The Grand Canyon: The Colorado River’s Magnum Opus
Does this even count as non-fiction if I’m writing it more than a year later? Sure, my battered moleskine has notes, but what about the time between the notes? Stephen King writes about this a lot, how all memory is fictional, and I think he’s onto something. That being said, don’t take anything I write in this overdue chapter as not true. What I meant by that opening statement is that I’m a different person now; there’s no denying that.
In case you can’t see the canyon, my Dad was kind enough to point it out.
You can’t live two years in a new place and expect to stay the same. Other than the obvious change of being older I’m, dare I say it, wiser. You can’t hike up to the top of King’s Canyon and feel simultaneously like nothing and everything all at once and not leave at least slightly humbled. Regardless of who is writing this post, road-trip Jay or current Jay, I still feel the need to continue the journey. Enjoy.
“God if you won’t help me, then at least help me help me” Lee Hazlewood.
Thank you for your fresh air, Flagstaff
According to Wikipedia, the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and over a mile deep. That’s 5,994 feet taller than myself. Given its nearly incomprehensible size, Lee and I figured it was worth checking out. But before we can head up to Ongtupqa, which means Grand Canyon in Hopi, we have to drive through Flagstaff.
Flagstaff, Arizona feels familiar to me, which is a surprise given the fact I’ve never been here before. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me of Colorado, but with less “can you see the shotgun rack in my truck?” mentality. This is my kind of city. First off, having just spent endless hours driving through the desert, I appreciate the cooler weather. Second, Flagstaff isn’t Amarillo, which means, given that I don’t fall into the canyon, it won’t be the worst stop on the trip. Finally, I’ve grown tired of being able to see for miles. Sometimes you need to focus on the things right in front of you – or, rather, right outside of your car.
We decide we’re hungry, which is my queue to consult Google for a restaurant. Mexican sounds fitting, so we go to the closest one we can find – don’t worry, it has a high score on Yelp. We seemed to have just missed the heavy post-school crowd and enjoy fast service. Our waitress is polite and sweet. Unlike most waitresses and waiters I’ve encountered in my life, she doesn’t seem distracted by daydreams of doing anything else but waiting tables. We soon discover her expertise in hospitality doesn’t cover the base of directions so her father, I assume, joins the discussion. Without hesitation, this mustached man lays out old-fashioned directions to a canyon that is also, arguably, old-fashioned. It’s funny how enthusiastic he is to tell us “one street, two street, turn right” when I’m sure he’s had this discussion a thousand times before. Some people only need to be helpful to be happy.
The Canyon – Oh boy, is it ever grand!
I can’t remember where or how I attained this information, but apparently the park has three distinct forests at different altitudes:
4,200 to 6,200 feet – Pinyon Forrest (Utah Junipers)
6,500 to 8,200 feet – Ponderosa Pine
8,200 feet plus – Spruce-fir
The forest at the top reminds me of Ontario. I should also note that the weeds and plants found here have the loveliest names: groundsels, yarrow, cinquefol, lupines.
Little did I know I was getting a devastating sunburn while posing for this picture.
It’s impossible – for me at least, I’m sure Yeats or Tennyson could do it – to put into words the feeling you get when you first see the canyon. It’s the definition of ineffable. The feeling is closer to terror than it is to awe as if you see something you’re not supposed to. I’m sad to admit, but it does make you want to take a picture. Looks like I’m not the only one, given the fact people are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along the edge, like an environmental protest to protect the park. Sadly, the only thing being protected here are people’s egos. It’s like some demented race as people frantically upload their images on Facebook and overuse the word “wanderlust” – I’m uploading a picture to Instagram as I think of this.
Jokes aside, people don’t seem to give a damn whether or not they fall while taking a picture. For instance, I notice a man with his heels lined up with the last bit of land the canyon offers. It’s infuriating to watch. If you don’t value your life enough to stand at least a foot from certain death, then that’s okay, you’re a moron, but if you feel you need to drag your daughter into the stunt, then you’re homicidal. Sadly, this is what we had to witness: a grown ass man holding a child over his shoulder as they both smiled for the camera. People were vocally upset, including my Dad. They didn’t fall.
I hear a park ranger tell someone that 300 people fall into the canyon a year. A boy says, “who pays for the recovery of the body?” A creepy question for a youngster to ask. “There’s not much left to recover,” she replies.
My Grand Anxiety
I think some people don’t understand anxiety the same way I don’t fully understand depression. For instance, how could anyone develop a fear of sleep? It’s a fear of the process of falling asleep, the same way people fear the dark. In some ways it’s similar to the feeling you get after seeing a scary movie; that dread of having to turn off the lights and retire to your bed. Once you lie awake for three, four, five hours a night, sometimes for a week straight, your bedroom is no longer a welcoming place.
What it comes down to, in my opinion, is a fear of failure. I’m scared I’ll fail at something that is, to most, easy to do. It’s like being thirsty and not being able to pick up the glass because your hands are shaky. The failure doesn’t end with not sleeping; it seeps into the next day as well. “If I don’t sleep, how will I be able to write that paper I promised to get done?” “If I don’t sleep, how will my body recover from the jog I took earlier?” “If I don’t sleep, will my hair fall out?”
When you’re lying in bed thinking about things like that, sleep don’t come easy.
Well, this is how I felt when I left Michigan and still feel at the moment. I know these anxieties are a product of my inability to control my mind, yet it seems, on the surface, to be nothing more than my brain forgetting how to go from on mode to off mode. It’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s so frustrating it starts to take away from the other aspects of my life. I mean, just look at me now; I’m in the presence of one of the most sublime geological destinations on the planet and all I can think about is whether or not I’ll be able to fall asleep in the hotel later tonight.
My Grand Solution – No, I Don’t Jump From the Cliff
I may sound obsessive, but I’m no dummy. If I’m going to be successful in a strange land, I have to come to terms with this anxiety and not let it stop me from enjoying and learning about life. That being said, I’ve engineered a catharsis – sometimes you can’t wait for life to do it for you. On a piece of paper torn from my notebook, I wrote down three words: anxiety, worrying, and self-consciousness. I crudely folded the paper to the best of my ability until it was the size of a thumbprint. I put it in my pocket and let it faintly scratch my leg as a reminder. Then, on a secluded path along the edge of the canyon, I slipped it under a brick-colored rock about as big as my fist and walked away.
My father walks in front of me, too distracted by the immense beauty of our surroundings to notice. I feel conflicted about what I’d just done. It was either a healing action, one that hints at a spiritual side or a cute idea; something the writer of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” would pitch. I go with the former and decide to not let its HuffingtonPost-friendly overtones take away from its importance. I have a reason for putting that piece of paper there, and it’s a damn good one: Anxiety is a large problem for one six foot man. To a canyon that’s miles wide, it’s a small problem. I figure it won’t even notice its newest neurosis.
I expect to feel like Frodo after the whole ring in the pits of Mordor ordeal, but that’s not the case – though, judging from the hue of my sun burn, one would assume I fell into Mordor. I feel present. I watch the back of my Dad’s head as he navigates the trail. I think about how important this day is to him and how he deserves nothing less than my full attention. Buddhists believe the best way a person can show they care for someone is by being present.
I hope someday if I have a children I can visit a place like this with them and understand what it feels like from the other perspective. I hope they can tap into the healing power of the canyon and grab hold of the ever elusive feeling we call presence. I hope they take a moment to look at the back of my head – one that’s, fingers crossed, still fully covered in hair – and think, “there’s no one I’d rather experience this with than my Dad.” That’s how I felt after discarding the paper.
I notice an old building in the distance that looks like a restaurant. I hope they have beer.
This was the sign for the restroom
Turns out the old hotel, which overlooks the canyon – up here, not much doesn’t – has beer and snacks. We both order a cold one and share a few laughs and a plate of nachos. My Dad and I have taken this trip as an invitation to enjoy beer whenever we can.
A boy sporting a cowboy hat turns to talk to us. He’s curious and intelligent and talks more like an adolescent twice his age. He informs us of a great place for BBQ and drinks – where was this guy in Amarillo? His mom orders a cocktail and a glass of water, to which the boy responds, “make it three.” He means the water, but the timing makes it comical.
The drive back to downtown Flagstaff is refreshing. The sweet mountain air, cotton candy sky, and deep green pines work as a tonic for my wandering mind.
After a hearty meal at a local restaurant, we walk around the city until it’s time for bed. I sleep like a rock.
Ice Cream Bandit Chronicles:
After promising me he wouldn’t get ice cream, I caught my father eying a dirty looking Klondike bar at the small shop in the hotel’s lobby. With no surprise to either of us, that Klondike bar’s wrapper ended up in the white trash bin in our room. He seemed ashamed of his indulgence, but I could tell he was happy he ate it. What would you do for a Klondike bar, Lee? Break a promise to my son.
The previous chapter: 2,270 Miles and a Moleskine Notebook Part V
Start from the beginning: 2,270 Miles and a Moleskine Notebook Part I