Four Peaks Brewery and Completing the List

Four Peaks Brewery and Completing the List

If you’re just joining, this is the final post in the Arizona Adventures series! Start here!

A couple of hours later I got off the highway to turn onto the road where Four Peaks was located and had to pass it to find parking. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as from the street it looked like an old warehouse. I was still in my hiking clothes, my hair was a mess from the open air flying through it on the drive, and I had no makeup on. I found a parking spot on the street a couple blocks beyond the GPS-announced location, scanning the block for parking meters or limits. I saw none, so I locked my backpack in the trunk, zipped my wallet into my pants and my phone into my shirt pocket, and strode back down the street to Four Peaks.

I knew instantly I was underdressed as the throng of people clamoring to enter the brewery were mostly young women in sundresses and men in college t-shirts. However, I remembered my goal on this trip: to not be afraid, and to not let fear of looking stupid paralyze me and prevent me from new experiences. I decided that, although I was a disaster compared to most of their clientele, I could likely make up for my disheveled appearance with the tales of what had led me there in the first place. I kept my chin up, shoulders back, and walked up to the podium, asking to sit at the bar. The hostess smiled and waved me into the building. The crowd had apparently been waiting for outdoor patio seating and I’d had just about enough of the Arizona sun by that point.

Inside, the incredibly high ceilings were lined with flags and an enormous wraparound bar was the central focal point of the immense room. In that sense, I’d been right from the outside: it was very much a warehouse structure that had been redesigned to function as a bar and restaurant. Bar seating was nearly full but I saw a seat wedged between two silver-haired gentlemen, each talking to their respective companions, and made my way toward it.

“Is anyone sitting here?” I asked in the general direction of both men.

“You are, of course.” answered the long-haired gent to my right. “I’m Jerry.”

“I’m Bob,” said the yellow-clad man to my left. “And you are?”

“I’m Sarah.”

“Well aren’t we lucky to have a pretty girl like you sit with us today.”

“It’s my first time here, I’m early for a flight and my friend told me this was the place to be.”

“Your friend is right. What’s her name?” Jerry inquired.

“His name is Garrett. He lived out here a few years back.”

“I might know him. I’m a regular.” I dug around in my phone for a photo of Garrett while simultaneously sending him snapshots of the bar via text. I found the best photo I could of how Garrett normally looked and passed the phone to Jerry. “He looks like any other guy out here. Hey Phil, do you know this girl’s friend?” Jerry waved over one of the bartenders and had me show him Garrett’s photo. “Phil’s been working here for over ten years but he just got a job in a national park.” Phil didn’t recognize Garrett either. I sent a photo of Phil to Garrett, and the sentiment was mutual.

Bob was less talkative than Jerry, who kept me engaged in conversation for over two hours. Once again, my initial plan to be alone and enjoy my solitude had been foiled by another vastly intriguing human being. I ordered a Kilt Lifter – highly recommended by Garrett as well as everyone within earshot of my order – and answered Jerry’s questions about the trip I’d just taken to the bottom of the canyon, how I’d flown out alone for my birthday and camped around Arizona for a couple of days, and where else in the world I’d been.

Jerry told me he ran websites for craft beer enthusiasts with maps and tasting notes, and how he wished he could travel more but he had bad knees and wasn’t as young as he once was. The VA hospital he went to wasn’t able to help him much because when he went in, he was a graying veteran of wars past, shuffling slowly down the hallways to exam rooms. As sad as that image is, he told me it was so much worse to see the young men fighting today’s wars coming home and being wheeled down the hallways. As he put it, “I have bad knees. These young men have no knees. To the VA hospital, they take priority.” Jerry reminded me of my father. They both have curly ponytails past their shoulders, problems with their mobility, and a wanderlust that their aging bodies cannot seem to contain. They are both full of stories of where they’ve been and what they’ve seen, all they’ve been through both physically and emotionally, and they both have the ability to start a conversation with a complete stranger.

I ordered a vegetable wrap and another beer as it seemed I wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. Jerry told me how he wanted to get an RV and travel the entire US. He’d never been to New York City but was probably going to be in New York State for a brewfest this summer. The bartender Phil took my contact info and promised to email when he started his new job so I could come camp at his national park. Bob eventually got up to go home when I was about halfway through with my sandwich. Garrett’s envy oozed from his text messages and intensified when Phil informed us that Four Peaks was not currently able to ship outside of Arizona.

As the time closed in to when I’d feel comfortable arriving at the airport, I finished my sandwich and paid my tab. Jerry thanked me for letting an old man enjoy conversation with a beautiful young lady for a few hours and listening to his stories. Phil the bartender told me to keep the brewery pen as a souvenir. I’d meant to buy a t-shirt but forgotten before I’d already paid my tab and put away my wallet. Jerry stood up and hugged me goodbye, giving me his business card to stay in touch. I bid farewell to my new friends and walked out into my last Arizona sunset, heading west toward the Mustang for the last time.

The sunset over the skyline was absolutely brilliant and I took one of my favorite photographs standing behind the Mustang looking directly into the setting sun. The way the light stretched over the buildings and across the street ahead of me in the arid air looked like a movie set. I plugged my phone back into the car to charge and listen to music, made a U-turn, and drove back out. I stopped for gas to avoid being charged $9 per gallon at the airport, then headed over.

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Appropriately, the first album I’d listened to when I had gotten into the Camaro what seemed like years earlier was the one I chose to listen to on this final drive. The last song on the album is an allusion to the death of a friend but not in a sad way, but as I pulled onto the parkway leading toward rental car return it brought tears to my eyes. So much had happened on this short journey that I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried. I’d had to rely on myself in ways I normally didn’t in daily life in order to get through the challenges set before me and continue on the journey. I’d seen sights that would never look the same in photographs and been to places most people would never go, without getting a new stamp in my passport or speaking another language. Despite having spent more time speaking with other people than I’d expected, I had still spent plenty of time by myself – and I’d now met many incredible people with such varied backgrounds that my globetrotting seemed trite in comparison. I realized I still have a very long journey ahead of me, and that I probably had no idea where it would go, but that I would be okay. If I’d made it through all of this in such a short time, and still enjoyed every minute of it, I would be okay.

I wiped the tears from my eyes as the song ended and I pulled up to the rental car inspection. Luckily, in the end, the blown tire only cost me $75 more than my initial rental fee. I had been worried I’d be charged an obscene amount for damaging a sports car but they didn’t charge me for the Camaro rental at all, and somehow they only charged a standard tire fee (although my rental agreement had specified a much higher amount for prestige-sized tires). Once again, something in the universe aligned to make my day even better than it had been.

I hauled my pack out of the trunk and walked to the shuttle. Check-in was miserable as I was now full of carbohydrates and even more exhausted than before. The zippered vents and pockets on my shirt garnered me incredibly invasive pat-downs in public but I was too tired to care. I vaguely remember sitting in the waiting area but am actually surprised I didn’t fall asleep and miss my flight completely. I didn’t sleep as well on the flight home as two men who smelled of BO and Indian spices were sitting next to me and the pungent odor kept me somewhat awake. But I knew I had an entire day to rest before I began my new life.

In the back of my mind I still contemplated turning around and flying back out – not even going to my new job Monday but taking a risk and having an adventure. I thought better of it and remembered that, although my dreams for this year had been different, I had still landed a prestigious job at a dream company and that adventures cost money which I could make through work.

I wasn’t getting off that plane and becoming a diplomat, but I would still be helping people and using my varied life experience to help guide others in decision-making. I would have weekends free, health insurance, and a higher salary without working unpaid overtime. I would be working for a company whose products I believe in and had been using on my own for over a decade. It was worth taking the leap to stay in New York and see where that took me.

My landlord told me to call when I got on the train and she’d come pick me up, just as she’d done when I came home from the Amazon, not quite a year earlier. I had been wearing the same clothes, carrying the same bag, and as she pointed out, I looked almost as exhausted too. She drove us the few miles home, where I dumped my bag on the floor and rushed into my brand-new bathroom for a much-needed shower: while I’d been gone she’d had a contractor come in to fix the peeling caulking I’d noticed in the shower. When he went to repair it he realized the entire wall had rotted, so while I was away they’d had to tear out the entire bathroom wall around the tub and put a new wall with new tiling in.

I didn’t care, I just wanted a shower. Although the paint on the trim wasn’t done, he’d assured her it was good to be used. I got in and all went well for about two minutes, until the spout shot off the wall and narrowly missed my shin.

Water sprayed everywhere, except out of the shower head, and I had shampoo in my hair. I called my landlord and she told me to come up and finish in her bathroom and she’d have the contractor over ASAP.

Clean and dry, I went to bed. Hours later I vaguely heard voices and eventually realized the contractor was in my apartment working on the shower. He said the faucet hadn’t been screwed in tightly but it should work now. I thanked him and went out to get groceries.

As the day came to a close and I prepared to begin a new chapter in my life, it hit me that the trip was over. I was 30. I had completed everything on my list, from chores to adventures. I’d learned way more than I’d expected, about myself, about the world around me, about those I’d thought I knew well. I’d met new friends and moved on from old ones. I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted out of life while at the same time having absolutely no idea. Two years ago, if someone had shown me my list, I wouldn’t have believed it possible to accomplish everything. But I had done it, and now I knew I could do so much more.

Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe, and the Drive to Phoenix

Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe, and the Drive to Phoenix

Start here if you’re just joining the Arizona story!

I woke up slightly before my alarm, due just as much to the early morning light  as the activity around me. I desperately clung to sleep but since my sleeping pad had a hole in it and the sun was beating down on my rain fly, my objections to the day were futile. I slowly accepted this fact and yawned, stretched, and took a drink from my water bottle. I realized the sun was streaming from only one angle – northeast, above the lake – and my tent had two doors. I leaned over, unzipped the door and then the fly, and was greeted with a brilliant sunrise above Lake Powell (a man-made lake whose origins are somewhat suspicious and can be read of more further in Desert Solitaire) including cloud cover and cacti I couldn’t have summoned had I tried. I shot a few quick frames before deciding that, although I wouldn’t camp here again, it wasn’t all that bad.

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I packed up my tent and gear – this time, all the way – into the Mustang. Everything was rolled, stuffed, and tied to fit. Though that morning I would head south for a fairly long journey, I wanted no surprises. My gear was packed to be carried out when I arrived to check in at the airport. But before I could check into the airport, I had to check into the campground. At the Grand Canyon I’d left a note but at Wahweap I had no such options. I had to remain until 8am to meet with a ranger.

I was packed up and ready to go before 8am due to time changes, but I held tight and drove over at 8am on the dot. I stood behind a young man inside the store. The couple before us had lengthy questions and needed a considerable amount of hand-holding compared to our requests. He simply asked for shower, trail running information, and change for his bills, and I told them my name to not be charged for a no-show. I also mentioned the Canadian couple trying to overtake my site during the night. I was a bit sad to do so, because the previous folks I’d met from Ontario had been great – the bikers while I’d had the flat – but this couple had been so disrespectful I felt I needed to mention it.

In the parking lot I noticed I’d parked right next to the man in front of me. Not only did he need a shower but he had an ammo can and a Ruger 9 mil in his SUV. It had been a couple of years since I’d sold my Ruger 9 mil, but he instantly gained points for having a gun on a camping trip. I understand that, despite this being the “united” states, it is illegal for me to carry a firearm in a few states. In 37 states, I’m fine. I simply happen to live in one of the not-37 in which it would be a bit of a problem. It had been a while since I’d owned or fired a gun and this young man had my respect for being legally able to carry, where in my home state I am not.

I left Wahweap campground and the gun-toting, trail-running camper after checking in, and headed back toward the signs indicating restaurants. I found the remnants of a coffee shop across the hallway from the restaurant at which I’d dined the previous evening. They had precious few vegetarian options and said they wouldn’t have much until the season kicked off next month. I was okay with this and took a tea with a (more lunch-time-suited) vegetable sandwich to go. I sat in the hotel lounge to eat the sandwich and send any emails/texts I wanted to, since this was the last point I’d have WiFi until I got to the airport.

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I walked to my Mustang in the lazy Arizona early-morning heat and set my GPS to lower Antelope Canyon. I’d read the lower canyon was less crowded and more personal, so out I went. I arrived a few minutes behind the next tour so I had some time to kill. I went back to the convertible and charged my phone while reading more from Mr Abbey. About five minutes before my 930am tour I left the car and began the trek into Antelope Canyon – the “most-photographed-place-on-earth.” Our guide knew how to set cameras to capture the best lighting and we had a good group so many of my photos came out really well. Even the ones I took on my own are ethereal and otherworldly. In person, Antelope Canyon is a beautiful site that too many humans have walked through with wallets too large and eyes far too closed with both jaws and camera lenses agape. On my camera, Antelope Canyon could be Mars. It is a wholly unique landscape of which kind we rarely encounter here, and beyond that, we rarely appreciate for what it is. While I was in rough shape that morning, the canyon looks amazing in my photographs.

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We were lucky to have a small group consisting of a few British and French couples, myself and a couple of other female endurance athletes. Very few children, so our photos are unblemished. I tipped our guide and set my GPS for a few hundred miles south to take me to the airport, but changed my mind and set it for Horseshoe Bend instead. Though the sun would be overhead I had to try again – who knew when I’d be back?

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The sun beat down on me during the short drive to Horseshoe. I was glad I’d brought sunscreen and my safari hat. Stylish, I was not, but I was also not sunburned. At Horseshoe there was a line of Mustang convertibles with car club stickers on them. I parked away from them but more came in and surrounded me while I was hiking. There were more people which I thought was a little odd because the views were definitely better at sunset, but perhaps these people had places to go. It was mostly foreign tourists so they were likely on schedules.

I managed a few better photos this time due to a storm miles away that showed nicely on camera. That gave some depth to the photos instead of just being harsh, hot sandstone high above the deep green river. As I walked back toward the car I began to get a little hot so I went up to the small shaded rest area to reapply sunscreen, drink more water, and eat some pretzels. I’ve learned, especially over the last few years, that drinking water alone doesn’t always help me. I have to eat or drink something salty too, to help absorb everything. After about 20 minutes I was good to go and headed down to my car. I noticed some of the Mustang car club people looking at me strangely as I approached my car but I didn’t really care. It was time to go.

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In Page I stopped for gas and a Gatorade and to use the restroom as I now had about 4 hours of driving left. I realized I’d be getting to Phoenix long before my flight left so I texted my old friend Garrett who’d lived in AZ a couple of years ago and asked for recommendations in Phoenix. He immediately told me to check out Four Peaks Brewery. GPS told me it was ten minutes from the airport so I re-set my GPS and continued on. I drove again past the highest peaks in Arizona, through the kaibab forest, through Flagstaff which had been so kind to me.

I was exhausted.

I saw a Del Taco at an intersection in Page and pulled off to grab some food and get off the road for a few minutes. I hadn’t had Del Taco since I’d been in LA a couple of years ago and although it’s fast food, it’s not bad, and I can’t get it on the East Coast. Those few minutes and the food refreshed me enough for the rest of the drive.

Grand Canyon to Horseshoe Bend

Start here if you’re just joining the Arizona story!

The roads were mostly empty. I drove with the windows down and music loud. At one point I came up behind another Mustang convertible, this one silver. We rode as if in a caravan for over an hour, the only two vehicles traveling north at that time. I was glad for the relative company and it almost felt like we were working as a team – he would slow every time he approached a vehicle that could have been police. I hadn’t seen a single police car during my drive and I’d sort of forgotten that even barren deserts like Arizona still had police. His vigilance paid off when, during our final approach into Page, we did pass a police officer but we were going a relatively normal speed.

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I watched the clock and the sun to judge my plan. I wanted to see Horseshoe at sunset but I wanted to check in while the camp office was open too. It looked like they were about fifteen minutes apart so I took a gamble and went to my campsite first. It’s a good thing I’m not a betting man, because I would have lost. The camp office closed at 5pm and it was 615pm. I saw a note on the door with a site number next to my name and I sped back out to get to Horseshoe on time. I saw beautiful sunset images over Lake Powell and the surrounding plateaus but I was on a mission. I’d missed having a beer on the rim once already.

At Horseshoe I put my hiking boots on, strapped my Camelback on my back, and hiked up the red sand of the first hill. I could see the sun breaking through the clouds but the cloud cover had thickened in the few minutes it had taken me to get there. I started jogging down the hill, water and beer sloshing in my pack, feet unsteady in the sandy ground. I approached the sandstone outcroppings and found a small spot where I could walk out alone. Sadly, the clouds remained over the sun for the duration of my time there, but I got my beer on the rim.

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I had been on a mule for about 13 hours, I hadn’t showered in three days, I had driven about six hours total, plus all the time spent waiting for my tow. I couldn’t find my comb and I’d been in a convertible. In short, I was a mess, but I asked a small group of Spanish-speaking young men next to me to “por favor, puedes tomar una foto de mi?” to commemorate the event. This led to a conversation entirely in Spanish with them – they were construction workers originally from Mexico who lived in Colorado with their company. Their boss liked them so much he’d asked a small group to come out to his second home in Utah and do some work for him there and they were a month into a three-month assignment. This was their first time seeing Horseshoe Bend as well.

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I finished my beer and hiked back out to the Mustang to drive back to my next temporary home. Upon my arrival at Lake Powell I wanted to get a real restaurant meal and I’d seen there were a few restaurants at the resort portion. I followed the signs I saw and ended up in a hotel lobby with a restaurant. It wasn’t the grill I was expecting but instead a white-tablecloth restaurant. I was still in hiking pants, hiking sandals, braids, and a sweaty overshirt, but I got a table nonetheless. I ordered a beer and a vegetable plate that looked hearty. I again gambled wrong: the plate was tiny and although delicious, it didn’t satisfy my ravenous body. I ordered dessert as well, eavesdropping on the conversations behind me. One table was French and complaining to the waiter that I got my food before they did, despite the fact they ordered steaks and other food that needed to be cooked a certain length of time. The other table was occupied by people I hope never to become. The mother, while fairly young and attractive, had a very superior attitude and was saying how this was her first time staying in the resort side instead of the camping side, and she’d never go back. She treated her middle-school-aged son more like a friend than a child and reminded me why today’s young people feel so privileged and don’t understand responsibility. I apologized to the waiter for making him look bad for bringing my food out quickly and he rolled his eyes in response. I had waited tables for a long time too and he knew it wasn’t my fault at all, but the clientele of this type of restaurant was going to have a fit about anything.

My food for that one meal cost more than any other food I’d purchased for three days and filled me up considerably less. Lesson learned. I’d eaten at expensive places in NYC before – including the dinner with Graham last summer that came with flakes of actual gold in our desserts – but that had been worth it. Northern Arizona is not, in fact, a restaurant fanatic’s destination of choice.

With my wallet sufficiently lightened, I went to the campsite registration building and I took a closer look at my campsite number and drove to the appropriate loop, but I couldn’t find it. After circling three times in the now-darkness, I saw a young woman and asked if she knew where it was. She got a map and pointed diagonally across. “That’s yours, or at least it should be.”

There was an RV parked in it, in front of the sign, which was why I hadn’t been able to find it. Nobody was around so I put the Mustang in reverse and drove back to my site. I pulled in directly behind the RV and left my lights and music on, slamming the driver-side door. I didn’t have time for this.

“Can we help you?” A lady probably in her 60s partially opened the RV door.

“Yes, this is my campsite.”

“Well nobody was here so we took it.” Her argument was weak.

“That’s because I checked in late. My reservation was listed on the door of the registration building. Did you reserve a site?” Apparently, despite my disheveled appearance, I’d learned something about how to be assertive on this trip.

“No, but can’t we just sleep here and pay for the site in the morning?” her tone was indignant and bordering on whiny.

“I’d really rather you didn’t. I’m alone, I reserved this site for myself alone, I don’t know who you are, and I paid for this site. Please leave.”

“You really won’t let us just sleep here? This is the second time this has happened tonight.”

“Well maybe you should go look at the list of reserved sites and choose an unoccupied one for the remainder of your evening. Please leave.” I replied, more sternly than I expected. She huffed and closed the door. I walked back to the Mustang and waited for them to leave before pulling fully into the site. I set up my tent in the darkness and decided to go to the registration building and take a shower. The coin-operated showers were 24hr and I didn’t want to get on a plane smelling like a mule the following day.

I had exactly enough quarters for the shower, and despite my initial apprehension at showering alone in the middle of the night, it was hot, fresh water, and I was completely undisturbed. I rinsed some of my clothes too, knowing they’d dry quickly in the desert heat.

Back at my site I started a fire and ate some pretzels and peanuts. I didn’t have the energy to sit and watch this fire burn, so within an hour I poured water over it and climbed into my tent. I couldn’t even keep my eyes open long enough to read, so I turned off my headlamp and rolled over to sleep. I could hear teenagers loudly discussing their relationships or lack thereof, and it was generally not as respectful a campground as the South Rim had been. I also had WiFi on my phone and that sealed the deal I’d never come back to this particular campground. Next time I’ll rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and do backcountry camping. But it was good enough for one night, I was in my tent, and exhausted. Another day behind me.

Ride to the Rim

Ride to the Rim

If you’re just joining, start here for the full Arizona experience!

My alarm broke the cool silence in the cabin at 6am Friday morning. I had 20 minutes to pack my belongings into the plastic bag to go back on the mule and get dressed to leave. My swimsuit was dry so I stuffed everything in the bag, pulled on my dusty jeans and muddy boots, and covered myself in sunscreen once again. I drank all the water in my room. Zach had told us at dinner that we were under a water shortage and it was likely that shortly after we left there would be no more drinking water at Phantom Ranch. While unusual, this happens from time to time, and if it gets really bad, they helicopter water in. I felt better about my choice not to shower. Still, having a sink to brush my teeth and rinse my face was a welcome amenity.

Breakfast was eggs, pancakes, juice, peaches, tea, and coffee. We again sat family-style at the last table in the dining area. The sisters, Sara, and I discussed our experiences being teachers as we’d discovered that common thread the night before. Sara said she’d spent her life teaching and raising children and that Larry had been the explorer, trekking in the Himalayas and traveling the world. Then she mentioned they were going to be doing a seven-day horseback camping trip later this summer up in the midwest, so I think she has the right idea: better late than never for her life of adventure.

A small group of riders who hadn’t come with us were riding out ahead of us and someone asked who they were. Ed told us those were hikers who got to the bottom and said “hell no” to walking back up the canyon. The mules we’d seen riding down the morning before while we waited to mount had been the mules these people were using as an escape from hiking out. The cost of getting a mule to bring you out of the canyon was pretty close to what we’d paid for two days of riding plus accommodations. It seemed like a lazy and expensive experience.

We refilled our water bags and walked out to mount up for the ride up. The wranglers had told us this would be the easy ride so I kept my phone in my chest pocket to take better photos. I marveled at the level of trust we’d all blindly given our mules: living beings we had never interacted with were expected to keep us safe going up and down a mountain. The mules are excellent at what they do, but very rarely in life do you put your life in the hands (or hooves) of another living being without having some sort of background with them. In the same line as yesterday we rode out of the corral at Phantom Ranch.

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We passed deer grazing on the banks of the Bright Angel Creek and wound back across the trail by the Indian ruins, where we could see the Black Bridge. Above the Black Bridge we saw a pack mule train making their way down the shadowed mountain, a cloud of dust in their wake. Ed told us we’d pull off to the side by the ruins to let them pass. We used the time as a photo op and took pictures of the train crossing the bridge, and each other on our mules. I was pleasantly surprised to see a female wrangler leading the train. John told us they had two female wranglers right now, and that one had come from Boston with no animal experience.

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With the pack train behind us, we continued up to and across the Black Bridge once again. The trail we’d come in on split off to the right shortly after the bridge and we took the South Kaibab trail on the left to ascend. There were no water stops on this trail and once the sun rose fully there would be very little shade. The climb started almost immediately, with tight switchbacks jutting out in the vast openness. Ed and John told us about various sites such as “no-no corner” where pack trains and passenger trains would attempt to cross on the narrow trail. No-no corner shot out over a deep gorge with nothing on either side and neither the pack train nor the rider trains ever wanted to actually ride out to wait for the other to pass there. Luckily we didn’t run into that conundrum.

As we climbed, so did the sun and the temperature. We rested frequently to let the mules breath and relax. I noticed Maude was being a bit finicky at one of our longer stops when she refused to stay in line, sidestepping anxiously. At a large plateau with restroom facilities we tied the mules to a hitching post to rest for close to half an hour. During this rest the pack train from the morning passed us, continuing on their ride back up. Maude seemed very sweaty and was breathing fairly heavily, continuing to sidestep. John came to look at her and said she seemed more tired than she should be. He reached into the mule med kit and pulled out a mild relaxer which he injected down her throat. She wasn’t thrilled, but it did help, and she was perkier for the rest of the trip. I got some fantastic photos at this stop – the one I sent you mid-trip is from here. We had a great view of the red inner rim and the huge expanse of canyon there. Our wranglers pointed out a spot to look at from the rim to see where Phantom Ranch was in relation to the rest of the canyon, since there was no way to see it. They also told us when we turned a corner where we’d see the Colorado from muleback for the last time.

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Looking back down the switchbacks my knees were happy I wasn’t doing this on foot. The ascent was definitely easier than the descent had been but it still wasn’t an easy walk. Some of the switchbacks were incredibly steep and rocky. We came to one shady spot to rest and were told that because of how the rock had formed, that area had never seen direct sunlight, and was one of precious few areas of shade on this trail. After that, we were less than an hour from the top. We could see the rim but it looked like a steep vertical climb. As we snaked around rock formations the path revealed itself in parts, and almost without warning, we crested the rim once again. We followed the wranglers to the barn, where they handed us each a certificate of muleskinning and our belongings. Then we piled into a van to ride back to Bright Angel Lodge.

In the lodge we returned our borrowed raincoats and exchanged contact information with other riders. Everyone knew I was writing a book and wanted to read it so they took my email to check in with me in a few months. I wanted to change out of my dusty clothes and eat at the fancy El Tovar restaurant before I headed north. It took me much longer than it should have to change my pants in the restroom but I was moving slowly and covered in a layer of sweat and dusty. In hiking pants and sandals once again, I ran into Sara in the lobby for the final time, and then it was back to my other powerful steed: the Mustang. I put my dusty things in the trunk and drove to El Tovar. Sadly, the main dining room was closed, but I was able to snag a table on the bar porch with a view overlooking the rim. A disdainful sense of superiority accompanied me during my meal as I gazed at tourists gawking at the canyon. I wanted to yell at them for not experiencing anything while they stood their with their iPhones and iPads taking pictures instead of enjoying the view. You see so very little on the rim that, while beautiful, it is almost underwhelming because you can’t comprehend how enormous the formation is.

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I had chili with rice and drank a Grand Canyon Mule, made with locally-sourced vodka. I chose it just for the name. Then it was time to drive north to Page. I wanted to get to my campsite before dark, and then have my last beer at Horseshoe Bend at sunset. Zach had told me he’d done guidework up in Page and that while the hike at Horseshoe wasn’t technically by any means, his clients told him that it was the easiest hike with the best payoff they’d done, so that solidified my goal. I had one stop to make: on the plateau we’d seen in the far distance a small pillar. Ed told us it was a watchtower, designed by a woman to blend into the land. While she was away, men had looked at her plans and built it. Upon her return it wasn’t as she desired and she made them tear it down and rebuild it. Never send a man to do a woman’s work. The watchtower was about 25 miles from where we’d been and John told me it was right on my drive out, so I wanted to stop there too.

The drive to the watchtower was quiet and peaceful. I was glad I stopped there because they had restrooms and water, two things I was appreciating more than normal on this journey. I climbed to the top and took some photos. The watchtower gave a much more impressive glimpse at the size and scope of the canyon. If someone didn’t want to hike at all then that was the place to go for views. I was glad I’d had both experiences. Then I was off, once again.

Continued here!

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Phantom Ranch

If you’re just joining the Arizona story, start here.

Each party was assigned a cabin. I was in a party of one, and aptly assigned cabin number one. It was set away from the other cabins, behind a private residence, so I would find the solitude I’d been seeking within its air-conditioned walls. I took my belongings to the building that would be my home for one night and closed the door behind me. I laid across the bed and let the air conditioning cool my sun-warmed body. I pulled off my dusty riding boots and saw the clear line the red dust had left straight across my jeans. My bag held a pair of zip-off hiking pants and hiking sandals and I changed into those, stuffing my wallet into a cargo pocket.

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The Cantina is a multipurpose building at the center of Phantom Ranch, serving meals twice a day and drinks and snacks throughout the day. It also houses a gift shop with items only available for purchase at the bottom of the canyon. I’d heard you could buy postcards that a mule would mail out. Eric had volunteered to be our USPS carrier for this trip and he’d carried mail to the bottom on his mule. I had many people I wanted to write to, so I headed over to the Cantina to purchase postcards for Eric to carry out the next day. I saw they also had beer, and over the winter I’d always have a beer after skiing down mountains all day. I figured riding a mule down a canyon was pretty similar, so I bought a beer and a stack of 20 postcards, and sat down at the end of a long family-style table to write.

I brought sandals, a toothbrush, and a copy of Desert Solitaire to the bottom of the Grand Canyon but I didn’t have a pen with me.

“Can I trouble you for a pen?” I asked the bespectacled young man who’d given me the beer in exchange for a NYC-esque stack of bills.

“You can even keep it.”

I wrote ceaselessly for the next hour, squeezing small words onto large postcards. I went back to the cabin to get my list of addresses and realized I did, in fact, have a pen that I’d wedged into the spirals of my journal. Oh well. Everything addressed, I went back to the Cantina to put the postcards in the mule-mailbox. Then I decided to put on my swimsuit and brave the cold waters of Bright Angel Creek. We’d been told less than 1% of visitors to the Grand Canyon make it to the bottom annually and I was determined to take advantage of it. Although the water was hovering around 48* – same as the Colorado, into which it flowed – and it was barely above my knees in most places, I found a deep well behind a rock in which I could sit. A group of hikers sat on the side and I asked them for a photo of me in the creek as proof I actually did it. Then I took off my outerwear and plunged into the bubbling, cool water, up to my shoulders next to the boulder. I sat for a few minutes, shivering as the sun withdrew from the high walls of the inner gorge, until I decided I’d sat long enough for it to count. I grabbed my towel and wrapped it around my legs and tied my shirt around my ribs. I wasn’t ready to go inside yet, so I sat on the rock with my legs extended in the icy water for a while, watching the sun retreat and enjoying the refreshing sensation after hours of pounding on my joints.

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When I got really cold I gathered my pants and went back to my cabin, where I put on dry clothes and got ready for dinner. We were seated by party, but as it turned out, all the mule riders were at one table, and the hikers were dispersed among the others. I was at the end of the table with Sara and Larry. We all enjoyed salad, bread, potatoes, and vegetables. Maryann, Marie, and I devoured bowls of vegan chili and the others had steak. The meal finished with chocolate cake. It was incredibly filling but I also knew I’d be hungry again later so I was glad we’d brought our lunch leftovers down and I had some cookies left. Zach, the young man who’d given me the pen, was also the cook, waiter, and host for the dinner. The rangers who worked at the bottom of the canyon would hike down, stay down for ten days of work, hike back up for four days off, and repeat the cycle. While at Phantom Ranch they were somewhat all jacks-of-all-trades. They cooked, cleaned, ran cash registers, gave presentations, and more.

After dinner I decided to make the trek out to the Indian ruins we’d passed on muleback on the way in. I could have sat in the Cantina and talked with other hikers or riders but I wanted to be alone. A big part of this trip was to be alone since my other travels this year had always involved others and this was the only trip I’d taken completely solo, and yet, I’d hardly been alone, except to sleep. I walked out in the approaching dusk toward the Indian ruins and crossed paths with our wranglers, who told me it was about a ten-minute hike over – no problem. Once again I found myself with Sara and Larry, walking over to the mule field to visit our mounts. I walked with them until they turned up to the corral and I continued on toward the banks of the Colorado.

The nearly-full moon was bright and starkly white in the Carolina-blue sky but it didn’t photograph well. I distinctly remember seeing it perfectly framed between a divot in the red canyon wall, scrub brush cacti at the bottom, and that image lives only in my memory. I got out to the ruins and took my time reading the information boards discussing the approximate ages of each structure, possible uses of each, and speculation on what happened to the people who’d once lived here. I was utterly fascinated by the fact that people had actually lived inside the canyon. The earth there is harsh, unforgiving, unpredictable, and dangerous, yet people had lived there for hundreds of years by following the cycles of the earth. They would move to upper or lower parts of the canyon based on the seasons and weather. They managed to farm and harvest, and to save seeds. Especially after my time spent in the Amazon, I find myself questioning who has it right: the modern Western world with technology and medicine, or cultures who listen to and live from the earth? Are we, as a species, truly stronger now? I doubt it. I know few people in my daily life who would last more than a few days inside the Grand Canyon without any of the technology we have today. But history exposes itself to us in rock paintings, ancient homes, and handmade artifacts. People not only survived there, but thrived. They were creative and valued art and beauty. People struggling to live don’t have time to think about painting pottery.

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Larry eventually ambled over as well and we discussed these ideas briefly, before I descended the rocky slope to sit on the soft white sand hugging the river. It was some of the softest, whitest sand I’d ever felt and I sat in silence, admiring the natural beauty surrounding me. The river flowed green next to white banks at the base of red mountains supporting a black bridge under a blue sky. At the bottom of the canyon you see about as much as you can see standing on the rim, which is next to nothing. The inner gorge is so narrow and the rim so high, it’s impossible to get a good grasp of the magnitude of the canyon. It almost felt like just being inside any old valley, except for the isolation. Everything at the bottom was either carried in on muleback – the majority of everything, from food to gift shop items, floated in on a raft, or helicoptered in. Helicopters were saved for the largest, heaviest items like the washing machines and my queen-size bed, and were used rarely. Pack mule trains came down every single day.

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As the moon rose and the temperature dropped I made my way back up to the trail. I didn’t bother actually finding the path I’d used to get down and I paid for it with a stab from a cactus in my right shin. I still have a triangle-shaped three-pointed scar from the sharpest needles that went straight through my pants. I pulled them out and wiped the bright red blood off my pale-white skin. On the way back I passed the mules in their corral, and once again, sweet Vegas was happy to see me. I walked up and scratched her nose and ears through the fence. The wranglers were getting the mule food ready and all the other mules were more interested in the food than human contact, but Vegas continued to enjoy her scratches. After the food was put in the trough she finally joined the others and I joined the men on the other side. It reminded me of my childhood: the mules were eating alfalfa cubes which I’d fed to my horses.

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“How ya’ doin’, New York?” one wrangler drawled.

“Pretty well, actually. How about you guys?”

“We’re good. You gonna be up at the Cantina later?”

“Y’all gonna bring the whisky?” I grinned.

“I’ll be there for my coffee!” Steve, the old ranger from California, grinned back.

“So why do you get to ride Vegas?” I asked Ed.

“Well, she’s only been here a few months, but she was doin’ real well and we thought she was just about ready to put a rider on. Then last week, I don’t know what it was, but somethin’ spooked her, and she started buckin’ like crazy. Threw me right off, down the side. I had my rope and luckily she got steady before she fell down and followed me. So, I’m stayin’ on her for now.”

“That’s pretty rough,” I mused.

“It’s alright. I was hurt worse down here a few months ago when a mule pushed me right up into the trough and broke a few of my ribs.” The trough was concrete and that didn’t sound very pleasant at all.

“Glad you’re doing better,” I told Ed. I left the men with promises to meet them at the Cantina around 8pm – when it would open again after being cleaned up post-dinner – and walked back to my solitary cabin.

The sky was a dusky, purplish blue and stars were beginning to shine behind the cloud cover. As I walked back I saw Eric sitting alone outside the cabin he was sharing with the girls. He moved the towel on the bench over and I sat down next to him. “Still here?” he’d been sitting there when I’d walked out an hour earlier.

“I’ve moved a little. It’s nice out here though.”

“So what do you do when you’re not working on government secrets?” I asked. Earlier he’d told us he worked in computers for the government.

“I like traveling. We have to do it while we’re young and able.”

“I agree. Where are you headed next?”

“Greece this summer.” We talked until Marie and Maryann returned, towels wrapped around their wet hair, and went into the cabin.

“I decided not to shower. I’m just going to get dusty again tomorrow,” I laughed.

“Same here,” he agreed.

“I’m going to my cabin for a minute, so I’ll see you three at the Cantina in a few?” he nodded and I walked back up to my cabin. I didn’t really need anything there, but I wanted to be alone again. I laid across the bed and just closed my eyes for a few minutes, until I realized if I didn’t open them and go back out, I was going to fall asleep at 745pm.

I met Eric, Marie, and Maryann on the steps as we waited for the doors to open. We followed the line as it snaked into the Cantina, with people getting drinks one by one. Zach, again, was the one behind the cash register, and again, I got a beer. “I promise I’m not an alcoholic.” I apologized.

“I get it, don’t worry,” he reassured me. “You’re a New Yorker. I used to spend a lot of time there.”

I sat with my new friends and we talked about everything from M&Ms to their cross-country voyage. The wranglers never showed up. Within an hour our youthful energy was fading and we decided to turn in for the night since breakfast would come early at 630am. We got up to leave but Zach stopped me near the door. “Hey New York, what do you do?” I waved my friends on and told Zach I was a musician. He asked what kind and I went to my cabin to get my phone and play him a song. I watched his expression change as he heard my voice.

“If I didn’t have a nice new job to go home to, I’d be thinking pretty seriously about just staying down here.” I told him.

“That’s what I did.”

“What?”

“I used to work in fashion and I was in NYC a lot. I came here on a trip and I never left. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I could have had some sweet apartment and stuff by now, but instead I spend my days at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s what was right for me.” He recommended a band for me to check out in Phoenix and took my website and phone number, promising to call when he came to visit NYC over the summer. He told me he would be off the following morning and we’d have another cook/host, so I wouldn’t see him again before I left.

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I walked out into the dark night and into my cabin once more. I enjoyed the leftover cookies and took some ibuprofen for the pounding headache I hadn’t been able to shake. I was pretty sure it was a combination of serious altitude changes: I live at sea level, Phoenix is just over 1000ft above sea level and I’d been steadily climbing up to the South Rim’s 7000ft elevation the day before. Breathing deeply in the cold air at night had been difficult up there. Then I got on a mule and descended about 4500ft in seven hours in direct sunlight and warmer, drier weather than I’d seen since the Israeli desert. Sorry, body. After drinking some water I climbed into my queen bed – larger than my bed at home – and read a chapter in Desert Solitaire which just so happened to deal with Indian civilizations in canyon country. Although I was at the remote bottom of a canyon in a building over a century old, in some ways it was nicer than my apartment. It was private – no upstairs neighbors – and had air conditioning, two amenities I lack in New York. No matter the creek steps from the front door, or the fact I didn’t have to cook anything for myself.

I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to write a page in the journal attempting to summarize my day, from my first view of the rim to my last swig of beer, and soon enough, I was asleep, in the quiet, cool darkness one can only find in places where humanity finds it difficult to travel.

Continued here.

Descent into the Canyon

If you’re just joining the Arizona story, start here.

During the ride down there wasn’t much talking. The ride was jarring at times and I absorbed the shock in my knees. The mule ahead of me, ridden by Larry, the white-haired man from earlier, didn’t want to keep up with his wife’s mule, so we often had to “motivate” our mules. This resulted in Maude trotting to catch up on a few occasions. I was fine with this since I rode as a child, but at lunch John asked me to not let her trot anymore for the safety of everyone else. Mules have a herd mentality and have been known to run too far, too fast to keep up.

We stopped at Indian Gardens, 3.5 miles down – 1/3rd of the distance we were to travel, for lunch. We each had a roll, a cheese stick, carrots, apples, Oreos, and Powerade. There were sausages and the two girls I’d met earlier were also vegetarians, so we all gave our sausages to their friend Eric. The sisters were Marie and Maryann and all three of them lived in the MD/VA area. Larry and Sara lived in Oregon. Steve, a short, muscular, older man was John’s father-in-law, a rancher from the High Sierras in Northern California. The family of three rode up at the front of the line close to Ed and somewhat kept to themselves at lunch. There were bathrooms and fresh water available so we filled our water bags before we got back up to finish the journey. We had been warned today would be rough riding and tomorrow would be the easy day.

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As we began to mount up to ride again I noticed Sara didn’t have long sleeves on anymore and I offered her my sunscreen. I would have baked if I’d gone down the side of the canyon without long sleeves on. We all had hats and now that the sun was out in full force I was thankful I’d kept my sunscreen nearby. The temperature had risen to over 70*F by the time we stopped for lunch.

We approached an area Ed affectionally referred to as “Oh Jesus Corner” and stopped the mules for a safety brief. Ed again stated the importance of keeping the mules together, especially on this tight corner, and led us down. That was the only time on the descent at which I felt slightly crazy for doing this – I didn’t feel quite “Oh Jesus!”-y, but I did feel my stomach flip. The switchback was tight and Maude walked right on the edge so when I looked down past my left knee there was nothing but the top of a cottonwood tree about one hundred feet below me. I decided to keep looking between her ears instead of off the edge for a little while.

At this point we were well below the rim and the inner rim. John had explained earlier that there was a canyon within a canyon and I finally understood what he’d meant. Standing at the South Rim you see nothing of how immense the canyon is. You can only see to the top of the inner rim. But down below Oh Jesus Corner I could look up and not even see the South Rim – and we still had miles of trail to go before we’d reach Phantom Ranch. I don’t quite remember but I’m not sure whether I could see the Colorado River at this point. I don’t think so. We came across a few small creeks that got closer together the lower we got, and I think that’s all the water we saw until we crossed the last creek. There was a small shelter and bathroom area across the creek that they didn’t use in the winter. Since we had just come through a section of trail called The Furnace and it was approaching 90* Ed said he would take us over to rest and to follow him. Vegas wasn’t thrilled about having to ford the creek and it took Ed a couple of tries to turn her onto this unfamiliar part of the trail. One by one we followed without incident, until Marie, behind me, had trouble getting Berta across. Berta was hellbent on continuing on the path she knew and Marie had to try a few times to get her over, but she did, and looked quite graceful doing it.

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I was grateful for a bit of shade and some more water. I’ve learned how to do better in the heat and sun so I don’t get heatstroke and I knew if I didn’t drink a lot of water I’d be feeling it soon.

“Hey New York, what brought you here?” Steve, the old rancher, asked me in a thick Southern accent. I would get used to being called New York over the next 36 hours anytime someone wanted my attention.

“This is my 30th birthday present to myself. I made a list of 30 things to do before I turned 30 and this was the last one.”

“What else did you do?” I had debated talking about the list because I didn’t want to talk on this trip. I wanted to listen, to learn, but I’d already said it.

“I went to Israel, London, Colombia, Peru, Brasil. I ran a half-marathon. I spent an entire day in Manhattan walking from cupcake shop to cupcake shop and ate my way downtown. I went camping alone. I think those are the highlights.” I couldn’t think of my list. I knew I had some boring things on it, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of the interesting items.

“You’ve been all over, girl! You ever been to the High Sierras?” Steve asked. I haven’t been, but he made them sound so beautiful that they’re now on my list of places to visit.

The mother of the family of three was looking a bit flushed and tired so Ed had us relax in the shelter until she felt better. We were approaching the last push and he told us once we crossed the bridge over the Colorado we’d have less than an hour left and the mules would begin to get lazy. We got back on and rode out. Berta again didn’t want to cross and John had to dismount and lead her across the water, but everyone made it without incident. Turning a corner, the deep green of the Colorado River appeared to the left. Ed told us we would be crossing the Black Bridge, not the first bridge we could see, so we rode on. The trail merged with the South Kaibab Trail – the one we’d be riding up the following day – and after a couple of switchbacks we paused for another safety briefing. We were about to go into a cave and come out of the cave on the bridge, so again, it was important to stay together so the mules wouldn’t spook or run. The cave was pitch-black for a few seconds before opening up onto the bridge and suddenly I was on the back of a mule crossing the Colorado. Another cave and we were on the home stretch.

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The trail wound past the ruins of Indian settlements and a more recent grave piled high with rocks and topped with cowboy gear. We passed the Bright Angel campground across the Bright Angel Creek, and then we entered the Phantom Ranch Corral, at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was early afternoon and the sun was hot and high. A ranger met us with a pitcher of ice water, a schedule of meals, cabin assignments, and a big smile. Off our mules, the wranglers got our overnight bags to their rightful owners and sent us on our way. We had a few hours of free time before dinner.

Continued here.

 

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Morning on the South Rim

If you’re just joining the Arizona story, start here!

A couple of hours later I woke gently, shortly before my 530am alarm went off. On East Coast time, it was around 8am, still early for me. I pulled the clothes I’d wear for the ride into my sleeping bag to warm them up and changed as quickly as possible. It was about 24*F according to my phone and the sun was rising, so it probably got close to the teens in the dark. I reviewed what I’d packed to take to the bottom of the canyon: swimsuit, journal, a copy of “Desert Solitaire,” towel, toothbrush, sunscreen, hiking sandals. I got out of the tent and put the overnight bag in the passenger seat of the Mustang and then set to work taking down the tent. Again, I was glad I’d done this all before. I was also glad I had the car and could just toss everything in it for the night. I packed the entire tent and sleeping bag into my backpack easily and locked them in the trunk. I rolled the sleeping pad and tossed it in the backseat. If anyone felt like destroying my soft top for a defective sleeping pad while I was gone, they could be my guest. It was too early to think.

I had a Clif bar and the other banana on the seat next to me and drove over to the Bright Angel Lodge, where I’d had to register last night. They’d given me the overnight bag, a raincoat, and the water bag. There was a restaurant in the lodge and I hoped to get a bowl of oatmeal or some other type of hot breakfast but once I got inside I saw the restaurant wasn’t open yet. I took my water bag to the fountain to fill it and walked out the door, but I felt something against my leg. I looked down and my water bag was leaking profusely. I sighed and turned around. Things not working properly the first time was becoming a bit of a theme on this trip. I held the water bag up to show the lady at the desk and she handed me a new one and sent me on my way. I asked if I could leave my car in their lot for the night and she said of course, so I grabbed my Clif bar, banana, overnight bag, and walked over to the corral at which I had been told to wait.

I was behind a family of three and saw another group of twenty-somethings with mule trip raincoats walking ahead of them, but everyone seemed rather lost. The corral was not marked and the lady at the desk had given only vague directions to all parties. We all came to a large stone circle with a fence on top and deduced it must be the corral, due to the lack of any other corral-like fixtures anywhere else, but there were no mules in sight. There was, however, a seemingly vast view of the rim of the Grand Canyon in sight.

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“I got in late last night so this is the first time I’m actually seeing the canyon,” I told the trio of twenty-somethings as we stood on the rim, watching the sun slowly chase away the residual gray.

“Same here! We came in so late it was dark!” the blond girl replied. Picture-taking of all involved ensued. I didn’t have to settle for taking a selfie – my new acquaintances were happy to hold my camera after I took a photo of the three of them.

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“I hear horseshoes!” We saw a mule train cross the street and ride up but they didn’t stop – they walked past the presumed corral and right down the Bright Angel Trail, five feet to the right. At that point we figured we must be at the right place or the mule driver would have told us otherwise. Another echo of horseshoes clattered across the early-morning stillness and more mules were led into the corral, placed nose-out to the hitching rail topping the stone circle. The wranglers didn’t seem to want to talk to us too much yet and I didn’t want to annoy my new friends so I instead approached the mules.

The first mule I met was not interested so moving down the line I found a mostly black one with more of a horse-like appearance and a friendly demeanor. She leaned into my ear scratches and nosed my shoulder. “That’s Vegas. She’s from Tennessee, been here ’bout four months now.” a wrangler drawled.

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“An East Coaster, like me.” I mused.

“Where are you from?”

“New York City.” It was a lot easier to say that than to explain I lived 30 miles east on Long Island.

“Been there once. I stayed in my hotel room and watched the World Cup. Too many people for me.” He grinned.

“I know what you mean.”

“Good morning!! All here for the mule trip, please gather ’round!” A booming voice came out of a portly older gentleman in a cowboy hat sitting on the hitching rail. “I have to go over some safety information with you. Any questions, let me know. Your safety is of our UTMOST concern on this trip….” he launched into his thirty-minute introductory speech, with the most important rules being “STAY ON YOUR MULE” and “DO NOT GET OFF YOUR MULE.” We had a few horse people in our group of ten, and everyone had been on a horse at least once before, so he seemed confident we had a good group. During his speech the wranglers packed our overnight bags onto the backs of the mules.

“Okay everyone, line up with your parties on this line,” the first wrangler drawled. “Who are you with?” he looked at me.

“Myself.”

“You can be with us,” the white-haired man next to me leaned in. “What’s your name?”

“Sarah.”

“I can remember that. That’s my wife’s name too.”

I hoped I’d get to ride sweet Vegas, but instead I was told I’d be riding a bay mule named Maude. As everyone lined up I realized the wrangler himself was riding Vegas and I figured she was his personal mule and that’s why she was so friendly. I’d later learn this was not the case.

Another wrangler came over with a mounting block and helped us all up, one by one, and handed us our mule motivators – small, flexible braided crops with leather ends to help keep the mules together on the trail. He tucked my sunscreen in the pack on Maude so I could reach it easily – our overnight bags were all mixed so we weren’t riding with our own belongings – and we lined up to follow them down the trail. Ed – the one riding Vegas –  led us out of the corral. John, a lanky cowboy with a brilliant mustache and sparkling eyes, completed the group.

Continued here.

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Dirty Convertibles

Start here if you’re just joining the AZ story!

I decided to call the rental company and see if they could switch me out. I knew I’d paid to reserve a convertible and that I probably wouldn’t get another one, but at least I’d checked the box on driving a convertible at all.

After a fairly long conversation going back and forth with a Hertz representative who called the local branch while putting me on hold, she finally told me, “The Flagstaff branch can give you a car, but…” she sounded so apologetic: “it’s a Nissan Altima. Is that okay?” I had a pretty big internal laugh. At this point I didn’t care whether I had to drive a tow truck, I just wanted to be back on the road. It was 530pm and I had less than three hours to get where I needed to be – about an hour and a half away.

Within 20 minutes a Hertz SUV pulled up and I piled my gear out of the Camaro into the trunk. The rep met with the manager to look at the tires and fill out paperwork to get it repaired the following day. Then we drove to the Flagstaff airport. “I’m third generation Arizonian. Over there you see the San Francisco peaks, with the highest mountain in Arizona. We’re currently in a ponderosa pine forest.” I told the rep I was lucky he picked me up and could serve as tour guide, and how unfortunate he hadn’t been on the rest of my journey.

Flagstaff was a tiny airport and he told me maybe 8 or 9 flights came through each day. We got in and went to the counter where I handed him my incident report and they began the paperwork to get me out of the Camaro – refunding my upgrade fee entirely – and into the Altima. They apologized again and I told them, “It’s okay. I’m not in the habit of renting expensive sports cars. This was my 30th birthday present to myself and the first time I’d ever driven a convertible so it was fun while it lasted.”

A young woman then came up from the back office. “Would you by any chance be willing to take a dirty car? We just had two Mustang convertibles dropped off at the train station. We haven’t been able to inspect or clean them yet, but if you would like a convertible, I can get you in it since we have two.”

This was the same train station JR would be going to in about 16 hours to start his new life in LA.

Of course I was willing to take a dirty car.

Laura gave me a final total on the cost to fix the tire – $60 less than I expected, so including dropping my upgrade fee, it ended up being a pretty inexpensive “incident.” She handed me the keys to the Altima and gave me her cell phone number since I would have to follow her to the station and leave the Altima there for the next client.

At the train station, she filled out the paperwork while I filled up my water bottle. It was the desert and I was pretty thirsty. She took a look at the car and pulled the rental child seats out, handed me the keys, and told me the best way to get back on the highway to get to the Grand Canyon by 8pm. I tossed my bag in the backseat, put the top down, and followed her out of the parking lot.

I couldn’t find the lights at first, but Graham to the rescue again, since his car is, incidentally, a Mustang (though not a convertible). Off I went up Highway 180 – not the road Laura told me to take but I missed a turn thanks to a traffic light that turned red before I could catch up to her – but it led me straight to the Grand Canyon entrance.

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I missed sunset at the Canyon by about an hour and it was pitch black by the time I paid my fee, had a lovely conversation with the entrance gate ranger about how much fun convertibles are but how you have to be really careful not to get a sunburn like she did the time her friend invited her to ride in one (up to Page, where I’d be going Friday night, coincidentally). I sped through to the lodge to check in for my mule trip and arrived ten minutes before they closed. The lady at the desk wasn’t thrilled but did check me in and handed me a water bag and a bag for my change of clothes at the bottom of the canyon.

Then I sped back toward the campsite and the village general store to pick up some firewood, snacks, and of course, some beer. I got in the door three minutes before they closed. I found a local beer, a bag of firewood, some matches, a couple bananas, some pretzels, and some peanut M&Ms, and checked out. I knew the canyon was only a few hundred feet away but I couldn’t see anything in the dark, so I continued to my campsite.

The campground check in was closed so I slid a note under the window so they’d know I was there and grabbed a map of my site. I pulled in, took out my gear, put on my trusty headlamp, and set up my tent in the dark. I was glad I’d camped by myself before so I was able to do it in about fifteen minutes. It would have been faster but hammering stakes into desert rock isn’t easy. I went to the bathroom and filled my water, then settled in to build a fire. In an unusual move for me, it wasn’t a primitive campground, so my car was steps away and a restroom with running water was around the corner.

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It took me three small boxes of matches but I got a roaring fire going. I slid down to the ground in front of the picnic table, my beer and M&Ms on the bench behind me. I was glad I always carried a knife while camping because the beers turned out to not be twist-off tops. The last thing I needed at this point was to not be able to open my beer, after the afternoon adventure I’d had. My hands, dry from the arid desert, were covered in black charcoal and red dust. They were cold and moved more slowly than usual.

I ate my M&Ms, drank my beer, wrote in my journal, stared at the cloudy moon, and watched my fire slowly shrink, wither, and turn to embers. I poured some water on it and stirred everything with a long stick to ensure it was out, then went to bed.

My thermarest sleeping pad wouldn’t stay inflated but I was too tired to care. I pulled my hoodie up, zipped myself in, and passed out. I woke up a couple of hours later because my toes were very cold, so I put on my ski socks which I’d had the foresight to bring, and went back to sleep until 530 came around.

I’d packed my ski socks to wear for the mule ride after reading a review someone had left online that the “stirrups kept bumping into [her] shins” during the ride. My ski socks are knee-high, made of SmartWool – Merino wool that resists odors and is moisture-wicking, and are also thicker in the front so that ski boots won’t cause bruising. Good enough for my multitude of ski trips this winter, good enough for a mule ride. I debated the gear I’d packed multiple times as weather reports changed during the week leading up to my departure. It even snowed on the South Rim four days before I arrived, so I had to plan for weather ranging from the 20s to the expected 70s or so at Phantom Ranch. I packed as lightly as possible while still ensuring I had enough layers, including my ski socks. I was glad I had them when, around 230am, I awoke due to cold feet. Not figurative cold feet; I was beyond excited for the upcoming ride, but actual cold feet. My torso was bundled in a SmartWool base layer, button down, and a hoodie covering my head. I was still wearing the jeans I’d flown in wearing and one set of Merino wool socks, but I was glad to be able to reach over and pull on the ski socks in the cold darkness. The deflation of my sleeping pad barely registered in my exhaustion and layers, but likely contributed to the cold as the ground temperature permeated my sleeping bag without the layer of air.

Continued here.

JR and the Tow Truck

(Start here if you missed the beginning!)

Roadside assistance told me my time for arrival had expired and they had been unable to locate the park I was at, but the truck was in the area. I walked up the hill to the road to sit and wait, and the ranger called out, “She may be your ticket out of here!” to a man walking down the hill. I asked the man what had happened and he told me his Harley had run out of gas on the very same uphill that had done in the Camaro. He was with a group that had all gone on ahead. We walked back up the hill and sat on the guardrail together to await the tow.

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One of his group came back and waited with us. They were from Ontario, in a group of 80 bikers who take a week or two each year and ride around various places in the US. His bike didn’t have a reserve tank and he hadn’t known how low he was, but we all guessed my tow would have an emergency gas can, so we continued sitting and trading stories.

Finally, a large red tow truck came barreling around the very same corner and I jumped off from my post, waving my arms, and the truck pulled in. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a gas can to help my new friends. The one with gas went on down the hill to see if the other would be able to just coast back down to Sedona while I went down to watch my Camaro get hitched up to the truck.

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The tow driver was a scruffy, rather rough-looking, tattooed fellow who looked to be only a few years older than me, but had met with some tough times. I was understandably hesitant to let him hitch my $60k+ car up and haul it off to parts unknown. What if it fell off the back on those windy mountain roads? What if he didn’t take us to a garage but instead tried to steal the car?

I found my confidence and struck up a conversation with him. His name is JR, he’s lived in these mountains for years and he had trouble finding me because his GPS didn’t work up here, much like my cell phone didn’t work, so he didn’t know which hiking spot I was stuck in. He told me he’d been towing for over 18 years and that both me and the Camaro were in good hands – “the best in the business. I’ve been in Tow magazine a bunch of times. Everyone in the industry knows JR.”

I climbed into the cab in the passenger side and up the mountain we went. I’d popped the tire halfway between Sedona and Flagstaff and my roadside assistance had set him up to take me to Flagstaff. I was relieved, since it was on my way and I didn’t want to backtrack. The windy roads were beautiful and I have to admit having someone else drive allowed me some more time to enjoy the scenery. I told him the Camaro wasn’t mine but a rental for my 30th birthday. JR told me this was his last day on the job because he was moving to LA tomorrow to get married – to his ex-wife.

Normally stories like that I just kind of shake off, but for some reason, JR seemed like a good dude who’d just had a bumpy road in life. I congratulated him on his good fortune and he opened up and told me their story – how they’d gotten together as teens, had some children, gotten divorced after maybe six years? Both married other people and had some more kids, but neither of those marriages worked out. When his marriage ended a mutual friend had told him his ex-wife – April – had been asking about him. He called her, and they knew the time was right. She was living in LA and making good money as a personal assistant, and he immediately started contacting towing and trucking companies in the area. Their oldest son just turned 24 and had moved out so JR didn’t have kids to keep him in Arizona anymore. (Turned out, JR is 39). April bought him a one-way Amtrak ticket from the Flagstaff train station for Thursday morning at 945am, which meant that my tow was likely his last job in Arizona as the clock ticked on.

His story made me so happy to hear. He was giddy with excitement to get out to California to be with the star-crossed love of his life. Their timing had never worked out before, but he believed – and I too – that this time they were ready. JR then told me about his second marriage, and dropped the bomb that he’d just kicked lung cancer three months ago and just returned to work two months ago. His second wife had stayed home with the kids while he worked, which was fine until he was diagnosed with lung cancer a couple years ago. He couldn’t work as the disease and chemo ravaged his body, so he asked her to find a job and he would stay with the children. For over two years she refused to get a job as he grew sicker and weaker. Once he started recovering and went into remission he realized she was not the type of woman he wanted to be with. She wasn’t willing to be there for him in sickness and in health. So he told her he’d make it easy on her, and had filed the papers himself around the time he returned to work.

I was shocked at the story pouring not from his lips, but from his heart. Sitting next to me was a man who had been through the wringer, but yet he was still optimistic, still positive, not bitter. I commented on that and he told me, “I turned my attitude around after spending years being angry and negative.” I told him I had recently done the same thing. Two years ago, getting a flat tire three hours into a vacation would have ruined my trip. I would have yelled, cried, told everybody how unhappy I was and how this was the worst day ever. But instead, I now know that “it is what it is” and I can’t control what happens to me – only how I choose to deal with it. A couple hours earlier I’d texted a friend that I was having the best day ever, and I still wouldn’t change my mind on that statement.

But we’re not done with the tow truck.

Roadside assistance was supposed to send us to a Meineke in Flagstaff but there was no shop at the address to which JR’s GPS led us. He called his boss and got a corrected address which we plugged into my phone – which worked now that we were back in civilization. Upon our arrival to the Flagstaff Meineke, on historic Route 66, which I can now say I’ve been on, the young man at the counter told us he “didn’t do tires but I recommend Discount Tires, a few miles away.”

Seriously? What car shop doesn’t do tires?

JR called his boss again and I ran to the ladies’ room – it had been hours since I’d last seen a restroom in Sedona. His boss didn’t answer. After another ten minutes or so he told me not to worry and he would just take me, regardless of what his boss said, because it was his last day on the job. Six miles back the way we came, we pulled into Discount Tire of Flagstaff. I hopped out and got in the counter line while JR unhitched my beautiful car. I was told they would have to check in the back for the tires. The manager came out with me to look at my car again, and JR finished getting his truck and chains ready to go. He told me the tow was taken care of and wished me luck on the rest of my birthday adventure.

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I gave him a hug and thanked him for the stories, the company, and most of all, the assistance. I congratulated him again on his engagement and gave him my best wishes for his new life in LA.

The manager came back to tell me they didn’t have the tires in stock, nor did they have anything used they could put on.

JR had been my link to getting back to my freedom. I couldn’t wait 30 hours for them to get more tires. I sighed and went to sit in the Camaro, debating my options. At least I looked cool sitting in it because of the run-flats.

Continued here.

Phoenix to Sedona

Going to the Grand Canyon was the final item on my 30 Before 30 list. This is the first post of that entire trip.

I landed in Phoenix around 9am after a sunrise flight west from JFK. As usual, I was asleep before the plane even began taxiing, and aside of a few minor twitches, I didn’t wake until I felt the altitude change on the descent. I found the rental car shuttle and got to my counter. People were waiting and I was told the wait for my reserved Mustang would be about an hour, but if I’d like to upgrade to a Camaro, I could be on my way immediately.

You only turn 30 once, so obviously I upgraded. Thank you USAA (military bank) for the half-price discount on upgrades.

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I’ve never driven a convertible so I had to drive it over to the desk to get the agent to help me put it down (I had to pull a cover across the trunk before I pushed the button) after about 20 fruitless minutes on my own. I also couldn’t find the auxiliary cable to plug in my phone, but a friend with a sports car (Graham – the tall one) texted me back with a possible location – inside the console – and I was on my way, with phone plugged in for music and navigation.

Getting out of Phoenix was easy. I steered myself toward Sedona – a slightly more scenic route, but my good friend Garrett, whom I’d met in Georgia and had lived in AZ for about a year shortly before I moved back to NY, told me I’d love it and should check it out. Wind in my hair, sunscreen on, music loud, and driving on fast desert roads, I felt an incredible sense of freedom. I had absolutely nowhere to be, except by the rim of the Grand Canyon by about 730pm to check in for my mule ride and pitch my tent for the night. I had nobody to ask to stop here or there, and I got to be completely alone with my thoughts.

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I stopped in the village in Sedona – in the area of the red rocks – to get an ice cream and eat it on an open-air porch facing the mountains. My unbraided hair was a mess but I didn’t care – I was on an adventure. After ice cream it was back on the road for the final two-hour push to the Canyon. I wanted to see it at sunset if possible.

The mountain roads in AZ are much like mountain roads anywhere else. The temperatures vary and the roads crumble. They are narrow and winding, with blind corners and steep inclines. Remember, I was driving a veritable submarine with a very low ground clearance. You can see where this is headed.

About half an hour into my trip up to Flagstaff, following the mountain roads, I took a turn and the tail of my car slid off the crumbling shoulder with a sudden THUD and I knew I had a flat tire. I calmly slowed to a stop, put it in park with my flashers on, pulled my wallet out, and consulted my phone to call the aforementioned-USAA for my emergency roadside assistance.

Of course, this was in the middle of the mountains. There was no cell phone service.

I took a few deep breaths and weighed my options. Attempt to crest the hill before me and hope I ran into some kind stranger who could help? Turn back and drive ten miles on a flat tire to Sedona village? Then I remembered I’d passed a few small day-use hiking areas with ranger stations, so I slowly pulled back onto the road and rolled back down the hill. I found a small hiking area with a ranger station less than a mile back and pulled in.

The ranger was about 80yrs old with a shock of white hair, hard of hearing, and more interested in his book than answering the questions of this young girl in a sports car. I again asked to borrow his phone and he finally understood I needed to call for assistance.

Camaro convertibles don’t come with spare tires – the engine takes up too much room, and the top takes up all of the room in the trunk. They do, however, come with run-flats, so upon first glance it didn’t look like I was running on a flat, which explained the poor ranger’s confusion.

I got in touch with roadside assistance and the rental company, then settled into my (really nice) car with my book to await my rescue. Despite my inability to actually go anywhere in it, I still felt really cool in the sports car, and I imagined I looked pretty cool (or pretty weird) to the park-goers. I was expecting to receive a tow in about an hour.

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An hour and a half in, I was still in my car. I approached the ranger station to ask to call roadside assistance again. I noticed a young lady counting her money for the entrance fee – which I hadn’t had to pay since I wasn’t actually leaving my vehicle – and the ranger told her she was short. I handed her the money she was short. I’d been so touched by the ranger’s kindness toward me that I wanted to pay it forward somehow. I hope she enjoyed her afternoon.

Continued here.