Road to Bright Angel - Excerpt

September 2021

Putting South Rim Village firmly behind him, Addie turned left onto Desert View Drive toward the eastern gate of Grand Canyon National Park. He had gone that same way twice before. The last time, with Rachel and Seth, he had mentioned to his wife that he was turning them onto the trail of an uncertain childhood memory.

“I think this is the turn. There was a long winding road with pullouts all along it. We saw a few elk at the corner and there was a tower. It was pretty cool.”

Rachel had bent her head toward him and smiled at his recollection. But her eyes never left her knitting. Addie heard her quietude and knew that she was tired, and the silence of that moment echoed his own fatigue. That day had taken the best of everyone; his legs still trembled from his morning on Bright Angel. He felt a headache forming and he knew his feet would have a blister or two the following day. He also knew that Rachel wasn’t much better off; although Addie had hiked the trail alone, the care and entertainment of Seth had fallen to his wife. He did not envy her; focusing and steering the energy and distractibility of that boy, their son, was a feat just as onerous as his hike had been.

They said no more and nothing else needed saying. They had driven along that road until reaching the tower from Addie’s memory, but they did not linger. By the time they arrived there, the sun sat low in the sky, patience and tolerance had grown slim, and the hotel in Flagstaff was still hours away. And miles to go before I sleep.

This time, Addie carried both memories into that turn, and once again found himself on that long winding road toward the tower. The sedan leaned into the curves of the narrow two-lane. Although he was not speeding, the tires slid across the damp asphalt at each turn. The road still held the last sheen of dew, which shone in the dawn each time the trees gave way. Convoys would soon fill those woods with the wheezing breath of coaches and the exclamations of impressed tourists. The gift of stillness would soon be gone for another day. But it was still early, the road was empty, and the solitary car lurched from turn to turn as the cool wind luffed through the open window, carrying with it traces of fir, spruce, and juniper.

Addie filled his lungs with the cool fragrant air and sped the car a bit faster into the turns. His acceleration effected a heavier sway, and he felt the increased pull at each curve. He smiled at the sensations of the road, and the air, and the quiet dawn of the canyon.

The road turned toward a half familiar scene. A bend in the road, nothing more. When did he first see this? He fixed and hardened his mouth, trying to look back over the years to that first trip. Desert View Drive. The watchtower at Navajo Point. It was all he could recall of the day he had spent there as a boy - so many years ago. He could recite the narrative of his own life and the itinerary of those summer vacations, but he could not manage to summon the scenes he was after. He tried but other memories appeared. They seemed to stand in his way, prevent him from reaching back. Not there.

Still life scenes appeared to him without context: his father’s eyes in the rear view, a roadside table set in red, and the family wagon parked at a motel. Others appeared in motion, like two second reels of a soundless, flickering silent film. There was his father, hopping between boulders set in a churning river, and then a lantern wick lit from a match glowing and growing bright. He could hear the hiss of that lantern, and other sounds too. That terrible bellow, sounding more like driven cattle than his own father. He tried not to linger on those harder memories, he wanted the canyon, the smiles, and scenes seen by impressed tourists.

The bits and pieces that he did find, the ones that stood above the waterline of his recollection, gave color to his past. Others lay beneath, out of sight, and out of reach. But they were there, deep, working on him.

The people and places of our past shape and polish the lens through which we view the world. Addie could count the memories he had of that vacation on two hands. But that trip had defined who he was and continued to affect him and his own family. Like a glowing, humming core, those unreachable memories powered his character and ambition, his love and yearning for the road, for the mountains, and for his family - his past was his forward momentum, it was his future.

August 1987

Blown by the push and pull of an early breeze, the olive canvas wagged and swayed like heavy drapes in an empty chamber, billowed by the opening of a door; stirred by the movement and pressure of air. The flaps of the tent swayed outward, revealing the campground in twilight, the risen sun still hidden below the rim of Sunset Crater. The tent flaps wagged inward, pushing the twilight out and pulling the darkness back in. Out again and in again.

Moving deliberately to avoid disturbing the warmth of his sleeping bag, Addie reached out an arm and ran his fingers down the tent flap, pushing a larger opening to gain a view of the campsite and the empty spot where the family wagon had stood.

His father had left earlier that morning, before twilight. Addie had lain still with his eyes shut against the dark, listening to the low sounds of the man getting himself ready, the fabric of clothes and bedclothes shuffling as he gathered his shoes and pants in the dark. Breathing and grunting. Talking to himself. Whispering his way through the task, “Where’s the other one? Damn. Here.” Addie had heard the cotton fasteners of the flaps being untied inches from his head but then the movement stopped. His father was still there in the tent, Addie sensed him kneeling beside him, watching, judging. He heard the man’s breathing through the long stillness. A pause which had seemed louder than his father’s shuffling. “No. Not yet,” the man whispered. Then, the sounds of an abrupt rustle and flourish of canvas. Followed by the sound of footsteps growing distant across the ground, the car door, the engine, the tires.

Alone now, the absence of sound created an emptiness in space. A void that Addie felt within the dark warmth of the tent. In a place so close and intimate, people are not just seen and heard…but sensed in their presence and felt in their absence. Addie wiped his tears and lay with his eyes shut against the quiet dark.

“You got a lot of growin’ to do…”

His father was true to his word. In the week since coming down from Baylor Saddle, the man had not invited this son on a single hike. Each morning, Addie would lay in the early dark and listen to his father rustle himself ready in the tent before driving away, returning in the late evening or after the sun had gone down. He would sit by the fire and tell stories to his wife and son. Tales from the trails he had hiked and the things he had seen. Fantastical stories of near or distant mountains, embellished, and exaggerated for an audience of one. His father recounted the treacherous Elden Peak, the grand Doyle Peak, the majestic Humphrey Peak. Stories from trails he had denied his son.

Days and miles came and went without any change, July to August, Santa Fe to Four Corners to Flagstaff. Each morning his father left him in that tent, and each morning Addie’s tears ran hotter, harder, and more bitter. But he waited. He explored the woods or milled about camp. He read his father’s books, London, Stevenson, Kipling, Golding, and he spent time with his mother who gave him lessons on cooking and fire building. For much of the trip, she had felt distant, but now they walked and explored together, taking time to admire the ground below and the canopy above. They named the trees and smelled the air, admired the flowers and the wide horizon - the micro and macro of the forest. Addie began to notice and love the things beyond the trail, and he found solace in the natural world. All the things his father would hike past, that he had hiked past, became lovely and worthy of time and kind attention.

This widening of experience filled his days and soothed Addie to a degree. Yet, he still wished for his father’s trail and ached for his anointing hand, a redeeming tap in the morning twilight. He could not understand why the man had cast him off. Why, after years spent hiking together over hundreds of miles, was he so suddenly declared too young, unable to continue. It was incomprehensible to Addie. And his inability to understand what should be so simple a thing, caused him to question himself.

Eventually, cowed by his lack of understanding, Addie accepted the answer he had been given. He accepted his father’s accusations on Baylor Pass. He had been declared too unfit, too unworthy. Though, Addie didn’t know how much ‘too’ was nor by what measure his father used. What measure should he use? How would he know when he was ready, when he would be allowed to fall in behind that man again? He knew he must ignore those questions; he must simply train. So, Addie trained, blindly.

When their campsite was near enough to a park or trail where Addie could venture out on his own, he did so. Spotting landmarks in the distance, a knoll, a tree, a tower or ridgeline, he would set a point and go there. Then hike beyond to another landmark. And then another. He hiked alone, with little rest, depriving himself of water, day after day. He followed established trails or blazed his own, until his feet ached and his throat cracked. The miles strengthened his ability, and the pain hardened his resolve. Although his mind was a dervish, he steeled himself, forcing contrite patience. Hiking for the moment when his father would judge him ready in the dark twilight and, kneeling at the tent flaps, touch his shoulder, ending the deafening stillness.

It worked. Patience and trial paid off. His morning came.

“Come on, boy” the man said,” I know you’re fakin’ it.”

Addie opened his eyes to see his father knelt before him in the dim light of the tent.

“Out of bed. Let’s go for a hike.”

Addie had never moved so quickly. He tore his sleeping bag off and had one leg in his jeans before his father had even pulled himself from the ground. “Jeans, snap, shoes. Damn, Where’s the other one?” He threw the flap outward and made a crooked run for the car, the heel collar of one shoe bent beneath his foot.

It was still dark out, but light enough to see remnant smoke rising from the ashes in the fire pit. A thin line lifted toward the treetops in translucent gunmetal, its woody smell lending weight to the crisp air. Addie breathed deeply, rushing to the car, remembering the fire and his father from the night before. “He said he was going to the canyon today.” And then. “I get to hike the canyon today!” Addie beamed.

Racing to the car against no one, Addie lost. He slapped his hand on the passenger door and saw that his mother was already there, asleep in her seat with a pillow and blanket. She awoke to her son’s appearance and smiled as she straightened and tidied herself, smoothing her hair and checking the mirror as Addie slipped into the back seat.

“Hey mom. Did you sleep here?”

“Good morning darling. Yes, I came out here for the quiet. You boys were snoring up a fit last night.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“No, no. It was no trouble. I didn’t mind.”

The driver side door squealed and shut and his father started the car with a look in the rear view. “You ready?”

“Yes, sir!”

“What about you,” his father said, “are you ready?” Addie didn’t hear his mother respond, she just turned her head toward the window and gave a quiet nod. “Good. Here we go.”

From their camp at Sunset Crater, it was a two-hour drive to the canyon. Route 66 was nearly empty of cars as they drove through Flagstaff, past restaurants, trading posts, and gas stations which had not yet opened for the day. Downtown, they passed the train station and turned north onto a road which led out of town and through a thin forest of Ponderosa Pine and Gambel Oak.

“Mount Humphrey is up there along with some others. There’s where I been hiking this week.” He was pointing up to the right with an eye in the rear view.

“I can’t see the mountain.” Addie said.

“No, we’re too close to see it. But it’s up there.”

“How far are we driving?”

“Well. The forest will stop with the mountains, and then we’ll have about an hour of desert before the canyon.”

They drove as the man had said, reaching the park after the risen sun had burned away the morning chill. A handful of cars were lined up at the entrance gate, but it did not take long to work their way to the front and into the park.

“Here we are.” His father switched off the radio and rolled down his window. Addie did the same before his father could remind him, glancing up at the mirror to see if he had noticed the initiative. Addie pushed himself onto his knees and leaned out through the window, looking deep into the forest for animals or views of the canyon. The car tires crackled across the roadway as they wound the road toward the Grand Canyon.

“Look. Deer.” Addie heard his mother and turned to see where she was pointing.

“They’re elk.” Addie said.

“Rocky Mountain Elk.” His father said.

“So pretty.” She said as the animals looked up in alarm at the passing car. Several more grazed beside the roadway, along with squirrel and Mule Deer. A few cars had pulled off to the side to photograph the animals, but Addie’s father passed them by with a quiet snort.

There were vacant parking spaces at the El Tovar hotel, and they parked near the squat entry portico that was clad in cut limestone and deep brown pine. It looked fancy, and Addie wondered what it would be like to stay there, perched high upon the cliffs, overlooking the canyon.

“Can we go inside?” Addie said.

“There?” His father said. “No. Hotels are for people who can’t afford a tent.”

Addie hopped out of the car and squatted to check and tie his shoes before pacing and circling around to speed his parents along.

Addie knew what lay ahead, he had seen the pictures and knew the story of the canyon. His uncle had given him a world atlas for his sixth birthday which included photos of human and natural wonders. Addie had flipped through that book until the pages were stained brown and torn at the corners. He liked to study the maps and the roads. He imagined being cast from home and dropped somewhere over Leningrad or Bombay, Timbuktu or Harare, the pink commonwealth, or the green Francophonie. He studied until he was certain, should that ever happen, he could find his way home again. There were pictures too, wonderful photos of majestic scenes from around the world. Ayers Rock, Lake Baikal, and Salar de Uyuni, the Amazon, Mount McKinley - he wanted to see them all. And of course, the Grand Canyon, a world wonder so close to home. To stand on the rim and hike to the Colorado River, still hard at work, carving and shaping the canyon. A wonder in a state of constant change, growing ever deeper and wider.

His father finally appeared beside him, stretching the two-hour drive from his shoulders and arms. “Well come on then, let’s go look at this hole.”

“Hurry up.” Addie had to shout at his parents to get them moving; he looked back at their dismal pace and growled. They couldn’t keep up with his excitement.

“Slow down, Addie!”

He heard his father, and his tone. But the rim was just ahead. Addie looked back one more time before leaving his parents behind. He leaned into a run - serpentine through the cars in the parking lot, along the circular hotel drive, and onto the curb.

“I said slow...”

That time, he only heard the man’s tone.

Addie ran past a tall, layered pueblo of sandstone, busy with ledges, windows, and morning shadows. Roughhewn ladders leaned high on the building connecting the rooftops. The walls were built of slanting bricks that looked half toppled, and brown support logs that jutted from the sides like from a pin cushion. The oddness of the building drew Addie’s attention away from his path, causing him to crash headlong into a man who was strolling from the other direction. They tangled and toppled to the ground with a grunt. His ears filled with the sound of ringing and muted shouting.

“I told you to slow down!” His father held him in a painful grip, just above the elbow, where he had been yanked from the ground.

“Never mind, boys will be boys. He just got a little excited. Can’t blame him, in such a place it’s hard to know where to look. Truly, there is no need to fuss, there’s been no lasting damage. You know, with a proper track and lane, he’d make a fine distance runner.” The gentleman jostled Addie’s shoulder, “though perhaps not the steeplechase, eh?”

It might have been the man’s age, his silver hair beneath the white Panama which had fallen to the ground along with his glasses. Or maybe his clothes, the periwinkle field shirt, pressed and tucked into white linen slacks, disheveled from the tackle. Or that the man was staying at the El Tovar, enjoying all its trappings and wealthy connotations. Perhaps it was his kind genteel manner, his pink commonwealth accent, or all the above. Or maybe something else entirely caused his father to blush so deeply with apology and embarrassment and caused him to stammer, fluster, and fuss the way he did.

Whatever the reason, Addie had never seen his father that way, almost servile in his deference to a stranger. He was embarrassed by it; embarrassed by his father acting like that, sputtering while everyone else chuckled and passed it off. And it wounded him to hear his father scorn him, “He’s just a stupid clumsy boy.” Addie watched and listened, feeling his own anger and scorn. It was entirely unexpected; he did not recognize that man.

But he recognized what came next. Addie did not often suffer physical violence, but he was no stranger to it. He knew the feel of the rough hand that clamped the nape of his neck like a painful tiller, steering him away from the canyon, back to the car. His father’s hand squeezed and pushed from behind and Addie shuffled ahead. He moved in silence. He felt betrayed by that man. An anger burned inside of him. Addie decided to fight back the only way he could; whatever came next, he would suffer it with a stone face. He would not behave as his father had. He would not grovel or sputter apologies.

They reached and rounded the car where Addie lost his balance to an abrupt jerk from behind. He was pinned against the back quarter window. Held there in place. Pressed against the car as his father opened the door. His cheekbone and forehead burned from the pressure of the glass.

“Stop. It was just an accident.”

His mother was shouting now, though Addie couldn’t see her from where he was pinned. Neither did he see what ended her shouting.

The man pulled him back by his scruff and pressed him through the door. Addie felt his head strike the door post and his legs scrape against the threshold as the man folded his body into the car.

“I told you to stop running! Didn’t I?”

Seated now, Addie turned to face the man and saw that his pink embarrassment had become a red rage. His face wore a fury that Addie had never seen so clearly. But it was also familiar; all his father’s features were there. Addie could see traces of them beneath the monstrous contortion that glared down upon him. His father’s loose wagging jaw was flexed and tightened, his steady watchful eyes were frozen black, and his brow, which could be so wrinkled in surprise and laughter, was twisted in a tight creased furrow.

Addie shrunk beneath the wrath. The face was monstrous. Yet it was clearly his father. It was practiced, almost natural in the way he held it. He recognized the face from Baylor Pass, and traces of times before. And just then Addie knew. The man was not wearing a mask of anger. Rather, his mask of balance and forbearance had cracked and fallen away.

“Answer me.”

The shocked betrayal that Addie felt presented itself as stubbornness, he would not submit himself. “No, sir.”

Stone knuckles stung Addie’s temple in a flash of light, and he felt his face clench, but he did not cry out. And