A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, January 26, 2013

At Large

“Hey, please don’t shine your headlamps over here!” 
Jay’s voice was disembodied in the blackness.  He’d obviously turned off his own light, allowing the moonless canyon to swallow him whole.  For a moment I wondered what nefarious activity could possibly require such absolute privacy.  Then he added, “I’m taking photos of the stars.”
Photos.  Of the stars.  
The red sprawling glow of monstrous, dying Betelguese was clearly distinguishable from white-hot triple-stellate Rigel in the tilted outline of Orion – unsullied by distant glow of diffused neon and insistent headlights.  Our tent, insignificant and alone, was staked in sand imprinted by the heavy paw of a mountain lion. It rippled in the dust-dry breeze of New Year’s Eve in the Grand Canyon
This was not what I’d expected.
Nearly five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year.  That, for the math-challenged, is… kinda a lot of people.  As in, about seven times the population of all of Alaska. I’m no misanthrope, and I don’t yet share Jay’s opinion that all regions south of the 50th parallel are deeply suspect and over-subscribed by humanity.  Still, when I’d booked our “backcountry” itinerary -- months in advance, per Park Service advice, in order to wrangle with thousands of presumed competitors for our tent spots -- I’d had my misgivings.  I fervently hoped that most of the five million would never leave the Canyon rim (“Gosh, how lovely, now we can buy knick-knacks and cross this off our bucket list!”)  There was also the question of mules.  How wild could this place be, if the trails are daily traipsed by four-legged big-eared cross-bred copiously-pooping equines?  Based on websites and hearsay, I imagined the sort of camping that involves Ranger Tess (who wears a comical hat and provides Informative Lectures About Wildlife); or Rhonda and Al from Cleveland (who have grandkids just about the twins’ age, would you like to see photos?); or Unprepared Bill (who wonders if maybe you have some spare fuel, and manages a snore so impressive that it can be heard from the next Designated Tent Site).  
Don’t get me wrong, I like Ranger Tess, Rhonda, Al, and Bill.  I’m moderately gregarious (albeit socially maladroit), and meeting other campers offers me the chance to turn them into fictional characters at some future date.  Besides -- gratifyingly, if mysteriously – they always seem to dote on my kids.  When I booked the Family Vacation, I was hoping (with the blind optimism of all such bookings) to have fun, create great memories, and dodge disaster.  Two adults, two six-year-olds, five Alaska Airlines flights, a rental car in a vast and unfamiliar city, promises of accommodation from friends who  tolerated me two decades ago, and a six-day camping permit for a place I’d never set eyes on – what could possibly go wrong?  Ok, so I was hoping for a lot.  But whatever I was expecting from the Grand Canyon, it wasn’t a True Wilderness Experience.
As a long-time official (and unofficial) environmentalist, I’ve been privy to a few too many conversations about the Meaning of Wilderness.  Particularly in Alaska, wilderness is an issue of politics, and ethics, and economics.  Does wilderness preclude all sight or sound of humans?  Is it sustainable?  Is setting aside “untouchable” land culturally inappropriate, with respect to indigenous peoples?  Is our adulation of wilderness a blind glorification of a less-than-glorious and perhaps mythical past?  Is it essentially nihilistic?  And can it possibly occur in a popular National Park, a mere few hundred feet from an established trail?
It seemed improbable.  But here, tweaked by latitude, were our own winking Alaskan stars, as seen from remote and uncompromising outposts such as Windy Gap or Tolovana.  For once, I was experiencing early-evening darkness without skis, or snowdrifts, or temperatures cold enough to make my nostrils crackle. After playing Uno and building rock-forts for teddy bears amidst the prickly pear, I could point out to my kids the fine-scale detail of the scabbard at the Hunter’s hip (and then I could define “scabbard”).  What could be more pleasing to a backcountry nerd?
And yet, this joy-of-isolation was not in contrast to the mood of the more social and civilized portions of our six-day jaunt; it was in counterpoint.  Thus far, everything had gone swimmingly.  Our flights were on time.  Our baggage showed up.  The rental car was not an Edsel, and Google Maps calmly talked us out of Phoenix.  (“The robot never gets mad when you miss the turn,” noted Molly.  I can’t imagine to whom she might be comparing said robot.)  Our brief stay in Flagstaff with my college friend David and his family could not have been more perfect.  Hospitality and good company are a boon in and of themselves, but did we really deserve perfect sunshine, a tour of the city, a hot tub, and kids precisely aged to match ours? 
Even when we arrived at our destination to discover that our entire camping itinerary had been derailed by a snow closure on Hermit Road… it was all ok.   I shuffled into the Backcountry Information Office mentally cursing Arizona for spiraling into panic over a mere dusting of the white stuff, but within five minutes, a charmingly cavalier young ranger arranged for new campsites.  It seemed things were not as all-booked-up-three-months-in-advance as direly predicted.  He also granted us a couple of nights of “at large” camping. 
I liked that phrase, “at large,” because it had a vaguely dangerous, on-the-lam feel too it.  Watch out, world!  Frescos and Cables at large!  I didn’t dream, however, that we would be as “at large” as this.  I knew we didn’t have the whole canyon to ourselves.  We certainly didn’t hold title to the whole wheeling cosmos.  Still, even if wilderness is a human construct born of smoke-and-mirrors idealism, I relished the illusion.
But I also, as it turned out, relished our evenings at Bright Angel and Indian Garden. I happily helped the kids pluck grass to feed to over-eager big-lipped mules in their dirt-trodden pen.  I enjoyed watching the twins eagerly yet laboriously print missives on oversize postcards while sipping lemonade at Phantom Ranch.  I liked the blunt and gregarious ranger who told us that, “Kids are never the problem; it’s the fat guys who ‘did this no problem twenty years ago’ who have heart attacks down here.”  I laughed at the fact that the campground and the nadir of the Grand Canyon offered heated bathrooms with flush toilets, putting our own frigid outhouse to shame.
I even, perversely, enjoyed all the people who stared at the kids and then asked us questions that barely veiled their horror. Like my parents, who had visited the place a decade and a half ago, they seemed a mite worried about … cliffs.  Also edges, drop-offs, vast precipices, and the conjunction thereof with Very Precious Children. Throughout the trip, we encountered people who clearly thought we were irresponsible nut-jobs, but were too polite to couch it in exactly those terms.   I’m not particularly afraid of heights myself, and I have a fair bit on confidence in the self-preservation instincts of my offspring, but I can’t help being endeared to anyone who thinks my children are worthy of protection.  A few years ago, I might have worn the Bad Parent badge with greater unease, but many other adventures – including Five-Month-Old Twins Go Winter Camping! and Four-Year-Olds Love the Chilkoot! -- broke me in nicely. 
I was also amused by the now-familiar refrain of, “You’re making your kids walk how far? Over what?  And sleep where?”  I hereby maintain that little kids will gladly walk all day long, if 1) they don’t realize that they can’t; 2) you really, really like playing Eye Spy; and 3) you provide enough lollipops.  Having lots of mule poop to examine is a total bonus.  If we only saw one other smallish child in six days (we borrowed her for Uno), it was not because of “can’t” but because of “don’t.”  But it just meant more smotherings of adult attention for our two.  They enjoyed it, and so did I.
And, interspersed with all this camaraderie, I also enjoyed – deeply, achingly – that moment when the stars deigned to have their pictures taken. 
Jay showed me his photo attempts.  The distant suns showed up with startling clarity, even on the dim little screen.  “That’s just thirty seconds.  When I tried a really long exposure I got blurring,” he said.  “All the stars looked like little lines.”  
I smiled into the darkness.  “Because the earth is turning,” I said.  
The earth was turning in the star-speckled darkness, with us on it.  I couldn’t entirely explain why that fact made me so happy.  And I couldn’t define whether we had found true wilderness.  But ultimately, I decided, did definitions really matter?  Maybe wilderness – or plain old “wildness” if you prefer – is at least partially subjective.  Perhaps it is something to be savored in small doses, like the “naughty” foods on the USDA nutrition charts, lest we become dulled to its charms.  I knew I would not have enjoyed this moment as much without the other moments, the Junior-Ranger-Badge-earning moments, the loaning-someone-our-cooking-pot moments.  Maybe wildness is as multi-layered as the canyon itself, and can be enjoyed best when you dip down, then up, then down again across its crazy landscape.
On the very edge of a new year, there we were: the four of us, plus sundry stuffed animals… at large.  Sunset had long since lingered, reddened, and winked out from the red-green-brown layers of the jagged, looming walls.   The voltage of thirteen batteries was all that lay between us and the blackness.  We’d walked scarcely two miles off the mule-beaten track, past the chest-high cairns that marked the official edge of wildness.  And yet we had the night, the canyon, the whole universe, it seemed, to ourselves.  And Orion was winking at us.

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