Second Chances

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Vermillion Cliffs

What do we give up when we refuse to take a path? We rarely get a second chance to find out.

When I was 20, it simply didn’t occur to me that, in the old phrase, “opportunity never knocks twice.” As I travel through the West this May of 2018, at 63, I am getting the chance to do something that lay right before me at 20, like a candy waiting to be picked up and rolled around in my mouth. But at the time, I didn’t pick it up. I thought the chance would soon come again. As with so many things, I was wrong.

In July of 1975, my childhood friend Anne Camp and I had packed our families’ mutual housekeeper and friend, Helen Shedd, into my little gray Chevy Vega and set out for Vancouver Bay from our home in Tennessee. Closing the doors with a snap, we headed north toward Nashville. On the road North we blew a tire and had to change it as massive trucks whooshed by, making the car wobble on the jack from the backwash. Our trip took us north to Helen’s son Jim’s South Bend, Indiana home, then to Chicago and then to Minneapolis, and then across North Dakota and Montana to Washington State. In Washington, we crossed the Columbia River on a huge, soaring bridge that we could see from miles away as we approached. Helen squinched her eyes shut with dread, but said nothing.

In Vancouver, we took three ferries to remote Hornby Island, where my resourceful brother and his wife had built a circular wooden house with their own hands. During their five-year sojourn on the island, they fished in the bay, took occasional logging and planting jobs, made stained-glass objects, and drank the milk of Bossy the cow. We stayed about a week on the island. Helen got to visit with her beloved John and he with her. We sat and talked and laughed and gossiped in their pretty house, and finally we packed the car up again and took Helen to Seattle to put her on the plane to go back east. And Anne and I went south to California.

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Which brings me to my should-have-done. Anne and I had driven down along the coast road to California from Washington State. It was a magnificent drive. We had seen the redwoods and the short coastal conifers that were bent and twisted by the Pacific winds, and we had gotten to San Francisco. From there we had headed southeast to Bakersfield. We could have gone into Los Angeles, but I think we were both at that point tired and overwhelmed. By Bakersfield it was already desert, and it was already August and hot, and my car wasn’t doing too well. It was at that point that Anne and I looked at each other, after so many weeks traveling, and realized that a straight shot across the US on I-40 would land us in Nashville, where it was green.

I am a literalist. I vaguely knew that the Grand Canyon lay to our north, that there were things distinctly worth seeing if we could only identify them and make an intention to alter our path. But all I could see at the moment was rock and sand. All I could feel was the 105 degree heat (the air conditioning in my car

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The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

died during that crossing of the Mojave). All I could think about was water, and green trees, and the gentle curves of the Cumberland Plateau.

I chose not to take the short road north and visit the Grand Canyon. What I didn’t realize was that it would take me another 43 years to get to this place, where I could have left my own land and gone to the Havasupai and the Navajo and the Hopi nations, where I could have seen the unforgettable Vermilion Cliffs of the Escalante range, where I could have stood at the edge of this massive cleft in the world to read millions of years of history written in the layers of metamorphic and sedimentary rocks, where I could have breathed the vast silence and perhaps understood myself better.

Opportunities most often do not repeat themselves. I am grateful that my early stubbornness wasn’t the end of the story, that finally I am traveling with my dear companion through Navajo country. I am seeing this red rocky land with its washes and canyons and pinyon trees and hogans. I finally get the chance to come again. This time I didn’t turn it down. Maybe I’ve learned something, finally.

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