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A Hole in the Ground

North Rim Campground
Grand Canyon

I've been waiting in the rain at Page for my ballot to show up. It didn't. I guess they are overwhelmed down at the Williamson County Clerk's Office. Helluva a way to run a country. It might be a while. I decided to go have a look at a hole in the ground.

The trip to the North Rim is pretty spectacular in itself. You go down and then up the Vermillion Cliffs. In a turnout halfway down, I stopped to take a couple of pictures, and look over a line of Navajos selling trinkets and jewelry. There was a bunch of Germans on a junket there, all of them on big bikes, and between the guttural gabble, the blat and mutter of the idling bikes, and the crowd pushing and shoving, it was hard to get anywhere near those card tables.

That's all right. The last thing I need is jewelry.

The tourists, however, were quite a sight, all dressed up in leathers and attitude. But even when playing at being the "Wild Ones", their meticulous native penchant for organization asserted itself. For instance, this middle-aged band of Brandos was followed everywhere by a big panel van full of tools, coolers, tires, and assorted spare parts. Probably an ATM back in there somewhere.

Wild. But not too wild.

I crossed the Colorado at Marble Canyon. Snapshots can't capture this country. You can only take pictures of the parts, and tiny parts at that. It is the whole that is truly impressive. The parts are ordinary. Sand and rock. A few stunted plants. That's what is in the pictures.

What is before your eyes is the work of eons, a timeless striving mired in time, a rising up and wearing away of stone at once so slow and so unstoppable it makes your life seem small. And your pictures pointless.

I took a bunch anyway.

While climbing back up, and onto the Kaibob Plateau, I met a ski boat crammed into the back of a pickup. It rested at a sharp angle on the ladder rack, its nose stuck high in the air. The truck itself was being towed by a motorhome. The whole thing looked so weird, and flashed by so fast, that it took a minute to figure out what it was I just saw.

Jesus. How the heck are they gonna launch that?

Then it started to snow.

By the time I got to Jacob Lake it was getting hard to see, and snow piled in drifts along the roadway. This had been going on some time. I stopped at the gas station and restaurant. Unleaded $2.37. That's the high for this trip.

I started down the road to the canyon, but in just a few miles there was nearly a whiteout. Strong wind. A big sign, stating that the road ahead was not plowed. Hmmm. You know, this might be a good time for lunch. Yep. I found a wide place to turn around and went back. Sat by the fireplace. Read a week old paper. Had a milkshake. Dum de dum.

I was contemplating the likelihood of plowing down a snowcovered slope, pushed by the trailer. That happened to me last year, at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I got out my best manners. Rubbed off some of the rust. And somehow got permission to drop the trailer across the road from the parking lot.

Better safe than sorry. Even cliches are sometimes true.

Things lightened up a bit. I set off in the truck. As luck would have it, not more than 10 miles down the road, the skies opened up and the forest dazzled in broad sunshine. I met two snowplows. What the hell.

I drove straight to Angel Point on a smooth, dry, paved road.

Unfortunately the Canyon was filled with cloud. I took a picture anyway.

Then I checked out the campground. Nearly a foot of snow everywhere. You could tell where the road was by the gaps in the trees. One tent trailer, apparently abandoned, at least for the day. No snow under it, but lots on top. And a sign I could not resist: "Camping is free. Pick a spot."

So I drove back 45 miles and got the trailer. Twenty bucks worth of gas, offered at the altar of the gods of caution.

Slippin' and slidin', somehow I got into a campsite just as the sun went down. Right next to the bathroom. Then I snaked an electric cord under the Men's room door. And there you have it. A free electric site, and solitude to spare.

I looked across at the only other camper. An truck had appeared beside the popup. Seemed blue and cold and miserable over there, back under the trees.

So I went inside and cranked up the heater.

God, is it quiet here. I could get used to this. Every now and then, for no particular reason, you find an unexpected crack in the proper scheme of things, and get a little more than you deserve.

In the middle of the night I woke up. I don't know why. I slid the window back, and looked out at magic. Moonlight on the snow. I got up and dressed, and went for a stumbling, wondrous walk. Stark bars of light and shadow lay between the trees. Snowcrust crackled beneath my boots. The moon was full, and ruled the world. My breath was smoky, rising in the crisp air. I was a dragon in the night.

Somewhere in there I decided that the secret of traveling well is knowing when to stop. This might be a good place.

I stayed 3 days. The last two I truly had the place entirely to myself. I took walks, where the snow allowed. I took lots of pictures of the canyon, once the clouds began to clear. I watched deer, and a gaggle of spindly-legged turkeys, pick their way past my window. I even got a campfire going Sunday night, by making a sort of platform of logs above the snow. Sometimes, in the afternoon sunshine, the pines would drop piles of wet stuff on me petulantly.

I didn't care.

It was a wonderland.


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