There are moments when I try to disconnect from politics and the inanities of our failed elected leaders, and I am usually facing west with the arrival of this emotion. The only route I know to run away from the angst caused by our screaming national discourse is to go west into the great out yonder and see if there are places where I do not have to breathe from the air stories of Trump and his cascade of crimes or how the officeholders fearful of his political power refuse to confront his manifest risks to the very existence of our country.
But I’m not so sure I, or anyone else, can escape, even temporarily, what has become of our country. I have spent the better part of the last two weeks camping, which is also known as sleeping on the ground, in glorious Western National Parks. Putting up a nylon tent, and blowing up a sleeping pad, were parts of a motorcycle ride to memorialize my friend Wade Goodwyn, a broadcast journalist of national repute at NPR, who recently died as a consequence of melanoma. The route I am traveling is comprised of roads he and I had planned to ride before he became too ill to motorcycle. Instead, he bequeathed to me his beautiful BMW K1600 GTL with implied instructions I take it to the locales we had pondered.
Which is how I ended up sleeping fitfully on the cold, hard ground of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and enjoying myself, nonetheless. I have probably been to the canyon more than twenty times, have hiked it rim-to-rim several times and once ran non-stop down Kaibab Trail from the South Rim and up Bright Angel to the North Rim. I have never tired of the epic views, their colors, and the sounds of the wind through the ponderosa pines and how the sun makes every minute in the canyon different from the previous. I once left the North Rim for a hike to the Colorado River at the canyon floor and was standing in snow when I stepped on the trail. When I reached the sandy banks of the river later that day, the temperature was near 90 degrees. There is no explaining the climate and grandeur of one of the world’s most famous preserves.
To get to the canyon, we rode across the magnificent twisted mountain roads of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico and then up through the White Mountains of Arizona to camp at Show Low. I was tempted to veer southward toward Clifton and Morenci, Arizona where I started as a broadcaster at a 250 watt radio station, but concluded some memories are better left alone. After Show Low, we went north to Winslow, made famous by the Eagles’ song, and I sat at a cafe, did some writing, caught up on the news, and stared out the window trying to remember old Route 66. In my early hitchhiking days, before the Interstates were completed, traffic was forced off the divided highways and into the towns that once lined what Steinbeck called, “The Mother Road,” because it offered succor to migrants and Dust Bowl refugees seeking to birth better lives in the American West.
Before crossing the Kaibab Plateau and running through the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff, I made the mistake of looking at the news on my phone. Not even the scent of ponderosa pines and the aching blue of an Arizona autumnal sky can diminish the idiocy of grown adults in Washington fighting endlessly over whether to fund the federal government. The potential damage to millions of lives seems not to be of great consequence to the people we have elected to public office. Their concerns remain power and personal benefit. The conservatives claim to love the military, but a failure to fund the government with a stopgap bill would have meant that 1.3 million active-duty troops would have been working with no pay and 7 million more Americans would have lost nutritional assistance like food stamps.
Out here in the West, Arizona and Utah’s leadership has learned the national government can hardly be trusted. Their governors, one a Republican and the other a Democrat have plans to keep their state’s national parks open. Without the stopgap budget, the Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Canyonlands National Parks would all have their entry gates closed and park personnel sent home. According to information from the National Parks Conservation Association, every day the government is shut down collectively costs $70 million to the cities that serve as gateways to the parks and any shutdown eliminates a million visitors. The stopgap eleventh-hour agreement means the 50,000 TSA agents and 13,000 air traffic controllers do not have to work without pay, the 60,000 IRS employees will not have to be furloughed, and the U.S. economy will not suffer an estimated loss of a billion dollars per week. But the can has simply been kicked down the road. A complete annual budget is essential for the economy to grow and investors to trust federal commitments.
No matter how fast you ride or how far away you roll, this American nonsense has become inescapable. Polls indicate we live in a land where maybe 50 percent of the electorate has no problem with a candidate facing 91 indictments, judgments against him for tax fraud and rape, and is threatening to destroy the very institutions that define our democracy if he gets reelected. How is that possible? Are we so busy with our commodious activities of earning a living, driving soccer carpool, cooking dinner, and planning for vacation and retirement, that we have no time left for the responsibilities of citizenship? Although there is zero doubt that money and PACs and corporate citizenship have polluted our democracy with money, there is also a non-zero chance that has happened, in part, because we have not been diligent in exercising our right and obligation to be involved in our own republic. But, hey, we’ve got errands to run, don’t we?
I took off to remember a friend and forget the dysfunction of my nation and the lack of attention and compromise among Americans. I hope I have properly remembered and honored my friend Wade by taking his motorcycle on his untraveled journey. I will never ride a mile without thinking about his gift to me.
After the Grand Canyon, we rode up to Kanab, Utah, and I got to visit an old friend, Victor Cooper, a TV cameraman with whom I worked and who kept me laughing on every assignment we shared. After he mastered television, Victor became an accomplished restauranteur whose Rockin’ V Restaurant was at the crossroads of Western dreams. We drove out to the Grand Staircase for what was described as an “easy hike” into a remote canyon. Victor’s descriptive powers are not equal to his photographic skills, however, and several hours were spent struggling up and down over boulders and between “hoodoos” and down tallus slides and then clawing up over jagged formations.
“Oh, quit whining, James,” Victor said, over and over and over.
I am not. I am grateful. For friends like Victor and Wade and Chris and Danny, who have all traveled with me in some form on this road trip, and many others on memorable roads. The West never disappoints and when you are saddened by circumstance it revivifies your soul. And when you see the soft morning light against the red rocks or the wind pushing clouds of dust up a canyon or the stars beginning to quiver against an obsidian sky, you have the sense that most things are as they should be. You acknowledge endless potential, though, even in the wake of human conquest of the landscape. There still seems to be something good evolving around that curve.
The road often has the answers.