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.