My father had decided that we'd watch the sunrise over Grand Canyon. It was an ungodly hour for any pimply teenager. It was dark and I'd finally found a comfortable spot in an otherwise lumpy motel bed. I groaned and pulled the covers over my head. The old man was crazy. I wasn't moving.
"Come on, get up!" There were ways to dodge and avoid my father. I'd learned a lot of tricks and delay tactics over the years. I figured that he'd lose interest in this folly and finally go away. I could hold out awhile longer.
"Come on now, get up!" He was serious this time. There was no avoiding it. We were going to the canyon rim. I swung my feet to the floor, trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes in vain. Teenagers do terribly in the early morning. The experts now acknowledge this as physiological fact. Growing teens need a ton of sleep. Back in the 1970s we were just lazy bums. I got up.
It was dark at the rim. And it was surprisingly cold. As I came to life I realized that this was something special. The canyon seemed endlessly deep, a black pit of unfathomable secrets. My father just stood there, the glow of his cigarette and myriad stars providing the only light. "Listen!" he said in a hushed, urgent tone.
The mules were stirring below. First it was just one who decided to yelp out his morning mule call. A second decided that this was, indeed, a grand idea. He joined in. Soon, the entire pack was heeing and hawing. The echoes made the canyon seem haunted. It was still as black as ink down there. It was surprising to hear the stirrings of life.
My father grinned from ear-to-ear. He was content to sit there all morning, just listening to the distant cacophony. It almost seemed a shame for the sun to appear and spoil the magic. But appear it did, first as a faint glow, then as a thunderous ovation of light. The canyon was alive. It awakened, at first, as reluctantly as I did. But now the entire world below us was singing with the affirmation of life.
As a boy, I loved photography as much as I do now. On the above-described trip I carried my first-ever 35mm camera. It was an East German model, a gift from my parents. On the morning of the sunrise it was impossible to photograph what I was feeling. My technical skills were limited and besides, it was impossible to distill the grandness of the universe onto a piece of slide film. The camera was around my neck but it seemed pointless to do much with it. Photography had its limits.
My father is long gone now, making moments like these all the more precious. The very moment the mules first stirred I said to myself, "Someday I'm going down there." Standing on the rim at sunrise was glorious, but it seemed a tease for a grander adventure. My dad was content to share the moment with me and drive off, back to the motel. I knew I needed more. The canyon had gotten under my skin.
In less than a month I will fulfill the promise to myself for the fourth time. Each time I first hit the trail I feel the pull to go down into the canyon. And I remember the moment on the rim when my father made sure I would see the sunrise over Grand Canyon. The echoes of him, my first camera, and the mules are forever with me.