I don’t really believe that adventures can be life-changing. I don’t think a life changes within the moment of experience. Doesn’t life change only until after we process our experience, when we begin thinking about the effect it has had on us and we make conscious steps to change our present way of life? These are not life-changing moments, but moments of self-realization and self-awareness.
About two and a half months ago I traveled to the southwestern part of the U.S. for the first time—the Grand Canyon being the central focus of the trip. I had qualms about contributing money to the racist state of Arizona; in fact, even though I have always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, I told myself that until things were different I would not give money to that state. An opportunity presented itself and it was too seductive at that point in my life, I couldn’t pass it up. We were only staying for a few days, but our plans were to check out Sedona, AZ and then stay overnight in Flagstaff before heading to the Grand Canyon, where we would spend two days before driving to Albuquerque, NM to spend our final night and day. We arrived in Phoenix, spent way too much time retrieving our rental car, and finally drove north to Sedona. We arrived there much later than we expected—I was feeling famished and sick so we made a detour for food—but we walked around for a bit, soaking in what we could of the bold colors of the Red Rocks. Other than its nature, Sedona was not impressive. It is a very uppity town with large and pretty homes, fancy boutiques, and psychic reading shops; a place to go and meditate and then forget about that peace you just experienced connecting with the world to go make an expensive purchase on a consumer item that you don’t actually need. After a couple hours, we were ready to head to Flagstaff.
Recommended by various travel sites for the view, we drove the Oak Creek Canyon path to Flagstaff. We were not disappointed! The view was unbelievably beautiful and slightly treacherous compared to what our flat, midwestern roads had provided us with for our whole lives. I was driving during this stretch and it seemed like I was going up and around, winding and winding for at least half the drive on this one-lane road. No railings on the edges of the road. Looking down, you only see jagged edges of yellow and red rocks, the ground nowhere in the vicinity. My ears were constantly plugging up from the rising elevation, the pressure in my head pounding, swirling around from left to right. Sitting in the passenger seat looking right over the edges of the cliffs, fear caused my friend to constantly berate me for driving too fast. I could have driven through the Oak Creek Canyon path all day, gawking at the picturesque scenery, such a contrast from the billboard-heavy, industrialized, and gray skies of a March day in Chicago.
We arrived in Flagstaff, ate an okay dinner, and since everything was closed for the night, we went to bed. We woke up early, too excited to see the Grand Canyon. We got our morning coffee from a local shop that sells fair trade and organic coffee (Flagstaff has a lot of local coffee shops!), with a very strange woman ringing us up who thought it was more important to spend a few minutes taping up a tear in a dollar bill than making our coffee. Most of the people in Arizona seem a little odd, and do every task as if it is not important. Everything seems to move slower, including the people. No one ever seems in a hurry. I suppose that isn’t really odd, but it’s definitely something we were not used to. I mean, who cares if the cash has a rip?
On our way to the Grand Canyon we came upon “Bedrock”! We obviously needed to pull over and snap a few pictures with Dino, Fred, and Wilma. Yabba Dabba Doooo! After we stopped forgetting we were grown adults, we hopped back into the car and drove through the deserted, open road to our main destination. I was surprised that we didn’t see any segments of the Grand Canyon while approaching the park entrance. We parked the car and since it was too early to check in to our lodge we got our bags of food and drink ready and walked to the park.
As we walked towards the Canyon, we could faintly see the rock formations in the distance. It did not prepare me for what I would see once we approached. The sight was indescribable. My eyes were filled with Mother Nature, the monstrosity of the canyons and the surprising color spectrum, from light yellow to orange to deep reds and light purples. I could not believe my eyes. I had never seen anything close to it in my whole twenty-seven years of life. I don’t think there is anything like it. No picture, I don’t care how magnificent, could do that place justice. It must be seen. I was instantly emotional, something I did not expect. My eyes grew misty, and then more than misty. I could do nothing but stand there and take it all in for several minutes. It was completely arresting. I think the site of this environment, this wondrous landscape, was just so beautiful it touched me; it was extraordinarily engaging with it’s large size and the variety of formations and indentations and color; it made me feel very small yet privileged to be looking at something so stunning, something created from natural occurrences, from God, and not a human being. It’s as though I was looking directly at a dream that I was about to step into, astounded.
Finally getting over our initial shock and wonderment, we hiked the South Rim trail to the right. Every view of the Grand Canyon was different. The location of the sun shifted, along with the colors and the rock formations. The shear size of the Grand Canyon never ceased to amaze us. “Oh my God” and “Wow” started becoming quite repetitive phrases. When we made it to the end and back of that part of the trail, a few hours later, we left the park to have some mediocre dinner. When we reentered the park we decided to drive over to “Desert View,” which is supposed to hold one of the most amazing views of the canyon and the Colorado River, and you can visit an old watchtower. When we reached the crossroads, the sign stated 25 miles to Desert View. We somehow mistakenly calculated that it would only take us 25 to 30 minutes to get there so we would make it before sundown. Why we calculated that we could drive a mile a minute escapes me, but maybe it was the elevation getting to our head. I drove and drove and drove and we passed many viewpoints, saw some animals whose species we argued about because we are not nature people and don’t know anything about wild animals, but it seemed like we would never reach Desert View. I must have driven for at least forty-five minutes until we decided that by the time we would arrive it would be too dark. At the behest of my friend, we decided to stop at the next viewpoint instead and take in the dusk view of the Grand Canyon; it was more night-time than dusk at that point so the view wasn’t amazing. We drove back to our lodge and spent the rest of the night relaxing and thinking about the day. I looked at the lodge’s guidebook and discovered that we were only two miles away from Desert View. I was quite disappointed and when my friend suggested we go back the following day, I almost got into one of those moods of, “No, I am not driving all the way back there when we were so close and you made me turn around!” Thankfully, the next morning was a different story.
Our second and final day in the Grand Canyon, I woke up feeling horrible. I had a terrible migraine accompanied by its sensitivities to light and sound and worst of all, nausea. I blamed the heavily dry air and high elevation; the pressure was excessive and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t really eat much, but we decided to have breakfast and then go for a drive to Desert View. My friend would drive, while I relaxed and tried to feel better. It was a really wonderful plan and while I still had a headache, I was feeling much better when we arrived at the viewpoint. I was immediately thankful that we decided to go back in the day-time because the view was spectacular. The light tan stoned watchtower was remarkable with its native paintings on the inside and crafted furniture. Seeing the deep blue-green of the Colorado River snaking its way through the Canyon was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe how the earth could so naturally produce such a complimentary color palette or that the river carved the splendor out of the Canyon. The Canyon wouldn’t exist in its current form without the Colorado River making its mark, carving its way through the hard earth, eroding whatever pieces it deemed unfit to stay intact with the rest of the rock. The river left only grandeur and grace.
We spent quite a bit of time allured by the exquisite sights of Desert View, but we finally left and had lunch and then parted ways for the next hour. I wanted to hike down into the Canyon, even just for a little bit, but my friend was too scared. They recommend to not hike alone, especially if you are not an experienced hiker, but even though I probably have only ever hiked once in my life and had a worthless phone, I didn’t want to let my friend’s fear stop me from exploring something new. I was all the way in the Grand Canyon! I needed to explore! I hiked the Bright Angel Trail for a couple miles. To reach the bottom of the Canyon on that trail would require the whole day, so I didn’t go as far as I would have liked, but it was still amazing. To look up and see the massive rock extending into the air, where you originally started, people looking so small above you and below you; I was delighted while descending and walking around through some curves, down some dirt steps, through a short tunnel, constantly stopping to take it all in. The way back up was a little bit sad because I knew I wouldn’t be going back into the canyon again. I enjoyed every minute too much.
After the hike, I met up with my friend and we decided to take the shuttle bus and head to the left part of the South Rim trail, the part we had not hiked the day before. We overheard one of the employees of the park tell another visitor that Hopi and Mojave viewpoints were the best, especially at sunset. We hopped off the shuttle bus at Hopi and quickly discovered that the employee was telling the truth. We couldn’t imagine that the view of the canyon could get any better, but it did! The composition formed by the rocks, the variation of color, and the Colorado River swishing its way through formed the most exquisite portrait of nature I had ever seen. We decided to hike to Mojave point instead of hopping back on the shuttle. Again, we kept stopping because the views kept changing and we were awestruck by its beauty. We both agreed that these were definitely the best views of the canyon. It was really hard to pull our eyes away and actually pay attention to the hiking path. Yep, I walked into a little cactus plant and it was quite pokey.
After soaking in the view at Mojave, we hopped on the next shuttle bus, getting off at one more stop, the stop that has the best view of the Colorado River. An informational post instructed us to close our eyes and listen to the sounds of the river roaring below us. It said that if we closed our eyes and focused on nothing but the river, we would hear it even though it was at least a full mile below us. We closed our eyes, but could not hear the river. We could only hear the wind roaring around us. Perhaps we did not have the ability to clear our thoughts and isolate the sounds around us, or perhaps it really was too windy that day.
We took the shuttle bus back to the lodge, ate our leftover lunch for dinner and then went to the Shrine of Ages for a talk about preserving the Native American heritage of the area and incorporating it into the park’s events. It was unsurprising to hear that they had just started to work with the actual Natives indigenous to the land; I was surprised they were consulting with them at all. The Grand Canyon is Native land, sacred land to all of the tribes indigenous to that area. Their reparations are free entrance into the park, the land they once needed no permission to enter, no permission to pray on, no permission to stop and reflect on their relationship between themselves and the nature. So kind! I left that talk quite depressed. I suppose it was a fitting end to the joys we spent in the canyon. A snap back to reality of the historic and yet very present struggles of people, especially indigenous peoples.
The next day we spent six hours driving from the Grand Canyon to Albuquerque. We drove through the very large Navajo reservation, the desert, saw some houses here and there, some unopened market booths, some random signs placed into the hills, and drove and drove on the deserted open road. It was the first time I saw a dust storm, pink and red dust flying before me, concealing the view for a small stretch of road. It was the first time I saw tumbleweeds. Driving 90–95 mph, one hit my windshield pretty hard because of the 75mph winds. I always thought tumbleweeds were funny; when I saw them in the desert my mind always went to the tumbleweed icon on Skype, probably because it is the only tumbleweed I ever see. I then thought of a middle of nowhere country place in Nebraska, a strange, quirky town, the first place I always imagine tumbleweeds to exist. I never imagined I would be driving through a funny little town in Nebraska so I never imagined I would be driving through a place with tumbleweeds flying about.
The drive from the canyon to Albuquerque was a long one, but it was the best drive of my life. We took a few turns, but I sat for a couple hours and never felt so relaxed while driving. The way people drive there makes more sense; they are patient and less petty. They understand that they use the left lane on a two-lane highway to pass people and once they do they go back to the right lane. Everything is stress-free. What a life! Not only is it relaxing and stress-free, but the view is intense: miles and miles of desert and beautiful rock formations with some greenery in the distance. I could drive through there all day, speeding without a worry in the world, allowing the landscape to embrace me.
Albuquerque was quite the opposite of the Grand Canyon. We arrived there much later than we expected, an hour and a half or so before dusk, shops almost closed for the day since it was Sunday. We weren’t there very long, but for the time we were there, we seemed to see a lot of drug addicts (Breaking Bad rings a bit true), and the downtown is very small, not built up at all, and slightly run down in some areas. We happened to be there on an odd and eventful day, when there were protests against police brutality happening with SWAT and Riot police throwing tear gas at innocent, unarmed youth. I felt quite sad for the city and for the state of New Mexico in general. The police presence was too apparent; it seemed much too militarized, and the problems with drugs and alcohol amongst young people and people of color, especially the indigenous community was heartbreaking. We didn’t do much that night besides have dinner—thankfully, New Mexican cuisine is pretty good, unlike most of our meals in Arizona—and witness the last stretch of the protest go by from our hotel window. The next day we went to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which was extremely educational, and once again, maddening to hear about the injustice committed against the natives by the U.S. government. It was highly informative and the personal stories were powerful. We ended our trip there, driving to the airport and heading back to Chicago.
When I arrived in Chicago, I couldn’t stop thinking about our vacation. I wanted so desperately to go back. I always get that “Home Sweet Home” feel upon my return from vacations, but not this time. I desired to go back. As I am writing this, I still feel that desire. A desire for a slower life, a life with less “work” and more usefulness, a life with less people, less technology, and more nature, a life with more stillness. While we were in the canyon, we consciously had to tell ourselves to stop taking pictures and soak it all in. We wanted to feel the experience, not recall our experience from the pictures we snapped. Technology can be the ultimate destroyer of live experience and we did not want succumb to it. Thankfully, my phone had absolutely no service the couple days we were at the Grand Canyon. It was fantastic. I shared nothing with the outside world. I focused on myself in the moments I was in that beautiful place; my workplace in Chicago did not exist. My home did not exist. The CTA did not exist. Nothing from my life existed. I can’t remember a time where I had as much fun, relaxation, and peace as I did while on this trip.
Nature is no cliché; it existed before us and it exists with us. Too often we neglect it instead of embracing it. Nature is a part of us, internally and externally. My time in the Grand Canyon, driving in the open desert, few souls around, was not exactly life-changing. My actual life did not change while I was there, experiencing all it had to offer me. It did however, make me realize the kind of life I do not want to have. It is the one I have now. The one where I wake up for work Monday through Friday, commute over an hour to sit at a desk for eight hours or more each day; the one where I get frustrated with people so easily because they always seem to be inconsiderate or do something stupid and selfish; the one where I log onto Facebook to see that people constantly share every moment of their lives, where they went to the gym, where they had breakfast, lunch and dinner, who they are dating and who they broke up with; the one where no one does something for the benefit of others but only for the benefit of oneself; the one that has too many people, too many buildings, too much business, too much McDonalds and Starbucks and less trees and rivers. I want to be able to do something for the sake of enjoyment; do work not because it’s work, but because I like it and it provides some benefit to someone who will see it; I want to live in the woods, in a tree house, nothing but the still air and chirping birds around me, perhaps a small stream. I am no nature girl. I have never considered myself to be one anyway. I actually know very little about nature. For the past several years, I have never cared to spend time outdoors in the grass, hiking, getting dirty like that. I have preferred to stay inside, read a book, chill on my bed, watch a little TV, drink a cup of tea—you get the idea. A homebody.
Now? Being outside in nature is what I desire. I don’t know how much longer I can take sitting at a desk all day. One of these days I will probably snap like a tree branch, fall in the grass, and perhaps then I will find my way to this life that seems non-existent, a tumbleweed rolling through the open land, no specific destination in mind, wherever the wind takes me. For now, all I have are the memories of my vacation and the distant thoughts to provide me with comfort. To those reading: go outside, get dirty. See something that you’ve never seen before. Get in tune with all of your five senses and soul and truly look for beauty in places that you never have before. You will never regret it.