Archives For national parks

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.

Painted Desert, Arizona

After a decent breakfast in our lonely motel restaurant, we headed out to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. I didn’t have super high expectations; I assumed Mtuseni would be bored. But I’d been here in 1989 on my cross-country drive to California, and I’m really big on closing circles.

What I’m not big on is predicting Mtuseni’s responses. He was totally into it! We spent the entire day here. I didn’t recall the park being so large, and truth be told I zipped through the place 30 years ago. I was doing a drive-away then — and the clock was ticking down for me to deliver the car to its owners. 

It was great to take time to really explore and take photos. We started out in the visitor center, where we found a woman in the lab clearing soil away from a dinosaur fossil, using a giant magnifying glass and tiny brush. I was thrilled and fascinated. I’d always wanted to be an archeologist as a kid. It’s like finding buried treasure for work!

I grilled the woman with questions and she showed us all the recent fossil finds in various states of documentation on the office tables. I could have stayed there for hours. I don’t know why I didn’t get any photos. I thought I had. But the experience will always stay in my mind. 

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cactus

A cactus outside the visitor center. Why didn’t I get photos of the dinosaur fossils in the lab?

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From here we headed out to see the colors of the Painted Desert. The entire time I had the first few lines of the 10,000 Maniacs song running through my head. Here it feels like the space of the Southwest really opens up. The endless sweep of empty land always draws me in, and I want to walk across it to the far-off horizon. Knowing my outdoor and survival skills (which add up to zero), I’d probably die from a rattlesnake or scorpion or dehydration in 20 minutes! But I still feel compelled to explore that forbidding space. 

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Mtu Paint Desert cliff

 

desert shack

I always wonder what kind of life and activity occurred in abandoned buildings long ago. Sadly, this place is about the size of Mtuseni’s family’s shack in South Africa.

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We continued along the park road to the Petrified Forest. Along the way we stopped at an overlook to see Newspaper Rock, covered in petroglyphs by people who lived in the area up to 2,000 years ago. (I thought I took photos, maybe I was delirious from sun stroke.) 

The park road crosses old Route 66. You can see its ghostly outline heading across the barren land, parallel to the highway. I explained to Mtuseni how this was the road people used to traverse the country long ago, and how Route 66 is an American icon. Evidently, some cars didn’t make it!

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Mtu desert car

An old car at the Route 66 marker. It reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde’s car!

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It’s always fascinated me that much of the American West was wet long ago — like ocean wet. To see these huge, ancient fallen trees in a land where now scrubby bushes and grasses barely grow, gives you a window into the passage of time — big time! 

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Pet Forest logs

 

forest sign

 

Pet forest log mtu

 

log trail

Logs of stone strewn across the trail — the shadows of an ancient forest.

 

log rings

Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated how you can tell a tree’s age by counting the rings. Here the rings have turned to quartz. Doubly fascinating!

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The park is as empty and desolate as the land: No cafes or snack bars along the route. We lunched on energy bars and water. I couldn’t believe we had to hustle to the exit gate before the park closed; I really thought we’d spin through in about two hours.

It was a simple, mellow experience of just appreciating an ancient, silent landscape. It felt healing and sacred and pure. Again, that mysterious energy of the Southwest. It was a good day. 

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Pet forest log pair

 

After a quick pop into the gift shop, we headed off to Flagstaff for the night — grabbing supper at a Love’s truck stop along the way.  If I’m ever abducted and my captors want to torture me for information, all they’ll have to do is show me a foot-long tuna sub from Subway and I’ll squawk like a bird. If I never eat one of those again, it’ll be too soon. 

Checking into our hotel after dark, Mtuseni went right to sleep as usual. The kid sleeps like a newborn. I walked across the street to a shopping plaza — mainly to take in the crisp, cold night air. After weeks of late summer heat, this was the first feel — and smell — of fall. Once again, I was reminded of time passing.   

 

desert train

A freight train crossing the desert always gets me. Maybe because my grandfather worked the railroad in the 1930s. Or maybe I was a hobo in a past life.