In the fall, we spent some time emailing each other pictures of the Grand Canyon and discussing “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a fantasy novel about blowing up dams on the Colorado River. This book ignited dreams of our own Canyon visit. Plus, we had both seen one too many carefully cropped profile pictures of friends perched “alone” on the “edge” of the vast, red Canyon to put off a visit to another vacation in another season.
When Diana, who was new to the Canyon, arrived at the South Rim, she quickly saw what was outside of the frame in all those pictures: of course, a canyon of greater grandeur than she could have ever imagined, but also many railings, fences, packs of tourists, gift shops, parking lots, shuttle buses, hotels. During her walk down the trail from the South Rim, she reveled in the views and tried not to be distracted by the mules, the traffic on the trail, and the signs warning her about plague-infected squirrels. When she got to the river that afternoon, ready to set up her tent for a night of solo camping in the Canyon, she discovered an entire city of tents and cabins along a creek, complete with bathrooms, water fountains, and a restaurant, “The Canteen,” that sold Snickers, beers and over-priced chili. It felt like a resort.
Charlie had visited the Canyon before and was, therefore, slightly less idealistic about its magic wilds and opportunities for solitude. He had seen the tour buses, the weeping “junior rangers” refusing to get back into their parents’ minivans, and the families of Midwesterners going hard on their snacks from the canyon-side “soda fountain.”
This was only the South Rim, though. The trails between the top of the South Rim and the bottom of the Canyon were deemed “corridor trails.” They are the most popular and manicured in the Canyon. At the far end of these corridor trails was the North Rim: the uninhabited, snowy edge of the Canyon. The North Rim was still wild.
We wanted to go. In the winter, the North Rim’s gift shops and soda fountains shut down. Snow piles up and roads close and solitude is possible. So, after a Snickers breakfast at the Canteen, we began to walk north.
It was more of a wander than a hike. The sun was high and the trail wide. We ate more Snickers and stopped to play at a skinny waterfall that makes otherwise red and crumbly rock mossy and green. For the first seven miles, we admired the views and thought of nothing beyond Cottonwood Campground, a halfway point between the Colorado River and the North Rim. When we arrived at the campground, though, it was dark. We sat at a picnic table for an hour eating cheese and salsa. We began to wonder if we could actually make it to the North Rim that night, or if we should just stay at the campground.
To parties less optimistic and obsessive, staying would have been the obvious choice. We were at a campground. We had a tent, two sleeping bags, food, water, and a permit allowing us to camp there (a permit that did not apply to the North Rim). Plus, it was not getting warmer.
But, after an hour of lively debate, we started walking again. We decided that seven more miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain in the snowy dark would take us two hours, maybe three. Soon, we’d be warm under the round roof of the North Rim yurt. We didn’t have a permit to stay in it, but it was winter. The North Rim, and its glorious yurt, would be empty (the yurt had carpeting and a woodstove). We thought we might read a little before going to sleep. Charlie carried “Leaves of Grass.”
With one headlamp, we walked. The snow got deeper. We stopped to eat Snickers, from time to time, and listen to our voices echo off the rocks. At one point, we became convinced we had stumbled upon a secret civilization because our headlamp gleamed back yellow eyes from deep in the snowy valley (Diana believed it was Hayduke from “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” haunting the rocks and plotting ways to keep them wild; Charlie thought that it was the secret valley from “Atlas Shrugged,” purported to be about 400 miles northeast of the Canyon but why, if secret, would Ayn tell the truth about its location?).
Our steps slowed and stuttered. The snow was heavy. We ran out of water. We started melting snow in a pot over our camp stove. We spilled our first pot of water (Diana’s fault). We couldn’t find the last Snickers (Charlie’s fault). We checked for symptoms of hypothermia. We cursed the signs about the Canyon’s geology because they looked, time after time, like ones that might tell us how many miles we had left to walk.
At 2 a.m., the light of our headlamp ricocheted off of a sign bigger than the others. We started running. There was a parking lot at the top of the hill. We found another sign with a map and were too delirious and ecstatic to read it. We screamed for joy. We had made it.
We ran around the parking lot and tried to find the yurt. The map said it was 0.2 mile away. Charlie decided we should split up and try to find the yurt off the road by wading through the surrounding waist-deep snow. We ran back to the map many times, searching for clues. But, after an hour of panicked search, the exhaustion caught up with us. We had no water and had not located the ghost Snickers. We were all alone in a snowed-in desert. The only fresh footprints and howls across the parking lot belonged to us. We felt wild.
Hours later, after setting up the tent on snowed-in pavement, morning light filtered through the plastic walls. Charlie couldn’t walk because of his blisters, but had to pee. He hobbled toward the woods. Then a ranger, standing across the desolate parking lot, started screaming to ask if Charlie was “trying to run away.” The ranger had a radio strapped to his chest and a handgun strapped to his belt and sunglasses strapped to his face. This ranger (Ranger Walker) came over and asked if we had alcohol or marijuana or machetes before walking ominously back to his truck with our names and license numbers. Many North Rim visitors, apparently, get drunk and high and harbor obscure weaponry.
He listed our many offenses: camping without a permit ($75), camping in a non-designated campground ($75), camping with a side of disorderly conduct ($250).
He emphasized that he was letting us off easy, only charging us $75 for camping in a non-designated area, even though our conduct was clearly disorderly. Charlie felt noble and offered to sacrifice his previously clean national park criminal record. Ranger Walker wrote the ticket in Charlie’s name. As the ranger wrote the ticket, he told us it got lonely on the North Rim in the winter. Then, he took us in his pickup truck to get non-snow-melted-water. The truck was full of guns. When he dropped us off, Ranger Walker told us to walk back to the other side of the Canyon.
On the way down from the North Rim, we talked about blisters, almond desserts and fidelity. We admired icicles dripping low from the cliffs across the way and rhapsodized about ravens gliding on a shaft of wind above us. The memory of Ranger Walker occasionally came back against our will, as we retraced our steps past signs about geology and plagued squirrels and runners who run too far and die of thirst.
We found our way back to the campground by the Colorado River, where we had a silent, Snickers dinner in the Canteen. The next day, we had a jolly walk up to the South Rim beneath the only clouds we had seen since arriving in the Canyon. We discussed this new sky at length and decided we were grateful for it. The clouds splattered shadows and showed us colors we hadn’t yet seen in the Canyon — purples and blues in the red rocks.
After racing up the trail all day, we stopped just short of the South Rim and watched the sky move. Diana squinted at ravens she was sure were condors. Charlie made promises about coming back to the Canyon. Then, we walked up to soda fountains and hotels and parking lots and the shuttle buses from Las Vegas and to the airports and parents and bluebooking and goddamn email threads.
Diana took a photo of the Canyon at sunset that’s still her iPhone’s background and Charlie took a rock from the Canyon (which is illegal) that still sits on his desk. Back in New Haven, we still find time to ask each other, “Why aren’t we in the desert?” and also “What if we were on the North Rim right now?” It turns out it is possible to long for a place even if it accused you of a felony, even if it is full of plagued squirrels, and even if it isn’t the wilderness you imagined it to be.