One of my life’s first vacations was a trip to the Grand Canyon in September of 1983. I was just over a year old, riding comfortably on my dad’s back with a granola bar in my hand. The story of that granola bar is perhaps the most frequently told from my entire childhood – I’d grown so attached to it that whenever I dozed off I’d wake up in a panic if it had been lost. Thankfully, my parents were always there to retrieve it so that I could resume my sightseeing with confidence.
Don’t ever say I was spoiled.
With two months to kill while waiting for the approval of my Japanese Work Visa, I thought it would be a great opportunity to revisit my roots with another trip to the bottom of the canyon.
So at 7:30am on July 15th, Nick, my dad and I started the 7-hour drive from Los Angeles to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
About two hours after our departure we passed an overturned Ford Explorer on the freeway. We all gasped at the horrifying accident, but an hour later we’d see something that would make it look like a minor fender-bender.
It started when freeway traffic stopped altogether. After a few minutes, people began to get out of their cars and congregate on the shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of what could possibly be holding them up in the 100 degree sun. Not a single car was moving, in either direction.
Soon, a Medevac helicopter came to join the flashing lights and police horses up ahead. It landed right in the middle of the freeway, picked up a mangled body, and flew away. It wasn’t until traffic started again that we saw what had happened: a pickup truck had plowed into a boat that now lie as piles of splintered wood all over the freeway. The truck that had been pulling it had smashed into the center divider and flipped over into oncoming traffic. Its driver was being slowly scraped off the pavement, dead at the scene. It was without a doubt the most severe accident I’d ever witnessed.
Shortly after resuming our drive, I broke out with such a severe nose bleed that the front of my shirt started to look like I’d just gotten the crap kicked out of me by Joe Pesci. Dry desert heat. We stopped at a seedy little truck-stop for tissues. I can only imagine what it must’ve looked like when a few of the other customers came into the bathroom to find me standing in front of the mirror without a shirt on, vigorously scrubbing blood stains out of a white wifebeater.
After that, the trip continued without incident until about 100 miles before the Canyon. Then the car overheated. The temperature outside was 107, and the radiator began to spray fluid all over the highway.
We proceeded to the next little no-name town we could find in search of a mechanic. The not-so-friendly man in the tattoo parlor looked up from his androgynous patron and grumbled something about everything being closed until Monday. It was Saturday.
So we filled up on water and engine coolant at a nearby gas station and did the only thing we could: proceeded towards the canyon, an inch at a time, stopping about every ten minutes to refill the severely leaking radiator. The last 100 miles took about as long as the first 400, including the Medevac incident. We didn’t arrive until sunset.
But in the end, all of our troubles paid off. The moment I stepped out onto the canyon’s rim my jaw dropped. The Grand Canyon, like many of the incredible sights of the world, is one of those things that just can’t be conveyed through pictures…or even words. Everyone knows it’s big. But when you first gaze down into that massive, ancient crack in the Earth’s crust, you can’t help but freeze up for a minute from the shock of it. It’s no wonder they didn’t name it The Normal Canyon. There ain’t nothing normal about it.
After a quick dinner at our lodge we turned in for a good night’s rest. We were all pretty worn out from the last 100 miles of Nascar-style pit stops (which I must say, we became quite adept at after the first four or five), and Nick and I were going to leave at sunrise for our massive hike – one vertical mile, straight down in the 115-degree heat, to Phantom Ranch.