I love America. I love Americana, and kitsch, and tourist traps, and traveling in general. For that reason, I’ve always looked for the opportunity to see things, especially when I’m somewhere outside of my usual area. For example, on my move from Pennsylvania to Texas years ago, I went out of my way (several times) to stop and see interesting spots along the way.
Way up at the top of the list of places I’ve always wanted to see is the Grand Canyon.
So Michael and I, in our second year of graduate school at Baylor, decide to go to the Grand Canyon for our spring break. Now, he’s already been, with his family years before. However, when he went with them, he didn’t go CAMPING. Which, of course, is what I want to do. Along with HIKING. Which I also want to do.
Originally, we’d wanted a group to go. As it got closer, and plans had to be made, one by one, our friends made their excuses and it was just Michael and I. This was fine by me, as I tend to get sick of most of the people I see daily (no offence meant—I can’t even eat the same breakfast two days in a row without feeling bored).
I was a little hesitant about a long car ride with Michael—not because I didn’t love him, but because a long car trip was the deciding factor in my breakup with a previous boyfriend (see above, move to Texas. He did NOT want to stop and see, well, anything, and was, in general, a pill the entire ride, among other problems in our relationship that surfaced while trapped in a small enclosed space for hours on end).
Know, dear readers, that we planned this trip WELL IN ADVANCE. For Christmas, I gave Michael a two-person tent, meant for backpacking and carrying. See, we planned to hike to the bottom of the canyon, camp there, and hike back up. I know there’s a lodge at the bottom—but it was already booked at Christmastime for spring break. We researched the average daily temperature, physical requirements for the hike (the website says even kids and old people can do it if paced properly), and what to expect in general along the way. We’d also requested, and received (thanks, Mom!) two L.L. Bean sleeping bags.
We booked a campsite at the top of the rim, and booked a campsite outside of Flagstaff to break up the 14 hour drive there.
So the drive began. And it was FUN. We stopped and ate at the famous steakhouse in Amarillo where, if you eat an unhealthy amount of meat, you don’t have to pay for it.
I had the kids’ meal, and couldn’t even finish that. Shortly after ordering, the waiter came to the table, and apologetically said, “umm, the kids’ meal comes with a free hat. Do you…want this?” And he holds up a kid-sized straw hat, fully expecting me to balk at him.
Of course, this was my answer:
“FREE HAT!! YAY!!!
After lunch, we began the long and arduous drive across West Texas, a vast expanse of boring, peppered only by windmills, and where even the sky is brown. I swear I could see the curvature of the earth, giving me an experience I can only describe as “horizontigo.” Like vertigo, but, horizontal.
We continued the drive through New Mexico, which was stunning, especially with the colors in the sky at sunset. The terrain changed into plateaus and other strange things unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Sadly, it got dark and we couldn’t see any more. We drove on.
We arrived at a KOA in Arizona, exhausted and ready to fall asleep. In our Kampground. But we could have rented a Kabin. We set up the tent, crawled in, and immediately fell asleep.
We woke up, and Michael crawled out of what was a VERY cold tent and said. “Huh.”
Intrigued, I also crawled out of the tent.
I pride myself on being an intelligent person, and one who is very interested in the landscape of our country. But here, I prove myself to be a bumbling idiot without even the least bit of common sense.
See, when I think of Arizona, I think, desert. And when I think of the Grand Canyon, I think, giant hole, in the desert.
But what actually happens is that there are mountains leading up all the way to the giant hole. So we stepped out of the tent to view the southern tail end of the Rockies. And, oh yeah, it’s March, so there’s snow.
We laugh, still feeling like idiots, but still pumped about our trip. We load the car back up, and get ready to drive to the Canyon itself. At this point, we also decide it’s probably not the best idea to hike all the way down to the bottom of the canyon the next day. We also stop at the Flagstaff Target and pick up a few things, like hats and gloves, since we hadn’t packed any, as a just in case.
Why, why hadn’t we packed any? Because when we researched the average daily temperature, it was for the bottom of the canyon. And if you’re not an idiot who thinks the Grand Canyon is just a hole in the desert, you’d know that the top of the Canyon, where we planned to camp, was at a higher elevation, and therefore, not NEARLY as warm as the bottom at this time of year. Also, the bottom of the canyon gets warmer because the canyon walls act as insulation/a magnifying glass for the whole thing.
About twenty minutes outside of Flagstaff, we realized we didn’t get additional blankets. But did we really need them? The sleeping bags (thanks, Mom!) were the nice L.L. Bean kind that keep you warm to 30 degrees (or was it 20?). Besides, the average daily temperature for that week in March—still not really processing this whole being idiots thing—was in the lower 60s, so we’d be fine!
Interesting fact: blankets get progressively more expensive the closer you are to the Grand Canyon.
We stopped at two places, and both were outrageous. Like three figures outrageous. We gave up, and entered the park. The first thing we did was drive to one of the overlooks, since I’d never been there.
My first reaction was:
“Ahhh, when are they going to fill that in?”
Note: the above quote, which I said loudly, made Michael guffaw and most people near us glare at me. If you’ve never seen the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 movie This Island Earth, this reference is lost. Netflix it. You won’t be disappointed.
It was amazing, and clearly, this trip was one of our best decisions. We’d had a great time on the drive, and many serious conversations about our future, as well as getting to see some of the most amazing views in the world, let alone the United States. Flying high, we decide to set up camp, and return to the overlook to watch the sunset.
We arrived at our campsite to find a giant snowdrift. Can’t camp on that. So we head back down to the office, and the man working there gives us a different site. This one doesn’t have a snowdrift in the middle of it—just next to it.
As it turns out, snowdrifts make excellent coolers:
You may be wondering why we brought beer, but not blankets. Well, there’s a little store in the Grand Canyon Park, which is called “GENERAL STORE” but should be called “YOU SHOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF THAT BEFORE DRIVING TO THE GRAND CANYON PARK STORE.”
In the “You should have thought of that before driving to the Grand Canyon Park Store” we found that blankets had escalated to $200.00. That’s right, $200.00 for a damn blanket.
We also found that orange juice cost $8.00 for a half gallon, and therefore, beer, at $6.50 for a six pack, was cheaper. And they sold firewood, which was $10.00 for a small pallet. We purchased the beer and the firewood, dropped it off at the campsite and went to watch the sunset over the canyon.
I can’t really explain how amazing it is to watch the colors change over all the sides of the canyon as the sun sets. All I can say is, if you’ve never been there, go.
You may even see this an idiot kid trying to scale parts of the canyon that are clearly unsafe, providing opportunity for commentary and camaraderie among everyone near us. I didn’t take a picture, because I would have felt bad about it if he’d plummeted to his death.
He didn’t. Darn. Should’ve taken the picture.
It got dark very quickly. And cold. Much colder than the average daily temperature we’d expected. So we hustled back to our campsite. Michael started to light the camp stove and cook our dinner of canned soup, while I, in what became an exercise in futility, tried to light our little fire.
Here’s the thing: when we bought firewood, we did not buy firestarters. So here I am, in the cold mountains next to a snowdrift and a tiny, tiny tent, trying to light firewood with a slight cold breeze.
“We are going to DIE HERE. We are going to DIE NEXT TO THE GRAND CANYON IN A COLD TENT WITH NO FIRE.”
Michael was already laughing at my tantrum. He rips the top of the cardboard box we’d stashed all our food for the trip in, and lights it on fire, and tries to start the fire from that. It dwindles to a crisp, but doesn’t light the fire.
He starts to sing, “It only takes a spark, to keep a fire going…” (If you don’t know what this song is, get in a time machine, and go to church camp in the 1980s.)
I shut him up with more whining.
“WE ARE GOING TO DIIIIEEEEEE OF HYPOTHERMIA!”
He says, “why don’t we go to one of the nearby campsites [which, incidentally, had roaring fires we could see through the trees] and ask them for a firestarter? Tell them we forgot to pick it up?”
“Then we won’t die of hypothermia. We’ll die of EMBARASSMENT. WE ARE GOING TO DIEEEE…”
He goes back to the cookstove to stir the soup.
Meanwhile, whining to myself, since he’s obviously not listening, I go through the car for anything I can use to start a fire. And I find a glorious solution.
The Triple A guidebook to New Mexico and Arizona. I’d gotten it, because as a conscientious traveler and someone who’s too cheap to buy a map when I’m already paying for that service with Triple A, I knew that we could find deals for restaurants and that our park admission was slightly discounted.
I started tearing out pages of New Mexico (sorry!) since we weren’t spending any time there, and scrunched them into balls to place under the firewood. In mere
minutes half an hour we had a roaring fire of our own.
We ate our soup next to the fire, and laughed, and applauded ourselves on not dying of hypothermia due to lack of preparation. Thanks, Triple A!
Of course, I told Michael if he ever sang that [expletive deleted] “It only takes a spark” song again, I’d kill him.
THE NEXT DAY
The next day I woke up, with frost on my hat. And my memory foam pillow, which had frozen overnight, was rock solid. [If you’re reading this wondering why I went camping with a memory foam pillow, the only thing I have to say to that is shut your face.]
Michael woke up at roughly the same time, and asked if I needed to go to the bathroom as badly as he did.
“I think so, but I think it’s frozen.”
We’d not had a restful night—the tent, advertised as a two person tent, apparently meant two little children, not two fully grown adults, especially one who was almost 6 feet tall.
We both went to the bathroom, and came back to look at the tent in dismay. The reason for the frost was that the flap keeping moisture out had blown away. Michael was busy duct taping it to the top of the tent, when I asked the question that made him want to marry me:
“Would it…umm…ruin the experience if I asked if we could stay at the Holiday Inn tonight?”
He stopped what he was doing and rushed over to give me a big kiss.
We folded up the tent, and packed the camping gear (except the beer) into the car, but not before taking this:
We loaded up on all the clothing we’d brought with us for hiking, resulting in Stay-Puft Marshmallow appearances that featured baggy pajama pants on the outside. Not very attractive.
We had a long breakfast at the lodge next to the “You should have thought of that before driving to the Grand Canyon Park Store.” The combination of quiet reading and hot coffee made the previous evening’s foibles seem funny immediately.
Because of the snow, hiking down to the bottom of the canyon was out for us—it required crampons and fancy walking sticks, neither of which we owned nor were willing to buy at the “You should have thought of that before driving to the Grand Canyon Park Store” at a 400% markup. We also didn’t want to “just do without” and slip on ice and fall to our deaths.
So we hiked the rim trail, which winds its way around the canyon, offering beautiful views, fabulous photo opportunities, and exposure to wildlife.
There are numerous signs that tell you to keep the wildlife wild, but when they climb into your backpack looking for snacks when you stop for a bit of trail mix, then pose when they’ve been handed a bit of papaya, leaving only when you’ve taken a picture, you realize the squirrels are in the employ of the Parks Department, and deserve a snack break.
Then there are the signs warning you not to fall into the giant canyon right in front of you:
And the good-humored creations of mankind:
We went back to the campsite and spent the next few hours alternately reading in the sun and eating. As it got cooler, we packed up what was left and drove to the overlook one last time before starting the drive to Flagstaff.
On the way back to civilization, I called hotels in Flagstaff (numbers courtesy of the remaining pages in the Triple A guidebook, thanks Triple A!) and made a reservation at the Days Inn.
We contacted our parents for the hilarious update to our trip. Michael’s parents’ were very concerned about us sharing a hotel room (though how this was worse than a tiny tent, I can’t figure out) but Michael assured them that after the tent, he never wanted to touch me again.
Once we checked in, we ordered two separate pizzas, and, sitting under the covers in two separate beds, and on the opposite sides of the room from one another, we watched a few reruns of Law and Order with our pizza.
On the way back, we stopped at a rest stop in New Mexico, and just happened to see blankets.
But “We Should Have Thought of That before Driving to the Grand Canyon.”