April 19, at approximately 8:50 a.m., I set out to become an Outdoors Woman.
I never made it.
I drove all the way to Friendly Pines Camp outside Prescott. I brought a sleeping bag. I brought a pocketknife. I brought a long book (a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman). I brought snacks.
I brought it all to the Arizona Wildlife Federation's Becoming an Outdoors Woman Program, a three-day outing "designed primarily for women." This is what the brochure said.
Why would I want to participate in a program designed "primarily" for women? Well, Daddy tried--God knows he tried--to show me how much fun one could have in the world of nature, but there was always something about setting up a tent at midnight during a subzero snowstorm in Yosemite that forced the word "motel" into my brain. Later came Indian Guides, Cub Scouts, Webelos; all pointless tortures.
Since then, my areas of survival expertise have concentrated on things like facile corkscrew technique, advanced thermostat use and basic enjoyment of massage, both shiatsu and deep-muscle.
But now I am fully grown, and, I reckoned, it was time to slip into some kind of sturdy outerwear, put down the snifter and pick up the canteen. Still, I didn't want to dive into nature with one of my mocking, Grizzly Adamsish friends, and there weren't any weekend getaways in Becoming an Outdoors Man. My wife suggested something along the lines of Becoming an Outdoors Sissy; of course I laughed for a full three minutes before kissing her brutally.
So an Outdoors Woman it was to be. And as training to become such a thing, a variety of rugged sessions was offered: Game Calling, Basic Hunting, Survival Skills, Tracking, Fly Fishing and the old standby, Muzzle Loading. I ended up with Fly Fishing, Archery, Canoeing and Venomous Animals, Identification Of. A full dance card.
I pulled in to Friendly Pines, drove past the "Welcome Ladies!" sign and parked in the dust. A friendly chap with a big gut and a name tag that identified him as an "instructor" greeted me, asked if I needed any help getting my stuff to Tewa cabin, my assigned quarters. I said no. But wouldn't you know--we were both in the same cabin!
"Guess they had to put all the guys together," he joshed. "But there's still plenty of bunks left." I lugged my stuff all down a small hill, weaving through women, and made it into the cabin. Gee, plenty of bunks were left. Plenty of top bunks. I had a hard time choosing between a corner spot roughly 16 inches from someone's head or an upper berth next to the communal toilet, which had a slightly ill-hung door that, I guessed, did little to block sound or smell.
I opted for the corner, took a deep breath of mountain cabin air, then strode across the sagging floor, out the door and past tall pines to join my fellow Outdoors Women-to-be for tuna on pita and a piece of fruit.
Fly fishing was my first hurdle.
Twenty-three of us were driven a quarter-mile to a small lake, where they had a pro ready to fill us in for the next four hours. He began to talk, passed around actual flies in formaldehyde, then flies that had been tied so we could see the clever similarities that would fool fish. I was sitting in the shade, and it began to get cold.
Finally, the pro broke out rods and pieces of cord the color of Mountain Dew that we could attach in place of flies. We approached the water and started whipping the thin lines back and forth, getting them stuck in weeds and branches. I saw a lizard run by. A woman said, "This is just like that movie The River Beneath Us." I suggested that she meant A River Runs Through It. But it was kind of like that movie, lines curling delicately through the air as the afternoon sun began to sink on me and 22 women.
It was after the fly fishing that I decided I would rather not become an Outdoors Woman. I got back to my cabin and looked at the metal bunk. It did not look good. I had a sore throat. It was dinnertime, but I wasn't hungry. My schedule said I had a talk called Reflections on Historical Outdoors Women to look forward to after the meal. Then "relaxation and networking."
I didn't want to network, I didn't want to relax, I didn't want to lie in a bunk and listen to other men's farts rip through the darkness. Archery, venomous animals, canoeing; I would do without these things. I would admit defeat. The women could have the outdoors. Who was I kidding?
I rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed my snacks back into my pack and slunk unseen out to my car as the laughter of 107 women eating lasagna carried from the dining hall and played among the trees.
What to do now?
Drive all the way back to Tempe and watch TV?
No. Maybe the Friendly Pines scene wasn't for me. There was still plenty of nature out there. I could still get something out of this trip; I wasn't a quitter.
I decided to head for Flagstaff, where I knew people, where I could sleep for the night behind a beer in front of a fireplace. Plus, there were plenty of pine trees easily visible from their deck, I could pet their dogs, and I could fortify myself for what I determined was to be Round Two of this jaunt into personal discovery.
The Grand Canyon.
I reached Flagstaff and entered Joe's Place. This is a bar on Route 66 where the dusty heads of beasts of the wild hang from the walls, and people are getting eighty-sixed by early afternoon. A middle-aged guy sat down next to me and said his name was Scooter, quite a name for a middle-aged guy. Scooter had the thin face and aquiline nose of a British butler, and the cheap maroon Windbreaker and stained polyester slacks of an American hot-dog vendor. Which he was, it turned out.
But Scooter was much more than that. I asked where he was from. "Mars," Scooter replied, sipping from his beer. And how did he come to roost in Flagstaff?
"Well, as my ship came into the atmosphere, the only scars on the surface of the Earth I could see were the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon," said the Martian. "I decided on the Grand Canyon."
"Hey, that's where I'm going," I gushed. Scooter knitted his brow and drank more beer.
Before you arrive at the Grand Canyon, you will pass by another ancient place representative of early man. Bedrock City Prehistoric Park. The stomping ground of one-dimensional primitives Fred, Barney, Wilma and Betty--or, as the brochure calls them, "the Flintstone gang"--Bedrock City is unavoidable at the junction of highways 180 and 64. Just look for the huge, towering Fred gesturing you into the massive, empty parking lot.
Bedrock City is an excellent primer for the wonders to come. You can "experience the beginning of time as you enjoy prehistoric cartoons." You can "play golf at Fred's Southwestern mini-golf." If you're hungry, stop in at Fred's Diner, where "the Flintstone gang stands ready to satisfy even the mammoth of appetites anytime of the day." And "much more."
But I'd seen all the cartoons 25 years ago, I don't mini-golf, and I wasn't hungry. The 'stones may have had much more to offer, but I didn't want it. The Canyon beckoned.
And then I was there. Stepping out of my car along with hundreds of others emerging from vans and tour buses, and dismounting motorcycles. We all advanced to the rim of this indescribable Wonder of Nature that dwarfs man and time itself, and stood in silent awe.
Then everybody got back in and drove off to eat somewhere, probably at one of the overpriced fast-food joints in Grand Canyon Village.
No offense to the Canyon, but that's the way it works for a lot of people. The place is just too much. The scope is too vast for easy understanding, so get out the Instamatic, slowly shake your head and mutter words of amazement. Maybe kick a pebble over the edge.
There are the hardy souls who hike to the bottom and back, the thrill seekers who brave the unforgiving Colorado River, the animal lovers who risk bubonic plague feeding rock squirrels, the Outdoors Men and Women who spend quality time in the Canyon visiting spots with names like Phantom Ranch, Buddha Temple, Cremation Creek, Elves Chasm, Hindu Amphitheater, Swilling Butte and Dick Pillar.
But that sort of exploration takes time and money and, of course, energy.
You simply can't comprehend even a tad of what the Grand Canyon is all about in one afternoon; it is, after all, literally thousands of years old.
So take my advice. If you want to experience the Grand Canyon, I have two words for you: IMAX Theatre.
Just minutes from the South Rim, the imposing brown brick walls of the IMAX angle into the pristine blue Arizona sky high above Highway 64, dwarfing even the adjacent Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. It is truly a sight to behold. More than 80 million people around the world have viewed IMAX; that's 80 million people who have been privy to Grand Canyon--The Hidden Secrets. And what secrets IMAX reveals in 34 heart-stopping minutes, on a 70-foot screen with six-track Dolby sound. It's almost like being there.
My IMAX brochure blared "Native Americans in Traditional Dress on Staff." Sure enough, I saw a number of Native Americans in Traditional IMAX Dress--black polyester pants and red polyester shirts.
I paid my $7 for the privilege of entering the IMAX Theatre ($3 less than it costs to get into the Canyon!) and, even when you're looking at the white screen, it's breathtaking. The film begins. Bigger than life it is, grabbing one and all for an action-packed journey into the mysterious bowels of the Grand Canyon, sweeping you down the overpowering rapids of the Colorado, weaving a tale that is nothing less than the primordial history of Man and Nature. And this happens 365 days a year, every half-hour, with plush seating for 525 and accommodations for eight wheelchairs.
Thirty-four minutes later, the secrets of the Grand Canyon were no longer hidden from me or about 300 Japanese tourists. Maybe I can't claim the title of Outdoors Woman, but I returned to Phoenix with tales of Nature, tales of the mammoth spectacle up the road. Thanks to a guide named
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.