A woman approaches me in the McDonald's parking lot in Barstow California. Her weathered skin is as black as the asphalt, and, despite her age, so smooth she looks as though she has been carved from a single slab of granite. Her bristly hair is patched with grey and so disheveled it radiates from her head like a corona. She mumbles something unintelligible. She extends her hand and asks again for spare change. I haven't any and shake my head as I move on toward our rented car. Her front tooth is missing; the other tooth is yellowed and unnecessarily long. She is so thin her denim shorts bag at her thighs. She wears rubber flip-flops on her bare feet. I'm surprised they don't melt and adhere to the hot asphalt. It is only nine in the morning but the temperature is already 90 degrees F with triple digits threatened for the afternoon. When I look back before getting in the car, she is already gone, off to cajole change from other passing motorists.
I wonder what brought this poor woman to Barstow in the first place. It isn't a town most people would choose to call home. Nestled in the bottom bowl of the Mojave Desert, it boasts one major street that cuts through the desert like a fault line. It's called Main Street now, but it was once part of historic Route 66, an actual piece of what was once the only road that linked Chicago to Santa Monica. That chunk of severed road is now a tourist attraction, boasting vintage motels flanked by plastic cacti and souvenir shops that hock everything from T-shirts to tacky merchandise from a bygone era. It seems as though anything can become quaint if you just let it age long enough.
In five minutes we're out of Barstow and heading east on I-40 toward Arizona. For about thirty miles we follow the train tracks. Three massive engines are pulling a load of rail cars in alternating shades of brown and beige, making the train look like a snake slowly crawling across the plain. The flat landscape quickly gives way to stunted hills covered with grit and tufts of olive green brush so evenly distributed they look as though they have been deliberately planted. Soon the tracks diverge from the highway and the rest stops disappear. The topography becomes rougher and the hills higher until their fissured summits look as though they are about to burst apart.
We slowly ascend. A layer of mist or dust-in this climate I can't tell which-clings to the floor of the valley below us. The mountains melt into the sky, flat blue and dulled by the rising dust. Only a few clouds streak the sky, pale and impotent as a distant dream. Even in the air conditioned car we can feel the heat radiating from the windows, feel the dryness seeping through the glass. Frequent sips of water are a must. We drink sparingly, conserving each valuable drop. This is the land of perpetual drought.
The I-40 extends in a straight line before us. I can swear there is water out there in the distance, great puddles of the stuff shimmering like quartz in the middle of the highway. It looks so real it reflects the back of a truck that is just up ahead. The air wavers as though steam is rising from it. But I know there is no water out there. The air and earth have long since sucked this desert dry. It is just a mirage. The only real things are the craggy landscape and the mountains, hardened as though they had been baked in a kiln.
Eventually cacti appear. They are stout and stocky with bristled heads and so numerous they carpet the landscape and mottle it with shadows. We don't see grass again until we reach the town of Needles; a puddle of jade nestled in a valley between two squat mountains. Small white roofs of houses speckle the green. We stop for gas at the Mobil Station. The heat attacks us like a swarm of stinging insects as we emerge from the car. Flying dust fills our nostrils and sears our eyes. This town exists because of the Arizona River, a band of emerald water trickling through the valley and spreading green like spilled paint. Crossing it, we enter Arizona.
* * * *
Surely the train must be moving faster than that. From a distance it looks sick; it crawls so slowly along the same track we abandoned half way between Barstow and Needles; but we meet up with it again once we cross the border into Arizona. It is hauling brown and white cars, stacked two to a platform, and is heading in the opposite direction, back to California. A black train passes it, heading deeper into the mountains with us.
Arizona is more rugged than California, but also more lush. The brush is taller and a bushier shade of green, the trees sturdier and less scraggly. Perhaps it is the river that has nourished this arid landscape back to health. The mountains here are higher, their peaks sharper and a dull bronze shade. The desert rises toward them like waves pulsing against the shore. A few of the mountains have flattened peaks as though their summits have been lopped off by a giant cleaver; or perhaps they had risen just so far and then given up. At their feet are fields of saguaro cacti that stand as regal and erect as human beings. Empty husks of abandoned trailers and houses decorate the landscape like the discarded skins of snakes.
Rattlesnake Wash is just outside Kingman Arizona. We are now only 166 miles from our destination. Knobby boulders cling to the mountainside like tumors. A sign warns us to watch out for elk. The temperature drops by five degrees and it will get cooler the higher we climb. It's disorienting. Like Icarus who flew so high the heat of the sun melted his wings, I have come to believe that the higher I climb a mountain the warmer it will be. Not so. By the time we reach an altitude of 5000 feet, the temperature has dropped by another three degrees.
We lose the radio. Gone is the hiss of music through the speakers, interspersed by crackles of static and the ghost voices that drift in and out whenever two stations overlap. The rocks have absorbed all frequencies. We travel on in silence.
Trees become taller the further we go. Cedar and spruce spot the blond hills that appear almost furry under their layer of dusty dark green. Our descent down a mountain takes us back to another flat plain. At this altitude, it must be a plateau. Tumbleweeds, the stuff of cowboy legend, whip across the ground like balls of prickly down and strike the side of our car with a whooshing scratch. We swerve, narrowly missing an RV in the next lane.
More forests appear over the next mountain. This one is so steep a queue of trucks sits chuffing in the opposing lane, exhausted from the climb. We cross a bridge over a river, red and murky, sluicing over the stone. The temperature drops another five degrees. Clouds tumble in from the west, dragging their shadows across the jagged hills.
The town of Williams appears in the valley below like a swath of gold and green patchwork. Soon we will reach the exit that will take us to our destination. We are heading north on Highway 64. The hills ahead loom dark and low, eroded into hunchbacked mounds that jut out in stark contrast to the golden brittle grass. The desert has finally given way to the mountains, low in comparison to the ones we left behind. They prostrate like pilgrims until there is scarcely any hill left at all. Once again the forest is usurped by grassy plain. We pass several heads of cattle, their snouts to the prickly grass, endlessly chewing. Only one mountain looms in the distance like a blemish. Is it our destination? I wonder. Anticipation courses through me like effervescent water.
Our windshield is splattered with the viscera of insects unfortunate enough to meet their doom head-on with our car. We have arrived.
* * * *
I am standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, looking back in time. The setting sun is broiling the layers of rock into various shades of maroon and magenta and every shade of rose in between. The faceted layers plunge over a mile toward the Colorado River, whose waters are obscured like the water up here on the surface. But I know it is there. I can hear it and feel it coursing through the canyon, hidden like a dark family secret.
Beside me on the observation deck a family of yokels is chortling and playfully elbowing one another. Their backs are turned toward the canyon like a mistress who has used up her allotted time and is now of no use to them. But I can't pull my eyes away.
When I was a child, my fifth grade teacher, Miss Beatty, spent an entire semester discussing the Grand Canyon with the class. She was a plump elderly spinster then, on the verge of retirement. She began by showing us slides of her vacation to the Grand Canyon with her sister and brother-in-law. Afterwards, we studied its legacy in history class, its topography in geography class; we even read novels about the Grand Canyon in English class. "Brighty of the Grand Canyon ", a story of a prospector and his donkey, is the one I most recall. Everything we studied in class that year pertained in some way to the Grand Canyon.
Looking down into its magnificent depths, I finally understand, after thirty years, what she was trying to express to us. It had touched her in a way no words could convey; I had to see it for myself. She passed away a few years ago. I never had the chance to thank her and to tell her that now I know. Now I understand. It was worth leaving the Mojave.