This place has been in my mind for over 50 years. Comics, books, films and photographs have all conspired to make what should be unfamiliar into something instantly recognisable. I worry that the expectation will be greater than the reality. It is, as it turns out, a fear unfounded.
We’ve been driving across a desert road for well over 100 miles. It’s hot – the car temperature gauge shows 104ºF. There are no restrooms or lay bys – just mile after mile of scrub, framed by distant mountains. If we were to breakdown here …
This trip has been far tougher than I imagined. We flew to Las Vegas and hired a car, setting out first of all for the Grand Canyon via a 90mile stretch of Route 66, then on to Monument Valley, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion Canyon National Park before heading back to Las Vegas.
The importance of Route 66 has declined since the days of Steinbeck and the mass migrations of the 1930s. It’s much like a theme park now, the old motels and diners decaying by the side of the road as the nearby Interstate takes most of the traffic and custom. The road is now used by the curious, like us, and caravanserai of Harley-Davidsons with the odd Cadillac, all paying tribute to the Mother Road.
From Route 66 the road to the Grand Canyon winds North and steadily gains height. Despite all my meticulous planning I did not take into account the effect of altitude. I did not know that the rim of the Grand Canyon sits at 7000 feet above sea level. After checking into our hotel we join the rush of people anxious to find a space to watch the sunset. A passing park ranger says; “If the view doesn’t get you, the altitude will”.
As we walk back to the car, I am breathless and nauseous. Annie, too, is suffering. My heart is racing so I check my stats; heart rate is 113bpm but my saturated Oxygen level is 83%. Annie’s is 88%. Normal level is 97%-100%. But given that air pressure falls with altitude there comes a point where there’s not enough pressure for the oxygen in the air to penetrate the walls of the red blood cells and they’re starved of oxygen. It’s basic physics. The consequences range from the mildly inconvenient to the life-threatening. Of course people do acclimatise but it takes a while. For a couple of days we hardly eat and keep to the level easy paths and trails. It’s a relief to get back on the road and head out to the relatively lowly 5000 feet of Monument Valley.
The roads are long and straight. Driving is easy. Although the speeds limits are lower than in the UK, automatic transmission and cruise control keep things steady. People seem content to plod along and we don’t encounter any of the cut and thrust that symbolises driving at home.
The route takes us into Navajo Tribal land; every so often we see a dwelling of some sort – in many cases appearing derelict – but clearly, from the cars and the paraphernalia of family life scattered around, a home to someone. Eventually we start to see what we’ve come for – iconic buttes of hard red sandstone rising some 1000 feet from the valley floor.
Our hotel room looks out at one of the most photographed sites in the world. In spite of all the photographs and Western movies it’s still possible to see this place afresh. Film can never fully replicate the colours of the sandstone as it changes with the passage of the sun.
Access into the hinterland is severely restricted; it is home to the Navajo Nation and is respected as such. There’s a 17 mile rough road accessible by 4x4s and two short walking trails starting from the hotel. And that’s it for the independent traveller. There are other trails and roads but these can only be accessed in the company of a Navajo guide. We take the shorter walking trail – only a mile or so but with the temperature over 100ºF and a route comprising sand dunes and loose rocks – it takes us a couple of hours to complete. En route I find a suitable place to set up my camera for the following day’s sunrise.
Neither of us have mentioned the forthcoming scan and what it might mean; I’ve thought about it a few times and I’m sure Annie has too, but out here, it – and we – seem so insignificant. I read a line recently that said ‘the living are simply dead people on holiday’. It may seem cruel or insensitive, but for me it helps put things into perspective. Especially here. Perhaps the person who thought of it was standing in a place like this.
I set my alarm for 5.00am and am up in time to see the pre-dawn light. Red tail lights on the valley floor tell me that others are making their way to their own special place to see what the Navajo call ‘when Mother Earth meets Father Sun’.
We did consider, albeit briefly, cancelling this trip in order to speed up the scan process and reduce the period of uncertainty. But that would have meant that this thing – ‘…a tubular enhancing structure extending from the lung resection clips towards the left hilum …’ – whatever it turns out to be, would have dominance over our lives. And we couldn’t have that. It may seem trite, but it is true – each sunrise is a fresh start.