Down and Up Again: A Grand Canyon Story

Standing at the top of the Grand Canyon, we peered over the rim. “That’s the Colorado River,” said Kev. “We’re hiking down there tomorrow.” The sun set 20 minutes before, and the canyon was shrouded in a dark blue haze. It was 40 degrees and Kyle was still damp from our swim at Slide Rock Park. The depth of the canyon was difficult to perceive from our vantage point, 5,000 feet above the floor. We’d learn first-hand in the morning.


“Don’t try to make it to the river and back in a day,” reads the signs. The phrase is also prominently featured on the Grand Canyon’s home page. Depending on the route you choose, hiking from the rim of the canyon to the river and back is no fewer than 15 miles, while descending and ascending a total of 10,000 vertical feet.


First cliché (pronounced KLEETCH) photo of the day

The warnings are valid. The bottom of the canyon can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the top is at an elevation of 7,000 feet where the oxygen is much thinner than sea-level coast dwellers are used to.

But, we all have the adventure gene in us.


At 5:20 AM, we began our descent down South Kaibob with headlamps on, illuminating the dusty path in front of us. Spirits were high as we sauntered down the first mile, taking photographs along the way. Sharp corners and steep drops halted my excitement, and acrophobic waves swept over me. I’d round the corner and the tides of fear would go out, and the ecstasy rolled back in.

In most sections, the trail is about 7 feet wide. It’s enough space for a fully-packed mule to pass a broad-shouldered man or wide-hipped woman, but not much more.

The sun rose at 5:54 AM. A couple sat on the edge of the trail and watched as the canyon turned from blue-grey to orange, then copper.


We could not have asked for a more perfect day. Temperatures never rose above 85, and a cloud ceiling protected us from the direct sun through the course of the entire day.

The hike down South Kaibob was 7.4 miles. Every mile was a new landscape. One mile we left Arizona and ended up on Mars.

Another, we traversed what could have been the Moon. Paths evolved from dirt steps, to stone, to red dust and to fine sand. Temperatures climbed as we descended. Vegetation, rock formations, and colors were in constant flux.

Despite all of the time we spent taking pictures and admiring the landscape, we reached the surprisingly green Colorado River just after 9:00 AM.

“We’re crossing the Colorado – you’ve been waiting all week for this!” I said to Kev. “I’ve been waiting almost my whole life,” he replied.


Kyle took a life-altering reprieve in the bathroom, Kev scouted out a trail toward the northern rim, and I found a picnic table for us to take a snack break. We gobbled down fruit, meal replacement bars, and handfuls of nuts and hemp seeds, as a squirrel sat patiently, waiting for scraps to scavenge.


We began ascending the Bright Angel trail, a 9.5 mile hike back up to the South Rim. Walking along the Colorado, we waved to a group of white water rafters who were about at the halfway point of their 16-day float. They were to our right, about 60 feet below.

We approached a narrow pass. A man traveling alone was heading in the opposite direction, straight toward us. I began to slow, so we didn’t have to simultaneously cross the approaching four foot wide path. Instead of continuing straight along his course, he jumped onto a stone wall, no wider than a balance beam, marking the edge of the cliff. A fall would kill him.

He didn’t slow, nor blink, just kept on walking . As he hopped off the wall, back on the path, he lost footing in the gravel. He leaned forward and caught himself with his left leg. Unphased, he kept walking. “His life just flashed before my eyes,” I told Kev.

After the near-death meander along the river and an underwhelming cave exploration, we ascended our first switchback of the day. We were able to catch our breath quickly as there were more flats to cross before hitting Indian Garden.

We thought we had seen it all – Mars red hillsides, Cape Cod sands, the Moon, a Grand Canyon sunrise. But Indian Garden was another new landscape in our ever shifting journey. A stream cuts through the arid terrain and feeds a narrow, lush forest. The scent of flowers was kept afloat in the slightly more humid air.

We filled our water vessels in Indian Garden and began the last leg of the journey, 3,000 vertical feet over the course of four miles. Kyle, with empty bowels and a sudden caffeine kick led the charge. We began the final ascent at a good clip, taking frequent but quick water and snack breaks.

Kevin, after accidentally breaking his jar of peanut butter the night before the trip, was running on fumes from a lack of protein. His dietary restrictions limited him to fruit and seeds for the day. Like a terribly inefficient SUV, he had to pull over and refuel every few hundred vertical feet.

Eventually, we rounded a corner and we could see the top. Our eyes straight ahead, we tried our best not to push any of the hundreds of tourists off the increasingly congested trail as we marched to the top. I grabbed the first person I came across and asked her to take our photo.


High energy and good spirits at the top


Our bodies sore, but our minds refreshed, we drove back to Phoenix the next day. We talked about hiking the Berkshires, Mt. Washington, John Muir Way, Joshua Tree National Park. Conversation led to weddings, work, wives, fiancees, budgets, vacation hours.  No more trips this year, hopefully next though.


The Munsell Limited

There are few items I own that I’m attached to. But one of them sits in my pocket all day and on my bed stand at night. And it’s not my phone. That’s more obsession than attachment.

It’s actually a simple item and one of the most inexpensive purchases I’ve made outside of a penny candy store. It’s a small wooden elephant, less than two inches in height. He hangs on a ring in between my house key and Hubway pass.



It was the summer of 2008. I had graduated college two months prior, and my younger brother Zack finished his senior year of high school. We sat in the living room watching The Darjeeling Limited, a movie about three brothers traversing a new country and continent. In twelve hours, we would be on a similar excursion with our older brother Dave who was volunteering with the Peace Corps in Mali. The three Munsell brothers, traversing West Africa. The Munsell Limited.

While in Mali, Dave kept a very regular blog. I’ll summarize my experience of the trip by pulling out some quotes from his blog and adding my own photos and commentary. It will no doubt be a more realistic account than I could drum up after five and a half years.

“The first leg of our trip took us down to Bougoni and Sikasso where Zack freestyle rapped in a night club called Alcatraz and then threw up all over Mike’s face in a taxi the next day.”

We had to feed Zack a bit of liquid courage at the club, but the Malians were impressed with his rapping skills. Unbeknownst to them, due to language barriers, he did repeat the same lines a number of times.

As for getting puked on – it was unrelated to the liquid courage and brought on by something he ate. But, I laughed hysterically and wiped it off.  Dave’s friend Sophie commented on how close we were as brothers if we could handle being puked on by one another.

“The ride to Douentza was memorable because Mike was sick.”

Yep. I puked upwards of twenty times that night. Though, I had eaten some inedible nut shells.

“I whipped out a pair of pants from my backpack and tied the legs together, creating a makeshift puke bag.”

This is still the most MaGyver-esque thing I’ve ever witnessed.

“Sorry, but I have very little sympathy for throwing up and/or diarrhea in Mali. If you get Malaria, then I’ll send you a get well card.”

Thanks brother.

“At night, we brought out the iPod and speakers to accompany our meal of canned chicken, mango jelly, peanuts, and dates (it was REALLY good).”

Dave had been in the deserts of Mali for over a year at that point. We had very different palates at the time.

“Mike and Zack thought it was funny to see me attract a crowd everywhere I went as I had them rallied around me while I told stories and joked around. I don’t know what I’ll do when I go home and am anonymous again; I enjoy this quazi-celebrity status that I hold here.”

He went home and became story-teller-Dave. He’s got quazi-celebrity status in his social circles here.

“We got to village the next morning. What sounded like the coming of war ended up being the most hearty and warmest welcome I have ever experienced in my life… The entire village came out with guns blazing into the air and drums beating out rhythms. I introduced everyone and we were paraded into the village with such fanfare that I could have sworn we were in a movie. The villagers sang, danced, and jumped sporadically into the air as they accompanied us to all of the main households in village to greet the elders.”

zack dancing in mali

dave dancing in mali

dancing in mali

Pictures don’t do it justice. It is a moment I will never forget.

“That afternoon, it was time for me to kill the goat I had bought for Mike and Zack’s arrival….. Zack was squeamish and couldn’t watch, but Mike was ready with the camera.” 

I believe some vegetarians we’re friends with on Facebook flagged those photos as inappropriate. They have since been removed.

“I grabbed the goat’s horn, pulled his head back as he faced Mecca and let out a loud “Bisimillah!” Slicing into the goat’s neck, he reeled back, but we had a tight grip on him. As instructed, I said “Allah akbar” as the blood came out, and everyone was happy.”

“After leaving village, we met up with other PCVs and headed north to Hombori for rock climbing”.

Dave forgot to mention Zack getting sick, again, almost missing the bus and getting stranded by himself in Douentza.

“Mike really impressed me this day. On his first climb, he said it would be his last due to his fear of heights. But before I knew it, he was down on the ground and then strapped in on the other side for another climb! Go Mike! Zack was also really impressive. He got off to a slow start, but was consistently making it to the tops of his climbs. The second day he really came through. We had set a top rope on this face with tiny little holds. I belayed Zack on his climb and he just plugged away until he reached the top with no problems.”

This is apparently where I impressed Dave.

big brother
Dave being a good big brother.

“That second morning, we were about to leave the campement we stayed at when I saw some odd looking clouds approaching. Hell’s chariot was on its way in the form of a sand storm. Imagine rolling clouds of sand thousands of feet tall engulfing huge rock spires in the distance barreling directly towards you. It’s scary and exciting, especially when your only shelter is a dried millet stock bungalow. Although Hell’s chariot never reached us, we were in for a neat treat as everything around us turned a bright yellowish-reddish-orangish hue. I don’t know how the storm missed us, but it did.”

sand storm
The approaching sand storm.

sandstorm hut
#nofilter. seriously.

“Leaving Hombori, we caught a ride to Boni in the back of a large truck full of people. Standing room only. A goat peed on Zack, Mike hit people in the face with his giant backpack and I was berated with questions in too many languages.”

Hitchhiking with said ‘giant backpack’

“Standing room only”

“Mike, Zack, Braxton (a fellow PCV) and I hopped into a 4X4 van (aka piece of junk) and rode out into the bush to search for elephants.”

A safari, of sort with the “piece of junk” in the background.

“In time we found a Fulani watching over his animals who claimed to have seen elephants this morning. He jumped into the van and we were off again. Bringing us to a thicket of small trees, we exited the bus and headed downwind as not to be discovered by the elephant. Quietly, we tracked down an elephant near a watering hole and followed him for a short while. Stepping out from a patch of trees, we found ourselves face to face with the elephant himself (it was definitely a “him.” The Fulani pointed this out to me with much enthusiasm). The elephant stood there for a while and threw his trunk around. After we snapped a few photos, the elephant decided it was time for us to move on. He puffed his ears up and took a few steps forward, just to let us know we were on his turf.”

The male elephant, through the trees.

dave as elephant
Dave reminding me what the elephant looked like.

After our safari, we trekked back to Bamako for a couple nights before heading home to the States.


There was nothing special about the wooden elephant key chain or the buying of it. At the time, it felt like an item on a checklist – buy myself something in Mali. Check.

But now, it’s a reminder of the three weeks in Africa with my brothers. Getting sick together. Dancing with Dave’s entire village.  Rock climbing and sandstorms. Our safari. The elephant. It’s a constant reminder of my brothers and two of my best friends.


The Munsell Limited.


If you enjoyed this, read Dave’s entire post of our trip. He wrote it just days after Zack and I left Mali — so it was a very fresh memory at the time.