Lucky for me, the car never hit the bike and the ditch flattened out to cushioning undergrowth. My great black Dutch ditch-bike was a girder on wheels, impervious to bending or breaking, and, like a full-body splint, all my guts and gizzards stayed more or less securely in place while lightly skimming over the handlebars into a soft scatter of sticks and leaves. My corpus, not my corpse. Thank God. Maybe He’s got better things in mind for me?
Most of us have had near-death experiences, I assume, though we’re not given to talking much about them. It seems natural that such events might take on mystical overtones and that we might wonder what messages they bear. Why did this happen to me? Why was I chosen? Targeted? Spared?
Is there something about my life I could change? Should change? Had better change? Or is it an affirmation that He’s got my back, no matter how bad things look? Then what have I done to deserve such celestial oversight? Or what must I do?
By the time I’ve got myself untangled and upright, the dust and clamor of the head-on-that-didn’t-happen was settling int the invisible silence of highway history. Nobody came back to see how I was doing . . . IF I was still doing. Who cared? Any message there? The Lord is my shepherd, I shalt not want? Lone Ranger, brother Don, keep on keepin’ on?
Meanwhile, under the hood of my groovy fastback ’51 Chevy, things seem under control as long as I keep monitoring her gauges and fluid levels and don’t try to set any speed records. Easy does it, just poking along to the gentle mental clop, cloppity-clop, cloppity-clop clop clops of Aaron Copeland’s syncopated hoofs, which I fully appreciated well before music appreciation class assured me I could. Suite Grand Canyon lays itself out before me, challenging my tree-hugging propensities, my presumed dismissal of bedrock verities. The truths and verities of the human heart? Did Faulkner say that? Lincoln? Zimmerman?
The truths and verities of the National Park System make it possible to do my laundry and tend to matters affecting personal hygiene, sunburn, poison oak rash, insect bite, etc. Since my beard grows coarser, darker, and faster than my cranial fuzz, I’m developing a sort of proto-Bluto look, new territory to explore and perhaps exploit. Olive Oyl might not favor my new identity, but how about Moonbeam McSwine? Or Tess Truehart? Best forget Betty and Veronica.
My appreciation of the Grand Canyon is a solitary John Muir-like experience, or as much of one as I can make it in the company of crowds of gawkers like myself. Slipping quietly along the edges of various guided tours affords one the luxury of setting one’s own pace and finding one’s own veracity. At one point I receive a Joyce Kilmer moment, sudden clarity with somewhat questionable cause.
A ranger guy is addressing a mix of canyon rim vacationers, explaining how climate affects and is affected by topography. “Moving north, a hundred miles of latitude is equivalent to a hundred feet of altitude.” (And, one assumes, a hundred years of solitude.) Perpetual scientific reassurance through poetic mathematical symmetry, my personal gift and only souvenir from the Grand Canyon. Brilliant. It will be to me what Kilmer’s “Trees” is to Whitey, a personal nugget of immutable truth. What is immutable truth? Does one lie to avoid bovine utterance? Unudderable? Moo? Mu?
Does truth reside primarily in mathematical proof or in poetic conjecture? Are they part of the same thing, seen from different viewpoints allowing a more comprehensive estimation of truth’s true nature? Can the poetic conjectures about anything that can’t be proven mathematically yield truth?
Is there anything — anything! — that can’t be conjectured about, poetically or otherwise? Is it not the nature of conjecture that it be all-inclusive? Hmm. Not necessarily, but if there are to be limits, they should be carefully spelled out and understood to be part of the effort to determine truth and to clearly separate it from falsehood.
So, again, who needs weed? Anyone with half a brain can spin skeins of fantasy without pause regardless of what they’ve been smoking, drinking, or eating. Or reading?
Reading changes things on a different level and in less predictable ways, depending on what you read and when. Reading will change you, period. And the earlier it begins the more you will change. Period. Bur from what to what? Where would I be at this time of my life, and what would I be doing if Carrie had not read to me from the time I could hold my head up and keep my eyes open?
I literally believed that each illustrated page of the Uncle Wiggily books was a window into a real, alternative world that I would someday be privileged to visit in person. The living fantasy of growing up in real woods in a real log cabin with a river rock fireplace next to a perpetually shedding madrona tree made the possibility of actually stumbling upon Uncle Wiggily himself seem almost inevitable.
Life was fantasy compounding fantasy in all its pieces and parts, and once that excitement gets established it’s a hard current to buck. Just because I never ran into the actual rabbit gentleman in well over twenty years doesn’t mean I won’t meet the actual Jack Kerouac around the next bend. Of course that’s exactly what it does mean, but don’t try to tell me that.
Me? Who am I? None other than the next-generation Jack Kerouac in the act of living humanity’s most universal metaphor, the open-road adventure. Me’n Jack. You know, like Dylan’n Guthrie.
The English teacher in me advises against the following aside, but who pays any attention to English teachers? So, raise your hand if you know there’s another singing Guthrie besides Woody and Arlo. Cousin Jack Guthrie established a country music toehold in the 1940’s with titles like “Zoom, Zoom, Cuddle and Croon” and “The Oklahoma Hills”, which, though no “Grand Canyon Suite”, is a pretty good song — so good, in fact, that I’ll probably remember someone else doing it. Cousin Woodrow? Ray Charles?
Hit the road, Jack Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, who you Smilin’ Jack? Who ain’t Smilin’ Jack? Me’n Jack? I won’t go huntin’ with you Jack, but I’ll go chasin’ women? I once drilled a game-ending bases-loaded triple off a pitcher named Jack Stack. You can look it up. Babe Ruth League bragging rights. Hear it here first.
“I’ve heard it said, and it’s true I’m shore, that too much bathin’ will weaken ya.” With the amount of bathing I haven’t been doing . . . anyway, I take advantage of Grand Canyon facilities for a fast last shower before clip-clopping off to The Great Meteor Crater, and well before I get there I’m back to sitting in a puddle of sweat.