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Headed home

September 18/Day 63. The trip off North Rim up through Jacob Lake is one I’ve made a number of times before. This time is different though; the beautiful pine forest, dotted with meadows, was extensively burned several years ago and all that remains are the gaunt blackened daggers of bare tree trunks pointed skyward. Perhaps it’s this depressing sight that’s helped prompt my decision to leave my beloved North Rim early.

At Jacob Lake, 40 miles from the North Rim, the road turns east and begins a winding descent from the Kaibab Plateau, past the fortress-like Vermillion Cliffs, which stand up to 2,000 feet high parallel to the highway for 30-odd miles. The high bridge over the Colorado River at the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon marks the highway’s southerly bend past the Navajo Reservation. Here ancient diminutive Navajo women, who seem even tinier in their voluminous skirts and billowing shawls, sell jewelry and amulets at rickety tables beside the road. Each untidy homesite, scattered sparingly across the desert at distance from the highway, includes an octagonal or round traditional hogan, used for ritual purposes by every Navajo family.

In an uncharacteristic departure from the blue highways, I catch IH-40, passing through Winslow, a place as bereft of any natural enticements as any I’ve ever seen, to Holbrook, where I leave the interstate in favor of a route pointed more directly toward home. My day ends at dusk outside St. Johns, AZ at Lyman Lake State Park.

As I drive my mind is a mass of thoughts and feelings. First, of course, I look forward to seeing Jane, who’s been a stalwart on the homefront, including managing the installation of a complete new air conditioning system for the house while working three jobs: her day job, her Miche Bag business, and her Votre Vu business. Oh, and feeding two horses, two dogs, two cats, three birds, and seeing Hannah off to college for her second year. All in 103 degree temperatures. Without her support, my dream could never have come true. I love you Jane.

I also feel a sense of satisfaction in having accomplished a number of personal goals, some seemingly trivial, others more expansive. I’ve tried to drive to the top of Pike’s Peak several times but have always been stymied by weather conditions at the summit that forced me to turn back. This time, I made it. I’ve always wanted to drive over Trail Ridge Pass, but it’s been closed by snow before. Glacier National Park has been on my to do list as long as I can remember; it was worth the wait. I could go on. Suffice it to say that every stop along my path, whether planned or otherwise, has fulfilled a purpose.

I can still easily conjure the heart-stopping fear I felt stranded in the middle of the desert at 1:00 a.m. with no cell phone service, in a dangerous predicament, completely helpless.  Those were my bleakest hours.

Then, knowing the number of fatalities that have occurred, there was the psychological conflict I had to overcome before I commenced the hike to Angels Landing. I confess to a feeling of satisfaction in conquering the mental struggle that’s at least as great as my pride climbing the actual trail.

There are fleeting friendships that grew out of chance encounters. On the shuttle bus in Glacier, I happened to sit by an architect from St. George, UT, who was vacationing with his large family (he must have been Mormon….) After a pleasant conversation while riding up the Going to the Sun Road, he offered his home as well a guide services in Zion, where he had been countless times since he was a teenager.

In Death Valley several weeks later, I struck up a conversation with two young women, sisters from Belgium, who in turn introduced me to their father. After half an hour of chatting, the three said good-bye and left to continue their journey to Las Vegas. A couple of minutes later, the father returned and offered me his card. “I’m not in the habit of doing this,” he said, “but if you’re ever in Brussels, please consider that you have a place to stay.” It turns out he’s the medical director at a large research hospital.

I fall asleep with a welter of images flashing across my mind. I’ll have a lot of post-processing to do….

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