Into the Canyon
September 17/Day 61.

colorado river

The Colorado River makes an appearance

This morning I wake to my alarm, early. I meet in front of the visitor center, along with 14 others, to join a mule train down into the canyon. It’s a four-hour trip down about 2,000 feet below the rim and back. My mule is Shirley Belle, the prettiest thing you ever saw. By 8:00 a.m. we’re all mounted up and start down the Kaibab Trail, which is a quagmire due to rain the last three days. Since I’m from Texas, the wrangler calls me “Cowboy” and tells me I’m the caboose—last person in the train.

shirley belle

Shirley Belle, am I boring you?

It’s a wonderful thing to watch the mules carefully, flawlessly pick their way through six-inch deep mud and slippery rocks with nary a misstep. Shirley Belle, I’m convinced, is a little smarter than the rest because she chooses her own slightly drier path, whereas the others mostly step into the same mud-hole the mule in front of them does.

In spite of the hairpin turns and steep drop-offs, I feel perfectly safe, for two reasons: one, the mule’s reputation for surefootedness and two, I climbed Angels Landing and that was just plain scarier. Gee, I discover, it’s nice to be able to watch the scenery while someone else does the work. One woman, slightly apprehensive, asks the wrangler if they’ve ever lost anyone. The wrangler answers with a drawl, “Yes, ma’am, we did. But we found ‘em.”

After the ride, I take a drive to several viewpoints along the canyon rim: Vista Encantada, Walhalla, Roosevelt Point and Cape Royal, the only place you can actually see the Colorado River from the North Rim.  I’m reminded that the last time I was here, with the family, we couldn’t see into the canyon at all because of the snow. A little nostalgia sets in.

pink cliffs

Your affectionate author and caboose rides off into the sunset

Tomorrow my Dad turns 91, bless him. He and Mom are still hale and hearty, still running around town doing errands, going to the symphony, meeting with friends, still loving life. Why, my Dad just retired last month; that ought to say something! And my Mom recently bought a VW Beetle convertible! Day after tomorrow, on the 19th, I’ll turn 65—me, the little boy in the Buster Brown shoes and bib-top shorts you see over to the side there, yes, that’s me. On Medicare.

I assess my situation. I had hoped to hike down into the canyon, but trails on the North Rim are muddy from three days of off and on rain, leaving me with few activities; even if the trails were in great shape, there’s always the plantar fasciitis to consider; no fresh groceries are available and I’m reduced to eating canned food, i.e., emergency rations; communications here suck and even text messages are time-delayed; and last but not least, I miss Jane.

I make the decision to head home, a long two-day drive.

Headed Home
September 18/Day 62.

The trip off North Rim through Jacob Lake is one I’ve made a number of times before. This time is different though; the beautiful pine forest, dotted with meadows, was extensively burned several years ago and all that remains are the gaunt blackened daggers of bare tree trunks pointed skyward. Perhaps it’s this depressing sight that’s helped prompt my decision to leave my beloved North Rim early.

At Jacob Lake, 40 miles from the North Rim, the road turns east and begins a winding descent from the Kaibab Plateau, past the fortress-like Vermillion Cliffs, which stand up to 2,000 feet high parallel to the highway for 30-odd miles. The high bridge over the Colorado River at the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon marks the highway’s southerly bend past the Navajo Reservation. Here ancient diminutive Navajo women, who seem even tinier in their voluminous skirts and billowing shawls, sell jewelry and amulets at rickety tables beside the road. Each untidy homesite, scattered sparingly across the desert at distance from the highway, includes an octagonal or round traditional hogan, used for ritual purposes by every Navajo family.

In an uncharacteristic departure from the blue highways, I catch IH-40, passing through Winslow, a place as bereft of any natural enticements as any I’ve ever seen, to Holbrook, where I leave the interstate in favor of a route pointed more directly toward home. My day ends at dusk outside St. Johns, Arizona at Lyman Lake State Park.

As I drive my mind is a mass of thoughts and feelings. First, of course, I look forward to seeing Jane, who’s been a stalwart on the homefront, including managing the installation of a complete new air conditioning system for the house while working three jobs: her day job, her Miche Bag business, and her Votre Vu business. Oh, and feeding two horses, two dogs, two cats, three birds, and seeing Hannah off to college for her second year. All in 103 degree temperatures. Without her support, my dream could never have come true. I love you Jane.

I also feel a sense of satisfaction in having accomplished a number of personal goals, some seemingly trivial, others more expansive. I’ve tried to drive to the top of Pike’s Peak several times but have always been stymied by weather conditions at the summit that forced me to turn back. This time, I made it. I’ve always wanted to drive over Trail Ridge Pass, but it’s been closed by snow before. Glacier National Park has been on my to do list as long as I can remember; it was worth the wait. I could go on. Suffice it to say that every stop along my path, whether planned or otherwise, has fulfilled a purpose.

I can still easily conjure the heart-stopping fear I felt stranded in the middle of the desert at 1:00 a.m. with no cell phone service, in a dangerous predicament, completely helpless.  Those were my bleakest hours.

Then, knowing the number of fatalities that have occurred, there was the psychological conflict I had to overcome before beginning the hike to Angels Landing. I confess to a feeling of satisfaction in conquering the mental struggle that’s at least as great as my pride climbing the actual trail.

There are fleeting friendships that grew out of chance encounters. On the shuttle bus in Glacier, I happened to sit by an architect from St. George, UT, who was vacationing with his large family (he must have been Mormon….) After a pleasant conversation while riding up the Going to the Sun Road, he offered his home as well a guide services in Zion, where he had been countless times since he was a teenager.

In Death Valley several weeks later, I struck up a conversation with two young women, sisters from Belgium, who in turn introduced me to their father. After half an hour of chatting, the three said good-bye and left to continue their journey to Las Vegas. A couple of minutes later, the father returned and offered me his card. “I’m not in the habit of doing this,” he said, “but if you’re ever in Brussels, please consider that you have a place to stay.” It turns out he’s the medical director at a large research hospital.

I fall asleep with a welter of images flashing across my mind. I’ll have a lot of post-processing to do….

A Birthday on the Road
September 19/Day 63.

Today's my 65th birthday. It seems odd that I’m not spending it with my family, but also appropriate that I’ll be on the road. Thoughtful as always, before I left home Jane gave me a slice of my favorite cake—carrot—to freeze and save for today. I let it thaw overnight and eat it for breakfast.

I’m on the road early, soon crossing into the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. A string of small towns—Luna, Reserve, Alma, Glenwood—line the highway as it skirts the Gila Wilderness, the first wilderness area declared by Congress a hundred years ago. This is “getaway” country, the kind of place you want to head for Armageddon, so remote is it from people’s awareness.

Then comes Silver City, in my mind one of the last remaining true frontier towns, followed by Deming, then the destruction derby that is IH-10 through El Paso.  By now dusk is setting in and I’m ready for a break. I pull into a rest stop east of El Paso near Fabens, only four miles from Mexico. There are four or five 18-wheelers already parked here, their diesels rumbling at idle, comforting companions in the dark Chihuahuan Desert.

By the time I eat my dinner, however, they’re gone and I’m the only vehicle in the rest stop, feeling exposed and vulnerable within walking distance of the border in an area notorious for its drug violence. I withdraw my Glock from its hiding place and slide a full clip into it, laying it in easy reach. I lie down on top of the covers, fully clothed, eyes wide open, but in spite of myself I’m soon asleep. When I wake up at dawn, the rest area is filled with the reassuring sound of idling trucks.

next: full circle