Arm Chair Road Trip Day 30: Back to the Canyon

January 17, 2021 — Leave a comment
Me Canyon 1989 wide

Purple socks? And a pink stonewashed shirt? Someone should have thrown me over the side! Well… it was the 80s.

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After one month on the road, we reached one of the country’s most breathtaking sites: the Grand Canyon. I was here 30 years earlier on my drive to the West Coast. Funny, I didn’t remember it being such a long trek from Flagstaff! In my memory it was like 20 minutes, but it’s over an hour. 

There’s not much you can say about the canyon. No words can truly capture what the place is like; you just have to see it. Mtuseni didn’t have much idea of what to expect. Like every first timer, he was awed.

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canyon tower

Inside the observation tower at the eastern lookout along the canyon’s South Rim.

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tower view

View from the observation tower. Probably one of the few elevated views you can get.

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selfie pair

 

After a stop at the observation tower lookout, we headed to the main parking area. Everything was much different than my first visit, with a huge new visitor center and many parking lots. I was stunned at how packed it was in late September; I almost couldn’t find a parking spot in the farthest lot!

Strangely, the visitor center didn’t have paper trail maps. We couldn’t find one anywhere. Sometimes the government just insists on demonstrating its incompetence. Did nobody in the park planning staff say, “Shouldn’t we have places for visitors to pick up a map?” Years ago I worked with federal agencies on communication projects. The “fog of bureaucracy” often steamrolls over logic and common sense. Not until halfway through our hike along the rim did I find a map — in a little gift/bathroom shed.

 

mtu rock

I didn’t join Mtuseni on the rock lookouts. I told him I’d stay back and get photos from a distance to provide context. (He wasn’t buying it.)

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mtu rock open

See… context! No way in hell was I going out on that rock!

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While Mtuseni scampered all over the place getting photos from perilous locations, my fear of heights went into overdrive. I was freaked out even on the paved rim trail. For many people with agoraphobia, it’s not a fear of falling but a fear of being compelled to jump. It’s as if high places show you how fragile our hold on life is. At any moment we can lose control and just end it all. Still, it’s weird. I don’t have fear of sticking my finger in a light socket or lying down on a train track — though these situations present themselves every day. 

Years ago I worked with a grad student therapist at a Boston University phobia clinic. Their approach is to expose people gradually to the source of their fears, until they learn to reduce and eliminate the fear response. We’d stand on ever higher levels of a lobby atrium in the business school building. And she’d admonish me for using “safety behaviors” like holding the balcony railing or taking a step away from it. I had to just look around — and down! — and focus on my breathing. Then do the same for homework in other high places. 

Did it work? Maybe. My fear comes and goes. But the crazy thing is that this young woman was from South Africa! Little did I know that five years later I’d meet Mtuseni — who mercilessly teased me for my fear of heights. (I responded by reminding him of his fear of dogs.)

safety

My exposure phobia therapist would have snapped at me for holding on to the railing: “No safety behaviors!” In my twisted mind it kept me from being hurled into the abyss.

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As long as I kept at a comfortable distance, I could enjoy the majesty and grandeur of the place. And I was happy to see Mtuseni so excited. The Grand Canyon is a quintessential American icon — and certainly not something that most South Africans from the ‘hood will ever see. 

 

mtu sweep 2

“This one is for all my friends to see!”

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Mtuseni took a hike down the Bright Angel Trail — while I fought with my phone for an hour. It had decided to send an alert tone every minute about something stupid — then while trying to stop it, my keyboard disappeared. While I surely wasn’t going down into the canyon, the phone almost got hurled over the side!

That certainly wasn’t a problem I encountered in 1989. I loved pulling off somewhere back then and calling someone collect from a pay phone: “Hi, I’m in Kansas. You can see forever!”  Being disconnected from the world has its charms. 

 

mtu hike

A selfie from Mtuseni’s hike. His GoPro narration is hilarious. He sounds like the host of a nature show… though one who’s a bit winded!

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canyon pair

If someone had told me in 1989 that I’d be back here with this guy, I’d never have believed it. I love how life unfolds!

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We took a shuttle back to the car, then had a stunning sunset-and-moonrise drive out of the park. After another day living on Cliff Bars, fruit, and chips, we stopped for dinner at a brew pub in Williams, Arizona. We grabbed seats at the bar, where people were watching football. The guy next to us was from Cleveland — which I don’t think has won a Super Bowl in decades. He jokingly said he hated me for being from New England. I razzed him a bit and played along, as he’d expect from a Patriots fan — but honestly I could care less about pro sports.

Seeing Monday Night Football on TV reminded me for a minute that it was fall. It sort of situated me in a broader time context. So often on the trip I thought of a line from Joni Mitchell’s song Hejira: “I’m porous with travel fever.” For me, I felt like a sponge, soaking up experiences each day — only to have them all wrung out by the next day’s adventures. I never knew what day it was or where we existed in the larger framework of life. Each day was just… today. I  loved it. And thank god for cameras and our occasional memory dumps into a notebook, or so much of the little things would have been lost.

After dinner we continued on to Kingsman, Arizona. Our motel pool had a guitar painted on the bottom with a Route 66 logo, and old movie stars were painted on the walls outside. I swear I took photos of this stuff, but they’re nowhere to be found. Maybe I just thought I did. Maybe they just vanished. Chock it up to travel fever.

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Me Grand Canyon 89

Last moments at the Canyon in 1989. I could never imagine the life that lie ahead of me over the next decade!

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sunset

Final shot, waiting for Mtuseni to return from his hike. I remembered marveling 30 years ago at how the lengthening shadows highlight the canyon shapes — as they’ve done for millennia.

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