Tuesday, January 7, 2014
"Shots is Fired" Evan Dando
The following is the first part of a story excerpted from my as yet unfinished book Count Every Beautiful Thing. Names have been removed where necessary.
In November of 2007, I had no visions of what the words of the Graham Nash sung "Our House" would mean for me in 21 short months. I knew they were there. I knew that they produced a calming effect for those that had left their beatnik and hippie natures behind. For these lucky souls, there was no more fight, no more argument, no more cause. There was only an "us." This was all of the cause that there needed to be, but it wasn’t the aimless fight and crusade that most causes, especially those of the radical counterculture, are or at least seem to be.
In addition, I had no idea what an us was because every time I ever tried to find a woman to be an "us" with, something went wrong, and with that, as the year 2007 came to the colder months, I was beginning to wonder if I was at all capable of believing that there could be an "us" that I would be a part of.
For me, the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song that summed up my life at that point would have had to be "Helplessly Hoping." Lost in the sound of my voice inside of my head, I wondered what I had to say or to offer other people, and for that, there was never enough courage to say the words to make the thirty-something relationship that I wanted to be a part of come alive and to become something meaningful for me. Sure, there were always warning signs that I saw. There were always fears that I had. If I would have only known that I was "playing with house money," perhaps, my life would have taken a different course. But I didn’t have any awareness of where I was other than potentially losing something that was so frail and undefined, and so I entered into another "damp drizzly November in my soul."
Of course, it seems weird to say this knowing that throughout this story, from the beginning to the end of the story, I go on to meet H and find the love of my life, but this is not a story that is meant to go in a straight line where boy meets girl and they fall in love. Certainly, that’s here, but this is also about the feelings that were living inside of me in the time that I prepared myself for being with her, the feelings I had as I was with her, and finally, this is how they became the feelings that are living inside of me as I write these words.
The story that most people are looking for when it comes to boy meets girl and falls in love is a much different story than the one that is written here. That’s not bad or good; it just is. If you haven’t readjusted your expectations, now is a good time to do that.
In those days of late 2007, I was pondering the words of Verlaine as I always did. In fact, they adorned my refrigerator to remind me that I was a romantic in the true sense of the nature.
"Often I dream this poignant fantasy, Strange, of a woman never met, but who Loves me, and whom I love, and who seems new Each time and yet who seems the same; and she Loves me, and understands the mystery Clouding my heart, as no one else can do; And who, alone, with tears fresh as the dew, Soothes, cools my pale and fevered brow for me. Her hair? Red, blond, or brown? I don’t know which. Nor do I know her name. But lush and rich It is, like those of friends once loved, exiled By life. Her glance? A statue’s glance. And for Her voice, it sings- distant and mellow, mild- The music of dear voices heard no more."
There are many mysteries clouding my heart. As time has gone by, some of them have become less mysterious and cast off, and some have become more mysterious, but all the same, they are the man who I was when I sent the first e-mail across the highways and paths to H’s computer.
Originally, I found H’s smiling face on Match Dot Com at the end of a month long membership that I had signed up for earlier that fall. As I did on many occasions, I went to the old $30 a month standby when I got tired of being alone. Since I wasn’t finding anyone else in my life, it was the one faithful option that I had since I really wasn’t about going to places like clubs and bars where I might be able to "pick up" a new woman for my companionship. It’s not that I was ever a "pickup artist;" I wasn’t. It’s just that the bars and clubs no longer had much to offer me in my mid-thirties. Now, if I wanted to see a band, I would, but that said, it’s not like I wanted to try to communicate above loud music and shout through thick smoke to get to know someone, so… yeah.
Throughout the years, I had varying levels of success with Match Dot Com. In fact, earlier in the fall, a gal named SA contacted me while I was on there in late September. It was a perfect time to begin a relationship as I was now ready to restart my life as the weather and leaves were beautiful and Christmas was quickly approaching and the world really was my oyster. And with it, I wondered if this message and the opportunities that it offered were the sign of the forever that I hoped for. Only time would tell, but to understand the time that I was in then, a person would have to go back to the time that made me who I was. And with that, so was the creation of my white whale.
The spring of 2003 was full of promise. A fair bit of my worklife had become fun again. However, there was nowhere in my life that the promise for grand discovery and life expression was greater than when I received the March 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure delivered quietly and unassumingly to my mail box.
While it might not sound like eons of time, I had been a fan of the magazine ever since I first found it in the summer of 2002. This was just in time to let it guide me towards the joys of what Yellowstone National Park had to offer when I had done my whirlwind second tour of it on my escape the world I was living in after the demise of my relationship with J tour the previous summer.
The summer of that second trip to Yellowstone had been miserable. I didn’t have much work. I did work at a Turkey Hill convenience store for cash, which was necessary because I was working for chump change at the time. Perhaps, I should have asked for more than they offered, but I was so happy to teach that I didn’t argue. Instead, I chose to tutor with some of my extra time, which was a place that I met another gal named S, who I quickly befriended. We hung out and did things together, but she was in and out of every life she entered into. Still, we hung out, and when it came time for me to go and get away, I asked her if she wanted to go to keep me company and enjoy the roads of America. She wasn’t able or willing to do this, and so I took off by myself.
The trip itself wasn’t good. I was a mess in my head from all of the things that were happening in my life. As I drove, I stopped the first night in a rest stop above Chicago in southern Wisconsin to find that someone had defecated in a sink.
It was a horrible ugly world that was filled with my failures and misguided purposes, but I was traveling into the unknown in hopes of finding something. My car went on and on, and I took lots of pictures and hoped that by the time that I got to Yellowstone, things would be better, and to a degree, it meant well, but I was lonely and alienated, and most of my music wasn’t resonating other than to remind me of how all of my relationships seemed to go much further than they ever should have gone. As a result, until I got to Mesa Verde about 10 days later, I didn’t see or feel anything good.
However, on that night at Mesa Verde, the sky just opened up with cottony tufts of the Milky Way and 10 million stars. I still long to return to a similar beautifully isolated place where I can gaze up at the stars being painted one by one in the sky in the same way that they were on that night. Those lights from distant universes were truly beautiful, but seeing them there in southwestern Colorado pretty much meant my trip was over, so home I drove to finally pull up toward my apartment with Jimi Hendrix’s "Little Wing" finally making me feel like some of the things that I felt before I left were gone. Of course, they weren’t, but it was nice to feel that they could be gone.
And so in the end, I had gone, and I had seen, and someday, I would get back and see more things because that’s what I did. And while I never did make it to the backcountry hikes that National Geographic Adventure detailed – something to the effect of the fear of bears mauling me as I slept alone at my campsite was a good enough excuse – I did make it through to see a few good waterfalls and a lot of other geyser activity before continuing my failed cross country escape act.
Nevertheless, I still had my old issues of the magazine to daydream about as if they were pornographic images to be lusted over. It was just what I did.
While most of the issues of the magazine focused on similar places and adventures, the newest issue that I had was different since it guided its unsuspecting readers to the great places of the Southwest, which meant the Colorado Plateau. These places included Antelope Canyon, Waterholes Canyon, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Monument Valley, Lake Powell, Havasu Falls, and the Wave. In this original form that I saw in 2003, I never realized how wonderfully elite that the places from this small article really were. At the time, they just looked great, and how could I possibly resist them when they offered things that I could never have thought about?
And the truth is that I couldn’t.
So I spent hours staring at the teaser pictures and searching the Internet to find more detailed images of these new and mysterious places. At one point, I even assigned the descriptions of the places to students that I had in my study skills class as a creative writing assignment. I can’t say it had a super deep scholarly purpose other than creative imagination of what could be at these specific places, but really it was just a feeble attempt by me to make them love these geographical places as much as I knew I would. That said, I rationalized that it had benefit for expressive research writing in that it allowed them to be descriptive about what they were writing about and had never seen before. If I did it in my college classes today, I might try to pass it off as persuading people to spend tourism dollars on these places. All the same, it entertained a series of 9th graders and I for a few afternoons.
As time went by, I continued to find more and more places to think about visiting, and thus, I was consumed with the daydreams of what could possibly be on this 2nd Arizona / Utah solo trip in the summer of 2003. In the technological world of the Internet, which I often thank Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, and Tim Berners-Lee for creating, that isn’t that hard to do. Even more so, when a person has access to as many maps and travel books as I did, it’s even easier and more dangerous in its ability to create a daydreaming and unproductive schlub! And to think how many more magazines and maps and books that I have now!
Eventually, one night I wandered into the local Barnes and Nobles, and upon rediscovering a picture of the Wave on the front of the August 2003 Backpacker Magazine, I somehow got name-checked to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, which came to be a manifesto for adventure to this part of the West. As a result, it was love at first read. Abbey’s most powerful of mantras did wonders at captivating me.
"A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches- that is the right and privilege of any free American."
Here, I would be immediately carried into a thought of what it meant to truly be alive and to truly be at one with the outdoors and myself as a human being. After all, even if I wasn’t willing to get eaten by bears at Yellowstone, who was I to not give someone else the same opportunity if they should so desire? That said, when it comes to real life bear bait, I find Timothy Treadwell to be an idiot who asked to be a part of a grizzly bear’s supper, but that said, he seemed to have good intentions in thinking he was one with the bears.
Nevertheless, as time went by, Abbey’s Desert Solitaire continued to fuel my transformation into ideals of empowered individuality. This stood in opposition to the teenage angst / fake macho hooey that is The Monkeywrench Gang, but alas, we can’t be on at all times as authors. Nevertheless, at that time, I just wanted the right to go out in search of adventure and to get away from the day to day drivel that I existed in as I lived out my essential takes at life in an apartment domicile box somewhere on the side of Neversink Mountain. To some people who grew up on the East Coast or the Great Plains, these might be bigger mountains, but to me, they stood rather unimpressively at the edge of Reading, Pennsylvania, which was and is a dump of a town. I needed real heights and real views. The city of Reading, which lay down the street from me, offered my present and future nothing, and I wanted to leave it behind forever. Surely, the West would be the best. I just had to find a way to get there.
As well as the Edward Abbey stories of 40 odd years before, in this thirst for desert adventure, I had also become captivated by the story of Aron Ralston and his narrow escape from the slot canyon at Blue John, a location in the Robber’s Roost section of Canyonlands. This was long before 127 Hours, and I should say that imagining what this area looked like and thinking about getting to these same type of places added perfectly to my obsession with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, well before the movie, which I read at the same time I was consuming Thoreau’s Walden about 3½ years prior to these new literary discoveries. Between these literary bookmarks and news events that would become my own personal milestones in enthusiasm for something brand new and life-altering, I read John Muir, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and Tolstoy’s ideas of faith and purpose as well. I consumed myself with poems from e.e. cummings and Walt Whitman. My whole life was about singing the "Song of the Open Road."
From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
In some sense, I was still hoping to find that literary "Bohemian," as my mom would call it. I wanted to see what greater sense of life was inside me in the same way these other people like Chris McCandless had done, but to be sure, I wanted to do it without starving to death in an abandoned bus in Alaska (mind you, this was well before the movie).
No matter how far beyond that point of potentially abandoning day to day responsibilities and the future and my family that I had gotten in my all too adult life, I was consumed solely with getting back to the grand revelation, the satori moment that I had found in the Nevada desert during late August of 1998, and finding a message for myself in how I should get to where I needed to be. All the other things, personal and employment-wise and good and bad relationships and empty and meaningless existences and hurtful memories and hopeful dreams; all of the things that happened that summer of 2003 were now rendered irrelevant, and thus, they were relegated to different parts of my memory, but the desert and the future… that was something else entirely.
Months vanish into the memory of time and so do the putrid memories of another summer job, which I shouldn’t have volunteered to do. However, now that I am in the West, a place where both Jim Morrison and I said that it is best, none of that matters. A new reflection begins, and so I don’t have to think about the things that happen in Pennsylvania, and I see that Page, Arizona, is by all purposes an accidental town. It exists only because it borders the Glen Canyon Dam, an engineering marvel that is responsible for holding back the Colorado River, an action that immediately and permanently destroys Glen Canyon’s once pristine and isolated beauty with a wall of water bordered in a white ring to mark its past growth. To this, the sun’s ability is that of heating the "lake," which works to drain the reservoir naturally when man refuses to do this on his own. This, he says, is because he needs to create green lawns in suburbs where lizards and rattlesnakes would fare better in their attempt to survive without governmental assistance than would baseball teams and easterners looking to get rid of their allergies to what society has built up and called a community. Since these suburban dwellers won’t listen, nature had to take things back on her own. As a result, the days are hot. The desert lies in a state of drought or a complete natural lack of rain on a regular basis, so while some years are wet, other years… not so much.
Nevertheless, this is the fate of this Navajo town and those who choose to live around it. To understand this is to understand this town’s history. In this, Page was brought into existence to provide a home base for those people who constructed the dam, and it now stands as a home base for people like me who want to partake in the activities that lie on its outskirts. For us, there are hotels with air conditioning and showers and complementary breakfasts so that we will be ready and raring to go when our morning alarm clock goes off.
Since this concrete "jar" placed in Arizona blockaded the Colorado River with its enormous crescent wall of stone, the man-made tourist trap that is Lake Powell has grown into a rather large tourist accommodation facility inside the Navajo Nation. For a range of 1,960 miles at the edge of a lake, it created a pause in the desert wilderness of the Colorado Plateau. In addition, it did its damage to the natural life cycles of the river beneath it, but as to whether it was no longer wild, the inhospitality of the region didn’t quite make it the walk in the park that other dams created in playgrounds for those who could find their way to them.
Nevertheless, I guess you can say the presence of Page as a resting location works for me because I am able to be on the Arizona / Utah border in this now doing my thing. To accommodate myself and others, there are said hotels, several fast food restaurants, a huge grocery store, strip malls, and tons of adventure companies that fill the few active thoroughfares of this town. All the same, in some places on the Rez, the Native Americans on the reservation would stare daggers at every single "Whitey" intruding on them, but here in Page, they will happily take his cash and only talk trash about him when he leaves rehydrated, a little lighter in the wallet, and still needing to find a working bathroom further up the road since they will not let him use their facilities (memories of Route 666 in New Mexico coming back to me).
But that is not a problem for me at this moment because as I drive in on Route 89, I am transformed with the feeling that these businesses also resemble the cantina at Mos Eisley, and if I look hard enough, I could find Han Solo and Chewbacca and leap into the adventure of my choice blasting off in this silver Chevy S-10, as if it was the Millenium Falcon, and head off towards some awaiting galaxy that is unlike any that I would find in the mountainous green Pennsylvania of my birth and life. I don’t even have to wait for a rendezvous with Jabba or an altercation with Greedo. We can just go.
That is what Page is all about.
This is the daydream vision turned into a reality where I exist at the moment. I am parked at a campground on the edge of town. The parking lot is relatively empty for an August evening, and there isn’t that much here at the campground to see or do. A few kids scuttle around from the car that the 2 women have parked in front of my truck. They try hopelessly to pound their stakes into the rocky ground, eventually putting up their tent with a little bit of aid from the aged and worn hammer that I was carrying just in case I decided to really camp instead of sleeping in the back of my truck. However, I am too lazy to put my tent up, and so here I am, under the mismatched red cap that encloses the back of my truck. I am sticky with sweat, but still, I’m pretending to read while "people watching" their random moments. I could be taking advantage of the aquatic activities that the pool might offer, but since it is too late to swim, we are all here just waiting for what we will do in the morning.
Despite being on the road for 2 weeks, I don’t smell the dirty clothes that fill the broken cooler beside me. I am grubby with beard and sweat and suntanned to the core. Thus, I don’t feel inconvenienced by the metal frame that I have been sleeping on. My pillows are choked with the stench of my body’s smell from living the life of the wandering desert nomad, but still, I don’t care. I’m on the highway. I’m alive in a world that I only see on occasional journeys, and I am so excited for what is to come that there is no discomfort. A year ago, I returned from the previously mentioned journey and actually couldn’t go to sleep in my real bed without the extra pillows I had left in my truck. Twelve days of nastiness didn’t keep me from sleeping then, but only having one pillow did the trick! I am back in that frame of mind now. Life is the hiking that the morning will bring for me.
As I lay in the tightly enclosed confines of my makeshift room that I have set up in the back of my truck, I wonder why this campground is so empty save the women and the kids next to me. I rationalize that since this section of the world is a slot canyon aficionado’s dream, there should be more brave souls waiting to thrust themselves into the unknown. For example, if a person was to go there, he could partake in the cake frosting smooth walls of Waterholes Canyon or Antelope Canyon. All he would have to do is have the right guidebooks and websites to point him in the proper direction. If he was to have this, he would only have to be willing to drive a few miles from the town’s center. While I know of these close places, they are not the complete reason of why I am here. I won’t disguise a desire to enter into the photographic paradise that is Antelope Canyon, but at the same time, I know it’s a truck tour to a small flat section or another walking section with ladders down into the serpentine world. While it’s an awesome place to be, it’s not why I’m at this point on the map. For me, this stopover at Page was the most convenient end to my cross-country vacation loop. At best, it is a rest and refueling stop. However, though I try to sleep, I am restless in the fact that tomorrow I will be driving up to the Wave, a geologically surreal structure that looks like a giant skateboarding park on the edges of Vermillion Cliffs and the Grand Staircase / Escelante National Monument. The half pipe that is the walls of the canyon beckon to me, and I in turn am drawn towards their entrance point to the world of rock passages that is located in Pariah Canyon. For the SUV driving families that hit the major points at the national parks and call it "seeing America," their Kodak Picture Moments are a place that I want to leave behind. For the privileged hikers, it is currently a place that they are only aware of since they are in the know with regards to the Colorado Plateau, slot canyons, and adventure tourism like National Geographic Adventure and Backpacker Magazine. For a time, I could count on Outside Magazine, but then it transformed into any pursuits that were outside instead of nature’s places, and so I abandoned my subscription to it.
For more casual, but adventurous tourists, pictures of the Wave do exist in travel books and on postcards that lack true captioning. In this, it is there and it is mainstream, but it is not always named, and for the selfish hoarder of nature’s pleasure that exists in me, that’s a good thing. As time goes by, it gets harder and harder to get the permits in advance, so frankly, let the unknowing stay away. If that makes me selfish, so be it. I want the real wilderness adventure that I am promised, and for that, I’ll happily keep out any of the riff raff that might otherwise spoil my solitude and photographic ecstasy with their goofy kids who would stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and chuck a Frisbee back and forth while Sparky the dog runs back and forth, both thankful to be out of the car and where they need to be as opposed to being happy here. For this, if the kids show up and dare to think they are entitled to some sort of a walk through to these special locations, let them try to figure out what one rock formation in the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase Escalante is actually named just by staring at the picture.
If they can guess it, I’ll let them in on tomorrow’s lottery for a ticket to the show.
Looking back to 2003, it is a different time at the Wave despite a relative gain in notoriety. In this, a lot of the casual tourists are kept out with the Bureau of Land Management’s system and their respect or fear of punishment for non-adherence to the laws of the environment that keep their 10-person a day advance permit system intact. Of course, if they are lucky, 10 more people can get into this world of wonder if they win the lottery by showing up and getting lucky the day before they are to go in.
At this time, the odds aren’t that tough, but they aren’t guaranteed.
All the same, as I write this in 2012, the Wave has become more commercialized as it has appeared in newspapers and magazines across this country and Germany in an effort to step up tourism to the region without increasing the amount of people who could enter onto it. Though it has always been a lottery, it is just a lottery where the odds require more dedication and the knowledge of a lesser chance for true wilderness adventurers to explore this incredible geologic wonder. One could argue the philosophy of individual freedom that is the right of man to go and experience whatever he wants in a sense of true liberty and tax payer’s rights against the BLM’s ideas of what constitutes a "true wildlife experience" as Michael Kelsey, guidebook writer extraordinaire, would say, but frankly, since there is no legal precedent being set and changed by myself, all those other people and rabid adventure dreamers like me, people who want to go to this place as the answer to a higher calling, will have to contend with the oppressive hand of government regulation and the overwhelming tourist effects of the law of supply and demand on the Utah / Arizona border intruding on who gets to drive onto the dirt road into Wire Pass Trailhead and who doesn’t.
Nevertheless, if these men and women of government were listening, I would say charge $25 for a permit. Take the extra money and station someone at the beginning of the 8-mile road in order to help protect the place and help clean it up. Sure, the road would be used more and the paths might get worn, but knowing the geologic makeup and the desire of people to go back there, I’m sure things could be done. Besides, if you’ve ever traveled that road, you know just how unforgiving it is. It’s a bleached out rocky death trap at points that is pockmarked with significant holes and washboard gullies. Should it cost that much money to redo the roads, then they should charge $50 a pop. I’m sure people would pay it. I would. Besides, people pay $26 to get into tours of the lower part of Antelope Canyon, and they’re only allowed there for 2 hours. The Wave is far more unique and private. Besides, the heat would scare away novice hikers (in retrospect - not so much - in this, we're lucky that the nanny state isn't positioning people out there to keep others safe or at the very least unable to file lawsuit), so it’s not like hikers would have to deal with that much overcrowding if they were to pay $50. How many grandmothers and middle-aged desk jockey dudes could make the nearly 100° walk in the middle of the summer?
Even in the back of a truck, the desert is a hot place to camp in at 10 P.M. at night. This seems obvious to say from the experiences that I have already had, but by the middle of the night and on into the morning, it is actually rather comfortable with a light breeze blowing through. My mind switches thoughts with this connection and I am remembering moments in Needles, California, a sauna that gets to be 120° Fahrenheit under the Mojave Desert, and I know that the burning air of the night would have never gotten as passive as it is here in Page. That night, if I had not given in to the sweat and bugs that found me to be an appetizing specimen that was ready to be devoured, I literally would have melted into the sand and been food for the scorpions and tarantulas. Sometimes, I wonder if that wasn’t a better option than staying in the hotel room I wandered into for the last hours of that evening in the summer of 1998, but at least there was an air conditioner and a shower to wash off some of the nasty stench before it soaked my body all over again, and in the end, at least I can say that I wasn’t food for the denizens of the scorched earth prison world I had unknowingly entered into.
Lying on a sleeping bag with even more sweat covering the pillows beneath the rank perspiration now dripping from my body, I begin to think of what I am here for and I know that it is the culmination of 6 months of daydreams like the ones I have been contemplating all day, and suddenly, I drift into the story that I have been writing my whole adult life and I realize how it is meant to flow. I think of the words of a student who tried to chastise me out of my sedentary existence by telling me how stale and predictable I had left my late twenties and early thirties make me. And it was at the moment that I knew that she was correct, and for that, I realized that she would have been proud for being the student who teaches the teacher what he should already know. All the things that I will do are so clear. I will be a son, brother, teacher, leader, writer, graduate student, literary person, and athletic kind of guy. I will be a good friend to those people I know and those I have not yet found, and I will bring lots of new people into my life. I will find the woman whom I will love, the woman who has eluded me except for in small doses or varied lengths of time that are all the same in that they are over and no longer in contact with me, separated by time and distance, vanished in the desert of my life. Yes, as soon as I see the Wave, I will do ALL OF THIS AND MORE.
I will be great IF ONLY I CAN DO THAT.
In the mirages of the desert, what is real and what is an illusion? What is real enough to see and what still eludes the eyes? Two weeks in the desert provides insights into a brilliant glowing oasis in the emptiness where the truth has been told by the kachinas that speak to those who will listen. Two weeks in the desert presents the temptations of a life all too ordinary while angels dance around me to mark the stages of a religious vision being fulfilled. The pain was real, but it’s over now. As Scorcese and Kazantzakis’s angelic version of Satan said, "You can save him now…
"He's suffered enough."
Like that, I’m here in my sleeping bag and it’s morning and it’s all perfect. The truth and the meaning are about to arrive in this life.
Many years later, I step back and I think back on that moment, and I realize that it is not as much a moment of clarity as it is a moment of transition into the beginning of a journey that I am about to enter into. The truths it told was for a much later date that was still unknown at that time. Nevertheless, doing all of those things that were good and that were listed only a dozen or so lines ago were contingent on seeing the Wave, and now, I would have to put up and do them.
Here, it should be stated that the desert does not know or understand time in its simplest instants. While all instants make things happen, the reality is that most of the time, things are sedentary / happening so gradually and minutely that we can’t see them happening. In this, the desert only understands geologic time and that is much longer in its erosive qualities than any day to day existence that I will know. However, as Aron Ralston stated, "geologic time includes now" to explain how an 800-pound boulder could twist and turn and leave him pinned to a slot canyon wall. And while most days don’t produce this lasting or even visible effects, the next day was about to produce one of the most powerful effects that my life had ever witnessed.
For all the things that I have waited for, this is it. I am on the verge of entering the culmination of an excellent cross-country trip, and yet I cannot find any excitement in what is about to happen. Something is wrong. Instead of complete relief and inner harmony in the moment that is the canyon’s wonders and brilliance, I have figured out the man that I will be when I return to civilization, BUT I have done this before I have walked into the accomplishment that I must do first. In short, this man that I have fantasized about becoming when I return has absolutely nothing to do with the guy who is going to be driving off into the sunrise. This entire moment has absolutely nothing to do with the canyon that I will be walking across other than that I will tell the story and people will marvel about my pictures enough to someday want to go there and see these same images for themselves. In this, I have already assumed that the moment is complete simply because I am walking in this general direction. In this, I have counted my chickens before they are hatched, and for this...
Through the haze of moments before sleep, everything is so completely different. I fall asleep for brief instants and drift into dreams that are broken up with an ever more sweaty and nasty feeling of discomfort. I fall back to sleep, but this only happens for short bursts of time, and I eventually wake up at 530 and shake off the sleep so that I can begin the drive that will take me across Highway 89, veering in a northwest fashion across the huge bridge that connects the 2 sides of the canyon almost a thousand feet above the Colorado River’s rolling waters.
I am scared of the drop, so I focus on the forever that is ahead of me or just far enough to not think about falling 800-feet to my death. This is how every journey across concrete and steel is for me. Despite this, I have no problems entering into a desert that is more likely to kill me than it is for a bridge to collapse and send me careening 800 feet to my demise. That said, my mind is no longer rational to these things.
It is cooler in the morning prior to driving out of Page, and the water through my hair and trickling down onto my body provides relief as the morning desert wind works to smooth over the roughness that I have allowed my frame to become embodied with. I am alive, and the moment is here. I have no choice but to follow it to its ultimate destination. Drying the water off of the stubbly beard that has grown onto my face, I am ready to face the day.
It is a long drive from Page to get to the trail access. If a person is not careful, he could easily miss it, and so… that is exactly what I did. I was looking in the right area, but there is no sign, and inevitably, I find myself having to turn around when I see Mile Marker 26 go by in my mirror. I had gone too far, and I needed to go back to the midway point to travel down House Rock Valley Road to the Wire Pass Trailhead. The trail itself is a dirt road, which even by dirt road standards is filled with more than your usual average of potholes, rocks, and bumps that can go violently up and down as the hikers approach various trails and markers.
As I drive down this road, the drunken Irish sounds of The Pogues raucously and repetitiously fill the car with Shane McGowan’s cigarette and whiskey scarred voice harmonizing alongside of Sinead O’ Connor soft and beautifully prophetic Irish accented words that state simply:
"I want to be haunted by the ghost."
Thinking subconsciously, I ask myself then and more poignantly now, "What ghost will I be haunted by? What ghosts am I haunted by? Will I ever be able to give up these ghosts?
Pretty soon, a small car comes back towards me from the other direction. I stop, and the woman inside asks if I am going to Wire Pass Trailhead, and I tell her that I am. She explains that she has just dropped her boyfriend off, and that the trail entrance is right ahead. I am happy that I am going the right direction since some spots in the road look like they could lead somewhere else, so this sense of relief is not altogether an unexpected feeling. Now, I safely proceed forward with more speed and head on to the parking lot where I quickly jump out of my truck and head over to the shack and kiosks that explain the rules of the area. There is a pit toilet, which also reeks of nastiness that draws in swarms of flies, and after holding my breath in their presence, I leave and begin my trek to the long-awaited Wave.
From the first step, I begin to focus on this mystery woman’s map, which says to go backwards and horseshoe around to the trail that will take me to the Wave. This seems to make no sense at all because the quickest path is OBVIOUSLY a straight diagonal line / hypotenuse to the Wave. I’m an educated man. I understand this mathematical concept, and so with the directions in my book instead of her map, I begin using my compass to head south to where the Wave should be.
After all, I can use a compass. My father and my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Stocker, taught me how to do this, and thus, I proceed confidently and energetically down through the dried up creek bed and head south, which is where my logic tells me that I should go.
Writer’s note: With this clarity of purpose that can be done instinctively and without thinking, it’s obvious that any story that seems to include the line that I knew better than the map will only go in one direction.
Eventually I get down through the creek bed far enough to cross the mesa while it is still relatively cool outside and proceed up over it into a really sandy section, still going south. Eventually, I realize that I must have gone too far, so I turn around and head north to find what I perceived incorrectly to be the Coyote Buttes straight up ahead. These buttes are a drab and cindery geological creation that is actually referred to as elephant buttes. This makes them interesting in that kind of way that cries out like the Kodak Picture Moment signs in Alton Towers, the British amusement park that I once went to and that stated to "take pictures here," but it’s not the destination that I am looking to achieve, and so after I do take my photos, because God knows I might want to see a picture of these buttes 10 years later, I head north again until I find an aging and decrepit barbed wire fence that prohibits me from going further. With that, I then re-ascend the mesa that I had climbed over and move towards a spot where I can see what I feel has to be the tips of The Wave in the distance. Nevertheless, it is still a ways away, but this structure looms impressively and guides me towards it.
I begin to think to myself, "you have made it… you’re here… there are so many people you will have to tell about this. All of these bright young minds that profess to enjoy this same hobby. You will have to guide them here. They should be here too… but now you just have to climb down and get over to the southwest corner where it’s at and see all of the beauties that you have dreamed about for all of these months."
I hike down the mesa-side and move down towards the valley while I look for a place to go up the next edge of the mesa. At this point, I assume it is the final edge to walk straight towards the points of the Wave, but when I arrive at the top, I find that there are still more obstacles to overcome. My mind readjusts to the realization that there is at least one more edge after this that I will have to go up. With that, I pick myself up and move towards the obvious final destination.
Moving on, the simplicity seems more complex and it’s a harder trek than I had imagined. My confidence that my destination is going to be here soon is completely gone and the energy I had is draining fast. I am left with only a shitty dose of magical thinking disguised as hope, and it’s fading as rapidly as my water, which is routinely being consumed in order for me to stay hydrated, and it is at this point that I realize that I have been in the Coyote Buttes area for the better part of 2½ hours and the 70 or so ounces of my water that I went in with is getting low. It is also getting a lot warmer outside with intermittent drops of rain coming just long enough to scare the beejesus out of me. Absolutely none of these potential endings are good things.
My mind prepares itself for some Boy Scout memory of survival and desert warning knowledge. I think about what the cartoonish guide in front of me says, and I am reminded that August is flashflood season in Canyon Country. In a short time, a torrential flood of rain that has built up into a different kind of wave can quickly trounce and bury a lone traveler or a helpless group under its muddy structure and drown even strong hikers.
The aforementioned Antelope Canyon bears the scars of flashfloods and now has protective ladders in the main "gallery" of its cake-frosting smooth sides. On the ledges of various canyons like Buckskin Gulch and Waterholes Canyon, I have seen pictures of wood and other artifacts that have been deposited from flashfloods past. I am not taking chances with Mother Nature. I know who will come out ahead in that fight. I know who will be bitch-slapped into submission. Besides, while I might not get hurt from this rain that is falling, the road could be destroyed and covered with a raging river where once there was a tiny creek, and I could be stuck back in this canyon for days and days with a rental car that I have no desire to wreck in an attempt to get out of a desert prison.
Nevertheless, at this time, all is clear in the sky and the raindrops are gone from view, but the heat is still kicking in. The new layer of stench-filled perspiration and intensity is palpable in that I am drenched in sweat, and the temperature isn’t getting any cooler. I reassess and find that I can’t find a clear path up to the top of the mesa. My mind tells me that any jump that I would have to make would be done with what was $500+ of camera equipment at the time in a relatively unprotected bag that is only slightly padded (now much less since it’s not digital and it’s been used and worn by lots of film being turned through the camera’s innards). I move down and look for an unobstructed path, and finally, I find one. From where I was, I note that I could hurtle myself over to a ledge that was up a little ways, but if I fell, I was going to go for a good 20-foot slide. The decision is mine.
"Do you go for the site that you are hell bent and determined to see, or do you give it all up, go home via the equally beauteous, but unchallenging trip out to Antelope Canyon, which is an ATV trek that runs several times a day? Do you risk injury in an isolated desert, knowing full well that in 5 hours of not having water you could dehydrate? Do you risk the destruction of your favorite toy, your camera, so that you can possibly - not even definitely! - get to the Promised Land?"
And so I used logic for the first time that day, and I gave up and went back to the starting point via a new way that once again seemed right based on where it was most likely that I was in relation to my surroundings.
Walking back in a dejected fashion, I still obsessed about having to make sure that my bearings were straight, which it turned out after some measurable degree of anxiety that they were, and I managed to wander along that smaller slot canyon, which was a chest to head high creek bed that was dried out quite nicely. The sides were almost bleached white from the heat of the sun and the force of nature, which had carved it out into something artistic. This impressed me. All the while, I felt the curious and self-destructive wonder of would I get injured or would I run out of water or could I end up as something worse. "Are you going to die out here for what you think is the life of leisure?" I walked out of it thinking that the path I was on was Buckskin Gulch, and I found the real road at the bottom, which soon showed up as the northern route the map had talked about. I eventually found my way back. Everything was there except the buzzards, and then I walked back onto the Wire Pass Trail, and it was all over. If they were metaphorically circling just fifteen minutes before, they were gone now.
I had assumed, and I was wrong.
As Kevin Costner stated so definitely to Tim Robbins in the movie Bull Durham:
"Don’t think. It can only hurt the ball club."
And it was somewhere along this trail that everything in my life hollowed out and emptied. I knew that I had to get back here, but today wasn’t going to be the day. It was too late, it was too hot, and I had to drive back to reality in the very near future or I would find myself shelling out lots of extra cash to stay in the desert another day just to see Antelope Canyon, which was the finale of this vacation. Thus, I wasn’t even going to see the Wave this year – even thought it was only 13,000 or so feet away!
The pain of failure was setting in. Just like the extra week spent in Basic Training for letting the squadron’s captain in with the wrong form of identification, I had a lot of time to think about how badly I had screwed up. This was just the beginning of it. It was all so simple and pleasant.
"You really fucked up this time."
The adventure was over. I was defeated.
I walked out to the parking lot, looked at the few other people who were there, threw off my shirt and began drinking Cool Blue Gatorade in quantity. Then, one guy came up to me, and in talking, it was revealed that he was the boyfriend of the lady that I had spoken to earlier, and we began to talk. He commented on my Cardinals hat, not unfavorably, but not excitedly, and instantly, he proudly proclaimed himself to be a Yankees fan. He yammered on that he was transferring to a new company in the West and his girlfriend was helping him to move. This was their romantic adventure through America, and it was the ideal dream trip that they were taking. I nodded appropriately. He talked more of the Yankees, and my mind went empty save for an intense hatred of all things Bronx Bomber as well as refilling my mind with the crystal clear knowledge that I really had to refrain from stating how much the Yankees sucked. As his baseball thoughts ended, he went off to the geographic and geological thoughts, and I went back into the instant.
"What did you think of The Wave?"
"I didn’t get there. I went the wrong way. I thought I could make it over the mountains, but I couldn’t."
"It wasn’t a good day to go any way… the sun wasn’t out, so you couldn’t get any pictures."
"What was it like over there? Was there any water in it?"
"Nah. It was pretty dry."
"If you want, you can have my map."
I was still thinking of going back. It was a 5-6 mile round trip, and I really wanted to do it, especially thinking about the when and if that I would get back to the Colorado Plateau, but I was battling my body. I knew I didn’t have it in me, and I also went back to the thought of paying to have to camp another night if I wanted to see The Wave and Antelope Canyon. Those thoughts repeated in different ways. I had no idea how I would be able to hike back the 2.5 miles in the intense afternoon heat, and all the while, I also knew that if I missed Antelope Canyon today, I would have to put more money on my credit cards. It would be $30 for camping, and more money for food, and I was running low on funds. I thought hard, and then I decided to pull out. Neil Young’s advice no longer mattered on that day.
"I searched out my companions
Who were lost in crystal canyons
When the aimless blade of science
Slashed the pearly gates
It was then I knew I’d had enough
Burn my credit card for fuel
Heading out to where the pavement turns to sand
With a one-way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand
How I lost my friends I still don't understand."
It was all about fiscal conservatism and practicality instead.
All I could think was that I wanted to be home already. I wanted this vacation to be over. I didn’t relish the demons of the drive. I wanted to think more about the happiness of the songs that had gotten me here. This wasn’t 2002. It was 2003, and it was a really good trip for the most part. Bob Dylan’s "I Shall Be Released," Gillian Welch’s cover of "Pancho and Lefty," The Jayhawks’ "All the Right Reasons," Drive By Truckers’ "Bulldozers and Dirt," Evan Dando’s "Hard Drive," Jay Farrar’s "California," and Jeff Tweedy’s solo acoustic version of "California Stars," which always reminds me of that magic night before my 27th birthday that was spent swimming during sunset at Lake Almanor in 1998. Even in the end of my long-distance friendship with Kat, it made everything so peaceful and real with the new reality of who I had become for being here in this place.
Instead of all of these songs, it would be the harsh and punishing sounds of my mind that would be obscuring the memories that should have come out of this trip.
"There are a million things you’ll never get to do
You had your way before, and where’d it get you to?
Waking up on the floor and sleeping in your shoes
Already too much change in the reflecting pool
Whatever part of you that’s been calling the shots is fired."
I quit on myself again, and I instantly sentenced myself to an unknown amount of years in an inner hell that I couldn’t even begin to foresee.
With that decision, I walked to the car door knowing that this was a long 2,000-mile trek back home. It had to start some way, so I drove my S-10 into the dusty rocks of Wire Pass and felt the entire 8 miles of the road’s surface as pebbles and stones bounced and clanked on my truck’s undercarriage like great meteorites hitting the unprotected surface of the world. It was a sound that stayed with me long after I left Page to head east again to hear the words of Jay Farrar:
"Who do you know?
Who do you trust?
Who keeps you sane?
Who cleans off the dust?
Who's got you down, thinking the best roads lead out of town?
Who saves the day?
Who stands to make corrections?"
A 3 day-drive to eastern Pennsylvania is nothing when compared to 20 months waiting to get back to the desert. The first hundred life changes of a couple thousand redirections of mistakes and outlooks that just weren’t the way to go were now behind me in the time since I last treaded the Paria Canyon floor, and I am back on Highway 89 in 2005. I have been given a gift complementary plane ticket that my sister redirected to me after she was unable to use it, and familial affection has gone and put me onto the roads of the Arizona desert once again.