As a young girl, I remember sitting in a dark theater watching Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. I wanted to be just like Indy. I was captivated by the sight of Petra, a city carved into the mountainside; enchanted by the canals and footbridges of Venice. I wanted to explore ancient catacombs, ride a motorcycle through the countryside. I also hate Nazis (but I’m not afraid of snakes).
Most everyone, even those who haven’t been to a beach, understand that it’s a good thing. Even as a child living next to Lake Erie, I would leap at the chance to go to Huntington Beach, or even Rocky River Park, just to be on the sand and hear the waves. While I am certainly no expert, having only recently upped my ocean count by one, the Southern California coast was a truly luxurious experience. Being able to take advantage of an October heatwave and play in the Pacific Ocean is something that would make a younger J’s head explode. The impossible made possible by the mere passage of time.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the Disney Theme Park of the National Parks System. The village boasts a rail line, airport, entire fleet of buses, kennel, mule stable, hotels, restaurants, art, geology, and cultural museums, campgrounds, three visitor’s centers, two entrances, and a partridge in a pear tree. Much like Disney, it is also perpetually mobbed. In an act of providence, we were able to secure the last site available at the Desert View Campsite the day before it was to be shut down for the winter. We pitched our tent below an exquisite, craggy juniper and made our way to the Desert Watchtower.
We followed the curving road out, in hopes of setting camp with plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely afternoon. The road had become more congested, littered with families in rented RVs and little experience handling them. We hoped they were at least earning the gratitude of their loved ones, so their terrible driving would be to some end. Suddenly, we heard a thwack on the front of the car, amid a flurry of fleeing birds. We sat silently, for what seemed like a long time. Finally I spoke, “I killed a bird in the Grand Canyon.”
We fashioned a simple meal of sandwiches and whiskey, adding another layer to our ensembles to keep out the cold. Bryce Canyon National Park is a leader in dark sky protection, and on clear nights up to 10,000 stars can be seen from as far as the Andromeda Galaxy. We surveyed the Milky Way, stretched out over the horizon, our view unimpeded by our campfire. The campsites that had earlier felt so close, now barely visible, their fires, satellites, piercing the darkness.
The rocks of the cliff side whistled and jeered, both mocking and celebrating our presence. The towering spires, remnants of ancient red sand dunes, looked as if an alien forest had left its eulogy in the land itself. The crushing scope was like nothing I’d ever seen; the red spikes climbing up from the valley floor towards us, the vicious gash carved by the Colorado River, the stretch of scrubby grasses and shrubs flowing out past the Six Shooter Mesa in the distance, the slow roll of the sparse clouds on an azure backdrop, all of it incredible.
If the utility of a road is compromised due to the whims of bovine, it should not, in fairness, be called a highway. Consider this my formal complaint with the state of New Mexico. The cow strutting out of the darkness before us was such an absurdity we erupted into astonished laughter. Then there was more movement. A group of shadows fell into focus. The laughing stopped.
As we bombed down the highway towards White Sands, we could eventually see a thick, white ribbon slicing across the ruddy leather-colored floor of the valley that opened up before us. The mountains at the far end were so far away they sat on a flat plane, a deep blue silhouette. The scenery was stark and stirring. With everything so visible for miles all around, your eyes tend to play tricks, and with the speed limit so high, the distances seem to melt like candy in the sun. We stopped in Alamogordo for some sandwiches, then headed off past the airbase and the missile testing range before finally arriving at White Sands.