fearless or reckless, continued

Summer, 1994
MFA Program at UNC Greensboro

Albuquerque isn't a pretty town: its outskirts are suburban sprawl--strip malls and gas stations, fast food and titty bars. Happy Hour Special! Eat a 72oz steak for free! I’m embarrassed pulling into the KOA campsite, paying the ranger $15 knowing that I have no tent, no stove, no friend, no frisky labrador nosing around campfires like the other campers. I must look insane.

It’s stunning how lonely one becomes in three days. In my mind I’ve been gone for weeks. Without the warmth of familiar contact, I feel like part of me is vanishing, my skin’s becoming transparent. I call up my younger sister Julie, a freshman at our shared college alma mater in Ohio. Since our dad died four years ago--suddenly, of a cerebral aneurysm--we’ve become close. She’s my ally in the resistance against our grief, our halved set of parents, the conflicting messages of approval and abandonment they've given us. She’s my sole source of unconditional love.

As I feed quarters into the campground's one payphone, Julie’s worried but supportive. She will wire $100 via Western Union and we vow not to tell our mom about my whereabouts—a promise kept for over ten years, until the truth seems too distant to hurt her. If I have any inkling of turning around, it’s because of my sister. A responsibility I feel in my bones, but can't speak with my tongue.

The next morning, I buy a cup of coffee and a pack of $1.99 Basics and study the atlas. The Grand Canyon is reachable in a day. I commit a portion of my new $100 to the trek and a night at a Flagstaff hotel.

What can I tell you about seeing the Grand Canyon alone? I sit on its edge and look and look. Silence is painted upon the chasm of red and purple rock. That far-off air is infused with palpable stillness, historical, hazy, thousands of years old. The air there is not the air I breathe. The canyon isn't real--not in the way that oceans or the Rocky Mountains, which I've seen, are real. Perhaps it’s the foreignness, the inability of photographs to contain and express true heights and depths. The inability of any medium to prepare viewers for the canyon's alien compositions.

I long for an epiphany, for the cliffs to reveal their secret hushed blues. I want to tell you something magical. I want to tell you one day that the place changed me forever.

But the moment extended is a little like New Year’s Eve. Too much anticipation and fantasy has preceded it and the actual moment can only fall flat. I smoke a cigarette. A couple in identical sweatshirts pass by and complain about the smell. What is it about tourists in matching outfits? My butt's getting tired sitting on a rock. I know I’m supposed to ride a donkey or sail in a hot air balloon or embark on an eighteen-mile hike surviving on granola and juniper berries, but I’ve driven all day. I’m exhausted by all of this, by dazzling scenery and excitement, by cigarettes and loneliness.   

That night, I check into a cheap motel room. For the first time I’m really afraid. The door, which opens into the parking lot, is made of thin plywood, easily kicked in. The knob has a simple lock that even I could jimmy with a credit card, if I'd had one. I get a 7-Up from the vending machine and come back to find Hustler in the musty nightstand drawer. The magazine scares me most. As if the owner has left his residue on the sheets and blankets. As if he is the same sort of man who might break down the door. The campgrounds are inexplicably less scary, my car resting in the open, among scorpions and coyotes and lightning bolts. Nature isn't sleazy or mean. 

I want to go home.

And fear did bring me me home. My real fragility and need for comfort were exposed under the wide desert sky, whether I sat on the edge of a canyon, a hotel bed, or some unmet  disaster. Running away had nothing to do with Nate, and everything to do with grief. A reason I couldn’t articulate to myself, the grief was so fresh. 

My dad’s parents, Geraldine and Parker Heck, had both died during my first year in graduate school. They were in their 80s and had been married for over 60 years. They had gardened and cooked and grayed together in a retirement community of their choice. Losing their son had sped up their deterioration, worn down their lifelong Christian faith to threadbare and breaking. Oh, the doctors called the last illnesses dementia in my grandpa and pneumonia in my grandma, but I saw (the way poets see) that they had died too soon of broken hearts. 

The late autumn night I learned that my grandma died, I ate mushrooms and drank Mad Dog 20/20 with my Chinese friend Jarhead. We ran through the college golf course where the hills were hillier and the greens were greener. We took turns watching each other gallop across the field and giggled at the distorted sense of near and far, large and small. The stars hung starrier in the sky, hammered sterling and drunk and glittering. I hardly knew Nate yet and I was already running away.