After a couple of very hot days in Tucson exploring the city and the surrounding desert (and floating in the pool), I headed north again through various national forests. I was extremely depressed and lonely. Nothing looked interesting to me, none of the forests had any appeal. Even an elegant stand of ponderosa pine dripping with sunlight on a warm day failed to arouse enthusiasm in me.
Why? I don't know. Perhaps it was being alone, without the capacity to share these delights. Perhaps it was the endless, featureless pine forests that I've seen so much of lately. Perhaps it was just that I was full up on sightseeing after eight months. Perhaps I was crashing off the morning's coffee. Who knows?
When I began this trip eight months ago, as I believe I've tried to explain before, a major goal of mine was to get a grasp of the land, to form a mental picture of how this country is laid out, to experience its canyons and peaks and broad, grassy valleys, and to explore its magical topography, to discover those places that radiate contented energy and are in topological harmony. The first few weeks of my trip I did just that: stopped in little towns, walked through patches of forest. I was never reluctant to get out of my car to experience a spot more fully. I never batted an eye at a 60 mile detour to an interesting-looking peninsula.
On the East Coast my travels changed with the dense cities and numerous friends, but I still managed to explore a little and found a couple of great spots. Now, however, especially with my return to the West, the enormity of the country has hit me in full force and I'm frustrated by the distances. No longer is it a 60 mile detour, it's a 250 mile detour. No longer are the towns worth walking around, either, since 90% of them are nothing more than a trading post and gas station without a history of more than a hundred years. But as the towns have decreased, the natural wonders have increased, and if I were to stop at every fascinating outcrop or pleasant stream I'd be walking the whole way. Every little side canyon may hold beautiful secrets, every mountain may provide stunning vistas. And how does one find these things, the special spots that I seek? Vision is no help, for you can rarely see over ten miles in any direction. Maps are no help, for that same ten miles is a mere quarter inch, and that quarter inch can hold a dozen gardened box canyons. I could be right around the corner from Valhalla and not know it. And so I guess. I pick a route and hope. I pick a hike and hope. Out of the vastness of the American West I am blindly groping for gems.
And in the same way you as readers are led through my day. A thin, meandering path I provide for you, a string of crumbs through the forest of my experience. You are a horse with blinders in the Grand Canyon and the thing you seek, the one tidbit of information, the morsel that will make your day and coalesce your varied thoughts and feelings into a unified whole Nirvana is just to your left. And so it also is with the writing itself, for the most convoluted, adjective-filled sentence in the whole of existence can only hope to scratch the surface of Being. But such is all writing and such is everybody's life, and I'm sure I tell you much more of my day's doings than most of your best friends (and, yes, I have received some criticism for this). Well, hopefully it's not all noise and I occasionally, accidentally I'm sure, hit the nail on your head and send you into a thoughtful reverie. That's why I read, at least.
Back to our story, as they say, which is already in progress:
I settled down for the night on a windswept plain above Mormon Lake in the Arizona High Country. It was cold and barren and devoid of diversions. In a fit of frustrated depression I left. I drove into Flagstaff and started hitting bars and poolhalls. Flagstaff is still one of the coolest cities I've been through and I love it dearly. Nestled in the pines of the Coconino National Forest at the foot of Arizona's highest peak, it's an earthy, ramshackle town full of decrepit hippie houses and gritty streets. It's got that old industrial feel of a waning lumber center, and the freight trains roll through all night long.
I was soon in fairly high spirits and shooting some of the best pool of my life. I was playing with Mike the Baker, a local aging hippie and employee of the Sunshine Bakery. One of the things I hoped to do while in Flagstaff was locate the commune of the World Beat Music and Dance Theater. If you remember, these were the eco-ecclesiastical drum group from the Mother Earth Mind Jam, the ones I really couldn't stand. Nevertheless, I figured it might be fun to check out their commune. I asked Mike about them and he told me one of his co-workers, Pam, knew them. He told me to stop by tomorrow morning.
I wandered over to the pizza parlor to scope out the coeds and the shark potential and standing there, looking lonely and confused, was Bill the Greenpeace Leafleter from the Mind Jam. I didn't describe Bill at the time, but he was a very adamant anti-Dupont ranter in a red beret and desert cammo, the same clothes he was wearing now. I said howdy and we started chatting. I asked him what he was doing up in Flagstaff and he told me he was looking for the World Beat commune! We quickly traded information. He had a tip that the leader of the group often hung out at "the cafe next to the bike shop", which in Flagstaff is like saying "the cactus on the hill".
In any case, we chatted for a while and hopped bars, during which time he told me his horrible tale of police brutality and harassment, liberally sprinkled with unemployment, doomsday ecology, and his hopes to "unite all world religions". Where do I meet these folks, and why do they tell me their problems? Soon we bid goodnight and I settled down on a quiet side street between two Deadhead VWs.
The next morning I stopped by the Bakery but Pam was not working. Mike, however, told me of some great trails just outside town. You gotta love a city where you can walk four blocks and be in a national forest. I spent the morning ambling over ponds and through pines, climbing over boulders and watching the clouds roll in. It was glorious and I was filled to the rim with good feelings for myself and Flagstaff. It was strangely contenting to stroll through the sunny trees and ponds, and I wondered if my lack of enthusiasm for such things might be ebbing. I wandered back into town around lunchtime and ran into Bill on the street. He, too, had discovered Pam not at work, but later had run into Mr. World Beat himself, Michael. At the cafe. Next to the bike shop. The Theater was not quite ready to move to the commune yet, but they were having rehearsal tomorrow. I thanked him and went for lunch. Standing next to Bill that whole time was a sour-faced young hippie who never said a word and was reluctant to shake my hand. I think he infected me because soon after our meeting I was plunged into a cavernous and inexplicable depression. So deep was my despair that I fled town at high speed, driving north towards the Grand Canyon.
The Canyon did not do much to lift my spirits or restore my enthusiasm. After a passable night in the Kaibab N.F., I entered the Park, approximately 50th in a line of cars and campers. I toyed with the idea of hiking to the bottom overnight but reconsidered when I found the waiting room to get on the waiting list for a permit. I settled for a walk along the rim. Have you ever seen someone pimp the High Priestess? Everything you've heard is true, from the immense Bermudas to the banal praise issued in cigarette smoke. They see it, pronounce it beautiful, and move on. And everyone has to make a joke about falling in. I could tell many a tale of the horrors I witnessed there, but some folks might think me spiteful. And, as Edward Abbey said: "...They are, most of them, really good people and not actually as simple-minded as they pretend to encourage me to pretend us all to be."
By the end of the day I had a ferocious headache and little appreciation for the Canyon. I was wretched. Flagstaff notwithstanding, the past week had been an unending series of RV lots and bland forests. I was completely unenthused about traveling further -- there seemed to be nothing worth seeing. I feared my trip was over and thought about going home.
Then something weird happened, something I was half expecting given the nature of my mountainous swings. On a topo map I saw a dirt road leading out to an isolated point on the rim. I drove there on a whim, and as I was getting out of my car a man on a mountain bike, wearing a Jerry Garcia t-shirt, emerged from the gated road. He told me the place was sometimes rented out for weddings and such (his included) and that a couple out there had just gotten engaged. He also told me to watch out for park rangers -- he'd been hassled before for going out there. I quickly packed my stove and a can of beans, heeding his warning with speed, and set off down the road. As I left, another car pulled up to the gate and two guys got out and started walking with me. They were carrying chips and soda and promptly offered me some. They, too, were going out to watch the sunset. We walked the mile to the rim and chatted along the way. As we arrived at the rim, I asked them what they did and they replied: "We're park rangers!"
We reached the rim about half an hour before sunset. Oh my God. I cannot even hint at the beauty of this view -- it was far, far better than any other on the South Rim. And entirely deserted except for my two Ranger friends and the newly engaged couple off in the trees. There were no cars. The Canyon was fiery red and pale green, every notch and crack standing out crisply in the low light. I was literally gasping as we walked out onto the thin finger of rock jutting a mile into the Canyon. We sat down and watched the colors change, the shadows migrate across the fingers outstretched from our promontory. We told funny stories about tourists and they told me some hideous ones about death and dehydration. They told me of the Canyon at night during a thunderstorm, the flashes lighting up the ridges and gullies one at a time, isolated instant views. After they left I stayed on in the fading light, standing with my arms outstretched over the hazy abyss. Twenty minutes after the sun's last slivers disappeared over the mesa to the West, the full moon blazed up to the East. I stayed there for another two hours, gazing down into the mysterious depths and across to the glowing rim, luminescent blue like bones. It was glorious, it was magical, it was just what I needed. My faith in natural wonder and exploration was fully renewed, and I felt energized by this hidden, majestic spot, a small preserved nook of the High Priestess. I wanted to go on.
No Simple Highway:
Jacob Lake, AZ
Last modified: Thu Feb 19 00:02:53 1998
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