Road Trip: Chicago – Grand Canyon.

This is set during my stint in the US. I took a couple of days off work, combined it with a weekend and decided on a road trip. Absolutely love road trips. Had bought my super-duper Mercedes-Benz GL450 in February, and was just raring to go off somewhere.

I’d been to the Grand Canyon when I was a Rotary Exchange student back in ’78, but the memory was foggy. It may have something to do with being a bit inebriated, along with a bunch of exchange students from all over the world for the two days that we were there. Back then we went to the Grand Canyon as part of the “Americana Ramble”, organized by the Rotary Exchange Programme. Two touring bus loads of exchange students from all over the world, on the road for a month, a new place almost every day, meeting new people from different places, different cultures, music, song, dance…all made for a heady mix. Alcohol was not really permitted, but we broke the rules this time around (and a few other times), and thus the resultant foggy memory. Such was my state, that I learned to sing “Old MacDonald…” in Finnish, thanks to my travel buddies Petteri Loukola and Tiina Kaarlela (unfortunately she’s disappeared and I can’t find her despite my best efforts). I still remember the whole song, you can test me if you like. Not that many of you know Finnish, so I guess I’m safe. Petteri and Tiina are not allowed to be part of the testing panel.

So the road trip, round two.

We started off in Woodridge, Il, USA, which was home those days, and hit the road, made our way past South Bend, Indiana and beyond. The round trip is about 7,700 miles or 12,320 km.

Chigaco to Grand Canyon
Road Trip: Chicago – Grand Canyon National Park – Gilbert, Az – Chicago. 3853 mi/6165 km.

The velocity was not restricted by the rather souped up machine I was driving, and thus we ate up the road, and were still hungry for more, however most unfortunately we reached destination and had to reign in the supercharged horses. The excitement of being on the road, on this adventure, spurred on by bulls that were red, truck stop coffee, and sheer adrenaline, meant that we took just one stop along the way, at some motel, just to be safe and make sure I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel.

We made the Canyon early evening, got our bearings, tanked up, and put in at a hotel for the night.

We had not figured it all out yet, but come morning, duly rested and fed, the mental faculties kicked in, and we go off to purchase some gear. We want to do the trek down into the Canyon taking one of the trails. We pick the Bright Angel Trail, which is a decent hike. We will cover 10 miles each way, descend and then climb 4380 ft, and prudence demands that we are geared appropriately. Therefore the early morning jaunt to the store, where we buy boots, and hiking gear. A good decision. We see other hikers buying gear and in particular see these two girls buying what seemed to be walking crutches, with some sort of shock absorbers in them. We pass this off and unnecessary gear, but we will come back to that later.

We park back at the hotel, look at our maps and find the trail head, and we are off. The average descent is 10% the entire length of the way, so it’s not a gradual undulating trail, au contraire.

I’m pretty much an adrenaline junkie, and we make great progress down the trail, and are doing this steady walk, skip, jog routine. We were warned by some that the trail isn’t exactly easy, and we should conserve water, energy and keep hydrating from time to time, which we do with the water, but not much else.

They Grand Canyon is breathtaking, its pristine , raw and untouched beauty awe-inspiring, and what came to mind is several movies I’ve seen as a kid, mostly westerns. Little did I know that one day I would be at the same location that I had seen in movies as a child and teenager.

I’m so immersed in the beauty, the tranquil that I’ve almost forgotten to take any photographs, and then suddenly I do realise that we need to come away with some memories of the trip, the beauty and at some point in the future, relive the experience via photographs. That’s what pictures are for, right?

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My All Time Favorite Picture of the Grand Canyon

The weather was not too hot, and therefore the trek was quite pleasant, cool breeze actually blowing all through the descent.

Most people do not do the trek in a single day, and instead stay overnight at the campsite, or the Phantom Ranch, and climb back the next day. But we are super fit, super expert at trekking so we decide, hey we gonna do it all in a single day!

So how did that work out for you, I’m sure the people are asking. It went “swell”, details coming up.

So we rest for a bit, maybe an hour or so, eat the food we have carried with us, when something strange happens. The knees are beginning to hurt and even swell a bit, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why! I’m not even tried. Only later did I realise that I had done the descent at such velocity, that the impact was all on the knees.

We keep climbing, taking step after painful step, and at several points I think I’m gonna give up. We see several people descending and ask each one, how much further? It was really futile asking because there is no way of knowing how quickly they have descended, and how many breaks they have taken, and so on. We think we are intelligent, so we begin to factor in variables, to arrive at approximately how long it’s going to take us to reach the top. So we figure perhaps three times longer going up, as compared to the time taken to make the descent? The variable based math was all wrong.

At one point we come across a mule train going up, and excitedly ask if we can hop on. To our dismay, the mules have to be booked way in advance, and we are denied that much sought after relief.

And so, we must plod on, step after painful step, knees swelling, feet swelling, and by now it’s getting hot as well. It’s about 1 pm in the afternoon, and I throw in the towel, I just sit down, I decide in my head that I cannot go on any more.

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Please don’t be fooled by that charming, seemingly smiling face…it’s actually a sheepish grin saying, must you now? Take a photograph of my while I’m sitting?

Long story short, we do make it back to the top, we survive, make it to the hotel, shower, take a nap, and apart from the subsiding pain, are ready to move around a bit. We go and get a bite to eat, do some bowling at the bowling alley at the hotel,  and then put in for the night.

The plan for the next day is to take a helicopter ride around the Grand Canyon, and I’m super excited when I’m told that winds being favorable, we may possibly fly into the jaws of the Canyon itself. We arrive at the heliport, buy our seats on the plane, and I wrangle shotgun, right next to the chopper pilot. Great move, considering that the front of the chopper by the footboard is glass, and I can actually see through the glass beyond my feet!

Bubbling with childlike excitement (me mostly), we lift off, and are soon airborne. We get a super view of the airstrip, and soon are flying past the entrance of the Grand Canyon National Park.

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As we fly over the tall trees we are approaching the edge of the forest. I am ill prepared (in a nice way), for the sight that is to come. The sight of the forest disappearing out of sight between my legs, and transforming into the sight of nothing beneath my legs, nothing beneath the glass floorboards. Well, nothing for many hundred feet, and then suddenly I can see at the bottom of abyss, the sight of the floor of the canyon, so very tiny. The sight of the Colorado river, like a tiny rivulet, and tiny river rafts was just too amazing.

The chopper ride is about 45 minutes, and far too soon it is all over. Elated, but hugely disappointed that it’s over.

Later that afternoon its time to depart, but not before we discover that on the other side of the canyon, a couple of hours away is a glass bottomed walkway, which we can get onto and look at the Canyon beneath our feel, like we aren’t standing on anything at all. Now that must be a trip, and so we decide to do a minor detour. The drive itself is mostly along the highway, but once we turn off, it’s almost all off-road, something my GL is built for. She takes to the rough road like a glutton for punishment, and does the punishing as opposed to being at the receiving end. No regrets then, for buying a $ 62,000/- show off car (well it was more like $ 77,000/-), which I negotiated down to the purchase price). Yeah, I’m a mean negotiator. Now that’s a story that needs telling, and it will. That’s the next up story, but for now let’s finish this one.

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The approach to the glass plank at the edge of the Canyon wall is pretty unassuming, and disappointing even, but all is forgiven as you actually step onto the glass walkway. It’s freaky to say the least…walking on glass, looking at the canyon floor under your feet. High security, no bags, no wallets, no phones, no metal whatsoever, no shoes…all precautions that the glass doesn’t crack. Most disappointing is no phone and no camera. Missed photo opportunity, so all I came away is this set of photographs.

Another amazing experience, and we are off, en route to Chicago, back home. But are we? A minor detour coming up. My sister lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and I’m urged to pay her a visit, and so enroute I call, and after a few exchanges, we take the detour and head to see her. It’s not going to be a pleasant meeting, but still, she’s my kid sister. Fond memories, memories of happier times.

The visit was brief, but it was so nice to have met her, and visit over we are finally headed back home. Round trip 7,700 miles. Fantastic, etched forever in my memories.

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