“Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before dawn and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played…” – Thoreau
(While not a finished chapter, this is an excerpt from my memoir, “When Horses Could Fly: A Memoir of the American Dream.” I will be back to writing politics next week. - JM)
When Butch came home from the war, I convinced him to go hitchhiking. Maybe travel could get his mind off what he had seen and done. Our first trip together we quickly made it onto Route 66 across the Texas Panhandle after getting a lift south for two days on an old flatbed truck. The driver had been hauling hay and offered us a ride and we took it even though our goal was to get further out west. We were dirty and smelly from the open air of the flatbed but had subsequently been rescued from the roadside by a doctor and his wife when they passed us outside of Amarillo.
They were driving out to California to take delivery on a sailboat. I did not know there were lakes for sailing in Oklahoma, but I did not talk much about that because the doctor asked a lot of questions about our travel adventure. Butch told him about the war and the doctor, and his wife, went quiet, but he later said how much he admired Butch for serving and that he was proud to have met him out on the highway.
Butch might have let things go right there but he had seen too much and he was sick of how ignorant everyone was in America so he told the doctor how much he hated the war and the president and what it was doing to the country and what it had done to him. When we got to Winslow the doctor said he thought it would be a good idea if he dropped us off because he and his wife had changed their plans and were going south to spend a few days in Phoenix.
Winslow was famous in those days for having legalized prostitution and there were suggestive billboards along old Route 66 trying to attract customers. A silhouette of a shapely woman was profiled and underneath it said, “For truckers, Winslow, Arizona.” I elbowed Butch every time we passed one and the doctor’s wife sounded like she was huffing in disgust in the front seat.
We were dropped off on a painfully hot sidewalk on the east side of town and after they let us out and we looked around and we were both trying to figure out which buildings might be whorehouses. The sun was directly overhead and there were no shade trees nearby and while we were trying to decide what to do next a pickup stopped. The driver did not get out but simply looked into the bed of his truck and motioned with his eyes for us to jump up.
The road noise and wind were too loud to have conversation in the back of the pickup, so we did not talk but we watched the broken white line’s hypnotic visual beat. When the driver stopped to let us off, we were only about fifteen miles west of Winslow. We jumped out and he waved as he turned down a dirt road to the south toward the Mogollon Rim. The horizon to the west was a low ragged line made by distant mountains and there was a faint glow of yellow behind the ranges but there was no other light except the distant glimmer of Winslow.
“Just great,” Butch said. “Another night of sleeping in the dirt next to a highway.”
“What the hell else are we gonna do?” I asked. “Hopefully, we’ll get a quick lift to Flagstaff tomorrow and then we can head on up to the canyon.”
Butch was usually quiet even when we were boys and whenever he smoked the weed that he carried in his backpack he took on a kind of deep silence that was private and made me worry and was a part of why I asked him to join me on this trip.
“I think we’ve been pretty lucky to get rides for 1500 or so miles and get where we are,” I said. “Look at us. I sure as hell wouldn’t give us a ride.”
“I’m going to try to sleep,” Butch said, “since I expect to spend the entire day tomorrow suffering in the Arizona sun.”
He went down below the highway and laid out his sleeping bag and started rolling a joint to smoke before he nodded off. There was not a lot of traffic that night, and we were comfortable a few feet below the edge of the blacktop. The sky was black as the edge of the universe and made a great bend of stars. They appeared unfamiliar to me and I watched them and waited for sleep, which came up more suddenly than the night sky. I was very, very tired.
The morning sun in the summer does not let you rest late in the American West and as we climbed up to face the flow of westbound traffic an aged Chevy truck edged onto the shoulder. The driver swung out of his seat and came around to the tailgate as we approached.
“You boys looking for work?”
He was tall and his jeans were shining in the early light. The old baseball cap he was wearing had the insignia of some Major League team, but it had been worn off by dirt and time. Long strands of wiry black hair hung from under the cap’s edges and almost reached the shoulders of his denim shirt.
“We aren’t really looking for work,” I said. “We were hoping to get to the Grand Canyon today and do some hiking.”
“You need money for travel, don’t you? I don’t think you’d be out here hitchin’ if you had much money.”
I looked past him and saw two children leaning against the rear window in the cab of his beaten down pickup. They were as brownish as the bondo on the truck’s fenders and were smiling brightly and made me worry less about the man’s intentions.
“What kind of work?” Butch asked.
“I’m building a house.” He took off his cap and dragged his fingers through his greasy hair and looked at his dusty work boots. “I can’t afford a full-time crew to help me. I need some boys like you to fire the kiln and make some bricks. It’s an adobe house. You interested?”
“What’s it pay?” I asked.
“I can do three dollars an hour.” The man shrugged. “That’s it. But you can pitch your tents at our place, and we’ll feed you three good meals a day. My wife’s a good cook and you can take my truck into Winslow at the end of the day, if you want.”
Butch and I looked at each other and agreed without speaking. We put out our hands to shake. We thought anything was better than sitting on the blacktop in the July sun and waiting for another vehicle to stop. I only had eleven dollars left and we both needed money to continue traveling through the summer. Our plan had always been to find odd jobs along the way and this one had simply rolled up in front of our extended thumbs.
I jumped into the cab of the truck and Butch settled into the back. The little girls were both about five years old and ignored me as their father slipped behind the wheel.
“I’m Robert,” he said. “I’m a Navajo, full-blooded, but Christian.” He put out his hand and it was coarse as old wood.
“I think it’s obvious that god put you out there on the side of the road to help me finish our house. We’ve been living outdoors a long time.”
Robert stayed on the blacktop for almost half an hour and then turned north in the direction of a plateau. The road was a simple track of dirt, and dust spun up tiny tornadoes behind the truck. We drove for twenty minutes or so and did not talk much over the rattling of the truck and I was relieved when a canvas tent and the rough frame of a house came into view. A flap of the tent opened and a small woman with thick legs stepped out holding a baby. The two little girls next to me jumped excitedly and said, “Mama, mama.”
The location was ideal for building a home. The red walls of a mesa were close to where the house’s foundation had been set and they offered protection from north winds. The rock face extended to the southwest and provided a natural leeward position to hide from western rain and snowstorms. Robert had also poured the slab to make the front of his home face the sunrise. Sunsets off the back porch might be obscured as the sun moved north of the mesa in the summer but autumn and winter views were likely to be spectacular.
“This is where god put us,” Robert said as we climbed out of the truck. “It’s a good place to live.”
“Yep, it is.” Butch dropped his backpack on the ground and looked around for trees but there were none. He did not care for trees after Vietnam because too much could be hidden in a jungle. “I like it here.”
“Hello. I’m Cecilia.” Robert’s wife smiled and waved a hand at us as she held the baby. “Are you hungry?”
“Yeah, we are.” She had caught me looking at a table with rice and beans and corn tortillas.
The names of Robert’s family did not sound Navajo, but we did not think about that and ate the warm tortillas that we had smeared with beans and rice. Robert stacked wood in the kiln and began to stoke a fire. After the flames had begun to grow, he came over and grabbed a few tacos and went back to work the blaze. The day was already growing hot and we worried about working constantly around flames while dealing with the desert sun. When the fire was finally crackling, Robert got some more tacos and then he went to an old cement mixer and pulled a rope to start the motor. He poured buckets of water into the opening as he chewed his food.
“You boys ready to work? Might as well get paid for today.” Robert hollered over the noise of the tumbler.
He explained how to mix the mud and sand and water and straw, how to pour it into a mold, and when the brick form was to be placed in the kiln for baking. Cecilia watched from in front of the tent. Her skin had the color of someone who lived constantly under the sun. We were unable to determine if she was a Navajo. She had managed to work Jesus into our brief conversation while we ate and was curious about how much we thought about the Son of God. We were not thinking about Jesus and only wanted hot food in our stomachs and maybe some money in our pockets.
Robert stood next to Cecilia and watched us as we began to mix, mold, and bake the adobe. His two children played around the front of the tent on the hard, red ground. After about a half an hour of drinking coffee and scrutinizing our nascent skills, Robert opened the door of his truck.
“I’m going to work,” he said. “I won’t be home until around dark. Just keep making bricks. I’ll pay you cash for every day. You can take off whenever you want. But I hope you’ll stay and help us.”
He had suddenly left us alone with his family, complete strangers, and trusted us to stir mud and straw and bake adobe to help the completion of his home construction and we were still working when Robert returned that evening. Cecilia was standing over a propane stove finishing preparation of a meal. He motioned for us to stop and sit at the wooden picnic table. Robert pulled out several crumpled bills and smiled.
“The lord provides,” he said as he handed both of us thirty dollars in tens. The skin of his hands was cracked and there was grease or dirt under his fingernails. His name was stitched in red lettering across a white oval above his shirt’s breast pocket. Butch and I smoothed out the wrinkled cash and folded it into our wallets.
“I prayed for you boys to appear, and here you are. I don’t know what further proof we all need of the presence of the lord.”
I got up and walked over to the kiln to check the fire. The temperature was dropping quickly and because our first night in the desert had been cold, we planned to spread our sleeping bags near the kiln.
“Look at all you have done today.” Robert nodded in the direction of the bricks we had spread on the other side of the tent. “This is not by chance. This is what god has planned. My family is grateful to you and the lord.”
“We just needed to make a little money for traveling,” Butch said. “How many days do you think you’ll need us?”
“There’s a lot to do.”
“Well, sure,” I agreed. “But we can’t be here all summer.”
“We’ll take care of you. You’ll eat well. And there’s always my truck for trips into town. Thank the lord.”
“We’ll get your bricks done, and maybe start with the walls,” I told him. “But we can’t stay all summer.”
Butch looked at me and was close enough to hear the conversation. The offer of Robert’s truck did not stop us from feeling trapped. We had only a vague idea of the distance to the Interstate, but we knew how long it had taken for us to reach the construction site from the old highway riding in the truck. I wondered how Robert might react if we left. One of his daughters came over and climbed into his lap and his gentleness with her eased our increasing apprehensions.
For five days we worked without rest in the high desert sun of Arizona. Robert came home each evening and was thankful for all we had accomplished and then he offered us a nightly wad of wrinkled bills. He paid without fail. Butch had asked for use of the truck the two previous nights and was told by Robert that it was not running properly, and he did not want to risk an additional trip into town. I began to worry.
“I’m pretty much ready to get the hell outta here,” I told Butch. “This guy talks about Jesus every night and he keeps us trapped in a box canyon. We’ve got enough money. It’s time to go.”
“If he won’t let us use his truck, exactly how are we supposed to get out of here?” Butch asked. “Are we going to walk to Flagstaff?”
“I don’t know. But I’m leaving. This guy’s religion and everything else is just starting to feel weird.”
“Like I said, how in the hell are you leaving?”
“Walking, if I have to.”
Butch had kept his sleeping bag pulled up over his head as we talked. Wood that was aflame in the kiln collapsed into embers and snapped loudly.
“Okay, so we need to leave,” he said. “If he won’t give us the truck tomorrow night to go to town, that’s a bad sign. We’ll walk out of here after they have all gone to sleep.”
“How many miles do you think it is back to the black top?”
“Doesn’t matter. We’ll just walk it.”
By the time the sun was turning faded and odd Arizona colors on Friday evening, we had begun to raise the walls of Robert and Cecilia’s house. A crude slurry had been used for finishing and Robert was very happy with what we had stood up. Butch asked about taking the pickup into town for a weekend dinner but Robert again suggested the engine was running roughly and he did not want to add the mileage of an optional trip into Winslow. He said he hoped to have it fixed in the coming week. Presently, he began a recitation about the mysterious ways of the lord and randomly quoted scripture.
The fire was burning loudly late that night as we rolled our bags and tied them to our packs while Robert and his family slept in their tent. The desert blackness was shimmering over our heads and was dimly lit with crystalline, white dots. Carefully, we walked out of the beautiful canyon onto the red dirt of the lane and did not look back until we were at least a mile from the yellow glow coming from the kiln.
“He’s going to get up in the morning and come get us in his pickup,” I said. “We aren’t going to get anywhere. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t have a gun. The lord’s gun, of course.”
“Just shut up and keep walking,” Butch told me. “We’ll get out of here.” He was swinging his arms and keeping his focus on where his feet were falling. “We can be to the blacktop before daylight if we don’t waste our time bitchin’ at each other and we just walk.”
The tiny colored lights of Winslow were smeared across a distance of many miles and there was no way for us to estimate the expanse of desert we had yet to cover. We were certain to still be walking in the morning and Robert was likely to come upon us as he was driving to his job. While I was looking at Winslow’s glow Butch pointed away from the city in the direction of the southwest. Miniscule headlight beams bounced against the night and moved slowly across the faded seam where the desert and the sky came together.
“That’s I-40,” he said. “We might as well walk straight in that direction and we can avoid going into Winslow.”
“Across that fence? Into the desert?”
“Got any better ideas? I don’t know what else to do,” Butch said. “It’s either that, or just sit here and wait for our pal Robert because he’s going to find us on this road if we don’t get off of it.”
He started toward the barbed wire. We checked our water bottles to make sure they had not fallen off and then we threw our packs over the fence and struggled to avoid getting snagged on the wire as we climbed into the open desert. For the next six hours, we picked our way through the prickly pear and sage, pulling cactus needles from our legs, stumbling over rocks and cutting ourselves on ocotillo while trying to measure progress in the direction of the far highway. Before the eastern sky had begun to brighten, we heard the sound of engines and tires across the divided highway roadbed. We were finally on the shoulder of I-40, standing in front of our packs when the orange circle of the eastern sun moved slowly skyward.
“All right,” I said, “now let’s hope the lord inspires someone to give us a ride so we can escape from one of his servants before he comes to get us.”
A blue Buick Riviera stopped almost as quickly as I had made my little sarcastic prayer and the driver energetically went to the trunk and opened it for our backpacks.
“I’m going as far as Needles,” he said. “Where are you fellas headed?”
“Flagstaff or Grand Canyon,” I answered.
“I’ll get you to Flag, then. Jump in.”
He was wearing navy slacks and black loafers with tassels. His shirt was powder blue and the thin blonde hair was combed back from a low forehead. I thought he looked like a salesman because he appeared to not yet be forty but had the fleshy middle of a person who had spent a lot of time traveling, sitting, and eating. I was in the front seat again and Butch was expecting me to manage the conversation, but I did not have a chance to find a subject before the driver spoke.
“How are you boys with the lord?”
“Um, I don’t know,” I sighed. “I guess we’re just traveling and not thinking about stuff.”
“Well, it’s an important question, you know. Our faith.”
I turned my head to the back seat to see if there was a reaction from Butch and discovered that he was rolling a joint. He might have been planning to smoke it in the car because he had returned to that place where he did not care what other people thought.
“We aren’t thinking about our faith right now,” I said. “We think a lot about food and water and sleep and getting a ride somewhere. We want to see the country.”
“Well, I should tell you about my faith then. My faith is so strong I believe I can close my eyes, take my hands off of this wheel, and the lord will steer my car.”
I saw Butch in the rearview mirror as he sat up straight, but he did not put down his rolled joint and I thought he was going to light up.
“Well, faith is a powerful thing,” I said. “It can probably accomplish almost anything, don’t you think? It doesn’t really need to be proved.”
“It can even drive my car. You boys don’t believe me, do you? Looka here.”
“Sure, we do,” I said. “We really and truly do.”
I did not want to watch. We were in the right lane. As he rolled his head back and closed his eyes, the man driving the car slowly lifted his hands from the steering wheel and laid them in his lap. I reached halfway across the front seat and prepared to return the vehicle to its lane when it began to drift. Fortunately, he was driving a new car and the wheels were aligned and the tires were straight and true and balanced accurately and we held a line for almost a mile before the car began to move to the left toward passing traffic.
“Isn’t that amazing?” He put his hands back on the steering wheel and turned to look at his passengers. “Isn’t the lord amazing? I prayed for him to take the wheel, and he did.”
“Yes sir,” I answered. “He sure is amazing.”
An eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer with a chemical tank mounted on back whirled past doing about eighty miles an hour just as he had taken control of his vehicle back from the lord.
“Pretty amazing,” I whispered to myself.
Stretches of Route 66 were still visible from up on top of I-40 and we saw the dying motels and restaurants and tourist attractions along the nearly abandoned road. A few were still functioning but most of their customers were flying by at seventy miles an hour and were oblivious to the past and the romance of slower travel. The Interstate was not yet finished over the length of its east-west route and as it approached a city’s outskirts the divided highway forced the traveler to exit and pass through a local business stretch of Route 66. The bypasses of the downtowns were the last sections to be completed in the Interstate Defense and Transportation System.
The lord’s disciple let us out in the middle of Flagstaff at the Southern Pacific rail station. The railroad’s right of way ran very close to the course of the Interstate and we had seen several long trains crawling across the southwestern landscape and they had been made almost tiny by expanses of sky and earth. A hamburger place was having a special on a bag full of burgers and Butch went across the street while I sat on the bench in front of the station and gazed morosely at the 200-foot-tall ponderosa pines on the side of the mountain range north of Flagstaff.
“You suppose we’re going to have to deal with the lord in the bottom of the Grand Canyon?” I asked Butch when he returned.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But if he’s going hiking with us, I’m going to see if he’ll carry my pack.”
If we had money, I am sure we would have taken the next train to Los Angeles instead of going north to the wilderness because Butch had a buddy out in California he had met in the war. Eduardo had been drafted and got lucky when he was shipped to a posting in Alaska, but he told his commanding officers that he grew up in Southern California and would not be able to manage the dark and cold, which prompted him to request duty in Vietnam. They sent him and that is how he met Butch in Da Nang. They learned to smoke pot and stay drunk because they said there was no other way to deal with incoming mortar rounds at the fire bases almost every night when you were trying to sleep. Butch said if we got to L.A. that Eduardo would put us up while we looked for jobs and then we could all go together and get a spoon of cocaine. I was not interested and still wanted to see the Grand Canyon and thought that was what Butch needed more than drugs.
While we were eating the greasy burgers out of the bag an old yellow Datsun with two longhairs inside stopped next to our bench. The driver got out and asked us if we knew where the toilet was in the station and we pointed him in the direction. His friend looked at our packs and asked us if we were waiting for a train, but we said no we were trying to get to the Grand Canyon.
“Well, you can ride with us then,” he said. “If you don’t mind the smell of pot ‘cause that’s where we are headed, and we like pot, and we’re going to be getting stoned all the way up there. Can’t wait to see the canyon blasted.”
Butch smiled and we put our packs in the trunk. The driver came out and did not even make a comment when we slammed the lid and climbed into the back seat. We quickly went north out across the Kaibab and Butch waited for their first joint to be passed back for sharing, but they kept it to themselves. Butch looked at me and I shrugged. The San Francisco Peaks rolled by out the window and then we were among the pines of the Coconino National Forest. Before I had taken in the scenery and thought about the grandeur, we were arriving at a parking lot on the South Rim. We hardly spoke to the two people in the front seat and I only remember their mangy hair bouncing in the wind from the lowered glass. They were so stoned when we reached the canyon, they looked at us like they had no idea we had been in the back seat and then they simply walked off toward a souvenir shop.
Butch and I sat on the low rock wall and spent about an hour just looking at one of the most wondrous views on the planet. We might have been a little bit stoned from breathing the pot smoke in the car, but I do not think we would have been less enthralled with unaltered senses. There was still a lot of time left in the day and we went to the rangers’ office and got our hiking permit, filled the canteens on our packs with water, bought some dried food and nuts, and found our way to the Bright Angel trail head. In less than two hours we were putting up our tents at Indian Gardens about four miles down into the canyon. During our entire hike through the constant switchbacks Butch hardly talked no matter how hard I tried to engage him in conversation but I saw that he had energy and interest that I do not think I had seen in him since he had come home from the war.
“Let’s make our camp over here,” Butch said. He pointed to a spot not far from a group of five other nylon tents.
“Kind of close to everybody, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Ah, yeah, but that’s okay. Maybe we’ll make some friends. There are some girls there. Besides, it’s a great spot. Look at the light coming from the sunset on that wall.”
Butch went about unpacking and connecting the poles of his tent frame. I sat on a rock and watched him because I did not recall him this involved or interested in any slight, or even great, thing. Wood gathering was not allowed but I noticed our neighbor campers had a nice pile next to a fire pit set up by the National Park Service. I walked over and asked if we might share the fire they intended to build. We needed to boil some water to cook up a package of dehydrated beef stroganoff.
The canyon rim was a few thousand feet above and we were in shadows long before darkness. I hurried to get my tent up and was happy to see a small fire by the time I was finished. I filled water into a small pan I carried in my pack and then went over to the fire and introduced myself to four other campers who also seemed to be preparing their dinners. Butch walked up just as they had lit a joint and they offered it to him before he had even told them his name.
“Thanks,” he said. “You got any you can sell?”
“No, we’ve got just enough to keep us until we get back to L.A.”
A girl with thin blonde hair and a pointed chin smiled at Butch. She had long slender hands with fingernails painted red and a tiny nose and the smile he returned to her made me happy, and slightly jealous.
“Where are you two from?”
A guy wearing loose beach trunks and sandals exhaled the question with marijuana smoke. I was not able to see much more than his legs because the night had come up so full and fast and he was outside of the fire’s light.
“We came down from Michigan,” I answered.
Butch turned to me and laughed. “Not me,” he said. “I’m from Vietnam. That’s where I came from.”
“You were over there, man?” the beach guy asked.
“Yeah, two tours. A year and a half. Kill, kill, kill. Just like they wanted.”
I was quickly back to worrying about Butch because he seemed to have gotten stoned on a few tokes and was again sounding angry.
“You killed people?” A taller and darker girl was by the fire now and she had heard Butch mention combat.
“Sure,” he said. “Lots of ‘em. Had to, or they would’ve killed me.”
That’s fuckin’ awful, man,” she said.
“Well, I’m here and they’re not, so that’s all any of it means to me. I guess it was more fuckin’ awful for them than me.”
“You mean you weren’t fighting to keep us all free like they tell us?” the dark girl asked.
Butch laughed. “Fuck no. I was fighting to stay alive. That’s all. That freedom shit doesn’t have anything to do with Vietnam and you can ask anybody who carried a gun into the jungle.”
My water had been boiling on a grate laid over the fire and I grabbed the handle with a cloth and sat it bubbling on the picnic table. I tore open the stroganoff bag and dumped in the contents and stirred up a hot meal. Butch and I devoured the food in minutes and must have looked to the others like stoned out hikers with munchies, but we had not eaten since the train station in Flagstaff and had also walked down into the canyon. We went back to the fire as soon as we had finished.
The guy in the beach shorts was waiting for us.
“I’m gonna get drafted,” he said. “I know it. Just graduated from U.C.L.A. This might be my last summer on planet earth and I just turned twenty fuckin’ one. Ain’t that great shit?”
“You might not get drafted,” Butch said. “Just no way to know.”
“What the hell are you talking about, man? I drew number three in the lottery. I’m outta here. I bet my notice for physical induction is waiting for me when I get back to L.A. Hell, maybe I’ll never go back.”
“I wouldn’t,” Butch said. “Good chance you’re gonna end up dead if you go in. You look like all the guys I saw die. You could see it on ‘em when they showed up at the base for processing. Looked like they’d been captured and drugged and woke up in Vietnam. Most of ‘em were dead in a week or two.”
“Fuck me,” the beach guy said. “Gimme that joint back.”
Another girl came over to the fire and put some wood onto it and we all watched the flames. We needed a different subject, but it was hard to talk about the sky and the stars and the hiss of the Colorado below us when you knew death was nudging its shoulder between eight young people to get in front of our campfire. I looked up at the faces and they were mostly turned down toward the burning wood and flickering light. The girls may have been paired up with the guys but there had been no indication of any of them being together as couples. Butch was swaying a bit like he heard music that no one else’s ears were able to pick up and I noticed that when he brushed against the blonde girl’s shoulder, she did not make a protest.
“This is all so fucking stupid,” Butch said more loudly than was necessary. “Here I am in the Grand fucking Canyon, surrounded by nature or god or whatever, in all its glory, and I can’t get away from having to talk about that goddamned war.”
“Hey man, sorry,” the beach guy said. “We didn’t know. We’ve gotta think about it, too, ya know.”
“Yep, I get it,” Butch answered. “But here’s what I’m saying: I’m never going to talk about Vietnam again. It’s over for me, I hope. Tomorrow, I’m only talking about this canyon and the Colorado River and the sky and whatever in the hell else. And this country, and our president, and the chickenshit congress, and Bell Helicopter, and Brown and Root, and every other fuck that made money off of dead kids in that war can go to hell. Okay, I’m done. Good night.”
Nobody spoke but they all watched him walk the short distance to crawl into his tent and in less than fifteen minutes I heard him snoring all the way out to the campfire. I stayed because I did not want anyone to think we were angry hikers. One of the girls suddenly started crying about all of the assassinations we had experienced as young people.
“Why did Bobby have to die, too?” she asked. “He was good man. He would’ve changed everything. Couldn’t they just leave us one good person?”
“I’ll tell you what a friend of mine said to me up in Michigan about that, if you want to hear his theory.”
“About Bobby’s assassination?”
“Yes, he says Bobby signed his own death warrant by things he said.”
“What do you mean?” Everyone around the campfire was listening.
“Well, Bobby said two things that got the attention of the bad guys. My buddy thinks of them as the people who truly run the country, who want the war to keep going so they can make money and they want to cover up the truth about JFK and MLK and RFK’s assassinations.”
“That’s kind of wild,” the beach guy said.
“What did he say Bobby did to get killed?”
“He said Bobby was quoted publicly that he intended to use the powers of the office of the president, if he got elected, to find out who really killed his brother. That got their attention, first, and then he campaigned on ending the war. They don’t want that to end. Period. Big profits for all the defense contractors.”
“Jesus,” she said. “I knew it was never three random assassins for those murders, but I never thought about anything like that.”
“Me neither,” I said. “But my buddy is smarter than me and has had me thinking on this stuff constantly since we were kids.”
Everyone turned away from me and went back to watching the fire. I knew they were thinking about what I had said and might want to ask more questions, but I slipped away and pulled my bag out of my tent and went to a grassy spot near a cottonwood and watched the stars roll over the top of the canyon until I slept.
Butch woke me up in the early light and whispered, “Let’s go.” I think he was either embarrassed or wanted to avoid further conversation about the war, but it was clear he did not wish to see the other campers from the fire. We moved off quietly and walked easily to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch, where the tourists stay after coming down on guided mule trips. Water in the river was icy cold because it came from melted snowpack in the Rockies but the temperature on the sand by late afternoon was more than 100 degrees. Butch and I spent the day jumping in and out of the water and we watched the river rafters pass and scream with happiness as their boats rose up and bounced through the big rapids.
We slept on the beach without our tents or even getting into our bags and the river roared us to sleep. Unfortunately, as we were hiking up the increasingly steep Bright Angel Trail to the North Rim the next morning, Butch realized we were out of food. He had carried our provisions and because neither of us had been hungry in the morning he had not looked into his pack. Several miles and thousands of feet of climbing remained, and I began to fret about energy and hunger. We were staggering with hunger by the time we go to the top of Bright Angel Trail.
There was a perfect day on the North Rim and no big crowds with cameras and mindless chattering. Sunlight made fluttering bands between the limbs of the ponderosas and there was a nice breeze of dry air. Before we went into the lodge, I told Butch I needed to call home to check in with my Ma. I was surprised he had not called his mother because they were very close, but we had been out hitching for weeks and he had never bothered phoning. I thought it was because he was worried that he might hear his dad had hit her again and his trip would be ruined, and he would go crazy and want to go home and kill his father.
“Hi Ma,” I said after she accepted charges.
“Son, is it you?”
“Yes, Ma. You okay?”
“I am. But is Butch right there with you?”
“No, not right by the phone. But he’s here. We’re at the Grand Canyon. It’s beautiful, Ma. I hope you can come see it someday.”
“Son, you need to go tell Butch his mother died.”
“Oh god. His dad didn’t…..”
“No, she had a heart attack. Poor thing worked two shifts every day since they got to America. It’s a wonder she lasted this long.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Ma, I don’t know how long it will take us to hitch home and we don’t have money for bus tickets.”
“I know, son, but Butch’s brother said that he would send you both money by Western Union to rent a car and drive home.”
“Oh, well, I guess I better go tell Butch. We’ll probably see you in a few days then.”
“I love you, son.”
“I know, Ma. I love you, too.”
I have often tried to recount the time I had to tell one of my best friends that his mother had died but I am not certain I could offer detail even the next morning. Butch wailed and hit things and ran and then fell on the ground and rolled on his back in the pine needles and he screamed at the sky and he cried loud sobs that sounded like he was dying, too. After a few hours he pulled himself together and called his brother for the money. We found out there was no car rental office near the North Rim, and we needed to charter a small plane to fly back across the canyon. Butch’s brother wired the extra money and I told a park ranger what had happened, and he drove us out to the dirt airstrip. Butch sat in back of the Dodge and sobbed, softly.
The park ranger came to a stop next to a single engine, propeller-driven Cessna. A man, presumably the pilot, was circling the fragile looking craft and examining minor details on the fuselage, wheels, and prop. Butch and I dropped our packs in the dirt and he just looked off to the tree line and a group of cabins as I walked up and introduced myself to the pilot. The sky had turned a dark gray to the west and a wind was raising dust and pine needles and I began to wonder if my first flight in a plane was going to be in a thunderstorm over the Grand Canyon.
“Is it okay to fly now?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine. We just need to get outta here now so we can beat that squall line coming up the canyon from the west. You got the money?”
Butch was counting out twenties as he shuffled through the runway dirt and he handed over the $200. The pilot opened a latch behind a door and told us to stuff our packs into the cargo hold and climb into the cabin. I got in first and let Butch set up front and hoped that being around a stranger in a tight space might help keep him from crying. I did not know if the pilot understood our circumstances but as we rolled toward a cliff at the end of the strip he pulled back on the yoke and the plane rose as he yelled.
“Yee haw, ride ‘em cowboy!”
Wind hit the side of the fuselage right then and the plane slipped sideways while continuing to climb. I saw the pilot’s face from where I sat behind Butch and he was expressionless, but the plane started to bounce, and slam, and he was working very hard at control. He leveled off at a few thousand feet above the rim and talked to us in the headsets.
“Gonna stay here below the clouds,” he said. “Too tall to get above the rain. Shouldn’t be but about another ten minutes and we’ll be on the ground at the airport over there. Real short flight.”
Butch and I looked out the window at the curving brown switchbacks that marked the trails we had followed for almost four days. The river made a clear blue line between the tall walls of rock and when I looked up there were yellow flashes of lightning against a purple castle of clouds. Butch did not seem afraid, but he had been on helicopters and troop planes in Vietnam.
“It’s just all about dyin’,” Butch said into his mouthpiece. “Everything’s about dyin’. Nobody but nobody gives a damn about anything and we all just die. Some sooner than others, that’s the only difference. What’s the point? That’s what I wanna know.”
“Settle down, son,” the pilot said. “We’re gonna land here in a minute.”
“Butch? Come on, man.”
“No, I mean it. She never got nothin’ out of life but pain and work. And who the fuck cares? Not her husband, that’s for damned sure. Who the fuck cares about anything but themselves? Just take a look, will ya?”
“It’s okay, Butch. We’ll be home soon.”
I decided I was probably not ever again going to fly again when we hit a pocket of rough air and the plane seemed to instantly drop several hundred feet and then sounded like it was going to break apart when the wings finally regained lift. We tilted sharply to the left and I thought we were going down in the canyon when a gust of wind hit us but the pilot lined up the paved strip on the South Rim and we floated down to the ground with the prop feathered and the wind settling.
A minute or two before we landed a shaft of sunlight came through a cloud and caught Butch in the eyes and I saw the tears running down his face. His sadness was beyond me but just as I was turning away, he looked up at the sunshine and I was certain a slight smile crossed his lips. Maybe he saw something to live for or a reason to be hopeful, but I did not know. I just knew he was my friend and I wanted him to be excited and happy about whatever there might be in his future and to stop hurting. I knew I could not give that to him, though.
As we angled our way back up the continent in the rental car, Butch had repeated crying jags and kept us running down the Interstate at close to 100 miles per hour. I was afraid but he refused to let me drive. Butch’s mom had always seemed old to me, but she was only in her early fifties when her heart quit. The funeral was sad in a way that went beyond just losing a parent. I felt Butch became even more disconnected from any relevance or a sense of purpose. He was never interested in books or reading but Butch was always stuck on the big questions about god and the meaning of life, which I think was caused by the war because he was not like that before he went to Vietnam. When I came home from college on the holidays and saw Butch, he always appeared to me to still be in a kind of shock. I thought maybe it was the pot, but it might have just been for him the difficult business of living.
That summer changed me in ways that I still do not fully understand after almost fifty years. I do know I became determined to find beauty in the world and focus on being happy and shedding the darkness that was cast upon me by my parents. I thought I might be able to accomplish my goals of becoming a journalist and maybe even a writer, but I did not know for certain; I only knew I was determined to try, and not quit. If I had been aware of the obstacles that lay before me, though, I might not have even made the first step of my trip. Maybe that’s why the young are denied an honest rendering of the world because if we knew what we faced; we would never leave home.
Butch and I lost each other after a few years. I heard he went down to Florida, lived alone in a trailer next to a golf course, and tended the greens and fairways. Marriage and children never became a part of his life, though I never sensed they were things he desired. There is no question, however, the war and his father ruined an important piece of Butch, and it did not ever mend. He seemed to just fade away, but I have always been hopeful he had some happiness, and that he believed he had made a good decision to go live under a brighter sun.
As for me, I was bound for a place that I did not even know existed.