My first day off work was Christmas day. I hadn’t made any friends yet, so I drove to Grand Canyon alone. Just past Flagstaff, cell phone reception became a distant memory and the high desert felt like an endless blend of tan and red with the San Francisco peaks looming in the rear view. Windows down, I sang along to “Grand Canyon” by the Wind and the Wave, the cool, dry air on my face. You haven’t lived till you’ve been to the Grand Canyon. I was about to live.
When I arrived at the canyon, I pulled into the main Visitor’s Center parking lot and ran to the closest lookout point. My breath caught in my chest as I gazed into the depths of the canyon. I had never seen something so large, so all consuming. As far as I could see East and West were the branching veins and arteries of the canyon, stretching on in perpetuity.
The park was nearly empty, the canyon was all mine. I stood leaning over the railing at Mather Point with my mouth agape and tears in my eyes. I took a photo with my phone—the kind of photo that would later feel flat and dull. Painters and photographers have spent lifetimes trying to capture the Grand Canyon, but it cannot be taken from Northern Arizona. You can’t experience the canyon from your living room in Minnesota.
Standing at the precipice, there is a sense of grandness. I hate to use the word “grand” to describe the Grand Canyon, but it just is. Not only because of its vastness, but of its magnificence. The complexity is overwhelming and the depths unimaginable.
Only 1% of visitors step below the rim, I couldn’t resist. The warning sign at the Bright Angel Trailhead is a stiff deterrent. Alone, unprepared and largely inexperienced at desert hiking —I allowed myself only a quick jaunt down the tight switchbacks. Just a mile or so. I knew I would be back.
Over the next few months, I felt the pull of the canyon. Every chance I got, I returned. I visited in January with a man I was dating. We held hands as a fierce wind whipped my hair around and a light snow dusted the ground and the inner peaks. I drove back in February alone, and ran down the trail with nothing but a water bottle and the tears of heartbreak on my cheeks. Hikers and tourists watched and whispered as I passed. By March, my job had completely taken over my life and the Grand Canyon became the only place I felt like Christine anymore.
Every time I drove along U.S. Highway 180, I sang those words—sometimes I yelled them at the top of my lungs. You haven’t lived till you’ve been to the Grand Canyon. I hurled my pain into the canyon, I told it my secrets, I let it take those things I couldn’t carry. Every time I visited; I went a little deeper.
In April 2018, I quit my job and left Arizona. My visits to the canyon became less frequent —but I still felt the pull. In May 2019, I guided a hiking trip down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point—a challenging 12-mile round trip. In July, I visited the North Rim for the first time. It’s a quieter version of the canyon, higher in elevation, a bit less desert-y feeling. The beauty is surreal. But it wasn’t enough.
The ominous signs at every trailhead warn hikers against attempting to reach the river and return to the rim in a day. But I had to. I had to know the deepest part of the canyon. But I couldn’t do it as a hiker—I needed to run. I’d never dreamed of anything so difficult.
In October 2019, I stood in front of the North Kaibab Trailhead sign for a photo at 5 am. My running partner and I emerged from the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim twelve hours later. I have never felt more alive. In this magical place, I did something I never dreamed of elsewhere. 24 miles of dirt trail passed beneath my feet—the canyon was not an obstacle, but the very thing that sustained me.
Within its walls—I too am grand.