The night air brings the tiniest shiver along with it, like the tops of tiny waves that chill your mid back as you wade into a lake in summer. The large bag of ice my daughter is carrying in a nylon bag I’ve suggested she wear over her shoulders like a back pack, is starting to melt and slowly soak the waist of her Albuquerque sweatshirt. Between the fading warmth of the air, and the ice cold water running down her back, she’s ready for a reprieve as the two of us, head-lamped and water-bottless, scurry up mountainous sidewalks, through gallery frontages, dark and empty at night, and onto the unlighted street that leads to our campsite. We’d gone on a just-before-10pm-curfew (rv campsites have strict noise curfews) dash back to the shopping strip of Sedona that is just up the road from our campsite, in search of lost water bottles.
Rewind a few hours earlier, Ian (my 12 year old son) and I had gone shopping and returned home without our water bottles. At the time, Miriam (my daughter) had been moody and tired, and sat pouting in the camper while Ian and I walked into town to do some shopping before the stores closed. By the time we’d gotten to the stores, only the few that were open until 6pm were available to us, so we’d been hurried and excited, making our expensive purchases (nothing in Sedona… even the custom designed “Sedona, elevation 4,350” – every town prints their elevation out here – T-shirt Ian picked out and bought himself… is cheap). Somewhere, either the art gallery/custom t-shirt store or the handmade leather goods/Navajo Jewelry store, or the Circle K, where we’d purchased charcoal for our dinner… we’d left them behind.
Dry desert for heat for days… and we’d lost our water bottles.
We didn’t realize it at first, or we might have made it back before the first two stores closed. But instead, we had deposited the charcoal next to the grill, changed quickly into our bathing suits, and taken off, leaving still sour Miriam, and otherwise engaged Michael and Max, and dashed to the creek for a mountain stream swim.
The creek was clean and bubbling. To get there, we had to pass by the “Adult Only” section of the campsite, which is the sort of place that gives kids the feeling they are being watched by the equivalent of the FBI and will be arrested if they stray too close (I know this because when Miriam was sent to retrieve us, seeing the “ADULT ONLY SECTION” sign, which to my eyes was clearly meant to identify a tucked away section to the right, sent her wandering around until she determined there was no way for a kid to get from our site to the creek, and had returned to Michael saying she couldn’t find us). Past the adult section we followed signs placed along the edges of campsites guiding us to the creek. Just beyond a little path through the trees, there were a set of couples in beach chairs arranged among the rocks, drinking wine and talking together in irresistible British accents. We passed by them and straight to the water’s edge. The water was clear. We left our cover-up clothing at the shore and walked across on stones until we reached the deep pools where we could dip our heads under and float on our backs, feeling the nectar of the canyon wash over us. I remembered the skinny dipping woman I’d seen earlier…
The water was charming me.
We didn’t stay too long, except to stop and chat with the Brits, who told us they’d reserved at this campsite a year in advance because of its popularity, and got us excited about the next day’s destination, where they’d camped together as vacationing friends many times. It was when we got back to our site and changed, that Ian and both felt thirsty, and began looking for our water bottles…
By then, Miriam had cheered up, and was chatting lazily with Michael while he prepared green peppers and onions grilling. Max was inside the camper, expertly forming a pile of beef patties. The dinner table, our portable movie screen, and a dog area were all set up.
There was no running after the forgotten water bottles now.
The first home cooked meal (that wasn’t a sandwich or a hot dog) tasted extraordinary. By the time we’d finished eating, the sky was mostly dark, and the entire rv park had grown quiet. We decided for the second time this trip that our plans for an outdoor movie didn’t fit with the “vibe.” We cleaned up, tucked everything away in the undercarriage compartments, and moved our party inside. They all watched “Borat,” the first in Michael’s curated series of road trip movies, while I cleaned the dishes and tried not to disturb them.
As soon as the movie ended, I hit up Miriam for the walk back into town that she’d missed out on earlier. Either from her desire to see the town, or her desire for alone time with me, she said yes.
So here we are now, walking back from town on tired legs. Our only momento from the venture is a large bag of ice that is quickly melting away about a fifth of its contents. In the nighttime we can see grand houses tucked away in the trees on the cliffs high above us. The wealth and luxury living we will see for the next few days of our trip begins here. We reach our campsite quietly, and go to bed quickly along with everyone else.
I rise at 6 as usual the next morning, take the dogs for a walk, and prepare a quick breakfast for everyone. Then we expertly put away the beds and linens, wash the few remaining dishes, share a tiny bathroom between 5, empty the black water, then the grey, fill the onboard water tank, check the grounds for any forgotten objects, secure the dogs, unplug the electricity, check all the compartments for a secure lock, and drive away from the park at 7:15 (a 3 – 4 hours earlier than any morning so far). By a slim majority vote, we’ve decided to add the Grand Canyon to today’s itinerary. In the pit of my stomach I have a knowing feeling that compared to the glory we’ve seen by accident, seeing the Grand Canyon isn’t important, and not worth adding two hours or more of driving to our day… But it’s the Grand Canyon… and we’re only two hours away.
I promise Michael that AFTER he’s taken us back up route 89A… I will drive.
We all take pictures wildly while winding back up the canyon walls and out of Sedona. But the tiny frame of the vehicle’s windows can’t capture the majesty, and there is no place to pull over on this road. When the landscape changes back to dull brown dirt and tufts of dry bushes, my offer to drive is refused. Morning Michael actually enjoys the long drives. We’re back on I-40, the highway we were introduced to in Tennessee, and had started going steady with by Texas. But after only a half hour, 1-40 continues West towards our destination for the evening, and we turn north. A road called Arizona-64 takes us from the highway through desert grasslands and straight north through Ponderosa Pine Forests to the hard fought one hour detour of Mather Point, Grand Canyon Village.
The majesty of the landscape, changing it’s elevation, vegetation and hydration almost every ten miles, is arrested at the ranger station. Only a couple minutes before, I’d realized our visit to this national treasure wouldn’t be free, and was still scrambling to pull together the $35 cash for the vehicle fee, when the ranger holds out a map with one hand and in the other holds a device for us to swipe a credit card or tap our apple pay… I feel so old fashioned. From here the road is wider, and newly paved. Tall pine trees surround us. There are round abouts every couple miles, with intriguing “park staff only” roads that veer to the left and right. But we, and a line of fifty or so cars, continue straight through. A few minutes later we take the entrance for Lot 1, a football field of pavement, where the map says there is RV parking. We stop right near the entrance because there’s a patch of grass to walk the dogs. We change into shorts and t-shirts as the sun glares through breaks in the trees, put the dogs back inside with the AC running, lock everything up and look for the entrance to the canyon. At the other end of the parking lot is a campsite’s worth of RVs. Everyone else seems to know something we don’t, so we start walking that way. There is a plaque with a map of walking trails there, and a painted symbol of the grand canyon at the top. One of the trails leads to Mather point. My heart starts beating noticeably. Looking up I see signs and concrete paths and wooden fences everywhere. Surrounding us are groups of tourists speaking loudly and in different languages. We’re all looking at the same signs, walking in the same direction. It feels like an outdoor museum or a shopping mall. But I know that just beyond these dirt mounds and scraggly trees… is something wild.
The first picture I snap is of a historical marker for Stephen Tync Mather, 1867-1930. It reads:
Up until now, we’ve seen mountains and canyon walls through our car windows as we drive along roads built and maintained by transportation departments. We’ve camped at state campsites and private rv resorts. We’ve walked at nighttime and in the early mornings along dirt paths and city streets to explore each new surrounding. We’ve seen and experienced everything we could desire…
And we’ve had it almost all to ourselves.
But here, thousands on this day alone, have traveled by plane, boat, train, bus and car from every continent to pay the entrance fee, drive up the entrance road, park at one of the three huge parking lots, and walk to the edge together.
I step off the rim path and down a set of stairs. There is a concrete landing that juts out about fifty feet. There are nearly a hundred people crowded onto it, all of them at the perimeter. I look out beyond the people.
The Grand Canyon is impossibly large. Every mountain and canyon we’ve visited so far would fit inside of it. Looking towards the east, the irregular canyon walls mix and match with each other for miles and miles. There is canyon as far as I can see. I move closer to the railing at the precipice. Red and grey rock stacked a mile deep, tell a billion years of story. However, these petrified sand castles, exposed by water and time, are silent. In the expanse of the canyon, I can see nothing green. The ancient, vast stillness is enrapturing…
Then I wonder where my children are.
I have a fear of heights that doesn’t give me vertigo so much as it gives me irrational anxiety. I start fearing things like my children indiscriminately falling into the depths surrounding me. My eyes dart around and I quickly spot Miriam who has already begun to move on with the flow of the crowd to the next overlook. I call her back with a frantic edge to my voice. Together we walk to the far edge of Mather point and join Ian, Max and Michael. I whip out my phone to grab the obligatory family selfie. (I’m telling myself to maintain calm, so as not to scare away prematurely the family-selfie-naysaying teenagers… and one grown man… while I’m screaming inside because I get to take a photo of my family at the freakin’ GRAND CANYON).
And that turns into a complete photo session with this iconic backdrop. Everyone around us is snapping photos. You can’t walk three feet without stepping through someone’s photo op. At the apex, Max is working his artistic magic. I wear a satisfied smile for my portrait. Michael’s steady hand shoots panoramas in every direction. Ian tries to get a selfie that looks like he’s flying over the edge.
All of us, trying to capture it.
There are no souvenirs to buy. We take one last deep inhale with our eyes and gather together to leave. Someone, hundreds of years ago, put a border around this place so that everyone can visit, but no one can stay. As we walk out, the crowd, moving in all directions, swallows us.
I’m incredibly satisfied to have forced this detour upon the family. It means we won’t make it to the next campsite before nightfall. It means sacrificing two hours of intimate, accidental discovery for two hours of unsolicited sharing.
But we got to see the grandest canyon in the land…
and to know…
that someone else’s grand can never compare to when you stumble upon it, unexpectedly, on a journey all your own.
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