© Paul Markow
It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. For the first time in our adult lives — 25 years and counting — my three brothers and I were going on a multi-day expedition. No parents. No kids. No family obligations. Just the boys. We could have gone just about anywhere, but since one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders is in my backyard, we planned a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon.
The plan started about a year ago. That’s what it takes to get the best cabins at the Canyon, especially on the North Rim. It took some doing, but, eventually, everything was set: We’d lined up Western cabins on the North Rim, Bright Angel cabins on the south side and several shuttles in between. We even had dinner reservations at El Tovar with park superintendent Dave Uberuaga. It was going to be the trip of a lifetime. And then the federal government shut down, forcing the closure of Grand Canyon National Park. Just like that, a rare opportunity turned into a missed opportunity.
In the big picture, a lot of people suffered a lot worse. Still, we felt robbed. Fortunately, the Grand Canyon isn’t going anywhere, and Jeff, Matt, Adam and I are already planning another rim-to-rim. It’s one of the great adventures in Arizona, but there are others. Some are available to the masses, like hiking the Canyon, and others are more exclusive, like exploring “the Wave.”
The Wave, if you’re not familiar, is located in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, at the far-north end of the state. As Kayla Frost writes in this month’s cover story: “The Wave’s orange, red and yellow walls dive, careen and swirl like sea swells. Wind and water have whipped this Navajo sandstone for 180 million to 190 million years, since the Early Jurassic epoch. Dinosaur tracks pepper ancient dunes surrounding the formation.”
It’s an impressive place — one that draws enthusiasts from around the world — but without regulation, the sandstone landscape would be destroyed by a deluge of visitors. To help protect it, the Bureau of Land Management limits visitation to only 20 people per day. That’s it. Twenty. Therefore, getting in takes patience, determination and a little bit of luck. The payoff, however, is an opportunity to do something spectacular without the gridlock typically associated with the best places on Earth.
That’s the nature of all the rare opportunities in this issue, including the 17-mile trek to Keet Seel, the black-footed-ferret research west of Flagstaff and the women-only backpack adventure to Phantom Ranch. Just eight women a year get to do that trip, which is led by Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff of the Grand Canyon Field Institute. As rare opportunities go, that’s among the rarest. It’s like a snowstorm in the Sonoran Desert.
Although it’s not unusual to see snow in the mountains that surround Phoenix and Tucson, it is rare to see it on saguaros, chollas and ocotillos. That said, that’s what happened on February 20, 2013, when the temperature dropped, the wind kicked up and the snow fell. It was a scene straight out of a John Denver song. In A Storm in the Desert, you’ll get a glimpse of what it looked like. A few pages later, you’ll get even more snow.
Not many people hike the Canyon in January, but Craig Childs is different. One day in January, not too long ago, he hiked from the South Rim to the Colorado River. “I am coming off the rim on the South Kaibab Trail,” he writes in A Winter’s Walk. “It may be sunrise, but little light is getting through the storm. Fifteen feet of visibility. Winds burst out of the Canyon, assailing the rim, where I am setting the first tracks of morning. Snowdrift cornices sweep upward, coming to mid-calf. ... This is one of those demanding storms. It drives snow into my ears and switches its winds from side to side as if scrambling for a foothold.”
Even in good weather, the South Kaibab is an adventure. Throw in a driving winter storm, pouring rain and a mysterious, hunched-over hiker covered in plastic garbage bags, and you have the beginnings of a great story line. Not that Craig Childs needs one. He could write about the root structure of a sycamore and make it read like Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In this essay, his writing is as good as ever. And, like everything he writes, it will tempt you to follow in his footsteps. And you should, but not necessarily in January — April or May would be better. No matter when you go, check the forecast first, book some cabins and keep your fingers crossed that the federal government doesn’t shut down. Believe me: That kind of thing can ruin a rare opportunity.