One sunny morning last year, while I was mowing my lawn and tangling with the thick, lush summer grass in suburban Atlanta, the phone in my pocket rang. Congratulations, you got the job. The starting date was two months away, so the cogwheels in my brain started turning and clicked into a plan which would gratify my long suppressed wanderlust. It was a travel plan, the Grand Canyon being the destination. I had seen photos of the place as a little boy, yet after almost twenty years living in America I still didn't pay it a visit. It was now or never, for soon I would no longer be a bachelor and would have a family nicely in tow.
I was quite used to driving alone over long distances, letting my mind wander back and forth, listening to music, looking at the scenery when there was something interesting coming into view. But for the most part, the experience was monotonous and mind-numbing; and sitting in the car for too long didn't do me any good physically either.
It started raining when I crossed into Alabama, and by the time I approached Birmingham it was definitely pouring. The highway was blocked for repair so I had to make one detour after another across a totally unfamiliar city while the rain was coming down in torrents. Eight hours later, the traffic was blocked on a highway in Arkansas for almost two hours, during which I turned off the engine and lowered the back of my seat for a nap, then woke up when the trucker behind me blew a honk. By the time I showed up at my sister's house in Fort Smith in exhaustion, it was two o'clock in the morning. I always try to see things in a positive light, glass half full and all, but that day was a disaster and there was no way to spin it otherwise.
The road to Magazine Mountain was a narrow and winding one, passing through a small old-fashioned town with cracked asphalt streets, single-storied storefronts, and a church that lorded it over all the rest. Beyond the town, little houses perched high on the hillside, then the road dipped to skirt a lake rippling in the breeze. A hamlet, worn and dilapidated, broken tractors dejectedly sitting in overgrown yards, then the road tilted up among pine groves until patches of yellow flowers appeared under a scorching sun.
From the top it was a grand view looking down the sheer drop to the verdant forests below and afar. The cliffs were of gigantic dimensions, their light color sharply in contrast with whatever green vegetation miraculously growing out from the cracks in the vertical rock face. I idly wondered if trees had self-awareness, because if they did then the trees that grew on rock would certainly feel unfairly treated compared to those that grew on fertile soil; but then they had a better view from where they were, didn't they?
A phone call from an old friend prompted me to head in a more southerly direction than I had planned. The Grand Canyon had not gone anywhere in the past few millions of years, so chances were that it would stay put for a few more days. In the meantime, I was going to spend some time with my buddy in Dallas.
In Oklahoma I veered south through some farmland then the refreshing lakes near the town of Eufaula. The rest of the countryside was not much to see, just more farmland and a few shabby villages where the only thing to pay attention to was to reduce my speed. I once was stopped by a cop in rural Arkansas, who looked exactly like the Louisiana cop in the "Live and Let Die" James Bond movie. If you haven't seen it then let's just say he was fat, bald, and had bad teeth. To avoid such an encounter again, I kept my eyes on the speedometer like a model citizen.
This part of Oklahoma was separated from Texas by a bridge crossing the Red River. I wondered if it was the same river in the song "Red River Valley". I'd also read somewhere that there's another Red River in Canada. Anyway I crossed the bridge and entered Texas, where everything was big. If you think everything being big in Texas is just an overused cliché then just go into a Texas restaurant and find out, you will be amply surprised.
Big nature gave way to big concrete when I got to the outskirts of Dallas. My friend kept calling to ask me where I was. Easy lad, you'll soon have more of me than you'd want to. Half an hour and a couple of misdirections later I parked in front of a newish brick front house in a newish subdivision. The guy who answered the door was more thickset than I remembered, roundish in the middle, but his welcome smile was still the same, his carefree laugh sounded the same, his wittiness had not diminished one bit. His wife was away on business, so with no spouses in the way we quickly settled into the easy comfort of two men who had known each other since forever.
Dinner at a dimly lit Thai restaurant, then a walk around an artificial lake in an area that looked imposing but so new it lacked in atmosphere. Somehow it felt fake, almost like seeing the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas. Even the lake didn't seem alive, there was not a single breeze coming from it. Let's just go home, I suggested.
Our conversation came naturally and abundantly. We trusted each other so completely there was no need to hold back anything, and it was truly refreshing. The next day, we had lunch with my friend's parents, who lived in another part of the metropolis. His father kept saying oh and ah when he saw me, for the last time we had met I had been a small kid, shy and malnourished, quite the opposite of the way I looked today. Well, the last time I had seen him, the gentleman hadn't been bald, still I didn't oh and ah any; but I guessed I should defer to the elderly, being a good boy and such.
When I left Dallas the next morning I carried with me two surprises. One was a hug from my friend, who I had thought would never show any emotion under any circumstance. The second surprise was a picture he had taken of me the previous evening after talking me into posing as the driver of a rickshaw on display at an Asian mall in Arlington, something I had never thought I would do under any circumstance either.
The road to Amarillo took me through a part of Texas that had seen better days. Dreariness was an apt and adequate description, and I thought it must be sad to grow up around here. I stopped by a rest area, went into a farmhouse-style building that housed a display of some items from the old days in this region. With amusement I learned that the nearest town was Clarendon, founded by a Methodist minister and his followers in 1878. Life was austere in Clarendon - no drinking, no gambling, no brawling, and no womanizing either I guess, such that the more rowdy crowd living nearby sarcastically named it "Saints' Roost". Conservatives frowning upon liberals and liberals mocking conservatives are certainly not new in America.
A thunderstorm was coming to this flat land, and such an impressive sight it was. Running alongside the highway was a railroad track, beyond the track stretched a green field as far as my eyes could possibly see. Then near the very horizon rose a white farmhouse with a line of tree tops, where the clouds above became darker and meaner, bigger and heavier, more threatening by the moment, an invasion force relentless spread out to occupy the whole large sky. Nothing in this empty land got in the way of the oncoming assault; even the wind was rushing away in great worry. It was formidably beautiful.
A few miles west of Amarillo there was a row of Cadillacs buried halfway in the ground, covered in gaudy graffiti. I took a glance and didn't bother to stop there, but I found a photo from the Web to show you. Maybe one day when I get old and can no longer go places I might contemplate on it long enough and find the answers to some profound philosophical questions. For now I gave up before I even tried.
I woke up early in an Albuquerque motel and drove to Elena Gallegos Park, going north on Tramway Boulevard. The quiet, cool morning air was exhilarating. The sky was limpidly blue, not one single speck of cloud to break its wholeness. The park lay in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains, sparsely covered by low trees and bushes. A few people were jogging or just walking along the trails. It was an easy and pleasant scene, far removed from the hustle-bustle of large cities or the dreary drudging of farm life.
I parked next to an old white camper and was standing on the roof of my car for a better view of the park, when a tall, white-haired gentleman emerged from a trail and headed straight to the camper. We exchanged greetings and I learned his name was Jean-Paul. No surprise that his English had a trace of French accent. He had come to New Mexico fifty-two years before, and had been staying there ever since. What story could there be that had made a young Frenchman barely in his twenties leave Paris to come to this remote region, almost a desert wilderness, to live out his long rest of life? I was as curious as twenty cats but politeness prevented me from prying. Maybe the monsieur had run away from a tragedy, a crime, an unrequited love, a scandal of some sort. Too bad I didn't ask, now I will never know.
Roses and roses, they were the first things I noticed when I stood in front of the Sandia Peak Tramway station building. Just off the rose bushes, some pottery were artfully arranged as a reminder of the rich local heritage. A couple of benches for weary feet to rest, a bicycle rack for the more sporty type of whom I had seen a few in helmets and spandex on my way here. From this vantage point my eyes swept across a sparse landscape of stunted desert vegetation with the city of Albuquerque further down to the west, all drenched in the glaring sunlight at nine o'clock in the morning.
Twenty bucks bought me a ride on the aerial tramway climbing four thousand feet to the Sandia Peak and back. After roughly twenty minutes of waiting we filed into a glass-enclosed tramcar where a guide in uniform was already present with a welcome smile. The cable system started, and we were hauled out of the dock into vacant air. The guide was talking volubly about the mountain and its ecosystem, the tramway and its history, with some jokes thrown in for taste. The enthusiasm in his voice was dampened somewhat by repetition, for he must have spoken the same lines hundreds of times already.
I was only paying a fraction of my attention to the skinny long-haired guide anyway, for my eyes were riveted by the spectacular scenery slowly unfurling outside. As we were rising in the air, we passed thrillingly close to the gigantic rock walls, looking down on a multitude of canyons and cliffs and spires, all very rugged, extremely perilous, and absolutely breathtaking. This must have been what eagles could see while they were soaring up the mountain, and the sight filled me with indescribable elation.
Right in the middle of such a sumptuous visual treat, a timid little voice arose anxiously, "Where's the emergency exit, Daddy?" followed by a few chuckles in response. Ten minutes later we landed at the top.
The temperature up here was considerably cooler. The trees were much taller and greener, mostly pines, firs and spruces, some so old their trunks were gnarled and twisted and hoary. Wild flowers appeared here and there along the trails, yellow and white and purple, some shy some bold on their green background of leaves. Stopping at the edge of an observation deck, I looked at the rugged mountains nearby and the arid land way deep below, marveling at the raw beauty of this outlandish panorama.
A pair of hikers emerged where a trail was wedged between a gorge and a cliff, an older white-haired gentleman and a much younger, wiry one, both sweating from what I assumed had been a strenuous walk in the rough mountain. The younger man was saying it was a wonderful hike, sir, and thank you so much for inviting me along. The older man just smiled and mumbled something polite. I wondered what their relationship might be that the older man was carrying himself in such a calm and relaxed manner, while his companion was all earnest, serious, and profuse in speech. They could be mentor and protégé, or the older man could have a daughter whom the younger one was hoping to marry. They were out of my sight now, and I could still hear the young man loudly articulate about work and education. Oh well, a new and upcoming guy, I'm sure.
Later on, while driving out of the parking lot at the foot of the mountain, I saw the two of them again. My car window was lowered, so I heard the young man talk again. He was saying, guess what, it was such a great hike, sir, thank you for inviting me along, sir. I chuckled to myself, not so sure about his being upcoming anymore, and headed to downtown Albuquerque in search of a place for lunch.
Flagstaff is an exception in Arizona. Instead of packed red earth and rock formations with not much for vegetation to hang on to, this area is amply covered in pine trees. I was heading North on Route 89 in the morning sunlight, fresh and soft, the kind of diffused light that makes everything beautiful and dreamy. Then the greenery faded and another kind of landscape came into view, straight out of Tony Hillerman's novels which I had once been so fond of.
The land was empty all around, but it was neither flat nor rolling with soft contours. Instead, it looked like it had been violently chopped and sliced and shaved by an enraged supernatural hand into a vast, dry wasteland of flat-topped elevations called mesas that stretched miles and miles, separated by deep zigzagging canyons that exposed gigantic rugged cliffs. Against their dull red color, the only growth I could see was a kind of shaggy grass that looked so tough that I suspected cattle wouldn't have deigned to eat. Yet the space and the devoidness gave me a strange feeling of liberation, of not being confined or attached to anything, while the wind was freely blowing in my face.
I wondered how it would be to have been born and bred here, generation after generation, like the Navajos and the Hopis I had read about. This land was so barren one was bound to work extra hard and get little in return, which would set low expectations in the mentality. Then harsh life had to be embraced at least for the sake of sanity, so whatever philosophy they had hatched had to be stern, no epicureans there for sure. And in this enormously empty territory, one had to be very used to solitude.
I drove into the Grand Canyon National Park via the east entrance on the South Rim. I had read books and seen pictures of this natural wonder, still I was filled with great awe. Who wouldn't be, standing in front of something so big, so grandiose, so fearsome? The sheer size of it made one feel reduced to piteous insignificance. Its cliffs were like the ramparts of a city where ancient giants had dwelled. Its irregular-shaped formations were like the remnants of an epic battle among the gods of ancient times. One mile deep below, the winding Colorado River looked like a puny stream that was on the verge of expiration.
This place was practically swarmed by tourists. The closer I got to the south entrance the denser the crowd became. It was impossible to find a quiet place with a good view of the Canyon to look and ponder on its meaning. It was just as impossible to take a photo without someone wandering into the frame.
I sat down on a stone step to rest. An excited young Chinese couple asked me to take a picture of them together. A German man was toting a big camera, directing his wife and two children to pose for his filming. A French father was trying to keep his kids from running out of his sight. The German uttered a frustrated grunt because his family didn't pose exactly the way he wanted, while his wife and children looked strained from trying unsuccessfully to pose the way they were asked to. The fun trip suddenly did not seem so fun anymore just because the father wanted a perfect video of the trip. Daddy really needed to get his priorities straight.
People kept streaming by in front of me, chattering in several different languages. As the sun rays shifted their angle, the canyon's color tones were changing. In its enormous bowels, shadows of clouds looked like moving islands. I could have left sooner or I could have stayed longer, it didn't really matter. For this place reminded me of eternity, and I left when I left.