I’m 99.8% confident we haven’t gone over this one before, which is good. And this time, I’ll note off the bat that I’m doing the same name thing as last time. I have no idea if the guy I’m about to talk about was actually named Jake; but he looked like a Jake and did some Jake-shit. So if you’re a Jake that’s offended at being misrepresented, take it up with Jake, the Road Trip Guy. I’m just the messenger here.
A few years ago, I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. It was something I’d been “planning on doing” for years but never pulled the trigger on actually doing. Finally, after enough pressure from Mandy to actually pony up, we made it happen. Loaded up the car with WAY more supplies than we needed, and started the drive at 5:00 in the morning.
Thus began the adventure, thus began the troubles.
The day of driving was actually incredibly smooth. The problem came when the sun was setting on the town of Kingman, Arizona. For context, I drive a 2003 Chrysler Sebring (and I named her Phoebe). She ain’t a powerhouse. No indomitable work horse. Not a racing star. But dammit, she’s been reliable. We drove for 15 straight hours, averaging about 85 mph through state highway and open desert in 100 degree+ July summer heat, loaded down with two adult asses and way too many camping supplies. So when we pulled into the Travelodge and I rolled down my window to hear a crunching, grinding sound, there was some concern.
“Is that your car?” Mandy said.
I looked around at the numerous cargo trucks driving and idling near us, saw the low-flying plane overhead, and replied, “No. Don’t think so. Can’t be. There’s a lot of noise here. It’s probably that.” But after checking in and parking somewhere quieter, I changed my tune: “Nope. Yup. It’s definitely my car.”
The awesome part? I had just that morning written “Grand Canyon or Bust” in the dirt of my rear windshield. But, as I told myself, it was all part of the adventure. It was tomorrow’s problem to be solved in the morning.
Waking up with the sun, I google nearby auto-shops and am fortunate enough to find one just down the road. So we check out, croak and grind our way down the road, and pull in. I put on my best helpless Californian young man charm (which is a delicate line; you either appear like the adorable, handsome puppy you’re going for, or come off like a witless douchebag). By a combination of, I’m assuming, my efforts working along with their natural good-heartedness, they fit me in.
I’m told that, depending on the problem, it can either be $1,200 and they’ll need my car for about three days, or it might be a $200 patch job and I’ll have it back in three hours. Thanks being to Odin, Vishnu, Yahweh, and whoever else, but it was the latter, and we were back on the road in a matter of hours. The one caveat: no more air conditioner. It was a bypass sort of fix, which mean the air compressor and drier was toast, but the car would run. I told him that it didn’t fuckin’ matter because he saved my trip and that we’d be fine.
As it would turn out later, spoke a little too soon on that last part.
We hit the road again in high spirits at having overcome the obstacle with the power of good fortune and were on route to making it to Mather Campground by around 4:30.
That was when I discovered how deliciously freaky the whether in Arizona can be during the summer.
Having no AC was pretty rough, but at the time I was pretty thin and had an affinity for the heat, so it was bearable. That said, when we crested one of the desert hills to see thick storm clouds in the distance, we didn’t take a second to question it and zoomed ahead for the shade they offered. To this day, that remains one of the most refreshing sensations I can call to mind. The rush of cool air, the smell of fresh rain on desert sand, the relief of shade from the clouds.
I held my hand out the window to feel the cool wind, and it was like running my skin under silk. Then, I felt a little rain drop. Mandy and I looked at one another, giggling about the mana from heaven. One more drop, and then another hit my windshield…
Moments later, and I shit you not even one little bit, moments later – I couldn’t see. The rain appeared so suddenly and in such dense sheets, I was driving utterly blind. The only reference I had to go on were the reflectors in the middle of the road, but even those were scattered and obscured. Every few moments, water that had flooded any little dip in the road’s curve was slamming my wheels and threatening to wrench us off into the unknown.
I was so intensely focused on maintaining control of the vehicle, I did what I could to run a list of options. I started a mental countdown to when I would pull over, put on my hazard lights, and pray we weren’t hit from behind by an equally blind driver.
Right when I got to “1…”, just as quickly as it appear, the rain completely vanished. The air was utterly clear, out of nowhere. I’d been warned about how spontaneous and strange the weather could be, but experiencing it first hand was…just a real trip. We made it the rest of the way to the town outside the Grand Canyon, which played host to the national park, in actual safety.
I should mention here that although I had bought an overabundance of supplies – physical things one might need when hiking and camping the Grand Canyon – I didn’t actually plan anything. I didn’t make an itinerary, I hadn’t picked a camp ground until that afternoon, hadn’t made a reservation of any kind, nothing.
So when we showed up to the front gate and saw the big sandwich board sign reading, “No Vacancy”, it threw a wrench in things.
Or did it…?
This was where my power of undying, stupid optimism came into play. I saw the sign telling us to go away because all hope here was lost and figured, “What the hey? The worst case is that we’re in the same boat we’re in now.” So we drive up to the gate.
The ranger leans out of his post, smiles, and points out our lack of placard/park pass. I smile back, tell him I totally don’t have one, explain our situation, and said, “Now, in our shoes, what would you do? Like, is there a reason we can’t go in to look around?” And he explains that he would probably go in, drive around, and see what we can scrounge up as there’s no harm in trying. We trade high-five’s and I go in to explore the campgrounds.
Zone after zone, more signs all reading in big red block letters: No Vacancy.
“S’all good,” I figure, and we keep plugging ahead. Finally, we come to another ranger post to another campground with yet another sign reading: No Vacancy.
Well’p, it’s worked so far.
I park off to the side, and approach with the ranger giving me a bit of a quizzical look as she eyes the sandwich she knows has told me to go away. “Hi,” I say a bit sheepishly. “So, I see the sign, and totally get that things are booked up, buuuuuut I’m holding out hope.” Even as I’m saying this, she’s nodding and reaching for a(n already familiar at this point) map of the area. She makes marks and points out other areas we could try instead. I smile, take the map, nod, and head back to the car.
Now, we face the decision to race to other destinations and explore other hopefully available options, but something in my gut told me to hang on. So I stood there, making sure to be in plain view of the ranger’s post, while I pulled out my notebook and made a list of options – the first bit of any real planning I’d done or would do for the rest of the trip. And it was more of a flow chart, “We’ll try this, and if that doesn’t work, try what? These, and if these don’t work, then what? Go here. And if that doesn’t work, go here,” so on and so forth.
Then, the most wonderfully serendipitous thing in my life to date happened.
It’s 4:55. The ranger station closes at 5:00. And I hear from off to the side, “Ahem. ‘Scuse me. Sir?” I look over and see the ranger smiling and waving me over. “You still wanted to camp here, right?”And y’all, I DANCE my way back to her post, nodding, smiling, and all the rest of it.
Apparently, there at that moment, about five minutes before the gates closed on us…someone cancelled their reservation. The best part (and the weirdest), was the type of thing that if you wrote it in a story, you’d be called a hack: the people that cancelled their reservation, there, five minutes before the chapter closed on us, right before hope wasn’t an option anymore, had reserved the EXACT bracket of days we wanted to be there.
Hope…hope is a weird thing. Especially being an optimist, it forces you to dance the shadowy line between being persevering and being heinously stupid and delusional. But this, moments like this where the impossible, least likely thing works out, is why we do it.
Because of the nature of it, the ranger could get us in for one night, whereupon we’d have to try to re-reserve the space in the morning. So we made our way to our camp spot, set up the tent, and lived it the fuck up. Utterly in the moment. Tomorrow wasn’t guaranteed, so we did all the camping shenanigans in one night: s’mores, drank too much, got a big-ass fire going, did firespitting, BBQ’d, everything.
Morning came, we made a grand ol’ breakfast, wondering where the day would take us, not knowing where we might lay our heads that night. We packed up came, and drove out to the front gate, content with the uncertainty….whereupon we got there first, totally reserved the spot for ourselves the rest of the week, went back, unpacked everything we just bloody packed, and settled in for a week of camping at the Grand Canyon.
Now, a LOT of stuff happened that week, and it’s already been – like the trip itself – a long road to get here. To the point. To the main meat of the the trip and this tale.
It’s time we met Jake, the Road Trip Guy.
So the Big Hike of the week was that next day, where we took on the Bright Angel Trail. Just like the rest of the trip to date, I hadn’t done any worthwhile planning – just operated on a whim and improvised where necessary. So, why change up what had been working?
We would later see plenty of signs all saying distinctly not to hike between the peak hours of 11:00am and 4:00pm, which I still think is a little dumb; because when the hell else are you supposed to go? But whatever. Nevermind. The point is that you can safely bet your shapely buttocks that we began our hike into the canyon RIGHT at 11:00am.
And you know what? It was BEEEEAAAAUUUUTIFUUUUUL!
We saw all manner of strangely colorful bugs, terrific people, watched a line of mules climb on by us (their pee is gross, take it on faith), and got to take in the majesty of the canyon.
That said, it was also grueling. Peak heat in the shadows was about 130* Fahrenheit, and while there was a rest stop every mile and a half where one could get water, our bottles or canteens were reliably dry by the time we made it to each one. (That said, never urinated once, and never noticed any sweat. That’s how much you sweat and how quickly it evaporates. Y’all. It was the surface of the Sun.)
Along with these rest stops were NO SHORTAGE of signs ALL saying: “DO NOT try to make it down to the Colorado River (the bottom) AND BACK in the same day. You WILL die.”
Queue: Jake, the Road Trip Guy.
We made it about 2/3 of the way to the bottom (just about the maximum safe distance for a 1-day hike), and turned back for the ascent – which was about 100x more painful than going down. Who’da figured? It was during this climb back up that we meet Jake – being attended to by park rangers and kindly hikers – and hear his story.
Jake was from Seattle, apparently, and was on a one-man road trip of the American Southwest. He’d been to Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, and Zion, and he was finishing up his expedition with the Grand Canyon itself. In truth, I’d long loved the idea of doing exactly that, so I was totally on Team Jake. I was ALSO on Team Jake, because he made my lack of preparation look like a fully stocked Bat Cave complete with a top-of-the-line Alfred.
As the story goes, since he was only going to be in the Canyon for so long, he was determined to make it – yes, exactly – down to the bottom to the Colorado River and back up in the same day. Were that the extent of it, stupid, but no harm-no foul. He was a solo hiker (something you’re not advised to do) from a city along a cool coastline at sea level coming to perform an arduous hike at elevation, for one. His equipment for the endeavor? Basketball shorts, shoes, and a single heavy glass growler for water.
His reasons? He didn’t bring food because he wanted to “lean out,” and he thought the growler was cool and would be enough – which it, decidedly, was not.
The reason he’s (probably) still alive today and didn’t die then and there in that canyon: another hiker that spotted him and his hilariously shitty gear and said, “Uuuuum….what’cha doin’?”
That said, I’ll end it with this: I admire Jake, the Road Trip Guy. He embodied the spirit of adventure that pervaded my own journey those several days. When I got back home, I had to attend a wake some weeks later, and when sharing the story with family members for sake of small talk, I told my Uncle Forrest: “You know, it was great. We made it through that trip on a combined 10% wit, cleverness, charm, and calculation, and the remaining 90% was all total dumb luck.”
I’ll remember his answer until the day I die.
“You know,” he said, “you might be surprised to find out that those are actually the same proportions for getting through life.”