Looking Back After Three Months

It has now been over three months since I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. At times, it feels like I was standing on Katahdin just yesterday. At other times, it feels like it has been years since I saw that sign. As for many of my thru-hiking friends, it has been a strange period of time.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been a good period of time. On the contrary, I’ve enjoyed the chance to regroup, plan for new adventures, and spend time with my family. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some cool projects; in particular, I wrote, edited, and completed Blaze, the zine I had been dreaming of writing since halfway through the AT. (You can order a copy here!) I have also crocheted a lot of interesting things: orders for hats and headbands from friends, requests for unique gifts like a teddy bear and a giraffe, a snail, a flamingo, a nativity for my mom for Christmas, and a whole lot of cacti and succulents. I participated in three craft shows, which enabled me to get back in touch with my creative side and make new connections. I have painted, embroidered, and started knitting a cowl. (My knitting is abysmal and the cowl is rife with glorious mistakes, but it’s fun to practice.)

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The cover of Blaze, the zine I wrote about my thru-hike of the AT. Patches did the illustrations for me, and the result is better than I could have dreamed. If you’d like to order a copy, check out the link above!

And of course, there has been hiking. In October I went on a three-day backpacking trip at Shawnee State Forest in Ohio with my friend Wiggs, whom I met on the Appalachian Trail. We’ve been walking together both on trails and in life since that weekend. We’ve explored John Bryan State Park near Yellow Springs, as well as smaller trails in Columbus and Cincinnati, among other places. Although our respective thru-hikes ended in September, it feels like the trail has extended into off-trail life. We are enjoying this new adventure, and are excited for all the adventures to come. (Look out, summer 2020!)

I’ve been grateful for the chance to spend time with family and friends, and I enjoyed being home for the whole Christmas season this year. I’m doing things I love, I’m starting a teaching job that I’m very excited about next week, and I finally had the chance to read a few books for once.

And yet, I still miss the trail every day. I miss the directed, consistent goal: get up, eat, walk, sleep, repeat. Day after day, footstep after footstep, until you reach the end. Six months of days spent doing one small piece of a massive adventure. I miss sleeping in my tent and waking up with the tentative sunlight peering through the silnylon walls. I don’t miss the pain or the fatigue or that very specific hiker smell, but I do miss the freedom of it, of walking into town with a straight-backed confidence and feeling perfectly at home in any place, town or trail. I miss my tramily around me, rounding a corner and seeing a familiar face, sitting around a campfire and eating my millionth broccoli-cheddar rice packet (but I don’t really miss those rice packets). I miss the sound of a stream next to a campsite and the comfort of sunset by a pond.

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This is somewhere in Maine. The northeast portion of the trail was probably my favorite. I miss the soft paths and conifers.

It seems sometimes that the further away I get from my thru-hike, the more I process and understand its gifts. The AT taught me so many things, made me see the world in a slightly different way. It made me less desperate to know exactly what’s going to happen, made me more flexible and okay with uncertainty. I still remember these lessons, but sometimes I worry that as time passes I’m losing the positive changes the AT made in my life. As soon as I finished I felt refreshed and reset, if anxious and disappointed that the trail had to end. I felt like things that used to bother me in off-trail life weren’t quite as annoying, and that I was more empathetic than I had been before. But now, it’s harder to remember what the lack of worrying feels like, what it felt like to understand where people were coming from and not to get upset about things that didn’t matter. Sometimes I feel like I’m right back where I started: short-tempered, easily upset, antsy.

I know I’m not really losing it, because I can still close my eyes and think about these important realizations. The trail lives inside me now, and that experience will never go away. As time goes on, I will just have to work harder to remember what the trail instilled in me, and how I can apply it to everyday life.

Anyway, that’s more than I meant to write about post-trail life. But there you go. Some reflections.

A few weeks ago, I reread my last entry from Maine, which I wrote on the plane leaving Portland. I decided to add an edited version of it here, as a kind of bookend for my AT posts. Thank you for reading this, and thank you for being there for me, whoever you are. I am grateful.

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The tramily at Katahdin! KG finished before us, on September 18. Patches and I finished on September 28th. Even though we were 10 days apart in summiting, these two defined my thru-hike and I can’t believe how lucky I was to meet them.

2 October 2019, in a plane flying from Portland, ME to Atlanta, GA, 19:34

When I’m in a plane that’s taking off, I love pressing my face to the plastic window and watching the world shrink under the wings. Tonight, leaving Maine and heading home, we’re rising from the ground as the sun is setting. We ascend, wheels streaming, velocity increasing, and we’re flying over the ocean. There’s a lighthouse down below us, and I can see its beam throwing itself out onto the waters. How small it looks from here, this tiny pinprick of moving light.

As the world rushes by, I put in my headphones, select my AT playlist, and play “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants––what has become, for me, the unofficial anthem of my thru-hike. (Thanks, Nemo!) Drum beats, a catchy refrain, and I’m ascending more, more, more, up and into the clouds, turning south, and suddenly there is the melting orange sunset outside my window. Deep blue fading downwards into layers of yellow, orange, purple. The kind of sunset that could seep into the trees rimming a northeastern pond; the kind that calls for loons and crisp evening air.

And then I see it all behind my eyes. Georgia to Maine.

The enormity of what I have just done hits me. I stare out the little oval towards the sunset, songs playing in my ears that call back specific memories and images. I saw it all. I did it. Two years ago I hiked Katahdin while my family was in Maine, and I told her I would be back at the end of a thru-hike. And I did it. It is done. I kept my promise.

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A sign on a tree, above a blaze. This was somewhere in New York.

The last three days I have been reeling. Floating, really. I oscillate between a desire to plan my next thru-hike and the need to savor this one. I feel like I should be doing something, but I can’t muster the enthusiasm. I had so many ideas for projects, things I wanted to do when I got done hiking, but now I feel shell-shocked, numb. I keep playing memories of the AT behind my eyes like an internal movie on constant loop.

It isn’t so much that I want to be hiking again as much as it is that I want the experience back. There was nothing like walking into a store, restaurant, or hostel and knowing every single person there. There is nothing comparable to the sense of ultimate comfort of hiking. On the trail, you get people at their rawest, most exposed, and most honest. We are who we are, completely. We have nothing to hide behind, and we become close, fast, because of it. We can fall asleep almost anywhere, eat almost anything, talk to almost anyone. We stick our thumbs out for rides and hope for the best, and don’t think twice about it. We trust each other and we trust the trail.

In the woods, I know who I am. I know exactly how all of my gear works, what I need, how to make myself comfortable. I can tolerate storms and heat and a lack of running water. I can dip my dirty long-handled spoon way down to the bottom of the peanut butter jar and smack a glob of it on my tongue. Perfect simplicity, perfect lack of need for anything beyond what is absolutely necessary. That comfort, that confidence, is what I know I will miss.

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From left to right: me, Patches, and KG, in front of Stratton Pond, Vermont

This world, this country. It has an obsession with more. More, says the big fancy house. More, says the new car. More, say the corporations. More, say the insurance companies. More, say the shops and websites and billboards. We know this; it’s ridiculously trite to even start this conversation. Money rules. “What will you do after this?” asks everyone I know. “Good thing you’re doing this now,” say the older folks on the trail. Meaning, good thing you’re doing this now before you are tied down to amassing wealth for the rest of your life.

The trail, meanwhile, whispers less. Less, say the trees. Less, say my back and my joints.  You need so much less than you think you do. There is real magic in making do; there is such undervalued joy in seeing how well you do with less.

This is not to say I’m a “minimalist,” or that I’m going to sell all of my possessions and walk on my knees though the desert. I’m privileged to be able to hike and see the world this way. And I’m a hypocrite; we all are. We have things, and we use them and need them, and we mess up, and that’s okay. 

I just don’t want to be pulled into the more-ness. I don’t want to succumb. I don’t want to stop learning the rich ways of the long, thin place I called my home for the last six months. Her call is so much harder to hear, and I don’t want to lose her.

I wondered, before I got to Katahdin, how you end a thru-hike. How you just stop walking. How you tell your friends goodbye. I still don’t know how to do it. I kind of just did it. I kind of just let them slip through my fingers, sand from the hand of the Dream King returning to the soft places. A wave, a hug, and the end had already passed. Now, I am heading to whatever is next. I hope I never learn how to stop walking.

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Sunset on Annapolis Rocks, Maryland

 

Virginia Reflections, Part One

In which I talk about the Camino, allow myself to love the AT, and am honest.

15 May, Chatfield Memorial Shelter, 21:00

I feel a weird kind of clarity right now. I’ve been feeing it all day, actually. Ever since we saw Bubbles at the visitors center and we started talking about the Camino. I remember having these moments in the evening in Spain. The sun would start to set, we’d be showered and freshened up, and we’d either be sitting around with other pilgrims eating dinner, or talking after dinner, or wandering around a city, or drinking or eating pinxtos or writing or drawing. I would watch the sunset and the day fall towards quiet hours. And I would sigh, and think about my life, and feel calm and at peace.

Visiting a wild pony in the Grayson Highlands—still one of my favorite sections so far.

I know I spend too much time comparing hikes. The AT is not the Camino; both exist for different and equally valid reasons. There’s no way they can be the same. Still, I keep holding them up. And I keep finding people who have hiked the Way. Peregrinos y peregrinas. They understand walking but they understand pilgrimage too. And I think, something drives them to walk those hikes, and something drives them to hike here too. There is a through-line that loops between every long trail. We walk because we want to learn from others and about ourselves. We want to share and grow and sit in the fading light by the stream. Here we are, we say. Well, here we are together. On the way. Never quite arriving. Always on the way.

So much of the Appalachian Trail appears to be the same. There are hills and trees and ferns. For miles, it seems, this same forest goes on forever. But look, and you will see the land changing. Ferns and their spores now, larger and more mature. Different hillsides, different rocks. The rhododendrons are the same, but they are blooming now, and little pink polka dots dance about the forest. I sit here looking, listening. Like I did in the field in Triacastela. Like I did at Reposo del Andayón, the magic albergue, hidden beneath the Spanish Cantabrian mountains. Like I did in Llanes, next to turquoise waters. Like I did in Finisterre and Muxía and Santiago. I sighed then and felt right at home. Right in place. Now I feel right in place here too.

We continued past Atkins, VA in the week following Trail Days.

19 May, Sunday, Reed Creek, past the 1/4 way

Today I finally let myself love the AT. I’ve been grappling with the fact that long distance hiking is a privileged and largely white endeavor, and kicking myself for all the times I could have been a better outdoorist and done a better job centering people of color and other marginalized folx. And I’ve spent an even greater amount of time comparing the Appalachian Trail to the Camino. It’s not cultured enough, I think. It’s not full of people who “get it.” It’s full of white hippies and white feminists and people who think their worldview is massive and encompassing when it really just strikes me as colorblind and closed-minded.

But today I stepped back from it. Isn’t it equally close-minded of me to assume other peoples’ motivation? To me they seem like white hippies and privileged people with a lack of politics and a cause. But who am I? What do I know about what they’ve been though, what they’ve seen, who they’ve stood up for and defended? Just because a person has an American accent and white skin, it doesn’t mean that they can’t teach me things and change my mind. Being in a country and a culture for your whole life makes you critical of it when you step out and then back in. It’s so hard for me not to criticize. I see so many issues here and so many things that need to be different, but conflating origin and appearance and first impressions with real meaning is a dangerous game. I’m so tired of zealots in my face and white people acting like they know how the world works, but I haven’t earned any kind of right to act like I know more than they do.

The beauty of the AT is in the details.

I feel frustrated and stuck sometimes on this trail. Last summer, finishing the Norte and the Primitivo, walking alone and thinking about my future and feeling proud of my Spanish, I felt… freer. Happier. Like a better person than I was when I started. I guess this trail is longer, but sometimes I don’t feel like my mental journey is going anywhere. I’ve blamed it on the lack of spirituality here, on the lack of culture and history. I’ve thought, maybe it’s because this trail in its current incarnation is so much younger than the Camino. Maybe it’s the lack of other languages and respect for religious traditions. On the Camino people seem to know what they’re getting into; they expect prayers and religion and St. James and weird Spanish Catholic quirks. Here, it’s about tree after tree and mile after mile. I don’t know. Why is this surprising to me? I like trees as much as churches. I like trees more than churches most of the time, actually. Maybe it’s not any inherent difference between the trails I’ve walked, though. Maybe I’m acting like I’ve done my changing, maybe I’m not putting in the work that needs to be done. Maybe I’m looking for outside excuses.

Dismal Falls, just before Pearisburg, VA

Patches always says to me when I make a comment about a trait of mine that bothers me, “at least you’re self-aware.” This usually annoys me because it comes across as “yes, I agree, you have this character flaw.” But it’s true. I’m a shitty, cranky, pissed off, defensive human for a decent percentage of the time and I don’t like that.

I was thinking today about how, when I was a more committed believer, I spent a lot of time thinking about and praying about and working on the things that I didn’t like about myself: my judgmental nature, my impatience, my anger. I do miss that community of reminders and accountability sometimes. It’s hard to sit and listen to a sermon and imagine that it’s directed right at you. It’s really ego-crushing to think of all the times you tried to be a good follower of Jesus and completely botched the whole mission. Of course that’s the whole thing with salvation; it’s not deserved. In a weird way, I miss being reminded that I am nothing. I am dust. This isn’t about me or my story or my life or anything cool I’ve done to deserve any of the service and grace and kindness I have received, because I haven’t done anything to deserve any of this.

So, all this is to say, I took a step back today and thought about this hike. I thought about my self-improvement and spiritual journey constantly on the Camino, and maybe it was easier to do so there because you’re constantly being reminded of it. The Camino is a path forward but also a path upwards; ultreia et suseia; el camino de la corazón. It’s impossible to miss this dimension of the pilgrimage because that’s kind of been the point of the thing since people stared doing it a millennium ago. But just because there are no overt reminders or spiritual markers on the AT, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t still the goal. Ultreia et suseia just as much here as in Spain. The terrain is different, as are the people, as is the gear, as is the story. But the goals are the same: forward, and upward; to learn and listen and be better.

I’m allowed to love this trail too. It can be different, and still be amazing. I can work on myself and humble myself just as much here as on the side of a path in the Basque Country.

Ultreia.

Lower Antelope Canyon: Not Exactly Wilderness, But Totally Worth the Trip

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Close details of the waves and textures of Lower Antelope Canyon

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Janna and I went on a weekend trip to Page, Arizona, about 2 hours north of our beloved mountain town of Flagstaff. While the city itself is underwhelming, the two main attractions of the area – Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend – are some of the most photographed, most famous, and (rightly) most visited places in the United States. If you’re considering making a trip to Antelope Canyon, you’re probably weighing the cost of the tours, the logistics of getting there, and accommodation options. Here, I’d like to share my experience with this trip to help you make the most of your visit to this distinctly not wild, but beautiful, surreal, and totally worth-the-trip place.

Note: If you’d like to see just the photos from the trip, check out my gallery page.

Getting There

Page is remote – it sits at the northeastern corner of Arizona, mere miles from Utah. Like everything in the southwest, it seems to be far from everything else. But luckily, if you’re already in Flagstaff, it’s an easy 2-hour hop, skip, and a jump away, making it a perfect weekend destination.

Janna and I left Flagstaff around 5 PM on a Friday. The trip was simple, following 89A north of town and into the Navajo Nation, rounding corners with views of scraggly, otherworldly rocks and climbing up a steep hill that yielded impressive views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the far eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. We listened to a lot of K-Pop on the way, as we are wont to do, so it felt like a mere few minutes to get to Page.

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View of the Vermillion Cliffs and part of the Grand Canyon from the hilly portion of 89A leading up to Page

The Campsite

As we covered the last few miles and rolled into Page, we noticed plentiful accommodation – both affordable and mid-range hotels, it looked like. But we, being the outdoorsy and broke grad students that we are, were headed for a free BLM campsite just north of town, on the 89A near Lake Powell. Reading the descriptions online, we were a little concerned about the quality of the road, since I have an adventurous but tiny and low-clearance Grand Am. But we found the gravel to be perfectly drive-able for the first quarter-mile, which was the minimum distance campers had to keep from the road.

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Sunrise at our campsite (looking towards Lake Powell)
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Looking back towards the BLM land where our campsite was located. There was at least another solid half-mile worth of campsites along the road past our location.

The camping was everything car camping should be: free, quiet, located close to our destination, and easy to find. While we were eating dinner and reading, we got a few glimpses of jackrabbits bouncing through the brush, and in the morning we got to see the funky rock formations surrounding the area and a beautiful sunrise. There is absolutely nothing like waking up while camping in the southwest: the mornings smell crisp, clear, and full of potential. After gathering up our stuff and packing up the tent, we headed towards town, in search of breakfast, coffee, and bathrooms. We had a tour reservation at 11:30 and a few hours to spare, so we decided to go to Horseshoe Bend first before the tourists arrived.

Horseshoe Bend

Located just south of Page off the 89A, Horseshoe Bend is an impressively deep incised meander of the Colorado River. It’s a frequently photographed spot at a location conveniently close to Antelope Canyon.

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Horseshoe Bend

We visited Horseshoe in the morning, hoping to avoid large hordes of tourists and to get an opportunity to photograph the feature before the sun became overly bright. We planned it right with the tourists – when we got there, around 7:30, there were only a few other people present, but as we were walking back to the car, large groups on tour busses had begun arriving. But the sun at that time of day was a little challenging – there was a deep shadow in the canyon, making it difficult to adjust the settings on our cameras to capture both the shadowy and bright parts of the bend. But this also gave the view an interesting effect. If I ever go back, I’d like to try to be at Horseshoe at either sunset or sunrise to get some different light. I guarantee that any time of day, though, is very impressive for viewing this place.

One thing that Janna and I really enjoyed about being at Horseshoe Bend was sitting on the edge of the cliff and watching people down on the river. It’s fun to see boats come down one side of the bend, make the curve, and keep on going, and it was also cool to see the tiny little ant people down on the banks. It really gives you a scale of the depth of the canyon, and of how precarious the edge of the cliff really is.

Speaking of edges, at the current moment there are no railings or guardrails to keep overly zealous tourists from tumbling over. For some reason, I find this weirdly refreshing – in my experience there aren’t many places left in the States where large groups of tourists can get intimately close to an edge, relying only on their common sense to keep them safe. But we did notice as we were walking up to the vista that a rail was being constructed in parts of the area. I was glad to be there before it was constructed.

Lower Antelope Canyon

After our pleasantly long visit to Horseshoe Bend, Janna and I went back to town for breakfast and reading, since our tour was not until 11:30 (meaning we had to be there by 11). Though it was only April, it was already in the high 80s, so we were glad for a few hours in the air-conditioned sanctum of the McDonald’s. The time passed quickly, though, and we were on our way to Ken’s Tours at Lower Antelope Canyon.

A word about tours and visiting Antelope: The canyon is on Navajo land, so in order to go in, visitors must book tours with one of the guide companies ahead of time. The day that Janna and I booked our tour, it was a Friday in early April, and at the time of booking most of the tour spaces were open. However, three days later a friend of ours tried to book for the same day as us, and everything was filled up. We later learned that April is one of the most popular months, and obviously weekends are busier.

Upon arriving at the tour company, we picked up and paid for our tickets (the online system just reserves the space; visitors must pay in cash on the day of the tour), waited for our tour to gather outside, and then we were walked down the surprisingly intricate system of stairs and ladders to the start of the Lower canyon.

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The staircase and ladder system leading down to the start of Lower Antelope Canyon

Descending into the famed orange canyon was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole – you can see the pictures and imagine the formations all you want, but there is nothing like seeing the textures, the undulating walls, and the surreal landscape of the ceilings and cracks that comprise the canyon.

When I told a few of my friends that I was going to Antelope Canyon this year, a lot of them told me that it wasn’t worth it because it was crowded, rushed, and overly touristy. It’s true that there are a lot of people – if you’re looking for a quiet, solitary wilderness experience, this is not that. Not by a long stretch. At the beginning of the tour especially, there are a lot of people crammed into one space. But the guides do a good job of spreading out the groups of people and taking their time walking through the canyon.

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There are definitely a lot of people on the tour at any given time in Lower Antelope. But after this first bit, the crowds thin out, and the tour never felt rushed.

In the photo above, you can see the extent of the crowd in the first “room” of the canyon. It seemed like the guides used this room like a holding space or waiting area. We were kept here for a few minutes, then led up another set of ladders and stairs to begin the rest of the tour. After that point, the crowd thinned out, it became quieter, and we were able to view the features of the canyon in smooth, slow detail.

One of the reasons I was really excited about this trip was that I had recently bought a new camera – a Sony Alpha a6000 mirrorless DSLR – for my upcoming trip to Europe and other assorted adventures. So far, the camera has done really well in moderate to low light in up-close and mid-distance landscape settings, so I was excited to try it out in the canyon. Likewise, Janna brought her Canon Rebel DSLR to capture the famous formation. We both had really positive experiences with photography in Lower Antelope: the tour never felt rushed, the guide showed us a few good places for taking the best photos, and there were numerous opportunities for testing out a variety of angles.

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Janna, shooting some photos at the start of our Lower Antelope tour

After the waiting room, I began to really enjoy the tour. We walked slowly through narrow slots, looking up periodically to see a bird’s nest, an interesting formation, a hole in the rock, or a snaking crack offering a view of the blue sky above. In the canyon, looking at the wavelike walls, it’s easy to imagine how the soft Navajo sandstone was formed by rushing, cutting water. The very shape of the canyon screams water: the rock alternates between sharp points and smooth edges, with calcium deposits scattered throughout the walls. It’s the southwest at its most ethereal, most impressive best: geology in simultaneously slow and immediate motion.

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Lower Antelope Canyon: rock that looks like water.

It’s hard for me to justify or understand anyone’s claims that it’s not “worth it” to go to Antelope Canyon. Yes, it was touristy, but so is the Grand Canyon, and despite going there eight times and being increasingly frustrated with crowds every time, I would never say that it’s not “worth it” to see it. Of course I wish that Antelope Canyon had been quieter or more “wild.” But it was 100% worth it. Despite it being a prime photography destination, and despite all of the beautiful photos I got to take, nothing compares to being there, feeling the warm orange light and purple shadows creep across the walls. I was very happy that we had made the trip.

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Sunlight and shadows in Lower Antelope Canyon

One thing I do wish, though, is that the tour had been more informative. Our tour guide was friendly (and he spoke Korean, randomly enough, which came in handy with the one Korean family on our tour, and which really excited Janna!), but he didn’t give us very much information about the canyon. I wanted to know more about the geology, for example, or the meaning of the canyon to the Navajo people, or the statistics on visitation. I’d wager that this lack of information has to do with the fact that most people who come to the canyon seem to just want to take pictures – despite the lack of extensive tour guide-ish information, he did offer to take photos for us at multiple points during the walk. Or perhaps the canyon just doesn’t lend itself well to people shutting up and listening to a tour guide talk. Still, I think that a bit more information about the place would have enhanced the experience.

The End of the Tour and Heading Home

At the end of the tour, we climbed up another set of stairs and emerged on ground level, just behind the building where we began. It was crazy to look back at the slot that we’d just emerged from – from the top, it looks like nothing more than an unassuming crack in the ground, rather than the magical wonderland of color and light that we had just seen. The earth holds such wonders, I caught myself thinking. Around every corner, within every crack, in every walk, there is something amazing to see.

Our trip home was just as simple and quick as the drive to Page. Since it was earlier in the day, we got a clearer view of the Vermillion Cliffs and the edge of the Grand Canyon, and we made it back to Flagstaff by late afternoon, with plenty of time to spare for grading, homework, and essays.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I would strongly recommend visiting Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon. We didn’t see the Upper Canyon so I can’t vouch for that experience, but I found Lower to be a worthwhile destination. While it’s not wilderness, and while the tour is lacking some informative elements, the canyon was beautiful, breathtaking, and inspiring. I don’t know if I would travel across the country just to see it, but combined with Horseshoe Bend, Utah National Parks, the Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff, Antelope is definitely a worthy addition to any southwest travel list.