The Grand Staircase, Part One
- Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.


I don’t love flying, not that I would call it a phobia. I’m not like B.A. Barrakas from the A-Team or anything, but if there was a scale from one to ten (one being as fearless of flying as a duck, and ten being, the only way you’re getting on a plane is if Murdoch distracts you while Hannibal injects a sedative into your bloodstream), I’m at about seven.

I sat at the Indianapolis airport stuffing airport cuisine into my mouth, hand cupped under my chin to keep a messy sandwich off the floor. I waited for my flight to Salt Lake City to meet up with Randy, a friend of about 18 years.

“Grand Canyon, September?” This instant message from Randy popped up on my computer screen July of 2008. A couple months passed since my last trip, but I was already itching for the next one. I knew I wanted to go west, just not sure where. This would definitely work.

“Sure,” I replied. That was that, the planning began.

Over the next few weeks, we brainstormed and settled on a tour of the Grand Staircase: the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon with a stop in Las Vegas. The name "Grand Staircase" comes from the topography of the region. The rim at the Grand Canyon is at the height of the canyon floor at Zion, the rim above Zion is at the height of the floor of Bryce Canyon, sort of creating stair steps. If all went as planned, I would cross off six items from my list.

I flipped through the latest Backpacker magazine with my backpack on the floor between my feet. “We are now boarding flight 1023 to Minneapolis…,” said a voice over the intercom. That was me. I slid the magazine into the backpack and grabbed my ticket.

Soon speeding down the runway, I stared out the window as the land shrank below me and disappeared under a blanket of clouds. I turned off my overhead light as the sun began to set. Above the clouds, the sky was the deep blue you see in that narrow window between sunset and the black of night. A clearing opened in the middle of the white fluffy terrain revealing a fiery red sky below. When squinting I could imagine it to be a sweltering lake of fire and lava. A vision perhaps skewed by a tinge of irrational fear.

I pulled a book from my pack and tried reading. My mind wandered over the same page over and over. I tried sleeping, but couldn’t. I scribbled a few things in my journal and put it away. I leaned my temple next to the window and surveyed the sky, as I approached my layover at the St. Paul/Minneapolis airport.

The fasten seatbelts sign lit up and we began our decent. City lights came into view. Vehicle taillights flowed like red blood cells through veins of street light. Moonlight reflected off dozens of Minnesota lakes with a silvery glow. In general, the world hustles and bustles, but from up here, it seems to creep along like a slug. Tiny cars and ant-sized people inch forward deliberately, peaceful and affable. My view on humanity evidently improves, relative to my distance from it. Even a big-box store with glowing skylights fascinates me from this height. If I ever get to go into outer space (number 106 on my life list) my joyful brain will explode.

The plane landed with a soft jolt and screech. Feeling hungry again already, I moved toward the food court. All of my diet and nutrition rules go out the window when I’m on a backpacking trip. Calories are your friend when toting around thirty pounds of gear over hills and through valleys several miles every day. It is one of the many reasons I love doing it, but this trip wouldn’t involve calorie-demanding backpacking. “I’ll have a number two,” I said to the cashier at the airport McDonald’s. I gave in anyway.

I don’t mind layovers. It’s nearly impossible to not eavesdrop on the people coming and going: an elderly saleswoman endorsing a super antioxidant snake oil to a young college student, whose face snarled when the woman said the words “Big Pharma”, a confident looking young woman with long red hair and formal black and white dress traveling alone. An African-American man in desert-brown camo saying, “Yeah, I’m on the ground now baby, I’ll be home soon”, into a cell phone. There is a story everywhere you look.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” a man asked a boy of about ten, pausing a moment from flirting with the boy’s mother. “Well, I’ve been thinking lately that I’d really like to become an astronomer,” he said more intelligently than his age. “Since when?” his mother asked. “You’re going to be a radiologist, remember? There’s a lot more money in that.” Carl Sagan sighed and turned in his grave, I know it.

I wanted to tell him how fortunate and rare it was to know what you want to do with your life at such a young age, or any age for that matter. I wanted to tell him to ignore those that cloud decisions with thoughts of money and that astronomers rarely starve from the lack of it. I knew deep down I should be saying that to myself as well.

They began boarding passengers for my flight to Salt Lake. Minutes later, we were back in the sky. I buried my face in a book and tried to appear as if I wasn’t hearing the conversation beside me. I couldn’t help it. I tried to determine if the guy worked at a mental hospital, or was temporarily out on leave. I really couldn’t tell. I only got about three pages into the book in about an hour of pretend reading when he said, “You know, I think Sarah Palin is the most qualified person to be president, I really do.” I had my answer.

Randy picked me up at the SLC airport. Number 93, “Visit Randy in Utah”, could officially be scratched from my list. We made a midnight grocery store run and filled the cart with easy camping meals, along with an impulse-buy deck of cards at the checkout counter. We unloaded everything back at his house. Brand new gear and food filled the room: backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, hiking shoes, hydration packs, enough food for three, and vapor-wicking clothing.

Sweaty clothing and cool temperatures don’t mix. Randy learned the importance of vapor-wicking non-cotton clothing the previous year when hiking in cold temperatures. He didn’t have much gear so had to purchase it all for this trip. It can be expensive, but the memories that will come from using it will be priceless. I absolutely guarantee it. Even if I had to repurchase it every year, it would still be worth it.

After taking the time to set aside all the things we didn’t really need to take, we packed it all into the car anyway. Randy handed me some blankets and showed me where I could sleep. In two hours, we would be heading to the Grand Canyon.

Part Two >