Vallonia couple preparing for rim-to-rim hike of Grand Canyon

Living in a home that borders Jackson-Washington State Forest, Shawna Gray often ventures into the great outdoors.

She said she has always been an outdoors person, loves being in the woods and enjoys hiking.

“It’s full of trails in my backyard,” the 44-year-old Vallonia woman said. “I have a lot of time back there to think about a lot of things, and I go back there to kind of clear my mind and do my thing. I really enjoy being in the woods, and I like to be by myself in the woods a lot. I don’t know why, but it’s like therapy for me.”

In the past, she found out about people going out to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona to hike from rim to rim.

The classic bucket list adventure is no stroll through the park, but with proper preparation, it can be one of the most memorable experiences of your life, according to the National Park Foundation.

“One day, I was like, ‘I want to do rim to rim,’” Gray said, recalling one of her trail walks. “I’ve thought about it in the past, but when I really started hitting the woods pretty hard in April, I needed some more motivation, so I thought, ‘Well, I could definitely train for that.’”

From April to June, she walked or ran through the woods behind her home on a daily basis, anywhere from 5 to 10 miles at a time. It was important to prepare for the terrain, hills and altitude changes she would experience at the Grand Canyon on Oct. 7.

Since July, she has continued to train every day but has focused more on running and going up stairs carrying extra weight. That’s because the tent, food, water, water filters and other things she will be carrying on the hike will weigh about 25 pounds.

In July, she and one of her friends, Jodi Tiemeyer of Medora, drove out to the Grand Canyon to hike a couple of miles so Gray could get a feel for what she will be experiencing in October. That was her first time there.

“I’ve always looked at it and thought it would be a really cool place to visit and do the trails or whatever, but until I got out there, I had no idea how huge it was,” she said.

Originally, Gray said she wanted to do a girls trip, so she messaged a couple of people and asked them to join her. One was her cousin, who lives in Ohio, runs marathons and loves to explore. The other was Tiemeyer.

Both were up for the challenge, but they couldn’t figure out a date when all three could go. Tiemeyer was available in July, and Gray’s cousin wasn’t available until October.

“So I said, ‘We’ll go both times,’” Gray said.

Tiemeyer agreed to go as long as they drove out there, and Gray said she was down for that. It took them two days to get there by driving 10 to 15 hours each day, and they spent one day at the Grand Canyon and then drove back.

“It was awesome. It was a great time. It was a blast,” Gray said. “I don’t have the words for this. You cannot imagine seeing it in real life … extraordinary.”

They started out on the South Kaibab Trail and went down a couple of miles to Ooh Aah Point.

“Coming back up, it was challenging, so it really did open my eyes to how hard this is going to be. It’s going to be challenging,” Gray said. “You’ve got to think that as you’re going down, it’s going to take you twice as long to get back up. It’s going to be 8,000 feet elevation to hike back out.”

The plus is they were able to take in some beautiful views.

“It’s indescribable, honestly,” Gray said. “Pictures do not do it justice at all. It’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking. I wanted to keep going.”

Looking forward to her return to the Grand Canyon, Gray said she’s not as concerned about the distance as she is about getting up out of the North Rim.

As part of her training, she has been climbing fire tower stairs and doing squats and lunges with weight on her back.

“I’m not really too concerned with getting down in the canyon, but getting out of there is going to be brutal,” Gray said.

She hopes it will help that she won’t be alone on this trip, either. She will be accompanied by her husband, D.J. Gray, and her cousin and her husband.

More than a month ago, D.J., 33, decided he would join in on the adventure.

“When I went out there and saw how beautiful it was, I’m like, ‘These guys have got to see this. They’ve got to experience this,’” Shawna said. “This is not just something people do. It is a bucket list thing.”

The Grays already had hiked together over the years. They have hiked in the snow in Colorado. Recently, they backpacked 46 miles on the Knobstone Trail, which is the longest hiking trail in Indiana, going from Deam Lake State Recreation Area in Borden to Delaney Creek Park north of Salem.

Shawna said that was a good practice run for the Grand Canyon because it has some elevation.

“My husband goes along on all of my crazy adventures,” she said. “I’m always finding places to explore.”

Like Shawna, D.J. has put in the work to prepare for the Grand Canyon.

“I’m really excited to go on this hike and didn’t have to think twice when my wife invited me to join her and her cousin on this adventure,” he said. “What I’m most looking forward to are the amazing views and seeing the vastness of the canyon in person, as it will be my first time visiting it.”

He said it’s an exciting challenge to make the hike in a day.

“In my research, I’ve learned that less than 1% of the canyon’s 6 million visitors per year hike it rim to rim,” D.J. said. “So I suppose the takeaway will be having an experience of a lifetime and the sense of accomplishment from completing a hike that so few have done.”

The four are going to fly in on Oct. 3 so they can get acclimated to the altitude. Four days later, they will start their trek at 3:30 a.m. and hope to be done by dark.

They are hiking from the South Rim to the North Rim. They will take the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and pick up the North Kaibab Trail from there for a total of 21 miles. They will add a couple of miles if they detour to see Ribbon Falls.

“When we get to the North Rim, we will be staying at the North Rim Campground, which is primitive, so we’re packing our bag, we’re packing our tent, we’re packing all of our water,” Shawna said. “We have to also take water filters and other things if the water source is down because that happens a lot in the canyon. We’ve had to learn how to do all of the backcountry stuff, and we’ve got food.”

She said it will be important to eat about 100 calories per mile and consume all of the water and electrolytes they can.

“There’s so much to it,” she said. “There’s so much to learn, and it has been a learning experience for me, too. I didn’t realize until I got out there everything that it entails.”

Shawna follows the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim group on Facebook and looks at other resources to help her be ready for this challenge.

“I feel ready. I feel like I can do it,” she said. “I am nervous about it because I don’t want to be rescued out. It would hurt my pride more than anything. But I’m comfortable right now.”

Ever since her son was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2019 and had to go through chemotherapy for two and a half years, Shawna said that has given her a different perspective on life.

He continues to be her drive.

“Now that he’s in stable condition, until it hit me personally, I didn’t realize how short life truly was,” she said. “I look at life a lot different now, and I just want to live each day to the fullest. That’s what motivates me. That is exactly what keeps me going and just living life to the fullest because it could be taken away from you in an instant.”

Her son graduated from high school in May, and he goes every three months to get an MRI to ensure there’s no new growth.

“I now am taking advantage of living,” Shawna said. “My kids are raised. This is my first year that I don’t have a kid to send to school. Now, I’m just out living my best life. I don’t take anything for granted and I live life to the fullest, and that’s what I plan on doing every opportunity that I get from here on out. All of the things that I see that I think look like super fun, cool things to do, I’m going to go do it.”