I went on a road trip, from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, with a friend. We boarded the plane in New York, wearing thick down coats and gloves, and arrived to an airy, badly carpeted airport that looked like a 1990s casino. As we stood, waiting for our bags, we shed layers and layers- the airconditioning was fighting with a sweaty, dog-like warmth.
We drove through the back streets of industrial Phoenix to pick up some camping gear. On the way, my friend became excited upon seeing the sign for a ‘Jack in the Box’ restaurant. This is a fast food chain you don’t apparently get on the East Coast, and she had heard magical tales of the food they served, which proved to be all true. They served something called a ‘Buttery Jack.’ It is a burger, literally dripping in herbed butter. She ate one and gave a positive verdict. I ordered an Oreo shake. It was so thick that sucking on the straw felt like some sort of tantric sex exercise; I could feel my pelvic floor muscles contracting, and yet the level in the cup never seemed to go down. In the end, I gave up and let it melt into a solid pile of white goo, but it didn’t increase in liquidity- it just seemed to get grubbier and sadder the more it came into contact with the air. I enjoyed it very much, but I didn’t eat again for hours, like a snake full of carrion. (I would happily return and buy another one, to be clear).
The Jack in the Box advertising mascot- their answer to Ronald- is a nightmarish hulk of a man with a white mask on, who stares down from photographs on the walls with a rictus grin on his plastic face. In the picture directly above our table, he stood silently at the end of a forest path, trying to remember where he had hidden the quicklime for dissolving his latest murder victims’ remains. It was unsettling, especially because it took us nearly twenty minutes to notice the pictures; he’d been stalking us, biding his time.
We listened to twanging country music all the way to Sedona. Sedona is a sprawling modern town amidst extraordinary red rocks that look like they were left as road markers by aliens from space, the same guys who left us with Uluru. There are a lot of swanky, concrete hotels with outdoor heated jacuzzis and ice machines, and chunky, shuffling tourists looking to get their vortexes sharpened or their chakras polished or whatever it is you do with those parts of yourself. While waiting to check into our hotel, we searched online for an ‘aura photo’ to see what they looked like. It looked pretty damn muddy. I could see why the guy needed his cleansed. Unfortunately, we hadn’t made an appointment, so instead we went up to a popular overlook to watch the sunset, along with every other person in the state who knows how to use Google.
As I stood looking out, watching the rays of sunlight spraying dazzling shards across the red rock and sweeping across the rust-and-green valley as far as the eye could see, I heard a middle-aged Texan lady say to her husband, in a slow, considered statement (as if delivering the final line of a keynote speech at a conference): “I mean… really… it’s no better than the view from our backyard.’
I stepped back and trod on someone’s golden labrador while trying to get back to the car; it really is crowded at beauty spots that you can park a car nearby in America. (And if you’re wondering how I know they were Texan, I don’t at all: it’s simply a considered guess, and you can go shove it.)
(Intermission: Country music for Sedona: Rodney Atkins, “Eat, Sleep, Love You, Repeat.”)
The Grand Canyon is, at first, a curated wilderness that makes your heart sink a little; with tarmaced roads and a lovely little convenience store on-site selling camp gear and jewels and fresh vegetables and beer, and a glossy visitors centre with enough parking for a Walmart Megastore, and ice sold by the bag, and its own radio station. But all this can’t touch in any way the huge, sprawling crack in the planet, which looks like something the devil himself carved open out of molten rock. He took his mile-long jagged claw, and ripped a huge, burning hole in the skin of the earth, and left the biggest, most beautiful scar you ever saw. Then he left, and it cooled and rested and grew green shoots, and now it has tiny human ants crawling around the edges, trying to cross it.
We walked along the rim and saw deer, and we camped in the cold woods at night, jumping every so often when confronted by burly, lumbering elk. We wrestled with an utterly ridiculous camp stove called a ‘Pocket Rocket’ which struck genuine terror into my friend, who thought its small, evil gas flame would blow up in her face, and shrieked every time I lit it. It was very cold at night, and we wore two pairs of socks and shivered in our lemon yellow tent. We woke up at five to watch the sunrise, which was underwhelming due to cloud, and we walked down into the Canyon on the Bright Angel trail, the heat rising rapidly as we descended. On the way down, we saw a man hiking with a baby in a specially made ‘hiking dad’ carrier. Every person he met on the 6 mile hike, and there were approximately 7 trillion people on the trail that day (it was out of season) said to him, “I wouldn’t mind a ride in that!” To each and every one of them, he laughed politely, and smiled. He was a human saint. (I know this because I was walking behind him.)
There was a squirrel sitting on the edge of the Bright Angel Trail, looking as though he was thinking as many pretentious thoughts as I was, and perhaps composing ludicrous devil imagery for his blog about the Grand Canyon. This made me very happy.
We watched the sunset from the easterly side of the South Rim on our final night, drinking tea which quickly got cold; we tucked our legs up under our chins, sitting on the rocks, and watched a Japanese lady strike model poses for her husband, making him take photo after photo while other tourists watched silently and he hunched his shoulders and stared straight ahead at her, clicking the shutter like a grumpy child.
Being on the edge of the Canyon is like looking at a giant painting done by one of those dudes who used to do those early American landscapes (I imagine them squinting into the sun, chewing on the end of a tiny British paintbrush; leaning in to expand the mountaintop a couple of inches, to put the fear of God into the folks back home re: new, manly terrain). Your brain can’t comprehend that the depth you perceive in the Canyon is real. You are looking about a mile down, towards a trickle of water that is actually three hundred feet of pounding, roaring Colorado River, the water which carved through the sedimentary layers of desert stone and made the Canyon itself.
The river, from up here, seems hardly worth looking at; in comparison to the vast hole that envelops it. When you look into the Canyon you are looking nearly two billion years into the past. The ancient, purple-red rock that was born when tectonic plates were shifting into their current state, has been uncovered here. The sedimentary rock at the top of the Canyon, still millions of years old, is like a new growth of fingernail in comparison to this. It’s like the bones of the earth are lying exposed.
If you walk away from the crowds of whinging, shoving people on the South Rim (who have come to get out of their cars and take four pictures at the first lookout point, and then head off for a Buttery Jack burger) and hike along the Rim for a few miles, it is very silent. You can hear yourself breathe, and the wind whistle in your hair; and the ravens which inhabit the trees rustle and caw to each other. It’s hard not to make nervous small talk. People like us don’t know how to occupy that kind of silence.
As I looked at the earthy, bright colours ripple in the sun along the canyon walls, and the shadows lengthen and delve into the valleys, I thought of how often I dream of flying. I jump from tall buildings and soar, joyfully, far above the towns and woods and roads. I can see tiny people, motionless dots on the landscape. I land on the tops of skyscrapers. In the dreams, I am always alone but I don’t feel lonely- I know people, friends and family, are waiting for me, back on the ground. I always love my dreams of flying; they never scare me, ever. I heard a radio programme once which theorised that dreaming of flying may mean my personality was extrovert, and my self very sure; and that at heart, I was a happy person inside.
Now I looked out at the expanse of silent rock wilderness and I found it very hard not to leap off the edge and dive into the painting, to fly. How long would I hang there before I started to fall? A fraction of a second? Would I die of fear, in a gripping, wrenching heart attack on the way down, or would I be calm – as I started to spiral, pick up speed? Would I scream or would I be silent? I could actually feel my feet involuntarily twitching towards the edge and I had to clench them, to stop them walking. We had overheard a tour guide saying that afternoon, “Stay away from the edge. We lose four people every year. The edge is the edge.”
For some reason, while standing and staring into the sunset, a foster child my mother had looked after turned up in my thoughts and wouldn’t leave. I think his name might have been Ben. He had been raised by his elderly grandmother, who wasn’t able to look after him too well, and he couldn’t really interact socially with many kids of his age, because he fought and sulked like a much smaller child, and didn’t understand their jokes. He was poor at reading. His open face was trusting, ready to laugh most of the time, and he was tall and blond-haired, with his ankles beginning to to grow out of his trousers.
We took him to the zoo. We walked around, expecting Ben to be absorbed in the lions and snakes and gorillas, but he was restless and couldn’t absorb it- he didn’t stop to look for long enough to understand, rushed off halfway through my mother telling him what the information cards were explaining about the animals’ names, ages and eating habits. It was like he was looking for the biggest and best animal, a spectacular monster, and nothing else would do; he thought it was around every corner.
When we got to the end of the zoo, there were no more live animals, but an animatronic dinosaur, roaring and bending to display its teeth from a great height. It was surrounded by other children Ben’s age, standing, and laughing, and talking with the teenage attendant. Ben stood on the outskirts of the group; he didn’t know how to join in, and I saw his bewilderment, his disappointment that he had rushed around the zoo for this moment, and was now falling at the final hurdle. My mother and I tried not to watch him; we sat on the grass, and drank tea, and waited for him to come back.
I thought, standing on the edge, about the solid ground behind me, and the people on it, and how much more terrifying it can be than flying; how much more beautiful it is, and how much more real is the possibility of falling. That’s what’s the hardest thing to do; not leaping off the edge, but turning around, and zipping up your coat, and walking back to the car.