Vaya Con Dios

A rugged hike across the Grand Canyon leads to a life decision to leave New Times and see what the future holds

We set off minutes after dawn to begin our descent down the North Kaibab Trail and into the depths of the Grand Canyon.

I have lived in Arizona for 32 years and never hiked to the bottom of the canyon, let alone rim-to-rim. Now was the time — in the dead of summer, when the sun would control.

I wanted this to be a transformational experience for my sons, Jed, 20, and Joey, 16, and a confirmational experience for myself — that I still had it in me at age 50. My oldest friend, Jeff Hansen, also at the half-century mark, joined us.

Down the steep pathway we ventured, with the San Francisco Peaks lurking above the horizon as a sentinel above the gorge below. We were about to enter into a realm that would propel us into different dimensions.

I will not venture to speak for my companions, for such experiences are intensely personal.

But for myself, I will share with you a glimpse of what happened and why now I am sitting in a bar adjacent to the downtown square of Arcata, California, eating a pizza with anchovies while Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon plays on the Internet jukebox, and, most important, writing my last column for this rag.

The canyon is seductive, like a beautiful mistress beaconing across the darkest night. You think you have it made, and then karma's knife plows deep into your heart, leaving you gasping.

And then you know, the only option is to take it one step at a time.


Twenty-two years ago, I set off from my parents' home in northern Virginia with my backpack, my dog Bear and a new pair of hiking boots. I already was fed up with the corruption and deceit that permeated Washington, D.C.

I longed for the West, whose raw beauty had stolen my heart as a college student at Arizona State University in the 1970s.

But I was also a child of the nation's capital. I was on Constitution Avenue in November 1963 and saw President John F. Kennedy's horse-drawn casket roll by accompanied by the drummers' mournful beat that still occasionally resonates in my mind.

I was raised in the flotsam of Vietnam and the constitutional crisis spawned by Watergate, a time when great journalism turned the tide — however briefly.

I was inspired by the power of the press.

After graduating from ASU in 1978, I worked as a copy boy at the Washington Post. I met Bob Woodward. I met Ben Bradlee. I worked in the newsroom of the greatest newspaper in the world covering high school sports and inconsequential business stories. I flashed my Washington PostID badge at the building security guard with pride.

But there was no full-time staff writer slot to be had. I was told to go out into the hinterlands and practice the art. So I did.

I dropped off my new Chevy Chevette at the car dealership in Arlington, Virginia, with a note saying something to the effect that I didn't want the thing anymore and they could take it back.

I watched my mother's mouth drop as I entered the kitchen — head shaved — on a clear April morning in 1984 and said I was heading to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and that I'd be back sometime.

Bear and I walked down to Interstate 66, and we set forth on a trek to find out what's up. An Australian shepherd-golden retriever mix, Bear was happiest when we were moving. And what made Bear happy made me happy.

Rides came quick.

Rides came slow.

I fell into that rare space in life when time was plentiful and cash was short. All I needed was a warm sleeping bag and a good dog to survive.

A week later, we were in Denver, where a huge snowstorm blocked our path to the Tetons. The decision on where to go next was easy: Arizona.

We landed at the Farmer House, a hippie pad in old Tempe, where travelers came and went like the wind. I started working with a couple of block-layer buddies as their bitch, mixing and hauling cement up to the masters as they laid up another wall.

Grace soon intervened, and I somehow landed a job as a business reporter (of all things) at the Phoenix Gazette covering agriculture. Yeah, I had degrees in journalism and economics, but didn't know wheat from alfalfa. I quickly discovered that farming needs water, and, in Arizona, water is king.

I suddenly had a grand high perch overlooking Arizona politics. What a cesspool I saw!

There was only one option: I wanted to discover if there was anything, something, a strand, a morsel, a pebble of truth that I could grab onto and try to turn the tide a bit.

Just a tiny bit.


The air was cool and the going was easy down the steep slopes of the North Rim. We arrived at Cottonwood Canyon by 10 a.m., the spot where I had reserved a campsite for the night. My sons were pumped — they wanted to keep going another seven miles to Phantom Ranch and the Bright Angel Campground.

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1 comments
George Joe
George Joe

John,I was wondering why my emails to your were bouncing back. You are the reason I started reading New Times. And i read all your stuff: Keating, Deconcini, Fife Symington, Peabody, etc. And yes, I know how you kept reporting for years about Fife Symington's corruption and the Republic just looked the other way UNTIL the day he was indicted. I learned something that day.

 

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