Signs

A hike down Grand Canyon seemed dangerous, but the journey there could prove worse.

Sometimes, adventures we seek come presaged with a great sense of fear. Fear of the road’s perils, the cruel randomness of casualties, the upheaval of lives in a heartbeat. This fear we may allay with the attribution of semi-divine meaning to seemingly serendipitous events: detection of ominous patterns, revealing signs, promises of immunity from risk. As a child I loved flying, but as an adult I achieve the closest sentiment to what could be called religiosity before boarding a plane — I pray, crippled by anxiety, that it will not crash, and imagine my life at the other end of the flight, an imaginary future that surely some higher arranger of fate could not deny me if I played it with enough conviction in my head.

Adrenaline rushes have little appeal to me: I know I will never sky-dive, bungee jump, or paraglide. As a rule I prefer risk-aversion. That is why the Grand Canyon came as such a paradox to me: from the first glimpse of its depths it struck me as impenetrable, a geological masterpiece of primordial inhospitability. And the urge, the same that overwhelmed many pioneer explorers and long-term lovers of Grand Canyon, was to enter the impenetrable.

I learned about, or quickly became fixated on, the deaths. Heat strokes, slippery rocks, loose boulders, fatal dehydration, salt and electrolyte imbalances, flash floods, perhaps even mountain lions. Whom, by the way, are largely harmless. But the draw of Grand Canyon, as with so many of our national parks, is one’s own miserly vulnerability in the face of cruel, beautiful, untamed wilderness. We are no longer masters of the planet, cruising along urban lives with the notion of rational control over the odds we face. We are heartbreakingly human.


We stopped in Kingman, Arizona in order to buy Jadon a pair of long pants, the subject of a dispute that erupted soon after we passed the Hoover Dam on our way from Las Vegas. I was reciting a mental checklist of items we had brought on our overnight backpacking trip in Grand Canyon, and when long pants were mentioned Jadon drew a blank. “People die of heat but also of hypothermia overnight,” I cried. I accused him of not having listened to me or taken my instructions seriously. After a few painful minutes of highway silence (I turned off the radio to ensure it was heard), we made up and decided to purchase the pants at our first convenience, which happened to be Kingman. There was not much to see in its “historic downtown”: along Beagle St. were scattered a museum dedicated to the railroad history of the American Southwest, a pawn shop, some antique shops, a storefront advertising bail bonds, and a thrift store, which was closed.

Some miles outside of the historic center, past a range of short mountains, Kingman sprawled into a larger but desolate suburb, with large commercial centers and strip malls that seemed equally deserted. In one immense plaza there was a JC Penney, a 99 cent store, a tractor dealership, and a discount clothing megastore called “Fellas”. There we found a $2.99 pair of grey sweatpants that looked dubiously lived in and unwashed. Behind the cash register stood a mousy woman with rotting teeth, a few of which were missing. We could not shake a creeping discomfort even after we exited the store. “She looked like a meth addict,” said Jadon, a great fan of Breaking Bad. We concluded that the whole city had an eerie aura, a southwestern variant of backwater desolation: surrounded by the desert, with not obvious viable economic life of its own, but too far from any nearby metropolis to be a commuter town. Its whole improbable existence seemed to us a desert mirage. It was almost surprising to see a team of teenage baseball players in red jerseys crowded in a field we drove by; it was too much of a scene drawn from normal life.

An hour outside of Kingman, on the narrow double-laned I-40 highway, the car was suddenly rocked by an onset of violent convulsions, as if the asphalt road had suddenly become an uneven metal grid. “What is happening?” I screamed to Jadon, and as we both turned our heads to watch scraps of rubber explode from the left front tire, he screamed the answer in return: “FUCK! The front tire blew!” With great difficulty he veered to the right-hand lane and we hobbled to a stop. A limp rubber circle still lied in the middle of the highway, where huge trucks whistled by after swerving at the last minute to avoid the tire, or what was left of it, swooshing us with a gust of truck wind strong enough to push us back against the mounds of rock debris that lined the highway. The sound of those speeding trucks, their proximity, the knockout winds; those were the stuff of nightmares. Twenty-five minutes out of our destination for the night, Williams, AZ, where we had booked a cheap motel, we were now stranded on a deathly roadside. The sun was setting. There was a spare tire in the trunk, but neither of us knew how to change it, and we were too scared of the proximity of speeding traffic to attempt it.

Our phones were ringing every few minutes, with Jadon’s parents checking on insurance details, our mile marker, and the solidity of our intentions to continue the trip. “It’s not a sign, it’s an obstacle,” I heard Jadon telling his mother. I asked him afterwards what she had said. “That she has been praying for a sign from God about whether or not we should do this hike,” he answered, “and that He could have given no sign more literal than this one to stop us on our tracks.”

Sometime along twilight a pick-up truck pulled up behind us. A mustachioed giant with seventies-style aviator eyeglasses, long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail and a neon yellow vest stepped down. He grumbled a brief exchange with Jadon, revealing himself as the insurance repairman, and got to work on the tire. It was too late to drive to any auto repair or tire shop, everything we could find through frenzied Googling our phones was closed. It seemed like after fretting about heat, flash floods, and thunderstorms for days, it was the blown tire that would cost us our trip to the bottom of Grand Canyon. I had faxed in the backcountry permit application four months in advance and made tireless preparations. Given that we could not walk anytime between 10 am and 5 pm to avoid August’s deadly heat in the canyon, going to an auto repair shop the next morning was a death sentence for our trip: at most we would hike down to the Colorado river in pitch darkness only to set up camp in the dark, rest a few hours, and walk right back up in the darkness, essentially missing every sight we’d come to see.

The mustachioed giant, while lying belly-up under our car, had overheard our deliberations. He scribbled a number on a scrap of paper, along with two indiscernible initials that spelled either “J. J.” or “J. R.”

“This guy can open up shop later for you. It’ll be $45 for his trip, plus whatever the tire costs.”

We were desperate. We called the guy. We were told to drive to the McDonald’s off exit 163, where we were to look for a Mobil sign. He’d meet us there. “Go with your gut about this,” Jadon said. “When we are there, if you feel uneasy or if it seems like something is off, just signal that to me.”

“It’s a MacDonald’s,” I said, “a strip mall. It’ll probably be okay. At least it’s not his house in the middle of nowhere.”

A few cars were parked in front of the gas station convenience store. A severely overweight man dragged his feet towards an outdoors restroom, disappearing in a side alley. A few minutes later a severely overweight woman followed. Another pick-up truck pulled up to our right, and a middle-aged Hispanic man jumped out, followed by a young boy in a Michael Jordan jersey. The boy seemed to be no more than five or six, and we learned that his name was Aidan. J.J. or J.R. did not have an ounce of menace about him. He opened up the Firestone by the Mobil station and motioned for us to park the car inside, and got to work looking for an adequate tire. Aidan was riding a scooter around the natural parkour formed by dispersed stacks of rubber. “Sometimes they pop,” he told us, “and sometimes they are fine.” A few cats dashed in and out of the autoshop, and Aidan followed two kittens to the parking lot outside. “I fed them when they were smaller,” he announced. “This one’s Pizzas and this one’s Snowball.”

The tire was fixed. J.J./J.R. wished us good luck with the Grand Canyon, saying he’d personally never attempt to get to the bottom of it. It was now almost 10 pm and most restaurants in town were closing. Williams, AZ thrived as a giant overflow room for the Grand Canyon tourist traffic, consisting almost entirely of one and two-storey motels for those looking for less pricey accommodations than the lodges right on the rim. It was also bisected by a segment of the famous Route 66, the American road trip emblem that connects Chicago to Los Angeles, and the main downtown stretch offered a pastiche of neon-lighted diners, saloons, and dubious buffets. Jadon and I settled for cheeseburgers and nuggets at the McDonald’s drive-thru. We picked up microwave mac and cheese and cheap brandy from the nearby Safeway, a lifeless place save for a family of German tourists also stocking up on last-minute provisions.

The America’s Best Value Inn we drove to thereafter, right across from a couple of closed diners, did not have our names or reservation on file. A receptionist who had been sitting in a lounge chair outside his office explained that there was a mirror establishment at the other end of town, a confusing set-up, to be sure, as he often had to repeat to lost guests. Nearing midnight, we drove to our isolated motel, surrounded by the night and far from the fading bustle of Williams’ main street. A short, elderly Asian man gave us the keys to our room, which was located on the far side of the motel, facing a row of dark bushes. We ate, finally, but without appetite. Neither of us spoke of any anxiety. We would wake up again in a few hours, in order to drive to Grand Canyon at 3:30 am and to reach the rim by sunrise. Jadon fell asleep to “American Dad” on TV, during an episode where the family’s alien member had gained the power to foresee the future. In the plot, the rest of family soon becomes paralyzed shut-ins as they dare not take any action without begging the alien to tell them what the consequences would be. This ironic parallel about signs, of course, seemed like a sign in itself. I turned off the lights and tried to sleep as Jadon snored lightly next to me. I lied very still, the way one does in an unfamiliar and possibly contaminated bedding. The sheets were scratchy, the air stale yet icy from a small but whirring air conditioning unit. I succumbed to a dreamless sleep.


We were not rested when the alarm rang. There were last-minute adjustments to make to the packs; the bottled mocha I bought the night before was sickeningly saccharine but low in actual caffeine. I took the chicken nuggets and half a cheeseburger from the fridge and stuffed them in my backpack. As soon as we pulled out of the motel and onto the empty ramp leading to the highway, Jadon swerved and swore loudly. “What happened?” I yelped, now conditioned to apprehend tire trouble.

“There were two kids just playing there, in the middle of the street, and I almost hit them.”

The hair stood on my back. There were no kids in the middle of the street; it was impossible, in the dead of night… “Kids?” I pressed him, “kids? Kids here?” If there had been they must have been ghosts, apparitions, disappearing in a flash, and in my mind I saw two small silhouettes crouched on the asphalt, playing.

“No,” Jadon said, “not kids, kittens.”

On the highway slightly more traffic appeared: a few cars. One passed us, a white car, with odd rectangular hindlights that struck me as particularly distinctive. Minutes later another car also overtook us, a white car, with the same lights. “How?” I asked Jadon. “You think they are family members who all bought the same car?”

“This is creepy,” he said. “Like a David Lynch scene.”

The two protagonists are plunged deep in dialogue. The viewer can notice, if much attention is paid to details, cars passing by, all the same cars, at an improbable location and improbable time, too much of a coincidence not to be alarming to the clueless heroes.

We laughed, and soon the strangeness of the cars drifted out of our minds as we began, rather pleasantly, to talk about teenage memories and the absurd paradoxes of adolescence. A third car sped by about a quarter of an hour later, a white car with the same rectangular lights, the very same car as the previous two. We stopped joking, but found nothing to fill the silence. The eastern corner of the sky was beginning to turn the darkest shade of dark blue, hence lighter than the rest of the darkness, discernable through the hardest exercise of wishful thinking. I hate night time in the wilderness, I thought to myself. Nothing is more filled with mystery and secrets.

In a flashing second I caught sight, in the headlights, of an enormous male deer with majestic antlers, as wide as five or six feet, halted by the roadside. “Did you see that?” I grabbed Jadon’s arm, motioning backwards, “did you see the deer?” But he hadn’t. “It was so big,” I said, stretching out my arms, “with antlers this big, and so beautiful.”

A pine forest announced the imminence of Grand Canyon, followed by dimmed-out tourist complexes on both sides of the road. After we finally reached a toll and parked the car behind the El Tovar hotel, located right on the rim, we stepped out of the car and strapped on our backpacks. The dawn was cold and blue. At 5:19 am we started down the Bright Angel Trailhead, and had not taken two steps before two does stepped on the path, without rupturing the profound silence surrounding us.

Some months before, I attended my five-year high school reunion, where the class gathered at a memorial service for a young man who had died two springs ago. A classmate who had attended the same university as him read a memorial essay that concluded with her sighting of a small bird on the boy’s grave, a bird so lovely and dainty that it was assigned great significance in the essay after flying skyward from the tombstone. At the time I found this interpretation too contrived, perhaps even cliché or imagined, in the way humans have a tendency to force signs of life and death onto random occurrences of nature. But now Jadon was looking at the does and saying, tugging at my sleeve: “if there is a sign, then this is one.”

They were graceful, soothing creatures. But it was not comfort that they engendered in me, rather than a readiness to go ahead with less fear and accept the strange compounding of the dark, the beautiful, and the incomprehensible that can sometimes occur when we head towards the unknown. I loved these animals. The first doe trotted down the trail ahead of us while the second one turned and stared straight at us with her soulful eyes, permitting our approach, before gently turning away and scampering off the steep cliffs, disappearing into the depths of the canyon.

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