A friendship on the rocks

11:00 p.m Friday, Dec. 30, 2016 Travel
A visitor walks out on a precipice near Mather Point in the Grand Canyon just before sunset. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Looking back, our friendship first bumped into some rocks six years ago.

From there it kept dropping, scraping metal against jagged stone, before regaining stability and getting airborne again — just barely — in the last few years. So it seems fitting that it took a hike into the deepest, rockiest gorge in the country to revive the battered relationship between me and one of my longtime friends.

We used to run together, sharing every deep secret and digestive ailment as we ticked off the miles while training for a marathon. I dragged her on camping adventures and multiday bike rides, bat-watching excursions and road trips. We played Scrabble and rode her horses and flopped off our bikes onto our backs in the bright sunshine, gazing up at the sky and laughing about nothing.

We were the best of friends, until one day we weren’t.

It happened in a hurtful way, too, one that made my heart feel like a soft pillow getting slowly ripped apart at the seams. I’m opinionated and strong-willed, I know, and that doesn’t always work so well when you’re trying to nurture something fragile.

A few weeks before I headed to the Grand Canyon on a work assignment in November, something inside me made me pick up the phone and invite that friend, Marcy Stellfox, to come along.

She didn’t hesitate to respond: Yes. And in the days leading up to the trip, I didn’t hesitate to fret about whether inviting her was a good decision.

We booked flights into Phoenix. From there, we rented a car and drove nearly four hours to the Grand Canyon, where we’d stay at the recently renovated Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim.

Fifteen minutes into that road trip, I knew we’d done the right thing. The thoughts that spilled out of our heads lined up so evenly you’d think we’d read from the same script before we climbed into the car. And now, with memories of one of the best girl trips ever coursing through my brain, I can see that tackling something tough — like a hike 5,000 feet into a gorge and back in one day — probably saved our friendship.

About 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year. It’s so big it’s hard to comprehend — the canyon stretches for 277 miles and spans 10 miles in spots. Astronauts can see it from space. In one swift glimpse it’ll make you contemplate your insignificance on the planet.

A quick pit stop to the visitors center gave us some background: It took 6 million years for water to carve this chasm, and it gets deeper by about the thickness of a sheet of paper every year. It looks desolate at first, but more than 2,000 species of plants and animals live here, including the rare California condor, with its 9-foot wingspan.

The real beauty, for me, though, doesn’t show in a single glance. It appears in the ever-changing vista of light and color that evolves as the day arrives, blazes and then fades — and in the things the vastness spurs inside your head.

We’d decided (against the advice of signs depicting an overheated, projectile-vomiting hiker) to walk down the South Kaibab Trail to the river and then come up the Bright Angel Trail in one day. That’s 5,000 feet down and back up again. I’d done a rim-to-rim hike from the north side to the south side once before, though, and knew we were both fit enough to make the trip.

It would push us hard, but we needed something that would make us suffer a little.

As we stood at the trailhead on the morning of our hike, gazing down at a switchbacking path that led into what may as well have been a Vortex of Doom, we picked up our walking sticks and figuratively leaped in.

Here’s the thing about hiking or running or backpacking or camping. You lay everything out there for whoever you’re walking with: Muscle aches. Loves. Hates. Fears. Embarrassing stories. We covered all that and more. The lower we crept into the canyon, the more personal it got. We told each other stories we’d never told each other.

Somehow, the conversation amplified the beauty.

We lurched downhill for 6.3 miles, stopping to snap photos and greet a team of horses tied up at a rail. We chatted with a female ranger, who assured us we could make it back to the top before the sun set. We met a hiker in his 80s, making his fourth trip to the bottom and back. We leapfrogged with a woman hiking solo.

We soaked all of it in, layer upon layer of inspiration.

It took about four hours to reach the bottom, where we stared at the rushing river of chocolate milk for a while, wondering how swiftly it would carry us away. From there we broke off onto the mostly flat River Trail, which hugs the hillside for 2 miles, winding between red slabs of rock that look like giant shovel blades pitched in the ground. Then we started the 6-mile trek to the top.

Unlike the sun-exposed South Kaibab Trail, the Bright Angel Trail dips into thickets of trees and traces a creek. Marcy stands 5-foot-2 and I’m 5-foot-8, but we matched pace.

We talked. And hiked. And talked some more.

We discussed our parents (my dad died in 2014; hers has had a bout with serious illness), our friends and our husbands, who’ve known each other almost 30 years. We talked careers. And we talked dreams. She’s fallen in love with the country life, savoring days spent with her horses. I’ve developed a craving for adventure that I can’t seem to satiate.

Despite the differences, we think about life the same way: We want to live it all out, without regrets.

I’m not much of a believer in fate. I think you make choices, and life responds accordingly. I’m a reporter; I can’t help it. But Marcy believes some things happen for a reason.

If I did believe in fate — and after this trip, maybe I do, just a little — I’d tell you that someone, or something, meant this adventure to happen.

And for that, I’m grateful.

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