March 18th, 2001


Day 2 of the road trip with Ken

Strange fluid half-remembered dreams kidnap me out of the world and drop me back disoriented and uneasy.

We check out and take off for the Grand Canyon, passing cars leisurely at 100mph. Yellowed scrubland rolls on either side, marked irregularly with pronged trees and crushed rock. Beyond the thin slipstream of our car, days of harsh wasteland sprawl in all directions. What if this driving machine broke down? With no water or food to carry, faced with tearing scrub and freezing nights, our visions of death lose their usual haze of a distant finish-line and take the immediate feel of tripwire.

The Future Sound of London bleeps and plucks from the stereo, keeping the desert luxuriously surreal. Ken and I stop for pizza in a corrugated tourist trap. We discuss accents and geography, and remark at how alien the environment seems to us city folk.

We show our old receipt at the Grand Canyon gate and claim we're "returning". In we go, for free. That manager was telling the truth. I take intersections offhandedly, towards what I sense to be the cliff. The road ends in a parking lot near a cluster of trendy wooden lodges.

As we park, I see some smug-looking black-clad kids emerge from a beat up car. The pasty white girl is decorated with tattoos and the two boys have that vague groundless look of superiority that tells me they are definitely not the local goths I enjoyed back home. Apparently being goth still has some kind of rebellious edge back east.

I silently wish they would continue driving until they saw San Francisco, so they might realize that there's a whole city full of people doing exactly the same thing. On the other hand, maybe that's their point.

But hey - they aren't bothering me. They walk on, donning even more leather and spikes in order to be fashionable for a hike on a hot day.

Ken and I walk to the bus stop, following a line of old people, and look over the railing, down into the canyon. It is quite impressive, despite the curiously flat appearance that all truly gigantic objects tend to acquire through human eyes.

Nearby a short, loud woman wheedles to her friend: "And then he said, 'this looks like something Disneyland made' and I replied, no! This is something God made!" This line will be the subject of some parody as Ken and I decide to walk the Bright Angel trail down into the canyon.

About half a mile down, we ford a region of slippery ice and burro crap, and pass a variety of tourists ascending from the valley. They all smile and greet us in that "Hey, aren't we all badasses?" fellow-hiker sort of way. It's quite pleasant.

We pass through a tunnel cut from a wedge of rock and the trail switches back with increasing frequency. A bank of fresh snow provides a curb before the craggy drop, on alternate sides. Once we pass from the shadow of the canyon wall, the snow and ice become wet patches.

Down the trail a ways, I spot a young woman in hiking gear walking up alone. Khaki shorts display thick, muscular legs. We make overt eye contact several times before we approach. I can tell she's got brains because she waits to acknowledge my presence until I'm within speaking distance. I raise my hand to wave hello as I pass her, and she smiles and offers a greeting. Out of sight beyond a switchback, I whine to Ken a bit about how nice that hiker looked. I may as well be wearing a meter-high neon sign on my head that says "SINGLE".

Ken's shoes are taking a beating. I silently thank myself for deciding to pack my hiking boots.

We begin a lively series of debates. The first is about what defines 'funny', and why. We struggle to find the right way to identify humor and separate good humor from bad humor.

This segues into a talk about art. "What is art?" Ken asks me, going straight for the biggest possible question. But, I have a canned answer for him, from some navel-gazing I did last year. "Art is the encapsulation of human expression," I reply. We go from there and find some interesting mental territory, while the bright vistas of the Grand Canyon whirl around us. Snowy embankments still hem in most of the trail, winding down far beyond our tiring feet. A few minutes later, the snow is gone entirely.

We arrive at a bathroom station. A young hiker tromps down the stairs from the exit, in muddy pants and a flapping t-shirt, hurrying to catch up with his gang. "Wow, I feel a whole lot lighter now!" he exclaims to us, and grins insanely. "I can get up this trail in no time! Good luck, guys!" He waves to us and jogs up the path.

I ascend the stone steps to the privy and pass by another man, very different. This guy is wearing carefully rolled shorts and a short sleeve shirt, showing off a pair of thick hairless legs and some hammy arms with tattoos on them. Obviously a fellow who has spent a lot of time in the gym. He says nothing, doesn't even look up through his sunglasses, as he passes by me on the stairs. I suppress the urge to sneer at him.

Jeez, I have trouble enough with it in women, now here's a man doing the same thing. A guy spends a while in a weight room and somehow he's convinced that, for his trouble, the best thing he can do is alter his behavior and dress just so people will notice his body. Unfortunately, that rules out other, friendlier, livelier behavior. Big buff men who are only polite to attractive women, and consider everyone else furniture, can bite me.

Anyway, I cover over these thoughts and launch another debate with Ken.

We sit down on flat rocks just beyond a switchback, watching a burro train pass by. Without voicing it, we have both agreed to go no further into the canyon. We leap from talking about art to talking about the Bible, and then about God. I give him my little spiel about the existence of God, and the nature of the argument. Paraphrased, it's this:

"Some people see their environment as direct evidence that there is a divine creator. Other people see their environment as direct evidence that there doesn't need to be a divine creator. If a person can take, as evidence, no less than _everything_in_the_entire_universe_, and use it to claim two opposite things, ... doesn't that indicate that there is something fundamentally meaningless about the argument?"

Ken responds by telling a story about a heated conversation he overheard at a dinner party, and how his reaction had been along the same lines.

We heave ourselves up from the rocks we were sitting on, take a final few pictures, and begin our ascent of the trail.

After a few turns we pause, drawn up close to the wall, to let second line of burros meander by. All the people riding along look uniformly wealthy, and I feel a twings of resentment, and that bothers me. I realize that I am being unfair - that if I had the disposable income, I would probably mount a beast of burden, too, and ride all the way to the Colorado river.

These same people probably drive fast cars, similar to the one I am now driving temporarily. In it, I pass people on the road all the time. I don't do it to insult them, I just do it because I can. I drove that car in excess of 100mph for most of this morning. In the past I've probably cursed at people driving just like me, as I tool down the interstate in my big old Aerostar.

Why the double standard? Of course, the have-nots can be even ruder. I stand to make a lot of money with my computer skills, and for some reason I'm developing a beef with the wealthy that I didn't seem to have before. They didn't really bother me until I thought I might become one of them.

Anyway, the whole resentment thing feels like a waste of time. I hate being caught in conundrums that require enormous pressure to reduce, yet reveal nothing valuable in the end. The whole God issue has reached this state for me, and that's why I set it down indefinitely. I should set this one down too. I hope I can.

As I continue my ascent, my mind percolates and boils down my feelings to a simple idea: When someone is an asshole to me, that's definitely bad karma. But when I am an asshole in response, for reasons they may not agree with or even understand, that's just a waste.

I remain a work in progress. Oh well.

Ken and I browse a pointless gift-shop at the lip of the canyon, take a quick drink at one of the no-star lodges, and walk back to the car. I swap my boots for tennis shoes, and we drive out of the Grand Canyon, stopping at a few vistas for more photographs.

At a set of ruins outside the park, Ken tells me all about his aunt's encounter with "the Fucking Snowy Plovers, Quite Possibly the Stupidest Birds on Earth." We eat a little more of the plasticine pizza from the back seat and drive on, through an Indian reserve. I cruise at 110mph for a while.

Back on highway 40 we catch a glimpse of the painted desert, the same strange geography that I saw from a thousand feet in the air about a year ago, on my flight back from New York. At the time I wondered what it would be like to drive through it. And, here I am. The swaths of color turn the hills into Neapolitan stacks, radiant cool pastel stripes on either side of our thin metal rocket. These formations have probably been used in that constant God argument by an endless parade of unrelated tourists, cruising this very freeway.

We find ourselves outrunning a train. As the sun descends, the bands of color in the sky widen, and the rocks grow shadows. Soon the rocks give way to flat scrubland and desert, running so far to the horizon that my concept of distance fails to contain it.

We pass by a sign advertising a meteor crater, and another for a petrified forest, but we miss the access road before deciding to stop there. Ken pledges to scream every time he spots an iron teepee in front of a roadside store. He starts coughing after the 8th one, and quits.

We check into a Holiday Inn, and find the indoor pool to be a health hazard. The air is thick with chlorine and my eyes sting just standing around. Sickly froth whirls around on the spa, making it resemble a pot of overcooked ramen. It gets hard to breathe, and Ken's cough comes back with a vengeance. We give up and go back to the room.

Tex Avery cartoons explode from the television, and after 20 minutes we shut it off. Ken picks up a book and I do my journaling.

An interesting day. A nice car, a good hike. The fast food was very grody. I can feel myself slowing down from it.

Tomorrow we must find some better food. It will be a day mostly of driving.