Astronomers estimate that there are approximately 100 billion observable galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has approximately 300 billion stars. It’s estimated that the naked eye can see around 5,000 of those stars on a clear night.
Leaving Zion, I’m pretty sure I saw all 5,000.
The stars were twinklin’, sunroof was up, music was blarin’, candy was flowin’, and I was deliriously excited to get to the Grand Canyon for the first time. Penpal and I had a plan to start on the Widforss Point trailhead around 3AM and hike its five miles to arrive at the canyon rim just in time for sunrise.
Penpal had been to the Grand Canyon the year before, so I thought I was in safe, experienced hands. We arrived in the park, pulled off onto our trailhead, and opened the car door to brush our teeth, campin’ style.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I opened my door.
Silence so loud it enveloped the entire car in a kind of pressuring deafness. I looked around. The moon was hiding behind the surrounding pine trees, which led to a darkness that almost felt tangible.
I quickly shut the car door. Zion may have made me feel small in its awesome splendor, but that second with the car door open made me feel invisible.
I was a little shocked. I was envisioning this hike to be right on the rim, surrounded by desert (who knew the Grand Canyon had trees?! Where are all of those leafy specimens in the tourist postcards?), somehow light outside despite the whole “sunrise” premise, with lodges and buildings right behind us the whole time.
Let’s just say….this was not that. This was pure, unadulterated nature. And in the dark, it was a little bit terrifying.
We took a nap in the car, but the only thing I could think about was how scared I was. I didn’t want to hike 5 miles in all that darkness. I didn’t want to be the only one interrupting the gaping silence.
Unfortunately, I’m stubborn, and penpal was cheerily awake at 3AM, ready to hike–so I threw him a few grumpy looks, threw on my trusty dolphin sweatshirt and my Birkenstocks (my blisters from hiking Zion the day before made wearing my athletic shoes impossible), and headed out on the trailhead.
Actually, no. We headed out to find the trailhead. I thought this hike was the one penpal had gone on the year before.
“Nope!” he said, with way too much gusto for 3AM. “Never done this one.”
So here I was, heading into a black vortex of trees and silence that was five miles long, in Birkenstocks, with nothing but the trail to lead us. The single file trail.
I wish I could describe the complete terror that the following two hours were, but nothing I could say could ever convey the feeling. We could only see five feet in front of us, and the path led us into thickly-forested gullies and wooded meadows. The moon followed us, highlighting the path and the curves that led into more darkness–but just enough light to reflect a pair of eyes flashing on the side of the trail. I tried to pretend I didn’t see anything. The quiet was only broken by our feet stumbling over rocks, the occasional comment about the constellations, and, once we realized how deep we were, what we would do if a mountain lion were to decide if we were breakfast. Nothing like a little bit of morbidity to bring ya closer!
Every “scenic viewpoint” of the canyon that teased us out from the forest was just looking out into an abyss of black. I could see that there was a hole in the ground–and that it was a big hole. I asked penpal about constellations, then I heard distant footsteps coming up the canyon from God-only-knows-what. We looked at each other, conversation broken off mid-sentence. With a gentle nudge, he ushered me back onto the trail, and we kept on going.
About an hour in, I was close to tears. I was terrified. I didn’t want to let it show, but the complete helplessness I felt was almost nauseating. I was listening to every sound in the forest, watching every shadow from the trees and just waiting for something to move ahead of us. There was nothing we could do but keep on going through every blind corner and every creaking tree.
There were only two things kept me from having a mental breakdown.
The first thing was that penpal was right there, and it was comforting to think that if a stray grizzly were to attack, I would have someone to outrun.
Kidding, of course–I was in Birkenstocks, and I’m not quite hippie enough to be able to sprint distances in those babies yet. Yet. Regardless, I trusted penpal to at least have my back in a grizzly ‘tack, and knowing that my footsteps weren’t the only ones breaking the Great Silence was probably the only reason I kept going.
The second thing that kept me going was a little bit deeper. I’m not a deeply religious person, so to speak, but I kept thinking about this book I read when I was little. The book was a nonfiction collection of short stories about people who had had encounters with their guardian angel, mostly in near-death or miraculous situations. I was almost in tears, worried about whatever was out there in the woods, when I decided that it couldn’t hurt to reach out to whoever was watching out for me and just kind of…ask to be okay.
And I’m not making this up, but a few desperate thoughts later, a sort of calm came over me. I felt totally at peace and, for the first time in over an hour, safe. I can’t explain it, but something omnipresent was there, and it was my driving force for the rest of the hike.
The sun began to rise when we were about a mile away, and I’ve never been so happy to see the end of a trail.
I had almost forgotten that the end of our hike was a viewpoint and not just when I could stop worrying about mountain lions.
And oh my God.
We turned the corner, and there it was. The Grand Canyon.
It stopped me in my tracks. I realized I had forgotten to breathe, and when I inhaled I noticed my throat was tight.
I’ve never seen something more enormous and awe-inspiring and beautiful. It was so big. And I was so little.
I’m the thousandth millionth person to say that pictures don’t do it justice, but there’s a reason I was a geology major (apart from dinosaurs, obvi) and it was because there are thousands of possible molecule formations to determine the color and shape and hardness of any given rock, and any given rock could be formed and aged in a number of different ways, and it’s mind-blowing to think that all of those tiny little details, those tiny little molecular coincidences come together to form something you can hold in your hand. The Grand Canyon is millions of years old, with millions of minerals and years of erosion, and it stretches on for miles. And all you are is a tiny little beautiful mind whose existence is a blink of an eye, and all we can do is appreciate the layers of minerals and atoms and elements that let us admire their layering and colors and hardness and inspire us to do crazy things like take hikes in the middle of the night.
It was a completely different trail on the way back. Occasionally we’d stop at a particularly tricky part of the path or especially blind corner, and we’d exchange “HOW DID WE SURVIVE THIS WE SHOULDN’T BE ALIVE” expressions. Then we admired the wildflowers and the scenic vistas that we missed at 4am, and said hello to the hikers that were getting an “early start” on their hike.
Five hours after taking our first shaky steps on the trail, we arrived back at our car, clambered in and got ourselves a campground at the Grand Canyon. There was no wi-fi. There wasn’t even cell phone service. But there were showers. There was a hammock. And we weren’t a mountain lion’s breakfast. I had a lot to be grateful for.
Yay Grand Canyon!! If you want to see more pictures, click here