Just a few miles in, my dad and brother were gliding easily down switchback after switchback, and my short legs were struggling to keep pace. By the time we hit the valley, it was 90 degrees and we had 10 miles more to go before we reached the opposite canyon wall and started climbing the seven miles back up. We called my mom from the payphone at Phantom Ranch and ate ice cream sandwiches. As soon as we started the ascent, the hard rock gave way to a long stretch of pliant sand, and I fell further and further behind as my legs struggled to dig out of it. My dad found me huddled in a shaded alcove in the cliff face, looking like some wounded animal that had crawled into a hole to die. I cried because I couldn’t do it, and then because I was being a baby, and because crying made walking even more impossible, and because my dad was watching. Dealing with a weeping 13-year-old girl was generally my mother’s responsibility, but my dad had led me to a desert one mile into the ground and now he had to get me out of it. He walked me down to a beach by the river and took off our shoes, and we sat for a while with our feet in the water. My dad pointed up to tiny specks at the top of the rim and convinced me that we would soon be joining them.
When we finally stood up, afternoon shadows were beginning to cool the canyon, and I discovered that my stocky legs could be an asset on the ascent. Halfway up, Mike took a photo of me and Dad, him grinning and me affecting my usual dead-eyed stare. But privately, I was thrilled to be reminded that my body could be useful for something other than reflecting my insecurities, and I led my dad and brother to the rim. At the top we found a billboard with a taped photograph of a man zipped into a body bag, a warning not to attempt what we’d just done, and we all laughed uncomfortably.
By high school, I was outpacing my dad on our 5-mile runs, and when I went off to college, I ran as far away as I could, to a city on the East Coast I could barely even picture in my head. The next summer, I was back in Phoenix, working, when my dad set off on a weeklong rafting trip without me. It was the first one I’d ever missed. I spent that summer driving between pockets of air-conditioning—the library, the Checkers drive-in, the mall, the other mall—and was wandering the aisles of the hardware store when my mom called me on my cell. For a second it sounded like the connection was off. Then she said, “Dad’s fine.”
The night before they were set to launch the boats, he had woken up in the dark in middle-of-nowhere Oregon struggling to breathe. Thinking it was a heart attack, he took a bunch of ibuprofen, mistaking it for aspirin. My uncle drove him to the nearest hospital—I don’t want to think about what they would have done had they been halfway down the river—and doctors told him that one of his lungs had detached from its tube and collapsed in his chest. When I finally saw him, he had a drainage bag that exited into, for some reason, a plastic glove. My dad smiled, took the glove in his hand, and waved it at me.
When I was little, always relegated to the kiddy backpack or the backseat, I tried to take control of my situation by whining: Where are we going? How do we get there? How long is it? Mike won’t stop touching me! I got annoyed when my dad veered us off the trail to cut through the forest, always concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find my way back on my own. Suddenly, I was worried about someone other than myself. In my eagerness to get older, I hadn’t considered that my parents would age with me.
On a trip back to Phoenix a few years ago, my dad and I drove to one of his favorite preserves and we hiked off trail up a rocky hill lined with the shells of saguaros. When we turned back, my dad—always faster on the downhill—headed out in front of me, and after a while, I found myself alone in the middle of the scratchy brush, having accidentally veered off course while lost in my own thoughts. But I spied the foot trail we had planned to hit on the way back to the car and started jogging to catch up. Minutes passed without any sign of his tan, floppy hat bobbing in the distance. He had our backpack with both of our cellphones and all of the water. Had he fallen somewhere? Are there snakes? Hikers buzzed past me. “I lost my dad,” I thought to myself but didn’t say. Instead, I picked up the pace and ran to the trail’s end, where the dirt pooled out into the asphalt parking lot. No Dad. I finally flagged down a woman outside the bathroom, breathlessly borrowed her cellphone, and called my own number. I heard rings, a fumbling noise, and his voice. He had waited for me right at the top of the trail, and, when I failed to appear, pounded back and forth terrified, stopping hikers to ask if they’d sighted me.
Last month, I flew into Phoenix and drove the four hours north back to the Grand Canyon with my dad. This time, we would head down and up the same rim, a comparatively easy 14-mile route, and it would be just the two of us. About a mile in, most of the hikers who had started in with us fell far behind, or else turned back. As we wound further down, only one group kept up with us—a pack of three lithe, bronzed hikers swathed in neon tank tops who didn’t look a day over 19. The five of us passed back and forth, back and forth, until we reached the river, where they promptly removed their shirts, exposing their taut abdominals to the blazing sun while my dad and I rested under matching sweat-logged long-underwear tops and floppy-brimmed hats. As we headed into that sandy stretch of trail, they passed us one last time, and we never saw them again.
I kept it together until we reached the Indian Garden Campground, a shady rest area about 5 miles down from the South Rim. My dad grabbed a handful of trail mix, ate the peanuts and almonds that I had been picking around all day, and deposited a pure cache of sunflower seeds into my palm. We poked our hiking poles at the squirrels that swarmed around our snacks, which signs warned us carried fleas, which carried the plague. But as soon as we headed back up the trail and into the sun, my breath drew loud and thin in my chest. We were losing oxygen with every foot we marched into the sky, but my face was still red with heat, and my leg muscles were seizing from the strain. As my dad marched on, I could manage about 10 feet at a time until I had to stop and hunch over my poles. My 62-year-old father was totally destroying me.
As I languished under the final set of switchbacks, my dad turned back, clapped me on my shoulder, and pointed up. “Do you see those people? They’re at the top,” he said. “How nice for them,” I replied, slipping back into tortured adolescent mode. But this time, when I felt the panic rise into my chest, I breathed deeper and focused on timing my steps right behind his. In the final stretch, the trail became congested with flip-flopped tourists who had dipped into the canyon for an easy jaunt, as if to taunt us with their unused stores of energy. As we panted toward the finish, they posed and grinned for their cellphone cameras, converting the trail we’d just conquered into their scenic backdrop. We lurched almost motionlessly to the rim, where I tried to raise my poles into the air and collapsed into my dad’s arms. “Those fuckers,” I said to my dad when we got into the car. “They have no idea where we’ve been.” He nodded in agreement and drove me home.