Welcome to this link of my Grand Canyon hiking trip from August 21-24, 2018! It was a “bucket list” item that I was able to share with two brother priests that I came to know through the Fraternity of Priests Group. It included”: Fr. Jim Hobert (63) from the Diocese of Tuscon, Fr. Bob Franco (62) from the Diocese of Cleveland and myself (62) from the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Fr. Bob contacted the Wildland Trekking Company about a year ago as we placed our reservation. It was so worth it! Wildland Trekking Company has the best rating of any hiking company in the Grand Canyon. The cost was $1,300 per person (excluding air fare). There was a lengthy questionnaire and vetting process by one of the staff of Wildland Trekking to make sure that we were fit enough to make the trip. I also bought the optional trip insurance for $80.00 in the event of a last-minute cancellation which also covered being air-lifted from the mountain in case of a medical emergency. Fortunately, none of us needed air-lifted! Despite our sore muscles, including the sore muscles of our guide, Michael, we all successfully completed the hike. Our trip guide was Michael Hichman (42) who happens to be the director of Wildland Trekking. Also assigned to our group at the last minute was Ben Crawford (25) who shadowed Michael as a future trail guide. Michael and Ben were excellent and I would recommend them and Wildland Trekking to anyone. Each of us carried 30 pound packs which included our tents, sleeping bags, air mattress, three liters of water, clothing and snacks. Michael and Ben each carried an additional 20 to 30 pounds since they carried our food for the four-day hike as well as the propane burner to heat our food and the pot, plates, utensils, cups and tablecloth.
The Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is located about two hours northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. After flying into Phoenix, we drove for two hours to Flagstaff and another two hours to the North Rim. This last leg of the trip was where our driver, David, drove the five of us in Wildland’s Chevy Suburban and we got to know each other better. The night before our hike, the three of us priests attended the mandatory orientation meeting at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff where we first met Michael and Ben, where we got our packs and equipment from them, and narrowed down the list of what to bring from the list that was e-mailed to us. Fortunately, some of the items like a fleece top, extra snacks and extra toiletries were all left behind to lighten our load. We were instructed to take only two sets of underwear, two pairs of socks, two shirts and two pairs of shorts for four days. We were to bring no deodorant (we were all going to stink anyway after not showering for four days) no shampoo, but we could bring a washcloth, soap and a toothbrush and mini-toothpaste. Our trail guide had the first aid kit and he had an emergency phone since we were out of range of cell phone service during the entire hike.
The e-mail instructions included a training guide. It recommended hiking, cycling, weight training and climbing steps while wearing hiking boots and a 30 lb. pack. I trained vigorously for three months prior to and up to the date of the hike. I hiked the Laurel Valley Hiking Trail for 7 miles with Ron Bell. I hiked from the St. Paul’s Monastery (South Side) with Fr. Bob and Fr. Jim down past Carson St. to the River Walk to the Birmingham Bridge and back with a 30 lb. pack in the hot afternoon on two different days. I lifted weights, used the elliptical machine and/or Stairmaster in the gym. On three different days, I climbed stairwells with my 30 lb. pack and hiking boots in Forbes Regional Hospital from Floors 1 – 7 up and down … eight consecutive times which equals 1,152 steps. The guide from Wildland Trekking said to try to climb 10 flights of stairs in an hour with a 30 lb. pack. I did it in 50 minutes. I also climbed the stairwell of St. Thomas More Hall at the Franciscan University of Steubenville while on retreat for 30 minutes in the hot afternoon with my hiking boots and a 30 lb. pack.
Grand Canyon National Park has 6 million visitors per year. Most tourists go to the South Rim where there is a tourist center, restaurants, gift shops and scenic overlooks. Some people take a helicopter ride over the Canyon. Others take a mule ride down keeping in mind that the mules only go so far. Others like us, decided to hike in order to challenge ourselves, physically and mentally and to see sights that others may not be able to see. Only 20 % of the hikers hike from the North Rim which has an elevation of 6,800 feet above the Colorado River; whereas, the South Rim’s elevation is 4,500 feet. There was another group of seven hikers starting down the mountain with a different touring company. Our trip paralleled theirs as we saw them frequently throughout the next four days. Other than that, we would see occasional hikers along the trail as well as sharing the trail with the Mule train. This contrasted with our ascent to the South Rim on the last two days in which the trail was definitely better travelled by hikers from various parts of the US, Europe and Asia.
Michael warned us that the first day would be the toughest and it was. We would descend 4,200 feet the first day at an average of one mile per hour for seven hours! We did take water breaks and snack breaks as well as pauses to take pictures. At the 1.7 mile mark was “The Decision Point”. Michael said that this was the point of no return. There was a helipad nearby and he could call for the helicopter if anyone felt that he couldn’t continue to the trip. We all agreed to press on. It was the right decision. All together, we were to hike 28 miles or an average of 7 miles/day. However, at the end of the four day hike, my Fit Bit fitness tracker logged 33,000 steps per day for each of the first three days (14 miles/day) and 22,000 steps on Day Four (9 ¼ miles).
The beauty was jaw-dropping. We each used trekking poles to steady our balance on the trail. It made us all appreciate the beauty of God’s creation. He is the master artist and no one can create beauty like our God! I also appreciated the comradery of having hiked with four other men, two of whom are priests. There was a lot of male-bonding. I would not have been able to complete the hike by myself. We all encouraged each other by telling stories, sharing jokes as well as praying the rosary, our Liturgy of the Hours, Divine Mercy Chaplet and of course, Mass every day at each of our campgrounds.
It rained the first two days, off and on. Thank God we had our rain jackets. It seemed as though the storm was right on top of us as there was no lapse between the lightning and the thunder at Cottonwood Campground. Michael said it was “a storm of biblical proportions” which he had never seen in his 10 years as a Grand Canyon guide. I guess he felt safe being with three priests! The temperature was about 80-85 degrees the first two days and about 65-70 degrees at night. I suffered from painful leg cramps in both legs during the first night as we pitched camp during a violent thunderstorm. It seemed as though the storm was right on top of us as there was no lapse between the lightning and the thunder. We safely were dry in each of our one man tents after hiking in the dark (using our head lamps) and having a quick dinner of stew before putting our gear and ourselves into a very cramped tent. It was a great disappointment for me that my battery unit for my travel C-PAP machine did not work! It was only after I finished the trip that I learned that there was a hidden switch on the side that had to be turned on in addition to the power button. Oh well, live and learn!
Among the wildlife that we saw included: three condors, mule deer, a tarantula at night on the trail, lizards, beef-a-lo (cross between buffalo and cattle near the entrance of the North Rim) and of course, the mules. We also saw ravens by the creek.
Michael said that he never saw anyone celebrate Mass in the 10 years that he had been a trail guide. Coincidentally, we spotted a priest celebrating Mass 100 feet away from us in the next campsite! His name is Fr. Reginald. He is a Dominican priest from Missouri who is 42, only ordained two years, and was there with a friend. We welcomed him and his friend to our campsite and during the last two days their hike and ours intersected many times.
Two of the most beautiful spots that we visited were: Ribbon Falls which is reputed to be the birthplace of the Zuni Indians and Plateau Point which is a 1.5 mile hike from the Indian Garden campground. It offered a very high and panoramic view of the mountains surrounding the Colorado River. We felt like we were on the top of the world! See the photos where we celebrated Mass at Plateau Point.
The last two days we hiked upward on several switchbacks. It was 1,500 feet on Day Three and 3,000 feet on Day Four. We stopped at Rest Stations after hiking one hour or so at a time. That’s where we saw many other hikers as we approached the South Rim. Some were just doing day hikes (without any packs) whereas others wore packs like us. During Days Three and Four the temperature got up to 110 degrees in the sun, so we looked for shade whenever we could. We drank water mixed with electrolytes as part of a powdered mix. I used a Nikken magnetic shoulder massage roller to ease the sharp pain on my shoulders, trapezius and rhomboid muscles from carrying the heavy pack for four consecutive days. We pushed each other – and we achieved our goal! We pushed each other--- and we did it!
My final thoughts are: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Phillipians 4:13 Also, “Rejoice, you have no choice!” Finally, while we reach for our destination, it’s the travelers along the way the make the journey worth travelling. Go with God! You can do much more than you think you can do or imagine.
A fellow traveler on the journey,
Fr. Joe Luisi