In the desert landscape of Hopi land, runners draw attention to water, reverence, and life.
As the sun creeps over the arid desert during the early morning hours, runners listen in silence as a cadent Hopi prayer is recited by an elder over the intercom, initiating their 31-mile journey. His voice is soft, giving no thought to how he may sound through a microphone; his prayers and intents do not need amplification. A few modest tents containing registration information and snacks circle the small group of pulsing runners as they wait for the clock to start. The neon pinks and yellows of their high-tech running gear stands out in contrast to the tans and browns of the mesa.
"I run in reverence for all living things. In our prayers, may we always remember that water is life.”
At the start line, Bucky Preston recites the motto for the Paatuwaqatsi Run, a footrace held on the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona every September. There are three courses: a 4-mile, 10-mile and 50K, which all follow ancient and technical trails. The quote—printed on the participant t-shirts and held in the hearts of the run organizers—is an intention that carries the weight of a running history and human responsibility that goes back for generations.
While there is a clock present, time doesn’t matter on these trails, which have been used by the Hopi people for generations to connect communities and hold spiritual value.
According to Bucky Preston, who founded the event in 2003, the run’s end goal is more than just completion.
“It is not a race, it is a spiritual run,” said Preston.
Raised in the small town of Walpi on the Hopi reservation, he believes that running these trails maintains the values and tradition of his heritage.
“The run was created to stimulate thought, prayer, and meditation,” said Kim Secakuku, who has been the race director for the past eight years. “It is a different kind of run than competition. It is instilling how running is a way of prayer and sense of spirituality—it is good for the soul.”
Preseton’s message is clear: he is excavating the deeper meaning behind running, what it really means culturally, to Hopi.
“I want to see that effort return to our community,” Preston writes on the event’s website. “Putting Hopi life values and teachings at the forefront is the purpose of the run.” The run begins and ends with a prayer; it is a sacred experience for many involved.
He created the event, also known as “The Water is Life Run,” with intent to reclaim recognition for the running tradition of his people and for the water that is so scarce and cherished in the Arizona desert.
Running for water has been a central part of Preston’s life for years. Running hundreds of miles from his home to various destinations, he has drawn local attention to the issues facing native peoples and this essential resource. “There’s a lot happening today with water everywhere. I’ve been doing these runs all the time,” he said. “ I’ve run to Flagstaff and Zuni and Acoma and all my campaigns are about water.”
Around 72 miles north of Preston’s birthplace is the Kayenta Mine — a sprawling excavation site, where the Peabody Western Coal Company has mined for coal since 1973. The mine occupies nearly 45,000 acres.
Coal mining uses an exorbitant amount of water for controlling dust and creating coal slurry. The Kayenta Mine pumps millions of tons of water out of the Navajo Aquifer every year — the primary source of fresh water for communities on both Navajo and Hopi land. The depletion of water in the area has led to sacred springs, the sources of ceremonial water, being vastly reduced or disappearing altogether.
According to the Peabody Energy website, “Peabody’s Arizona operations have injected an estimated $3 billion in economic benefits for tribal communities. For example, native people comprise more than 90 percent of Kayenta Mine’s 430-person workforce.”
Still, the unemployment rate on reservations remains above the national average while ceremonial waters are running dry. Preston believes the costs of coal mining greatly outweigh the benefits.
“We have to have humility and prayer and sacredness — and water is sacred,” Preston said. “The way we do things in ceremonies all has to do with water and that’s why we have to protect it.”
Preston, along with many other activists in Arizona, including the Black Mesa Trust and the Black Mesa Water Coalition, have spoken out against Peabody Energy and their activities on Hopi and Navajo land for decades.
The coal mining industry is just one of the many water issues that have plagued the reservations in the recent century. Arsenic—in concentrations twice the limit recommended by the EPA—is present in the Hopi drinking water. After the introduction of livestock and coal mining at the turn of the 20th century, wells were drilled by the US government and stakeholders on Hopi land, which later led to the introduction of running water to their villages.
In many areas in the west, arsenic is present in ground water. In the past, Hopi people had relied on springs for clean, potable water. When running water was introduced in the 1980s from these wells, tribe members noticed an odd taste to it; but with the springs depletion and increasing population, there was little choice but to drink it.
Today, nearly 75% of Hopi people are drinking the tainted well water, with little resources or funding to implement solutions. Many drive for hours to purchase bottled water from outside the reservation to supply their homes—an unsustainable band-aid for the health of the tribe. Cancer rates on the reservation are significantly higher than other communities in Arizona.
There are constant efforts to rebuild infrastructure and purify the water, such as the recent authorization to build a pipeline running from First and Second Mesa (the areas with the highest levels of contamination) to cleaner wells in the northern part of the reservation. Yet, there are insufficient resources and funding to complete these projects, which may take years.
“This run provides the outside world a way to see how these issues affect Hopi,” says Sekakuku.
Dozens of people, from all corners of the nation, travel to participate. “It creates awareness that most people don’t think of,” she said.
In such a dry place, the sand is merciless. 50K participants run across the starting line and immediately into a series of sand traps. Vegetation and root systems, which typically keep soil in place, are absent along the trails, resulting in long sections of loose and unforgiving terrain. Each step up sinks in just deep enough to make one feel as though they are running in place. At the top of the first hill, only a half mile in, many can be seen sitting on the ground dumping a waterfall of sand out of their shoes. Some battle the grains throughout the entire endeavor, stopping to empty their Hokas and Asics with such frequency that they would be better off without them—not seemingly far from the truth as those sporting sandals or less trot past their cushioned companions.
Between periodically hurdling themselves over sandy hills and across dry creek beds, runners are relieved to pummel their dusty feet on rocky mesa trails—until that too, becomes unbearable and sand a blessing. All the while, the unrelenting sun beats down upon Hopi land.
“Even just being out there and running around in the desert heat, you get a sense of extreme scarcity, specifically water,” says runner Edward Kemper, 33, of Flagstaff, Arizona. “It's dry, to put it simply.”
The course is laden with enough challenges to break down any runner. However, this event stands out in its ability to braid the struggle with Preston’s campaign for the sanctity of culture and water.
“It’s a deeply personal and spiritual event,” said Andy Bessler, a former member of the Sierra Club who now manages the race’s bank account. “You really get the picture that there is a survival component of this issue — that water is critical. You have people just saying thank you … It’s transformative for some people. I have seen people break down and cry.”
Wyatt Brown, 43, of Flagstaff Arizona, was one of those people when he ran in 2010. “By the time I finished the race, I was physically depleted,” he says. “I was crying and bleeding, and at the same time my mind was full of all of this crazy information that all the locals had given me out there. You weren't just running a race, you were running for their life.”
Sand and dust slip into every crease and crevice and coat every surface. By mile 20, neon blue compression socks are brown. Hot pink shorts are tan. Beet red faces are grainy with salt and earth. The runners begin to blend in with the desert hues, melting into the topography.
They look less like foreigners, more like the land.
“Askwali! Askwali!” a group of women shout near an aid station. “Thank you!”
The Paatuwaqatsi Run emits the spirit of Hopi history. It is a platform for shared experiences between non Native Americans and those who call the reservation home.
Many participants, like Tiana Tallant, 28, of Flagstaff, Arizona, find themselves running back year after year because of the opportunity to connect across cultures.
“What is meaningful to me is the simplicity of the event, the fullness of which people are present,” says Tiana. “It's about connecting, looking at something greater than yourself. Everyone is going out there in the spirit of doing the same thing—everyone is trying as hard as they can.”
Bessler, who has been present through the evolution of the run over the years, recognizes the importance of taking these lessens home. “I think every year revives me,” he says “Everyone should strive to be Hopi . That means living in peace, living in a good way. I really try to strive to be Hopi as best as I can. This run reminds me of that.”
The Hopi run hard, and the race is an ode to a long history of their running culture—characterized by excellent race performance, but grounded in spirit. “Run as hard as you can, pray as hard as you can, that's part of it. But it's a prayer. It's a running prayer,” says Bessler.
More than a century ago, Lewis Tewanima, a Hopi who spent most of his life living on the reservation, became a two time olympian and hero for the tribe. There is an annual run held on Second Mesa in honor of his achievements. The tribe’s success has continued into recent years; the Hopi High School boys cross country team held an impressive 27-year streak as Arizona state champions, which was only broken this past year.
The Hopi people are long distance runners: a tradition woven into oral stories and practical needs alike. Before the introduction of modern transportation and livestock, the tribe relied on running for their survival.
“Part of our cultural background is being runners,” says Secakuku. “That is the way Hopi people communicated among the villages—but it also it played a role in our culture and religious acts. Making offerings to those shrines and springs continue the prayers, so that life can continue to exist, for all humankind. So that the world will continue to grow in a good way.”
For centuries, neighboring villages across Hopi land have also challenged each other in races along the trails featured in the Paatuwaqatsi Run—those that Preston has rebuilt and is bringing back to life. In this ancient prayer practice, “winners” were not rewarded with medals, but with the prospect and hope of water and well being for the people. These races have carried out an emphasis that running strengthens the heart, mind and body of the individual, but also of the whole community by bringing water and abundance.
As Hopi values have dwindled with the introduction of modern transportation and technology, so have the trails through lack of use.
"These trails are like the blood vessels of our body,” Preston tells runners at the starting line. “Spread out, but all connected. When you put the footprints on the land, that's calling the rain, and it's calling the Kachina and the Cloud People."
Preston emphasizes the ancient wisdom of his ancestors: human thoughts and actions influence the coming of rain. When people are spiritually imbalanced, the relationship with the clouds are compromised—the rain will not come, and the springs run dry. According to this wisdom, water is the blood that sustains all life, and trails are the village veins. Running them brings rain, because each footstep is a prayer to the Earth that keeps the trails alive and flowing, like water.
“Our knowledge, laws and ways of life teach us to be responsible at all times in caring for this sacred gift [water] that connects all life,” reads The Indigenous Declaration on Water, written collectively by indigenous peoples from all over North America at the International Conference on Water for People and Nature in 2001. “In ceremony and as time comes, the Water sings. Her songs begin in the tiniest of streams, transforms to flowing rivers, travels to majestic oceans, and thundering clouds, and back to the earth, to begin again. When Water is threatened, all living things are threatened.”
The indigenous sentiment that water is life—that water is alive—births practices, ancient and modern, that revere and protect the waters. The Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the Water is Life run, and the formation of political campaigns dedicated to the protection of this animate resource are modern manifestations of an ancient principal.
Running the veins of the land, offering gifts to the springs, protesting the contamination of rivers, or praying with our footsteps like drums on the earth—is is all about water.
In the final miles, the desert paints skin and gear with the arid camouflage of soil and challenge and the lines between cultures blur.
A Hopi woman stands at the finish line, holding a clay pot filled with water. Someone is speaking over the intercom.
“One day we will all leave this earth, but our footprints will stay.”
As runners step across the finish line, she pours the water over each salt-stained face. For each runner, the water revives, replenishes and renews. The physical rejuvenation emphasizes the central reason for why we run: water is life.
I'm not very old, nor am I all that experienced. I am not a wise old woman with the grand perspective of age. However, I am waist-deep in one of the most slap-in-the-face, learn-it-the-hard-way, and transformational stages in growing up (since let’s face it, nobody's ever done with “growing up”). Being 20 years old for me means trying to figure out what I want to do for a living, deciding that I never actually want to work ever, realizing that I have no money and actually want to work a lot, balancing this work with school and play, deciding that I need to drop out of college, realizing that I love learning and actually want to stay in college forever, having weekly identity crises, thinking that I somehow need to prove myself, feeling like I have nothing to offer the world (and then feeling like I am the best later that same day), and trying to single-handedly take on the world’s environmental and social issues.
Sometimes, I feel like a mess, with all of this bouncing around in my brain-piece. I often feel overwhelmed with all of the tasks I need to complete, and all of the wonderful things the world has to offer. My brain says, “Why can’t I fix everything RIGHT NOW? Why don’t I have the time to climb EVERYTHING and visit EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY and master EVERY skill EVER?!” Well, it simply cannot be done-- not all at once, at least. As time goes on and my experience grows, I am becoming more and more aware of an omnipresent aspect of life and nearly all challenges that we face as humans: the need to break it down. We are not sharks that can eat our meal whole; we take bites, and then chew those bites into even smaller pieces until they are so small that they can be swallowed. The answer is simple, yet difficult to implement: I need to take on life in chunks.
A few weeks ago, I truly realized how present this concept is, regardless of the situation. My good friend and climbing partner Laura and I climbed a route called “Cloud Tower” in Red Rocks, Nevada. Red Rocks is a rock climbing mecca of sorts, with towering cliffs covered with climbs as high as 2,000 feet. Cloud Tower was a 6-pitch, 800-foot climb of a difficult grade. I knew before we even left camp that morning that I was going to be climbing at my mental and physical limit, but the “Laura and Jacky” team is a competent, excited duo, even on scary multi-pitch. We love that stuff. We drove to the trailhead, and hiked to the base of the climb.
We spent the entire day climbing. Each pitch was a challenge in its own way, a chunk to overcome. . As the day progressed, we were pushed in many different ways. Each of us ended up crying at some point during the climb; whether it was related to the runout sections, the exposure, the janky fixed piece, or some other deeply rooted issue, there came a point when we simply had to break down, if even for a half minute. The climb was definitely within our abilities, but it was a journey to get through it.
Finally, we reached the top of the last pitch-- and I was beat. Totally wrecked. This is when I realized the importance of breaking it down in this particular situation. Hours of the day were spent waiting at belay stations for the parties ahead of us to finish climbing-- a delay that cost us the privilege of descending in daylight. As we rigged up for the first rappel to descend the climb, dusk was approaching.
Thus began the next chunk. We put on our headlamps and began the rappel. Kicking myself, I realized that I had forgotten to change the batteries in my headlamp, and was forced to rely heavily on Laura’s beam to supplement my weak glow. I then realized that I had also forgotten my prusik loop used to back up my rappel, forcing me to makeshift one with a cordelette. I was frustrated. We had 6 rappels ahead (6 more than I would have liked considering it was dark). As we came to the end of our ropes on the 3rd rappel, we landed on a ledge where there was supposed to be anchors, but none were to be found.
Thus began the next chunk. While Laura pulled the rope, I desperately looked for any sign of anchor. With no luck, we were forced to makeshift our own… on a small bush-like “tree.” Leaving a sling and carabiner behind, we tentatively rappelled from the vegetation onto the next ledge.
Thus began the next chunk. Not knowing (still) where the next anchors were, we explored the new ledge. After this short detour, Laura managed to discover that on the far side of the bushy ledge where we stood was the pitch 3 belay station. We scrambled over, and continued the descent. As we pulled the rope for the penultimate rappel, we looked at each other in disbelief as the rope would not budge; the rope was stuck.
Thus began the next chunk. Laura volunteered to ascend the rope (with a prusik and grigri...not easy or fun when ascending an entire pitch of climbing when it is past your bedtime). I felt useless at the anchor below. We were cold, and so hungry that we had no appetite. We were exhausted and, while staying positive, ready to be done with this climb. With the rope unstuck, laura made her way back down to the anchor where I waited. We finished the last rappel, and were finally at our packs at 9:30 pm. We packed up, and shared the food we had left: a handful each of sunflower seeds (mmmm dinner!). Relieved to be down, we thought nothing of what lied ahead.
Thus began the next chunk. We navigated steep, rocky downhill “trails.” We hiked for… one hour? Two? We walked and walked, towards the parking lot. Climbers trail to side trail to main trail, we finally arrived at the parking lot. All that was left now was the drive back to camp.
We arrived at camp at 11:00 PM. I would have went to bed without eating, if not for my campmates staying up to save us dinner.
There is no denying that the climb was simply phenomenal. Splitter crack climbing, incredible views, Little Mermaid songs, and heartfelt conversations. I would even argue that the scary, “type II fun” aspects were just as amazing as the more aesthetic parts. However, the challenge required baby steps. Without really knowing it, my brain forced each part of the day into said chunks. If I were to, in those moments of fear and challenge, fully wrap my brain around the entirety of the day and what I was asking of my body and mind, I would have been instantly overwhelmed. I would have panicked. We took on each task individually; one at a time. Complete this, move on. Begin next task. Repeat. That is how you accomplish great things.
I have found that this is how I must move through life, not just climbing. Challenging runs, long essays, and works of art all require the person’s attention to focus in on one single task at a time until the overall feat is completed.
In my studies, I like to look at the big picture with environmental issues. They are all connected and tangled and rooted in society; it is beautifully intertwined and mind-blowing, but overwhelming. I am constantly being bombarded with the “doom and gloom” of what humans have done to Earth and each other, and the relative compounded consequences. With so many problems, it is hard to focus on the small actions that make small, valuable change. Thus, quitting looks like an appealing option when one wants to take on everything at once. The issues all seem so big that ignoring them becomes the easy route, apathy the escape.
Many people tend to feel as though they are worthless if they are not saving the world. My blog isn’t transforming the lives of everyone?! Ah, It is not good enough. In reality, no one can save the world, and no one can fix everything. There is a passage in a book titled “Mutant Message Down Under” that speaks to this issue: “If you can only help one person, good job. Can only help one at a time anyway.” This simple but profound statement is a reminder to the granular nature of change and accomplishment. It is not a matter of flipping a switch-- it is a process, a journey, that must be broken down into smaller and smaller parts until it is a matter of taking one simple action, helping one single person.
It was mid-semester, mid-spring break, and I was in the middle of what I call a “funk.” There was some sort of unidentified uneasiness and discontentment in my mind that was slowly building over time, and choosing to hang around. So, after spending most of my break rock climbing, Amanda and I took off and decided to put the ropes away for a few days in exchange for big backpacks and a little soul-searching. What we didn’t expect, however, was that in our search for peace of mind and time in the wild, we would find something very different...but perhaps equally as important and healing.
What we found was trash. Garbage, waste and unsanitary horrors abound.
Sounds healing, doesn't it?
Amanda and I packed our bags, applied sunscreen, ate a quick snack and took off optimistically down the trail towards our chosen hot spring location, a three mile hike down a narrow canyon right on the border of Arizona and Nevada, by the Hoover Dam. The plan was to hike to the hot springs where we could set up our bivy camp, soak all evening, think about life (or not think at all), and enjoy the company of each other and the sounds of the trickling water. From the beginning, however, it became apparent that we had chosen the wrong location to do such things. The Edward Abbey in me started to come out: sporting an endless commentary on the overuse of the trail, the closeness to the freeway, and the views of the massive bridge from the trail (I won't deny having fantasized about blowing it up along with the nearby dam...).
We stayed the course, and found that the further we hiked, the more litter we saw. And I am not talking just plastic water bottles (though abundantly present). I am talking tons of wrappers of all sorts shoved into huecos and pockets in the rock, countless pairs of panties and boxers abandoned in the rocks and draped over the foliage, used condoms, tampons, sanitary napkins, and the not-so-LNT human feces and accompanied toilet paper seemingly flung all over the canyon (Okay, the feces were not sprayed on the walls or anything, but you get what I mean). It seemed that the closer people got to the springs and the most beautiful parts of the canyon, the less they packed out with them. Amanda and I were appalled, but continued in hopes of escaping to a cleaner oasis.
We eventually made it to the end of the canyon, where the trickling warm water flows into the cold, clear Colorado River (though it was not so clear before dams like these were built-- a notable disturbance to the river ecosystem!). We saw a family playing on a small rocky protrusion at the confluence, and waded out to join them and sit in the sun. Shortly after we arrived, they began hiking back before we had a chance to notice that they left all their garbage behind. We picked up after them, and also retreated to the canyon.
There were many people hiking this canyon, more than we expected. Most were not soaking in the springs, but many were romping around with speakers blasting music, while others preferred eating oranges and depositing the peels throughout the canyon. At this point, we had to let go of our grief over the way people were behaving at the springs and enjoy our time. As dinnertime approached, the majority of people trickled out towards their cars. Embracing the semi-solitude, we walked over to one pool and prepared to soak for the evening. Before getting in, however, nature suddenly called and I was in desperate need of the wag bag in my pack! In such a canyon, there were few cat-hole options, so we opted for these nifty (really, they don't even smell!) bags to deal with our waste. I grabbed the packable poop bag and went on to do my business. Next thing I know, I am mid-movement and making eye contact with some poor soul who had scrambled up over a boulder nearby. He had obviously not spent much time in the outdoors where you inevitably witness such an act. He did not know how to react, and looked pretty horrified to see a girl pooping in a bag. The fun didn't end there, as Amanda also had to take care of her business. When the time came, her bathroom break was also interrupted by an all-angle approach of several groups of people, all inexperienced, confused, and mortified. Amanda screamed (drawing more attention to herself, poor girl) and the innocent bystanders panicked. I laughed.
This situation was humorous, but the two of us figured that at least this was a great learning experience for those people... maybe they would stop pooping all over the canyon and consider the bag option? After all, human feces contamination it is a surprisingly major issue for many watersheds, especially near my home in Northern Arizona. For instance, Slide Rock State Park, a creek swimming and recreational area in Sedona, Arizona, has a recurring issue of E. Coli outbreaks. Fossil Creek, another special place known for its clear waters and falls, has similar issues related to too many people, and not enough LNT ethic. As they say, everyone poops. That does not mean, however, that everyone can poop wherever they want. Being a daily act (hopefully) for all humans, defecation is a major wilderness issue-- an issue that can be avoided with proper disposal techniques.
Enough of that crap (haha), let's move on to the more refreshing aspects of this trip.
The sun was setting, and everyone left. We had the place to ourselves, and we were finally able to relax in the spring. After the exodus of self-unaware mobs of people, we settled into what we had set out to find in the first place: solitude. Sure, we were still surrounded by what they had left behind, but nature spoke through it all and we were soothed. In this time, we were able to contemplate our personal struggles, and also the place-- and what we can learn from it. The spring is an incredibly special place. It is full of beauty, and a source of comfort. The high canyon walls allowed for a slot of starry sky to peek down at us. The hot water trickled until it cooled, and created a singing frog habitat that most who explored the canyon that day didn't hear. Yes, there was trash everywhere. Yes, the dam upstream had altered the ecosystem there. Yes, people come in hoards to pluck up the flowers, trample the plants, and spray paint on the rocks. But that place is special. It deserves to be clean.
To an extent, I can't blame those who trashed this place. It is a product of society, values and education. Most of the waste down there is a result of those who have been taught to have these habits. They don't know better, because that is all they have ever known. However, it is still not justified, nor is it right. The people that Amanda and I saw had no clue that they were impacting the area. They do not know the monumental significance of every single action that they make. They do not understand that something thrown away never actually goes away. How is someone to know that they should defecate in a bag or bury it if they have never been taught Leave No trace principles? Why should I expect so much of someone who is not even conscious of any of this?
After sleeping under the stars, we woke up and enjoyed the quiet morning. When the new day brought new crowds, we packed up our gear and prepared to leave--but we could not leave this place in the condition it was in. Amanda, always being prepared, had a 50 gallon trash bag with her (intended for waterproofing, but also great for trail clean-ups!) as well as medical gloves in her first aid kit. We each took a glove, and went to work. We crawled into nooks and retrieved many pounds of trash. We grabbed ungodly items and gathered smelly, awful things (thank you gloves!). We loaded the trash bag and hauled it with us up and out of the canyon, gathering what we could along the way. It was a laborious task, passing the 30-pound bag up 4th class scrambling sections in addition to our overnight packs. The bag reeked, but it felt good to be getting the junk out of the canyon. As we were hiking out, we passed many people heading to the springs. We kindly reminded everyone we passed to pack out their trash, and while some laughed or ignored us, many people took interest and appreciated the comment. By the end of it, we were pretty tired for such a short hike. But we did what we could, and it felt good to know that while we were cleaning the place up, we were also being proactive by setting an example and showing the hikers how trash accumulates.
Friday, 6pm: I had just finished up my afternoon yoga class when I went downtown to meet up with my buddies on the patio of our favorite brewery. It was there that Eddie, who I had talked to in the past about my ultramarathon training endeavors, asked me to join him in running the Grand Canyon the next day. At first, I was doubtful and did not commit. I was not that far into my training and only logged up to 20 miles at a time on my long days, and I had no idea how my body would react to such steep terrain. However, I could not stop thinking about it...I had hiked the canyon several times, and had been dying to run it for a while. I couldn't just turn this opportunity down! I often try things way outside of my ability and-- well-- it doesn't always turn out successful, but at least I am used to it, right? After a beer and some pizza, I said yes. I knew that I was strong, and this would just be a test… what am I getting myself into?
“See you at 5am, Eddie.”
Saturday, 5am: Following a 4am wakeup call, I parked my car outside Eddie’s house, holding my pack, filled with 70 oz of water, a soggy panini, salt tablets and clif bars. We jumped into his truck and were canyon-bound on the highway, scenery slowly coming into view as the first morning light illuminated the passing trees.
We pulled into the Grand Canyon National Park two hours later, where we boarded a shuttle bus to the last stop: The Hermit Trailhead. We were expecting the run to be a fully difficult and tasking experience, especially considering this late in the spring temperatures were expected to be high. The morning was just starting to warm up when we began running down the trail. Chatting and making our way down the rocky switchbacks, we took in the exposed views from the Hermit trail, ending our downhill section where the hermit intersected with the Tonto trail. My feet were already hurting from the high-impact downhill, but there was no turning back, we were stoked! We stopped shortly to refuel and prepare for the long stretch ahead, which ended at Indian Gardens where our next water refill stop would be. Thus began the unexpected crux of the run: cranking up and down steep rolling hills in 100+ degree shadeless heat-- for 25 miles.
We were expecting the Tonto to be the “easy” section of the run; since it hugged the tonto plateau, it seemed that it would be relatively flat at sustained, so we did not worry about it at all. What we did not expect, however, was the nonexistent water sources combined with the blazing, relentless heat. In fact, no part of the Tonto trail was easy. It was a primitive, unmaintained trail that recieved little traffic. The only people we passed were backpackers, who undoubtedly thought we were crazy for traveling with nothing more than our running packs and minimalist shoes. The trail was technical, and the sun was inescapable. It felt like the heat was boiling my brain, and I was slowing up with every mile. We sought refuge under a large boulder, where there was a patch of shade about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long. As we nibbled on squashed paninis and sipped water, little did we know that this would be the last shade encountered for the rest of the Tonto stretch.
The trail travels up and down creek drainages, zigzagging around what Eddie and I deemed “alligators:” the protruding formations that we dreaded due to their sneaky nature. Every time we approached one, we could not see beyond it-- we only hoped that it would be the last one. So we would turn south and push uphill until we came to the creek crossing, where we would once again switch directions and head north toward the next precipice. Hopefully approaching the bend, expecting to see flat terrain, we would turn the corner and instead look upon the next alligator. At this point we would repeat the process, over and over…
After a few hours, I noticed the lightness of my pack-- not good, when that weight came from water, and the only other water in our vicinity was running down questionable creeks. Not good. My fears came into reality when it finally happened: Trying to take a sip from the camelbak hose, and getting nothing. We ran out of water. We did not know how far we had gone, or how many more miles until we would reach Indian Garden. The sun was hot, and our thirst was yet to be quenched. We continued to run, until Eddie became dizzy and was forced to stop and rest. Things were serious: we had no water, and my running partner was fading fast. I considered leaving him there to run to the gardens myself to bring water back, but quickly realized the dangers with that plan. I wasn't doing too hot either, and who knows how far that would be! We needed to stay together, and we needed to get to water. So, after the break, we kept running. The next hour or two went like so: run run run, stop, rest, hope, run run run, stop, hope, run, hope, run, hope, run run run...
Finally, we came around the the final alligator. Turning the corner, we saw the lush greenery of Indian Gardens in the distance. We could see it! We were in reach! The two of us nearly cried as we used this excitement to propel ourselves down the last mile to the oasis. We passed more and more people who had day packs and still smelled alright-- a sure sign that we were close, being that few take the Tonto more than a couple hundred yards unless they are backpackers. I ran ahead of Eddie and reached the stream before the water refill station, where I immediately submerged my entire head in the shallow cool water, giggling in relief. I looked up and saw my partner approaching, laughing as well. Together, we threw ourselves at the refill station, where we inhaled the water out of our camelbacks just as fast as they were being filled. After drinking at least three litres of water each, we promptly passed out on the benches of the crowded area. I must have napped for an hour, after which we ate the majority of our food and filled up on water one last time.
We still had to run up the last four miles of the Bright Angel Trail to reach the rim. We thought we would run it, at least. I soon realized the bad combination of running over a marathon in distance, while severely dehydrated, and napping immediately afterward: my legs had stopped working. It was such a strange sensation… running did not hurt necessarily, but it was as if my legs had forgotten how to do the motion. I have had dreams where I try to run but can only move in sinking slow-motion, where I almost cannot control my own body. The strange thing was that this was reality now. Fortunately, we had daylight left, and Eddie was happy to hike with me. There was no way I was running the last push.
As we hiked the Bright Angel, we talked and laughed and wondered. We were thankful for our bodies, for water, and for our lives. The Grand Canyon is a magical, beautiful place-- it is also a demanding place, just like any wild area. Yes, thousands of people walk her trails every year. However, there will never be a time that the canyon will be easy for me-- or anybody. There is always something special about going farther than you thought possible, and finding the necessary respect for these places. As Eddie and I reached the rim, we had undoubtedly gained a refreshed sense of respect for the canyon. We finished, drove back to Flagstaff, and pulled straight into our favorite indian food restaurant to stuff our faces with tiki masala and naan bread.
There is a beauty in this sort of suffering. Looking back, I would have done it all over again (maybe with a water purification system…). Our Grand Canyon run was hard, but it was perfect (it also ended with perfect Indian food, which is my favorite thing ever) because I bonded with a friend, and we pushed our limits. These are the sorts of adventures to be remembered, because people can always grow from these experiences. Also, let's face it: A little type II fun is good for the soul.
We have all experienced that spark of wanderlust. We see photos of towering mountain ranges decorated with snow-capped peaks and think to ourselves, “what if?” Imagine yourself: exhausted, hungry, aching and short of breath-- but in complete and utter awe. Your feet planted on a snow-and-ice-covered point. More specifically, the highest point for miles in every direction. A crisp wind blasts you in the face, and your body is a confused mess of numb fatigue and awakening sensations. You are in a pristine island above the clouds; you are accomplished. It is no easy task to go from drooling over a picture to standing on the summit of your dream peak. Yet, it is done, and by more and more people every decade. The mountains have an appeal that cannot be easily explained, and for years humans have ventured outside of their comfort zones to wander them.
As a climber, hiker, endurance runner, and lover of anything and everything outdoors, it is no surprise that I am slightly obsessed with mountains. I spend a good portion of my time-- both awake and asleep-- dreaming about epic alpine mountain summits all over the world. There is something beautifully poetic in enduring frostbitten appendages and sore muscles in order to accomplish such a goal; to become remote and vulnerable, teetering on the precipice of every human emotion. My mind is in a whirl of possibilities just writing about it… and I know that I am not the only one! From Alaska to the Himalayas, there is no shortage of adventures to be had.
On that note, there is also no shortage of adventurers who are willing to pay the price to climb these beautiful parcels of land. So many, in fact, that mountain destinations like Mount Everest in the Himalayas are experiencing massive influxes in human traffic in the form of mountain tourism. From 1988-1994 alone, the annual number of visitors into Everest and the surrounding park increased by about 155%, and that figure is still growing-- and it is becoming a problem.
Wait a minute-- why is that bad? You may be asking why I am suggesting that you should reconsider that trip to Everest after that juicy description of how wonderful it is to summit a mountain. Anyways, this is mountain tourism we are talking about-- outdoorsmen (and women) like us care about the environment and culture; we are a group of environmental stewards and travelers who thrive on the mountain experience. However, evidence shows that the “leave no trace” principles we hold near and dear to our hearts are not applied to some mountaineering and trekking expeditions in the Himalayas; and this is causing some major issues.
This blog is about adventure, the outdoors, and their corresponding hobbies. But what happens when these things conflict with the very platform that they rely on? The environment is an essential part of life for obvious reasons-- and anyone who spends much of their time in nature understands the importance of its protection not only for economic purposes, but also aesthetic purposes. Nature is a place of healing on many levels, and its health is of utmost importance. For my first blog post, I think it is important to introduce the relationship between the environment and the hobbies that take place in it that we all love. The preservation of natural areas should be second-nature for those involved in outdoor recreation; this is the case for many, thanks to organizations like Leave No Trace and simply following environmental ethics. However, issues remain still, hence this extensive look at one of the many environmental problems in the Himalayan region due to outdoor tourism. There is a lot to talk about, but for the purpose of this post, I want to talk trash.
In Nepalese trekking and expedition areas, the presence of waste is particularly high. Since the number of tourists, trekkers and mountaineers is increasing rapidly, a huge amount of human-induced pollution and solid waste is being deposited in these ecologically sensitive areas. This trash accumulation is exacerbated in part by the expenses associated with waste management-- but lets be honest, it is absurd to ask that elaborate waste management facilities be established in an area deemed remote, alpine and wild. If an area is not capable of supporting the waste of thousands of tourists, it is the individual’s duty to manage their own waste, not only for ethical reasons, but for lack of a better option. Being in an alpine environment, there are simply no realistic options for transporting the waste deposited by visitors; recycling and “pack in pack out” ethics depend heavily on the voluntary behavior of the visitor.
I find it interesting that so many mountain tourists--people who supposedly care about the outdoor environment-- are so utterly unaware of their trash impacts. In an article from Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Kuniyal notes that “the visitors traveling in topographically fragile and ecologically highly sensitive areas continue to establish only a one-sided relation with nature. The untreated waste alongside the trails only occurs due to the negligence of visitors and the lack of awareness of host communities.” Take note that waste is more than just an eyesore; humans and their environment interact more than most humans care to acknowledge. The build-up of trash has negative connotations for the Nepalese people living in the area. Pollution is still pollution regardless of its location, and it is still harmful. Contamination left behind by visitors does not go away, it is left for the local people to deal with. It is upsetting to know that “leave no trace” ethics seem to go out the window for many in the international mountaineering setting, where the locals must suffer the consequences.
Indeed, the trash problem in the Himalayas is a complex issue that mountain tourists cannot take all the blame for. As is the case in nearly every environmental or social issue, there are many factors at play. I acknowledge the fact that I do not live anywhere near Everest, nor have I spent the past year researching the topic for a thesis paper. I by no means have all the information relevant to the issue permitting me to point fingers and draw conclusions. However, I recognize that there is a problem... and being that it involves fellow mountain dwellers, I encourage looking into it.
Exploring the mountains is a deeply personal experience, characterized by connecting to nature through pushing the body’s physical and mental limits. The mountains demand respect, and us humans need to oblige if we decide that it is our right to wander them. The relationship between mountain and man is delicate, and a certain level of awareness on our part is essential to the maintenance of this relationship; not only for the preservation of ecological processes, but for the well-being of the locals living in the area. As a fellow nature-lover and mountain athlete, I suggest pondering this notion before setting off on your next expedition or trip. Think of the implications of your presence and how it affects the local people. The mountains are calling; if we must go, let us go with these issues in mind. Let us go knowing what must be done as an individual in order to preserve the areas that we love.
Jefferies, Bruce. "Sagarmatha National Park: The Impact of Tourism in the Himalayas." AMBIO - A Journal of the Human Environment. 11.5 (n.d.): 274-81. Web.
Johnston, Barbara R., and Ted Edwards. "The Commodification of Mountaineering." Annals of Tourism Research 21.3 (1994): 459-78. Web.
Kuniyal, Jagdish C. "Solid Waste Management in the Himalayan Trails and Expedition Summits." Journal of Sustainable Tourism 13.4 (2005): 391-410. Web.
Nepal, Sanjay K. "Mountain Ecotourism and Sustainable Development."Mountain Research and Development 22.2 (2002): 104-09. Web.
Sundriyal, R. C., and S. C. Rai. "Tourism and Biodiversity Conservation: The Sikkim Himalaya." AMBIO - A Journal of the Human Environment. 26.4 (1997): 235. Web.