When I was 19, my uncle Joe—who lived in Arizona—asked if I wanted to join his twice-yearly backpacking trip down into the Grand Canyon.
I’d never hiked more than a couple miles in my life, and he was asking if I wanted to sign on to pretty serious trip: five days of hiking about 40 miles with everything you need to live on your back, going a mile down vertically, then having to schlep yourself back up.
I said sure, because I was 19 and I didn’t know any better.
Being 19 is the closest feeling I’ll ever have to being a superhero. I frequently rolled off a couch and into a 10k run or a 50 mile charity bike ride without any thought of training or being prepared. And I always came out of those experiences just fine. No matter what I did to myself at that age, I’d pop out of bed feeling back to 100% every morning.
Luckily, my other uncle, Tom, lived nearby and was also going on the trip. He set me up with one of his old external-frame aluminum backpacks from the 1970s. I loaded it up with the things on the checklist they gave me, and though it weighed about 40lbs without any food, I was told to be prepared to repack when we got to Arizona, where Uncle Joe would spread our food out among everyone on the trip equally.
We all met in Flagstaff and went over our gear. We agreed to leave about half of the things I packed behind (including a tent!), and with all the shared food my pack weighed about 35lbs. I figured I could handle this because, again, I was 19.
We hit the road early in the morning and arrived at the rim of the Grand Canyon to my first ever viewing of it in person. It was a panoramic view wider than I ever believed possible, and honestly as we approached it I feared the Grand Canyon might have been oversold to me as one of the most breathtaking views in the world, but it did not disappoint.
To this day the Grand Canyon is one of the few natural places that you can’t possibly build up too much as it will always exceed people’s expectations for how spectacular it looks. The Grand Canyon delivers.
Around 9AM we hit the southernmost trailhead (no burros, not that many people on it at all honestly) and started our journey down. Many years later I’d realize the best thing about canyon backpacking is all the food weight on your back is heaviest on your way down, and gets progressively lighter during your trip until you finally hike up and out.
Descending through the Canyon was sublime. Every hour or so you’d be in a different sedimentary rock formation, often of a different color. I keenly remember seeing fossilized sea shells fairly high up and early in the trail, which boggled my mind and made some religious hikers on the trip nervous (they were sure the canyon was made in a week by Noah’s flood).
By the late afternoon, we arrived at a big flat clearing that’d be our campsite for the night, and I finally got to take my big, heavy, sweat-soaked backpack off and walk around to take it all in. And in those brief moments of relaxing while feeling a sense of accomplishment, I was immediately reminded of how I didn’t belong there because a chipmunk hopped on my bag and used its teeth to immediately tear into the nylon pockets, gnawing on my bag of trail mix.
About 30 seconds later I noticed what was going on, and yelled. The chipmunk took off with a half eaten bag of nuts and berries, and I borrowed a sewing kit to patch the backpack back up.
Later on we made dinner, talked for a bit, and after the sun went down, we all laid down to sleep. It was the first time I’d ever slept outside without a tent, just a sleeping bag on top of a thin sleeping pad, on top of sun-baked dirt. I remember it taking me quite a long time to go to sleep even though I was completely exhausted, mostly because everything happening was all so new to me.
At some point in the middle of the night, I woke up and opened my eyes a bit and it was so surprisingly bright, I got immediately concerned. We were in a remote part of the park and there wasn’t a street light for probably 50 miles, and there were amazing stars like I’ve never seen, but at the center of the sky was this lit-up cloud of stuff between all the stars. I sorta sat there for a while trying to make sense of it, but eventually drifted back to sleep.
Over breakfast in the morning, I said hey everyone, I saw something weird last night, it was dark and I woke up and the stars were bright but there was also this cloud that looked like gas or smoke but it was kind of lit up and what on earth was that, was there maybe a fire at night nearby?
My Uncle Joe looked puzzled then said “That was The Milky Way, dummy!” and laughed.
And then it hit me. I was never in the Boy Scouts. I’d never slept outside. I’d never not lived in a busy city before. I’d barely seen some stars while on vacation in the mountains before, but I’d never in my entire 19 years had seen the actual Milky Way everyone talked about and my only response was “Ohhhhh, is that what the Milky Way is supposed to be?!”
I slept just fine the other nights, but each time the bright-as-hell Milky Way passed over our campsite, I would wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning because it was so bright it was almost like car headlights pointed into your bedroom.