Good Mornings, Battleship, Mules

As with most of my semi epic adventures, I went pretty far considering I didn’t bring enough food or water.  (“Semi epic” is used loosely here: I know a young lady who celebrated her 10th birthday on Mt. Kilimanjaro having hiked up there.  That’s epic.  Semi epic being approximately half of that…  Right.)

Back to the middle aged lady and adventure in question…  I woke up before 5 that morning and called that good enough.

The day before I studied the Bright Angel trail map posted by the trail head.  The map outlined the first 4.5 miles of the trail.  First, a couple of easy destinations, upper and lower tunnels, just below the trail head; then 1.5-mile rest house, 1120 feet below, 2-4 hours round trip, difficult; 3-mile rest house, 2120 feet below, 4-6 hour round trip, very difficult; Indian Garden, 4.5 miles out on the trail, 3040 feet below, 6-9 hour round trip, strenuous.  Beyond that: please no day hiking, or at least talk to somebody before you go, but seriously, please don’t make us send a helicopter to rescue you.  It will take you twice as long to come back up the distance you went down.

I figured I’d probably make it to the 1.5-mile rest house and back.  “Difficult” sounded about right.  I had a 3 cup water bottle, two snack bars, a banana, and two apples in my hip belt bag.  All set for a couple of hours.

The first pointy brown formation here, to the right and down from the center, is Battleship butte

The sun was low and bright, the morning air crisp, when I filled my water bottle and hit the trail at 7:20 AM.  Bright Angel is the most travelled trail in the park, so even at this hour there were a few hikers.  Two or three young couples.  A small family.  I let many of them pass me.  The trail was steep going down, fear of heights messed with my footing, the cranky right piriformis gripped crankily, and I had to concentrate to compensate.  I passed them again when they took their pictures.  They passed me again when I took mine.  We acknowledged each other and said “hello”, and “good morning” cheerfully.

After the tunnels (“tunnel” seems to be Arizonan for “arch” by the way), the trail became less steep, the heights less scary.  At the 1.5-mile rest house I had a snack bar and a banana.  The small family turned around.  While waiting in the bathroom line with one of the couples, we reflected that the view was not bad as far as the bathroom line views go.

A mule party on the way to the Colorado river

A mule party went by the rest house, on their way down to the river.  I saw them getting ready earlier, on the top.  As I watched them go by now, I thought, sure, it’s nice to have somebody carry your stuff for you: even a water bottle clipped to the belt is pesky.  I’d let a mule or, better yet, a consenting human carry it for me any day.  But to sit on those beasts for hours with legs spread like that and not much to do…  I don’t know about that.

It wasn’t even 8:30 yet.  I decided to keep going.  The mules stopped before a switchback a short way past the rest house.  Another couple from earlier on sat on the rocks just uphill from the mules, waiting for them to resume moving, taking in the views meanwhile.  I said “hello again” and sat next to them.  “Hello” said a mule guide to us, “you can pass behind us if you want, they won’t kick”.  “We are good, thanks,” we waved back at her, “just resting”.  “One of those guys said he was jealous of us walking,” said the woman.  I chuckled.

The mules moved on.  We got up and moved on down the trail.  “See you later,” I said cheerfully, as they stopped to take pictures.

The trail went into another series of switchbacks.  The nature got more lush, the trees fuller, the bushes bushier.  Battleship butte that appeared so far below from the top now loomed at the eye level.

The few small parties were going the opposite direction, uphill.  Most of them looked like they might have camped on the river overnight.  “Hello”.  “Good morning.”

At the 3-mile rest house I had an apple and half a snack bar.  There was at most a cup of water left in the bottle.  The water at the rest houses was still turned off for the winter.  I lay in the windowsill of the shaded rest house, feet up the wall, hands under my head, looking at the Battleship, its top now well above the eye level.

Battleship butte from around the 3-mile rest house

There was a sign somewhere along the trail suggesting resting with feet up every now and then.  The same sign telling you to bring enough water.  Both sounded like a good idea actually.

A couple of men stopped by the rest house.  One walked inside for some shade.  “Hello”, “good morning”, we greeted each other.  “How far are you going?” He asked.  “I’m turning around, how about you?” “We are going all the way to Indian Spring.  Done this before.  It’s no picnic going back.”  He sounded like it was a fun “no picnic”.  We chatted pleasantly some more, then headed separate ways: they down, I up.  It was just after 9:30, I’d be back up by lunch time.

The couple from the wait behind the mules just got to the rest house.  They were turning around as well.  We said hellos and wished each other a good day.

The signs said that going uphill would take twice as long.  While more strenuous, going uphill is in many ways easier.  The footing is definite, and the quads get to do the work.  The quads are good at doing work.

The crowds thickened as the day went on and the rim got closer.  There were swarms of people with small children, people with selfie sticks, people with handbags, clutches, and parasols.  People who didn’t look like they wanted to be there in the first place.  Parking lot tourists.  What I observed then and on the subsequent days: after 11 AM, we don’t say hello any more.  Maybe barely acknowledge presence if at all.

Back at the 1.5-mile house I finished the snack bar and the water as I sat next to a quiet happy looking elderly couple.  “Hello.”  They also went to the 3-mile rest house and back.  They told me that when I saw them again the next day, on another trail, a bit longer, much easier; we said hello; that was before 11 AM.

I finished the apple by the arches, and made it back up at 11:10, less than 4 hours round trip, possibly faster up then down.  Dehydrated and ravenous, but apart from that, could have gone longer.

Two men were resting by the water station at the trailhead, a father and son I guess.  I met them a few hours earlier as I walked down and they up.  “Hey, we saw you earlier,” the father said, “how far did you go?”  They camped on the river that night, then got up at 4 that morning and walked all the way back up.  “Where are you from originally?” he inquired as soon as I finished my first sentence (that had nothing to do with my origins apart from the obvious).  Sigh.  This is why we have an 11 AM threshold: the conversations just don’t go well after that.

As with most semi epic adventures, the point is the little moments.


A sunlit spring shrub at a switchback.

The mules (having met them made the mule crap along the road a little less crappy).

Overhearing, while sitting down for a second with two strangers, the mule party guide pointing petroglyphs on the underside of a rock.  Tiny petroglyphs on the rock underside that we would have missed otherwise.  Can you see them?

This picture is bigger, so it’s easier to find the small petroglyphs while still appreciating the big rock

Cheerful hellos and good mornings.

As with most semi epic adventures, the point is, after all, meeting myself anew.

Someone who loves being out and about before 8 AM.

Someone who has no patience for parking lot tourist crowds, but sees and enjoys her crowd.  They are out there when the sun is low and the morning air crisp.

With all my freak outs about right foot arch collapsing, everything above it acting up, kinks in the shoulders, I still got it, strength and grit as they are.  More than I show; more than I believe I have.

For the rest of the visit, when looking into the Canyon from other, easier trails, I found myself wanderlusting over the trail, the rest of it.  To go down more switchbacks.  Onto the lush plateau.  Maybe even all the way down to the river.  One day.  With enough water and snacks.

Bright Angel trail crosses a plateau, just left of picture center, past Indian Garden, before dipping further toward the river.  Fragments of the top portion of the trail are on the right; Battleship butte on the left.

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