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Grand Canyon vista from the rim


Evan (right) with his team of United World College students at the bottom of the Grand Canyon

Doing something hard

~Evan Belknap

My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m., and I slipped out of my sleeping bag to a starry sky, the sound of crickets chirping, and a warm Colorado River-smelling breeze wafting up Monument Canyon. I packed my backpack in ten minutes and then woke the kids, first with a gentle “Wake up, guys. Time to go,” and when that didn’t work, a rigorous tarp shaking. My group of nine seventeen-year-olds from United World College freed themselves from sleep and, feeling victimized by the time of day, managed to stuff their remaining items into their backpacks.

We were on the trail at 5:00 a.m., walking in the dark with headlamps. I had given many pep talks by this time about starting strong, having a positive attitude, manifesting strength, and we had a no-complaining-before-sunrise policy that I was keen to enforce. We had 9.6 miles of uphill to go, up Hermit Trail to the rim, and it was not going to hike itself.

I held back and watched their line of headlights contour the darkness ahead, and then followed behind. After an hour, the faintest glow of the sun came from around the corner of the Earth, and I turned off my headlamp. I was giving the kids more of a headstart than usual, walking slowly, looking around. For a few minutes, I was alone.

The faint outline of the canyon had appeared, squiggling black lines running up to the rim and down to the river and straight out ahead of me on the trail, seemingly infinite shades of grey. I could walk well then. The greys began to suggest colors, the many reds of the canyon walls and the pale greens of cacti, with the stars still gleaming down. This was the place to be, I thought.

The sun neared the horizon and the whole canyon began to bloom, alive in its colors, vibrant morning greens and the hillside glowing gold, shimmering mica in the clay. I was enveloped in it—the sky finally blue, and the crunch of gravel somehow louder during the day, the warmth on the back of my head.

I caught up with my group for a packs-off break and fixed an old blister for one of the girls. Another guy, from Bangledesh, said, “Evan. Um. My boot is rubbing all the skin off my foot.” And sure enough, he, too, had a flap of heel skin to tend to.

We hit the Cathedral Stairs with fresh vigor and were well on our way. Setting a methodical, plodding pace in the front now, I thought about the previous day. How good it had felt to sleep in so late after a hard day of hiking down into the canyon. Making breakfast for hours in the sun, frying round after round of hash browns and cheese, everyone reclined on various rocks, swollen bare feet in the air, listening to the birds and alternately arguing with each other about various things. Finally, wandering the mile down to the river, and taking in the pink and black canyon walls, the red and white river stones, and the smells, so nostalgic, the wet creosote smell of the river.

Above Granite Rapid, the kids swam in a big, shallow eddie, screaming at the cold and wrestling each other into the mud. I walked down the shore to look at the locomotive waves of Granite. I tried to pick my line and got the familiar butterflies that I’m sure all boaters feel before a big one. How I’d have to hit that front wave just right, turn hard, and get one good stroke in, straighten out. Easy. But the big wave in the center, I watched it—while most of the time water flowed up and over it with ease, about every two minutes, some rhythm of the waves would come together and a spike of water would rise up, seeming to double the size of the wave, and then crash upstream with the force of a huge ocean wave hitting the shore. You’d want to avoid that moment in a boat, I thought.

Back on the trail, I thought about how it was so tragic to be hiking out with a heavy pack instead of strapping bags and coolers to a raft and floating on downstream for another couple weeks.

My group cruised the trail until the last two miles, when we hit the sun and the trail steepened for the last series of switchbacks. Holding back the wall of complaints was impossible. Feet hurt, shoulders ached, bellies rumbled, and I was driving the Struggle Bus hard. “Why would anyone do this?” was the consensus, and, more importantly: “Why are you doing this to us?” Arguments erupted, a few tears fell down cheeks, and people needed to stop after about every ten, seemingly excruciating, steps. I placed myself in the front again, with those who were suffering the most, and set an Everest pace. “It’s important that we continue moving,” I told them, no matter how slow we go.

After our triumphant summit, we spent three more days up on the rim, “being tourists,” waiting for the other groups with the four and five day permits to emerge. Meanwhile, we walked around and bought postcards, and the kids spent most of their time in the grocery store, eating hamburgers and chillin’.

Before the other groups returned, we went, one last time, into the pinions and junipers up on the rim and sat in a circle, away from the throngs of sidewalk people. We went around and each said our high point and low point of the trip. I noticed and pointed out how our time on the rim hadn’t even made it into the conversation. Everything worth mentioning to them, anything worthy of remembering, both good and bad, happened below the rim—the struggle and the solitude and the time to sit, and listen, and think made all the difference in the world. They had to admit, even a little reluctantly, that something powerful was going on down there in the world’s biggest hole, and that it had affected all of them.

Looking upstream to Sunset Rapid on the Rio Grande, in the Orilla Verde
Photo credit: —Ty Belknap

Two hours away

~Ty Belknap

The weather remains fine for camping after Labor Day, though most people don’t seem to notice, if campsite availability is any indication. The kids are back in school and it’s time for football games and beer festivals.

On one fine weekday in early October, all five sites were available at the Rio Pueblo primitive campground in the Orilla Verde section of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Created by presidential proclamation in 2013, the monument’s 245,000 acres, extending from northern New Mexico to Southern Colorado, are available for public recreation. There are, however, only sixty-three developed sites: 37 at Orilla Verde and 26 at the Wild Rivers section north to Taos.

All sites have a picnic table and fire pits, some have electricity and water hookups, and all have access to drinking water and restrooms. All are very busy on a summer weekend.

Orilla Verde is off SR 68 north of Española at Pilar. Rio Pueblo campground is just past the Taos Junction Bridge in a side canyon where Rio Pueblo de Taos tumbles down to the Rio Grande. Fly fishermen were catching trout in clear waters near the confluence.

An easy 1.3 mile hiking/biking trail called “The Slide” leads from the campground to the eastern rim of the gorge. The Slide used to be part of Highway 570 until it was destroyed by an avalanche. The Taos Valley Overlook Trails include nearly twenty miles of interconnecting trails, rated easy to moderate, that are especially good for mountain biking. These trails offer views of the vast Taos Mesa and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, currently lit up by golden colors of fall. If you prefer to hike, take the steep Picuris Trail to and follow trails along the rim for a couple of miles, then loop back down on The Slide.

Across the bridge, about .5 miles up Highway 567, La Vista Verde Trail, rated easy, travels 1.25 miles north. Views of the gorge include Pinball, Enema, and other famous rapids of the Taos Box. Fairly tame Big Horn sheep might be willing to pose for photographs. At the top of the rim, further up Highway 567, the West Rim Trail follows the Gorge for nine miles all the way to US 64. It is rated easy/moderate and is great for mountain biking. Riders might want to continue east across the Rio Grande “High Bridge” for the Taos Mesa Brewery. It might be wise to have shuttle a vehicle waiting for the return trip to camp.

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