Beyond the Truck: Grand Canyon Solitaire

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

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

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With the chill of a December morning creeping into the hood of my jacket, I made the first steps of another hike into the canyon. I cautiously maneuvered down an icy trail I had hiked 39 years prior and dozens of times since. The day was December 17th, a date not randomly chosen. Exactly one year earlier I injected the first of 2,100 doses of insulin––not that I’m counting. Despite a lifetime dedicated to health and fitness, I had somehow managed to acquire type 1 diabetes. With my newly complicated life, the past year had been full of uncertainty and plagued with doubt. If I was to continue to enjoy the life I had built for myself, I needed to slay a few demons. Where better to bury them than at the bottom of the biggest hole in North America. So, I set out to visit a favorite haunt and prove to myself I was capable of doing so. To drive the point home, I decided to do it solo.

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

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Few pictures convey the size and depth of the canyon. At it’s deepest, the river is 6,000 feet below the rim. 

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As a kid my dad would keep my mind off the discomfort of a long hike to the bottom with stories of explorers and miners who came to the canyon to map its rugged contours or strike it rich. He showed me pictograph panels and stoney ruins, the vestiges of an ancient people long gone. Decades later I still pass the hours looking along the trail’s edge for fossils and other evidence of the time when the canyon’s rock layers were once the bed of a vast ocean filled with strange creatures. My imagination often wanders off to the Pleistocene more than 12,000 years ago when the bear-sized giant ground sloth and other curious mammals walked in the canyon.

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A clump of fossilized sea life in a rock the size of a basketball. Such finds are everywhere in the canyon.

In years past I’ve raced to the bottom to see how quickly I could get it done, but on this day I took my time, nearly seven hours, and arrived at the river tired, but none the worse for wear. I dropped my gear, set up my tent, ate a snack, and took a celebratory sip of whiskey from my dented flask. I pulled my old and tattered canyon journal from my pack, thumbed to the first blank page, and jotted down the date and a small notation in the corner of the page.

“December 17th: 177th day below the rim of the Big Ditch. My first as a T1 diabetic. It will not be my last.”

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

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As much as I love wheeled travel, there are places worth visiting that can only be accessed on foot. I’m a lucky man to have the ability and determination to journey to those destinations. 

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Time is elusive in the Grand Canyon and before I was ready for it, the long walk to the top was upon me. I loaded my few things in my backpack, made one last journal entry, and set out in a gentle early morning rain to head home. I crossed the mighty Colorado, climbed the switchbacks at Jacob’s Ladder, and with snow falling high above, plodded through mud puddles with my head down, my legs and lungs searing from the effort of hiking more than ten miles while gaining over 5,000 feet of altitude. Some people find walking tedious. I love how the rise and fall of the terrain can be felt in my muscles and joints.

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

Thank you for the book, Mr Fletcher. – CN

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Learning to love wilderness. 1977. 

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My modern habitat stands in stark contrast to the ancient dwellings used by the canyon’s original visitors as pictured below.

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Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.