The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Thirty-Three


I'm not sure why you've come with us all the way on our verbal journeys across the country and through the desert. No new lands were discovered, no old records broken, nor were physical or psychological breakthroughs made. A few people got up the nerve to hike around the Southwest, learned enough to stay alive, and ended up loving it. Aside from Stevie, none of us had done endurance hiking. David's only trips to the Southwest had been through them by car, and mine over them by plane; Stevie had never been west of Florida. Susan had actually lived in West Texas, and she alone personally knew some cacti. None of us had a mission; our environmental politics were in order, but only occasionally had we acted beyond donations or recycling as far as pulling up the odd survey stake.

And thus it comes back to gratifications, personal reactions.

Traveling toward the Grand Canyon on the surface of the land is revelatory; it cracks open as you slide upon our delicate, transitory ribbons of pretend stone that lead you away from the smaller world. Tumbling over the Rockies, you feel the world harden before you as the green eastern plains--themselves already vaster than the knotty Atlantic woodlands--are strangely mirrored by brown western plains, the brushlands and high deserts of Colorado and Utah and Arizona. It stretches out slowly, though, and the hours of travel become a needed psychological cushion; for to enter the Canyon's realm unprepared is to squander its space in a shrunken frame of time and vision.

To the north, the Colorado is an implication. The road parallels it for a while as it ducks into canyons of layered sandstone, inviting the traveler to pause beside wide, shallow places in the bed. A day in the dry heat already suggests that this water will be--is--precious and rare.

Neon, plastic and steel have long given way to natural signs and structures, but the bluegreen-tinted rainbow hues now evolve inward to a depth of more similar colors--at first--then bursting with their own chromatic magic: browns, golds, purples splashed (a word that implies sufficient water, which there is not) with fragrant greens, reds, whites. The eyes adjust to and understand the color, but not yet (ever?) the size.

The paltry few ounces of human brain wish all this to be a visual array in miniature, like a pile of pebbles, a scratch in the mud, or cracks splitting the sidewalk. But as an hour passes, the pebbles become boulders and then the exfoliated, desiccated jetsam of mountains; the scratches turn to gullies and then the carved gashes of roiling spring washes; and the cracks become passes and then chasms and then canyons.

As you enter Grand Canyon National Park, you have had enough glimpses of chasms and canyons to be satisfied and ready. The colors and growing sizes have been assimilated, you believe, but the increasing streams of vehicles and roadside stands have created of you a subtle recidivist, so that when you slip out of the conifers toward the edge of it, all reason passes away, for it cannot exist.

Here is the edge of the earth, the beginning of infinity, cloaked in an illusion of mere geography. You have stopped now, looking at the forever below the edge, and somehow wish to fly into it, performing a weightless dance toward eternity.

From the top, you can look upon but not imagine the bottom; from the bottom, you remember now, you will see but not imagine the inverse. Like the trackless Arctic snows or the horizon-filling roll of the Pacific, the Grand Canyon is too large for humanity--yet its devilishly wondrous psychic illusion is that it is bounded. Thus you can open your eyes and see, but you still cannot take it in.

You notice that you can smell your car, smell the people around you, all jostling impermanently before god and goddess. You feel claustrophobic, ready for the pack's heft, eager for that first stumble.

For here you are again, grinning stupidly, happy to be back.


The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.