“Man, this place is somethin’ else, huh?” I said to my brothers Andy, two years older than me at 17, and Alex, 10, checking out the view from our family’s campsite on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. None of the photos in Mom and Dad’s guidebook could compare to the real thing. God really did something awesome here, I thought, totally blown away by the setting sun’s orange rays shooting across the water-scarred rocks, peaks and valleys.
Tomorrow we’d be hiking down these rocks. We’d mapped out our trip: camp on the South Rim, take Kaibab Trail down to the canyon floor, spend a night there, then climb Bright Angel Trail back up to the top. To get in shape for the steep trails, we’d trained together for weeks before the trip—running, walking, hiking around parks at home. Mom and Dad made sure we studied the safety video mailed to us by the National Park Service. Each of us carried our own trail map and compass and was outfitted with sturdy hiking boots. We got a tent that was light—a cinch to put up and big enough for all of us. I figured we’d be ready for anything.
That night at the South Rim I was the last one into our tent. As I turned off my flashlight to go to sleep, I heard a park ranger talking to some new arrivals.
“The two most important things to remember about a flash flood,” the ranger said, “are never try to outrun it, and get as high as you can.” Flash flood? The safety video had all kinds of warnings about not hiking alone or going off the trails, but not once had they mentioned a flash flood.
The next thing I knew, Mom was shaking me awake. “Time to hit the trail, guys,” she said. I stepped out of the tent and rubbed my eyes, muttering grumpily, “The crack of dawn is no time to do anything.” Five-and-a-half hours later, I could see why we’d started so early. Everyone was exhausted, but at least we’d gotten to the end of Kaibab Trail before the worst heat of the day blasted us. After we pitched our tent, we took a walk and shot some pictures. When Dad suggested going to bed right after dinner, we actually agreed. I fell asleep to the sound of rain falling hard against our tent.
The next morning was crisp and dry. Perfect hiking weather. We packed up and went to the trailhead. A big sign read Bright Angel Trail. It was a nine-mile stretch, but not nearly as steep as the trip down. Around halfway up, it started drizzling. A park ranger in his wide-rimmed hat and green shorts hurried down to us. “Flash flood up ahead from last night’s rain,” he said. “You’d better wait here. I’ll let you know when it’s safe for you to move on.”
About an hour later the ranger gave us the okay to continue. We’d made some progress when it began raining harder. I remembered the warnings I’d overheard that night on the rim and started to worry. What if there is a flash flood? Never try to outrun it—is that the best advice they have?
The next crossing was totally flooded. To our left was a 500-foot drop-off, and to our right was a steep, muddy slope that went up about 20 feet. No contest. By the time we managed to reach the top, Mom and Dad seemed to be worrying more than they were letting on. I looked down at the roiling water. God, we prepared for a lot of things—but not a flash flood! We need your help now.
A sound like a train roared below us. Rockslide! Not small rocks, but car-sized rocks tumbled down, taking everything in their path with them. Then just as quickly, the rocks stopped falling.
Right then I noticed a man approaching from below. How’d he get past the flood? At first, from his hat and shorts, I thought he might be a ranger, but as he got closer I saw that he wasn’t in uniform. He was just a skinny, bearded middle-aged guy caked with mud. He bounded right up the muddy slope to us and had to shout to be heard above the raging water. “Now’s our best chance!” he said. “We should hurry down before a rockslide starts again. Then we can catch up with Bright Angel farther on.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Dad asked.
“Don’t worry,” the hiker replied, “I know this trail well. We just have to go down one at a time, so we don’t kick any rocks on each other. Follow me!”
“Alex, you go first,” Dad said. Then he nudged me, “Your turn, Adam.” The hiker seemed to know exactly where the surest footing was, and I followed in his steps as best I could. The rain stopped, turning into a thick fog rising up from the bottom of the canyon. I could barely see my little brother in front of me, but the hiker seemed to have no problem. “Hurry now!” he shouted. “This way.” Finally we caught up with Bright Angel Trail again. We followed it for about a mile until we reached another washout. Though the water was moving fast, it was only about four feet across. The hiker jumped, clearing the water easily. “Hop across!” he shouted from the other side.
Alex jumped, and the hiker grabbed him. I went next. I landed on the edge of the water and almost fell backward into it, but the hiker had a good hold on me and lifted me right out with one arm. Man, I thought, this guy’s strong, even though he looks so scrawny.
We’d all just crossed the washout when an old ranger came along. “You guys have been really lucky so far,” he said. “I was stuck myself about a mile up and I’ve been watching you. You were taking the only safe route at this level for miles.”
“So what should we do now?” I asked.
“Well, there are rockslides and another storm headed our way. So I want you all to hike a half mile up the trail to the next rest area. It’s safe there.”
We sped off. I glanced back to look for the hiker, but he wasn’t behind us. Guess he must know a shortcut.
Finally we reached the rest area. There were about 50 others there. Everyone had a few nicks and bruises, but we were alive, and that was what mattered. I was curious about that lone hiker. “Hey, has anybody seen a skinny guy with a beard and wide-brimmed hat?” I asked around the group. No luck. Then the old ranger came by.
“The storm’s shifted west,” he said. “So we’re going to try to lead you out.”
I went up to him. “Have you seen a hiker? About forty? Beard? Skinny?”
“Sorry, kid,” he said. “Ain’t seen him.”
“Can you believe no one’s seen that hiker?” I asked Mom.
“Well,” she mused, “it is called Bright Angel Trail.”
That’s when I realized that even when all our preparations failed us, God never had. Yeah, he really did something awesome here!