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Virtual Walk Grand Canyon

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring the Grand Canyon

Hello, everyone. Today we are visiting one of the great wonders of the natural world: the Grand Canyon.  The canyon is truly monumental; an immense scar in the earth, eighteen miles wide in places and over a mile deep. Some of the Hopi people believe that that this is where the first humans came into being , and you can see why;  as you stand here on the edge of this enormous chasm, an emptiness vaster and more impressive than any cathedral vault, you do feel as if you are on hallowed ground.  

We are going to be attempting the long descent from the rim to the canyon floor, a journey that will take us through several different wildlife zones- the equivalent of walking from Canada to Mexico. Before we get to the bottom, we should see a spectacular sunset spreading out over the distinctive reddish rocks. 

It is easy to be daunted as we stand here at the top of the trailhead, thinking of the path ahead; the muscle-aching descent,  the precipitous twists and turns, the rocks we’ll have to scramble over. But we cannot give in to that fear. As with many things, the only way is to take the first step and see where the path takes us.

We set off down the trail. We have taken the park rangers’ advice and started our walk at four pm, past the hottest part of the day, but even so the sun is still beating down fiercely, so that we’re glad of our hats and suncream.  It is so hot that the heat seems to lie upon the air like a blanket, muffling sound. The only things you can hear are the chirping of the insects and the soft conversation of other hikers on the trail behind us. 

To one side of the path the ground drops away dizzyingly. On the other, scrubby vegetation clings to the slopes for dear life. That scent in the air – medicinal yet slightly spicy-  is likely from the sagebrush. It’s a staple of the American West, and like everything else that survives out here, it’s pretty hardy  – some individuals can live to 100 years. I wonder what those tough, gnarly old plants have seen over the years, how many people they’ve watched walk this same stretch of path. 

Eventually we come to our first viewpoint. We stop for a few much-needed sips of water and bites of the granola bars we’ve brought with us. The vista here is breathtaking. The canyon was carved out by the Colorado river millions of years ago, but it’s the stone itself that seems to be liquid, ebbing and flowing in giant curves like waves along the shoreline. 

We look up to see a huge winged shape circling overhead.  Could that be? Yes, I think it is. It’s a California Condor, one of the rarest birds in the entirety of America. At one point they became so endangered that all surviving individuals had to be recaptured and bred in captivity, to make sure that the species survived. But now they’re starting to claw their way back from the brink, and these cliffs are one their strongholds.  Their wingspan is huge– in some individuals, nearly three metres wide—which enables them to soar thousands of metres up in the air, and travel for miles on a single wingbeat. I wonder if it sees us. We must seem so tiny if it does, little ants picking our way along the cliffside.  

We set off again, and we haven’t been going for long before we hear the sound of hoofbeats on the path. It’s a mule train coming past. Incredibly, these beasts pick their way down these narrow tracks, carrying tourists or even supplies down to the ranch at the bottom of the trail. Let’s get out of their way and let them past. One of the drovers nods her head as she passes us and tips her old-fashioned cowboy-style hat at us in thanks.

As we continue pick our way slowly ever downwards, a little lizard scurries across the trail and stops by the side of the path, its beady little eyes glittering as it regards us. Its forked tongue flicks in and out, in and out, tasting the air. What a sweet little creature. Some people don’t find reptiles particularly endearing, but I think it’s adorable, its tiny little toes gripping the rock like that. 

The path keeps on going on and on, up small inclines and down long descents, over small stretches of flat, rocky ground and down endless hairpin bends, swooping and diving and twisting like a bird in flight.  We settle into a certain rhythm after a while, and time rolls by peacefully, mindfully, as we keep on making our way downwards, ever downwards to the canyon floor. 

We come round a bend in the path, and that’s where we catch our first glimpse of the mighty Colorado river.  It’s the perfect moment for it. We’ve been walking for several hours now, and the sun is just starting to set, lighting up the rust-coloured rocks . For a moment a beam of light falls at just the right angle to reflect off the river, making it glitter and sparkle. Then the next second it’s gone, and the shadows begin to deepen in the folds of the canyon as the sun slowly melts into the horizon.

Dusk is falling swiftly now, and we switch on our head torches to light our way along the last few twists and turns of the track. Finally we make it down to the canyon floor.  We duck through a short tunnel and come out on a suspension bridge over the river. We stop and lean over the railing to admire the way the stars are reflected on the water.  It’s so perfectly quiet. We are miles away from any roads or cities here, and away from the ceaseless noise of human interference, you can hear the natural world breathe freely.  Now, as it slowly cools from the heat of the day, it’s as if it’s letting out a giant exhalation as everything begins to wind down for the night. 

Finally we trudge into the campsite, tired but full of wonder at the things we’ve seen today. Tomorrow we’ll have to find our way up and out of the canyon- this time through the longer but gentler Bright Angel track. But that’s a challenge for the morning. Hope you’ve enjoyed our walk today- and see you next week for another walk.