 90° heat.
Happily, we utilized our dual heat and moderate altitude adaption for about 2 weeks while in Arizona, though even when in Albuquerque we knew that we were athletically more comfortable on the bikes and on hikes than when last there in 2016. It was a hard-won, short-lived interval of unusual capacity for us to enjoy. The return of seasonable weather would soon drop the highs into the 70’s and by mid-November, our altitude acclimation would have receded. A laundry room conversation some years ago informed us that people living at higher elevations lose their adaption after being lower for about 2 weeks. But in our first week in the heat at the Grand Canyon, we knew we were cruising with an ease similar to that of locals with our acclimation.
Pandemic Ripple-Effects in the Park
Little was the same anywhere in the world in 2020 because of the pandemic and the Grand Canyon National Park was no exception; we knew we were lucky to be there at all. Back in April when we were arriving in Colorado, the Grand Canyon had been totally shut-down by request of the State of Arizona. Arizona had lagged in their coronavirus response and had sky-high infection rates. Even when the Park began a phased re-opening after 2 months, we knew that it could be closed again at anytime. Lucky for us, the annual of bluffing and bullying game in Congress to shut down federal government on October 1, including the National Parks, ended well before our October 2 arrival date this year.
Some of the Park Service’s pandemic safety protocols were inconvenient for us, like closing the coin-op laundry, but none were show-stoppers. Not being able to do laundry half way through our 2-week stay was inconvenient, particularly since our clothes get so soiled in the desert heat.
The temperatures at our trailer at 7,000’ on the S Rim were in the 80’s but our hikes down into the canyon quickly soared into the 90’s, with Phantom Ranch at the Colorado River being over 100°. We and others ended the long hiking days with sweat saturating our pants down our thighs and with massive salt rings on our pants, shirts, and packs. Some of us had the particularly grungy look of red trail dust embedded in the salt rings on the backside of our pants.
Below Tip-Off on the S Kaibab Trail.
We rarely drive our truck while in the Grand Canyon but that too was different this year. The Park Service totally shut-down the Blue Line bus route between the 2 hubs, the Visitor’s Center near us, and the tourist Mecca, Bright Angel Lodge. They did maintain the ‘outback’ routes at both ends of the Park, to the Kaibab Trail and Hermit’s Rest. The Blue Line closure added 2 miles to our all-day loop hikes in which we’d go down one of the 2 main trails and up the other. Predictably, the Park Service did an efficient job with making the remaining buses feel safe. Masks were required and they closed half of the seats, forcing the riders to space out. Buses that previously ran every 15-20 minutes were on a 5-10 minute schedule, which kept it orderly at the sometimes rowdy bus stops.
Food service, of which we don’t usually partake in the Grand Canyon, was severely restricted on both the N and S Rims. On the N Rim, the campground was closed and the indoor lodging was restricted to 25% of capacity (only the most expensive rooms were available). On the S Rim, lodging occupancy was kept low indoors and at the federal campground but our concession-run RV park was at full occupancy. The popular and informative Visitor’s Center was totally closed as was the Backcountry Office.
The Navajo Nation adjacent to the National Park closed the highway through their lands as a part of their virus mitigation efforts, which was devastating to some people and businesses in the region. The Transcanyon Shuttle that we count-on for back-up was shut-down because of the road closure and they didn’t know if their business would survive. They normally send several vans in both directions between the rims each day, shuttling hikers and their gear. The lack of its availability for back-up factored into our decision to not make the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim hike this year.
Some bold hikers solved their shuttle problem by swinging deals on Facebook. A one-way hiker I spoke with on the trail found a regional gym owner, someone who had to close his business in the pandemic, to drive his car from the North Rim to the South Rim while he walked it. The hiker paid him $375 upfront, gave Paul his car keys, and headed out on the trail. I initiated a brief discussion about trust. He mentioned that he also found a couple on Facebook to share the expense. Last year, the shuttle price was $90 per person.
The mid-elevation perspective of the canyon on the Tanto Trail between S Kaibab and Bright Angel trails.
The pandemic caused the closure of most of the lodging at Phantom Ranch, with only the cabins being open and all of the dorms being closed. Unrelated to the pandemic, hikers were already reeling from water shortages at the Ranch. One of the great joys of staying at Phantom Ranch is the hot shower, soap, and fresh towel every guest gets. But the chronic water problems had escalated, resulting in water restrictions for all visitors. A hot shower at the end of a long hike is divine, especially after a dusty day of sweating in 100° heat. Coincidentally, on one of our day hikes towards Phantom Ranch, we learned that a pipe break meant that there was no potable water at the Ranch at all. We always suspect that only a small percentage of hikers routinely carry water purifiers with them though all are warned of the risk of water pipe breaks.
We had no TV reception and minimal internet availability while in the Grand Canyon for this stay, which was particularly troubling because we arrived the day Trump entered Walter Reed hospital and we wanted to know what was going on with him and the pandemic. Our 5 am wake-up time positioned us for about 90 minutes of reliable internet reception in the morning and, with difficulty, we usually could also get a few e-mails out at bedtime. Some days we did take our computers with us and lingered under the single Verizon tower at the other end of the Park to complete more consumptive tasks. But the intermittent reception resulted in emails that were totally lost and hours of extra time spent creating work-arounds and to fix messed-up files.
Life in the Grand Canyon and any national park or monument is heavenly for wildlife. It’s Disneyland for them and the visitors. The elk in the Grand Canyon Trailer Village know no fear. They barely move. They’ll meander over to a leaky water hook-up for a drink, bend over to nibble on acorns knocked off the trees by the last big rig that came through, and suddenly collapse in place to rest. The males hoot and move a little faster but the girls aren’t impressed.
The elk of course were a huge hit with the guests and they weren’t at all shy about having their photos taken. One reversed the roles by staring directly at us through our little kitchen window: we felt like we were on its TV screen.
The ravens also enjoy the good life in the Park and almost rein the roost. They do hop to the side when an elk asserts its right to drink first at a camper’s leaky stand pipe connection but they also don’t go far or fast.
The big game the guests play with the ravens is protecting their sewer lines from snacking. Of course, to snack on your trailer sewage, the ravens first must puncture your 4” plastic hose, which they deftly do with a few well-placed jabs with their stout beaks.
In prior years, we dutifully put our sewer hose out after dark and before we started our showers. We’d drain the tanks and leave the valves open over night. Before first light, not sunrise, one of us would scamper out in the freezing temperatures to close the knife valves, rinse the line, and stash the ridged hose in the back of the truck in a plastic bag. Once we missed and, sure enough, we had to pitch the leaky hose.
For 2020, particularly since we were pooping into our trailer toilet rather than using the public facilities for coronavirus avoidance, we experimented with armoring our sewer hose so we could leave it hooked up 24/7 like we do everywhere else. We’d hoped to buy a 6” diameter metal vent pipe to shroud our hose but only one, 8” diameter, 8’ long accordion folded, light aluminum dryer vent was available for $15 that day at the Flagstaff Home Depot. A bit bulkier to store during the upcoming week in Flagstaff than we wanted, but it had an added benefit of creating a gap between it and our hose when on the ground. That gap might save the day if the ravens breached the thin metal barrier.
“No, no, not me….just looking.”
Aside from the sometimes-expensive sewer line game we must play with ravens, we enjoy them. They are very smart, clever, and resourceful and we are comforted by their presence anywhere we go, even when they carefully monitor us eating our lunch. They can live 40 years or more and mate for life; we are always on the look-out for pairs.
On one of our bike rides from our trailer to the end of the road at Hermit’s Rest, we had the pleasure of watching a pair play like we’d never seen before. They were frolicking in the updraft on the canyon rim and one would approach the other from afar and do spirals or back flips up close to the other. It looked like great sport and we felt privileged to witness their exuberant acrobatics. It wasn’t mating season but such ‘joy flights’ and ‘date nights’ are common anytime of year for pairs. We also saw “juvenile gangs,” large flocks of 2-4 year olds that hadn’t yet hit the dating scene.
In the Colorado National Monument at Fruita this summer, we had marveled at the turkey vultures while we more reliably learned to spot them and now we’d upped our game with ravens. Long ago we’d learned to differentiate crows from ravens but the acrobatics of the ravens took our enjoyment of them to a whole new level. I briefly contemplated if this qualified us a birdwatchers but decided that we weren’t there yet.
Closing a Chapter
The first half of our annual, 6 week Flagstaff-Grand Canyon event ended in triumph for Bill and with a whimper for me. Bill made a blazing-fast loop down to Phantom Ranch, which approximates the difficulty of hiking 1 direction between the Rims, on a 100° day at the Ranch. A personal best for sure!
Bill had regained a chunk of the endurance fitness that we had lost over the summer. I was satisfied with making a slower, flatter, 10 mile walk along the rim that same day, the day after my diagnosis of a torn disc—more about that later. Like my yoga teacher always said: “We are all working at the same place, at our edge” but our edges were miles apart, literally and figuratively.
Self-service area at Trailer Village.
We would return to the Flagstaff KOA for a week to comply with time limits in Trailer Village and we’d make our way back to the Grand Canyon. The next 2-week stay in the Park would have a decidedly different texture. The N Rim services would have begun their wave of seasonal closures, which prevent us from even thinking about walking to there. The temperatures were forecast to plummet, with the overnight lows dropping from the 40’s and 50’s into the teens or single digits. The overarching change during our second stay would however be in the ‘outside’ world, the November 3rd elections. We and so many others would nervously await the results that would dramatically color our world for years to come.