Last year, I received an email from a friend inviting our family to join his on a summer hiking trip into the Grand Canyon. When I read the email, I laughed, “Heck, no! He’s not serious. We can’t do such things now.” But, after hearing his persistent and convincing arguments, I felt a compelling force moving me to sign up for the trip. I obeyed the force.
We have a reputation of doing things together as a family. Sometimes we do things that we may not even like, but our philosophy has always been that you do it because you love the person who wants to do it. Knowing how hard the trip would be, I didn’t expect that my husband and two daughters would come, but they joined anyway. Three of our relatives also came along for the adventure.
We got our permit at the Phantom Ranch and began training in early summer. After weeks of practice, the day arrived for us to drive down to the Grand Canyon. As we drove from Northern California to Arizona, we met the other families and members of our team: in total, 19 people, ages ranging from 10 to 60 years. We arrived at the campsite on the South Rim on a rainy Friday evening, pitched tents for our stay, and packed our backpacks with water, food, and camping gear in preparation for the next day’s 4,800 ft. descent via the seven mile South Kaibab trail.
Our team leader woke us up at 4:30 a.m. and we planned to arrive at the trailhead by 5:30 a.m. Hoisting our heavy backpacks onto our shoulders, we took a shuttle to the trailhead. We stretched our bodies with a round of yogic sun salutations and headed down the trail. Initially, we felt it easy, but as we continued down the too-many-to-count switchbacks, it was difficult not to feel the stress in our knees. The sun reached the greater depths of the canyon by midday, yet we took a number of breaks and enjoyed breathtaking views of the rock formations. With varied paces, we all arrived at the campsite around 2:00 p.m. As beautiful as it was to hike down, I knew that for every step I took, I’d have to dig deep into my heart and pull every ounce of strength out to hike back up.
It felt great to be in the Grand Canyon beside the Colorado River. However, with temperatures well over 120 degrees (F) in an area known to be full of rattlesnakes and scorpions, we also felt a bit queasy at times. We moved to the freshwater creek next to our campsite to cool off from the heat. The flowing water rumbled over the rocks and mimicked jets, soothing our bodies’ fatigue. We soaked our feet in the cool, muddy waters of the Colorado River and felt sacred and sanctified. Regaining our energy after eating a pasta lunch, we slowly absorbed the surroundings. The tall columns of granite and rows of mountainous walls on either side of us reminded me of the great depths we had descended. Miles away from the pollution and technology, we had reached another world where I felt insignificant, speechless, and helpless. I realized that the space between each of us and God is at its narrowest. Indeed, I was in the most magnificent temple. It was a very humbling experience that I knew no adequate words to describe.
The evening cooled slightly, and the sky sparkled with shooting stars. The heat kept us awake, but we still felt rested by the next morning. It was rise and shine at 4 a.m.; we packed up and by 5:30 a.m. we were at the Bright Angel Trailhead, readying ourselves for the 9.6 mile climb back up. Before heading out, we soaked ourselves with water to stay well hydrated, but we dried out very quickly. We hoped to gain half the elevation before the sun hit the canyon and managed to reach Indian Garden, the first rest stop (3,800 ft.), by 10 a.m.
Despite the heat and the beginnings of the unending switchbacks, we tried to maintain our confidence: we would make it to the top. We used the color gradation of the rock beds as benchmarks for our progress. But I thought we’d never get past the gray layers, and we still had the red and white layers above us. As our hike progressed, our gait slowed down, we took more breaks, and made fewer jokes.
Conversation was at its lowest and concentration was at its highest. I begin to chant a mantra that my father had taught me to gain strength and courage. We arrived at the second water station by mid-day, well aware of how much ground we had covered, but too exhausted for even the short distance ahead of us. As we approached each hiker on the way down, I shifted my loyalties to a new mantra: “How far is it to the top?”
Each answered the same, “Oh, you’re almost there! Just about a half hour!” To my dismay, it turned out to be two miles and a few more hours!
We finally reached the South Rim at 1:40 p.m., and other members of the team arrived shortly thereafter. I thanked my stars for the safe arrival of all my team members. Hiking the last two miles had been a test of endurance, but I realized the adventure and thrill of a highly spiritual, mind and body experience.
Although, on some level, I felt that life returned to “usual,” I could not quite comprehend what had just happened during those two days. The beauty and majesty of the Grand Canyon rendered us speechless; the wit and wisdom of each team member energized us; and the hardship of the journey kept us in close connection with God.
After we returned home, my brother inquired about my health. When I complained that my knees hurt after a hike down the Grand Canyon, he smiled. “The aches and pains are to the body,” he said. “What takes you down to the canyon and brings you back up is your spirit.”
Aparna Munukutla Gunupudi is a Telugu-language writer and a lyricist. She works as a Revenue Manager and lives in Palo Alto. She also practices yoga, hikes, and bikes regularly. Aparna acknowledges Krishna Satya, one of her team members, for his impressions.