A Septuagenarian’s Grand Canyon Adventure

It all began in October of 2004, when I watched my daughter in-law, Sylvie (Kiki) Drimmel, complete the Susan G Komen breast cancer walk 1 was inspired beyond words as I witnessed Kiki and the many thousands of other walkers head for the home stretch. At the closing ceremonies I told Kiki I wanted to do the 2005 breast cancer walk. She was delighted and thrilled.

Throughout our training together, both weekends and weekdays, the two of us had accumulated a total of 800 miles. Indeed, I was ready. A year later, at age seventy-three, I had accomplished the 3-day, 60-mile walk with flying colors

After that walk a friend, Shirley Verbal, called and asked if I would like to hike the

Grand Canyon with her in July of 2006. All I could say was “Yessssssss ”

So, the training continued. Only now I was looking for inclines and declines. The best I could do was Cowles Mountain in San Diego, sixteen hundred feet from the bottom to the top. 1 walked, 1 hiked, and just kept on hiking till the time came to leave for the Grand Canyon.

My daughters, Karen and Phaedra, were behind me all the way They shopped for a backpack, provided me with a trekking pole, a misting bottle, and cool shorts. Phaedra designed t-shirts.  On the back was a turtle with a sweatband, trekking pole, and hiking boots superimposed of a background of a huge orange sun The words under the picture were, “THE GRAND CANYON OR BUST”. To say we were getting ready would be an understatement. We were preparing for it all, or so we thought.  Shirley had hiked the same route ten years ago, when she was fifty.

Our plan was to hike down the North Rim, spend the night at Phantom Ranch, and then begin the fourteen-mile ascent up the South Rim. From the South Rim it was eight miles to the top–twenty-two miles of steep, sloping, rocky terrain. We were both looking forward to the challenge.

July 17, 2006 was the date I was planning to leave San Diego to drive to the South Rim. There I would meet up with Shirley and her husband, Joe. The planned date arrived, and l packed up my car, filled the ice chest with water, sports drinks, and ice. I packed light because the weather was promising to be hot. At 3.00 a.m. I was ready to go!

l arrived at the South Rim at 1:30 p.m. There was a little town just south of the South Rim called Tusayan, which had a trailer park and a general store Further down the street was an IMAX theater showing a movie about the Grand Canyon I chose not to see the movie.  After all, I was going to see the real thing very soon.

It was great to see Shirley and Joe, it had been a while since they live in Texas.  They drove a truck and pulled a thirty-foot trailer. The first night we all slept there very comfortably.

Shirley and I rose at 4 00 a.m. to watch the sunrise on the South Rim. It was beyond my expectations All 1 could do was applaud.  I kept repeating “Author, author”. Alter all, who else but the Great Author could show us such a spectacular show. Shortly after the sunrise we were treated with another show. There were eight California Condors circling with the wind beneath their wings. What a sight! It was enough to bring tears to my eyes. 1 felt so blessed.

Then it was back to the trailer to wake Joe, have some breakfast, and begin the five-hour drive to the North Rim. We drove through plains, plains and more plains, and passed Lee’s Landing where the Grand Canyon begins and where the Navajos had their lean-tos scattered and their beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry displayed for sale.

We arrived at the North Rim about 3:00 p.m. and had to wait another hour before our cabin would be ready. At 4:00 we were given a key and directions to the cabin.  The main lodge was rustic with dining room windows looking out over the canyon. What a sight!

We carried our backpacks and suitcases into the cabin. It had been a long time since breakfast. We walked to the snack bar and had a bite to eat on some benches outside the lodge where we could see the breathtaking view.  It is difficult to describe the spectacular beauty of the canyon.

We were all in bed by 8:00 p.m. and asleep not long after that. Shirley set the alarm for

2:30 a.m.  Even though the temperature outside was 55 degrees, we dressed for cool and started for the trailhead.  Joe parked the truck so the headlights of the truck would light our path.  After saying our goodbyes to Joe, with backpacks, fanny packs, flashlights, and headlights, we began our descent. The moon may have been up there somewhere, but was not any help, so our flashlights and head lights showed us where to step.

It would be two and a half hours before daybreak. Slowly and carefully we plodded along the rough and rocky trail. As the first signs of daylight appeared, we breathed a little easier. As 1 write 1 feel the excitement of the hike all over again. Finally it was light enough to see the canyon. The time seemed to be going very quickly, and we picked up our pace. Thank goodness the sun was obscured by overcast skies. The temperature was already uncomfortable and before long, it got even warmer.   Fortunately I had wet two t-shirts and put them into a plastic bag.  So, Shirley and I removed our packs, took off the dry shirts and put on the wet ones.   Ahh, sweet relief! One does not worry about modesty on the isolated trail.

Passing pleasantries was more common than passing hikers. Then I could not believe my eyes when we met a man who looked to be ninety, with two trekking poles and a very light backpack He was on his way up to the North Rim.

We learned his nickname was Maverick. He was on his forty-second hike between the North and South Rim. His goal was to make eighty trips before he turned eighty-one. My seventy-three years seemed trivial. We conversed for several minutes and soon more hikers joined in the conversation. Itseemed that they knew Maverick because they called him by name.  He is a legend in and around the canyon. We all decided it was time to keep moving since it was not getting any cooler and we still had a long way to go to Phantom Ranch.

We slipped and slid along the trail. At one point I went down a rather large steep cut in the rocks and before I knew it, I was sitting down, having been pulled by the weight of the backpack.   Shirley and I both had a good laugh over that.  It wasn’t long before she did the very same thing.

We were about four hours into the hike when we both started experiencing “rubber legs”.  That is a sensation that dictates the need to rest. The legs just start shaking uncontrollably.  Stop we did Before we sat on any rock, we checked it out and tapped here and there to avoid disturbing any rattlesnakes who like to coil up on warm rocks. The rubber legs were happening quite frequently now; so, there was a lot of stopping and sitting.

I had been trudging along watching where to step around large rocks in the trail when I looked up and could see the trail was only about four feet wide. There was a solid wall of rock on our right and a sheer drop of four thousand feet on our left. I hugged the solid wall and could not look up or down. It made me feel very uneasy.

The cliff-hanger trail couldn’t end soon enough for me. When it did, I breathed a sigh of relief. Shirley just laughed. We both laughed a lot along the trail. After all, we had planned this Grand Canyon hike for at least seven months.

All of a sudden Shirley said, “Look There’s  the bridge”.

I looked down and gasped, “We have to cross that?”

Shirley giggled and said, “Of course.” We were still descending at this point.  Then we got to the bridge, crossed, and now we had to climb to start going down again.

We hadn’t run across any hikers for quite a while. The sky was still overcast, and it was very warm and humid. My four liters of water needed replenishing.  We came upon a rest area where there was a water spigot and an outhouse We refilled our empty water bottles, again checked the rocks for snakes, and rested for a few minutes .

At four hours into the hike time seemed to be slipping by very quickly, and we were just not making much headway. Shirley was ahead of me. I asked, “Are you limping?”

She replied, “I’m okay, my right ankle is bothering me.”

Glancing back at me, she said, “You seem to be walking differently. Anything wrong?”

“I think I’m okay, my hips are hurting. We just need to rest a bit; maybe it’s my rubber legs.”

Our two t-shirts that were wet were all dry now. We did not want to use our drinking water to wet the shirts. Shirley was perspiring profusely and I just barely. I didn’t know if my lack of perspiration was good or bad.

I looked at my watch. It was 11:30 a.m.  We were still about seven miles from Phantom Ranch. “Rubber legs” were happening all too frequently now. The hips were hurting, and Shirley was limping. We kept on keeping on. I was a little ahead of Shirley. When I turned around to check on her, she had stopped and was sitting beside the trail. As I hiked up toward her, she looked up and said, with tears in her eyes, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Shirley had heard a snap, crackle, and pop and twisted her sore ankle.  I tried to smile at her comment, but tears flooded my eyes. At this point we were at a sign that read “Roaring Springs left” and “Cottonwood straight ahead”.

I asked Shirley if she could walk at all. She said she could and would. So, we proceeded toward Cottonwood.  Before we got there, we came upon a ranger’s residence–a building, a water spigot, bathrooms, an emergency phone and a helicopter pad which jutted out over the Colorado River. What an awesome sight!

We both parked our gear on the ground and proceeded to wet ourselves down and sit under the shade of a Cottonwood tree. Shirley put her backpack under her head, and I pushed a big log toward her so she could elevate her ankle.   I then sat down next to her; we needed to make a decision There was no way Shirley could hike seven more miles We would never make it to Phantom Ranch before dark We drank water and just rested for half an hour.

My next move was to get on the emergency phone on the outside of the building. There didn’t appear to be anyone around or in the building.

I picked up the phone and instantly heard a female voice say “Emergency services.” I explained our emergency and she proceeded to question me. After a few minutes she said she would have dispatch call me. In half an hour the phone rang. A male voice asked what the problem was. I repeated the story about Shirley’s ankle.

Chuck, a ranger said, “I will make some arrangements and will call back in thirty to forty-five minutes.” My own aches and pains caused me to walk unsteadily to and from the telephone. I went back to Shirley near the cottonwood tree and related the phone call with Chuck to her.

My heart ached for Shirley and I knew she felt bad about this accident. She said. “1 have failed you, Bobette, and mostly I failed myself.”’

I assured her, “We are not failures because we did not make it; we are a success because we tried.” That seemed to calm her down as she reflected wise words I had heard years before.

At last the emergency phone rang.   Again it was Chuck.   He said, “OK, Bobette, this is the plan. It is now 2:30 p.m. A helicopter will be at your location in forty-five minutes to get Shirley.”

“Can I go too” I asked.

His voice softening, he replied, “No, Bobette, the helicopter crew will bring you a sleeping bag and some snacks.”

My heart sank. I was going to be in the canyon all night by myself.

In a voice conveying empathy Chuck said, “A mule train will be down about 10:00 in the morning, and they will have a mule for you.”

I said only, “Oh, my gosh!”, and hung up the phone.

I went back to tell Shirley what would be happening. She said, “1 can’t leave you here alone”.

“Shirley, we don’t have a choice. You can’t hike out, and I don’t want to hike back alone. I will be fine.”

Finally we heard the chopper in the distance. It took a couple minutes alter they landed to wait until the blades stopped rotating. Two EMT’s and a pilot disembarked. By this time we were under another tree at the front of the building After taking a  report one of the EMT ‘s put Shirley’s leg into a support. There were a lot of tears before two of them carried Shirley off to the chopper. I sat on the steps in front and watched the chopper ascend and disappear. I had never felt so alone.

Before Shirley left, she asked. “Do you want me to call your family?”

“Please don’t.” I did not want them to worry, and I knew they would. After all, they could not help me. The night would be between me and my God. Chuck assured me I would be very safe there.  I believed him.

After I could no longer see or hear the chopper, I collected my backpack and fanny pack and was going to unroll the sleeping bag and get comfortable Instead, I went to one door of the residence; it was locked I went to the other door and saw a sign in big red lettering NO TRESSPASSING.  I checked the doorknob and voila, it was unlocked. I poked my head in and said, “Anybody here?” No answer.

After moving my packs inside I locked the door behind me and checked the place out. It looked like it was going to be very comfortable. There were bedrooms with bunk beds, a kitchen, living room and two bathrooms. The living room had a sofa that looked like it was waiting for me. I had plenty of snacks, so I wouldn’t go hungry. There was blessed water. I was home free.

It was now about 5:00 p.m. l stripped off’ my clothes and took a nice warm shower, surprised there was warm water. It felt wonderful. There were no towels so I air dried and put my grungy clothes back on. 1 realized I hadn’t eaten much all day, so I opened a package of tuna and ate it. Tasted pretty good, along with other snaky type foods. Time was passing rapidly. I was feeling lonely and vulnerable, so I went outside and picked up the emergency phone and talked to Chuck. His calm, professional demeanor was what I needed to calm the fear I had of spending the night alone in this strange surrounding.

Now I was ready to lie down and try to sleep. As I lay on the sofa my thoughts started in again, and I felt panic setting in. I tossed and turned and wanted to hear another human voice, so I stepped outside and picked up the emergency phone again.

I said, “Hi Chuck, 1 can’t do this. 1 am scared stupid and I feel sick. ”

He patiently asked, “Are you nauseated or in pain?”

I replied, “No, just feeling afraid and alone.”

Again, Chuck’s magical voice calmed me. He just kept telling me, “Bobette, you can and will do this. You are in good shape.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten as far as you did. Get a good night’s rest and give yourself plenty of time to hike back up to Roaring Springs to meet the mule train in the morning.”

I returned to the cabin determined to settle down and follow Chuck’s advice.  When sleep descended, it was fitful and restless. I kept jerking all night. I was falling off cliffs at every turn in my dreams.  Finally, daybreak was peeking in the windows. What a welcome sight!. I had slept in my grungy clothes, so I went to the sink, splashed water on my face, found some cold cereal on the refrigerator and milk inside and a bowl and spoon. A cold breakfast, but good.

At 7 00 a.m. I put my backpack and fanny pack on, drank a liter of water, and finally headed out the door I said thank you to the house for protecting me, and thank you to God for my good health 1 was ready to walk to the meeting place where the mule train should be.

The trail up wasn’t too steep, but I found I had to stop often to catch my breath. Soon I was at the sign where the mules would be coming down. I was amazed–it only took me thirty-five minutes.  Not too bad for a seventy-three year-young gal. I had three hours to wait before the mule train would be descending. Fortunately, there was a big bush that provided some shade. I took off the backpack and fanny pack and sat down,

One hiker was coming down the trail. “Have you seen the mule train?” I asked.

He answered, “They’re about 45 minutes behind me.”

That was music to my ears, so I sat, walked, stretched and did some deep knee bends. I was feeling stiff.  My body felt like it had been run over by a Mack truck.

At last, I heard the clippity-clop of the mules.   Before long, the wrangler was in sight with a rider-less mule in tow, followed by several other people riding mules.

He shouted from several yards away. “Are you my new passenger?

I waved and shouted, “Yes.”

Coming closer he instructed, “Follow the mule train.”

It wasn’t too far down to Roaring Springs, and once there it was delightful with picnic tables and a beautiful view of the river falls. The wrangler brought tasty sack lunches for everyone–the first real food I had tasted in the last twenty-four hours. We lolled around at the falls for about an hour. Then it was time to get in the saddle and head back up the North Rim.

The wrangler helped me get up on the mule.  Once I was in the saddle, I could feel a new soreness set in. All I could think of was the three hours it would take to get to the rim, but it beat hiking back up.

AJ, the wrangler, warned me that Carl, the mule, liked to stop for no reason He gave me a few instructions about the reins. It seemed simple enough.  He said, “If Carl stops, just give him a kick in his sides.”

“OK,” I said, with all the confidence of a newbie mule rider.

Everyone else mounted their mules and started up the trail. I made unconscious grunts and groans as Carl plodded his way on the trail. At one point, AJ turned around and remarked about my various sounds.

All was going well, and I wasn’t grunting and groaning as much. The other riders seemed to be more seasoned. When AJ wasn’t working the Grand Canyon, he worked on his family’s ranch in Utah.

We finally reached the bridge–the one Shirley and I crossed the day before. Carl walked right up to the bridge and stopped dead in his tracks. Without hesitation, he took a complete turnabout to the left and headed right for a dead tree where a big branch and I were going to meet head on. With the backpack on my back, I could only lean back so far so the dead branch brushed over me. A sliver of dead wood jabbed me in the arm and anchored itself there till I plucked it out It didn’t hurt much but I bled profusely, probably due to the anti-clotting properties of a daily dose of Aspirin.

AJ finally came over and grabbed Carl’s’ lead rope Then he proceeded to tell Carl what a bad mule he was. We were on our way again AJ led Carl and me across the bridge. The reluctant mule didn’t much like it, but AJ just kept tugging on the lead rope.

Finally, we were making some headway.  We arrived at the point Shirley and I had encountered on the way down where one side of the trail was a huge wall of rock and the other side was a 4,000-foot drop. Carl really liked walking on the edge and all 1 could do was lean to the left. I must have looked funny because AJ turned around and told me to sit straight. We stopped so AJ could cinch up my saddle which was slipping in the direction I was leaning. He tried to assure me that Carl knew exactly where he was going. I was a little more relaxed by this time, yet every fiber in my body was screaming from the tension.

We were now just around the bend from the trailhead. AJ stopped and gave us a pep talk and told us how great we were. Then we rounded the last bend.  Shirley and Joe were sitting at a table waiting for us. I saw them and threw both hands high into the air. They were busy taking pictures of Carl and me, pointing and laughing at my awkward dismount. First, I took off my backpack.  Then I swung my right leg over Carl, and another wrangler was there helping me. When my feet hit the ground, I just shook, and it took a few seconds before I could straighten my legs out. Three hours on Carl had taken its toll on me.

Shirley was on crutches. She looked a lot better than I felt Then she informed me that her wings had been clipped. Joe did not want her hiking into the Grand Canyon again, or any canyon for that matter.

All the riders were given a certificate. We were dubbed Grand Canyon Master Muleteers– a wonderful memento for an exciting experience. (My daughters each had a hand in later framing the certificate for me.)

Joe, Shirley and I got into the truck and settled in for the 5-hour drive back to the South Rim.

We all went to bed early that night. The next day I helped as much as 1 could cleaning up the inside of their trailer for the long journey back. Soon we were ready to part our separate ways—they to Corpus Christi, TX and I, to San Diego. We hugged, laughed cried and took pictures.  The Grand Canyon Adventure was sadly over.


  1. Jean on January 9, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    Bobette, what a story, how did you ever survive? What a memory!

  2. Phaedra Drimmel on February 20, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    She’s my Super Mom! Adventurous, glamorous, trooper, raised four coyotes and four raccoons! Awesome MOMMY!

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