The first time I ever saw snow fall, that I can remember, was at the entrance to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. I was twenty-one, a freshly minted college graduate, on a December road trip from Tallahassee, Florida to Portland, Oregon and back again with two of my best friends in the world, Dee and Jay. The Grand Canyon stop was on the “back again” leg. Tired, road weary, ready for home, we veered from our planned course and decided on a whim to pop by to see one of this land’s most majestic wonders. “Let’s stay a night! I’m treating us to a room with a view!,” Jay announced, which meant his parents’ credit card would be treating. “Hoorah!,” was the response from me and Dee. The flakes started to fall as we turned up the winding road that led to the welcome gates. By the time we reached the way-out-of-our-price-range-but-hey-Jay’s-parents-are-paying lodge perched at the very edge of the world, it seemed, the snow was coming down heavy and fast. The view from our premium room with a view and from the scenic – and icy — walkways that laced through this patch of the northern rim? Snow, snow, and more snow, with a blanket of fog mixed in. If the Grand Canyon had been a snake it would have bitten us, but we had to take the hotel staff’s word for it because, for the thirty-six or so hours we were there, we couldn’t see a thing through the pea soup.
This is all to say that I have a real soft spot for Interstate 10, the east/west corridor that Dee and Jay and I zigged and zagged our way from Florida to California on so many years ago. I-10 was the road that took me and Johnny Rocket to my freshman dorm at Florida State University. He took I-10 back home, I stayed. It’s the road that Dee and Ess and another Jay and I relied on for road trips to New Orleans when the siren’s song of Mardi Gras called our names. It’s the road that leads from Florida nearly all the way to my new home in Austin before I hang a slight right and hop on 70 West for the last seventy miles or so. And it’s the road that stays mostly straight and true through the hills and plains and tablelands of West Texas, a drive I enjoyed for the second time at the start of this month, veering north to slither along the border with Mexico as it approaches El Paso.
It was during the most recent drive, the one just two weeks ago, that I found myself flashing back to that end of college trip I took with Dee and Jay. Memories of us cruising on I-10 through West Texas at night, listening to the radio, and stopping at a rest stop to call Governor Richards to beg her to stay an execution set for the next morning (the switchboard operator wouldn’t connect us). Memories of bats at Carlsbad Caverns and a boy named Oh in LA and hanging fliers for “Chicago in ‘96” on the campuses of Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. Memories of skiing for the first time in Tahoe with Kelly and flying low and illegally over the waters of the Pacific Ocean with Uncle Bill in his tiny plane. Memories of spending three hours guest deejaying on the radio in Portland, Oregon, making jokes about “where the heck do you find a cup of coffee in this town?” to our own and not likely the listeners’ delight. And memories of arriving at the welcome gates to the northern rim of the Grand Canyon as snow flurries filled the sky.
I’ve spent many hours and days on the assorted highways of this big country of ours but all roads, throughout my life it seems, lead back to I-10. The road that trails south from the Grand Canyon leads to I-10, too, and that’s exactly where Dee and Jay and I met up with my favorite highway once again after we left the park and headed, finally, for home. Our departure was a day later than we expected, partially due to the snow fall, but mostly due to a wicked trio of hangovers after a night spent drinking tequila and listening to Bob Dylan covers in that rustic little lodge, practically empty except for us and the staff, on the canyon’s edge. Jay’s parents ended up treating us to two nights instead of one and, throughout our stay, the snow continued to fall with no canyon in sight.
Until that last morning. With our bags packed and our resolve to drive straight through until we reached Tallahassee fortified, we walked outside just after sunrise and saw, at last, what was in front of us the entire time. The Grand Canyon. Breathtaking and big and like nothing I’d ever seen before. The air was crisp and cold and the sun was bright and slowly rising into the sky and, standing on that ridge just feet from a sharp drop into the wide chasm below, I felt closer to God than I think I’ve ever felt in my life. Majestic, people. It was majestic. And as I took it all in, I knew two things for certain, knew them in my gut: I’d know these two people I was sharing this moment with, Dee and Jay, for the rest of my life. And I’d be back to this part of the world, back to this exact spot on the ground to see this awesome beauty again. Back soon and often.
Sorry to say, dedicated readers, that I was wrong about always knowing Dee and Jay. I’ve lost touch with them both – one slowly and lazily and the other swiftly and painfully – and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. If anything, losing them has spurred me to accept those losses as over and done but to hold on fiercely and tightly to everyone else. No more casual casualties in this life, no way no how. But when I think back to that snow fall on our first day at the canyon and that sunrise on the last I feel grateful for the memories I have and the friendship Dee and Jay and I shared. That was a moment, a real moment, and we will always have that.
As for the other thing I knew that day, the thing about going back, well, I’m abashed that it’s taken as long as it has, but I’m happy to report that I’m headed there the week after next. I don’t know that I’ll be able to find the exact spot where I stood in 1995 – truth be told, I’m not even sure that it was the northern and not the southern rim – but I know it will be beautiful and I know it will be memorable and, for the most part, it will be just as I left it. This time it will be my big sis that I share it with, her first peek at the Grand Canyon. I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.