Featured writer: Sas Ryan
When I was a child, my bucket list was very short. It only had two items on it. To visit the Grand Canyon and to visit Giants Causeway. In that order. Don’t ask me why, but they were the two places on the planet that captured my imagination. My bucket list grew when I reached adulthood, and has positively exploded over the past couple of years, but those two ambitions were always the most important to me.
Visiting Giants Causeway, by far the easiest from where I live in the UK, was accomplished with the help of an Irish friend from university. ‘You want to visit Giants Causeway?’ She said in her beautiful Belfast lilt. ‘Well, that’s no problem. Come over and stay with my family and we’ll catch the train to Portrush.’
Here it was, one of my lifelong dreams within grasping distance, and she made it sound so easy. Which it was, and I had a fantastic few days in Northern Ireland.
The Grand Canyon, on the other hand, would take me a few more years to reach. After working seasons overseas for almost six years, I returned to the UK in 2008 more than a little lost. I’d ticked off everything I’d wanted to achieve when I first left the UK, and I didn’t have a clue what to do next. I drifted for a couple of years until I was faced with the prospect of my 30th birthday. Family and friends talked of me having a big party to celebrate, but I knew that wasn’t for me. Instead, I decided to buy myself the adventure of a lifetime. I went to the travel agents and booked a two week trip to the USA, taking in Los Angeles, Joshua Tree, Las Vegas, Yosemite, San Francisco and – most important to me – the Grand Canyon!
Intrepid offer small group tours in over 110 destinations, and they are all about real-life travel experiences. Our guide, Casey, was amazing and did everything he possibly could to help us get the most out of our adventure. Being the only male in the group, he had his hands full dealing with 13 girls as well! At the start of our trip, Casey had made a point to speak to us all on a one-to-one basis and find out our reasons for choosing the Western Sun tour and what was important to each of us. I told him about my dream to visit the Grand Canyon, and he promised me that we would do as much as possible in the time we had there. He wasn’t lying. I still don’t know how we managed to fit so much into less than 24 hours, especially since he must have been exhausted from driving 6-7 hours every day.
As I had no idea of the layout of the Grand Canyon National Park (this was before I researched trips), or how big it is, I didn’t know if we would be able to glimpse the canyon itself on the drive to the campsite. I kept my eyes peeled, but all I could see was trees. We arrived mid-afternoon, and quickly set up camp so we could go exploring. Casey gave us some bus timetables, circled a viewpoint on the map to meet him at just before sunset, and told us he’d take care of dinner. As always, we trusted him completely.
Most of the famous landmarks I have visited in the world have either been just what I expected or a bit of a let down. The Statue of Liberty is a lot smaller than it looks on TV, Niagara Falls was impressive but I didn’t understand the fascination with water that my travelling companion Kate had, and San Francisco would turn out to be nothing like it appears in the movies. As we approached the South Rim of the canyon I was nervous that it might let me down as well. What if the Grand Canyon, number one on my bucket list, wasn’t as incredible as I’d bigged it up to be in my dreams?
Sara and Claire, two of the girls from our group, were outdoors-minded like me and keen to walk around the rim as much as possible in the limited time we had. As we made our way around the back of the visitor centre to join the footpath, I was definitely not prepared for the view we would find. To say that the Grand Canyon met my expectations and more is as understatement. It is one of the most incredible things I have seen in my life. Coming from a relatively small country like England, natural formations on the scale of the Canyon are almost too much for my brain to take in. I almost felt like I was still looking at the canyon on a poster, and I wasn’t really there at all. As we walked around the rim and saw the Canyon from different angles and in different lights, the whole place came more alive for me.
We arrived at our designated meeting point in twos and threes, and shared stories of our afternoon. Most of the others had chosen to bus-hop around some of the rim, but I think we’d definitely taken the best option by walking. Some of the other Intrepid groups were there. As the routes of the different tours cross over at various points, you tend to bump into the same people. Everyone was there to see the sunset, but not everyone had a guide as good as Casey. Right on cue, he appeared with a pile of fresh pizzas in his hands. Travellers from other groups threw accusatory looks at their own guides whilst we sat and ate our dinner, watching the stunning sunset. It seemed to go on for hours, lighting up the Canyon in every colour imaginable as the sun disappeared over the horizon. Cameras were clicking like mad, the landscape altering every few seconds with the changing light.
‘If you think that’s good, you should see the sunrise,’ Casey teased us.
Was that really an option?
‘If anyone wants to get up at 5am, I’ll drive you down here to see it.’
He didn’t have to ask me twice. At 5am I was up and ready to go, along with a few of the other girls, and I suddenly understood Kate’s fascination with Niagara Falls. It was her Grand Canyon. Just as she’d sat and watched the Falls for five hours straight (literally), I would do anything to see the Canyon again.
One thing you learn when camping in the desert is that when the sun is down it is cold. Weirdly, the ground stays warm (it’s like having under-floor heating in your tent), but the air has a chill to it that is hard to escape. Unsurprisingly, there were far fewer people at the Rim to watch the sunrise than there had been for the sunset the previous night. Only a few of us die-hard fans made it, cameras in hand and with our sleeping bags wrapped tightly around us in a desperate bid to keep warm. I still find bits of red dust in that sleeping bag two years later!
It was well worth the early wake up and braving the cold. The clarity I needed in my life was there, sitting on the edge of one of Mother Nature’s greatest creations, watching a new day begin and sharing the phenomenal experience with some incredible people. I’d made it. I’d ticked off number 1 on my bucket list. I knew exactly what I had to do next. I had to write another list.
My Grand Canyon experience did not end there. For an extra charge we had the option to take a helicopter ride over the Canyon with Maverick. I had a flashback to the first time I had travelled to the States and my mum telling me that if I was faced with a possible once-in-a-lifetime experience, I shouldn’t let money stop me. I also remembered that a few generous family members had given me money for my birthday, and I knew what their present to me was going to be.
The helicopter ride was the cherry on top of the cake of my trip to the Grand Canyon. Not only did we get to see the Canyon from an amazing vantage point, our pilot Ryan was really informative and entertaining.
People often say that travel is life changing, and for me this trip really was. When I returned to the UK I quit my job and vowed to work towards what I really want in life. I hope to one day return to the Grand Canyon and explore it further. I’ve heard you can travel to the bottom on a mule. That one’s definitely going on the new bucket list.