I find myself standing at the Bright Angel trailhead on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at 6 a.m. on Oct. 12.
It's a Tuesday. Weather at Phantom Ranch is supposed to be sunny with a high of 85 degrees. Nice! I've got a cap, a pack with provisions and water and a positive mental attitude.
If all goes right, I'll be meeting my wife and mother-in-law at the North Rim before the sun goes down.
With walking poles at the ready, the sun battling the darkness for supremacy and my mind set on making the 24-mile journey in a day, I take the first step.
I spend the three months before the big day preparing for a 24-mile haul. I start small by hiking the Campbell Mesa Trail System behind my house. I go from 3 miles up to 8 miles in the first few weeks, getting my legs used to walking longer distances. I do this daily.
To prepare for the elevation change of the canyon -- more than 9,000 feet total -- I start with peaks close to home. First, I punch out Elden Lookout. Next, I take on Kendrick Peak. By the end of the monsoons, I take a trip up Humphreys Peak. In addition, I hook into an exercise regimen at the gym to strengthen legs and upper body.
About a month before the hike, I pump out 15 miles. The next week, I hike 18 miles just to get the feel of hiking for more than several hours at a time.
Two days before trying the Canyon hike, I rest completely, eat well and stay away from caffeinated beverages. I check the weather and map out my route. I plan for 12 hours, but I hope to make it in 10 hours.
My pack has the essentials -- a headlamp and flashlight donated by colleague Cyndy Cole, fleece jacket, camera, notepad and pen, extra socks, food, water, emergency matches, rope, signal glass, cell phone and first-aid supplies.
At 4 a.m. Oct. 12, I wake up with the alarm and think I'm as ready as I'll ever be. I drive to the South Rim, park the car at the backcountry office parking lot and set off for the trailhead.
My descent is marked by a small learning curve of walking with poles (I neglected to do this in my training, but Cyndy Cole was adamant that the poles would come in handy. Boy, was she right).
Soon, I find cadence and settle into metronome of "click" step, or "click, click" step, step. My brain goes blank except to take in the multi-colored wonder of the sun moving slowly over Canyon layers.
The blue sky rests like a silent witness over one man's decision for a personal journey of discovery. Fellow hikers throw out a friendly, "morning" or "hello" or "howdy" as I pass. More than an hour passes of down, down, down. My knees appreciate the relief generated by the poles' ability to engage my upper body in controlled battle with gravity.
Hikers camping in Indian Garden are rousing from slumber as I pass. Conversations mix with the sound of meandering stream.
Shade still abounds between the rock walls as I descend farther into the Canyon. Two riders with mules packing out gear greet me as I descend toward the river. A second set of mules with people pass me before I emerge from the canyon to stare at the muddy water of the river. Another two miles paralleling the river and I find myself resting on a bridge spanning the river to Phantom Ranch. I stay there for a spell, taking in the sound of swift water. An older gentleman asks me to take his photo standing next to the river. I oblige.
Just before 10 a.m., I'm sitting on a bench in front of the dining room at Phantom Ranch. I drink cold lemonade that I bought from a nice fellow staffing the cash register. I eat some food to recharge, change my socks, fill up my water bottle and ruminate on what I've just accomplished. Ten miles down, only 14 more to go.
No worse for the wear -- yet -- I set off again. I find myself enjoying the stroll up a very gradual grade through Bright Angel Canyon. The creek's song mixes with my heartbeat, footfalls, "click" of the poles and breath to become a meditation. My mind tries to drift to journey's end, but I pull it back gently to the next footfall.
Corny songs float across the terrain of my consciousness. How long has it been since I've actually heard "Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you'll be walking out the door" or "Zippety doo-day, Zippety ay, my oh my what a wonderful day?"
Canyon walls gives way to sand and sun. Called the Hot Box, I'm sweating healthily. The heat appears to intensify in this area. I shudder at the thought of trying to span this length during a sunny day in July. I let Ribbon Falls pass without a visit.
My legs are starting to wear thin. The poles find greater use. I come across a man and a woman who are run-walking the trail. I have seen them several times on my journey. Three gregarious men also pass and take the turn to Ribbon Falls.
A National Park Service ranger gives a happy "hello" and asks if I'm walking through. I tell him I am and he wishes me well.
My decision to use running shoes instead of hiking boots is paying off. By the time I reach Cottonwood Campground at about 1:30 p.m., my feet feel great. Legs, shoulders and arms are getting tired. I'm 17 miles into the trek. All systems are still go. I fire down a cheese sandwich, some nuts, a banana. I empty another water bottle and fill it. My hydration is good. Belly's got fuel.
A friendly resident doing repair work on a cabin at the campground reminds me that I've only 7 more miles to go to the North Rim.
He neglects to tell me that those miles are all nearly straight up.
Then, the pain begins.
My legs, arms and shoulders work fine, but the strength I enjoyed at the beginning is dissipating. M progress slows. The jogging-walking couple passes yet again. They encourage me that the top is near. A mantra of "You're making it" and "Keep moving" replaces those silly songs.
Then the trail steepens, and the heights and exposures increase. The sun starts heading toward the horizon and shade prevails, keeping sweat to a minimum.
Footfalls are concentrated exercise. Walking poles become indispensable. To look up at how much farther I have to go wreaks havoc on confidence, so I resolve to keep eyes down at my feet or on the canyon walls alongside me.
Legs hurt, arms hurt, shoulders hurt and hands begin to blister from effort.
I pass artist Bruce Aiken's former cabin, the Roaring Springs fork, and continue heading up, and up, and up. The bridge signifying about 2 miles left nearly makes me cry. The trees begin to change into pine and aspen. The sun gets lower and lower, and the higher I get, a chill starts to settle into my cotton shirt. The fleece proves a welcome friend.
Thought has diminished to will. Pain partners with fatigue for a double whammy of demoralization. Yet, footfalls continue. My forward progress has slowed considerably. The sound of blood pulsing through my temples takes on a Surround Sound quality.
Then, without warning, I find myself staring at the trailhead sign. A few paces beyond, I see a car pass. I've made it. My mind rejoices. I made the 24-mile journey in 11 hours, 30 minutes -- longer than expected, but less than planned for. The last seven miles took nearly four hours.
A nice woman is waiting on the three gentlemen who passed me on the trail. They, too, were making a Rim-to-Rim hike. I tell her they took a side trip to Ribbon Falls. She nods in understanding. She gives me a ride the 2 miles to the lodge, where my wife and mother-in-law have rented a cabin.
I take a shower, call a few family and friends to tell them of my accomplishment, eat some food and promptly fall asleep for 10 hours. The next day, I'm sore but no worse for the wear and am glad to spend a few hours driving for our trip to Zion National Park.
Note: The National Park Service strongly discourages people trying to make a Rim-ro-Rim hike in a single day, listing dangers of doing so on its website. The warning should not be taken lightly.
The North Rim Lodge closed for the winter beginning Oct. 16, but the campground and some other services remain open until Nov. 28, or until snowfall closes Highway 67, according to the National Park Service.
People can still use the campground after Nov. 28, but they will need to get a backcountry use permit to do so. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/grca.
Larry Hendricks can be reached at 556-2262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.