I’m in Page, Arizona for a few days visiting my sister. Yesterday I borrowed her car while she was at work so I could visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. As usual I took my camera to document the day.
When I stopped for fuel and snacks before heading out of town I didn’t take a photo of the wiry, over-tanned, tattooed, man in the convenience store who cut in line and was yelling at his wife from the check-out counter while she was trying to choose a cold drink. I didn’t take a picture of the way he berated her, another customer and the store employee who was trying so very hard to maintain a standard of good customer service. I didn’t take a photo of him climbing into his enormous, expensive white pickup truck while wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, though the image of him will probably stay with me for a while.
As I drove south on highway 89, I didn’t stop to take a photo of the dead cow on the side of the road even though there was a part of me that wanted to. It was black and white and bloated. Its legs faced the sky. I considered stopping on my way back, but by then the dead animal had been removed.
I didn’t take a photo of the numerous roadside stands made of corrugated metal and wood where Navajo men and women sell handmade jewelry, pottery and tapestries. I wanted to stop and look at their wares but I’m not much of a shopper. So I just drove past, enjoyed what I could see from 70mph, and hoped some folks were stopping to make it worth the vendors’ time and effort to be there on the side of the highway in the heat and the wind. One of these stands had a stunning mural of a Navajo girl with a sheep painted on one side. I wish I’d stopped to take a photo of that. Maybe I’ll get another chance.
I didn’t take a photo of the white crosses decorated with flowers that I passed from time to time. Some were in clumps of three or four. Some were alone. I didn’t stop, but I imagined families stopping to remember their loved ones near the place where they’d passed from one realm to another. Each time I passed one of the crosses I checked the speedometer, and usually I slowed down a little.
I didn’t take photos of the Lutheran church with its giant, well-tended playground, or the Bible Church right next door with its measly, outdated swing set and metal slide. I know that parents don’t decide which church to attend based on the quality of the playground equipment, but surely if the children of that community were given a choice, they’d choose to be Lutheran.
There was no way to take a photograph of the disappointment I felt in myself when I realized I’d missed the turnoff to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and was nearing the entrance to the South Rim. The disappointment was so great that I didn’t even bother to snap a photo of the view of the Canyon from the first stop inside the national park. Instead, I took a quick look, got back in the car, and backtracked three hours in order to get to the North Rim with enough daylight to enjoy it.
Once I found the turnoff that I’d missed earlier in the day, I didn’t take a photo of a house that was carved out of and built next to a giant boulder near the roadside establishment called Cliff Dwellers. Further along I didn’t stop to document each sign that marked another 1000’ rise in elevation as I drove up into the Kaibab National Forest. There I passed the evidence of old forest fires and the stark remains of blackened ponderosa with young, yellowing aspen trees growing beneath them.
I would have liked very much to take a picture of the buffalo I saw at about 8000’ in a meadow that reminded me of Rabbit Ears Pass outside of Steamboat Colorado, but a woman was walking dangerously close to the animal with her own camera. I had dreamed of a buffalo the night before, but in my dream it was standing alone in a meadow. It wasn’t being stalked by a tourist.
After six hours of driving, when I finally reached the North Rim and got out of my car, I wandered around for a bit. Before I ever went to a viewing deck or got a look at the Grand Canyon, I enjoyed watching the people. They were all ages, from all over, and all of them seemed pleased to be there. At one point a Japanese family piled out of the car beside me and while most of them didn’t look directly at me, the grandmother flashed me a tremendous smile. It was a photo-worthy smile that restored a bit of the hope for humanity that I’d lost earlier in the day at the convenience store.
It was strange to be in such a remarkable place without a travel companion. I found myself wanting to share my experience with someone. I wasn’t sad, but somehow the experience felt incomplete. I did take some pictures, but the light was all wrong, and photos—at least the ones I take—are often inadequate at capturing depth and height and scale. So I took a few less-than-stellar shots of the canyon and lots of photos of trees. Now I have lots of images of trees to help me remember my trip to the Grand Canyon.
On my way back to Page from the North Rim, the low-angle sun reflected off of the Vermillion Cliffs in the distance. A near-full moon rose above them. I stopped several times and tried to get the perfect shot. Some photos turned out all right considering I don’t have the equipment, the drive, or the patience of a professional. But some things are beyond one-dimensional capture. Photographic images are no substitute for the way a warm desert breeze carries the scent of juniper and sage and sand. The way it carries the song of crickets and the rustling of rabbit brush and tumble weed.
At one point when I was facing east, trying so hard to capture the evening, I stopped and looked at the shadow of myself, long and lean on the dry ground before me. It seemed silly to be so determined to remember a moment in time so completely, but it’s what I wanted to do. I wanted it all—the sounds, the smell, the temperature, the feel of the wind on my skin, the taste of dirt on my tongue. I wanted to hold on to the image of me there in the expanse of desert with the setting sun at my back and the lit-up cliffs ahead. I wanted to capture the space around me and the moon and the brightest stars that were just beginning to show themselves. I was greedy in my desire to keep hold of this place because it is the kind of place I am from. This high Western desert is my baseline and whether I mean for it to or not, it holds the standards by which I judge everywhere else.
Turns out I was trying to capture a place that I’ve been carrying with me all along.