Knock! Knock! Knock!
It was time. Karl and Tom were outside my door, whispering and restless. I went through my mental list one more time before I opened the door.
"I'm ready," I said as the door squeaked open, only half believing myself. The truth is that I'm never quite ready for the canyon's depths at 6:00 AM. "How's the weather?" I asked as I poked my head out the door.
The sky was mostly clear but there were a few clouds. This was not good news. You never, ever want to see morning clouds during monsoon season. Those gentle wisps are the seed clouds that gather evaporated moisture throughout the day only to throw it back down at you in the afternoon. It's a furious cycle. The clouds start out mild and innocent but then grow and grow and get darker and darker. They get so heavy that they can no longer hold their moisture. So they start to grow long tails of rain that stretch to the ground. These are the violent storms that thrash the canyon and anyone silly enough to be in it at the time. The growing storms grumble and mumble and throw forks of electricity at you. They come at you like an oncoming train in a tunnel, seemingly tracking you like a cougar does his prey. No, I never do like to see any clouds in the morning during monsoon season in Arizona.
I went back inside and groaned as I lifted my pack. It felt like a hundred pounds. Loading the vehicles and then closing the cabin door, I knew I was quickly reaching the point of no return. Each action brought me closer to the canyon I love but it also meant both mental and physical challenges, something that I'd rather not face at the crack of dawn. The pack felt heavier every time I lifted it. I stared up at the clouds hoping to intimidate them and chase them away. All it did was give me a stiff neck. The clouds were undaunted. I got into the truck and sighed. Cloud or no clouds, we were off and on our way.
Hermit's Rest, at the trail head of the Hermit Trail, is a gentle place, newly renovated by the Park Service. It seems like a nice spot for a lazy picnic. But, our stay would be brief, just long enough to park the truck and mount the packs onto our backs. No picnics today. No, on this day we wore the grimaced faces of men who are serious. No time for fun and games—there were canyons to conquered, mettle to be tested. We had morphed into alpha males on the move, sweating already on this uncommonly humid morning. Packs were mounted and we were already making the first steps downward.
The Hermit Trail was once the premier trail on the South Rim. Constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1912, it was later abandoned in 1931 when the now-famous Corridor trails were built. The Park Service does not maintain the trail but the remnants of paving and fine trail construction still exist in the upper parts of the route. It's all rather seductive. The beginnings of the trail are quite civilized as one is lured down and down and down. Just about at the point where you wouldn't want to turn back, it all changes. It is then that you reach the first of many rock slides that have long ago obliterated the trail. That's when you know that the Hermit means business.
We'd been down this trail before so we weren't fooled by the paving and fine stonework of the first stretch. But the trail got rougher and rougher as we descended. Either our memories had softened the experience or the Hermit Trail had gotten decidedly worse in the past year. This monsoon season had already been a rough one and it seemed to have taken its fury out on the Hermit. We started to count the rock slides as we climbed over them. We lost count quickly. And we were getting too tired to play games. The boulders seemed to be growing bigger as we descended down, through many rough miles. Something else was growing as well. I looked up and saw dark clouds coming right at us. The drama of the day was intensifying with each moment. The canyon is never boring and it wouldn't be on this day.
To be continued…