The Grand Canyon — Part 3
I thought about help. I wondered if I should ask for it, or if I could make it on my own. I wondered if there are two types of people in this world — those who are very individualistic and independent and those who believe in giving help and are ok with receiving it too.
I thought about the night before when I walked into the park without having a place to sleep and the help I needed to find a place. I had gotten to the park entrance, around 7:45pm and saw my first ranger at the pay station. “Ah! the answer to all my questions”, I had thought. I decided to talk business first and paid my entrance fee. But, there were too many cars behind me, my sob story was rather long. I was too Canadian to hold the cars behind me for that long. So, I just paid the ranger and drove in without saying another word. This ranger might as well have thought I was a very well planned backpacker, with everything sorted out, given that I was entering the park this late. Little did she know appearances can be so deceptive.
As soon as I drove in, I didn’t know where to go. Maybe I could go to the Visitor Center and find another ranger there to talk to? But, I saw signs for Campgrounds and decided that maybe there’d be a ranger there I could talk to. Worst case, maybe I’d park and crash in my car for the night, and hope that no one would find out.
I turn into the first Campground I see — Mather Campground. Its well lit parking lot and camper services office seemed to be like an oasis of hope in the darkness of chaos. I parked my car and peeked inside the office, there was no one there and on the big window was a sign “come back tomorrow”. It also had a list of all the campgrounds in the area and their vacancy. All campgrounds in the park had no vacancy. The closest place where a campsite was available was in Tusayan, a town 7 miles away. The worst thing about that option was the fact that you had to leave the park, and the line to leave at this hour was really long. It was 8:30pm at this point, and if I had to do the full length of the hike tomorrow, I’d have to wake up at 4 am at the latest. Time was running out.
Not knowing what to do, where to go, like a stubborn kid, I thought I’d wait right outside the camp services office, hoping if I waited long enough, maybe a ranger would show up. No ranger did, but soon enough a father-son duo, on their bicycles. Great, I thought! If I told them my sob story maybe they’d let me set up tent at their camp site. I said hello, and wasted no time in starting to tell them my story — I flew in from San Francisco today and have a permit to camp down at the bottom, near Colorado river at Bright Angel Campground, the plan was to hike down today and hike out tomorrow, my flight got delayed and I am just getting here now, I don’t know what to do, do you have any thoughts? To which the dad said, I am not a ranger, you should talk to a ranger, maybe if you went to the Visitor Center, you’d find a ranger there. That was nothing I didn’t already know, but I thanked him for his suggestion anyways. This is when another man showed up, looking for change for a $20. Turns out the change machine for the showers only gave quarters and this poor guy, understandably didn’t want to have $17 worth of quarters. Anyway, both the “I am not a ranger” gentleman and I looked for smaller bills in our pockets. He didn’t have any but I had 4 $5 bills! I offered them to the about-to-take-a-shower guy who gave me his $20 bill. But, I wasn’t going to let him leave for the shower without telling him my sob story. So, off I went again — I flew in from San Francisco, yada yada yada, I don’t know what to do. The “I am not a ranger” guy left with his son, as soon as I started. I guess he had already told me he was not a ranger, and he didn’t want to confirm it again. Anyway, this guy seemed to listen in, he empathized but he was here with about 20 teenage middle and high schoolers from Albuquerque on their annual summer camp. He told me that right beside his camp, were a bunch of bicyclists who were all young and they may be more malleable to me setting up tent in their campsite. He was going to take a shower, so he gave me directions to his campsite, and told me the name of the other adult at his campsite in case I needed her help. I learned that his name was Rick and the other adult at his campsite was Shelley. I thanked him, happiness and hope downing on me like the weight of all the quarters Rick saved himself from carrying.
Rick’s campsite wasn’t hard to find, I drove by there and parked. I also saw a bunch of road bikes and the bicyclists tents. I walked over there, but everyone was in their tents, ready for the night, I suppose they wanted an early start. My situation was bad, but I didn’t think it was bad enough that I had to start waking strangers up. On the other hand, at Rick’s own camp, all the kids were sitting and talking at the picnic table. It was dark, so I couldn’t see if Shelley or any other adults were there but there were people, who were awake. And, off I went to talk to them.
I walked up to the picnic table and asked for Shelley. It was dark but a woman from the other side of picnic table appeared and said she was Shelley. Shelley was a slender, older woman, full of a loving and caring grandma vibe. I told her that Rick had sent me, knowing very well that I was kinda lying when I said that because Rick had only sent me to the biker camp beside them. Hoping she won’t catch my lying body language in the dark I recited my sob story, a third time. I was pretty sure I didn’t have any chance at Rick and Shelley’s camp, well because I am a young man with a big pack and I didn’t really think they’d be comfortable with me setting up camp in the same campsite as a bunch of teenagers. However, quite to my amazement, Shelley was super nice and totally welcomed me to their campsite. I promised I wouldn’t bother anyone and that I’d be out before any one woke up the next morning.
I set up my tent at the back of their campsite, far away from the kids for them to feel comfortable but not too far out in the woods. Shelley came by with a bus schedule later to help me figure out how I was going to get to the trailhead in the morning from the campsite. She even said that I could come back tomorrow night after my hike, and that I was always welcome at their campsite. All of this with 5 minutes of conversation with me. I literally couldn’t thank her enough.
While I set up, all the kids were sent to their tents, it was their bed time. After I finished setting up, I saw Shelley sitting at the picnic table by herself. I decided to join her. Shelley and I started a casual conversation about where we were from. Within a few minutes, Rick was back from the shower and joined us at conversation on the picnic table. He must have been quite surprised to see me at their campsite instead of the biker campsite, so I filled him in, and he was glad that it all worked out for me.
Soon, at the picnic table, we were talking about our parents, how we grew up, how being outdoors and out and about was the norm when we did. Rick told us how, as a kid, he’d go out for hours and build artificial dams on little streams, and how his parents wouldn’t be worried not having seen him for hours. Shelley told us about the trip she and her sister took, hitchhiking across Europe, when she was 17. How this one time, it cost her 50 cents to stay at a hotel in Greece, how when someone giving them a ride would ask where they’d like to go, they’d just reply, they will go wherever the car was going. She told us how the French didn’t like how she didn’t speak much French, to which I replied not much has changed decades later. Rick confided in us about his life, where he grew up, his recent divorce, and then the move to Albuquerque to work his dream job — helping kids.
Somewhere in the conversation, right by the South Rim of arguably the most majestic canyon in this world, time seemed to have stopped. Bonding over birth, change, marriage, divorce, death, society and kids — bonding over life, it felt, at the moment, that was amidst all chaos and unknowns from earlier in the day, I was meant to be right then, right there.
It was almost 10pm at this point and I had to wake up early the next morning, so we decided to say our goodbyes and we all headed back to our tents.
I remember walking back to my tent, completely amazed by the unparalleled generosity of these two kind souls, to learn more about their lives, to connect so deeply and fondly with them. It was all meant to be. An hour ago, I didn’t know where I would sleep, but now I knew I had found something much more valuable than just a simple patch of land to sleep on. Something much more organic and important, something we all long for — connection.
*Read Part 4 of The Grand Canyon series here.
*Thanks to Sofia Puorro, Imran Rashid, Maria Eller and Madeline Weeks for reviewing drafts of this post.