May 29th, 2017
“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein
Thirty-seven years ago, I hiked the Bright Angel Trail. I was with a friend from the U.S. Army Military Intelligence School. We had driven north to the Grand Canyon early one morning from Fort Huachuca. Paul and I were both twenty-two years old, and relatively fit. Once we arrived at the South Rim of the canyon, we decided to walk down to the Colorado River. We had a backpack full of doughnuts and Michelob, and we both carried canteens of water.
Paul and I walked down the river and back in one day. That was a fourteen mile round trip, and a mile difference in elevation between the rim and the river. At one point, a concerned park ranger stopped us to tell us that we were damn fools. Of course, he was right. The hike was absolutely brutal, and totally worth it. It was nearly sunset when we crawled back to the parking lot, and then slept in my ’77 Chevy Impala (it had bench seats). My entire body ached, but my mind was full of the fantastic images.
I thought about the hike when Karin and I drove from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon. I knew that we were not going to hike the canyon. That wasn’t even a possibility. However, we needed to see it. Karin had never been to the Grand Canyon, and it would have been a sin to miss it. We had left Flagstaff very early to make the drive. Since it was tourist season, I expected the park to be crowded.
I was not disappointed. At the gate there was already a long line of cars. Thirty bucks got us into the park. We found one of the last parking places in a lot large enough to accommodate all the spectators at the Super Bowl. This was at 9:00 AM. I don’t know where people parked their cars after that.
It was already getting hot when we walked to the Welcome Center. Karin and I got a map. There is a “village” at the South Rim. I don’t know if it was there back in 1980. I can’t remember. The whole area is built up. The Welcome Center has a bike rental shop and a café of sorts. There are numerous shuttle buses. It’s much bigger operation than it was years ago, but then I had planned on that.
Karin and I walked among the milling crowd. Like Yellowstone, this park was loaded with foreign tourists. I don’t begrudge them being there. If I was traveling to the U.S., I would want to see the Grand Canyon too. As we walked along, I could hear a variety of languages. Some I recognized. Some I didn’t.
We arrived at the rim. The canyon is impossible to adequately describe, so I won’t try. We looked down and we could see just a glimpse of the Colorado River, a mile below us. I felt dizzy when I looked straight down into the gorge. This was disturbing to me because I never used to feel like that. Hell, I had been a helicopter pilot. Why was I feeling light-headed now?
Karin wanted to take photos as we walked along. She stopped every few feet to snap another picture. Most everyone was doing the same thing. I felt wobbly when I got too close to the side. I was okay if I could lean against a rail, but there was a sensation of almost falling. I had to stay back a couple meters. Other people were clambering onto rocks at the very edges of the cliffs to take selfies. That was hard to watch.
I let Karin go on ahead of me. I sat down on a large stone. I just wanted to look at the canyon. Just look. I saw no point in taking pictures. Photos simply cannot do justice to the scene. They can’t convey the massive proportions of the Grand Canyon. They can’t show the grandeur of it all; the way the sunlight shines on certain strata of rock, making them almost glow with color. Pictures are just a tease.
What is awe really? It’s a hard emotion to describe, but I recognize it when I feel it. I felt it while I sat on that rock and stared into the distance. It’s like my mind couldn’t take it all in. I knew intellectually that this seemingly bottomless chasm existed, but somehow I could not quite believe it. I mean it was right there in front of me. However, part of me rebelled at the thought. It just couldn’t be real. Nothing could be that big. At that moment my mind froze. Analysis stopped. Words failed.
It just is.
I went searching for Karin. She was happily conversing with a German family from near Stuttgart. Not only were they speaking in German, but they speaking Karin’s home dialect. We stood around and talked with Stefan and Sinna, while they kept track of their little children, Tim and Francesca. I don’t understand exactly how it works, but Stefan and Sinna managed to score six weeks of paid vacation. They seized on the opportunity and came to the States. They rented a camper in L.A. Then they started their endless road trip. They had plans to go Vegas, San Francisco, and God only knows where else. Cool.
I think it was after that when Karin asked me about going to Las Vegas.
“Are we near Las Vegas?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“That Goddess Temple is near Las Vegas, isn’t it?”
”Well, it sounds like a nice place. We could maybe see it?”
“Mmmmmmmm…not this trip.”
“Why not? Oh, wait. You don’t want to get in trouble with the police again, right?”
“That has something to do with it.”
Sigh. “Oh well…”
Yes, we were making a very large loop around the entire state of Nevada. I don’t like to push my luck. I needed the bad energy to dissipate.
Karin and I stopped at the café for food. They just had pre-made sandwiches and that sort of thing. The Park Service runs the show, and there was no place else to eat. While in the checkout line, a young woman with pink hair at the register noticed my “Coexist” t-shirt. She gave me a thumbs up.
We found some shade, and started to eat a light meal. Then somebody said to us,
“Don’t you live on O’Brien Road?”
I was expecting to hear the music from “The Twilight Zone”. We looked over to our left and saw a family that lived down the block from us. Damn, that was weird. Strange karma. We talked for a while, and then Karin and I went back to the rim.
As we walked, we passed a man sitting at a table covered with books. He was tall and thin, well-tanned. Grey hair going to white. He wore beads around his neck and he was completely dressed in peach-colored clothes. He had a white chalk mark on the middle of his forehead. He got up to greet us.
Flashback. This reminded me way too much of when I would get accosted by the Hare Krishnas at LaGuardia Airport back in the ‘70s. The guy had that same blissed-out look in his eyes. Perhaps if we just ignored him…
No such luck. He started to engage me in conversation. Generally, when I don’t wish to speak to someone, I give off obviously negative energy. Most people detect this radioactivity and steer clear. Not this guy. He was on a mission.
“Have you ever read the Bhagavad Gita?”
“Yes, I have.” (This is true.)
The man smiled serenely. “What did you think of it?”
“It was okay.”
“Only okay? I have studied the Gita for many years. It has answers to so many of the questions in life.” He nodded sagely.
He reached over to his table, and picked up a book. “Would like to take a copy?” he said, still smiling gently.
“No thanks. I have one at home.” (This is true.)
“That’s wonderful. There are so many translations. This one is my favorite.”
“What is your name?”, he asked, holding out his hand.
“It’s Frank“, and I shook his hand. It was kind of limp.
He inclined his head slightly, and he said softly, “I am Swami.”
Of course you are. Who else could you possibly be?
Karin and I bid farewell to our new friend, and we hurried away. What I don’t understand is why the U.S. Park Service allowed this guy to evangelize on the path leading to the rim of the Grand Canyon. Nobody else had a table. Why only this Gita guy? Where were the Bible-thumpers? Where were the Jehovah Witnesses? It didn’t seem fair. I could not wrap my head around it at all.
The park was filling rapidly. It was time for us to go. We had miles still ahead of us. That was a pity. Honestly, the Grand Canyon deserves more than a few hours. It deserves days, maybe weeks. It should be savored. It demands awe.