May 5, 2013 Updated: May 9, 2013 at 12:10 pm
Ten years ago, I did the first of my four rim-to-rim hikes in the Grand Canyon.
We dropped off the North Rim a bit past 6:30 a.m., and before long, we were staring at the least attractive end of a horse - the last in a string of about 15 animals slowly making their way down, carrying tourists who obviously had little horse-riding experience. The string of manure-dropping plodders cost us perhaps 30 minutes, and then we were in a spot wide enough to let us pass.
Rim-to-rim hike tip No. 1: In the years since, we've always checked departure times for the horse trains to make sure we are hiking 15 minutes before they are.
It's about 14 miles from the North Rim to the Colorado River and a place called Phantom Ranch. You start at 8,200 feet of elevation, and the river is about 2,400. We've always gone in May to avoid the most hellish heat the canyon country has to offer.
In mid-May, an early morning start on the North Rim begins at perhaps 45 degrees. At the river, it's 90-95 degrees, and that sounds hot. Just try this hike in late June or July and you'll be in the triple digits down there.
The hike from the North Rim is breathtakingly beautiful from the start.
Tip No. 2: Don't be so busy taking pictures that your camera gets between you and this holy ground.
You lose a lot of altitude on an easy trail with virtually no danger. There are only a couple of places where you can fall far enough to hurt yourself, and the trail is plenty wide enough to avoid that. Even if you start in fresh snow from the night before, as I've done twice, quite soon you're trekking through red dirt from eons ago.
As you descend, the ponderosa forest thins. After more than 3 miles of this, you'll hear the roar of rushing water. It's an early-season phenomenon known as the Roaring Spring. Snowmelt from the North Rim seeps through fissures in the rock and the collective weight of it bursts out of the canyon wall in a powerful cascade you couldn't stand in front of without being blasted down the steep hillside.
This marks the headwaters of Bright Angel Creek, a beautiful mountain stream you'll cross perhaps eight times during the 14-mile hike to Phantom Ranch. As you go lower, the forest gives way to blooming yuccas and prickly pear cactus.
The last 10 miles to the river, the terrain isn't steep. Around each bend is a huge fabulous vista, like nothing you've seen before, but even if you have, you soak it in anyway. You're dropping down through what author Norman McClean called 'the basement of time. '
You haven't just left the office. My first trip in 2003, I hiked with four others, and we spread out after the river. We had decided to take the South Kaibab Trail up to the South Rim from the river, a distance of about 7 miles.
The Kaibab is more remote than the more popular Bright Angel Trail. The Kaibab is tougher, a lot of stair-stepping, and there is no water available until you reach the South Rim.
There are also far fewer people on the South Kaibab route. I found a physical gear inside me that day in 2003, and I strode out in front of everyone in my group except one guy who is a hiking machine. Taking on steep switchbacks known as The Devil's Backbone, I figured I'd rest when the switchbacks were behind me.
But as my endorphins kicked in, I just kept going. When I finally stopped for a little break, I was alone.
I inhaled some water at the end of the saddle I had just hiked and looked out at a gigantic panorama, endless and eternal. There was no wind. Total quiet. Overwhelming in a very good way.
I was a tiny neutron in the cosmos. Not insignificant, I was part of it all, but no more important than the stem of a yucca. I was completely and naturally stoned.
I knew I'd be getting tired before the end, and I looked up the trail, contemplating the next 50,000 stair steps in front of me, and I thought, 'It doesn't get any better than this. '
So I keep going back. I'll hike rim to rim a fifth time May 18, finding my zen rhythm again, working to earn another neutron-in-the-cosmos moment. We'll do the 23 miles in 10 or 11 hours, doing the Bright Angel Trail.
We might see some roosting condors a couple of miles below the South Rim if we're lucky.
To take bad luck out of the equation as much as possible, I've been training. Legs and lungs are important. You hike with a Camelbak water supply, some food, rain gear and reliable footwear.
I carry a snakebite kit, but the only rattler I've ever seen on the trail didn't pose a threat. But remember: There is no cellphone service and no elevator to get you to the top.
All you're going to have is yourself, what's in your day pack and your companions. On the really good days, that's all you ever need, anyway.