Background CanvasThe first ten or so times I walked up to the edge of the South Rim to take in the view of the Grand Canyon I was moved to tears. My heart rate quickened, my chest heaved deeply, I felt tingling all down my arms and legs and my soul lit up with electricity. How is this real? How can my brain translate this seemingly flat canvas into the 3rd dimension, or 4th or 5th? These are the lessons I would learn in my many visits to come.
In the Spring of 2019, I passed through the Grand Canyon on my Arizona Trail thru hike, heading North, I was over a month in and ticking off the miles. I knew, however, that when I got to the Canyon, I wanted to slow down. I opted for a longer route, down the Bright Angel Trail, and across the Tonto Trail to connect with the South Kaibab. This concept of the Tonto Trail was new to me and I was so curious to explore this four mile section of the 94 mile longest single trail in the Grand Canyon. It would give me just a glimpse, but it left a taste in my mouth that I needed to come back and thru-hike the Tonto.
Fast forward to the Fall of 2019, I had just completed the Canyon de Chelly Ultra two days prior, and was on my first section hike of the Tonto Trail, from Grandview Trail to Hermit’s Rest. This covered roughly 41 miles of Tonto single track. I decided then that I wanted to thru-hike the Tonto and try to cover the entire trail in about three days. Alas, not knowing that the section I had just hiked was indeed the friendliest!I moved to Arizona in the Spring of 2020, just in time for Covid. As people in the long distance hiking and running community know, 2020 was the year of the FKT. This sport became such a wonderful outlet for us athletes who love to use the trails, mountains, deserts and rock as our medium for personal challenge, expression and growth. I decided I would apply for a permit for my thru-hike for Nov. 2020 and basically got denied on the basis of “an aggressive itinerary”.
It was thanks to Ranger Hogan who called me up and suggested that I scout the route first and cache water for myself. She also suggested that I hike the trail in Spring, when there was more likely better natural water, rather than the dry Fall season. She and I talked on the phone for an hour and ultimately, I ended up with several permits, and one final permit for Februauy 2021 for my thru-hike. Sweet! Really what this meant for me was more time in the Canyon, and that’s nothing short of amazing!
Over the course of November-December-January and even into February, I made six multi-day trips on my weekends to cover the remaining 50+ miles of the Tonto and cache water for my thru hike. And as it is, the South Bass trailhead is not accessible by vehicle due to the Havasupai Tribal Lands requesting that nobody cross their land due to the pandemic. So, I walked many a miles up on that rim in the past couple months.
My start date was fast approaching, and in the final hours, I realized I needed to adjust my permit for my campsite locations based on what I now felt I could reasonably do for daily mileage. Being in a National Park, with so many permitting regulations, this is not easy, and as we all know, how can we really guarantee we will camp where our permit says we will? I wanted to be as legit as possible, both out of respect and for safety reasons. The far West end of the Tonto is quite remote. It’s a two day walk to get out there, so help is a long way away.
Ranger Powell brought up some pointed questions upon my explaining my objective to try for an FKT on this route. I found our hour long conversation really enjoyable, yet I heard in my own voice a certain defending of my “why”. His sentiment expressed concern that an FKT is against the spirit of what being in the Canyon is all about, which I totally get. My why for being on the trail is Spiritual above and beyond all else. I’ve cemented this in the 10,000 miles of thru hiking I have been so fortunate to do to date. My why is so much bigger than an FKT, but the FKT gave me a level of purpose, motivation, and a challenge. I love the idea of what the sport is. I love that the trail becomes the medium for personal growth. I love that we, as athletes get to choose everything about it, and I love the community of people that spans the globe who share their stories about their efforts, just like I am doing now.
When I ran the Canyon de Chelly Ultra in 2019, we learned about the Navajo running tradition and their “why” for running. This resonated so deeply with me, it has become my mantra. In the Navajo tradition, running is a form of Prayer. We pray when we touch our feet to Mother Earth, we pray through our breath that we use to connect with Father Sky. Running is a celebration of life. When we run we express joy and we show that we are willing to work hard for our life’s blessings. Running is a teacher, we run to learn about the world around us, and about ourselves by overcoming obstacles. We take what we learn out on the trail and we bring this back to do good in the world. We run to heal. Spending the time out in nature offers us solace, brings us grace and peace. Whatever it is that may be afflicting us, physically, emotionally, spiritually, has the opportunity to heal when we go out and run.
In Navajo culture, kinship and family relationships are of utmost importance. While this and most of my journeys are solo endeavors, I always know how much love and support I have back home. This connection is what actually gives such an endeavor meaning. Knowing I have support, people cheering me on, unseen help, and someone to share it with when I return, this brings us together and this makes it more meaningful.This cementing of the meaning through writing and sharing is just as important as executing the hike or run itself. To me, not sharing it with others, would be empty.
Day (-2): Feb.19th, 2021
20 miles: Hermits Rest to Pasture Wash Ranger Station
I park my car at the Grandview TH with the intention to catch a ride to Hermit’s Rest TH, fingers crossed I will be walking by noon. As the stars align in my favor, the Universe sends me a van within three minutes of walking up the pavement. Sweet! A very nice couple picks me up and drives me all the way to Hermit’s Rest, a 45 minute shuttle across th South Rim. They are from Winslow and are park volunteers. We chat the entire way, laughing and sharing stories about our times in the Canyon. I feel fortunate for this ride, as it was the one true wild card in my plan. If this hadn’t worked out, I’d be sorely at a loss and too far behind before I even started.Setting off at 11:57am, I begin my hike on down the Hermit’s Rest Trail. Soo, I connect with the Waldron Trail, which quickly curves to the North face of a side canyon. Here, I am walking in a couple inches of fresh snow. The Waldron Trail climbs back up to the rim in short order and before I know it, I am connecting with the Boundary Trail. Leaving from Hermit’s Rest and cutting across on Waldron, I have saved some mileage. I now only have a 12 mile rough dirt road walk which will spit me out at the Pasture Wash Ranger Station, close to the Havasupai Tribal Lands border.
Along the way, I pick up water cache #1 and find it is 70% frozen. A literal block of ice. I have it stored in a 1G plastic container, the kind with the loop handle, so I simply attach it to the outside of my pack and it rattles as I slosh along in the snow and mud. There lots of animal tracks in the fresh snow. Several of them are cats, some of them are large, and some look like bear tracks, although I don’t believe there is any bear in these parts any more. I know instinctively the big animals are there, but there’s nothing like fresh tracks in snow to confirm this and bring that feeling to life.The fresh snow from three days ago is starting to melt and creates more mud than I’d hoped for, but I am still making good time. My brand new shoes got thrown right into the fire with all this instant snow and mud, nice way to break ’em in! It’s quiet out on the Boundary Trail. The rim up there is thick with Ponderosa, Juniper and Sage. The temps are cool in the shade. I see a pack of wild horses and they impede my path as if defending their territory. I slowly keep moving, admiring their wild beauty, knowing they will scatter eventually, and they do. I consider their presence a good sign of support in my endeavors and feel fortunate to have seen them, to be so close to them with their wild beauty.The sun is dropping low on the horizon at 6pm when I am one mile from Pasture Wash. I decide maybe the Ranger Station is as good a place as any to hole up for the night. If not, I will need to night hike another four miles to the South Bass TH. The temps are going to drop to 19 F tonight and I can already feel the cool air settling in as I make my way toward the wash. Arriving at the road junction, it’s easy to decicde I want to tackle that last four miles in the morning with the promise of sunrise to warm me up.At the Ranger Station I scout a place to pitch my tent, there is a dead cow carcass out front, so old and dried up that it merely consists now of a constellation of bleached white bones with a cow hide leather draped over it. I steer away from camping by the cow. The dilapidated wooden building is not locked up and is quite warm inside. But I see a ton of mouse droppings in there and sleeping with mice is like my worst nightmare and I really don’t want to take my chances with Hantavirus. I deposit my ice block in there though, in hopes it may freeze a little less overnight?Within an hour of pitching my tent and eating dinner, my thermometer reads 28F. I caved at the last minute and decided to bring my cat food can alcohol stove knowing what the low temps would be. My Annie’s mac n’ cheese was oh-so- divine! Tonight is the one night I get to have hot tea too, I brought just barely enough fuel for this treat. And it is such a good decision! I place the hot mug of tea inside my sleeping bag to get me warm, I tuck in with a perfect half moon hanging in the sky directly above.
Day (-1): Feb.20th, 2021
22 miles: Pasture Wash Ranger Station to Garnet Canyon (West Terminus of the Tonto Trail)
5:30am. The moon has drifted below the horizon, now it’s just me and the stars, the dead cow and a 20 F start to the day. Having hot coffee is just a necessity in this situation my book. It is amazing too, I sit up, sleeping bag draped on top of my soulders and head, sipping, breathing in the silence of pre-dawn. I feel excited for today, excited for what lay ahead.
I am walking by 6:30, noting the thin film of frost on old dead wood. The Pasture Wash dirt road is crusted in ice and the mud is frozen too. My footsteps crunch along, I am hiking in my full pajamas, basically all my clothes. Before long the first rays of sun splay across the land, I stop in my tracks to feel the warmth on my face. I open my arms and I howl to greet the day. Owhoooooo! A broad smile spreads across my face as I continue up the crusty dirt track for a few miles until I reach the South Bass TH. Now, it’s 9am, I’m hungry and there are perfectly placed picnic benches there in full sun where I plop my ice brick. Melt, please melt!A swift change out of my PJ’s, a second breakfast, a bow to the trail gods and I am setting off into more podwery snow down the first 1,000 ft of the South Bass Trail. There are tons of animal tracks in the snow and I find it so entertaining that they walk right along the trails, they even use the switchbacks!By 10:30am I am dropping deeper into the gorge of S. Bass Canyon, now in full sun, my thermometer reads 70F! I am hot, sweaty, thirsty and slapping on my hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. What a difference in just a few hours. Hopefully this means my ice block will melt, and I giggle to myself as I crash through thick Gamble Oak, my ice block rattles around in the plastic container. If there were any animals in the area, surely all this noise I am making has scattered them away. But really, how many people can say they carried ice through the Grand Canyon?I have a water cache of 2L at the S. Bass junction with the Tonto East. When I arrive, since my ice block is of no use, I swap out some of that water, leaving my ice block at cache #3 overnight. Down here in these temps, surely it will melt by tomorrow, right?A couple more hours pass by, steadily the afternoon winds pick up, first in gusts, then significantly. I find now that I am cold again. Clouds build, I pop on my houdini jacket with the hood up, and push head-on into the wind. A few times, I even need to stop for balance so it doesn’t knock me down, and once I find myself actually clinging to a rock in a big gust. My saving grace would be that tomorrow, moving in the opposite direction, the wind would be at my back, fingers crossed.Evening: At 5pm I reach water cache #2. This one is placed about 1.5 miles East of the Tonto West Terminus, a 3L cache. I navigate right to where I remember placing this cache, under a rock ledge on a shelf, but it’s not there. I am confused, I can’t imagine anyone having found it, nor taking it. I scout around, now all the ledges are looking the same. Maybe it’s further up? Maybe not? I consult my GPS and the signal is bouncing off the walls, it’s showing me I am standing right on top of it, but I still don’t see it. As the day is getting on, I am increasingly anxious to keep moving and not loosing daylight. I have not been to Garnet Canyon before, so I really need to see it in daylight. What if I don’t find my water? Crap.
Finally, I recall I had taken a photo of each cache, marking it with my stylus pen, and that was what saved the day! Somehow I had apparently just hidden it so well and covered it up with a rock that I was literally just not seeing it. I had to laugh at myself!Adding this 3L of water is a signifiant weight penalty to my overall pack weight, but I can’t risk not having it either, as the water at Garnet Canyon (if present) is not drinkable due to it’s alkalinity. Everything about the water planning for this hike has to do with that old adage “better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it”, so if anything, I always had too much water. Not a bad situation to be in when trapsing in the remote desert.When I reach Garnet Canyon it’s 6pm and the wind is still relentless. The clouds are thickening overhead and I think I might have just heard thunder? There was no rain in the forecast, so I push on trusting a downpour is not in the cards. The only rain protection I brought is a flimsy Frogg Togg’s poncho.Shortly I can see where the Tonto Trail drops down into Garnet Canyon. It’s much more of a drop than I’d imagined, but I still have a wee bit of daylight, so I press on, relieved the trail will drop off that windy ridge.
I had hoped to spend more time here in the daylight so I can get to see the area, but I am not going to be seeing much on this trip. Getting down to the Terminus becomes my priority of the moment, and I’m aware I need to move fast.I need to see the route so I know where to go in the morning in the dark, but soon I realize the route drops straight down a chute of curved rock ledges that would definitely require a pack drop and both hands on a down climb scramble. I stand there feeling defeated. This is beyond what feels safe for me here and now. Wht if there are several of tese chutes? What if I can’t get to the Terminus? Is my FKT already a wash? Is this attempt over before it even starts?I start to feel rain drops now and it’s getting darker by the minute. I must figure out a way down. Determined to do so safely, I find a scant route of cairns down a different set of ledges that is indirect but gets me there. Rain is now pattering my face as I greet the Canyon bottom. I swiftly pitch my tent in the first flat spot of compact sand I find. The bottom of this Canyon is beautiful, a veritable water course interspersed with giant boulders and steep cliff walls.
I soon have nothing to worry about, the clouds part, the moon peeks out, and down in the wash I am no longer exposed. This is good. I look up to where the Tonto route apparently goes, up through that chute and figure I can climb up much easier than down, so my faith is restored and all is right in the world, especially after a hot meal of home-made vegan chili. I sit quietly, embracing the fleeting stillness. Staring up at the moon, the towering walls around me, just taking it all in, knowing that come morning it’s go time.
In that stillness, I meditate and pray under the now dazzling stars, feeling the density and timelessness of the ancient rock surrounding me, I have the place all to myself. How great is that?I lay at the bottom of this canyon, at the bottom of time, gazing up at patterns of shining dots that my mind cannot even comprehend. The unfamiliar silhouette of walls surrounds my view, towering over me. I am so infinitely small and there is so much I don’t know. These walls, they know. They know time in a way I never will.
Day 1: Feb.21st, 2021
26 miles by map (Strava 29); Garnet Canyon to Turquoise Canyon
I make hot coffee in the dark at 5:30am, it’s 33F and the air is calm. It’s dead silent here, a perfect support to begin my morning meditation. I imagine the beating of my drum that I had brought into the Canyon on my scouting trips, beating to the rhythm of the heart of the Canyon. I imagine my own heartbeat shifting to match hers and my brainwaves shifting into that frequency like it does after a few days of solitude. This makes me feel ready to do this thing.
At the cusp of dawn, my GPS leads me to a little rock cairn and wooden post that serves as the official Western Tonto terminus. Hooray, I found it! I start the clock at 7:06am, still pre-sunrise, but light enough. I immediately find myself searching for cairns that will lead me up that wall and through the chute, just hoping I can do this!As daylight thickens, I switch off my headlamp and the steepness of the gritty sandstone becomes palpable. There is a section where I need to hoist my pack up above my head and toss it up with everything I’ve got. I give it a good shove and think, well, that’ll have to do. Scrambling up now, I crawl on my knees and soon it’s over. I made it up the chute! This brings me great relief. I am already learning more than I knew I would. One obstacle down.
A couple years ago I read The Pursuit of Endurance, by Jennifer Pharr Davis. One of the greatest take aways from her book (there were many) was the focus required to execute a multi-day (or multi-month) endurance challenge. This will be one of the most important aspects of this journey. I find I am very focused, and know what my goals for the day are. I approached the planning and prep for this hike much like you would for a Marathon or Ultra. You break it down into small chunks, study the terrain, and set a pacing goal. My overall pacing goal was to stick to 2.5 mph average at a minimum. On the Tonto this is tricky because of the stop and go nature of the route. It has a flow alright, but the flow is knotted.
I reach my first goal at mile 11.5 and water cache #3 on schedule. And, my ice block has completely melted! Hooray!! A quick swap of water, a snack and I am on my way. The empty plastic water jug now gets to ride on the back of my pack for the next 80+ miles.It is here that I enter the Gems. From the S. Bass trail junction at the Tonto to Ruby Canyon is 9.9 miles. It takes me much longer to complete this section than I’d wanted. On the flats with single track I am jogging, then I hit a curve in the terrain, which turns into a side drainage or wash out, and the pace slows to 1.5mph. This picky rock hopping, cairn finding, up and down climbing is just something I have to get used to. This is the nature of the Tonto. No side canyon cuts you any slack.
Weaving in and out of the drainages is the rhythm of the Tonto. Every time you enter a drainage, depending on the time of day, you cross a softly faded boundary line between sun and shade. This can result in a ten degree temperature differential at times, and it has the effect of making you feel like the day is either just beginning or already ending. I found the hazy transitions quite beatiful in a sort-of dreamy way. Also, I was lucky today, as the wind is virtually absent.I feel so blessed to be doing this, spending my time traversing the longest trail in the Canyon, a place that is hands down one of the most jaw dropping and awe inspiring places on our planet. I am acutely aware that for the ensuing days, all I have to do is be here and move through this landscape. It’s as if some some voice from the heavens commanded over me “Head East for three days and at the end of the third day you shall come to a river. The silence, stillness, the simplicity. Yes, I choose this. I am so blessed that I get to choose this.I reach the throat of Serpentine Canyon at 2pm, hungry, sweaty, ready for a short break. I allow myself this 20 minutes to be still, check in with my body, eat as much as I can squeeze in without overfilling my stomach. My food bag still feels so heavy and I can’t figure out why. I take in the views of steep red walls that surround me then check my next destination and get on the move again.
Reaching Ruby, where the trail drops into a narrow wash, I pick my way down the ledges carefully. Stashed under a ledge on the flipside, I pick up water cache #4. It’s 2L and that feels heavy and like I don’t need it all, and I am feeling way behind as it’s now 4:30pm. I see in my pacing chart I mis-calculated this section by an hour, then you add my 1hr late start and break times and I’m now up to 2.5 hrs behind pace. What to do?I ask myself how I can make up this time and the only answer that resoundingly comes to me is to run as much as possible. Ha! Running was never the plan due to a long-standing hamstring injury, this was never to be a run for me. But I tried it anyway. And to my surprise, I feel amazing. I am skeptical that it won’t last however, and don’t want to push myself into a flare up. I am determined to complete this hike and determined to enjoy it.
The Tonto Trail is the most indirect, convoluted trail. There is just nothing straight forward about it, it’s a mental game for sure. Along the 94 mile trail, there are roughly 33 side canyons/drainages to cross. Some are short and relatively easy to navigate, others are long, deep, tedious, and there are wash outs, leading to lost time searching for the route and frustration when that all goes very slowly when you are really trying to be fast and efficient.
Last week when I scouted this section it was raining and I made terrible time between Ruby and Turquoise for all of the above reasons. I would have to learn to curb my frustration. Today, I feel anxious as I approach this section, so I focus my will power and try to jog as much as possible on the sections with good tread to make up for the sections of extreme tedium, and amazingly, I make a much better time, yay!It is headlamp time by 6:45pm, I am rounding the bend between LeConte and Shaler Plateaus. I lost the trail crossing Shaler last week and don’t want to night hike that section today and loose the trail again. So again I rally my focus and push to get through this cactus ladden, trailless area in what daylight remains.
Another thing I’ve learned about the Tonto Trail is that out on the platforms you can feel the trail under your feet. Sometimes you can not see it, but enough people have walked it that the soil is compacted, so when you are on it, you move faster. When you depart from the trail unknowingly, you soon feel the softness of the soil and you slow way down, and you also get bogged down in cactus patches, so I have learned to do everything I can to get right back on track.The cool thing is, you can pretty easily get back on track intuitively. So, here I do, and I am able to move at a light jog and fortunately make it through this tricky section without too many glitches. As night falls, I do some calculations and I figure on picking my way into the Canyon at Turquoise in the dark, and just camping there, knowing the climb out is less than straight forward. I arrive just shy of 8pm and this becomes my home for the next several hours.I finish day one feeling good, yet five miles shy of my goal, but I remain optimistic still, and I am having fun, and that is the most important thing. I feel I did my best. I feel in flow with the land and with myself. That was always ultimately my hope, to reach that elusive flow state, even in the stop and go nature of the Tonto. I’ve learned no matter where you are, that flow has more to do with syncing with the codes of the land, in this case, the deep time of the Canyon, and becoming one with that timelessness moreso than actual speed.
It usually takes three days time for the codes to settle in, for the energetic wiring of the system to recognize the patterns and then synthesize them and become part of me and I them. I try to visit wilderness places as often as possible because I want those codes, that neural wiring, to stay illuminated and the transition time from civilized to wild be swift and seamless.
It’s during the longer times away when I’ve felt the codes unraveling and slipping away like blood going down the shower drain. Bleeding the codes away, wishing I could stop the bleeding and I try to hold on, but I know I lost a few. I am gaining them back now and have been with each visit to the Canyon I made in the prep for this hike. I will gain them and more, until my wiring matches the energy of this place, and until I feel one with her and with myself.
Day 2: Feb.22nd, 2021
30 miles by map (34 Strava) Turquoise Canyon to East of Dana Butte
I sleep deeply and find it really difficult to make myself get up. I wiggle my toes and exit my tent to pee. Surprised my body feels okay. It’s dark as heck in Turquoise at 5am. I use this as my excuse to drink really strong coffee, and knowing I have to be ready at first light. When I scouted this section a week ago, I arrived here in the dark as well. It was slow going, there was a cliff ledge and 200ft drop off right next to the trail, and I don’t want to take my chances again. I start walking by 6:32 with headlamp bursting beams through the veil of night that is slowly turning to a faded lavendar. The sleek curvature of rock wall formations above me remind me again how deep into the folds I am.I go slow. I am careful with my footing, three points of contact. I can’t afford to slip. I hear an owl hooting in the distance and this reminds me of their gift of night vision. I take this animal as a source of strength and re-assurance that I can do this. I press forward, each step bringing me closer to actual daylight with the sun finally beginning to kiss the tops of the Canyon walls.Agate Canyon was my original target for day one, and I arrive this morning within two hours. Agate holds water cache #5 and when I get there I am happy to see it is intact. I cached this one back in November! To think my water had been sitting there for three months, is wild.I’m grateful for the water. It is fresh, cold, filtered and ready for my consumption, but I despise the added weight. Today, I hoped to make up some time by trying to run more but this extra weight will make that a challenge to my healing body. I consult my pacing sheet and see it’s only 10 miles to Boucher where the creek has natural flowing water. I don’t want to have to take time to filter but I’d also rather hike with less weight and move more efficiently. I do the thing that I have always believed to be a sin to do in the desert. I dump my extra water.By 12:30 I am drifting down the steep slope that drops me down into Boucher Canyon. This is a wide drainage, steep, rocky, and at only .7 mi across, it still takes me the better part of an hour. Part of that is the terrain, and part of that was the water. Arriving at the first natural flowing water source I’ve seen in four days, I am just in awe. The sound of the water is lilting, and the sunlight glittering on the surface is mesmerizing. I am hot and sweaty, I am thirsty, I see little pools that are two feet deep and think how I could definitely squeeze my whole body into one and cool down.I splash my face off instead, top off my water bottles and keep moving. The climb out is steep and rocky yet, and by the top I am definitely glad I grabbed that extra, fresh, cold water. Now, now I need to focus on my next objective, Hermit Creek. I have a long way to go still today, fortunately there are several natural water sources, including this one: then Hermit, Monument, Garden Creek (Indian Garden), and Pipe Spring, that’s all within a 21 mile stretch. After that, it’s a 15 mile waterless stretch with nothing until Grapevine if it’s flowing. If Grapevine isn’t flowing, it will be a nearly 20 mile waterless stretch. Thus, I need to be strategic about all this as today is winding down.But first, I must traverse high ridges, and cross big drainages and climb hills and dart through cactus fields. By now my legs are completely bloody and scraped up. The black bush is the biggest culprit, followed by the sword-like yucca. There are just so many plants out here that seem to want nothing more than to gash your skin. I can’t wear my compression socks, as it’s just too hot now.Still pressing my feet aginst the earth with as much force as I can, trying to gain momentum and rhythm, I find myself needing to focus a lot on my breathing, in through the nose, directing my breath to different muscle groups. I am pleased with how my body responds to thee cues, and how my movement becomes a meditation.I want to press on to Hermit before taking a snack break, but when I reach Travertine at 2pm I am so damn hot.
Today feels like there’s been a ton of climbing. It’s been so exposed, and I’ve been pusing the pace for hours. I need to cool my self down. My face is hot, I can feel I am beginning to overheat. Travertne is a quaint little side Canyon, one of the smaller and simpler ones, but with a few rock ledges offering shade and a couple nice trees and I find this shade irresistable for about 30 min.It’s 7.1 miles to Monument from here.
When I finally get to Monument it is getting on in the day, nearly 5pm, and I am in the shdows of the narrow, deep, steep gorge that hardly got any sunlight all day. It’s been since 2019 that I was here and my memory did not care to remind me that the trail does drop all the way down a few hundred feet into the gorge, and it is complex and utterly beautiful. I want to go back and just explore this place. I get down to the creek and see a few people camping, people!The camping area is overgrown with lush plant matter, I suddenly am confused where I am supposed to go as the other side is just a giant wall of rock and there are several little social trails spreading out like a spiders web.
My GPS bounces off the walls again, not helpful. I try to search my memory of when I crossed this, though I did it in the opposite direction, so memory fails me. Live and learn! I find my mind wandering to the tall walls, admiring their deep textures and gnarled structure, and for a few moments they steal my concentration and whisk me away into a different time.When I walk among them I catch a slight glimpse, the briefest moment of understanding or knowing that time is completely irrelevant, they way we humans understand time, we only have our one dimension, but these walls, this earth, this universe, multitudes of dimensions. Portals. This plaec has portals, I believe, that connect to these other dimensions, but we humans cannot permeate them. But I feel them, they are here, they exist, they are wonderful because they remind us about perspective, make us humble, make us have awe, make us confused and perplexed, make us pray and forgive and love.
I head down to the water to top off my bottles again, and it is there that I see, upstream, a cairn. Ah ha! I’ve found the trail, yes! Elated, I am snapped back into myself and trudge up the steep slope, using big heaping steps and hands to grip the rock and pull my body up. In the center of this Canyon there is a solitary monolith of rock for which this canyon is named. It stands out from every angle and I keep peeking at it as a point of reference for how high I’ve climbed. The monolith is a striking, fascinating feature, I cement it’s silhouette into my memory and vow to return here soon.
By 6:24 I am aware of the impending darkness, though the moon will help guide the way. I am roughlyl 30 miles in for the day and my left ankle has really been hurting, and I believe it’s been all the climbing today. I reach Salt Creek in a bit of a daze, this is not a water source, and it is not my objective for tonight either so I pass through in a blur because I know it’s getting dark soon.
My objective was originally Cremation Canyon, and I feel a heavy sense of dread when I realize Cremation is still 13.5 mi away. I am trying to stay within the zones of At-large camping I’ve been assigned to, but it is looking impossible. From Salt to Cremation, there is no At-large camping, as this is the most heavily used area lateral to the corridor trails I need to avoid all of those areas but I don’t see how hiking until midnight serves me. It wouldn’t be safe, or at least, that’s my justification.I push as far as I can in the dark, and about .5 mi before reaching Horne Creek, there is a flat place to camp. I take it, calling the day good. I made over 32 miles, Strava says 34+ and get this, 5,121 ft of climbing. No wonder! In total, these legs have carried me 100+ miles on this excursion so far and I am starting to feel it. My left ankle hurts and I take an Ibuprofen, hoping that will help the swelling abate overnight.
I pitch my tent under the light of the moon, out on the open platform of the Tonto and feel a bit vulnerable all the way out there, floating in the Abyss. I sit there with my tent flaps open, the slightest cool breeze and a faint sound rising up from the Colorado River. I am eating re-hydrated beans by the light of the moon and feeling quite content with all of thisven though I’m so far behind my goal. I’m not though, because I am so in the moment with all of this it doesn’t really matter.
When I pull out my pacing sheet, I am actually delighted to discover I am only three miles from Indian Garden, a very easy three miles at that. I somehow thought I had another Canyon to cross. I think I forgot about crossing salt Canyon. I search my memory, I don’t really remember it, but when consulting my GPS, it appears I did! I determine I can hike these next three miles before sunrise, and push through that section fairly quickly tomorrow.
I’ve now likened the flow and rhythm of the Tonto to a freeway where you are cruising along at 75mph and suddenly the traffic jams up for no apparent reason, and you are at a crawl. You crawl for a bit, stop and go, stop and go, and then some contraction is released and you accelerate back to 75mph again, but only for a little while. Push, pull, push, pull. It’s a bizarre rhythm.
By my mileage itinerary I have 38 miles to go to the finish from here. I have never hiked more than 35 miles in one day, and Canyon miles are different, with a character of their own. But I believe I can do this. I believe it is within my reach. I think a big part of that is I want it. In order to do any of this, you just have to want it. That means, lights out, get some rest, and get a super early start. Tomorrow’s gonna be a big day.
Day 3: Feb.23rd, 2021
38 mi by map (Strava 42).5 mi W.of Horne Creek to Hance Rapids/Red Canyon- E.Terminus of the Tonto Trail
Last night’s sleep wasn’t great, most likely I was anxious about today, and technically I was camping “out of bounds” from what my permit gave me so I felt a little bad about that. When I woke, I picked up my phone, swiped the screen, it read 4:59am, then saw it switch to 5:00am and the alarm sounded. Perfect timing, how did I do that?I am walking down the dark trail into Horne Creek by 6:00am, my belly full of cookies, almond butter and coffee. I message my Mom, as she worries about me when I am out all alone, so we have a check-in system. I don’t get a message back from her right away though. But when I do, she writes “wow, you are up before me!” which if you know me, is not normal. I have never in my life been a morning person. Not until I started long distance hiking and running. I have always needed 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and I know if I were to attempt a longer FKT route, the sleep deprivation would literally do me in. On this route, since I am not trying to break anybody else’s record, I allow myself to get some sleep. Last night it was in the ballpark of 6 hours.
I hadn’t wanted to camp at Horne due to the possibility of disturbing people late in the night, nor would I have been able to get away with camping at Indian Garden. These places are just too popular. At Horne, however, it is quiet. I pass by a wooden sign for the toilet, briefly contemplating using it, but press on. I didn’t think anyone was camping there until I hear a faint snoring sound drifting up from down below.By 7:25 I am scooping up water from Garden Creek, then I pass by the famous thermometer that everyone snaps photos of in the Summer, boasting digits above 100F. This morning, it reads 42 F. I dash into the pit toilet briefly just because it’s so close, and ever so fleetingly imagine that I could just walk up the Bright Angel Trail and be done with this. But no, I am most definitely not done. Temptation was easy to resist, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing actually. Soon, I connect with the Tonto East heading to Pipe Spring, this is the very first section of Tonto I ever hiked, back in 2019, and it is so cruisy, no wonder I wanted to do this trail! I do recall envisioning the whole 94 mile trail being all cruisy like this, boy was I wrong!Pipe Spring is beautiful water. I know I need to carry enough for up to 20 miles from here, so I take the time to filter and fill up, adding yet more weight to my pack again. It’s 38 F here by my thermometer and I actually feel chilled sitting still for ten minutes. Then, I’m off like a new bride’s nighty- as my Mom’s friend used to say, always bringing a laugh cuz you cant take yourself too seriously.I’m speeding my way into the early morning Canyon shadows, circulation is increasing, pace is steady, trail tread is good here for these three miles. I climb up to the crest of the Tipoff- the section where the S. Kaibab Trail comes down, and there is a singular woman out walking quietly. I don’t necessarily want to be seen so I am swift in my crossing that broad hump of red earth. I am now in full sun, and I am pretty sure it’s here to stay.
Cremation Canyon- what a name, is my next objective. That was my original goal from yesterday, a bit unrealistic, but oh well. I’m headed there now, and the drop down is much longer and drawn out than I’d recalled. Last time I’d hiked this section was at night, in the opposite direction, so go figure. Finding a rhythm among the unstable rocky downhill I keep a pace I am happy with, and my ankle thanks me.Creamtion is shaded at the bottom, it’s a narrow canyon, so as soon as you reach the bottom, you are headed back up. Straight up. This up is the steepest up of the entire Tonto Trail. And the rocks are not ledgey or grippy but rolly, they are the type that when you push off you loose traction on your back foot and slide out. It takes effort to climb, but the shade feels like such a reprieve from the exposute “up there”.
I take advantage of the shade to guzzle electrolytes and eat a small snack. Then, I face the inevitable, scortching sun. Naturally, a waterless section would not be known for it’s vegetation. It’s a little bit dull and repetetive out here, but I am relieved that the trail moves faster. I start up my jog pace again, I call it my extended trot, like a gaited horse, just sort-of cruising at a sustainable pace.
Three and a half miles from Cremation Canyon is a small side canyon called Lonetree. The reason it has that name is you can walk for about one mile down canyon to a giant singular Cottonwood tree and find water bubbling up from a Spring. This is considered reliable water and I have been there once before. However, this itinerary would not allow time for that side trip, so I planned to carry enough water to get through. To my amazement, when I get to Lonetree, there is water just lightly trickling across the wash! Never expected that!I duck under the shade of a rock and mix up a quick shot of coffee and finish off my cookies and almond butter. I really needed the calories, and the caffeine. These little stops feel like an aid station in a race, it’s fun, except there’s no lovely people there cheering you on! A sweaty bearded dude climbs down from above and when I say hello he grumbles something or other that I can’t make out. He looks a little hot, and like maybe he is staggering a little? Is he okay? I keep an eye on him as he traverses the wash and lumbers up the other side. Soon, I can hear music coming from his phone, and decicde he’s just in his own world. And, so am I, right?
It’s 12.2 miles from Cremation to Grapevine Canyon, where I hope I can find water. My pacing chart had me arriving at Grapevine at 11am, clearly not going to happen. I can’t recall much about Grapevine, even though I camped there in 2019, it’s a blur again. Reading the NPS trail description of this drainage, they describe it as the longest and most complex drainage between Grandview and S. Kaibab Trails. What it was for me, was long and hot. Once I turn from the platform toward the West side of Grapevine, I am excited because I am “getting close”. However, I am now facing dead straight into the sun, and the faster I walk or jog, the hotter I get.
The hour long hike into Grapevine is merciless.When I get there, there is a group of four people, sitting under what shade there is, under a stately solitary Juniper. It’s clear they are staying for the night. I scout around for water. There is no creek flowing. Yet, there were some small pools, thank goodness! I gather water from said small pool and plop myself under a rock ledge where there is no sun. I am overheated, I need to cool down. In the shade my thermometer reads 70F.
I press my bare legs against the cool rocks until I get goose bumps. I am literally stuffing my face, and drinking my 3rd coffee of the day, and filtering my water without saying a word to the other people. I don’t mean to be rude, I just have no energy for causal chit chat. I am in “the zone”. My Strava says I’ve hiked 25+ miles so far, and my maps indicate I have 16.3 left to go.With this knowledge, I decide it’s time to move on. In passnig I offer a brief hello to the nice folks, wishing them a pleasant stay there as I set out back into the relentless sun. By now it’s 3pm, my goal is to make it to Hance Creek before dark so that I only have 6 miles of hiking in the dark to finish. I got this, right?It takes less than an hour to make it to the “other” end of Grapevine and I howl in relief to be done with that Canyon, whoo hoo! I feel like I have accomplished something here! My pace is great now having fortified with food and water and coffee and the air temperature is becoming fair. I’ve also made it through the hottest part of the day by 4pm, I know I still have a long night ahead of me but I feel good!I start to get into the headspace of being super focused again, and having an inner knowing that I am going to make it. I reflect on my day, my past few days and I feel really good about my efforts. I do allow myself little breaks, I do allow myself to sleep, and that does eat up time, but besides that I feel like I’ve given this my all, I am doing my best, truly. I feel present in the moment, present with my breath, my body movements, the trail , the Canyon, there is no time really, only now. And that’s what it’s all about, right? The now.6:46pm. I am just about to drop down into Hance Creek. I see illuminated headlamps from up above, but I have not turned mine on yet. Above me an Eagle screetches, getting my attention as it’s call ehoes in the walls and washes. This is a good sign I decide, this eagle is here to let me know I can do this. Hance Creek was my back up camping plan if I’d made it there too late. I am not stopping here, I am going for it to the end.
I text my Mom and Dad to let them know I will be finishing late, so they don’t worry. I do a quick gear swap, slip on my headlamp, and gaze up at the now nearly full moon as she casts a soft glow over the fading day. I have 6 miles to go, I am feeling good, I am excited to night hike and feel charged up for the finish. The night is balmy, there is just the slightest breeze passing over my skin here and there like a whisper. What a perfect night.
In my memory of hiking this section a couple months ago, it was what I would call pretty straight forward. There was a couple thousand feet to drop, some rocks, a sharp left turn, more rocks, and more downhill and then the beach. I recalled all that pretty clearly. Well, something happens in the night. It all looks different. It all gets steeper, harder, bigger, longer, scarier and slower.As I approach Mineral Canyon I had not recalled it being so deep, far or steep. It was taking much longer to get there, and I am checking my GPS to make sure I did not make a wrong turn. Of course I didn’t, there is no other trail down here! But it is taking so long. Then, I come to a precipice and realize I have to go down. Way, way down. I am down climbing Mineral Canyon all the way to the bottom, probably a few hundred feet and its steep, rocky, cairned, confusing. In the bottom it’s convoluted too, and I search for cairns to lead me up and out.
Once I reach the top of the climb, I feel wobbly and a little dizzy. I realize I am tired. My eyes feel like they can’t focus, and is it my imagination or is my headlamp getting dimmer by the minute? I play around with the settings, and no improvement comes. I press on, making sure not to trip or slip. But there are so many rocks, and I stumble a few times on the smallest ones.It’s a bad thing to do but I start checking my GPS more frequently. I need some guage of distance remaining to fuel me now because I am running out of steam. I think right now I am running on that caffeinated energy gel I sucked down at Hermit Creek at 7pm. I’d taken Ibuprofen too, as I was 33 miles in and starting to hurt. Ibuprofen makes me sleepy, hence the caffeinated gel to balance it out. A wild little cocktail to ingest. I can’t tell if it’s helping me or disorienting me.
I finally get off the thin ridgeline that lines Mineral Canyonon on the East arm and feel a sense of relief to be on more stable ground. By my GPS I am roughly two or so miles from the terminus, but I know I still have a lot of descecnding to do. Suddenly I jolt to the sound of my InReach beeping with a new message. In order to read it, I have stop and take my pack off, so I resist. But, knowing it must be my Mom, I know I must because she worries.Dropping my pack, I decide I may as well switch out my headlamp batteries, and in that swift movement I topple over and soon my butt is on the ground and that feels wonderful and the gravity strong. I realize I need this moment. Time to re-group before the final leg.
The message from my Mom reads that she thinks I went the wrong way, thinking I was returning to my car tonight! Ugh! I am frustrated by this but my love overtakes me and I patiently reply to her that I am going the right way and all is well. Bless her heart for watching over me and loving me so much. She cant sleep until she knows Im safe.
The new batteries in my headlamp are a game changer! Whoop! Now I am ready to finish this. I hoist my pack back on, and just in case you are wondering, yes I do still have that empty water bottle that had the ice in it a few days ago! Two miles is all I have to go, let’s get to the beach!There is a really cool boulder field you cross through before making the final sharp left turn that drops you down to Hance Beach. It is unique along the entire Tonto Trail, these VW bus size rocks, strewn across a mellow slope, in this otherwordly way, they make me feel like I am in The Land of the Lost passing through at night, sleeping giants.
There is a tree next to a large boulder, and if you are not careful, you can miss the turn. I made sure to not miss it. Hence begins a massive drop on steep rocks to the beach. I don’t know how long it takes me, but the pace feels painstaking and all I can do is be patient and present with my movements. I have been hearing the rush of the River for the past 45 minutes and now she becomes louder as I drop.
I don’t remember this section being so long either, and the section along the beach too. It feels so long and suddenly I am trudging through sand dunes and digging in to deep sand, making my progress even slower. How ironic! I take a moment to send both my parents a message that I made it to the River so they could go to sleep and so when I got there I could just be still and take it all in.
The trail through the sand dunes leads me through some tall reed grasses then pops me out to the rocky bottom of Hance Creek drainage. I made it! Whoop whoop! I double check my GPS to ensure I am right on target at the Eastern Terminus and check my watch, it’s 9:51pm 11seconds.That last 6 miles took a full hour longer than it needed to, but I am here, I made my goal, only 2 hr 51 minutes behind pace, and that is totally okay with me. I always knew I would need some wiggle room, but would be cutting it close to finish in under three days. I am totally elated and relieved to have made it tonight, thank you Canyon for helping me get here tonight!
The River is loud here at Hance Rapids, it’s a Class 5 rapid and there are a lot of rocks out there to make waves. The energy of that moving water is intense and stimulating and the churning ions refresh me. Suddenly I am wide awake, and I can now relax. I set up my phone to take a finishing photo with the self timer, and when I look at it I see that I look happy. I feel happy too.I wobble over to the beach-side camping area, there is nobody there, I have the whole place entirely to myself, how neat is that? I pitch my tent, gather and filter water for my dinner and change out of my intensely stinky, sour smelling, sweaty clothes in favor of my pajamas. That feels like a dream. I can barely eat my dinner, it’s so late, Im pretty tired, so I shove the remains into a zip lock, and focus on eating my chocolate instead.
There are towering walls who’s ridgelines stand out against a cloud streaked sky and moon glow illuminating those clouds. It’s a stunning scene and with the River crashing nearby I am just in awe. Look where I am! I got myself here, I choose this life! I am so grateful and so ready for sleep. It’s after 1am when I finally tuck myself in, nothing can stop me from sleeping now.
The Day After
Feb. 24th, 2021
11miles by map from Hance Rapids to Grandview Trailhead via Grandview Trail
Morning. The rushing River has been soothing my tired nerves all night. Well, what night there was for me. I wake at 7:35 needing to pee, resistance is futile and I am eager to see this landscape in daylight anyhow. Deep at the River the sunlight has not yet kissed the water, it’s chilly, moist, so I make a little fire with what fuel I have left in my cat food can stove for coffee. It’s 35F inside my tent now and the glorious coffee sure hits the spot. I don’t have to get up and walk right away today! What a thought!I relish this time, simply sitting in stillness, sipping my coffee, writing, listening to the backdrop of the turbulent River. Incessant churning, churning. Nobody is here but me. How is that? I cherish the silence, the solitude, the timelessnes that this morning brings. I witness the magic of the Canyon walls come to life as sun slowly slips down their sheer sheets of 2 billion year old rock. I recently learned that the base layer of the Canyon rock is actually an ancient Mountain Range, the Vishnu, at roughly 1.6 to 2.6 billion years old, half the life span of Earth herself. This thoughts percolates, I need to sit with it a bit.I’m soon hungry tho, shocking, I know! I re-heat the leftovers from last night’s unfinished dinner and add more dehydrated beans. A savory breakfast tastes delicious and satisfies my hunger, for now. What did I just do? I think about it all, think about the finish last night, and hiking 17 miles after 3pm and picking my way anxiously through Mineral Canyon in the dark. Sheesh, what happened there? Part of me is in awe at what I just did, did it really happen? Did I really just do that? Everything seems like a blur now, and part of my energy must still be out on the Tonto, stretched out across time.
I look up to see the sunlight just landing on the surface of the River, wishing I had a full day to quietly sit by the water and integrate everything. When I’m at the River, I never want to leave. Something about that flowing water mesmerizes me. The sunlight cast on the water motivates me to get packed up so I can at least go meditate at the River for a bit before it’s time to leave.The sunlight warms my back, the water sprays my face, the rocks watch in their wisdom and I close my eyes and feel all that this is, absorbing the codes, this time connecting them with the codes of all the previous experiences that thru-hiking the Tonto brought to me. I don’t have my drum, but my heart beats with hers and we are synchronized. I give my offering of thanks to the River, to the Canyon, to Mother Earth. As in the tradition of surfers, you never turn your back on the ocean, you always bow when you leave the water. Here, I bow to the River and the Canyon before I start the long trek back up.
Hiking in the Canyon is like an inverse mountain. When you leave, you have to climb out. From Hance Rapids to the Rim at Grandview is over 5,000 ft of elevation gain. I toy with the thought of taking the New Hance trail because I am oddly resisting going back through Mineral Canyon and re-hiking what I just came through last night, as if it would un-do something. But New Hance makes no sense, it would leave me with a 5+ mile road walk to get back to my car. No bueno, I want to be done when I get to the top.It’s 10:20 when I finally pull myself from the River and start to climb. My body feels tired, like I need more coffee or something to give me a zip. The heavy feeling in my legs confirms that I just did something hard. Still, I seem to have my focus and push myself to keep a steady pace. I have to work tomorrow and want to get home in time to get a good meal and a good night’s sleep.
I make it to water at Hance Creek, just in time for a cool down. I am hot, sweaty, thirsty, and I need more coffee. I have a hard time actually finding shade, and plop down under a tree with whispy branches and no leaves. This will have to do. Cold water from the creek makes for great chilled coffee and then I stuff my face with the remains of my snacks. That food bag that was too heavy all week long has dwindled down to one energy bar, some nuts, and a handful of turkey jerkey. I am so thankful I have something left!The Tonto trail soon connects with the Grandview Trail, and here I part ways with the Tonto. I have not done this section for a while, and when I did, it was all downhill, so of course I remember it being steep, but easy. Ha! Maybe because I’m tired, maybe because it’s so exposed and I’m so hot, but this climb feels relentless and long. Horseshoe Mesa is “right up there” after every group of switchbacks, but I’m never there. It just seems to go on and on.
Forever closes in on me and I do actually make it to Horseshoe Mesa. I reflect on being here for Solstice. I camped up here hoping to see the Jupiter-Saturn Conjunction and sat out drumming and meditating. I had the place all to myself, just me and the stars and the planets I never saw but felt. Today, I blow through without a second thought because I know it’s now only a few miles to get up to the top.
As the trail climbs from the Mesa the landscape changes to a Juniper-Pine forest. I start to see more conifers and the soil is a deep red, then white. I am struggling on this climb, nothing seems to make it any easier. I know that all I have to do is just keep moving but I feel like molasis. What is going on? I am not used to this feeling. Am I that tired?
I round a bend at a section of trail I am familiar with and look up toward the rim, estimating how much further I have to climb. I say maybe 700-800 ft and feel relieved with that. Just beyond this place, snow appears on the trail and I reflect back to the very beginning of this hike, back at S. Bass, where I was floating down in fresh powder just days ago. Much of the slope here faces North so the snow continues. This is not helping my fatigued legs mind you.
I decide to check my GPS to get an accurate reading on the snow level. I am currently at 5,800 ft. Low! I would have guessed higher, and what that means is I still have 1,600 more feet of climbing. Sheesh, that’s not what I wanted to find out.I need to shift my mindset or this is going to be torture. I look to the quality of afternoon light, breathe in the scent of conifer trees, take notice of the cool wind, observe the leafy vegetation around me, synch into the rhythm of my breath, remembering that all too soon the demands of the other world will be in front of me and this will all be over. My heart shatters for a brief moment at that thought, it always does.
I never want to leave this life. This wild life, this is the life I choose. This wild life is sealed into my codes now, and I feel it. I think that’s what makes it so hard to leave, because part of me is this place now, and to leave this place is to leave myself. When I return to civilization it’s always a bumpy transition, but I am getting better at the landing, better at not letting those codes slip down the shower drain when I wash off the dirt, sweat and blood of my journey.
In my best efforts over the months of preparing for this journey, I’ve reinforced them and I will continue to do so, I will strive to keep them activated and amplify them by sharing my experience with others.It’s nearly 5pm when I finally emerge at the Grandview Trail Head. I hear voices of humans that sound so foreign, chatter from tourists out for the day, standing at the edge, snapping selfies and commenting on the Canyon. “It looks like a painting” so many people say, and it does, it really does. It’s magnitude is so immense that the eye cannot really penetrate the dimensionality of all that it truly is.Even for me now, having hiked under the rim a bit, yhe immensity of the Canyon is almost unfathomable still. To return to the top and look down, look out, look back into time. This existence, I will never fully understand and it is never more clear to me than it is now how very brief human life is. This is why I pursue what I love, why I follow my dreams, why I push myself to be my best, why it is so important to find my wild and bring that back to do good in the world. I am forever thankful to the Canyon and to family and friends for helping me learn to Walk in Beauty.