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Grand Canyon Time

Lleveme. Lleveme, hermano, por favor. Take me with you. For the love of God, I’m begging you, hermano, por favorcito.”

He wore baggy jeans, a pink blanket, and red, inflamed eyes. His voice wobbled as he pleaded with the Greyhound conductor, who stood in the Flagstaff, Arizona, terminal with arms crossed, and responded in Spanish, “We had trouble with you last night, didn’t we? Why don’t you behave well, huh? Where’d you go to sleep it off today?” The blanket-wrapped supplicant sagged. “Lleveme, por favor.

One week ago: Slicing a nervous paddle through a glassy blue-green tongue; kayak piercing small wavelets, dodging eddies; tiny plastic shell bobbing beneath awesome red walls; navigating bigger wavelets, then being submerged in an impish whirlpool that dispersed as soon as it flipped me.

Phil had the window seat and a curly, white-blonde mullet. He offered me his hand as he introduced himself, then tucked it back into his gray, wool poncho. “I’m supposed to be starting work in the oil fields in North Dakota this week. But I broke my collarbone. Now I’m going to Mexico. To heal.” The lights of Flagstaff lumbered past as the bus rolled up to speed. Behind Phil and me, smothered giggles exploded into raucous, profanity-splashed laughter. The hilarity continued to build, and then we noticed the bus slowing. A wide, turquoise and silver belt buckle pushed up the aisle and stopped next to me. Dark hands heavy with coral and onyx rings hooked their thumbs into the belt loops next to the buckle. “Okay. Who do we have saying the F-word back here now?” The gigglers were silent. “Come on now. You’re such a big man to say it in front of the ladies and children and elderly we have here, be man enough to admit to it.” Plaintive, from the back: “Hey, man, all I can do is promise you that I didn’t say it. How’s that?” The belt buckle was unmoved. “Now this is a public space, here. You aren’t just ‘chilling’ with your ‘ho-mees’. And I’ll expect you all to behave with respect for the other people on this. We won’t have no swearing, no drinking, no smoking. These are my rules. Now this bus is going straight through to Phoenix. Anyone don’t want to ride with those rules, well, we can call the Arizona highway patrol and have them make other arrangements for you.” Long pause for emphasis.

Two weeks ago: Shimmying through a candy-striped slot canyon of black, 1.7 billion-year-old schist and pink granite; searching for toe- and hand-holds and finding a gray, suede-skinned canyon tree frog; washing my face in the spray from the waterfall at the end of the side canyon.

Children screamed with exhaustion as their mothers berated them through the Phoenix bus terminal. 1:30 AM. Shouldering my two backpacks, I pushed through the doors into the warm desert night and started walking. Mile and a half to the airport and my shuttle stop. No, I don’t need a taxi, thank you. Traffic lights blazed across the empty intersections of the witching hour, and I crossed onto the xeriscaped airport grounds, following signs for Terminal 2. There were no sidewalks. A car slowed as it approached me. Airport police. “Where you goin’?” Terminal two, of course! I smiled to show that I really was in full command of my faculties. “How about I give you a ride so you don’t get hit by a car?” Why, thank you, officer! In the airport: four hours until my shuttle left. I curled up on the floor next to the Arizona Shuttles desk and dozed to the sound of vacuum cleaners and automated public safety announcements.

Three weeks ago: Burying toes in warm sand; watching the full moon make its brief, bold appearance above dark canyon walls; breathing in the night and solitude; trembling with the richness of having twenty days stretching out downstream.

Three weeks is a long time. Three weeks at the bottom of Grand Canyon is an eternity. 23 days of the descending song of the canyon wren as an alarm clock and a barefoot morning commute along the damp sand between my sleeping bag and the camp kitchen is enough time to make the rest of the world irrelevant. Variegated, mile-high walls construct a framework for a simplified reality; river adds movement and variety; sun and moon and stars delineate the passage of time.

It gets harder and harder to come back to the real world. Every time, I feel a little more out of step. A few degrees more removed from the hustle and roar of civilization. I used to feel anxiety, observing the habits and norms of mainstream society, and feel a need to re-adapt. But after five months on the road in Chile, and three weeks at the bottom of Grand Canyon, I found myself several notches less concerned with blending or re-adapting. I stood on the curb outside the airport the next morning, waiting for my shuttle to Tucson, rubbing restless sleep out of my eyes. Cars and people eddied and swirled around me, a girl-sized pause in the flow of humanity. Owning my out-of-place-ness. Holding onto the rhythms of the real real world, as I see it. Abiding until I can slip back into wilderness life and move on river time: on Grand Canyon time.

2 comments to Grand Canyon Time

  • Anna

    Susan, this is beautiful and compelling, and makes me want to find my own girl-shaped bubble to be in. Welcome back. I can’t wait to read more.

  • Alan

    Miss Susan

    …wow…

    This is one of your best bits of writing. Keep it up, you’re awesome!

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