Looking Up in Grand Canyon

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Grand Canyon
This article was printed in New York Resident magazine.

“Your father hurt his knee and we prepaid for the Grand Canyon hiking trip. Can you come with me?”

Seduced by the moment, and some Jewish guilt, I said yes. My head was screaming no. A vacation to me is HDTV and a remote control but Mom and Dad had spent the last fifty years of marital bliss traipsing about the world on rustic adventures.

So that’s how I ended up with mosquitoes chomping on my neck, hair sticky with sweat. I missed New York City and my dog and wondered if there was a hotline. Then I remembered there’s no cell service in the canyon. I looked up at Mom standing by a sign in hiking boots and denim shorts. Her strong runner’s legs and dyed-like-a-punker clump of pink hair disguised her age. The sign read, “Caution: Live Rattlesnakes.” A week of snakes, mountain lions, hiking and sweat had me nervous, but my biggest fear was of her. Of us.

My romantic daydreams of Grand Canyon never included sleeping in a tent with my 72-year-old mother.

On her sixtieth birthday Mom ran the New York City marathon. Whenever I’ve tried to run with her I’ve gone from jogging, to speed-walking, to hobbling. My mantra: “Wait!” For two months I trained—huffed and puffed up stairs in subway stations and movie theatres. Now I looked at Mom and the hard bodies of our fellow hikers and wondered if I’d call attention to myself when I collapsed on jagged rocks and moaned for a deli and a Diet Coke.

We set out on our ten-mile hike, my pack was too heavy, bugs bit me and I resented Mom for this awful idea. Just as I considered an early flight back I noticed Mom was bent over and walking slowly.

“Ma, you’re leaning to the left. Stand straight. You’ll hurt yourself.”

She snapped, “I am standing straight.” As she turned away she whacked me with her knapsack. Mom has always walked too close to me, as if I’m her appendage. Abruptly she stopped and knelt down. I asked her what she was doing.

“Hmm?” she said absentmindedly while she rummaged through her pack where everything was wrapped in plastic bags. Even out here in the wild open sky my muscles tensed to that familiar rustling sound. She retrieved a partially used Kleenex and blew her nose same as always—one hand held the tissue, then “choo, choo, choo.” I turned up the volume on my iPod and zoned out.

By the end of the hike Mom, who’d refused to believe me, was severely bent over. She looked frail and old and I felt guilty.

“Let me hold your backpack, Ma.”

She smiled but looked like she might cry. I held her hand and walked her to the van. Once inside, in a wave of love, I massaged her crooked shoulders. I asked if she was okay for our next day’s hike through Havasu Falls. She wasn’t sure.

We fell asleep at 8:30 p.m. I woke up in the middle of the night. I turned on the flashlight and froze. Two Jurassic-sized spiders were on the tent wall. Too terrified to move I lay still. I was scared. I wanted to go wake my “mommy.” I’d regressed.

Morning came, time for another hike, a crawl through narrow rock tunnels. I couldn’t believe I was doing this voluntarily. In place of skyscrapers, primordial canyon walls loomed, no car horns, no sirens, only the thunder of waterfalls. A cool breeze felt good against my cotton T-shirt.

Mom was feeling better and ready for the “scramble.” Natural footholes were worn into rock, metal pegs with chains served as handrails. There was no net. Vertigo made my skin crawl but I mimicked the hikers ahead of me. Mom’s voice snapped me out of my worries when she yelled proudly, “You scamper like a monkey!”

We hiked back to the campground. Our two guides whipped up a feast of dumplings in soy sauce and General Tso’s beef. One guy blabbered about visiting Bhutan where he ate yak heart. I was grossed out but recovered quickly when carrot cake was served. Shamelessly I licked the icing off two pieces.

Mom and I headed back to the tent. For half an hour I leaned on my elbow, struggled to hold my book, turn pages and read, all without dropping the flashlight. When my arm went numb I called it a night.

Awakened at two a.m. by rustling of plastic bags, my head popped up like a periscope.

“What’re you doing, Ma?”

“Looking for Kleenex.”

I asked her if she had to blow her nose. She did. We knew there were napkins next to the picnic table. Bravely I took the lead. The guides told us we might bump into bobcats or mountain lions at night. I pointed my flashlight to the ground, Mom gazed up at the sky.

“Look at the stars. ” she said.

I stopped and looked up. Indeed they were magnificent but I said, “Forget the stars, Ma, watch out for horse dung.”

We burst out laughing.

Then Mom said, “That’s a wonderful metaphor for life—people can spend their whole life on guard, or they can gaze at the stars.”

After having low expectations of the trip, it was surprisingly fun. I talked a local Indian into renting me his horse for a thrilling ride. Hiking, riding and schlepping had earned me extra calories. After stuffing myself, Mom and I walked back to the tent. She’d had high expectations and was disappointed. I asked her what was wrong.

“When you were horseback riding I was sure you’d be in an accident and I would have to turn off your life support.  And,” she sighed loudly. “I don’t feel liked.”

What a role reversal. The amazing networker uncomfortable around people? And me, the self-conscious one, at ease. I wasn’t accustomed to this.

I assured her that she needn’t care what the other hikers thought of her, she didn’t like them anyway.

“Stop trying to talk me out of how I feel.” She snapped.

When I pointed out how well she and I were getting along her face softened. She flicked a tear away with her thumb and I was overwhelmed by how much I love her.