Thursday, March 15, 2007

20.) The Hitchhiking Years: The Grand Canyon, Vietnam, and a Meteorite from Space

I made it to the rhythm guitar player's house in Flagstaff and told him about nearly getting killed by the psycho in the Datsun pickup truck. Apparently there was a lot of tension in the city at that point between longhairs and the establishment, which made sense. It was 1972 and Vietnam had torn the country up. One of my lasting memories of these times was the evening news with Walter Chronkite reporting how many U.S. soldiers had died that day. Usually it was dozens.

To anyone who romanticizes about the 60s - and really, they lasted into the early 70s - I say go right ahead. But I remember the great parts as set against an overwhelming backdrop of depression. Vietnam was a wretched disaster, and it was incredibly frustrating knowing we, the youth of America, were right about it, and they, the establishment adults were wrong, even as they talked down to us and questioned our patriotism. And all the apologies that would come decades later didn't help a bit, just as they won't help when the right wing finally admits the truth about Iraq. Of course, today is more of a Red State-Blue State divide. Back then it was generational.

So I was in a perfect mood to step away from the foibles of human beings and ponder one of the most remarkable places on earth. It was time to visit the Grand Canyon. I camped out near the lodge and went in for breakfast in the morning, which led to a funny scene. There was this family there in the dining room: Mom, Dad, and the bored teenage girl. They thought it would help perk her up from the doldrums of her family vacation, if they invited someone her age to have breakfast with them. Incidentally, that was always my problem with girls back then. I was never one of those threatening types. I came off as a wholesome, innocent goody-goody much to my chagrin. I wanted to be someone the parents feared would get his grimy hands on their hot little daughter, but I couldn't get near that level of animal magnetism. This was where being in a rock band really saved me.

The lodge was interesting. This was a rare place in normal society where respectable people could be seen wearing backpacks as it was the Grand Canyon - and good people hiked. So, the parents thought I was some well-off vacationer staying at the lodge, and it was kind of funny watching their expression when I told them I had crashed right out near the parking lot. I had only gone into have breakfast because funds were low and I needed to put it on the card. This, along with the stories of hitchhiking around the country, seemed to convince the folks that maybe this wasn't the person they wanted talking to their sweet little girl after all.

I hiked down on the Bright Angel trail, and camped out at the bottom along the banks of the Colorado River. Of course, it's a little obnoxious when people don't stay in the designated areas, but you have to remember I was from an environment in Arabia where there was just a few little towns set in the desert. It was basically a wild place and one of the things about America that was hard to accept was that it had been more or less tamed. Much of it had been processed into little zones of this or that. My natural instinct was to skip the campgrounds, etc...and I hiked up the banks of the river where I was alone. In my heart I was an outsider and I slept better when nobody even knew I was there.

I'll never forget the feeling of seeing the moon come up over the Grand Canyon with the sounds of the river nearby. I left behind all the geo-political stuff that was dominating those times, and I connected directly with the land. It is so obvious why the indigenous peoples of America felt spirits in the land. When you are at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, you can practically hear it talking to you, and lying in my sleeping bag, I was in awe.

Incidentally, I had been nonchalant about the physical aspect of this hike. I was the big-time hitchhiker who walked miles every day - what's a little walk on some trail? So naturally, I became quite weak climbing back out. As luck would have it I remembered some packets of sugar in my pack and drained them, but it was not pretty getting out of that canyon the next morning.

In fact, I was close to the big tipping point where I was no longer a hitchhiking tourist. From here on out, it would just be a matter of going home. Before I got out of Arizona though, there would be one final stop - at a driver's suggestion - just to look at something. It was the Meteor Crater some 35 miles East of Flagstaff, where a visitor from space had dropped in making a nice impact zone 4,000 feet across. Arizona had been a series of zoom-outs from the human level, to the planetary level to space. We had landed on the moon 3 years before, and everything seemed so positive about our future in space exploration. I heard the astronauts had even come to train at this site. Things were literally looking up.

Yes, the horrors of Vietnam hung over everything, but one of the great parts back then was our space program, and if you had told me we'd only get this far by 2007, there would have been no way I would have believed you. But after checking out the crater, this was it. I was now in transit. No more stops to check out anything. I was officially on my way back home.

Oh wait. There was one last piece of business, and I only had a day or two left to get it done. I was 18 years plus nearly 30 days and it was time to register for the draft. Even looking at this crater, it was impossible to forget the topic: Vietnam even hung over outer space.


At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Mam said...

Bill....I have a feeling that you are going to fly back home and this will be your last installment of your hitchhicking journy.
If it is the last one, just wanted you to know how much I have enjoyed your adventure (and all your other posts too).
You did a fine job of remembering for it just flowed from one amazing adventure after another.
Thank you so much.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Hang in there. I didn't quit - I rode it out to the end. In fact some of the craziest times are yet ahead.
And thanks for the kind words.


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