Day 38: Big Bend National Park, TX + Dallas, TX by Wookie Kim

At 6 a.m. this morning in Big Bend, I had to make a choice: (1) reach the Rio Grande in Big Bend but have a ridiculously long drive to Dallas afterwards and (2) head straight for Dallas and still having a long driving day. I chose the first option and couldn't be happier with that choice.

I had plans to stay with Bradshaw H., a high-school classmate, in Dallas this evening. No matter what I did, I'd be in for a long drive. From the park's exit, Dallas was about 550 miles away. But I was already over 30 miles inside the park. And I wanted to drive another 30 miles in the opposite direction on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to the Rio Grande. Specifically, I'd heard that Santa Elena Canyon was a must-see, so I decided to go there.

I broke camp quickly, and hit the road by 6:20 a.m. All was dark, and I felt at peace, just as I had on my pre-dawn cruise through West Texas the day before. The miles I slowly clocked on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive felt weird; I was driving in the most amazing part of the park, but I couldn't see any of it yet. I knew I'd be retracing my route on the way out, but still.

All the light I had to guide me was on the front of my car. That small source of light was enough to show me the type of wildlife activity that goes on while we humans sleep. Every couple minutes while cruising at 45 miles per hour, I would see another animal. First, I saw a dozen or so rabbits. Here and there, I'd see roadrunners scampering across the road. I saw a white-tailed (?) fox using the human highway as his own highway (even though I rolled close to him, he continued trotting along the edge of the road as I passed him. And, magically, for the first time all trip, I saw, and almost collided with, a lumbering black bear (one of an estimated 50 black bears living in the park).

By 7:30 a.m., the sky was beginning to wake up. I could tell rain was on the agenda today, because the clouds looked dark and ominous. But that made for a more moody and grand landscape. I snapped some photos along the way.

By 8 a.m., I'd arrived at the trailhead to Santa Elena Canyon, which is in an incredibly remote part of an incredibly remote park. The canyon itself was carved out by the Rio Grande, the river that serves as the US-Mexico border in this part of the country. I was on the US side. But if I wanted to (and signs made clear that I shouldn't do this), I could simply hop into the river, swim the 25 yards across, and be on Mexican soil.

(Santa Elena Canyon might as well have been named Rabbit's Canyon because the desert cottontails were running wild here. Every 50 yards or so, I would see a new bunny, sometimes scurrying off the road into the grass, and sometimes just sitting still in the middle of the road as I rolled quietly by. I saw close to a hundred rabbits on my drive. There were lots of roadrunners, too.) 

Without any knowledge of the political history, I recognized that the landscape served as a perfect border between nations. The canyon was massive, and the high walls rose over a thousand vertical feet and extended for miles in both directions. It felt oddly reminiscent of the Great Wall in Game of Thrones. No border patrols would be needed here.

The hike to the vista in the canyon was supposed to be short, under 2 miles roundtrip. But it required crossing the Terlingua Creek, which is a tributary into the Rio Grande, and I couldn't find a place to cross the creek (without getting wet, that is). I ended up having to hike parallel to it. While standing on the creek's bank looking for a crossing point, I noticed a group of about six warthog-like animals. I'd never seen these creatures before, and didn't know their behavioral tendencies, so I shouted at them and stamped my feet. That apparently scared the crap out of them, because they scattered immediately. I got out my telephoto lens, but by the time I'd put it on, they'd already created a big gap. I later learned that these creatures were harmless javelinas.

I eventually found a drier part of the creek and crossed over towards the canyon. I hiked along the US side into the canyon. The sights were nothing short of breathtaking. This felt like the Zion Narrows on steroids. The water was a full river--a "Grand" river--and the canyon walls shot straight up into the sky.

Looking up, I could tell that the rain was going to pour at any minute. I was in awe looking at the contrast between the wisps of clouds that floated in the gap provided by the narrow canyon walls and the dark canyon walls themselves.

I'd never been to Mexico, and this was literally as close as I could get without being there (in another region of this gigantic park, there is a ferry that takes you into the Mexican town of Boquillas--passport required, if you want to return, that is).

It was also awesome to see the rest of Big Bend looking out from inside the canyon. I could even see some of the javelinas from afar.

Right as I got off the trail, the skies opened up. I was thankful that I was back in my car and on the road again, this time headed for Dallas. On the way out, I saw the landscape that I'd missed on the drive in. I saw the famous "Mule Ears", and more of the traditional Big Bend landscape.

And then I was off for Dallas. I had roughly 600 miles to go from this point. On open highway, this might take under 10 hours. But the first 60-70 miles would be inside the park, on 45 mph roads, and there would be other smaller highways I'd be jumping on and off of. I had a long day ahead of me in the driver's seat.

I-40 is not the most scenic of interstates. But, as I leapfrogged from one oil town to the next, the relentless rain clouds created an eerie and mesmerizing landscape in which to drive.

I didn't drive nonstop to Dallas. In Midland, I linked up with my friend, Lowell R., who'd had to bail yesterday on our plan to meet in Big Bend. We ate delicious Mexican food and posed by a photo of President Bush.

The rest of the day was utterly boring. The Central Texas landscape is uninspiring. Just about the only thing I saw besides the flat, barren land were oil rigs and machinery. This was obviously oil country.

I arrived in Dallas after 8 p.m. I was staying with my high school classmate, Bradshaw H., and his family.

I felt a little bit like an awkward intruder because Bradshaw's wife, Charity, was due to give birth in 36 hours (as of this writing, the family now includes a fourth kid, Blythe--congrats!). But they welcomed me anyways. While Charity put the kids to bed, Bradshaw and I caught up over TexMex.

I'd been up since before 6 a.m., and had driven 12 hours, so was utterly exhausted by the time we got home. But I knew that, the moment I'd left Big Bend, I'd ended the most epic segment of my trip. From here on out, I had exactly a week to go, and only two national parks left. My pace would slow down. I reflected on the the segment I'd just finished (which had included my Rim-to-Rim run of the Grand Canyon) and thought how much I'd done in so little time. I felt proud of the logistical feats I'd pulled off during that time to make everything happen--and without hitches!

Before I knew it, I was very sleepy. I hadn't showered or slept in a bed since four days earlier in Arizona. I'd gotten used to that state of affairs, but taking a shower and sleeping in a bed (Bradshaw and Charity were kind enough to let me sleep in their eldest daughter's bed that night) made me realize that I'd missed out on some of the better luxuries of modern life. That night, I fell asleep instantly.

Day 31: Zion National Park, UT + Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, AZ by Wookie Kim

Today was two days before my attempt to run the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim. I wanted to take it easy. Because I'd arrived late to Zion the day before, I was doing Angels Landing this morning, before heading to Page, AZ to see the physics-defying Horseshoe Bend. I'd end the day early and stay at an Airbnb right below Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I wanted to shower and sleep in a bed right before taking on the R2R.

I woke up super early--early enough so that I was at the shuttle bus at the Zion visitor center by 6:45 a.m. The first shuttle came around at 7 a.m., and I made sure I got onboard. There were a surprising number of hikers at this time. I guess it made sense; this morning was the first day of the fall season. During the summer, the first shuttle had left at 6 a.m. Now, people wanting to do some of the longer hikes (e.g., in the Narrows) would have one less hour to spend in the canyon. It would be imperative to get on the 7 a.m. shuttle.

After 20-30 minutes, we were at the Grotto stop. This was where the Angels Landing trailhead was. As soon as I got off the bus, I wasted no time. I deployed my trekking poles, tightened my fastpack, and immediately got into my running stride. I wanted to get out slightly in front of the pack of hikers that had already gotten onto the trail. But, critically, I also did not want to go at a hard--or even medium--pace; saving energy for the Grand Canyon was my biggest priority.

Yet I found my heart rate creeping up more than I'd hoped. It was simply too much of a thrill to see a tall platform way up above me. I really wanted to get up there--and fast.

I briskly ran the first 3/4 mile or so, which is almost entirely flat alongside the Virgin River. After that, though, the trail turned into a series of mean switchbacks. I knew that if I tried to run these, I'd be adding fatigue to my legs--the very fatigue I was trying to avoid two days before R2R. So I ended up power-hiking, and relying on my poles far more than I normally do. I looked down. Only one person was anywhere close to me. Everyone else had yet to even hit the switchbacks. And I wasn't even sweating.

But then I got to what's knowns as Walter's Wiggles. Walter Ruesh was Zion's first superintendent, and he created this switchback staircase to get up to Angels Landing. It looked a bit out of place, but I marveled at it from an engineering perspective.

I was making good progress, and I knew that no one would catch me. In other words, I'd be the first one to the summit. But I also realized I had another thing to worry about--the sun. I wanted to be on top of Angels Landing before the sun's rays hit it. Basically, I wanted to watch the sun light up the canyon. As I continued the ascent, I could see the sun beginning to light up other parts of the canyon.

Soon enough, I reached the beginning of the notorious final half-mile stretch to the summit. This section has you crossing a narrow sandstone isthmus with a 1,200-foot drop on one side, and an 800-foot one on the other. The NPS had installed support chains that you could hold onto, but I had a feeling it would be as scary as people had said it would be.

When I began, I was definitely nervous. I was envisioning sections of the trail where you necessarily had to hold onto the chain. 

But as I ambled along, I realized that that wasn't the case. The chains were definitely helpful at every point in that segment of trail, but it was never, to my mind, necessary. And that just meant that I could let go from time to time. Of course, each time I let go, my palms started sweating.

In 49 minutes, I'd comfortably made it to the summit. The sun was lighting the tops of the canyon walls, but it had yet to hit Angels Landing. I'd succeeded in beating the sun! I took in my first views of Zion from high above. It was as impressive as I'd heard.

l forgot to mention, though, that I technically was not the first person to reach Angels Landing that morning. Benjamin Rusnak, one of the artists-in-residence in Zion; his wife; and a friend were already on the summit when I arrived. I couldn't figure out how they'd made it, since private cars can't drive on the canyon road. It turns out Rusnak's housing is right at the Grotto; they didn't need to wait for the shuttle. Another group of hikers were ahead of me on the trail, but I caught up and passed them. I was still confused as to how they got there. Let's just say they used creative means...

I spent a lot of time up there. One of the best parts of climbing mountains and getting up high is the time spent staying up. Looking down, you could see how effective the shuttle bus system was--there were no cars clogging the road, and the sole vehicle on the road was a shuttle bus.

Soon, Angels Landing was starting to fill up. The fit hikers trickled in, and then, all of a sudden, in the span of 10 minutes, a dozen more hikers made it. Naturally, it got noisier and less serene. But I guess that's the trade-off when you go on one of the most popular hikes in the entire NPS system.

There were also more than humans up at the summit. There were a bunch of chipmunks scurrying about, trying to catch falling crumbs from the bars that everyone was eating. They were pretty sneaky. I found one darting all around my pack (luckily he didn't get inside). At one point, I thought out loud that this place should be called "Chipmunks Landing". Several hikers from Australia laughed and agreed that that would be an entirely appropriate name.

There was also a fun little rock pyramid on the far end of Angels Landing. I climbed up it.

I was hoping to stay longer, but I did have one time constraint: I needed to check out of my campsite by 11 a.m. It would take time to descend, take the shuttle bus back to the visitor center, walk to my campsite, and break camp. So after about 45 minutes--too soon to see even one third of the canyon light up--I said goodbye to everyone I'd met at the top and headed back down. On the way down, I made sure to check out new views of the canyon. On this trip, I've been surprised numerous times by how I see different things and see things differently just by reversing direction.

Another fun aspect of seeing the same thing again is how the time of day evolves and affects your view of the landscape. Shadows are one of the most obvious things that shift over the course of the day and dramatically alter one's perception of a landscape.

Height has an effect, too. On the way up, it was hard to get a sense of the scale of Walter's Wiggles. On the way down, they looked like an absurd human conveyor belt. I forgot to mention that, by the time I was back down on the Wiggles, the trail was packed. There were dozens and dozens of people slowly hiking up to Angels Landing. I was glad I'd gotten up there quickly--and left relatively early too.

On the way back, I stopped at the museum and watched the park video (I figured I could sneak it in before needing to vacate my campsite). I learned more about the geology in the region and how the Zion Canyon formed out of the Colorado Plateau (this feature, by the way, was entirely new to me).

At 10:45 a.m., I was back at the Watchman Campground. I once again processed just how awesome the campsite's location was, and then I packed everything up and got ready to hit the road. Oh, I had a homework assignment to complete first, which involved taking a selfie, so I did that before leaving.

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I realized that I hadn't eaten lunch. Normally, I would've just nommed on bars and snacks until I got to a town that had food. But today was not a normal day. It was two days before my R2R attempt. I needed to be fueling up--packing on the calories and just feeling well-fed at all times. I decided I'd backtrack towards Springdale and eat lunch there. I had a delicious wrap at a cafe there, but when it was time to enter and pass through the park to get onto the Zion - Mount Carmel Highway, I encountered an insane amount of traffic. I tried to imagine what Zion would be like if private cars had unlimited access to the canyon road. It would be a nightmare.

Eventually, I made it back into the park, and I proceeded onto the Mount Carmel Highway on the east side of the canyon. I've gotten really good at taking no-look, blind photos while driving.

Soon, we entered the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which, when completed in 1930, was the longest of its kind in the U.S. It was an engineering feat, one made even more impressive by the various galleries that let drivers catch glimpses of the canyon while driving (perhaps a dangerous distraction?).

When I popped out on the other side of the tunnel, the whole landscape looked different. It just felt different.

I also saw my first bighorn sheep. They'd been eluding me all summer--I'd finally seen one!

I continued through smaller tunnel segments. This was a really scenic and fun drive--one of the best to date.

Almost at the end of the scenic highway, I came across a pullout spot right by Checkerboard Mesa. And then it hit me: this was the exact same spot where we'd finished the hike in the Barracks. I'd somehow made it out of the canyon and up to this pullout, where buses were waiting with endless supplies of water. In short, seeing this pullout brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad.

And then I was out on the open highway again, this time off to Page, AZ.

Just about the only thing worth doing in Page is visiting Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This feature was simply stunning, jaw-droppingly so. I wanted to linger, but it was scorching out, and I didn't want to generate any more fatigue in advance of the R2R. So I left pretty quickly.

I made more one more stop before checking in at my Airbnb. That was Lake Powell. What's mind-boggling about Lake Powell is how much water there is in it, even though everything else in the area is parched. The lake shone--it almost glowed--in the strong sunlight.

It was late afternoon now. I proceeded to my Airbnb and met my host, Janiece. After showering and unwinding for a couple hours, I realized that it was the night of the blood moon lunar eclipse. I sat on the porch to observe. I caught a glimpse of the eclipse as it was happening.

Unfortunately, as the eclipse continued, the clouds began rolling in and obstructing a clear view of the moon. So, when it actually turned blood orange, I could barely see it. It was an ironic end to the day. I was in one of the most isolated parts of an already isolated area, and therefore was in prime stargazing territory. But I ended up basically not being able to see much of the details of the eclipse. Sometimes that's just the way things work.

Day 32: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (Pre-Rim-to-Rim) by Wookie Kim

Today was all about final prep for tomorrow's Rim-to-Rim run. I planned to get to the Grand Canyon early in the afternoon, catch a glimpse of the canyon, check in at the North Rim campground, and then do nothing but relax and prepare for the day ahead. I managed to do all of this without any hitches.

I started the day engaged in the fine art of pancake-making. Because my Airbnb host had an excellent griddle, I was able to make stacks on stacks of pancakes. I'm not even exaggerating; I made a massive double-batch of high-protein Birch Benders. Whatever was left over, I'd nom on continuously while on the road.

Janiece's house was smack dab in the middle of nowhere (I don't think her "town" even shows up on a map). But it was conveniently just a few hundred yards south of the border to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I stopped by the visitor center to learn more about the geology of the region.

I learned that, for the past few days, I'd basically been descending what geologists call the Grand Staircase. The Grand Staircase describes the successive layers of rock that stretch from the bottom of the Grand Canyon at the southernmost point to the top of Bryce Canyon at the northernmost point. Over millions of years, Mother Nature had basically worn this region down so that you could see these distinct layers. On the drive south towards the Grand Canyon, I stopped and looked to the north. I could immediately see what was meant by the Grand Staircase.

The drive then took me away from the open country into Kaibab National Forest. I'd not expected the approach to the Grand Canyon to be so beautiful. This was a bonus. Some of the trees were already turning colors, which made for an even more pleasant drive into the canyon.

I was also surprised by the altitude. At times, I was over 9,000 feet above sea level--almost double the elevation of Denver, the so-called Mile-High City. It made sense, though. For a grand canyon to exist, the rim of the canyon needed to be way above sea level.

After about 3 hours, I'd finally arrived at the North Rim! I was looking forward to finally seeing the canyon in all its glory. 

After briefly stopping by the visitor center, I made my way to Bright Angel Point and took in my first views. Unfortunately, it was somewhat hazy, which made it hard to see anything but the side canyons clearly.

Still, I was taken aback by the scale of the canyon. It was simply massive, and majestic, in a way unlike anything I'd seen before. Using borrowed binoculars, I spotted the South Rim--what would be the end of my run tomorrow. I couldn't believe how tiny of a speck the entire South Rim complex was. I also couldn't believe that, beginning in just over 12 hours, I'd be running from here, down through everything below, and back up to that speck!

Feeling a little overwhelmed, I stopped by the backcountry office to learn about any special conditions. I learned that it would be moderately hot, but not insanely so. The expected high at the bottom of the canyon was 104. More importantly, I learned that the water pipe had burst on a section of the North Rim. There was a chance that several water spigots would be off tomorrow. The ranger checked with me to make sure I was carrying filtration. I told him yes--I would've carried it in any case.

Then, it was time to check in at the North Rim campground. I felt incredibly lucky to have secured a spot here. This campground is generally considered one of the most spectacular because it is basically perched on the edge of the canyon. Normally, sites are booked months (and sometimes years) in advance. As an example, my camp neighbor said she'd booked hers over half a year before. I'd booked mine just 2 weeks ago. When I logged onto the site, there was one available campsite. Clearly, someone had cancelled recently, and I'd gotten ridiculously lucky.

My actual campsite wasn't to die for. It was just like any other standard forested campsite. But, as already noted, what makes this campground special is that you're a stone's throw away from the rim of the canyon. I was going to take advantage of that, but first I needed to do some other prep.

I spent a good hour going over all of the numbers and logistics for the run. I stacked all of the maps and brochures I had and synthesized all the relevant information onto an index card. This 3x5 card, which I put in a special waterproof ziploc bag, would be my guide tomorrow. I read several run reports and narratives, so that I had a clearer sense of the challenges ahead as experienced by real hikers and runners.

I then meticulously packed my gear. Unlike my typical run, I literally emptied my hydration pack of everything and put things back in one by one. I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed, and, just as importantly, that I was carrying nothing I didn't need. I measured out my food needs, and also filled a medicine bottle with 15-20 electrolyte tablets. Heat would be my biggest enemy, and with intense heat comes intense dehydration and possibly hyponatremia (essentially, when your electrolyte levels are extremely low).

Certain that I'd prepped my gear, I turned to my next task: writing postcards. I spent over an hour writing a massive batch. I was planning to carry this batch down to Phantom Ranch--an oasis nestled by the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon--and drop them off there. Why all this effort? Any mail sent from Phantom Ranch gets packed out by mule, and mail is stamped to indicate that. Apparently, this is the only post office that still uses mules. I figured people would enjoy receiving postcards carried by mule (apologies in advance for the sloppy handwriting--I had too many to write, and not enough time). I even sent one to myself, at my future address.

By now it was 5. I put my postcards and pens away and cooked dinner. I wanted to eat extra early today because I was planning to wake up at 3:30 a.m and begin the run at 4:30. Eating earlier ensured that I would give my digestive system enough time to do its magic and rid my body of any excess waste by 4 a.m. (if you catch my drift...). I cooked a simple meal. Penne with marinara sauce and two cans of tuna.

The hard work done, I took my pot of pasta and proceeded to the rim. Sunset was just after 6, so people were already perched on ledges. I found a secluded rock from which I could eat and take everything in. This was truly a dinner with a view.

After cleaning up, I spent some time visualizing the day ahead. I imagined the landscape of each segment of the run. I tried to feel the heat at the bottom of the canyon. I also grappled with the idea of descending steep, rocky switchbacks in pitch black. As I cycled through the day, I grew nervous. It was really about to happen!

By now, it was 7:30. My goal was to be in bed at 9. I toyed with the idea of attending the evening ranger talk. Tonight's topic was "Dying to See Grand Canyon: The Avoidable End to the Accidental Traveler". The talk would cover the many ways that people have died here. It was a grim topic, but I was curious--and I also thought giving myself a good scare would ensure that I ran even more safely than I was already planning.

I decided to attend the talk. I'm glad I did. I learned a lot about the Grand Canyon, and about the deaths that occur here. The ranger began by talking statistics. The reality was that based on historical numbers, one's probability of dying here were very, very slim. The public perceives a far greater danger because the limited number of deaths that occur receive excess media attention (in 2013, there were 8 fatalities out of 4.5 million visitors). The reality is that the canyon is generally very safe.

The ranger then went on to describe the 4 major ways that people die here: falls, the environment, the river, and plane crashes. She prefaced this part of her presentation with the words of one of her fellow rangers: "There are no new accidents--only new people having the same old accidents." Essentially, people die for very obvious reasons; there are no surprises. She cycled through dozens of anecdotes. It was everything you'd imagine: people who'd tried to pull a prank and fallen off the cliff; people who'd been so focused on taking their photos that they'd tripped over the edge; people who stepped off the trail for a better view and tumbled into the canyon; people not bringing enough water; people overestimating their physical capabilities; people choosing not to wear life jackets (over 80% of river deaths are caused by this); people being male (AKA 80% of all deaths!); people being the unlucky pioneer air travelers who flew in the pre-FAA days (fun fact: the FAA was created in response to the 1956 Grand Canyon airplane collision).

But the most compelling--and relatable--story I heard was about the tragic death of Margaret Bradley, an accomplished all-American marathon runner and medical student who had died while running in the Grand Canyon in July 2004. In essence, she (and her friend, who miraculously made it out alive) had greatly underestimated and underprepared for the canyon. Among other things, the pair: thought they were running 15 miles when, in fact, they were running 27; carried no map, headlamp, or compass; brought almost no food and water; and started late in the morning (AKA 9 a.m.). By 3 p.m., they'd traveled only 12 miles and had succumbed to the heat. Bradley's friend decided the best course was to wait under a bush until the temps dropped. Bradley, believing she was only a few miles from the end, decided to push ahead to search for help. No one knows exactly what happened next, but at some point she went off-trail, presumably in search of water. She was later found dead in a box canyon, trapped between canyon walls on one side and the cliff's edge on the other.

Posters like this were all over the canyon.

Posters like this were all over the canyon.

It was easy for me to judge Bradley and her friend. But I also knew that I fit the exact profile of someone who might make the same mistake. I recalled the quote the ranger had repeated: "There are no new accidents--only new people having the same old accidents." I certainly didn't think that death (or anything close to it) was on the horizon. But isn't that exactly what Bradley and the other people who'd died in the Canyon also thought?

I obviously had a lot of food for thought as I returned to my campsite. I wasn't spooked, but I was just a little more aware of the dangers of the canyon. It was just past 9 now. I brushed my teeth and promptly jumped into my sleeping bag. I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. and closed my eyes. As I drifted off into sleep, I tried to induce a dreams about how tomorrow would not only be the best day of running that I'd ever had, but also the safest.