“Welcome to nothing,” David emphasizes. The desert streams past through the window glass, alien and bright.
“We told you there was nothing,” Mehraj adds.
“Yeah, there’s not even people. Only more nothing, and signs that say ‘We told you.'”
It’s not nothing. Arizona — even along its more mundane stretches of highway — is amazing to me. It’s more mountains, more sand, and more cacti than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s dusty, and intense, and vivid, and bright.
It feels more like home than any other stop along my journey so far. This is strange, considering we’re in the middle of a heatwave and I’m from Canada — but I’ve been thinking this since I arrived, and the feeling has yet to be proven wrong.
There’s this wide, open familiarity in the sprawl of the cities; in the clear, bright signage; in the way people strike up conversations, with a certain kind of smile. Phoenix has won me over. I’ve been marveling at how a big city, with all the offerings of a big city, can still feel so much like a small town when you’re in it. Time just seems to trickle by, steady and slow.
A few months ago, Arizona was barely more than a dream. Sometime in April, I haphazardly Tweeted about how cool it would be to road-trip along the Pacific coast and onward through the American Southwest. This was sandwiched between similar expressions of wanderlust for Amsterdam and Australia, all of which seemed equally ridiculous at the time.
I’d long harbored dreams of solo-adventuring, fueled by stories from friends, but had long maintained that I was neither gutsy nor travel-experienced enough to pull off such a crazy feat. I’ve lived in one city all my life. I don’t even like running errands alone. I can barely process left and right on a map. And now, here I am — sitting in the back of a newly-met friend’s car, watching the cacti go by.
“The only people are the horse thieves,” I suggest, referring to the ominous trilogy of signage we’ve passed: Horse Thief Basin, followed by Bloody Basin, followed by Dead Horse Ranch.
“Yeah.” Mehraj nods appreciatively at the throwback. “But we should know, the horse thieves are also murderers.”
“They’re still human. Horse thieves are people, just like us.”
“They got families to feed,” David agrees.
“And horses to feed!” Glady adds gleefully. A self-professed “sun-weenie,” she is shielded for adventure in three kinds of sunscreen, a wide-brimmed straw hat, and a monkey umbrella that draws positive feedback from strangers wherever we go.
“They stole so many horses!”
“That’s like, so many more family members!”
“They stole so many horses that they have to steal even more horses to sell, to feed the horses they’ve already stolen!”
“It’s very noble.”
“Just fillin’ up the basin.”
Justin is mostly silent through all of this horse banter. He sits opposite Mehraj, in the passenger’s seat, with easy access to the music. The style of his humour is silent, yet deadly — he quietly takes everything in. Whenever he chooses to land a joke, it’ll be the one that everyone remembers.
“The basin’s full of horses.”
“He’s just constantly in the red.”
“What if he got really desperate and fed the horses horse?”
I’ve been in some tedious, awkward car rides. This isn’t one of them. Aside from Glady, who knew me going back to my middle school emo haircut days, I’ve really only just met these people — and here we are, bonding and cracking wise with ease for hours on end. The right road trip, with the right group of people, can do that to you.
And it’s not just the moments of banter and levity that connect you — it’s the shared experiences that really seal the deal.
Out of the five of us, David and I are deathly afraid of heights. I get dizzy even looking down a flight of stairs. David emphatically gulps whenever someone mentions the grandness of the canyon. Glady is equal parts afraid and adventurous. Justin and Mehraj are too metal to fear death.
So we hold our breath, we look over the rails, we take some pictures, and we make some puns. Nobody falls, and nobody dies. All in all, it has been an excellent day at the canyon, which is very deep and very wide.
“Okay,” Mehraj says. “Now we’re going to go there.”
It looks like he’s pointing to an outcropping a bit lower into the canyon, which is connected to solid ground by the narrowest ledge of rock, and peppered with desert shrubbery. We wouldn’t actually go there. That would be ridiculous.
“You mean that rock over there?” I ask, gesturing toward a friendlier-looking platform in the vicinity.
“Oh, yeah, we’ll go there first. But then,” and again he points to that ridiculous outcropping, “We’re going there.”
“No, we’re not…”
“Yes, we are!”
(You get the idea.)
The Grand Canyon is so vast that even when standing at the edge, it looks like a picture. The opposite rim blends right into the blue of the sky.
Once you venture out into no-guardrail territory, something changes. The features of the land rise up to you, and blend out into the blue more gradually — you can actually start to conceptualize the vastness of what you are facing.
This is what I’m thinking about, perched at the edge of the outcropping: I’m trying to find the words, so I can come back to them one day; so I can use them to explain to someone what I’m seeing and what I’m feeling in this moment, right now.
I’m here, and I got myself here — but I was terrified. I don’t know how I managed to do it — I just remember that I suddenly had to become very conscious of my body. Every step had to be steady and supported. I had to feel out the shift of my weight more intensely than ever before, with every part of my brain screaming out in fear. I had to shut that voice off. I had to trust the people around me, and ask for help when I needed it. I had to breathe in, and breathe out, and keep pushing forward.
I won’t be afraid of heights after this. I’ve looked my fear in the face; I’ve left it behind in the desert. I can conquer tall flights of stairs, lean over a rail, and hike up a cliff just to peer over the edge, without that sinking feeling in my stomach. I will do all of these things, in that order, after I’m back in my city.
For now, I just look at the sky. The sun is setting, and the far edges of the canyon light up in shades of purple, orange, and red. We stare at our surroundings, like a riddle we are collectively trying to solve.
Our cameras can’t capture what enraptures us, but we try.
Other travelers spot us below the ridge, and venture over to where we are. We meet two white guys named Caleb, both music teachers, who have aimlessly made their way across the country from Pennsylvania in a beat-up car. We chat with a couple in adventure gear. We flinch as a beefy-looking guy hurls a soccer ball into the abyss.
“We were there,” David notes wistfully, looking over toward the faraway specks of tourists gathered over the rail, “And now we’re here.”
“Never say never,” Justin intones. Then, in a deep, serious undertone, he cites the source of his quote: “Justin Bieber.”
Silent, yet deadly.
The drive back to Phoenix is a little more on the quiet side. Night has settled in, and the roads are winding and dark. The small towns have shut down for the night. I buy two donuts from a convenience store in a gas station, wishing I’d filled up on nachos earlier.
Everyone is tired. Our grand day has tapered off into collective exhaustion. No one is especially eager about the idea of stopping over in Sedona again — “We’ve seen stars…” — but whether out of courtesy to their Canadian guest or the convenience of being right along the highway, we pull over at a rest stop just outside of town.
When you’ve grown up in a polluted city, you constantly forget what the sky actually looks like. In Toronto, it feels rare to see more than a handful of stars.
I try to take a picture of the stars, but the screen is completely dark. It’s strange how something can be so clear before your eyes in the moment, but only then.
Like at the edge of the canyon, I try to think of the words. This time there are none. I can’t tell you what it feels like to look up into the darkness, to sense your eyes adjusting to an endless spread of tiny points of light, and to think that every single one is so much larger than you — to spread your own arms across something so vast, and to feel so lost beneath it. I can tell you what I’m seeing. I can tell you what I’m thinking.
I can’t tell you how I feel.
I can tell you what I do. I lie back on the hood of the car, and hold out my hand. I take a picture of it, illuminated in the camera flash, the night sky entirely dark in the background. And I wish this moment could stretch on forever — these people, this place, this tiny, impulsive universe in which I’ve found myself.
David sees a shooting star. I see one, and another. We all glimpse at least one apiece, except for Mehraj, who takes our word for it. We marvel at the frequency of the phenomena, and keep our wishes unspoken and safe. (We will later discover that we’ve caught the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower, and that our wishing stars were a well-timed invasion of space debris. Some of them might still have come true.)
We all express, in our own words or in silence, that this — this view, this moment — is incredible.
I will save these friendships in my phone, the way I save these pictures. They will always be there when I come back to them, or when they come back to me. I will look at a picture of a prickly pear cactus perched on Sedona’s iconic red rock, and it will transport me back to a time, a place, and a memory. I will know in my mind that it looked and felt a little different when I was there, but I won’t be able to describe exactly how.
Maybe one day we will be able to capture our memories in a way that doesn’t dull them. I wish I could visually represent the feeling of 112°F of desert sunshine. I wish I could show you the stars. I wish I could remember every snippet of conversation, every word that made me smile. When we say “take me back,” we don’t just want to return to a geographical place. We want to return to a feeling.
That tiny universe stretches on in my mind, the memory only half as alive as the moment.
Until our phones can save the way our hearts feel, we have art.
We have pictures.
We have stories.