I find that time moves differently when you travel, or at least that’s how it feels when at each and every turn your senses are being assailed by new sights, smells and flavors. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting, an experience that you want to savor, but, by the time you’ve moved onto the next wonder, it’s as if you have to let go of some impressions to make room for all that awaits you. At moments like these, I like to think that my memory, like a sponge, will absorb and retain everything that is happening around me to be fully processed at some later date. But since I also know that this might be too tall an order for anybody who spends his or her days driving or walking countless miles, I’m also a firm believer in the act of recording in a journal or, when really pressed, into the notes application on your smart phone.

The hardest thing about traveling is that, as soon as your journey is over, you are so fully immersed in the routines of your daily life, in catching back up on all the things you have avoided or missed, that the whole thing starts to feel like a dream. You may find yourself slipping back into it occasionally, reminded by a photo or a particularly vivid memory, but it ultimately has a loose and formless quality that can make you question if it was actually you who saw and lived these things or if they were something you once saw happening to somebody else in a movie or commercial. 

Certainly, my memory of the Grand Canyon feels this way. In part, this is because it was so long ago (truth be told, I had always planned to blog about our whole road trip once we arrived in Delaware and, although I kind of did, I never really got to share the majority of the photos I took. I also wrote only about Las Vegas–and in mid-November 2015!–which was the least exciting of all of the places we traveled. Maybe because change again seems imminent or semi-imminent–more on this once things are written in stone–it suddenly seems only right that I revisit and close this chapter), but also because to see the Grand Canyon in person is to see the Grand Canyon, all shifting colors, rugged edges and mist, as it is at that precise moment in time. You may walk away thinking that, “I saw the Grand Canyon,” and cross it off your list, but you could see it a hundred more times and still, I think, be surprised. It is an ever-shifting landscape, the locus of daily miniscule and imperceptible changes that even the most trained eye would miss.

Its sheer expansiveness aside, another reason my memory of the canyon feels so unreal is that it’s the place where the Greek and I got engaged, which almost two years, three weddings and an uncountable number of grey hairs later later, feels like something that happened to somebody else.  But there are also ways, silvery strands notwithstanding, in which the whole Grand Canyon adventure   can seem as sharply focused as if I were reliving the whole of August 11 and 12, 2015. I can still see us stopping for gas in Las Vegas and checking the map, knowing that, in about 4.5 hours, we would be at the Grand Canyon. From there, the Greek’s plan was simple: check in at the hotel, the Bright Angel Lodge on the canyon’s rim, watch the sunset and have a fancy southwestern meal at El Tovar

You may be wondering where this is going, how this could, given that you already know how the story ends, go wrong, but I’ll let my own words from 2015 speak for themselves:

So much has happened since that night in the Grand Canyon. Or, rather, I should say that so much has become clear: it now makes perfect sense that the Greek went ballistic when it was evident we were going to miss the sunset in the Grand Canyon. Why? Because he was planning to propose! But how could I have known? 

Really, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment that things went wrong. The Greek, who had heroically driven all the way from Berkeley to Las Vegas the day before, asked me to drive; I really didn’t want to–the size and flimsiness of the Penske truck scared me, not to mention the fact that I hadn’t really driven anywhere for years–but, because I knew it would be wrong not to, I agreed, but perhaps more saltily than I should have. Initially things were fine; I was remembering that I actually could command a motor vehicle without having a panic attack, and we were happily chatting about our plans at the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. But not long after we passed Lake Mead, not only did the road start to narrow, but we also saw a wall of back-to-back traffic up ahead. The Greek began prodding me to get into the other lane, to hurry up before we got stuck, but it was clear that this wasn’t going to work. We already were stuck and, once we checked the maps on our phones, it became abundantly clear that we wouldn’t be arriving at the Canyon until after sunset. The Greek kept muttering that we would make it, that we had to make it, so much so that I started to feel like I was explaining very simple concepts to a toddler. I reminded him that we had seen many beautiful sunsets together–Greece, Turkey, California–and that there was no need to fixate on this specific sunset; this led to his shouting that he was getting out of the car as I understood nothing and that it was my driving that had gotten us stuck, which led to my own furious insistence  that, if traffic should start moving and he wasn’t back in the truck, he might be left at the side of the road. High romance, right? Just call this roadside act The Southwestern Penske Adventures of the Not at all Criminal and Terribly Mundane Bonnie and Clyde.

Traffic did eventually start moving and, yes, the Greek did get back in the truck, but this leads us to another hard lesson of the road (the first one obviously being my grandfather’s favorite: Always leave early because you never know what might happen): All that glitters, or that appears to be an alternate route on a map, is neither gold nor even passable. Once we made it back onto a four-lane highway with exits, the Greek decided that we would avoid the traffic by taking the only other road that supposedly led to the Grand Canyon. Happy to have a plan, I got off the highway and followed the road only to discover that what had appeared to be our secret gateway to the sunset of all sunsets was a private road. As soon as we were attempting to enter this (relatively unmarked) dirt road, a truck of locals pulled up and informed us that this road was not for us. So here I was, the girl who didn’t even want to drive, backing up a hill and maneuvering a truck full of our most prized belongings in the world back onto the highway. If we hadn’t already had enough of an adventure for one day, once dusk fell (we saw the gorgeously flaming Arizona sunset from the parking lot of a gas station), we discovered that our lights had only two options, off and bright, which led to our being flashed by every car that passed us as we barreled up the dark and curving roads to the canyon.

I don’t even know what we talked about–or if we talked–the whole way there; I think I just sat there, silently hoping we wouldn’t die, that some huge animal wouldn’t jump in front of us and lead to a car accident like the one out of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, that we might even still get to eat dinner, missed sunset be damned. If anything did go right on this day, it was dinner and thanks to the phenomenal southwestern fare of El Tovar. It must have made an impression on me because, as I wrote up the horrors of the day, I spared no shortage of affection for the Gouda green chile black bean crock (a kind of chile con queso, but simpler), the stuffed Portobello mushroom with roasted tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach and onions with a wild rice and wheat berry pilaf and a red pepper coulis. In my journal, I even called the duck breast with prickly pear glaze “ace,” which, not being a word that I ever use, should tell you that, even after a fantastic meal, I was perhaps still in some kind of shock from the drive there. I feel like we must have (should have?!) had dessert, but, rather than extol the virtues of anything sweet in my journal, I devoted more than one line to the genius of the smoked chile and Asiago rolls. The food did go a long way to restoring my good will, as well as the Greek’s, although I’m certain there was still a frosty air about us when we went (more like collapsed into the pillows) to bed.

The next morning did not begin auspiciously. The hike on the rim that we, despite our late night, woke up early for was canceled due to a chance of thunderstorms. Although luck didn’t seem to be on our side, there was a bright side to this fact: we got to sit and have breakfast and, in general, do things at our own pace, which after the mad dash of the day before and of road-tripping in general, seemed welcome. While the Greek went to get two coffees and chocolate muffins (a conciliatory gesture, as muffins are one of my great loves), I got to enjoy the view and take pictures. I was so involved in my snapping that I only vaguely heard the woman behind me say, “Look how funny! That squirrel is trying to steal that girl’s food while she is taking pictures!” When I turned my head, I saw the little culprit, bold as only starving squirrels can be, trying to run off with a bag of dried oranges. While you would think my glare might have forced the squirrel to scurry away, it instead stood its ground, running off only when I clicked the camera and knocking my water bottle in the process. Later during our walk around, after I saw a sign saying that canyon squirrels can transmit the plague, I placed both the bag of oranges and my water bottle in quarantine in a plastic bag and doused myself with hand sanitizer. It may seem like the Grand Canyon had many strikes against it–and it did–but it was ultimately too stunning and too utterly grand, to resent.

After breakfast, we took a short hike into the canyon, marveling at the different layers and textures. But before we knew it and only about a mile in, it was time to turn back. Another city and day of driving awaited us. The pace of a road trip can, at times, be crippling: you are constantly racing the clock; there is so much to see and do and, ultimately, only a set number of days, sometimes hours, in each place. I suppose it’s as good as any reason to go back. 
It was only faced with leaving that propelled the Greek to action, that or the fact that the coffee, the muffin and the fresh air had restored us and melted the last of our resentment from the day before. Truth be told, I don’t envy men the job of proposing; even when you have a pretty good idea that the lady is going to say yes, there’s a lot of planning and needless anxiety (see paragraphs related to the sunset above). In hindsight, the Greek wasn’t at all coy about his plan, although unsuspecting female that I am, I didn’t realize when he was taking pictures of me and asking me to kneel that he wanted to be sure that he could get the whole thing on camera. In fact, I was getting antsy, wondering why in the world we were taking so many pictures in one spot and trying to prod him along. When he finally asked the patriarch of an Italian family if he would take our picture, I sighed with relief, mentally checking off Grand Canyon and already thinking about the Painted Desert and lunch at La Posada and all the chiles of New Mexico. But then he kept asking for one more photo–last minute attempts to bolster courage?–and, just when I was ready to explode with impatience, finally (finally) he proposed. Italians, ever the romantics, were over the moon about the scene they had stumbled on and started crying and kissing us on both cheeks. Other people along that part of the rim approached to congratulate us. It was crazy; there’s no other word for it. There’s something so strange and remarkable about the way in which the events of your life can, in just an instant, become tangled up in somebody else’s. One kneel, one yes, one photo–or, in this case, at least a dozen. This, however, is my favorite (yes, that is me, in my engagement finery: no makeup, sneakers and purple socks; not at all how I ever envisioned it would be).  
The whole tenor of our trip changed in that moment. What had seemed like only an adventure on our way to a new life really did become the beginning of a new life of sorts, a new stage in our relationship and life together. It lent everything that came after the Grand Canyon a rosy, celebratory glow and certainly went a long way to explaining the madness over the traffic jam. 
In a way, I don’t know that there’s any place that, for me, would have been better suited to this occasion. I love everything about the Southwest: the range of colors, both muted and bright, the wild sunflowers that pop up everywhere, the chiles, the heat and unpredictability of both weather and landscape. It may be trite to say it, but it’s magical; there’s a reason, after all, that the state we were headed to next is known as The Land of Enchantment…

But Arizona does give New Mexico a run–and a good one at that–for its money, with places like the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert and little gems like La Posada and the Turquoise Room.

It seemed only right that, even though we had a tight schedule, that we take a detour to La Posada, the  famous hotel of Fred Harvey, the so-called “Civilizer of the West” who opened hotels and restaurants along the Santa Fe Railroad, that was lovingly brought to life by the architect Mary Colter, in Winslow, Arizona to celebrate our engagement. The hotel, to put it mildly, is a phenomenally beautiful place, with Spanish architecture and vibrantly colored tiles; the restaurant within it, The Turquoise Room, is similarly lovely, bursting with color and bright light, as well as all number of southwestern delicacies. While we were a bit unlucky to arrive between lunch and dinner and thus could order only from the “Traveler’s Menu,” we still ate well, just as our friends, Cameron and Eric, promised we would.

The Greek followed Cameron’s recommendation and had the piquant Black Bean and Corn Chowder (a seasonal variation on this soup, which Cameron has written about on her blog) with cornbread, while I decided, as I always do, to order the Sunflower Seed Hummus and piki bread. Believe me when I say that I had no idea what I would be getting, but I think I can safely say that luck was on my side that day, since it turns out that piki bread is made from finely ground blue corn that is mixed with the burnt ash of juniper berries and then blended with water to make a batter; while you could say that piki is like a Native American crepe or socca, it’s infinitely thinner and lighter–more like the crispest phyllo and equally delicate. When I later looked it up, I saw that it is something that young Hopi women must show they can make in order to prove their worth as brides, which, though far removed from my experience, made me think that my lunch selection was more than a little appropriate. To celebrate, we also had our first dessert since our road trip had begun: a bread pudding with prickly pear syrup, which was, like everything else that day, perfectly, utterly grand. 

2 thoughts on “Utterly Grand

  1. How did I miss this?! It is so utterly wonderful! It's so sweet (and funny! I think every engagement is funny, including ours, in which the ring arrived a day late and ruined Eric's plans!) I am so happy to hear the story. It's so true about being on the road–I remember the feeling from barreling through several national parks on our way to Aspen (which I should still write about, ack!) It seems like such a long time ago, but still so present. I am so happy to see The Turquoise Room here! We really should all convene there sometime for an epic hiking trip/chile fest. I am itching to get back there! Thank you so much for putting this all into writing. I loved reading it 🙂 XXXOOO

  2. No worries whatsoever! I only recently got back on the “blogging wagon,” so the space had been dead for a while…Plus, you have an excellent reason: an active toddler, a new home, the insanity of our political reality…All more than reasonable.

    I seriously do think proposing is a tricky business, but, clearly, in both of our cases, all is well that ends well! 🙂

    And I would totally be 100% in favor of meeting in the desert, hiking and eating all of the chilies (chiles? I honestly never know how to spell this word. It's kind of embarrassing). We MUST do this one day. xoxo

    (and thank you for the post love; I enjoyed writing it, too. Next up is Texas, so things are going to get pretty interesting… ;p)

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