The Grand Canyon, Again (November 2016)

The Grand Canyon’s Trailer Village
Somewhat sheepishly, we left the Palm Springs vicinity and headed back to the Grand Canyon. Never mind that it was our 4th visit in 11 months, we were restless and discontented where we were. 

Airstream trailers always turn heads, especially this 1948 mini parked near us in Trailer Village.
The unseasonably warm 90-100 degree temperatures drove us out of Palm Springs after making our successful Cactus-2-Clouds hike. We relocated around to the west side of the San Jacinto peak that we’d just climbed to Hemet, which is a bit higher and gets sea breezes from the Pacific Ocean, making it cooler than Palm Springs.

But like when in nearby Banning last February, the break from the heat was welcome but the 45 minute to hour-long drives on winding mountain roads to hike was irritating. Plus, unlike in Palm Springs, there weren't any neighborhood trails for rest day walks from either Banning or Hemet. We were learning that in addition to challenging hikes, we craved handy, outdoor experiences on our easy days too. “Yes, we want it all."

Still too hot for hiking from other autumn standbys like Phoenix and Tucson, the Grand Canyon’s forecast of daily temperatures ranging from 45 to 70 degrees was beckoning. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the outlook was more like 30 to  55 degrees. Our general strategy of being “in search of 70 degrees” wasn’t achieving closure this fall—we were still searching. 

No matter, it felt like we were going home and we were immediately at peace when we arrived. Life in the Grand Canyon’s Trailer Village is a little more challenging than other RV parks, but the 15 minute walk to the gorgeous canyon views make up for the inconveniences.

Special Rituals
Our little struggles at the Grand Canyon loomed large in our simple world, but we disciplined ourselves to put them in perspective. This visit, we managed to streamline the nightly process of hooking and unhooking our sewer line after dark, which was necessary to prevent its puncture by the pesky ravens during the day.

The lack of the usual RV park showers meant more strategic maneuvering to warm our little bathroom and to stagger our showers to avoid getting chilled with only a 10 gallon hot water tank. And of course, it was best if we coordinated our showers with our sewer line being attached. 

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The backpacker's favorite, the Tonto Trail & its view into the canyon.
Bill has to play musical chairs with a 2 week stash of cheese, lettuce, and other produce between our 6 cubic foot refrigerator and 2 coolers when at the Grand Canyon. One of the tasks of our low stress lifestyle is to remember that these dramas that are the most intense of our days in the park hardly register as a blip in the lives of almost everyone else.

On the Trails
Thunderstorms had moved onto the forecast for our 2nd and 3rd days in the park so we positioned ourselves for a 5:30 am departure our first morning to repeat a hike we’d done for the 1st time in March: the South Rim to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River and back to the South rim.  An all day hike to begin with, we tacked-on an out-and-back to the gorgeous Plateau Point overlook. That, along with doing the ‘warm down’ walk back to our trailer after the hike made it about a 12 hour day. Pooped but beaming with our accomplishment, we knew we’d be ready for an “in” day during the thunderstorms.

We were even more pleased the next morning to discover that our bodies were minimally inconvenienced by the stresses of the big hike.  Our tissues were thriving on the diet of hard workouts—workouts that seemed to help integrate the myofascial release work we were doing almost every day. 

And like in the Alps, our ever-increasing ‘range’ was viewed by Bill as an opportunity to be exploited. Before we arrived at the Grand Canyon, his mind was whirling with new hiking opportunities that were now open to us. The abrupt arrival at 7,000’ had messed with our sleep but the lack of acclimation hadn’t slowed us down much on the trails.

Hiking down to and along the Tonto Trail that parallels the Colorado River, though high above it, from the Grandview Trail was an expanded adventure for this stay. There we were in the mix with mostly backpackers, validating Bill’s theory that by increasing our range we’d see much of what the overnighter’s experienced.

A Virtual Backpack Trip in the Grand Canyon
Cringeworthy Campers
Since becoming US based hikers in 2011, we’ve been aghast at the enormous packs overnighters carry. I’ve quizzed as many as possible about their pack weights and trip duration to better understand the phenomena. Few actually know the weight of their packs and I’m often deflected with comments like “A little less than you weigh.” But some know and tell and the answers are as shocking as I expect.

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Our stunning lunch stop on the Tonto Trail was at about day 2 or 3 for the Grand Canyon Backers.
We encountered a chaperoned group of 9 high school students out for 9 days on their second day on the Grandview Trail in the Grand Canyon. The woman bringing up the rear estimated that they were now down to 60-65 lbs each since they had eaten food for 1 day and their water containers were empty. 

The physically immature girl closest to me couldn’t have weighed 100 lbs. The accepted standard is that one’s maximum load should be 25% of their body weight. “Yikes!” to the excessive weight carried by her and probably everyone of them.  And “Yikes!" again to no drinking water on a hot morning. Much to our chagrin, we'd heard similar numbers from a high school group in Big Bend Park in Texas in 2013. 

Another woman we saw in the Grand Canyon had a backpack that was approaching 2/3’s of her height. Huge packs were clearly the norm and the less experienced hikers were a painful sight of suffering on the trails. Most were hiking 5-7 miles/day though one standard segment on the Grandview, multi-day backpacking loop, was only 2 miles, which is what the 9 students had done the day before. We in contrast, with our far lighter loads, included that segment in a 14 mile day hike.

The sight of these campers dwarfed by giant, heavy packs served to reinforce our conclusion that we’d never again backpack, that we’d be exclusively day hikers with a big range. I’ve been knee challenged since my 20’s and my recent 2 year journey to calm the irritated SI joints in my pelvis convinced me of my general vulnerability to excesses. And Bill’s forever-irritable back makes heavy loads a non-starter for him. But then at the end of October, we met an ultra lean, middle aged man on his first day of a 2 week, fully self contained, high-mileage hike on the PCT—the Pacific Crest Trail--that had us reconsidering.

An Alternative Reality
This backpacker was fascinating. He had on one of our favorite brands of minimalist shoes, he hoped to be barefooting up to 5 miles of his daily 20+ mile hikes soon, and he mentioned that his base weight without food and water was 12 lbs. His food budget was 2 lbs/day. He stood-out from afar because his tidy pack had no essentials, like a mattress or sleeping bag, strapped on the outside. (He was also out of water.)

Later that day, we gave 3 hitch-hiking PCTer’s that were near the end of their 2,500 mile journey a lift and they too mentioned a base weight of 12 lbs. We were stunned, especially with the hundreds of overloaded backpackers we’d seen and because our day packs with food and water are usually 15 lbs. How were they doing it?

It only took a moment online that night to learn that indeed, 12 lbs was the gold standard for the PCT. (I later read that jogging backpackers go for 8 lbs.) And better yet, I found a brand-specific gear list itemizing how they do it (link at the end.) It takes about $1,100 to buy your new pack, tent, pad, and sleeping bag, which weigh-in at a total of 6.7 lbs, and then you are on your way. I studied the list and cautiously concluded “We could do this."

Count Us In
A part of me immediately wanted to go on a backpack trip just to see if we could make the grade. Of course, we were talking a lot of money to satisfy my curiosity and I still had the issue of being deflected from backpacking by the hours spent each day standing around being cold.

My internal skeptic questioned whether the ultralight gear would meet my comfort and safety standards over a range of conditions and I got my answer a few days later, a few minutes after encountering the kids on the Grandview Trail with 65 lb packs. Without asking, the middle-aged, oncoming hiker who worked at the retailer REI, offered that you can get your base pack weight down to 12 lbs and be “safe and comfortable.” His base weight had been 24 lbs and he’d cut it to 12 lbs (though I’m sure it wasn’t with REI gear). He too had one of those compact, tidy packs with nothing dangling from it.

As we continued down the trail, I began menu planning: could we stick to our low carb, keto diet and make the 2 lbs/day cut? We wouldn’t be eating Pop Tarts for breakfast in our sleeping bags as is popular on the super high sugar and carb diet favored by many PCT hikers. And could our diet be palatable and actually include vegetables that seem to be shunned by the through hikers? It didn’t take long to make rough estimates of calories and ounces to answer my own question with a resounding “Yes, we can do this!”

I was thrilled. I hate shrinking my world by saying: “No, I can’t do that because I might hurt myself.” I was now confident that should some special opportunity come our way that we really wanted to do that required backpacking, that we could do it. I could easily stay under the maximum 30 lbs recommended for my size, and probably a lot less, and be well outfitted for several days. 

In the course of only a few days, I had had a delightfully empowering virtual backpack trip. And we even have a souvenir to show for our ’trip': we found sales on the 5.6 oz rain jacket recommended on the PCT gear list. The Outdoor Research waterproof jacket had rave reviews and its bagel-like packed volume will entice us to toss it in our packs on days that we’d rebuff our bulkier, more fully-featured, waterproof cycling jackets.

Sharing the Trails
It’s a constant tug-of-war to keep our heads up to foster good posture on the trail and thereby protect our backs while simultaneously scanning the surface for hazards. Our #1 priority in the SW is to spot rattlesnakes with #2 being defending our minimally clad feet from sharp rocks and cactus spines. This fall our vigilance allowed us to dodge 2 big trail hazards: a bees' nest and a rattler.

We were hummin’ along on a popular trail on San Jacinto mountain from the Hemet, CA side in October when Bill spotted the tiny entrance to a bees' nest neatly camouflaged in the middle of the trail. There weren’t many bees and the consequences of having disturbed it probably would have been low, but we were nonetheless alarmed. Our current dentist nearly died from unwittingly disturbing a ground nest in his yard a few years ago and has never fully recovered from the health consequences of the poisoning.
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Who would suspect this was the entry door to a bees’ nest?

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Perfectly camouflaged bees' nest in the middle of the trail.

Bill again was the star scout a few weeks later when we were trudging up the steep Grandview Trail and he spotted a juvenile rattlesnake partially hidden by rock rubble on the trail. I finally spied it with great difficulty after it moved a bit. The angle of the sun, its small size, and the camouflaged coloring made it hard to see. As we have learned to do, we waited until it moved on. We reminded ourselves that the little guys are the most dangerous because they almost always release venom when they bite whereas the granddaddies save their venom for subduing dinner. 
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Look closely, like I had to do, to spot the rattlesnake looking at you from the upper left.

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Elongated snakes are always more visible.

Sharing our encounter with a few people on the trail that day triggered some informative snake stories. One was of a jarring spotting, also in the Grand Canyon, on a moonlit night hike intentionally made without headlamps. The story teller was almost knocked over when his friend lurched back after noticing a big rattler on the trail. “Note to self: think twice about moonlit hikes on warm evenings in the desert." The other bit of wisdom was that rattlers are more concentrated around campsites at night than elsewhere because the potential crumb feast attracts mice, which are a favorite meal of these snakes. Oops, another strike against backpacking.

Finessing Water in the Campgrounds 
This fall’s trailer trip was especially tricky for managing water issues—issues that have a different twist when living in a tin box.

Grand Canyon
In addition to connecting and disconnecting the sewer line each evening at the Grand Canyon, we had fresh water line issues as in: “Will or won’t our water hose freeze tonight?” 

Nightly we'd watch as the temperature dropped in the evening and compared our actual to the hourly forecast temperature to establish the correction factor between the two. Our micro climate could easily differ by 5-10 degrees either way—a critical difference. 

Modifying the shower hose to optimize the comfort factor at Catalina.
Armed with the difference, at bedtime we confirmed the forecast for the overnight low and at what hour it was expected. Then it was decision time: could we gamble on not inconveniencing ourselves by leaving our fresh water line connected or not. If we guessed wrong, it could be mid-morning until it warmed enough to flow again. In the depths of winter, our 5 am wake-up time had us out of bed as much as 2 hours before the overnight low hit, adding a hedge to the game. 

After weighing that night’s data points, we'd make our decision and negotiate for a volunteer to go out in the cold, and possible wind, to disconnect and drain the hose or hope it would be OK. We were lucky: we pushed the edge and never were frozen-out of fresh water. Of course, we always had our water tank as back-up, but we have a strong preference for fresh water.
Catalina State Park
At Catalina State Park north of Tucson, we had unlimited water at our site but no sewer hook-up, which meant that the more water we used, the more often we had to hitch-up and let our Nash trailer “pee” at the nearby dump station. Using the campground showers vastly reduced the number of dump trips in our 10 day stay but they presented their own challenges.

The lovely campground shower house at Catalina was literally quite breezy and was always equilibrated with the outdoor temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s when we bathed. To make matters worse, the water wasn’t quite hot. I took a rigid shoe tray to block most of the fresh air vent in my preferred shower stall and rigged up the shower head so as to drop it almost a foot closer to me, effectively increasing the water temperature.

Still goose-bumpy, I'd begin dressing while in the water stream. I'd dry my head first, including the critically temperature-sensitive neck area, then don my wool beret. Next, I backed away enough so the water was only warming part of my lower body, toweled off my torso, then put on my doubled-up pull-over shirts. If I was really chilled, I’d also put on my puff jacket with hood. Once I’d warmed up a bit from the welcome clothes, off went the water and I'd finish drying and dressing as quickly as possible. All of this sequence of course depended upon lashing the hand held shower head in just the right position so the water hit me at an angle instead of straight down.

Zion National Park
At Zion, the pricey private campground outside the park entrance had lovely individual shower rooms with hot-as-you-want-it water and robust pressure but the showers were on a token system. One token gave you 6 minutes, exactly 6 minutes of water, with no little blip in delivery to warn you of your last seconds. 

Unlike the backpackers, we weren't relying on this West Rim Trail spring to solve our water problems.
Six minutes is plenty of time for me IF there is an On/Off option but this was an ‘all or nothing' 6 minutes. After wetting my skin, I needed significant scrubbing time to release the waterproof sunscreen from my feet and ankles that was imbedded with sweat and dirt as well as to vigorously scour that same product from my face, neck, and arms.

The trick here was to have everything perfectly organized—even to the point of putting shampoo in my hand before dropping the token in the slot—and to have a visible timer. The timer app on my phone previously programmed for my 6 minute headstand was exactly right for the job and the oversized numbers were just big enough. A zippy bag for my phone was part of my kit for that 10 day stay and I never needed the extra hot water in a metal bottle that I bought with me the first few nights for an emergency rinse.

A Virtual Trip to Cyprus
Darn it anyway, we thought it was going to be the real thing but alas, it was only a virtual trip. We’d been scratching our heads for years looking for a way to  extend our European experience beyond the 90 day max at a great fitness venue. The northern, Turkish side of Cyprus was looking like a perfect fit for this May. 

It would be warm, it’s not in the EU, it should be safe from the regional wars, and it has mountains with hiking trails. We happily envisioned swapping our month of hiking in Albuquerque for some ancient history in a totally new venue. But after buying a travel guide, Bill learned that the weather in the mountains was indeed delightful in May but none of the tourist services, like lodging, were open. Bummer, back to Albuquerque without even leaving the tarmac.

Our reindeer, Ren & Tier (Rentier = German for reindeer), got a tree for Christmas this year & are still wearing their "Hillary" buttons.
On To Palm Springs
Our stay in the Grand Canyon was over much too fast, but what turned out to be a continuous series of arctic blasts were on their way so dropping to lower elevations was prudent. We stopped in at another favorite, Zion in SW Utah and left after 10 days with snow on the peaks. We then visited our long time friend Iva in Phoenix; hiked from Catalina State Park north of Tucson and visited the Air & Space Museum, also in Tucson; and then made our way to Palm Springs. 

We enjoyed anticipating our now-standard 2 month stay in Palm Springs over the holidays. There, the only infrastructure challenges would be finagling the men’s room door lock at night to allow Bill in. Otherwise, it was a time to receive Amazon orders, receive a packet from home, work on taxes, revel in challenging hiking trails outside our door, and to duck as the arctic blasts repeatedly grazed our region.

Link to the PCT lightweight gear list: