Story #1: It was the end of a good day of traveling, a long motorcycle ride in the High Sierras and we were planning on camping. Even though it was a logical choice, it was a mistake to take my companions to my isolated private campsite.
My top-secret hideout is well off the road, back in the pine trees, next to a stream that sports 12-inch trout and close by is a perfectly flat place to unroll your sleeping bag. There was room for the four of us, but I should have kept it to myself and we should have stayed in the State Park.
Sharing this pristine mountain asylum from civilization with anyone was like setting up my high school sweetheart with drunken sailors and letting them take her to the “prom.” By disclosing the location of my mountain refuge I had defiled her natural virginity, pimped her to my drinking buddies, turned her out, flaunted her splendor without respect, all for no reason.
Nothing undue happened at the “prom,” everyone treated my camping spot with reverence, left only footprints and took only photos; still, in my eyes it was an error in judgment. Because, in the morning my best girl, the virgin who loved only me, now looked used, tattered and haggard, like a castoff whore.
Without speaking and instead of breakfast or even coffee, I packed my bike and left… alone.
It was several years of winter’s snow and spring runoff before I could return to my place, to return to my best girl and dance again with her at the prom.
I told this story to some men who ride motorcycles on long trips but always spend the night in hotels. They didn’t understand.
Story #2: During another motorcycle trip the small group with whom I was riding passed up a little known, deserted, but quite spectacular National Park campground with which I was quite familiar. At our next rest stop, describing what we had just bypassed, I waxed religiously about the horseshoe meadow that surrounds the campground, about the deer that come out of the quaking aspens in the evening, about sitting at the edge of the forest and hearing only the sounds of the leaves moving in the breeze, about how human sounds are an intrusion, about how footsteps mimic bombs and conversation sounds like the machine guns of war. They didn’t understand and refused to go back and take a look. In fact one of them responded how he liked to keep his radio on when he stops at picturesque turnouts.
No, they didn’t understand.
Story # 3: There is a pile of huge rocks in the desert, rocks the size of buildings. Mother Nature has arranged them so rainwater drains into a geological cistern and then slowly dispenses it into a natural water trough. Animals of all varieties come during the night and drink at this waterhole. It starts with rabbits at dusk and finishes at dawn with mourning doves. Coyotes, bobcats, owls also refresh themselves but there is a killing truce at this pool. It is the reverse of every story you may have heard about an African waterhole. There is no killing. All the animals share the rigors of desert life; they understand how each must toil just to live. They come in the night to re-baptize themselves against the desert and reinvigorate their bodies for one more day. The predators drink; the prey drinks. They pray and take the sacraments of the water and go their way. A mile from the rocks the truce is over and nature returns to normal.
Twenty yards above and a half-mile from where I leave my motorcycle there is a little spot among the rocks where I can curl up in my poncho and enjoy the night with all that goes on in the desert.
I have never told anyone about this place. If one cannot understand that human noise in a National Park campground sounds like machine-gun fire, how then would they understand this?
Story # 4: In 1941, at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, on horseback, two people ride out in the early evening. The woman, a summer college worker in the lodge cafeteria, has agreed to a first date with the man who is the chef and head of food service.
The man, an excellent horseman, leads them on the path to a stream, which meanders to the edge of the canyon. As they ride, without dismounting, he slides off the side of the saddle far enough to pick wildflowers and presents them as a gift to the woman. Little is said but a great deal of information is transferred between these two people.
They ride to the rim of the canyon, dismount and leading their horses they walk slowly by the cliff’s edge. Far across the canyon the afternoon brightness interplays with the oncoming shadows of twilight, showing every turn of every rock. The light dances and plays tag, caresses and cuddles every pebble on the far south wall. Far below, every twist and turning of the river that cut this great canyon into the landscape is shown in bright neon.
At sunset this place turns into a cathedral of changing luminosity, a sacred place glowing with Mother Nature’s radiant illumination. In reverence the couple is silent. For a mile, for a hundred miles, for a thousand miles, for ten thousand miles not a human scratch can be seen to interrupt the vista and only they are there to see and share this momentary beauty.
Back at the lodge the woman doesn’t share the details of her horseback ride with anyone. The colors and the vision were too spectacular. She finds a tall glass, an ice tea glass, fills it with water and arranges the bouquet of handpicked wildflowers she has been given on her first date with this man.
Epilogue: Colin Fletcher, the 1970’s guru of hiking alone in the wilderness, said something to this effect: “Sunsets are best enjoyed alone without the disruptive conversation of other humans. The only exception is… if it can be shared as a couple… a couple newly in love.”
Both my parents are gone. However, I like to think of them still riding on horseback at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where they saw their first sunset together, as a couple, a couple newly in love.