Life, Death, and Dad at the Grand Canyon

Thus, Dad and I hike in winter. Ice crusts the trailhead as we tiptoe up to the void. Beyond Hal’s fountaining bile lies the splendor: a snow-capped skyline in rock. Towers, high rises, neighborhoods, stilted homes, entire cities stand delicately and endlessly in the earth. We stand at the edge, from which our vocabularies plummet.

“Wow,” I say.

“Yeah,” Dad counters.

Like father, like son, we descend.

In the desert, death seems ubiquitous. It’s not, as any ecologist will tell you, but we certainly treat the biome as barren. It’s where we test our bombs and dump our trash. It’s where we erect wild, freewheeling squatters’ cities free from the government’s grip. When asked what draws him to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole’s title character quips simply: “It’s clean.” The desert is the frontier, both geographic and existential: in its apparent emptiness, the landscape affords us the opportunity to commune with death in a manageable dose.

I take a note from the wilted air, leaning into the morbidity. How is Dad feeling about his 60th?

“Well,” he sighs in his signature way, rounding a switchback, “it’s hard not to be a little sad. I’m definitely in the back half now.”

The back half is all the tougher to stomach so soon after burying his own father. Dad reminds me of some serendipity here: Grand Daddy Fred, as we called him, worked as a lawyer on the set of Brighty of the Grand Canyon, a 1966 picture mythologizing the Canyon’s beloved real-life mule who was named after Bright Angel Trail (the same one we’re currently, painstakingly picking our way down). GDF brought his family on the job, which was Dad’s first time on a film set—shot, in Hollywood magic, near a Utah ski resort. Though he doesn’t remember much aside from a ski instructor hitting on my grandmother, decades later Dad would find himself in Los Angeles, pursuing a career in film. It’s not for us to know what hidden blessings and curses our parents gift us until it’s far too late.

While Brighty-of-the-big-screen was more concerned with battling mountain lions and bringing scoundrelous claim-jumpers to justice, the Canyon’s real mules are responsible for its impossible infrastructure. A sheer mile into the earth, for example, there are bridges. There are cabins. There are operational toilets and faucets and water fountains, which require miles upon miles of piping. There are countless (mostly vomit-free!) placards and pamphlets explaining the Canyon’s geology, but for anything manufactured below the rim there’s a living, kicking reason.

Midway down Bright Angel that first day, Dad and I run into a train of the beasts. There’s about a dozen of them, festooned together and led by a pair of bona fide cowboys. We can’t help but laugh at each other: clad all in leather and wide-brimmed hats, they’re cartoons to us; they seem amused that we’re shouldering our own cargo. “How long you plannin’ on bein’ down there?” one asks, smirking behind whiskers that make Yosemite Sam look like a Bosley candidate. They tell us they make this trek twice daily: hauling down “steak and beer, mainly” in the predawn, hauling up trash in the afternoon. On that first evening, as Dad and I stumble, blistered, into Phantom Ranch—the fully functional village at the Canyon’s basin—we know whom to thank.

To stay at Phantom Ranch requires entry into a lottery pool 14 months before the fact. For those more prone to spontaneity—the flight-missers of the world, say—there’s a nearby campground beside a gurgling brook and an ominous sign hammered into the earth that reads “Rockfall, No Stopping.” And the Ranch will still treat you to dinner and a show. After meals, in a near-mythic act of bravery, the waitstaff is to make nightly toasts to the weary, calorie-starved strangers outnumbering them ten to one and armed with steak knives. But they seem to enjoy it. Our dinner waiter waxes philosophical, comparing wealth to seawater with a bespectacled grin: “The more you have, the thirstier you get.”

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