~Sunrise over the Canyon~
With the thermometer at the head of the trail already reading 90 degrees, I was glad that I resisted hitting the snooze button and dragged my body out of bed before sunrise. Of course, rising before the sun is certainly not something that I am accustomed to doing regularly, but then, neither is hiking. As the sun peaks gloriously over Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas, it looks as if it is going to be a day of trying new things. On the agenda is a hike with my ten year old son, Evan. It’s just the two of us-an extreme rarity, and neither of us has very much hiking experience. We are visiting the Grand Canyon of Texas, and the rust striped walls practically beg for exploration by foot, so we plan to do a six mile round trip hike to the Lighthouse formation. The hike and the formation are considered the signature experience of the park, so we plan to do our best to see the best.
The First Three Miles: Interminable and Uncertain
The early morning is still and cooler than the thermometer would suggest. The sun is making a show of colors in the sky, but isn’t high enough to peek over the canyon. For the moment, we walk in shadow and silence. The pace can only be described as sluggish. This early in the morning, six miles seems like a very long walk and the trail seems to stretch on interminably. The sights in the canyon are breathtaking with Capitol Peak and Spanish Skirts to our left, but there is no sign of our final destination, even if we peer as far into distance as we can see. The lack of visual assurance makes the hike seem even longer, and we are even uncertain that we will have the will to make the trek.
The mile markers are stalwart cheerleaders edging us forward 1/10th of a mile at a time. The trail doesn’t seem incredibly steep, but there must be some incline, as we are both winded and agree to take a rest at the one mile mark. Breaking the trail into bite sized chunks makes it more manageable from a mental standpoint. At one mile, I can tell that Evan, who is normally a go- getter, is feeling a bit daunted. He even suggests that we rest at the next half mile marker, so I know that I am going to have to step up my encouragement game, especially if we are going to stay ahead of the sun.
The second mile passes with the same trudging, although a few wildlife encounters break up the steps. At the 1.5 mile, we can finally see the Lighthouse formation in the distance. In some ways it makes it seem more doable, but the distance still seems so far. At the two mile stop, we have some breakfast from my backpack, and have to will ourselves to get up and get moving again. Every mile marker seems like it’s taunting us now. We finally reach the picnic tables that signal the final climb to the formation. We are so close, but looking up the trail, we are still so far.
The Ultimate Stair Master Workout
The final climb to the reach the top of the trail is rumored to be very short, but insanely steep. Standing at the bottom, I can attest to the steepness, and I am just hoping that it is really short enough. We’ve come too far to turn back, so we start the ascent. It is raw climbing experience that quickly drives us to scramble on all fours to cope with the steep grade and tumbling gravel. We instantly begin to sweat profusely, as we grunt and groan our way to the top. Taking a page from what I learned from the early bit of the hike, I start to break the climb into sections, only this time the breaks are not only mental, but physical. To keep us encouraged, I’ll point to a stop a few feet above and promise that we will stop and rest when we reach that rock. It’s only six or seven steps and we have to sit and heave air into our lungs and shake out our legs. This part of the climb has none of the monotony of the beginning of the trail, but it makes up for it in physical challenge.
After another six scrambling steps, I flop onto a table-flat rock and I am almost ready to declare that I can’t make it any further. Evan’s face bears the same exhaustion, so we are both elated and relieved to see that we are two feet from the pinnacle. Still on all fours, we scramble the last few feet and our reward is a clear view of the Lighthouse Peak. Evan immediately jumps up and pumps his fist several times in the air. The adrenaline of victory is stronger than the fatigue.
The Final Ascent: a Private Moment of Celebration
High on our stair master victory, it seems effortless to scramble up the side of the formation and reach the flat bridge that joins Lighthouse Rock to nearby Castle Rock. We are the only people on the rock this early in the morning, and I am thankful for the real time reminder that the early bird gets the worm. Our efforts would have been far less rewarding if we hadn’t had the whole rock to ourselves.
After surveying the landscape, we each grab a seat at the base of the Lighthouse, and I pull two pears out of my bag. They are the perfect post climb snack, sweet and thirst quenching and we enjoy them side by side. The views are breathtaking for sure, but they are eclipsed by the feeling of accomplishment. Another adage comes to life and I understand why people say that “it’s not the destination, but the journey.”
As a final farewell to our achievement, we grab some cursory pictures. A landing jutting from the side of the rock seems like the perfect place to grab a picture. I cross over the narrow passage first, just to be sure it is safe, and then I encourage Evan to try, as well. Of course, I know that he has a huge fear of heights with a particular quirk about caverns and canyons, so I am expected to be turned to down. Instead, he saunters out onto the rock and poses for some unbelievable pictures. I am reminded that success begets success, and my heart fills with gratitude to have the privilege to share this moment with him.
The Return Trip: Floating on Air
Buoyed by the sensation of the morning, we practically float back down the trail. The steep grade that made for such a challenging climb up makes for a treacherous climb down. Sliding on our backsides seems the easy way to not careen into the rocks, and even with that, we both take a nasty slide. Ignoring the bruises that will throb later in the day, we carry on with a skip in our step. Although we are retracing our same path from earlier in the morning, the steps are much lighter and pass with ease. In fact, we pass the same mile markers without even so much as a notice. Accomplishment adrenaline is a strong substance that should be bottled and sold.
With the sun in full force over the canyon, a little over three hours have passed. It feels like an eternity that passed in an instant since we started at the trailhead with the sunrise. There is a feeling of significance, as if the three hours and six miles were more than just steps and time. The trail is beginning to fill with other families, and we pass along our words of encouragement as we slide past each other on the narrow trail. The uncertainty that we felt at the beginning of the hike is echoed in the questions of how far and how hard. While my thoughts are more about the technical aspects of the trail, Evan has more philosophical words of wisdom. “It’s tough, but it’s worth it,” he offers as a verbal high five to the other kids on the trail.
The last mile of the trail is almost silent, but as we round the last bend, Evan has a need to sum up the experience before it is officially over. “It was definitely worth it, Mom, and I am glad it was tough because it made it feel so awesome when it was over.”
Didactic moments were the last thing on my mind when I dragged my body out of the bed before the sun, but it was a bonus for the effort and a little piece of greatness to have such a tangible life lesson bought by a little bit of sweat. With my legs and lungs burning from the experience, I appreciated the quick reminder of the worth of doing new things together. It was more than just a way to pass the time, but a way to make the time that past have life long value.
“I’m never going to forget this feeling,” my young inspirational hiker said as we pounded the last few steps on the trail.
Me neither, buddy. Me neither.