We come from Earth, IV: Grand Canyon

Northeast Arizona, and a large hole in the ground
Published August 21, 2013
I: Yosemite II: Death Valley III: Zion & Bryce Canyon IV: Grand Canyon V: California

We’d been on the road over three hours before stopping. I pulled onto a sprawling off-camber highway shoulder shared by a couple of Navajo jewelry merchants.

April 12, 2013

At that point, the romantically-named U.S. 89A sweeps wide down the southern side of the mountain. The view south stretches infinite miles, the continuation of the highway visible hundreds of feet below us and stabbing southeast along the bottom of a flat canyon surrounded by wildly massive buttes. Brian scanned ahead, following the distant asphalt line to the horizon. “You sure there’s gas?” No I’m not.

We passed a gas station a half hour earlier. Not because I didn’t want a fill, but because of signs that rudely insisted, “Closed for winter.” Hardly any snow was left on the mountain, but then likewise hardly any people were around, just the odd Harley rider and an occasional Navajo crafts seller.

The empty sound of the canyon below, a hollow hum of meandering air, was calming enough that running out of gas didn’t seem so bad an end. Still, Brian’s concern was warranted. We could see thirty miles down the highway from our perch, no sign of civilization other than a thin strip of lonely blacktop. I bought handmade earrings to bring home to my wife, got back on the bike, and coasted down the mountain to chase the horizon.

We found gas in Cliff Dwellers, a town of about three single-story buildings. One building serves an impressive burger and soup. A second pipes gasoline with 50-year-old pump machines. The third is a lodge. Not sure where the employees live. I wondered, the town’s name isn’t literal…is it?

Soon after filling our bikes and bellies, Brian and I crossed to the southern side of the Colorado River. The entire trip was born from the dream of riding to the Grand Canyon, and the South Rim felt, only then, in reach. The Colorado River crossing gave us a first glimpse of the canyon’s scary scale. Deep, narrow cracks in the earth splinter off from the river gorge just beyond the highway’s edge. How deep do the cracks go? What happens when someone falls in? Would it make a good picture? No I don’t want to find out.

No amount of struggle can stop the subconscious pressure on the off switch

Relaxed daydreaming, humbling landscape. Peaceful empty miles following the Colorado.

I nearly nodded off. It was all fantastic beauty, but highways need bends. Consciously, I was far from bored, I could’ve sat cross-legged on the side of the road and not gone drowsy whilst surrounded by the desert views. But highways without turns are treacherously hypnotic, and no amount of conscious struggle can stop the subconscious pressure on the off switch. I almost pulled over, I should have pulled over, but worried I’d look an old man to Brian. When we finally stopped for more fuel, Brian confessed he’d also nearly given into the spell.

Since leaving San Francisco, we’d been pushing further and further east, but the transition to Arizona 64 marked the end of our migration. It was time to turn home.

The Grand Canyon crept in view, just off the north side of the highway. Each further mile came with new vistas, a surprise on the other side of every bend and crest. Narrow fingers of the canyon first, like the crevices south of Cliff Dwellers, but growing grander.

Trees obscured the view for a long while before the road kissed the canyon’s South Rim. After a week on the road, 2,000 miles behind me, I met the Grand Canyon. From the rim highway, it felt like a god’s-eye view of the world, the Colorado River snaking over the floor 4,000 feet below us, bright blue and fringed in green against the red and tan sedimentary layers of billions-years-old desert.

Large birds clung to outcroppings of stone between short flights over the canyon’s depths, gliding on still air to another landing. The birds made me jealous, I wish I could fly. I couldn’t even bring myself as close to the canyon lip as Brian dared for a photograph.

Brian and I took turns snapping each other’s portrait against the extra-terrestrial backdrop before rolling into Grand Canyon Village to set up camp just a few miles away from warning signs with cougar silhouettes. After unloading the bikes, we did our best impression of a squid shoal and two-upped it on Brian’s 250 without helmets, jackets or gloves to rummage food from the village market.

Christ, Brian’s chain sounded awful. It crunched as we rolled slowly through the camp grounds, I could feel the friction clicking through the passenger foot pegs. When I later went back to the market to proudly strap fire wood to the bike and tow back to camp, I took my motorcycle.

We made fire, relaxed our minds, and talked the sort of personal thoughts I’ve only talked with Brian and his brother, when we were in high school. I see the two less often than once a year since school a decade ago. I’m happy some things don’t change.

The sky stayed clear as the sun retired. We scrounged twigs to keep the fire crackling into the night, and watched the same stars last worshipped in Yosemite.