CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
I had always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. To me, it was a symbol of everything beautiful about America. It was nature in its pure and unadulterated form.
I have been to landmarks in other countries, but I’ve always wanted to explore the United States. The Grand Canyon was high on my list of places to visit and thanks to the Single Marine Program, a program that allows single service members and geo-bachelor service members a chance to travel and enjoy recreational activities, I finally got my chance.
We took several vans and a trailer truck full of food and camping equipment down the historic Route 66. It was a lengthy, eight-hour trip, but we put on some good tunes on and enjoyed the ride.
As Dr. Feelgood blared from the radio, I noticed that we had a motley crew of Marines. Marines really do come in all shapes and sizes.
John sat in the front and was our headstrong leader. Though short in stature, he was an energetic man of stocky build who like any good leader brought an overabundance of water and snacks for the rest of us to steal. Matt, his second-in-command, sat right behind him. Matt wore wire-framed glasses and looked like an analytical blue-collar worker, but who was also a quick-witted wisecracker who frequently offered comic relief.
Tori sat in the middle and was our specialist. She was a precocious girl from Alaska who seemed to be right at home in the great outdoors. Hiking, setting up camp and keeping our food safe from the wildlife were her talents.
At the back there was Lucas, a quiet guy who probably said two words during our entire car ride. Jeff sat next to him. Jeff spoke Spanish as a second language, and was a gentle giant who serenaded us with Spanish songs during the trip. Finally there was Todd, a protective military policeman who adhered to rules. He brought up the rear during the trip and even later on during the hike.
A GOOD ENDING TO A LONG DAY
It was snowing and raining as we settled into the campground and set up our tents.
The campground wasn’t too far away from civilization. We freshened up at the nearby bathrooms and bought some additional drinks from a market just five minutes away. There were even a few enticing steakhouses on the way.
John helped the SMP event coordinators set up their makeshift kitchen and cooked up some chicken and beef fajitas for the entire group. Tori, ever the outdoorsman, grabbed some firewood from the trailer and made a fire where everyone huddled up to during dinner.
The rain cleared up and the cold wind that once bit our skin turned into a cool summer breeze.
It was a good ending to a long day.
The next morning, we took the Bright Angel Trail down the Canyon. The trail is a 14-mile route which descended through colorful cliffs of Redwall Limestone, Bright Angel Shale and Kaibab Rock Formations.
Each layer had a story to tell. I marveled at the odd shapes and vibrant colors of the different rock formations that lined the walls and the ancient Native American images etched in them.
We trudged for hours downhill through a rugged path full of rocks, thorny bushes and vegetation even Tori couldn’t identify. The weather seemed to shift from hot then cold at a whim as we descended the beaten path.
On our way we encountered elk almost taller than Jeff’s 6’3” frame and squirrels that seemed to stalk John’s bag of snacks with ravenous intent. We also made friends with fellow hikers on the trail.
With each step toward the base of the canyon, I knew we would have to work twice as hard to reach its peak. Despite the tightening in my legs, I knew the trip would be worth it.
“Now I know why they call this the Bright Angel Trail, you’ll start seeing angels once you’re done,” cracked Matt as he breathed heavily.
Finally, we reached The Plateau of the canyon, a small patch of level land overlooking the Colorado River, tinted brown just like the cliff formations surrounding it.
I found a ledge jutting out from the cliff and lied down to take a nap. The rest of the team sat next to me. Beneath us, the sound of the water and wind reverberated through the walls of the canyon and produced a soothing white noise. The sun peeked through the clouds and warmed the air around us.
I looked over the cliffs and across the fissure, realizing how much this all meant to me. The whole thing felt surreal. I could see so much of the Earth’s scenic history in the horizon. It made me think of how small we all are compared to the vast expanse of the world.
There were few things in the world more beautiful than the Grand Canyon.
It might have been ten minutes or it might have been hours, but it felt like time had slowed down. It was peaceful.
I awoke to the sound of footsteps, and looked up to see an elderly couple snapping photos of the great expanse in amazement. I made small-talk with them and found out they were from Paris.
“Europe may have culture but America has nature,” the woman said.
I smiled and nodded in agreement.
Then it started to rain and we agreed that it was time to head back up.
ALL GOOD THINGS ARE WILD AND FREE
We hit the showers on the way home. It felt good to wash up with hot soap and water after the eight-hour trek. Once we arrived at the campgrounds, the SMP staff treated us to a dinner of cheeseburgers and hotdogs.
Afterwards, we took a trip to the El Tovar Lodge and sat at the back porch for some refreshments. We ordered some Mediterranean dishes and snacks.
From the porch we had a perfect view of the canyon during the sunset. By now the clouds had cleared up. I sipped on my drink as the sky shifted from pale blue to orange, pink and purple.
I met some good people and saw some impressive things. I had no doubt by then that the trip was worth all the work it took to get there.
On the way home I stopped by the market to buy a few postcards from the souvenir shop, and one of them in particular caught my eye. It had a quote that I later learned was by Henry David Thoreau. It read, “All good things are wild and free.”
True. All good things are wild and free.
The Single Marine Program offers trips to different recreational destinations such as Big Bear Lake, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and San Francisco. For more information on the available programs, please visit http://www.mccscp.com/smp