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Random Post-Grand Canyon Snippets & Apertures

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My shadow selfie on the South Kaibab Trail

The Grand Canyon continues to be in my thoughts and dreams since my Rim 2 Rim on May 20. I’ve been an avid follower of two Grand Canyon Facebook pages (GC R2R2R Run! and GC Hikers) for several months. Before May 20, I used to chuckle at the people who would comment about how much they missed being at the Big Ditch after their hikes or runs. Really, I thought, they don’t miss the pain?

But now I get it! Epic adventures stay in your mind forever. Plus the crossing was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Completing it makes it even more memorable and amazing. As Tom Hanks’ character said in “A League of Their Own,” it’s the hard that makes it great.

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Looking back up at the South Kaibab Trail steps

The 11-week training plan from our fearless leader, Arlen Isham, totally helped with my preparation, as did all the cardio I do daily (running and walking). But nothing really can prepare you for the steep steps and anti-erosion stones. You’re almost always stepping over or around something during the 21-mile South to North Rim journey. Kind of reminds me of navigating the land mines of the boys’ action figures, cars, and trains in the family room when they were little. I miss those days . . . but not the inevitable pain when barefoot.

“In life, most shortcuts end up taking longer than taking the longer route.”

—Suzy Kassem

But that ain’t true in the Grand Canyon, because Rim 2 Rim actually is a shortcut! Even though it’s about 10 miles across the Big Ditch as the condor flies, it’s about 220 miles by vehicle. It almost seems easier to hike across it!

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Arlen and his daughter, Andrea, pose at Cedar Ridge.

Most of my friends and family think I’m all that and a bag of chips when it comes to being active. They seem amazed that I still run half marathons and almost couldn’t believe I was training to hike across the Grand Canyon at age 63. But they don’t know Arlen. He’s incredible! Not only has he coordinated Rim 2 Rim trips for family and friends (and friends of friends) since the 1980s, he climbs mountains, skis, and has finished more than 100 marathons. Plus he’s 73 years old with a fairly recent artificial hip! He really is inspirational.

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Our group stands out on the Grand Canyon Lodge’s deck at the north rim.

I’m usually not a group person, subscribing to Groucho Marx’s belief that any club that wants someone like me isn’t worth joining. Of the 30 other people in our contingent, I only knew Arlen before we started training.  But everyone was so nice and interesting, with lots of great stories to tell. Most of them had completed numerous MS 150 bike rides, run marathons, finished triathlons, and/or enjoyed hiking around the world. This was a fun crowd to hang out with!

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Alan (aka Moses) and Nicole take a break on the SKT.

And I was especially glad to have hiked with Nicole and Alan. I might still be in the Grand Canyon if it hadn’t been for their company and encouragement! They’re wonderful people.

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This meh photo, snapped at Ooh Aah Point, was my only sunrise pic of the trip.

What was my biggest disappointment of the entire trip? I didn’t get one decent sunrise or sunset photo at the Grand Canyon. Not one. Talk about your photo failure—kind of devastating for an avid photographer.

Well, actually, that’s my second biggest disappointment, after hurting my left knee on the South Kaibab Trail during the crossing. A local sports medicine doctor diagnosed it as a grade one lateral collateral ligament strain. Fortunately, that painful joint has been healing, and I’m almost ready to start running again, thankfully. I just can’t get that same endorphin fix from walking 10,000-plus steps each day, even though I am grateful that I can walk several miles each morning.

As I wrote in my previous blog post, I told myself that I was one and done with the Grand Canyon’s R2Rs. And I truly believed it . . . until I was back home looking at my photos and reading the GC’s Facebook pages. Arlen’s daughter, Andrea, told me that she had said the same thing after her first crossing, but that the canyon has a way of bringing you back.

It truly does! Before long, I found myself uttering those fateful words: Next time I do a Rim 2 Rim . . . .

Oh oh! Sounds like I could have future memories to burn into my mind from the Grand Canyon.

The final blog post about Rim 2 Rim still to come: My gear reviews

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

 

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And so it starts! This is the South Kaibab Trail off the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

It was 5:19 a.m. on Saturday, May 20. Time to take deep breaths and baby steps in my attempt to hike across the Grand Canyon in one day. The temperature was 33 degrees at 7,260 feet on the south rim, but it wouldn’t feel cold for long (especially about 2,500 feet down at Phantom Ranch, where it would be in the mid-80s). It was light on the South Kaibab Trail—no need for headlamps . . . for awhile.

I felt well-trained but anxious. My biggest fear? The steepness of the mostly downhill South Kaibab Trail. For several months I’ve obsessed about the SKT, reading about it, studying photos, and watching videos. But until you actually step on to it, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s really like to hike on it.

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SKT up close and personal.

The main problem with the South Kaibab Trail, besides the steepness, is that it’s so rutted from mule trains. You have to be very careful about where you step (especially considering what the mules leave behind!). Plus there are literally trillions of loose rocks (yep, I counted them all) and steps made out of logs (some with pieces of toe-tripping rebar sticking out of them) or stones that you have to step over and over and over. Repeat about a trillion times.

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It was neat seeing all the iconic signs I’ve read about, like at Ooh Aah Point.

Of course, it helps that you’re surrounded by amazing, natural beauty. Under a brilliantly blue sky, the sunrise began to reveal all the different geologic layers of the Canyon. My strategy was to walk slowly and carefully, helped by trekking poles, until I felt compelled to stop and snap a photo with either my iPhone 7 Plus or Nikon 1 V2 mirrorless camera. And that, of course, was often.

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The sun rises over the Grand Canyon.

Meanwhile, hordes of hikers and runners passed me, almost always exchanging pleasantries. Every time someone ran by, I marveled at that person’s persistence and wondered about their sanity. The SKT is treacherous to feet, ankles, and knees! Surprisingly, I didn’t see anyone trip, but I felt like we all were skating on thin ice. And I’m not good at skating either.

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Mule trains are a part of the Canyon scenery.

Somewhere around mile five of the seven-mile descent, I felt pain on the outside of my left knee. I probably strained it going over one of the trillion steps. Unfortunately, that slowed my progress as I neared the bottom of the Canyon. It was so disappointing!

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Some of the trillion steps on the South Kaibab Trail descent.

But there was never any thought of quitting. After all, the Grand Canyon’s hiking motto is: Down is optional; up is mandatory. Once you go into the Big Ditch, you have to get yourself out. And I fully intended to eventually be enveloped by the cold air of the north rim, no matter how long it took. When I set a goal and work towards it, it sure feels good to achieve it.

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This bridge over the Colorado River leads to Phantom Ranch at the Canyon’s bottom.

So I gritted my teeth and gutted it out. Soon the trail leveled off, and I crossed the Black Bridge over the mighty Colorado River and headed for Phantom Ranch. By this time I had joined up with two members of my group, Alan (who had crossed before) and Nicole (a fellow newbie). Both of them also were avid photographers, so we stopped a lot to take photos.

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At the bottom of the Grand Canyon

The three of us spent some time at Phantom Ranch, replenishing our water and refueling for the arduous climb up the North Kaibab Trail. I was looking forward to drinking PR’s famous lemonade, but the line was too long in the canteen. Andrea, who I hiked with early on the SKT, gave me a sip of hers. It was too sweet for my tastes, but at least I can say I tried it. I was more than satisfied with water and Gatorade fruit punch (for electrolytes).

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These anti-erosion stones are at set intervals along the North Kaibab Trail. Just another thing to step over and over and over!

After Phantom Ranch, our trio set a steady pace with our eyes on the prize: The north rim. Nicole was nice enough to dunk my floppy hat in the cold water that sometimes spilled over the trail from the nearby Bright Angel Creek to help me cool off. Meanwhile, Alan tried to distract me from my knee pain by asking me questions. Unfortunately, he had to settle mostly for grunts as answers. Sorry!

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The colorful Grand Canyon walls along the North Kaibab Trail

Every now and then I would stop my limping forward motion and look up, especially during the seven-mile fairly flat section. We were down in the Grand Canyon . . . the Grand Freaking Canyon. What an amazing feeling! A fraction of the Canyon’s visitors venture below the rim, so few actually hike or run across. It was totally cool beans to realize where we were and what we were trying to achieve. Even though sometimes I felt like I was an escapee from an insane asylum.

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Alan and Nicole participated in a lab study, requiring them to do cognitive exercises at certain times. I would have flunked them!

I thought I would be stronger on the uphills (featuring more of those darned steps and tight switchbacks) even with a strained knee, and I was. Unfortunately, the Grand Canyon trailmakers enjoyed a cruel sense of humor: After we began gaining elevation (“up is out” was my mantra), they led us downhill once more and over a bridge. What the heck?!? It was pretty demoralizing. Fortunately, the NKT soon resumed its uphill trek. My heart rate started to race a bit in the thin, chilly air. But I knew that cold meant one thing: The north rim at 8,250 feet!

Soon our long day’s journey into night’s crossing of the Grand Canyon would be complete . . . with headlamps. For the last hour of our hike, we needed to light our way as darkness engulfed us. Surprisingly, it wasn’t scary. I felt totally at peace, with only the clicking of our trekking poles disturbing the quiet.

As I neared the top of the north rim, I had one thought: I am one and done! I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the 24-mile north-to-south-rim return trip on Monday with a sore knee. But I also realized that achieving one Rim 2 Rim was accomplishment enough for this old gal.

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Finished at the north rim!

Fifteen hours and 29 minutes after I started, I “crossed” the finish line on the north rim. It was 8:48 p.m. Once again the temperature was about 33 degrees. The air was cold and crisp, but I was too tired to put on my jacket. Getting into the van to ride the mile and a half to the Grand Canyon Lodge’s cabins where we stayed was almost as difficult as hiking down the South Kaibab Trail. Almost!

After a bite to eat in the lodge’s Roughrider Saloon, I hobbled toward my cabin. It was pitch black out, and I had to use my iPhone’s flashlight to see where I was going. Suddenly I stopped, looked up at the sky, and gasped in awe: What had to be a trillion and five stars sparkled on the immense, dark background. I had never seen so many stars in my life! There’s nothing like the Big Ditch and a star-filled sky in the remoteness of the north rim to make you feel tiny.

And yet this little, old, insignificant speck of dust with dirty Brooks Caldera trail shoes somehow managed to hike 21 miles across the Grand Freaking Canyon! Goal accomplished!!

Next time on the blog: Post-Grand Canyon thoughts

9/11 Reflections

Long may our American flags wave!

Sidebar: I originally wrote this for my September 11, 2009, blog post. 

On September 3, 2001, I flew from Chicago back to my home in the Houston area. I was glowing inside after a wonderful visit with my mom and reuniting with former classmates at my 30th high school reunion. Both O’Hare and Houston Intercontinental Airports were bustling with activity. I couldn’t wait to see my family once again and get back to the everyday routine of school and sports.

One week and one day later, the world changed forever. I had returned to the house that September 11th morning after riding my bike with my sons to their elementary school where the older one was in fourth grade and the younger in first. It was about 7:50 a.m. (C.S.T.), and, as was my habit, I turned on the small television in the kitchen. I was going to eat breakfast and watch “Little House on the Prairie” (please don’t judge me). Fortunately, the channel was on NBC instead of Hallmark.

My eye was immediately caught by huge billows of smoke streaming from a large building. Katie Couric was saying that it looked like a private plane might have hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. As I sat down and watched the drama unfold, a second plane came into view. Unbelievably, it roared into the other tower, tragically hitting even lower than the first one. It was obvious: America was under attack. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. The United States and Americans would never be the same.

Today is a somber day of remembrance for us. Even though I didn’t know anyone who perished in the attacks, I still feel sad for those who lost loved ones that horrific day. Today is a terrible anniversary for them and for our great nation.

THE definitive read on 9/11

Every September I read “102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.” The authors, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, did meticulous research in resurrecting what happened inside the WTC that day. It’s a well-written, compelling read and a great reminder of what it was like that day for thousands who lived and died, and those who tried to rescue them. It also reminds me of those whose lives changed forever at the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania.

It took me several months after 9/11 before I remembered that I had flown a week before the attacks when airplanes were used as weapons of terrorism. I’m not a big fan of flying anyway, and I felt so shaken when I thought about what could have been if my reunion had been a week later. At the very least, I could’ve been stranded in between Chicago and Houston away from my family at a time when everyone needed to be surrounded by their loved ones.

This morning I thought about the people who died in the Twin Towers, as well as those who were in the Pentagon and on Flight 93. They will never be forgotten by us.

One-Word Wednesday

There was an unusual spectator at Tom Bass Park during last night’s disc golf mini.

Hawk!

After determining that plastic didn’t look tasty, the big bird flies away.

Mother’s Day Movie Treat: “Marvel’s The Avengers”

Saving the world by making a huge mess of NYC: The Avengers

Fair warning: If you’re an asthmatic like me, be sure to take a couple hits of your daily inhaler before you see “Marvel’s The Avengers.” Might want to pack the rescue inhaler, too. You’ll need all the breathing help you can muster for this excellent, action-packed movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

As usual, when it’s Mother’s Day, as it was yesterday, I take one for my testosterone team and pick the flick that my guys will enjoy (as in “Star Trek” in 2009, “Iron Man 2” in 2010, and “Thor” last year). So it was a no-brainer for me to opt for the new Avengers movie . . . especially since I really want to see it (probably because I’ve got a thing for Captain America).

Loki and Thor are brothers who don’t see eye to eye.

Long story short: We all loved it! Yes, there was an insane amount of destruction in New York City (clean up on aisles two, seven, 12 . . . oh, heck, all of them!), and too much bickering among the super heroes. But it was cool beans when they all worked together to defeat bad guy Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was trying to rule Earth . . . with the help of some blasted (literally!) aliens. We especially liked the funny moments.

It was neat seeing the characters come together after having watched their individual movies (not that all of them had their own films, though). The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) added needed girl power, and Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) kept them all focused as a team. Kudos to Joss Whedon for co-writing and directing such a compelling flick.

Love Captain America’s updated suit.

After the movie (as always, be sure to stay through the credits), the four of us revealed who our favorite Avengers were. The Mister and our older son both picked Chris Hemsworth’s Thor (methinks the balding Mister is a tad jealous of those flowing, golden locks), while our younger son opted for Tony Stark/Iron Man (arrogantly well-played by Robert Downey Jr.). As for me, Captain America (Chris Evans) stole my heart—who doesn’t love a good-looking, patriotic guy?

I’m already looking forward to next Mother’s Day. Wonder if “Iron Man 3” will be in the theaters then?

“Iron Lady”: A Fascinating British History Lesson

Meryl Streep IS Margaret Thatcher!

If you’d like to learn more about British history, then “Iron Lady” is a must-see. If you want to watch the most-brilliant actress of her time—Meryl Streep—absolutely transform herself into Margaret Thatcher, then this is a don’t-miss biopic. Just don’t expect this movie to be nearly as good as “The King’s Speech”; it crawls along at a very slow pace.

Sidebar: Even though I recently railed against a certain American (Robert Downey Jr.) for (poorly) playing a Brit, I can’t imagine a British actress who would’ve done a better job than Streep. No American actress nails an accent better than her (watch “Sophie’s Choice”).

The “Iron Lady” tells the story of Thatcher’s rise and fall as Great Britain’s prime minister (1979-1990) using a narrative that switches between what she might be like now—slowly losing her mind to dementia—and pivotal past events. It’s a somewhat-confusing technique that only someone with as much talent as Streep can flawlessly pull off.

The young Margaret Thatcher ponders her political future.

Helping Streep to carry the movie is Alexandra Roach, who plays the younger version of Thatcher. She and Streep look remarkably alike, thanks to prosthetics, and both did a great job executing Thatcher’s distinctive diction.

Denis (Jim Broadbent) and Margaret Thatcher celebrate her victory.

Before seeing the film, I had no idea what Thatcher was like—what motivated her to run for political office (she was greatly influenced by her father, a grocer who also was mayor of their small town); how she placed public service above her family; how her humble upbringing helped her understand what ordinary Brits were going through; and how she had to make the tough, often-hated decisions as prime minister. She obviously was a very-complex woman.

I especially liked some of her quotes. One favorite was: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” Another, which was said in the movie by young Margaret when Denis Thatcher asked her to marry him, was: “One’s life must matter!”

Yes, Margaret Thatcher, your life has mattered! And now we can see the good and the bad of it in the “Iron Lady.”

One-Word Wednesday

These cute banks are sold at Target. (iPhone 4 with effects by Camera+ app)

Piggies!