Grand Canyon Solitaire

In the winter of 1974 the course of my life was set in motion––by a book. I didn’t read it. I was only three years old, but my father couldn’t put it down. It was the 1968 bestseller, The Man Who Walked Through Time, written by British-born adventurer Collin Fletcher. A chronicle of his walk through Grand Canyon National Park, it sparked a movement inspiring thousands of people, including my 28 year dad, to load up a backpack and disappear into the wilderness. A family man with two small kids, he couldn’t embark on a transcendental trek all by himself, he took the whole gaggle of us with him. The first time I backpacked into the depths of the canyon I was only six. I’ve been going back as often as I can for nearly 40 years.

With the chill of a December morning creeping into the hood of my jacket I made the first steps of another hike into its depths. I cautiously maneuvered down an icy trail I had first hiked 39 years prior and dozens of times since. This particular day was December 17th, a date not randomly chosen. Exactly one year earlier I injected the first of 2,100 doses of insulin––not that I’m counting. Despite a lifetime dedicated to health and fitness, I had somehow managed to complicate everything, my backpacking pursuits included, with type 1 diabetes. The past year had been full of uncertainty and plagued with inner demons, and they needed to be slain. Where better to bury them than at the bottom of the biggest hole in North America.

On an average year, more than five million visitors make the journey to the Grand Canyon. Nearly all of them stand at the edge of the rim for an estimated 17 minutes before moseying off to the gift shop to buy a rubber tomahawk or a t-shirt they’ll never wear. I get it. From the top, it really is just a giant hole, albeit a pretty one. To really appreciate the splendor of the Grand Canyon––you have to walk to the bottom.

With my backpack pressed into my shoulders as I arrived at the halfway point, I stopped to take a break, shed some layers, and watch the heavy winter clouds brush against the cliff walls overhead. I’ve spent a lifetime learning about the canyon, its natural and human history a mind boggling exercise in putting numbers in relatable context. From where I sat I could still see the top, its limestone layers an estimated 230 million years old. Also in view I could make out the edge of the inner gorge at the bottom. That rock, heavily compressed and hard as steel, is over two billion years old.

As a kid my father would keep my mind off the discomfort of a long hike to the bottom with stories of explorers and miners who came to the canyon to map its rugged contours or strike it rich. He showed me pictograph panels and stoney ruins, the vestiges of a people long gone. Decades later I still pass the hours looking along the trail’s edge for fossils and other evidence of the time when the canyon’s rock layers were the bed of a great and vast ocean. My imagination wanders off to the Pleistocene era more than 12,000 years ago when this part of the Southwest was habitat for the bear-sized ground sloth and prehistoric spiders the size of dinner plates. 

In years past I’ve raced to the bottom to see how quickly I could get it done. On this December day I took my time, nearly eight hours to be exact, and arrived at the bottom none the worse for wear. I dropped my pack set up my tent, made a quick meal and pulled out my old and tattered Canyon journal. I thumbed to the first blank page and jotted down the date, the trail, and made a small notation in the corner of the page. This was my 177th trip to the bottom of the great hole, my first as a diabetic, certainly not my last trek I plan to make. 

The next few days were spent accessing more distant campsites, exploring side canyons and revisiting small corners of the inner gorge I had not seen in years. I’ve hiked nearly every trail in the park’s 2,000 square miles and if I had another lifetime to spend, still wouldn’t be able to see it all. It’s one of the most unspoiled places on the planet and in a twist of irony straddles the void between the crush of Phoenix and the glitz of Las Vegas. Sitting at the bottom, only the sounds of wind and water to be heard, those cities couldn’t possibly be any further away.

Time is elusive in the Grand Canyon and before I was ready for it, the long walk to the top was upon me. I loaded my few things in my backpack, made the last few entries in my journal, and set out in a gentle rain to head home. I crossed the mighty Colorado, climbed the switchbacks at Jacob’s Ladder, and with snow falling high above, plodded through mud puddles with my head down, my legs and lungs searing from the effort.  

When I finally made my last step at the top, one marked by an abrupt transition from dirt to concrete, I did what I always do. I stopped and took a long glance over my shoulder and into the abyss. Unlike the tourists lining the rim standing next to me, I didn’t see a gaping hole. I saw a monolithic display of the forces of nature, and of time. I saw Anasazi and prospectors of centuries past. I saw my father, our young family stumbling behind him under the weight of heavy packs, our eyes wide in wonderment. I saw my more youthful, healthier self, my life stretched out before me. I saw two billion years of time; all of the time Collin Fletcher once walked through.

Thank you for the book, Mr Fletcher.