Sunday, September 10, 2017

Grand Adventures in Arizona

Arizona is a land of rattlesnakes, brutal heat and breathtaking canyons (literally last breath-taking for the ~770 people who have died in the Grand Canyon since the 1800s). The toads are poisonous, the snakes are venomous, the plants are prickly and sometimes it's too hot for planes to land (you know, all the makings of a great adventure)! Bonus points for there being no toll roads in the state, so you don't even have to pay to drive towards your impending death!

Last year on our first wedding anniversary, Pete and I were on different continents so we wanted to celebrate our second anniversary (the first one we'd actually get to spend together) with a grand adventure. Neither of us had ever been to the Grand Canyon, so we decided to spend our anniversary exploring one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

We flew into Phoenix on a sunny, 102°F Saturday. The woman in the seat behind us on the plane handed us Ziploc baggies with ear plugs, Lifesavers mints and a note from baby Sophia apologizing for any crying that might occur during her first ever flight (aside from her impeccable manners, baby Sophia has excellent typing skills and good taste in mints). We spent the afternoon wandering around Old Town Scottsdale, being touristy (i.e. taking pictures of all the different kinds of cacti), being hot (Pete) and being so excited to finally be in a place where I wouldn't need pants or a long sleeve shirt (me).

The best thing we found in Old Scottsdale

Cacti of Arizona

Sunday morning we headed to Tonto National Forest and did a 9 mile loop (Pete had wanted to go to the national forest and I'd read about the loop on Todd's Desert Hiking Guide. Thanks, Todd!). We parked at the First Water Trailhead, then took trail 104 to 241 to 236 back to 104. For the first 5 miles, we saw a snake every mile, 4 of them rattlesnakes! At the end of our trip, Pete was getting a haircut and the stylist told him she'd lived in Arizona her whole life and had only ever seen one rattlesnake. On our first full day in the state, we saw 4! (We also saw a bunch of toads. I don't know if they were poisonous, but they were cute). That was enough rattlesnakes for us! Thankfully, we didn't see any more snakes (or any scorpions, which is another thing in Arizona that is trying to kill you) for the remainder of our trip.

Tonto National Forest (popular snake hang out, apparently)


We stayed at the Marriott in Mesa, which had a gold elite members concierge lounge that served free "evening snacks" (cheese and crackers, veggies and dip, pretzels, gummy bears, brownies, etc.) It was the best! So much so that the other Marriotts we stayed in, though they looked much fancier, were disappointing due to their lack of free snacks (thought the Marriott in Phoenix had free laundry machines, soap and dryer sheets, which was pretty sweet). The only reason we got to go in the gold elite lounge was that Pete spent months living out of a Virginia Marriott last year during his pre-deployment and post-deployment training. Luckily, he won't have to do that this year so his gold elite status will end soon. I will happily trade in free snacks for having Pete home.  I will also happily ride this free Pete and free snacks train while it lasts.

Monday morning we hiked Camelback Mountain, which was about 4 miles roundtrip, including the walk to/from the car (there is no parking lot, only on-street parking that was crowded). We followed the Cholla Trail, which is a bit longer and less steep than the Echo Canyon Trail. Though it's rated as "extremely difficult," I didn't think it was difficult (some people have gotten to the summit in only 20 minutes, and that I would find very strenuous/impossible). Near the top, you had to climb up the sides of big rocks and that was my favorite part, obviously. From the top you get a 360° view of the Phoenix area, which was amazing. We checked out of the hotel and drove to Flagstaff, stopping in Sedona for lunch. I saw a sign that said "Coffee / Ice Cream / Bakery" and I was like "I want all those things!" Once inside I was kind of disappointed in the bakery and ice cream selections and Pete was upset that the menu consisted of "only three sandwiches." But the coffee was good, the sandwiches were good and they gave us a tiger order marker instead of a buzzer/number. Monday night we went to the Lowell Observatory, where we got to see Saturn and a nearly full moon through the telescope. Pete also had his longest ever fart in the bathroom there (which I know because he proudly proclaimed it to me afterwards).

Sunrise from Camelback Mountain

On top of Camelback


When I woke up Tuesday morning, I went for a run in Flagstaff. I headed for the Northern Arizona University in search of a track, which I did not find. Instead I found a giant lumberjack statue which was even better. We headed towards the Grand Canyon, stopping to see Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupakti National Monument along the way. The highlight of the day was taking a helicopter (!!!!!) tour over the Grand Canyon! (This was my first ever time in a helicopter and it was awesome! Pete got to take helicopter rides through the desert last year but they were the bad kind where someone might shoot a rocket at you. This year's helicopter ride over the desert was much more scenic and we got to see elk and buffalo, none of whom shot any rockets at us).

Looking for a track, met a giant lumberjack


Ancient pueblo

We're next to a helicopter!!!!

We're in a helicopter!!!!

Grand Canyon from a helicopter!!!!

We stayed at Yavapai Lodge, which is about a mile from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. There are shuttle buses that you can ride to all the South Rim viewpoints. Walking around the Visitors Center on Tuesday evening, I was a little worried reading all the signs about the heat (in the 80's at the rim and the 100's at the bottom of the canyon). We were planning to hike the South Kaibab Trail and the signs said not to go farther than Skeleton Point (3 miles from the rim) for a day hike between May and September. There are plenty of bathrooms along the trail but no water refill spots except at the trailhead.

I really wanted to see more than 3 miles of the trail, but I also didn't want to be one of the 250 hikers who have to be rescued from the Grand Canyon each year (or one of the 250 people who are bitten by squirrels in the Grand Canyon a year. I'm not sure if these are true statistics or if all the caution notices just use the number 250, but either way I did not want to be one of the statistics). Wednesday morning I was in a bad mood. Pete was all "Happy Anniversary" and I was all "Everything is stupid here. Everything I want to do is against the stupid rules for staying alive." But we had made it two years of marriage and we were going on an epic adventure! I ate a Clif Bar, drank some Mountain Dew, pooped in the trailhead bathroom and felt much better. Once we started out on the trail at sunrise, the funk fell away and I was having a blast. To say the Grand Canyon is beautiful is a severe understatement. It looks like a painting - layers of reds, purples, greens and pinks under a blue sky - but a painting you can climb on, which is even better. We stopped to take so many pictures and just to marvel at the surreal landscape. Pete had 170 ounces of water in his pack and I had 82 in mine and we just decided to take it easy and see how we felt. Around mile 4.5 down the trail, Pete wanted to stop and rest before the long trek back up to the rim. He suggested that I continue on down to the river and he'd wait for me to come back up, but I didn't want him to have to wait for me in the heat for hours, so I just ran down to mile 6 and then power hiked back up to him. I had fun running down (I am still working on my downhill running, but South Kaibab is well maintained and not super steep) and even more fun climbing back up. This was my first time canyoning and I prefer it to mountaining because you get to go down then up instead of up then down (I always feel like climbing down from a mountaintop is anti-climactic. The climb up is the part I enjoy most). Once I got back to Pete, we headed upwards back to the rim. I was so excited that whenever Pete stopped to rest, I'd hike up ahead then run back down to him, then hike up again, doing hill repeats like a crazy weirdo. It was not a rim-to-rim or a rim-to-river-to-rim or whatever else people who are stronger and faster than me do in the GC. But we spent 6 hours and 13 miles on an epic trail and didn't run out of water or get bit by squirrels or die. That's my kind of anniversary!
Anniversary-ing it up in the GC

Having a grand time in the Grand Canyon

That view though!

We didn't die!

We ate lunch at the Yavapai Lodge's restaurant and dinner at We Cook Pizza And Pasta, both of which were mediocre (It is true that they cook pizza. It is not true that said pizza is delicious. But! I have to credit We Cook and its brochures for informing me of the existence of Flinstones Bedrock City. So totally worth the so-so pizza). I was not impressed with the food situation at the South Rim or in Tusayan (a little town close by). I don't know why but nothing really tasted good to me (I realize this is an insanely privileged thing to say. I'm extremely fortunate to be able to eat whatever I want whenever I want). Except the Swedish Fish we ate on the trail. Those really hit the spot. And the General Store's snack selection is legit.

On Thursday morning, I was up before the sun so I ran along the Rim Trail, chasing the giant moon in one direction and the sunrise in the other. It was glorious! I could look at the Grand Canyon forever and never tire of that view. Somehow all that emptiness made my heart feel really full. At JP's Stage Stop in Tusayan, we got coffee (very good!) and breakfast sandwiches (very tasteless) and most  importantly, we found in their giftshop the best book ever: Over The Edge: Death In Grand Canyon. We perused the book while drinking our coffee, then at every gift shop we saw (and there are many, many gift shops at the Grand Canyon) Pete would say "Look, they have your death book here!" I didn't really want to pay $25 for a book, but I was also fascinated by the book and did end up buying it at JP's on our way back to Phoenix on Friday (and reading it on the plane ride home. Totally worth $25. It's one of the most interesting, horrifying, incredible things I've ever read. It's not all about death - there are rescues too, those are the best parts. Pete and I joked that every anniversary we're going to go to a different national park and then I'll buy the book about all the deaths there). Valle is just outside of Tusayan so we decided to check out the Flintstones Bedrock City, a decrepit, weird, awesome "amusement park" and RV campground. We were the only visitors there. It was eerie and also most excellent. For $5, you can slide down a giant dinosaur, crawl through a giant snake and walk around cement replicas of the Flintstone and Rubble houses and other Bedrock City buildings in various states of decay. There was even a headless figure in the jail. The lady selling the tickets apologized that the train ride wasn't working since someone had mistakenly left with the key. That just added an extra layer of weirdness and randomness to this strangely awesome roadside attraction. The only thing that was not awesome was the Bedrock Candy. It looked like rocks, which was cool, but tasted like all the worst jellybean flavors, which was not cool.

Husband Man in Bedrock City

Wilma & Betty's houses

Like the train, this car was also inoperable

On our way back through Tusayan, we stopped at the IMAX to watch the only movie it shows, The Secrets of the Grand Canyon. I will sum up this movie by saying:

Things to do in the Grand Canyon (South Rim), from best to worst:
1. Hike into the canyon!!!
2. Helicopter tour!!!
3. Flintstones Bedrock City (the best $5 you can spend in Arizona)
3. Literally anything else (other than dying)
4. The Secrets of the Grand Canyon IMAX movie (the worst $12 you can spend in Arizona)

We spent the rest of Thursday afternoon riding the red shuttle to Monument Point, The Abyss and Hermit's Rest and checking out the canyon views from those overlooks. On Friday, we bid adieu to the canyon and headed back to Phoenix. Pete drove as I read aloud the best sections from the death book. Friday night we went to the Diamondbacks vs Padres game, which was neat because I'd never been to an indoor baseball stadium before.

Friday morning I ran 8 miles along the canal in Scottsdale, then we had breakfast at a restaurant with flying pancakes on the ceiling. The pancakes we ordered did not actually fly but they were quite tasty. Then it was time to head to the airport and make our way back home. No babies gave us mints on the return flight, but as we were deplaning in Rochester, a little girl behind us said to her dad "I'm exhausted. My legs don't work. Can I ride on your back?" (This is totally me after an ultra). It was a fantastic adventure out west with my favorite adventure partner. Someday I'd like to go back and see the West and North Rims of the Grand Canyon, it was just too far of a drive to add to this trip. But now both the mountains and the canyons are calling and I must go (and hopefully not end up in a book about people who died there). I know I say this all the time, but that's because it's true: I am so lucky that this is my life and Pete is my  husband and these are our adventures. I hope we get many more years of exploring the summits and depths together. Preferably with good ice cream and without poisonous snakes.

Preventing forest fires

Sadly, the only mountain lion we saw in AZ
Heart eye emojis times 87 million

Lyric of the moment: "And we roll on in the darkness. To some city far away. Lug our sorrows, pains and angers. And we turn them into play. There's no time to dwell upon it. It's this life that we chose. That made it all worth living. Through the horrors that life throws..." ~Drive By Truckers "Grand Canyon"