Havasu Falls, Havasupai Reservation
Breathing heavy from the hike, we stop at the bottom of the canyon and sneer at those who let the skinny horses cart their backpacks to the bottom. We jeer at those who flew down in a helicopter. But the water is the same blue-green for all of us. How can the journey matter when the destination is the same?
Hurtling graveward, I wonder if we’ll find the journey worth it. Are we travelers here on earth, or are we tourists, stopping only long enough for a photograph?
I am sick and tired of fanny packs. Of overpriced tchotchkes and the dim, muddled people who buy them. Memories can’t be pocketed by magnet or postcard or overpriced T-shirt.
The hikers with the heaviest backpacks have the hardest time making it up the path. Considering lilies is impossible when you’ve plucked them and pressed them and hung them on your wall.
Maswik Cabins, Grand Canyon Village
My open door faces guest cabins. I can sit in bed and watch them drag their suitcases up the stairs. They’re noisy and they’re always lost. They stay for a night, then a new gaggle arrives in their place, perched on the cabin porches like big, dull geese with clipped wings.
The tourists blend into each other in an eccentric wallpaper of elderly Japanese people in huge sun visors and slim Italians with shockingly low-cut shirts. Sunglasses press into the burned-pink flesh of their meaty foreheads. They all complain about parking. They all ask for the bar.
But these people are artists and teachers and lovers; children and parents and the reason I’m here. They pay for the trails I hike and the programs I enjoy. They are the reason for the shuttle bus I know so well and the hotel that pays me every other week. If we didn’t have tourists, would the Canyon be so Grand? Does it diminish with every set of eyes, or does it grow?
The Star Spangled Banner is locked away, because air and sunlight eat around the bullet holes. If enough people look at a book for long enough, the words will fade and the paper crumble. The same sun and water that break apart our treasures batter us. Is this why we stay inside? If we shield our bodies, will we save ourselves from the poison of breath and light and time?
Shuttle Bus, Grand Canyon Village
“Moose!” the woman on the shuttle bus shouts and nearly lunges out of her seat. Before I can stop myself, I correct her: “Elk.”
“Tell the driver to stop!” she shouts, craning her head, reaching for a camera.
“They’re out every night,” I say, because I can’t help it. “You get used to them.”
But here’s the secret: when I come upon an elk with a rack of velvet horns, my heart stops. Dark neck, tawny flank, knob-knees, he utters an eerie cry like a whining child and I breath out of my mouth and my nose and forget how to breathe back in for a moment.
All of us are looking for something that will last longer than we will. We grip memories tight in our sweaty fists. We so desperately want to feel again, we chase after wonder like a child chases butterflies. Some of us are aghast when our sticky fingers crush the fragile wings. But some of us crumple the bodies in our pockets as souvenirs.
When we love food, we consume it. There is nothing left but crumbs.
Havasu Falls, Havasupai Reservation
Supai village startles us. After miles of bare rock, barbed-wire fences and satellite dishes seem alien. Wiping dust from our ears, we hear a man with a lawnmower shortening the thick green grass behind his prefabricated house. It must have been carried down in pieces on the back of a horse, unless a helicopter lowered it. The pack horses rest behind wire. Their eyes are rimmed by flies and their ribs are countable.
A dog prances up to us, eyes wet and turned up. “Don’t touch it,” one who’s been here before tells us. “It’s a res dog.” Painted signs point us to the tourist office, which is a whitewashed shack; though it has air conditioning, and sells ice cream from a small refrigerator with crusted ice along the sides.
“It’s so poor!” one honest girl mouths, too loudly, and I cringe and fold inside myself. This is the one who said how lucky that the government had given the Havasupai—the People-of-the-Blue-Green-Waters—this beautiful land, this beautiful bounteous land in the dust of a remote canyon, eight miles from high ground by horse or weary foot.
I bite my tongue. I want the canyon to open up and drop me deeper, away from the even glances of the Havasupai girls my age with babies in hand, their stares too blank to be accusing, too guarded to let me flail them with my guilt.
When we pay our dues at the tourist office, a woman hands each of us an emergency-red wristband with “TOURIST” printed on it so we remember when we see it that this will never be our home. Others pull out their cameras. I duck my head instead.
There are waterfalls tucked in the bottom of the canyon. They are spectacular. People crowd into the crystal pools. They model bikinis and scream with joy as they jump off cliff ledges. We clamber up ridges and swing in hammocks, letting the roar of the river rush us to sleep. Every one of us sports the wristband. The Havasupai have left us to the water and the water to us.
I think that someone ate their fill, then tossed the scraps and demanded a share of even those. This makes me sick, but even so I’m grateful. The water is so cool and clear.
Have I paid my dues? Can one ever really pay enough? I’m a tourist and I hate it. Eyes have touched every surface of this earth, if not the next one. To whom does it belong?
When we’re hiking out, the dog follows me up the trail. He stops when I stop. He pants at my feet. He is a res dog, so I do not want to touch him, but he looks up at me with wet eyes and a mouth twisted somehow, resolutely, in a grin.
We destroy what we love by loving it. We’re hurtling graveward with butterfly wings. But the world is worth exploring, and all of us are tourists somewhere, sometime, even if it was only when we burst headfirst into this world.
We learn to be travelers, slowly. We drop our backpacks by the side of the path and take deep breaths. Maybe life is not what’s picked up, but what is left behind. Maybe we need the gawkers. Maybe we let the flag unfurl and fade.
We protect what we love by hiding it from the atmosphere’s appetite, but the sterile boxes work by shrouding things in darkness and silence, by killing anything that lives.
And wonder is a living, breathing thing.