Yes, I am tired, but in this already altered state, alert to the fine layer of sand, a thick coating practically in drifts, atop my wheelchair batteries. Rare view of this, my portable world. But the shower bench inside this disabled-equipped room at Bryce Canyon Lodge accomplishes just that. Gets me not only out of the wheelchair and out of my routine, but into an environment that is all about that. Environment. And one thing about the environment, well, it’s windy, sandy, and various other things. It’s nature. And here is a little bit of nature, brought inside this hotel room. Which is good. I don’t know why. But it’s good.
We arrived here last night from Zion Canyon National Park, and now we are about to leave. But that’s how it is. Jane has to be back at her church in San Francisco on Sunday morning. And it’s Saturday morning now. And disabled travel fits together like a jigsaw puzzle made of worms. The pieces move, yet they slot into place. Until they jiggle out of place and have to be forced back into position.
Not much to play with in planning this trip…only three and a half days away. Such a dizzying round of Utah national parks, that we were actually tired, both of us, by the time Jane pulled our rented wheelchair-lift van into the most distant of Bryce Canyon’s viewing spots. We were hardly alone. Even at 9100 feet with a gale force wind sandblasting spectators’ faces, the parking lot is full. Half the occupants are from Germany. I try to follow a knot of them down the Bristlecone Pine trail, then give up and return to the viewing platform.
Not really a canyon, Bryce is actually the colored sandstone-sculpted rim of a vast basin. The edge plunges straight down, almost vertically in places, so all it takes is an occasional viewing area with rails to offer a geological show. As for the Bristlecone Pine, I have to let Jane go there without me. These, the world’s oldest trees, love places like this…air thin, wind fierce, winters arctic, summers Saharan. But cripples in wheelchairs do not love trails like this one, increasingly steep with granite scrim slipping beneath my wheels, so I give up. Besides, the general conditions are worrying me. The altitude isn’t doing much for my concentration. And I need to drink a quart of water an hour to prevent myself from utterly desiccating…a freeze-dried version of myself admittedly being compact and lighter.
In the lodge parking lot Jane and I have a brief, although rather fierce, exchange over how to tie down my wheelchair in this, our rented van. We do survive. And before dinner we roll out of our room and down a short sandy trail to get yet another view of spectacular Bryce. Here the sculpted sandstone “hoodoos,” eroded spires, are beginning to fade with the day. Their colors, ranging from bright orange to light purple, look like the work of a drunken giant painter. Each swipe contains several million years of earth history. Iron was clearly popular here. Manganese went into vogue there. And they march on and on, these geological oddities, up and down this canyon wall. And in the distance, across 30 or 40 arid miles, including a stretch of apparent salt flats, the highest mesa in North America, an enormous flatness at 4000 meters elevation.
Over dinner Jane makes a marvelous suggestion. Let’s get up early to watch the sunrise. What is “marvelous” about this involves several ambiguities…for the place is a marvel of natural beauty…and I rarely get a chance to marvel over anything…and the fact of getting a non-morning person like Jane and a less-than-agile cripple like me out of bed and out the door at 5:45 AM represents an entirely different marvel. Enough to make me marvel, quite pleasantly, at our marriage. For we know this is important. And, yes, we are going to do it. Together.
The night has many faces, however. And one of them involves an undercurrent that comes to me in places like this and with visits like this one. I am surrounded by opportunities to hike…even necessities, one might say, such is the landscape. And it hits me hard and painfully, how much I have lost. Painfully, angrily and hopelessly. Enough to make an night’s sleep in this profoundly dark and quiet place, profoundly disturbed.
Did I mention that Jane and I went out after dinner to view the night sky? Bryce Canyon is renowned among amateur astronomers for its darkness. The “light pollution” that bleeds across distances in our increasingly urban nation, doesn’t reach here. Even in June at this altitude evenings are chilly, so we borrow a blanket from our hotel bed and roll back to the canyon rim. It’s dark. Always a big surprise to an urban guy, but it is particularly dark here. Most worrying, I really can’t see where my wheelchair is going, not with any precision. There’s plenty of moonlight. And this is what I go by, taking a chance on the slopes.
An experience that now, late at night, transmutes into something terrifying. At dawn, or rather just before, Jane and I plan to exit this hotel room, blankets draped about us, and head for the edge, the fatal edge, of a massive canyon…in the dark. I will be tired. The topology invisible. And I, my wheelchair, and a perfectly good hotel blanket, will sail off the sandstone cliffs…no railings at this part of the rim…and I will die. This thought remains steady, at 3 AM, 4 AM, and 5 AM.
Shortly after that, reality takes over. And, yes, I will die, but perhaps not now. For sunrise engages in considerable foreplay. Only those who are never up this early, or more to the point, never have their minds’ eyes open this early, can be surprised. There’s plenty of light at 5:55 AM, looking west from the Bryce mesa, just no direct sun. There are also plenty of Germans, plus an apparent world convention of Scandinavians, waiting at the canyon rim. We watch the sun arrive from Nevada, its rays setting the reddest sandstone spikes ablaze. Jane gets a couple of pictures. I get a mild chill. We head back to shower and dress.
There’s more. We take the scenic route home. There is a faster way to Las Vegas Airport. There is also a faster way to hell, the destinations being somewhat interchangeable. I’m slightly nervous about this. But I forget one important fact. I am not driving. Jane is, and we drive up and over the 4000-meter ridge, all Alpine meadows and rivers, that leads to Cedar City. What is Cedar City? A nice place to have coffee. To have coffee and consider the sort of drive I haven’t had in years.