Culture

Canyon Dreams

One runner trades in lightweight trainers for hiking boots and finds her inner Spiderwoman in the arid lands of Arizona.


I love running on golf courses early in the morning. Just after sunrise in Scottsdale, the grass is glistening with dew, and I have the manicured green hills all to myself. I inhale the heady smell of creosote plants as a rabbit hops out from behind a cactus sprouting fuchsia flowers.

The sun warms my face while I enjoy what will be my only run for the next few days. I’ve come to Arizona with three likeminded runner friends to up our game with some extreme cross training. Over the course of the week, we’ll be canyoneering, rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking and hiking the Grand Canyon. We’ve chosen the Scottsdale-Phoenix area, because perfect weather and endless sun make it one of the world’s most scenic playgrounds.

NATURAL HIGH

The first challenge in our grand adventure is canyoneering. Inspired by Native Americans who first used it as a mode of travel, this wild sport involves scrambling over boulders, sliding down waterfalls, rappelling down rock faces and swimming in ice-cold water.

We drive through the Sonoran Desert toward the starting point of our first canyoneering trip with our guide Bruce Leadbetter, owner of 360 Adventures. When we step out of the van, Bruce warns, “Be careful, because everything in the Sonoran sticks, stings, bites or eats meat.” Presuming we’re the meat, we all walk carefully around the stickery brush and into Tonto National Forest.

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Bruce sorts out our wetsuits, climbing harnesses and helmets, then hands each of us a backpack. “Anyone afraid?” he asks. We stop chattering and shift nervously. “You know what fear is? It’s false expectations appearing real.” Easy for this former marine corporal to say. I think: frightened, edgy, anxious, restless.

We hike a mile down to the river at the bottom of the canyon and strap on our gear. The sun is high in the sky, and I wish I were back at my resort sipping an icy margarita poolside. My two male adventure mates, Scott and Ben, are both elite triathletes, and even they don’t look too happy right now. Marianna, who like me, isn’t a hard-core athlete but will try anything, says, “My heart’s beating so fast I think it’s going to explode.”

“Don’t worry,” Bruce says. “Adrenaline is a natural high.”

We walk along the bank with our backpacks humped on our shoulders until the path turns into nothing but bulking wet boulders. I’m pretty fearless, but slippery rocks scare me to death, so I grab at tree branches for balance. When the rocks drop off, we wade in knee-high water or swim to the next boulder. The water’s cold, but our wetsuits keep us warm, and the backpacks make great life preservers. I float on my back and gape at the stunning 200-foot-high burnt orange rock walls.

When we come to a dead end, Bruce grins. Below us, a waterfall pounds down a 15-foot drop. “This will be fun,” he says. “Just do it like this.” Bruce sits at the edge of the rock, folds his arms over his chest and sides down into the waterfall. At the bottom, he stands up and calls, “Don’t go to the right because there’s a huge boulder. Stay left.”

Stay left!? How can I control the direction if I’m sliding? I wait for the others to go, sit down for my turn, and stall. Everyone is looking up at me. “Come on!” Bruce calls. I count to three and push off. As I start to slide, I let out a cry of terror which turns into a scream of joy.

We swim on through a large grotto, wade to shore, climb over more boulders and arrive at a 20-foot precipice. Bruce fixes a rope so we can rappel down. After my waterfall adventure, I feel empowered. I slide down the rope so quickly that Bruce’s mouth is left wide open. “You’re Spiderwoman,” he says. All I can do is grin.

CAMEL RIDE

Early the next morning, Bruce drives us to Camelback Mountain, a sandstone and- granite wonder sculpted by nature over eons to resemble a giant camel at rest. But standing beneath the 45-foot sheer granite climbing wall, it looks more like a threatening monster than a gentle beast. “When you climb,” instructs Bruce, “just go toehold by toehold, handhold by handhold. You’re tied to a safety rope, so if you slip you can’t fall more than a couple of feet.” As he clips me onto the rope, he says, “Remember, climbing is conquering something that makes you afraid.”

I take a deep breath and try to relax. I plan to take this slow, just like he said. At first, I scramble up, easily finding my holds—then it starts to get harder. I look up. The remainder of the route is straight up, a vertical wall. Why am I doing this again?

I want to quit, but I’m already halfway up and have no idea how to get back down. I’m stuck. Then I remember: I’m Spiderwoman. I take a breath, look for the holds and all of a sudden, I see them everywhere. I make my way to the top, stand at the summit, pump my fists and let out a triumphant war cry. I’ve conquered the facade, and so have my three friends. That afternoon, we all hit the resort pool and clink our icy margaritas together. We kicked Camelback’s butt.

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MOUNTAIN MADNESS

Another day means another challenge for our thrill-seeking group. When Brian Jump, a guide from Arizona Outback Adventures arrives in a van with shiny new bikes piled on the roof, we know what we’re in store for.  McDowell Mountain Regional Park is a popular mountain biking spot for locals. Here, elevations rise to 3,000 feet, offering spectacular views.

Brian tells us to keep on the lookout for deer, javelina, birds and coyotes before leading us onto the single-track trail. Just then, a coyote runs almost directly in front of me followed by his friend. I have no idea if they attack, but on the bike, I feel invincible. We pedal along the trail past palo verde trees blossoming with yellow flowers, past prickly pear plants, barrel cacti and silvery gray agaves. I screech to a halt because on one side of the trail, six baby quail waddle behind their mother. Later, a bald eagle flies overhead framed by the cloudless Arizona sky. Aside from the swishing sound of our tires on the sandy track, the desert is silent.

Following a picnic lunch, we board sit-on-top kayaks. After a quick-and-dirty water fight—the perfect way to cool off in the hot sun—we dip our paddles into the water and float lazily down the river. I think I see eight palominos standing in the water just ahead of us. “Wild horses,” Brian says. It’s not a mirage. Incredible.

WORLD OF WONDER

On our last day, we charter a plane with Brian and soar past red rocks to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The pilot flies less than 1,000 feet above this 270-million-year-old marvel, more ancient than the dinosaurs. We land, enter Grand Canyon National Park, and follow our guide down the steep switchbacks of the South Kaibab Trail. “Every step you take brings you back 50,000 to 100,000 years in geologic time,” he says.

About an hour down the trail, we admire the 360-degree views of, crimson- and butterscotch-colored cliffs stretching in every direction. It’s easy to understand why the Hopi considered the canyon a holy site.

When we finally arrive at our destination, Cedar Ridge, we stake out a secluded area to eat our lunch and enjoy unending views stretching in every direction. I think about all the highs and lows of the past four days, and begin to swallow the fact that I’m sitting in one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is so utterly mesmerizing that tears roll down my cheeks and then, just as quickly, evaporate in the brilliant Arizona sun.