The start was, to understate, not promising. The (woefully insufficient) notes from the tour company promised a ten-minute walk from the BART to our hotel; it was almost 30, and we walk quickly. Thirty minutes, carrying our packed-for-a-week backpacks through what can generously be described as a neighborhood where the economically challenged have adopted sidewalk residences. We arrived. It was the wrong hotel; the desk staff was positive our group was not booked. We checked our (have I mentioned woefully insufficient?) notes and updates: this was the hotel. But it clearly wasn’t. After vigorous prodding, the notes yielded a tour company phone number, which was answered ambiguously by someone who didn’t immediately claim to be part of any tour organization. She did eventually admit to being someone to whom questions could be addressed, and told us that an updated update had been sent; why hadn’t we seen it? (No such update; we checked.) New hotel. More walking. Less savory neighborhood.
No sign of tour guide, no promised posting of the meeting time. It was, in fact, distinctly unpromising. But the hotel staff let us leave our backpacks and we set off to see as much of San Francisco as one can in six hours. From Coit Tower we saw the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, as well as a lot of fog and flowering shrubbery. We walked through downtown to Embarcadero Station (located by virtue of Bruce’s superior google-fu) and took the streetcar to the Castro and then walked to Haight-Ashbury (which is as urban hippie as its reputation; we could have stayed much longer). We purchased a layer of urban hippie wear (San Francisco is cold in mid-June!) and walked to Golden Gate Park, which is full of skateboarders, urban squatters, maxi-dresses, and Frisbee throwers. The Conservatory of Flowers is, I understand, “the oldest Victorian greenhouse west of the Thames.” It’s a huge, white wood and glass palace surrounded by flowerbeds; inside, four gaspingly humid display areas offer an occasionally labeled jungle of potted plants, some familiar, some potentially alien. I had no idea there were pitcher plants large enough to eat mice, and the odor of even a very small corpse flower really is vile.
Back at the hotel, finally a tour guide appears, along with seven other people. We are instructed to introduce ourselves, repeatedly, while Chris the Guide apologizes for the hotel mix-up (explains that he had nothing to do with it, swears a mighty oath that it won’t happen again now that he’s in charge; he absolutely lived up to his word). Mostly, I’m tired and cranky and why the hell are these people telling me their names? Wait, oh god, it looks as if we may actually be spending 18 hours a day with these people! What have we gotten ourselves into? Group dinner? Oh, shoot me now, please.
But after the awkward dinner with people whose names I can’t remember, Jan Bode (short, blonde, tri-athlete dynamo of a woman who works in finance for a mining company in Queensland) wanted to go out for drinks. I approve of this instinct and we set off in search of the bar recommended by the woman working in the hotel restaurant. The bar is hidden (disguised?) behind another sketchy hotel, and turns out to be a very swank locals-only place. Jan and Stefan Meyer (German guy from Hamburg who looks 18 but is actually ten years older; tall, nice-looking software programmer who calculates airplane fuel loads; likely always to remind you of your brother or son, depending on your age) turned out to be good company, and I began to feel slightly less horrified at the thought of spending a week with them. Plus, the hotel bed was comfortable.
Next day, there’s the van and trailer. The van. We spent more time in the van than doing everything else combined. No a/c vents in the very back row, where Bruce and I sat most days, so we were dependent of the vigilance of people sitting in the row ahead to remember to point their vents toward us. It’s funny now that we have climate control back in our own hands, but it was a matter of stifling importance for a week.
The van. Instrument by which we discovered how actually, literally vast our own country is, and how much of it between the California coast and middle of Arizona (and surely far, far more) consists of nothing much more than giant piles of powdery red dirt and sun-baked rocks. Joe Giannetti (from Montreal but of decidedly Italian heritage, deeply and effortlessly tanned and the only person older than we, afflicted with an allergy that reduced his speaking voice to a whisper many days; he does something for Gorton’s Fish that involves traveling to packing plants across North America; a well traveled and immensely likeable man) commented that it was astonishing how much of the American West is uninhabitable. He was right. It was like driving across Mars, many days.
We drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, with a stop for photos in the chilly wind. (This, as it turned out, was the pattern of the trip: drive through many hours of distance to something interesting, get out and take pictures of it, get back in the van and drive on to someplace to eat or to sleep.) On to Yosemite, through the California suburban sprawl, through orchards (almond trees?) and scrub covered hills (deer, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles through the van window). Yosemite a revelation of towering, gray, domed rocks rearing up through ranks of lanky conifers, a place to spend half a year exploring. Also the place where I first realized---as we hiked up a mile of path steeper than Pike Place to Capitol Hill, to a bridge over the stream springing away from Angel Falls, then climbing further up broken rocks stacked into knee-high stairs another mile to the cool spray misting from the base of the falls, and clambering part of another mile essentially straight up a nail-shattering scrabble of stairs toward the top of the falls---that I’ve lived a few dozen feet above sea level for nine years. I sucked air so hard my chest ached the next day, and I still couldn’t breathe. The ends of my fingers were numb. I was defeated and had to turn back (although Angel Falls were glorious and I got to see them, so it was an insubstantial defeat). On the drive out, two bear sightings: one that I didn’t see, involving only visible ears, another that I did, rounded shape of surprisingly golden taupe furriness that I declined to bolt down the busy road to see more of (a bear’s a fine thing, but I was tired and not inclined to join the bear-bothering rush).
We stayed that night in a place that looked like summer camp for young adults, with Wi-Fi in the main room for all of the hiking hipsters with their Macs, and truly wonderful food out of a camp kitchen staffed by a chef with a paring knife and no workspace, plus an admirable selection of beer. The Bug Hotel was mercifully free of bugs, and the rooms looked like they’d been assembled out of the furniture from your grandmother’s guest room, too much of it jammed together but very comfortable. Alas, no hot water in the shower in our room in the morning, but a small complaint about a place to remember to return to.
Next morning, a quick hike to Mirror Lake (summertime drought-shallow but still cold and lovely and sprinkled with ducks in the middle and small children splashing around the edges) then back in the van for the Sequoia grove. “It’s a mile down,” Chris said, firmly, several times, “and it’s a mile back up. That’s down, then up. You have to hike UP to get back.” Not really a grove (the sequoias are so widely spaced among the tower of by-comparison smaller spears of trees) but oh, absolutely each sequoia visibly a thousand or more years old, trees as big around as a semi pointed at the sky but much taller. Each a thundering silence of a tree, a slow-gathering centuries of a tree, vast and visibly weighty, stubby arms alive at the top, twisted withering lower down, each branch as big as the trees you have in your park at home. Trees older than nations, older than religions. Trees whose lives are so vast we must be invisible to them, trees waiting with glacial patience for the hungry flicker of forest fires before they attempt with dinosaur dignity to scatter the seeds of giants. Bruce says that global warming could kill them all by the end of the century. How horrible we are, tiny prideful insignificances.
That evening, Chris organized a surprise for after dark that I thought I’d guessed (fireworks) but I’d been wrong about. Annemie got it, from Chris’ geological hint: hot springs. But the day and the beer I had with our excellent Texas barbecue dinner did me in, and the idea of putting on a bathing suit and getting back in the van for a 9:00 event was too much for me, so we missed the evening’s stargazing but I understand it was wonderful.
Up early to make distance before the heat, we stopped along the road through Death Valley (although we stopped in the Panamint Valley, and well we did), out of the van, me barefoot in the fine sand and flat, scale-cracked clay unshadowed by the jagged mountains on either side, two F-18s screaming down the valley far ahead of their sound. A meditation of heat and silence, in 20 minutes the sand was too hot to touch and I put my sandals back on. Everyone else got photos of themselves jumping into the desert air (and Jan and Chris did a wheelbarrow, although I’m not quite sure why). As the van crossed the Panamints down into Death Valley itself, the heat shimmer made Death Valley look like water and I could see, if I concentrated on the overlay of reality and imagination, the glass-flat beaten dry desert between jagged, lifeless mountain slopes and the lake it must once have been, cold and deep between forested peaks, those rocks jutting islands in the middle; the van drove through the once-ago water and I looked out, imagining us deep in the darkness under that cool weight, driving up into the diffracted light and on through prehistoric groves.
But then came Vegas, my least favorite part of the trip. The Stratosphere casino hotel was old and shabby and smelled like a thousand years of cigarette smoke. You can’t walk in Vegas at any time, probably, but certainly not in the summer, 106 degrees blaring back from the baking sidewalks and ricocheting from one vast Strip casino cliff face to another across nautical miles of asphalt. But we shared a cab with Joe, Jan, and Annemie Verrijken (a quick-witted, charming woman with the sort of self-possessed European grace that Americans despair of imitating; Belgian, living in Switzerland but on loan to an office in Kansas City for the summer; she didn’t tell us which corporation she did customer service for until the last evening, when she made cogent and well informed points about crop cycles and research time) to see the Venetian---which, once we finally penetrated the labyrinthine interior to see the replica of St. Mark’s square, inspired those who had actually BEEN to Venice to some admiration---Treasure Island (no more pirates-vs.-mermaids shows, though, to Jan’s disappointment) and the Luxor (a strange but impressive mash-up of Ancient Egypt plus an Aztec pyramid plus for some reason some Titanic kitsch) where we had dinner at a place called something like Tacos and Tequila. I enjoyed this part of our time in Vegas; it was fun to learn something about Annemie’s extensive time as a scout (then scout leader; once you knew, you could see why she always seemed to be so prepared for our various adventures) and Jan’s girlhood in Catholic boarding school.
We saw the excellent, wind whipping views from the top of the Stratosphere, and the stomach clenching off-the-edge rides, and then everyone else went off on a late-evening-into-predawn excursion involving a party limo with stripper poles, too much vodka, a photo stop at the Welcome to Vegas sign, and what sounds like some dancing and a lot more drinking. Bruce and I, having failed to make contact with my brother (who is, I hope, just swamped with email and not incapacitated in some way) went to an off-off-off the Strip dive bar that Yelp promised had good live music. It probably did, but not until 1:00 in the morning; Vegas time is skewed so far toward dawn to accommodate casino shift work that I couldn’t make my own clock match, so we had a drink and left for (randomly chosen) Caesars Palace, where I’d hoped to find something like a bar with maybe even something like music. But the Strip isn’t a place for someone like me, who doesn’t like crowds, doesn’t want to gamble, isn’t interested in expensive tickets to see Brittany Spears or Celine Dion, and doesn’t see the point of owning anything by Dooney and Bourke. Death Valley heat plus bad Vegas juju was hammering a silver spike of pain through my right eye, so we went to bed. Next morning, though, we were certainly better rested than everyone else.
Good-bye, Las Vegas (and for me at least, good riddance), and back in the van. Everyone but us slept (we read our way past more red-dirt-and-rocks desert) until the photo stop at the Hoover Dam. Not what I’d imagined: a tall stack of pale concrete blocks in a shallow arc binding some of the Colorado River into a large pond. Fierce sun tempered by racing wind but pitilessly bright even for my unhungover eyes, the leap of the Pat Tillman Bridge shadowless in the high background. And everywhere that Martian landscape, slippery bone-dry red dust piled into mountains and scattered with dark rocks by insane landscapers. This is not the California desert I knew, dry but not lifeless (where you can see among the resilient scrub, if your eyes are tuned to it, lizards and deer and rabbits and the rare ghosting coyote, birds of all kinds singing or silent draft gliding or hunting or dashing across the open spaces on hurrying feet), or the dry grass and agave spears of New Mexico, mesa towers breaking bluntly into vast, clouded skies. No, this is a desert of unredeemed ugliness, baking ignobly between the barren bones of the earth and the iron sky. The only reason to suffer, sweltering in an automobile, through so many miles of this landscape of misery is for what came next.
Gradually, trees. Then taller trees, and (almost forgotten!) shade. Chris made us cover our eyes and guided us each to stand by the van. One-two-three LOOK and there, under our toes down down down and far away to either side, the dizzying vastness of the Grand Canyon. There’s a thread of river at the bottom, invisible from anywhere you can stand on the edge, that carved this impossible trench into a mile of limestone, granite, and gneiss over six million years. Tectonic movement raises the North Rim of the canyon the thickness of a sheet of paper each year; it’s 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim today, a fact implying division of which I am incapable. Bruce and I walked along the South Rim, visited a museum displaying canyon geology, and walked the Trail of Time (each footstep is a decade, then a century, then a millennium; plaques and fixed metal tube scopes show you what happened, how it was formed, the locations of things like rock layers and a dormant volcano) until we had to turn back, gasping in the altitude (6,000 feet, there), to find the others in time to watch the sunset redden the mountains below (and eat pizza). Large moths, fleet winged swallows, and chatty little warblers busied the late afternoon.
The Grand Canyon is this: you stand as close to the edge of a cliff as you dare, and look down; far, far beneath you, in a drop that would require resurrection in any video game, you can see the top of a mountain; from the edge of that mountain, far below you, is a drop to the top of another mountain, a drop that would kill your game avatar; and yet even that second deadly plummet, from the top of a mountain vanishingly far away, fuzzed with flecks of green lint that would be, if you could ever stand among them, mesquite and acacia trees, isn’t the bottom. You look down at the backs of birds riding the drafts far, far below---I saw a dark bird with white-edged wings circling, circling remotely small below; it was (I looked it up, later) a condor, with wings almost 10 feet across, and it seemed tiny and very, very far away.
After a night in the Red Feather Inn (for Bruce and me, also involving defeating an immediately broken corkscrew to open some decent red wine), we did what will probably be one of the most memorable things in my not at all young life. We took a 45-minute helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. I’ve never flown in a helicopter before (a few of us were not quite sure it was a good idea after all, as we buckled up), but the moment the skids left the ground and we were up I had a rush of absolute glee. I’m pretty sure I clapped my hands a few times, which I hope didn’t startle the pilot since I was sitting next to him. Even though you’re flying improbably fast, it seems like an amble just because the scale of the canyon is so big. Up close, the named formations at the tops of the peaks inside the canyon (the Fish, the temples of Vishnu and Isis, Mencius and Confucius, the Dragon) look as if they were made by people, possibly out of sand-colored legos. The regularity of the limestone weathered just under the edge of the canyon looked like the ramparts of an impregnable, fantastic castle. It doesn’t matter how many tourists are there. It doesn’t matter how often you’ve seen it in movies, or how trite and overdone a national image it seems. You need to go. You need to see this, to be shocked into the realization of the distance of scale between our planet and ourselves.
On the drive out, we saw a pair of adolescent elk, gangly and (at least he) velvet horned. They ignored us with the precision of teenagers of every species. I know; there are people whose eyes see other people, or roadsigns, or evidence of alternative technologies (and there was a vast windfarm in the southern California hills, and a lot of solar panels on top of Arizona houses), but my eyes are tuned for the animals and plants around me. That I saw a condor soaring in the Grand Canyon excites me, maybe even more than seeing the ancient rocks it flew over.
And everywhere, anywhere we went where there was one green thing growing and a scrap of shade, were the crows or their sworn-enemy cousins, the ravens. My tribe: pragmatists and practical philosophers, authors of shouted arguments and last words flung over retreating shoulders, awkward aground and laborious in the air but tenacious, rowers of the wind, skeptics, observers, commentators, survivors. Unbeautiful, perhaps, when compared with almost anything else that flies, strident voices ungifted with song, roadside scavengers, treetop pirates, unlovely but fearless and sharp eyed and curious. My tribe, everywhere.
After the helicopter ride, we had an hour or so to hike a little way down Bright Angel Trail, a vertiginous, sinuous, dusty deception of a traipse. Every step down, you know but need to understand, is a step you’ll have to make back up. Apparently, this is where people die every year, thinking they can hike down the trail to the canyon floor and back up in a day when of course you can’t. “Back up” is a long, long, dry way, and the daylight and your water give out much sooner than the trail does, and it’s 6,000-7,000 feet of elevation so even the kids from Denver will be sucking air. But it’s well worth the effort, if you’re cautious. Past the first time the trail passes through a hole in the rock, a few hundred feet down, you can see a place called Mallory’s Grotto high up the cliff face to your left, with red pictographs of elk and maybe a bison. Only Bruce, Jan, and I went very far down the trail; Jan wanted to find a good spot to do a “cooee” (apparently, it’s what Australians shout when they need to find one another in the bush) and get an echo. We lucked out, found a turn in the path that faced the other side of a small canyon, and Jan got a great echo (which she repeated while Bruce videoed it, so she could show her father). Naturally, indefatigable Jan practically sprinted back to the top, while Bruce and I found a snail’s pace that we could keep up without turning into lowland gaspers, and we ended up outdistancing a lot of double-poled climbers who thought faster meant better and ended up needing to rest every few hundred feet. I learned my lesson at Angel Falls!
Back into the van, back through the damned red dirt desert, although we did let a decent sized lizard cross the road in front of us. We detoured for a little while onto Route 66, which is (this was news to me) largely defunct and no longer navigable, and eventually had lunch at the Snow Cap diner in Seligman, where the owners pulled a variety of corny but good-natured pranks on the line of completely tourist customers (Want some mustard? squirt! but it’s a yellow ribbon in the mustard bottle; Coffee? yesterday’s, or today’s? You ordered a small Sprite/ice cream cone? you’re offered a thimble-sized version; Would you like a straw? accompanied by a handful of actual straw). We were the only Americans in our tour group---in addition to us, Jan and Joe and Stefan and Annemie, were also Rahime Celapli (Swedish, reserved but friendly, and whom I wish I’d gotten to know better, of Turkish heritage, living in London), Ilana Garman (an elfishly slight young woman from Manchester and the group’s premier party girl), and Julianna Carneiro (whose picture accompanies the definition of “adorable,” a Brazilian med student in the middle of a grant year? semester? at Harvard, and the acknowledged Queen of Selfies)---and although this type of over-the-top roadside attraction wasn’t new to Bruce or me, it was still interesting to us and I think pretty exotic for everyone else. Later, Chris described how Route 66 had pretty much died; after the interstates were built, it was less and less traveled until the federal government made each state responsible for the upkeep of its part of 66, and most states decided not to bother and let it fade back into the desert. A few places, though, like Seligman, fought to keep 66 going, in particular the family that started the Snow Cap, which is why he takes tour groups there---to support that kind of local business. I am totally behind that logic. And hey, I had a chorizo burger, which is something I’ve never had anywhere else. More van time, with a stop at an old mining/tourist town named Oatman, which contained a well fed gang of tourist-friendly donkeys (the gray, buckskin donkeys were perhaps unfairly more attractive than the more-in-need-of-grooming white ones, but Julianna loved them all with equal fervor). The little restaurant/bar’s ceiling and walls were completely, shaggily covered with dollar bills autographed by visitors. We stretched our legs, fed some donkeys, and hit the road for our hotel in Laughlin.
Laughlin: the river is calling you! (Or so says Caesars’ marketing slogan.) On a green-shored sliver of river in the middle of more dirt-and-rock desert, Laughlin has a combination of cut-rate casinos and watercraft rentals. Our casino/hotel room, though, was surprisingly attractive and well appointed. We ate at an Outback restaurant in the hotel and teased Jan mercilessly with the supposedly “authentic” Australian items that were patently neither, and she mocked all of the “authentic” crap with good humor. My steak was pretty good, so I have no complaints. Afterward, we went to a nearby casino that someone (I think Stefan) was sure had karaoke, but the karaoke bar was so dead that we went back downstairs to the bar with the live band. This looked promising, although there wasn’t any place to sit down, until the DJ started calling for “a few more women for the competition, come on, it’s $150, sign up!” For what, I asked? Wet t-shirt contest, Chris was pretty sure. I went to the bathroom or something, or I was too short to see the stage, so somehow I missed the glimpse of the first contestant that Bruce got, prompting him to decide we should go take another look at the karaoke bar. Apparently, there were several very large women who took off everything but their wet t-shirts and their fat-lady g-strings and danced the pseudo-twerking dances of desire designed to win them $150 in exchange for any shred of dignity. Surprising exactly no one, apparently the one not-fat chick with enhanced, um, wet-t-shirt enhancers, won. I missed it all, but it was an event that both appalled and delighted the non-Americans, who did after all see an authentic American cultural enactment. Then we all sang karaoke with varying interpretations of which key the songs were in, culminating in an a cappella rendition of (who knows why?) Country Roads. Annemie knew all the verses; apparently, it’s a European scouting thing. It was a lot of fun, even without interesting animals.
Next day, the long drive to Los Angeles (during which I got a lot of reading done). Chris let us walk around the Griffith Observatory (great hilltop views of the Hollywood sign and a big swathe of downtown LA, as well as a beautiful actual-observatory building and a cool obelisk with four astronomers around the base), then dropped us off near the Santa Monica Pier while he parked the van, with a time and directions for our dinner restaurant. So we all walked through the Third Street Promenade and looked at the dinosaur fountains (bronze and ivy, spitting streams of water) and the Tesla showroom and shoe stores in which Rahime couldn’t find her size (because American sizes have much larger leaps than European sizes). Dinner involved expensive (if, in my opinion, questionably authentic) Mexican food and really good specialty margaritas. Then we watched the sunset from Palisades Park and walked to the end of the Santa Monica Pier before our last van ride to our hotel. (Yuk. Good thing this was the last hotel and we were tired, because this was probably a decent hotel in the 1870s---Bruce’s observation---and the courtyards were very nice, but the rooms had devolved to the third world by this century.) There was salsa dancing in the hotel bar (including some very good dancers, of whom Annemie was one), so we had a last drink in the front courtyard and everybody talked about the best parts of the trip, and the things we found most memorable about each other.
It was a very good idea, whoever began the reminiscence. People remember the stories we tell ourselves about things, more than the things themselves. Pictures are wonderful memory-refreshers, but stories are better. For a little while that last night, we all had a chance to reinforce the stories we’d experienced and to shape the stories of the people we’d traveled with. Hard to believe I’d felt so uncertain about the thought of traveling with so many people, back on the first day. I truly liked all of our fellow travelers, and enjoyed the time we spent with them. Each one is a cheerful, brave (they each came alone, unlike Bruce and I, to a country not their own, prepared to make friends and have fun), and interesting person and I honestly wish I had more time to spend with them. They were all as vital a part of my experience as the places we visited. Good-bye, Jan and Joe and Annemie and Rahime and Stefan and Ilana and Julianna (those sisters from different continents), and Chris as well (the information about the WPA and 20-mule-train borax and why it's called "death valley" and how Vegas happened were some of my favorite parts of the trip; I have a feeling you don't need any luck getting the M.A. in History); safe and adventurous travels to you all.
The final morning, despite his blooming cold, Bruce let me pursue my plan to spend a little more time walking along Palisades Park (full of urban joggers and sleeping homeless men) and through the Santa Monica Pier (equal parts pocket carnival, hobby fishermen, and remarkably talented street musicians), where I picked up the sunburn I’d been avoiding all week. It was nice, and very relaxing at the end of our extensively scheduled week. Even the bus ride to the airport was low key, and by then we were very good at looking out of the windows of moving vehicles to appreciate the passing scenery.
It’s taken me all day to write this, a day when I’d planned to be doing laundry and grocery shopping and getting in a last bit of quiet relaxation before I start a new job tomorrow morning. But this is my photo album, my last-night-of-vacation reminiscence. This is the story I’ll tell myself about my adventures in the American West during the summer of 2014. And although it was both less and more than I expected, and not at all what I’d imagined beforehand, it was absolutely an adventure. I’m glad we did it.