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Archive for October 31st, 2009

After nearly 45 years, I had finally made it to the Grand Canyon.  Checked in at my hotel, I still had time to get to the South Rim before sundown.  I parked in the first spot I could find and walked across the road to the rim.  I have seen the Grand Canyon from a commercial airliner more than once, and the fact that I could see it out the window of a plane for half an hour of air-travel time made it clear to me just how vast this phenomenon was.  But I still had no idea how it would feel to stand at its edge.  To say I experienced awe and wonder are, to my mind, so intrinsic as to verge on cliché in the mentioning.  What I will say is that I felt surprised and vertiginous.  I was stunned that for most of the trail that I walked, there was no barrier to prevent unfortunate visitors from plunging over the edge.  And as I winced my way closer to that edge, staying just this side of  being able to see which crag or branch I might bounce off first on my way down, I felt that eerie feeling of quasi-vertigo.  I seem to recall once hearing vertigo described as not a fear of falling, but rather a struggle against the urge to jump.  At the edge of the Grand Canyon, I can honestly say I understood what that meant.  There is something about an unprotected and mortal drop that appears to add gravitational pull.  So a person must either play it very safe, or focus on keeping their grounding to resist this nearly supernatural pull.  I had clearly left playing it safe thousands of miles behind me.  And so I just let go, and trusted.  Trusted that I had not driven all this way just to pull one of my disembodied klutz maneuvers and pitch myself over the side; trusted that if I relaxed into the pinkish-grey air, these strata upon strata of mammoth stone would support me if I let them; trusted that my instinct was right, and that coming to this place could provide the beginnings of some kind of healing.

I ambled west on the trail as long as possible, in a lazy pursuit of the fading light.  When I realized I had no idea where my car was, I dragged myself back to road, where I stood a slightly better chance of locating a dark blue car at dusk.  I found my car as the last of the light evaporated from the sky.  After returning to my hotel, I walked to the restaurant two motels down the road, and sat down at the bar for a celebratory drink and dinner.  Drink in hand, I phoned my friend Lee back in Philly to tell him I’d actually made it.  It was a conversation I’d had with him sometime in September that had planted the seed for this walkabout, and it had been his (possibly offhand) suggestion that I drive to the Grand Canyon that clearly germinated and took root.  I wanted to talk to him from that place, thank him for the idea, and let him know how grateful and thrilled I was to be there.  Despite being sick, he was clearly pleased to hear from me; envious of my travels, he nonetheless shared in my sense of personal satisfaction, and expressed unalloyed support for my journey.

Sunday morning, I went back to the rim.  It was another perfect, sunny 70-degree day at around 7,000 feet.  I was driving eastward along the South Rim before taking a left turn at the eastern edge to head north.  I drove unhurriedly, obeying the park’s speed limits, rejoicing in the light pouring through the sunroof to the Cleveland Orchestra playing Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I stopped at about five different viewing locations along the way before finally exiting the park grounds.  What should not have surprised me, but did, was that the canyon did not simply stop just because the national park did.  This unique topography continued for perhaps hundreds of miles in area beyond the park’s edges, eventually leveling out into more ordinary desert.  This made for some slightly distracted driving, and I had to force my attention back to the road.

By 2:00 p.m. AWT (Arizona Weird Time – what is the deal with Arizona’s time zone issues?  But I digress…), I was well beyond the canyon and driving on US highway 160E through the sprawling Navajo reservation.  The lands that correlated with the reservation on my map were seemingly endless and arid; the few populated areas seemed rudimentary and impoverished.  I don’t know how the Navajo people feel about it, but it seems to me we “gave” them some crappy land.  Nevertheless, the ride was beautiful, the weather fantastic at 81 degrees of sun, with low cumulus clouds at the edges of a wide, wide, wide sky.  As I drove and drove, I began to feel awfully small out there – within a lot of open space there was little interruption – just mesas, some desert scrub, the occasional house, and the amazing rock formations in the distance. After a while, I came to feel so dwarfed that it was actually rather terrifying.  I had wanted open sky, and boy, I got it.  Well off the seeming security of the interstate, despite being on a good two-lane highway with other cars, I felt so dwarfed, and vulnerable, and exposed.  I had been feeling raw and exposed enough on this trip already, and at a certain point along this stretch of seemingly endless, empty road, I became truly seized with fear.  Any feelings of boldness and strength I may have previously carried with me on this adventure had suddenly fled, and I felt stripped bare.

There seemed nothing to do but carry on.  Even though I didn’t know the roads, or what services or resources were along the way, forward seemed the only directional option.  Eventually, per my map and instructions, I hit a small townlet (and breathed an irrational sigh of relief), then turned left onto US-163 N.  I was heading for Arches National Park in Utah, the next “stop” on my agenda, en route to Colorado.  What I didn’t realize was that in taking to this road, I’d be going straight down the center of Monument Valley, which was staggering, astonishing, and an enormous surprise!

I came onto US-163 eating an apple in my left hand, and while blithely driving along (Mom, don’t read this part), became so wowed that I had to pick up the camera with the other hand to try to snap a few photos. Now there comes a point at which it is decidedly unsafe to drive with a camera in one hand, an apple in the other, and one’s jaw hanging open on the steering wheel.  At that point I put down the camera, wrapped up the apple core, put both hands on the wheel, and just drove and gaped.  I kept peering out the windows, yelling “wow!!!” and “OH?! MY?! GOD?!” out loud, over and over.  These red and black and blond rock formations just shot up out of the plain, which was already at several thousand feet.  Some formations looked like fingers, and others like gothic cathedrals, and it was mind-blowingly stupendous!  I was so rapt with wonder and surprise, that the terror that had suffused me only a short time before was itself driven out and forgotten.

Like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley the wonder stretched on well beyond the limits of the national park.  As I made my way into Utah, the intensity and variety of scenery continued unabated.  I had driven past Canyonlands in the distance, and had also begun climbing into mountains and seeing dramatic terrain changes yet again.  In between desert valleys, I saw an alpine stream flanked by yellow aspens and green conifers, then saw the sunset paint the rocks and mountains pinks and purples.  I could only keep saying “wow!” over and over.  When at last I approached Moab, Utah, in the dark, I again felt proud of myself, glad I had stuck it out through the fear back in the Arizona desert.  I had persevered, gone onward, and quickly realized had been richly rewarded for so doing.  The nature and variety of landscape I witnessed in one day’s driving had left me at a loss for words, and that, in truth, felt like a day’s work well done.

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