#5 More-Northern Arizona (March-April)

Who would have thought that the planned 3 day drive from Tucson, AZ to Albuquerque, NM would take us almost 3 weeks to complete? Most of the detours were delightful (except for 1+ day devoured by a lost wallet) and several detours resulted in some unexpected first's for us.

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Who would have thought? A butterfly garden.
Phoenix, AZ Detour
The stresses of completing an 18.5 mile hike on our last full day in Tucson made it easy to enjoy kicking back and spending 2 nights in Phoenix with a cycling enthusiast we met in the late '90's. Ever the stoic one, Iva was hobbling around with a cane after her "femur split" 2 months prior. We had no advance warning of her misery, just like when we showed up as cyclotouring house guests shortly after her husband died almost 20 years ago. We were aghast at that time to learn that she had opened her Albuquerque home to strangers only days after losing her husband. But Iva was and still is unstoppable despite current life-threatening health problems. And just like before, a lovely room was once again waiting for us. We had a fine time catching up with Iva and also being her guests for a leisurely lunch and afternoon at the Desert Botanical Garden with its live butterfly garden and a temporary outdoor Chihuly glass exhibit.

We suffer endless performance anxiety as house guests and were especially concerned as how to manage the latest wrinkles in our increasingly extreme diet while visiting Iva. However only minutes after we arrived, she announced that she was on a low carb diet as of 3 weeks ago. It was too funny: we'd made a similar switch a week before her for different reasons. Our new diet was a bit more elaborate than hers in that we were also on a 'low FODMAP' diet (low in fermentable sugars) since October but that point became a conversation piece instead of a barrier during our enjoyable visit.

Sedona, AZ
Yet another arctic blast to the north of us was once again degrading our weather, this time it was when we were leaving Phoenix. A quick online search revealed that the overnight temperatures at our next stops, Flagstaff and Albuquerque, would be below freezing. Though nasty for our sunrise exercise routine that is usually done outdoors, we opted for denial and pressed on--pressed on until the exit sign for Sedona appeared. At only 4,000' above sea level instead of the 7,000' or 5,500' we were scheduled for, it meant that the nights would be in the mid-40's, so suddenly we were on the exit ramp to Sedona.

Always captivating: Sedona.
"Why wouldn't you go to Sedona?" rolled off of Bill's lips when the stunning red rocks framing the town came into view. He'd been focused on our plan for training at higher elevation but soon forgot about that goal. The 2 night stay, made for the hasty excuse of "intermediate altitude acclimation" stretched to 5 nights, despite the inconveniences of the Spring Break-induced competition for RV slots.

Lacking a comfortable off-road vehicle, we knew our hiking options from Sedona were limited but we hardly cared. It's such a beautiful setting that there was little complaining when we realized that we were on a trail we'd hiked during previous visits. Those iconic red rock peaks of the uplifted Colorado Plateau are always mesmerizing and we were instantly smitten again. Sunny weather, blue skies, spectacular vistas, and pleasant trails made it easy to be fully present in the moment. If only more elevation gain had been available on the local hikes we would have stayed longer. But with most of the day hikes only yielding about 1000' in gain, we could only play the "acclimation" card so long and braced ourselves for sharp winds and freezing nights ahead.

Flagstaff, AZ
We finally arrived at Flagstaff, AZ on our way to Albuquerque, NM from Sedona in the late afternoon. Flagstaff is always a welcome stop-over for us when we are in the area. We usually plan a leisurely 2 night stay so we can hike the 2300' gain trail to a lookout that can be accessed from the back gate of our usual campground. As Bill opened the truck door and asked "One night or 2?" before heading for the RV park office, I responded "Let's talk."

Over the last 2 years I'd spent countless hours on hold attempting to secure beds in a cabin at Phantom Ranch, which is sited on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Phantom Ranch is a coveted hiking destination because of the unusual opportunity to make a demanding overnight trip in a stunning setting without being laden by camping gear. My minimum time on hold for reservations was generally about 30 minutes, with 50 being the maximum with each attempt. All but 1 time I was told "No" even though I was asking for any 1 night in any of 4 months. But I had recently learned about the 48 hour cancellation line. When dialing that number one was rarely put on hold but there was a catch: the reservations were for the next 48 hours or less. From Flagstaff, it was about a 90 minute drive to the South Rim so conceivably we could jump on a last minute cancellation. We quickly decided to relocate in the Grand Canyon RV park in 2 days and hoped to get a lucky break on a cabin within a week.

I called the 48 hour line the next day and was told I was too late--I needed to call at 6 am and request to be placed on the waiting list that started anew each day. Doing so netted me a tantalizing reply from the clerk suggesting that my #1 position on the list had a good chance of getting us beds for the following night. He said to call back at 6 pm. That was a game changer. Suddenly our morning routine shifted into high gear: we would drive to the Grand Canyon that day after quick shopping stops at a grocery store and at an outdoor store.

Views we would see on our return from the Ranch.
The Grand Canyon & Maybe Phantom Ranch
Stiff winds slowed our progress in our "high profile vehicle" on the detour to the Grand Canyon and we made a beeline for the RV park as soon as we arrived. Even though it was fully booked, we hoped to secure a space for that night and to dovetail it with our just-made reservations for the rest of the week. We were on a roll: we nabbed the only cancellation and then dashed over to the Bright Angel Lodge to chat with the folks at the Ranch's reservation desk. Unfortunately our new found good luck didn't hold and the clerk now on duty wasn't at all encouraging about us getting beds the next day. I pressed and pressed some more to understand what happened at 6 pm, the time the morning person had very specifically said to call back. "Nothing" was the man's reply.

Disheartened, I didn't call at 6 pm and waited until almost 7, hoping to give the befuddling process more time to move in my favor. When I inquired a little more than an hour before the desk closed for the day at 8 pm, the low-RPM woman answering the phone immediately began quoting prices. I was so irritated. I already knew the prices and I had asked about availability for the next night, not pricing. Through the haze of my impatience, I finally understood that that was her way of saying: "Yes, there is a queen bed in a cabin for you tomorrow night at Phantom Ranch." Stunned that we were suddenly in and horrified that being on the waiting list didn't entitle me to a return call, I thanked her and let her continue with her script.

We immediately jumped into action. At best, we had 1 hour to gather our food and most of our gear for what we hoped would become 48 hours in the Canyon. Our goal was to meet the 8 pm deadline for delivery of our bag to the Lodge--a bag that would then be transported by mule to the Ranch early the next morning. If we missed the deadline we'd have to carry all of it ourselves, which we didn't want to do and we lacked backpacks large enough for the job. Given our special diet that now went well-beyond beyond gluten-free, we knew that we'd be much happier eating our own carefully selected food vs dining on the set meals in the Canteen. Fortunately, I'd already worked out a rough though boring menu of cold meals using items that would survive without refrigeration for several days.

Our partially filled rodent bags, feed bag, and the garbage after our return.
Bill dropped me off at the door to Bright Angel Lodge about 7:45 pm and I hauled our loot into the lobby. There I'd pack it all into one of the free feed bags. One's own duffel is more convenient but a duffel can easily consume 15% of the 30 lb weight limit so I'd planned to forgo an actual duffel if we ever sent provisions down to the Ranch. I'd also read that a proper duffel afforded no protection against rats dining on duffels and their contents while the bags spent the night on the mule barn floor. We'd instead go with a paper-thin feed bag and use the 2 rodent-proof wire mesh bags we'd purchased in Flagstaff as inner bags. Having our food packed inside plastic containers which were stowed inside the wire mesh bags would eliminate the possibility of loss and contamination from hosting uninvited dinner guests.

Much to my chagrin, several re-packings were needed to shoehorn our supplies into the envelope-shaped feed bag and then it was slightly overweight. Minutes to closing time, the desk staff was impatient with me as I knelt in the Lodge's entrance way pulling precious provisions from the sack. Fortunately the second clerk's reading of the scale was more generous than the first and the most important items that I had removed to make weight were tossed back in the bag.

We were relieved by the end of the rushed evening to see how my many months of half-hearted planning and research had positioned us well to jump at the opportunity to hike to Phantom Ranch for an overnighter on short notice. I knew that the very expensive set menu in the Canteen wouldn't suit our stomachs; I had learned most of the in's and out's of the mule duffel service; and I'd read about the need for rodent bags and plastic containers. In addition, I'd had a few little "just in case it works out" items stashed which sped up the process of pulling it together quickly. All that was left to do after depositing our 'duffel' was to clean up the horrible mess we'd created in our little camper, secure it for being unoccupied for 1 or 2 nights in freezing weather, load our day packs, and bang out the 20 miles RT and about 5,500' gain on the challenging trails.

Ready to descend the steep S. Kaibab Trail for the Ranch.
The Grand Canyon: Over the Edge
Three times during our short week at the Grand Canyon we stepped over the edge and tromped all or part way down the serpentine trails on the canyon's steep walls. Three times we climbed up and popped through the invisible barrier separating the world below the South Rim from the world on top of the Rim. Each time we went down off the Rim or up and onto the Rim it felt increasingly like we were exiting one world and entering another. The 'world below' wasn't the stuff of fantastic underworlds or hidden kingdoms but nonetheless gave us a potent sense of otherness.

The world below the Rim at the Grand Canyon selects for a limited and a narrow slice of humanity because of the difficulty of the 7 and 10 mile long trails between the top and the bottom. A maximum of 10 people per day arrive at the river by mule, but only if they make the very strictly enforced 200 lb weight limit; most of the year everyone else arrives by foot. Starting about the first of April when the commercial rafting season begins, Colorado River rafters also would be among the visitors.

In addition to the challenges of getting to the bottom of the canyon, there are space constraints at Phantom Ranch as well. There are indoor beds for 90 and camping spaces for about as many at this, the first stop on canyon floor. Like at the top, the underworld visitors covered a wide age range (though we were among the oldest) and included many international travelers.

In contrast, the top of the South Rim near the Bright Angel Lodge and trailhead was the hotbed of blow-by tourism at the Grand Canyon. It was where the 99% congregated, the 99% that never stepped off of the Rim. Many must have only been there for the afternoon, like I was when on a cross-country road trip when I was 20 years old. It was there that the morbidly obese man in a short sleeved shirt sat squarely with his back to the magnificent canyon and focused all of his attention on the ice cream filled bowl that he held in his hand.

More than we wanted to know about the underpinnings of the Grandview Trail.
A pack of Asian teenage girls in shorts sat shivering in the wind on the surface of the little plaza a few feet away from him trying to warm themselves with thick chili served in plastic bowls. Dozens of others milled about. The aimlessness of so many passive people made for a surreal welcome when we made it back onto the Rim after a very focused 7 hours on the trail and 2 nights at the bottom of the Canyon. Though completely unnoticed as we attempted to penetrate the throng of the 99%, we were acutely aware of being "other," of being a small subset of the 1%.

We returned from our Phantom Ranch stay and rejoined the park's uncontested hub of tourist traffic at the Bright Angel Lodge and trailhead but we made our first trip down to the bottom of the Canyon from a different viewpoint, from the South Kaibab trailhead. There was no canteen dishing up chili or ice cream at Kaibab, but like at Bright Angel, most of the people at the viewpoint were members of the 99%.

We had to thread our way through the small, tight crowd of visitors at Kaibab, people who had largely arrived by shuttle bus, to begin our journey down to the Ranch. A few of the 99% at the viewpoint switched camps by stepping off the Rim, though most did so without packs or water. Clearly they wouldn't be going far but they were sampling life off the asphalt, getting a taste of the steep, gritty trails below the Rim. And even fewer did as we had done on our first visit to the Canyon in 2012, which was to hike down for several hours and then make their way back to the top with considerably more effort. This time however, we were among the very few descending that wouldn't be returning to the Rim that night.

Our 2nd descent into the depths of the Canyon was down the more remote Grandview trail. Here the few serious backpackers were much more conspicuous than at Bright Angel trailhead or Kaibab because there were far fewer of the 99% lingering at the top. The backpackers were a mix of the proven and the foolish. One hardbodied young man with a chiseled hair cut to match was 1 of a party of 3 launching their 6 night trip into the underworld. A group of 6-8 older teens and 2 dads had just clawed their way back onto the Rim after a 6 night'er. The people we heard of or from on this trail were going out for 1 to 13 nights.

The Grand Canyon from the less-traveled New Hance Trail.
Some of the less experienced father-young son backpackers I spoke with at Grandview were clearly venturing out with too little food. The park service recommends 1000 calories per hour of effort on this particular trail--presumably when going uphill with overnight packs. Surprisingly, none of the backpackers I "interviewed" planned their menus by calories/day. I had no doubt however that the guys relying on Top Ramen for dinner would go hungry. As I worried about these backpackers, 2 different women who were jittery just watching the 1% nervously wished me luck as we prepared to descend this difficult, unmaintained trail. I assured them both that we were only going down below for a few hours and then we'd return to the top though they didn't look soothed by my words.

On our 3rd of 3 descents, the New Hance trail was so obscure that none of the 99% were there. There was no sign for this trail on the road, no marked trailhead, and no place to park. We were only able to locate the trail by using Bill's GPS and we had to park on a marginal pullout a 10 minute walk away. After five minutes on a small forest path, we finally encountered a trailhead sign which assured us that we were in the right place. As one can imagine, this trail towards the canyon floor was even sketchier and delivered the deepest sense of entering another world. Bright Angel and, to a lesser extent, Kaibab trails were nearly conveyor belts of traffic. Mules loaded with people, duffels, and supplies going between the Rim and Phantom Ranch traveled these well-worn paths daily along side the hundreds of walkers. In contrast, hiking the New Hance trail periodically required pausing to locate the trail.

Phantom Ranch
Actually arriving at Phantom Ranch from the Kaibab Trail quickly narrowed our awareness: there was only 1 world represented there. Only a small portion of the 1% traveled as far as the Ranch and those that did made for a very homogenous crowd. Essentially all weighed less than 200 lbs, were very lean and fit, and were very deliberately outfitted. And every one looked pleased to be there, regardless of how heavy the packs they had carried or if they had arrived by mule or how tired they were. Even the very weary, 50-something woman icing her knee was dismissive of her injury from falling. The glow of contentment was indistinguishable between those sleeping in a bed or on the ground given the dry, sunny weather. Just being there was a prize and there was no mistaking that everyone felt like a winner.

Our hard-won Phantom Ranch Cabin.
Our excursion to Phantom Ranch was near-perfect and we endlessly celebrated all of our good fortune during our entire event. Our rustic cabin was comfortable and cheery and we came up to speed on the next wrinkle in the crazy reservation process quickly enough to secure a second night in the same cabin. Our winter of conditioning held us in good stead to do the required miles, including a 10 mile layover day hike on the trail going to the North Rim, with relative ease. Our duffel of food arrived by mule as promised and we indeed had packed everything we needed despite the last minute rush. I had crossed my fingers and Bill had queried me several times about having sufficient calories in the bag to keep us going and fortunately we were well fed. A firmer bed and less time spent on the Rim and at the Ranch dealing with reservation issues were the only negatives, which were trivial for having checked an event off of our short bucket list on little notice.

We now fully understood why hikers repeatedly competed for the privilege of lodging at Phantom Ranch and our experience made us keen to do it again. The Grand Canyon and Phantom Ranch earned a position in next winter's itinerary and we hoped to make the arrangements with less 'scattered energy' the second time around. (See "In More Detail/Phantom Ranch" for more info on staying at the Ranch.)

Heading to Albuquerque, Again
Albuquerque had been on our itinerary for a year because of the opportunity for hiking and altitude acclimation and ironically, both Flagstaff and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon were higher. Happily, our detour to the Canyon furthered our acclimation goal, though Bill again struggled a bit with the altitude.

The final, unplanned detour on our way to Albuquerque was triggered by Bill declaring his wallet as having gone missing the night before we were to arrive there. Too many extra miles were driven and too many hours spent with our stomachs in knots trying to solve the mystery before he gave up and made the phone calls to put holds on accounts and request new cards. So far, so good on the identity theft issues, though that will be hanging over our heads for some time. With that bit of uproar behind us, we finally made it to Albuquerque, our last major stop for this 6 month-long traveling season in our camper. There the agenda would be the same: weeks of hitting the trails and the bike pedals in the delightfully dry, sunny weather before we began the drive home.