It took me a week or more to get accustomed to the altitude on the North Rim (about 8,000 feet). Just the walk from my cabin to the back dock of the kitchen where I worked wore me out. I also seemed to catch and then share strep throat with my coworkers. Those were minor obstacles. The hard part was slowing down and learning how to see the canyon in a more than just a superficial way. At first, the canyon looks like a postcard. If you’ve been to the canyon, maybe you know what I mean. You’ve seen views of the canyon your whole life. I found it disconcerting to be there—at the Grand Canyon!!—and not have fireworks exploding or at least hyperbolic signs posted around saying things like, “This really is the fabulous place you have heard so much about.”
Lucky for me, by the time I shook off the altitude sickness and the streptococcus, I was also beginning to adjust to North Rim time. I think it may be different in the national parks now—more sex, drugs, and cynicism probably. There were sex and drugs back in the day, too, but probably not the cynicism, at least among the Mormons and me. Instead of, or in addition to any s & d, the young workers were encouraged to put on performances for the dudes. Why not? I’ve already told you we—the workers and the dudes—were a million (80) miles from anywhere and it was before TV made it up there, let alone WIFI and smart phones. So, there were talents shows and comedy routines and singing to the dudes at dinner and singing them away in their Utah Parks Company buses in the morning.
Where was I? I remember: things to do at the rim. You could walk out from the lodge patio and saunter along the little path to Bright Angel Point. One time a friend introduced me to the joys of sparking in the dark. Probably not what you think, and it certainly wasn’t what I was worried about. When it is dark outside, if you crush mint (I think) Lifesavers in your mouth you can see little flashes of light. It worked at Bright Angel Point and the Mormons did it, too. What astounds me right this minute is that when I just Googled what kinds of mints one uses for sparking, I came up with, “About 868,000 results (0.31 seconds).
Other pursuits Like the young creatures we were, my friends and I often gamboled around, in this case, on and off the rim. Just writing this discomfits the parent (for almost four decades) and old person (I’m trying to get used to it) in me. The walk from the lodge to Bright Angel Point is only ½ mile round-trip. We used to make fun of (to ourselves, not publicly) the moms and dads who held onto their children with grips of steel. That was wrong and I have realized it ever since I held onto my own children with grips of steel at the Yellowstone hot springs. Also, I now feel nervous on narrow trails on mountains or in canyons. Furthermore, for some reason— sun glinting on bifocals, bigger butt, etc.— trails in general seem narrower than they used to. Even worse, the last time I was on the walk to Bright Angel Point, I huffed and puffed the whole damn ½ mile. I could pretend that it was just because I wasn’t used to the altitude, but mostly it was because I was out of shape and getting older. I am happy to report that I am now in much better physical shape, but I do keep getting older. Enough unsettling reverie, I’m going back to talking about the rim of my youth.
On their days off, many of the young workers went hiking. One of the guys, who worked with me in the kitchen pantry, was an especially avid hiker. Throughout the summer, several people might take the 23 (give or take) mile hike cross the canyon on their day and ½ off and then catch a ride back from the South Rim to the North Rim. In the same amount of time, this particular friend could hike across the canyon and back. What would he pack for nourishing food? He would take loaves of Wonder-style sandwich bread and squish them into handy, easily portable little balls. While I never tried that one myself, this friend also turned me on to grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I wish I had one right now, but I am controlling myself because I want to be in shape for the next time I hike the canyon.
Vocabulary malfunction I will name our friend Sally right here online. She’s on record somewhere anyway as Tom and my maid of honor. Sally is also a painter. You can see some of her work from her Web site: http://www.sallyhallpainting.com. Anyhow, when she was a child, Sally spent many of her summers at the North Rim. Sally’s dad, a zoologist, studied the Kaibab squirrels that live only on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Sally’s dad was a genial person and I interacted with him many times through the years. I remember one particular conversation I had with him. I think it was by Bright Angel Point, when we were talking about the canyon. I am still embarrassed about this discussion. I kept saying the Grand Canyon was far-out. At that point in my life, I am sorry to say, I didn’t seem to have any other words to describe the place As I said, he was a genial man, but Sally’s dad looked mildly disgusted at my words. I had a college degree and was an English major type to boot. There may not be words available to adequately describe the canyon, but I wished I had at least been able to come up with some more specific and less clichéd vocabulary. I am sitting here now, though, and trying to think of apt modifiers and I still can’t do it. What? Fabulous, stunning, deep, wide, multi-colored, changeable, unchanging—I still can’t do it. I just asked Tom to give me three words to describe the canyon. He said, awesome, magnificent, and stupendous. See what I mean? If you haven’t been there yet, I hope you get to go to the canyon some time and spend some time behind the postcard.
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down You can take U.S. Route 89A from Marble Canyon or from Fredonia, Arizona up to the Kaibab Plateau. At Jacob Lake, you take Arizona State Route 67 through the Kaibab National Forest to the North Rim. Beetles, fires, and encroaching civilization have had their effect on the forest. Even so, I can still just barely imagine Rivendell back in there somewhere, but now the Orcs have been making inroads into the forest.
A few weeks into that first summer, our chef organized a party out of the national park and into the national forest. That may have been because it was easier to drink out there—as I recall, our chef was partial to the now-defunct Olympia beer. It was night in the forest and I sang (in my mind or aloud) lines from Joni Mitchell’s “Songs to Aging Children”:
Does the moon play only silver
I didn’t know what the lines meant then, but they struck a chord. If we were aging children then, I am sure I don’t know what we are now, but I still like the lines.
Point of information: I wrote my Masters’ thesis on An Analysis of the Imagery, Structure, and Theme in the Song-poetry of Joni Mitchell, so Joni and related characters tend to pop up in these pages. I guess it is my version of David Copperfield’s Mr. Dick. You probably shouldn’t bother to look for the thesis. I think there is a copy in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. My original copy is in a box somewhere in our temperature controlled storage unit at 1525 Putt-Putt Place in Charlottesville, Virginia. Back in the day, I dreamed of sending a copy of the thesis to Joni. At the dollar a page good copies cost back then, it would have been hundred-plus dollars that we didn’t have. Now, I have a hundred dollars, but the time has passed.
One day I wondered alone in the forest and I found a bee-loud glade. One day, or maybe it was the same day, I considered jumping from the rim to a rock outcropping that would have let me actually stand within the Roaring Springs side canyon. My natural cautiousness stopped me. I found out years later that Tom had come across that same place and contemplated the same action. I guess if we had jumped— like some nature-crazed lemmings— into Roaring Springs Canyon, we wouldn’t have had think about memories and meanings and mortality now. On balance, it has been worth it keeping on, but I would have liked to have stood on that rock.
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream Here I am, back at the dream (bars) where I began this reverie a few posts ago. I love thinking of my mother and father and my brothers in the pleasant peninsula of my childhood. I love thinking of the canyon and those days and nights with my friends, the rocks, and the forest. Time has passed, slowly or not, but Wordsworth was right:
… Though absent long,
Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” 1798