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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 02:32 pm

Vacationing on the edge of reality

In which a mountain man flings silly women into the abyss

Untitled Document My wife, her brother, sister-in-law, two nephews, and a niece-in-law are hiking the Grand Canyon. It’s down, around, exploring, then up and out — four days of walking narrow ledges. I am not walking narrow ledges. My excuses are reasonable — age, plus a back that only works after epidural shots — but they are excuses hiding the truth, for I fear standing on the second rung of a well-balanced stepladder. I’m not sure how this happened. I worked summers in a cement plant during my college years. Giant light bulbs atop two smokestacks 20 stories high needed replacing every month. They paid $25, in early-’60s bucks, to anyone crazy enough to climb up the rusty steps and do the deed. I didn’t just climb up; I also took a bottle of Schlitz with me, replaced the lights, lingered at the top, drank the beer, and mooned my fellow workers down below — and now I fear the second rung. Grand Canyon, day 1 — I walk a mile from El Tovar Lodge, along the canyon, until I discover a wooden bench “an appropriate distance” from the rim. It’s a good place to spend four days, reading the canyon, reading books, and reading people. My inadequate vocabulary cannot describe the beauty of the canyon. If you’ve been there you know: It’s awe-inspiring, inspirational! Someone who is wont to write “god” with a small “g” who comes here, I believe, will leave writing “God” with a capital “G.”
There’s another bench nearby. I’m sideways to the man occupying it, but I can see his face full-on when he turns my way. He looks wise and settled, as very old folks often do. He’s dressed in a weather-beaten fur cap, mid-shin cracked leather boots, and a plaid shirt. His pants are hitched up to just under his armpits; two walking canes rest beside the bench. He’s familiar; I somehow know this man.
He acknowledges my “Howdy, friend” with a nod and no words. I spend the day, I leave, the old man stays put. Day 2 — I’m at my bench at daybreak; he’s already in his place. It’s where he spends all his time, I think — because he is Jeremiah Johnson, a mountain man who came West in 1847. Legend has it that he never died, that he roams the wilderness still; he wandered 160 years until he found this perfect place, and here is where he stays. I tip my cap. He knows that I know. We say nothing.
We are joined today by a little girl, maybe 12, with heavy braces on both of her legs. I see her first at a bend in the path, with a group of other children. The group runs off the other way; she walks slowly our way and sits next to Jeremiah Johnson.
They talk throughout the morning. She laughs a musical laugh and shakes her head in wonder at his stories. It’s a first-rate morning all around.
I nod off in the afternoon sun, or maybe not. A young woman jogs past. She’s just stepped out of Playboy magazine’s centerfold. She hurries by and seems not to notice me, but I know she looks away on purpose — because she desires me. She is one of the many beautiful 25-year-old women nowadays who desire men older than their grandfathers — women who fantasize about jowls.
Her desire will go unrequited — for I love my wife. Day 3 — The little girl doesn’t show. The centerfold, after suffering through the reality that she can never have me, has decided to devote her life to medical research and has discovered a cure for the little girl’s ailment. The little girl runs pell-mell down the path, beating her classmates to the bottom of the canyon.
A gaggle of ladies of a certain age, wearing red hats and purple boas, spill from a yellow bus and into the lodge. They’re on a choreographed mission; they cha-cha around folks trying to eat breakfast in peace! They pose; they take pictures: “Look at us! Look at us! See how silly we are!”
They conga-line down “our” path; they take the fur cap from the old man’s head and replace it with a standby red hat. They nuzzle in beside him and snap a hundred pictures. Then Jeremiah Johnson picks ’em up one by one and throws ’em over the canyon rim, into the abyss.
Day 4 — Jerome has been my breakfast waiter all four days. “Your last day,” he says, “you really ought to try leaving the lodge and walking the canyon rim.”
“I can see it just fine from the lodge porch, Jerome — it’s inspiring, inspirational!” I add, “I miss the little girl with the leg braces; her laugh was … morning music.”
“She was inspiring,” said Jerome, “inspirational!”
Well said! Jerome looks wise and settled — unusual for someone so young. I wish I had his vocabulary. At the table to my left, four women in red hats play kazoos.

Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net.
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