The Grand Canyon could not look any better. The colors of morning shine on the rocks and make purple shadows.
My wife and I stand at the rail and overlook one of the best things ever forged.
A family from Shanghai stands beside us. The Chinese man asks me to take their picture by speaking in fluent hand gestures.
His family poses.
“Say CHEESE!” I shout.
Close enough for American.
I have been to the Canyon a handful of times because this was one of two places my late father loved most.
Years ago, I came here to camp and hike by myself. I had gone through a rough patch and I was here to clear my head. I slept in a tent, I lived on canned food and warm beer. It was great.
One night, I camped beside an older man named Jerry. He was from Oklahoma. Jerry was a Church of Christ deacon. And even though I wanted to be alone, Jerry started tagging along on my hikes without invitation.
After one full day of walking together, we shared supper. Beans and bacon cooked over a fire. When I cracked open my can of warm beer he got upset.
He said, “You’re not actually going to DRINK that are you?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I prefer to guzzle.”
I took one sip and wished I hadn’t. The next thirty minutes were filled with a bona fide sermon about beer. I started to feel so bad that I emptied my can on the campfire and apologized for offending him.
The next morning, I tried to sneak away from camp before Jerry awoke, but I was not quick enough. Jerry was already up with the chickens.
He was wearing a tucked-in shirt, khakis, and his backpack.
“Hurry up,” he said. “We have a long morning ahead of us.”
“C’mon, we’ve got a lotta ground to hike.”
I would have rather licked a bowling shoe than accompanied this man. Then again, I am a pushover and I can’t say the word “no” more than twice per year without experiencing crippling guilt.
So we hiked. It was hot. Our sweat turned to salt crystals on our skin. All day, Jerry ran his mouth. I could practically taste my warm beer awaiting me.
But it was not meant to be. That night, Jerry started talking about religion around the fire pit. Somehow the idea of popping the top on a Budweiser while Jerry quoted Revelation felt weird. So I skipped the beer.
All in all, I spent three days with Jerry, and they were not fun days. He was opinionated, loud, and he didn’t seem like he ever loosened up.
But on his last day in the canyon, before he left for home, his mood had changed.
When he shook my hand he said, “I have enjoyed this so much.”
“Me, too,” I lied. “Those hills are no joke.”
Then he told me that he had stomach cancer. He said he had undergone treatment twice and it had returned twice. Doctors said he was not expected to live long.
Jerry had no wife, no kids, and he told me he felt he had missed out life. But he had always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, and that’s why he was there.
I felt like a skid mark on a boot heel.
Before he left the park, Jerry wanted his picture made on the South Rim. I took his photo with a disposable camera. The man stood before a scenic overlook with his hands on his hips, chest poked outward, grinning.
I never saw him again.
Later that night at my campsite, I discovered he had left all his camping gear behind. I guess he didn’t think he’d need it anymore.
The next day I hiked alone and I sort of missed old Jerry. I thought about him, and I hoped he found whatever peace he was looking for.
Also, I thought about me. I decided that when I got back home, I would do a few things I had always wanted to do, the way Jerry was doing.
Maybe I would take more time off, maybe go fishing more. Or kiss my wife more often. Maybe one day I would even write a book. Maybe two. Who knows?
That was a long time ago.
Anyway, right now I am asking a Chinese man to take a picture of me and my wife. I hand him my camera. I hold her tight. She holds me. We grin.
Life is shorter than I thought it would be. I guess that makes it even more beautiful.
“Say cheese,” the Chinese man says.
“Beer,” I say.
Joy Luke - April 14, 2019 11:13 am
Thank you for one year of uplifting, soul searching and utterly delightful stories that have brightened my day.
It is almost a year ago that a dear friend forwarded to me one of your stories to help me through a sad time.
On April 23rd at 3.30 a.m. my beloved little dog passed away quietly in my arms. A little later that same morning you lost your best buddy.
I am so grateful to you for all you wrote to help, unbeknowingly, both of us get through those sad days.
Since that time I have been endeavoring to get a mailing address to send you a book that I wrote featuring my little dog Pippin. Quite rightly your personal mailing address is closely guarded.
I hope we will meet one of these days and I can give you this small token of my appreciation for lifting my spirits on a daily basis.
You really do make the World a better and more thoughtful place.
Keith - April 14, 2019 11:49 am
My wife and I are right there with you. On our way from Enterprise to work on our race car in California Y’all enjoy your vacation!
GaryD - April 14, 2019 11:55 am
I guess sometimes you never know what another person is going through until you hike a mile in their boots . And ivI’ tasted warm beer, many years ago, and it is a sin to drink that stuff .
Connie Havard Ryland - April 14, 2019 12:24 pm
I finally visited the Grand Canyon a couple years ago with my granddaughter and her fiancé. We took two weeks and drove from Alabama to Washington, stopping at as many places as we could along the way. We live in a country of wondrous beauty. It was the trip of a lifetime for me. I hope that trip taught those kids to enjoy life, no matter how hard it can be. I waited all my life to see some of those sights, and I encourage everyone I know to LIVE while they can. Don’t put off the joy. Tomorrow may not come. Love and hugs. Enjoy your trip.
Karen - April 14, 2019 12:42 pm
Our little dog, Maggie, died in my arms yesterday afternoon, so Joy’s remarks touched me deeply. Your columns always move me, and today was especially helpful. Thank you.
Edna B. - April 14, 2019 12:51 pm
I’m catching up on your posts. I;ve never been to the Grand Canyon. I loved your story about Jerry. It’s true, we never really know about another person’s burdens until we walk a mile in their shoes, or at least spend some precious time with them. You have a wonderful heart, Sean. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.
Ginger Clifton - April 14, 2019 12:55 pm
Lots of analogies in this one. See, I am older and maybe a little bit preachy (Baptist), but that’s what we are put here to do. The closer you get to the end of the trail the more tolerant you become (hopefully, unless you get old and mean). You realize what may be in the other fellow’s backpack, and start looking for reasons to respect instead of ridicule. You realize Jesus is the most important thing.
Terri - April 14, 2019 1:51 pm
Love you much Sean.
Beth Reinert - April 14, 2019 3:53 pm
Sorry we missed you. We were just on the south rlm, taking in the sights. Grand is not a big enough word.
Jack Darnell - April 14, 2019 5:08 pm
Some things are hard to accept, and harder to explain. I love the Gran Canyon. I was sure surprised and fascinated on our first trip. I was not expecting much more than a big hole in the ground, it was that okay PLUS wonders. You experienced a wonder.
Sherry & jack from an over cast NC, that came from your neck of the woods to us!
Shelton A. - April 14, 2019 8:18 pm
The grandness that is nature at its best brings out the best and the wonder in us. Thanks for sharing that story.
Carolyn Kelley - April 14, 2019 9:25 pm
Love the Grand Canyon, and all your stories?
Pat - April 14, 2019 11:32 pm
Methinks ole Jerry was an angel camping around you……………………….
Charaleen Wright - April 15, 2019 3:29 am
Carol K. Rice - April 15, 2019 2:01 pm
So sweet and thoughtful! You are a gentle soul. I love the Grand Canyon too!
Mike Bone - April 15, 2019 9:11 pm
My mom used to call beer “The Devil’s Vomit”. I love Stella Artois.
Karen - May 15, 2019 12:55 pm
This is beautiful Sean, I love your writing. This past September my husband and I, and our two teenage daughters took a two week trip “out west”, from Pennsylvania. We saw some amazing things. We had decided to come home through the south, so that we could see the Grand Canyon. We were so thankful that we took that extra time…beautiful doesn’t even do it justice! It was definitely a highlight of our trip for all of us. What we didn’t know at the time, is how much our lives would change, just a few months later. On March 31, our youngest daughter, Molli, passed away very suddenly and very unexpectedly. The loss is incredible, and our lives will never be the same. One thing that I have thought of so many times in these past weeks, is that I’m so glad that Molli was able to see the Grand Canyon before she left this earth. We know though, that as amazing as the Grand Canyon is, the beauty that she is seeing now is indescribable! I can’t wait to experience it with her! Thank you again for your beautiful words!
turtlekid - May 15, 2019 11:51 pm
Jerry needed to feel useful and productive. I am proud you let him be who he was. Your dad is smiling and pleased that you revisited his favorite place. We all have a need to feel useful and appreciated. You have accomplished that with expressing your encounters with others to us.
Dean - June 5, 2021 1:42 pm
I am old and in bad health. One of my regrets is not traveling more and seeing different places.
I am thankful for what I did see.
Great column hopefully it will inspire more people to go see different things if they are able.
Cooper - June 5, 2021 3:34 pm
See, you ARE a miracle-you we’re that man’s angel so never lose your ‘talk to me face’!