I was a different person the last time I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon. This time it felt like coming home.
Returning to the Grand Canyon, this time as a queer thru-hiker, surfaced fears not of nature but of people.
It was still dark as Nora and I hiked through Mather Campground on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, winding through campsites as we made our way back to the Arizona Trail (AZT). Just 37 days prior we had stood at the southern terminus of the AZT, setting our sights north towards the Arizona-Utah border. Many things lay between Mexico and Utah: 9,000 foot peaks, hillsides covered in saguaro cacti, rattlesnakes, the Gila River, scorching days and freezing nights, fields of wildflowers growing in burn scars, the Mogollon Rim and, perhaps most exciting, the Grand Canyon.
Nora (my girlfriend and now hiking partner) had never seen the Grand Canyon. So that morning, when she would stare into its depths for the first time, was a very special moment. And although I had seen the Grand Canyon many times, had even been lucky enough to work on a trail crew that spent weeks on the South Kaibab Trail back in 2012, it was also a special moment for me. I would be greeting one of my favorite places in the world as a more authentic version of myself, because in the time that had passed between 2012 and 2022, I had come out and now identify as queer and non-binary.
Arizona, and specifically the Grand Canyon, are places where I spent a number of very formative years after college, discovering a deep love of the desert and hiking. It was in Arizona that I met a man I would hike the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail with and eventually marry. In 2020, just months before the pandemic hit, I came out to my partner, family and friends as queer, and my life changed immeasurably. When, two years later, it was finally an option to leave my job and set out on another epic hiking adventure, I felt called back to Arizona by an ache in the pit of my stomach that I couldn’t ignore.
I was painfully aware that this time my thru-hiking experience would be different in an important way. Nora and I would be hiking as a queer couple—something that was still fairly new to me. Since I had started hiking after college I had experienced the privilege of being in a straight-passing relationship, hiking the majority of the time with men in tow. Of course, I had also hiked with my femme-presenting friends, but the AZT was a thru-hike with my girlfriend. People were bound to figure out we were more than casual hiking partners.
No part of me was scared of the physical hiking as a queer person with my queer partner. There is nothing more authentic and accepting than “Mother Nature” (or however you refer to her). Sure, we could die out there, of exposure, dehydration, etc., but not because we are gay. People, on the other hand, could be less than welcoming, verging on dangerous. There are probably very few queer long-distance hikers that don’t know the story of Rebecca Wright and Claudia Brenner, two lesbians who were shot by a male gunman on the Appalachian Trail in 1988. Wright was killed and Brenner wounded. I thought about this story frequently when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and was thinking about it even more as Nora and I prepared for our hike. Their story was the most extreme example of the human dangers we could face.
As we hiked, the real fear we lived with on the Arizona Trail—of bigotry and potential violence—was a dull buzz that spiked when we saw new faces or went into town. This was a fear born out of being two femme-presenting hikers, compounded by being a queer couple. Many people assumed that we were sisters or friends—an assumption we didn’t always choose to correct. When we did see other queer people, on and off trail, they knew us and we knew them, giving us a sweet and sustaining breath of safety. We took precautions like checking in frequently with family to update them on our progress, carrying a Garmin inReach Mini, and always sleeping a few miles out from towns or busy roads where we might encounter people. We experienced the immense generosity of trail angels, including rides to and from trail, free places to stay, meals, praise and medical support. And we experienced tension, like the time we ran into a group of gun-toting, drunk, ORV drivers on the banks of the Gila river where we were swimming who stared at us a little too hard but ultimately left us alone. Despite our caution, or possibly because of our caution, our human encounters along the AZT were delightful at best and feigned indifference at worst.
So there we stood, at sunrise on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, watching the sky fade from dusty pink to orange (the colors of the lesbian pride flag), and crying. Nora cried tears of shock and joy at seeing one of the most beautiful places on Earth for the first time. I cried because I had returned to a place that had known me all along and would accept me every step of the way.
Our trip through the canyon was magical. We were in a time crunch, so we had to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim in one day. As we dropped into the canyon we stopped frequently to take photos and gawk over the way the rising sun chased shadows across the soaring canyon walls. We took our first break at Oo-Aah Point (aptly named, I might add) where we made friends with another thru-hiker and ate a quick breakfast of carrot cake and bananas.
Nora and I continued on, cruising down the South Kaibab. We walked without pause as the day heated up, only stepping aside to let a mule train being led by a mustachioed man in a bolo tie and chaps pass us as they clomped uphill, kicking up dust. From above we could see the Kaibab Trail Suspension Bridge strung across the vivid, aquamarine Colorado River. The day was feeling more and more like the inside of an oven and we were yearning for a cool dip. When we finally reached the frigid water, lapping up against the sandy shore of the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we waded in next to tied up river rafts and squealed with delight as a chill set into our bones. I stayed submerged until my fingers and toes were numb, hoping to carry the refreshing feeling with me for as long as I could under the hot sun.
Our timeline called and we hiked onward and upward, beginning our gentle ascent out of the canyon on the North Kaibab Trail. We stopped frequently to dunk our sun-shirts in Bright Angel Creek which was our constant companion. Per the recommendation of the ranger at the permitting office we made a short side-trip to Ribbon Falls, an incredible moss-covered oasis in the middle of the desert. The sight of it took our breath away and we stood under the mist, kissing each other’s smiling faces. Shortly after that we began climbing in earnest, the trail steepening and switchbacking. It wasn’t ideal that we would be climbing through the hottest part of the day but our wet sun-shirts kept us cool, we carried plenty of water and we found the steep walls of the canyon were bathed in shadow, protecting us from the afternoon rays. Nora helped me stay calm and focused during exposed sections of Redwall Limestone where trail crews have blasted the trail out of sheer cliffs and I pushed us to keep climbing up to 8,297 feet where we topped out on the North Rim.
We were exhausted and sore, it had been a full day of hiking: 21 miles and thousands of feet of elevation loss and gain. We made it in time to watch the sun set, bringing our day full circle. The North Rim was still closed for the season, so there was almost no one else around, no unknown people to put us on edge or make us feel unsafe. Just us, our dinner, our tent and a stunning view of the world. I wrapped my arms around Nora and we stood alone, snuggled and safe within the embrace of a lavender sky, on the edge of the Grand Canyon.