The red rocks of Sedona are tall and warm. When you hike them, you can’t help but notice how unusual they are.
Our house in Florida is ten feet below sea level. We do not have rocks except for the ones my cousin’s kids painted to raise money for a church trip to Wilsonville.
My wife and I have been hiking this mountain since morning. It’s almost suppertime. We have another hour left on the trail.
We pass a man who is sitting on a rock. His beard is white, he looks too old for this terrain. He is breathing heavy. His daughter is seated next to him.
“Dad, do you need to check your blood pressure?” she keeps asking.
The old man is trying to catch his breath and cannot answer.
“Dad? Answer me.”
He removes his Gilligan hat and reveals a bald head. He surveys the miles of colored rock and sagebrush. There are tall orange mountains. Long khaki walls. Two-toned skyscrapers of cinnamon and white chocolate.
He starts to laugh at the view.
“Well,” he says. “It sure as hell ain’t Iowa. You definitely don’t see this sorta thing on the farm.”
“Dad,” says his daughter. “There’s no shame in turning back.”
“Good,” he says. “Then YOU turn back. I’ve been hiking for hours. I’m getting to the top if it kills me.”
He’s been a farmer all his life. He’s never gone anywhere or done anything famous, he tells me.
The most notable thing he ever did was grow a contest-winning pumpkin the size of a tractor tire. That, and he married a lovely woman who gave him the best years of his life.
He misses her. She always wanted to see Hawaii, Alaska, Florida, and Arizona, but it never happened. She never left Iowa. She passed several years ago unexpectedly, and he wishes she could see these rocks.
He says to his daughter, “Your mom woulda liked it here.”
This is all he says.
He starts playing with a little chain he wears around his neck. Who knows what the chain is for, or why his hands are shaking.
Could be exertion. Could be emotion. The two aren’t very different.
Finally, he stands. He hobbles the trail upward toward the summit. His daughter pleads with him to turn back. He insists that he’s “as healthy as a pack mule.”
We part ways. My wife and I are hiking downward, and I am following her because she is a natural leader.
I’m thinking about what the man said, and how grateful I am that my wife is with me. Because there will come a time when fate will call my number or hers, and it will be the end of the greatest adventure I’ve ever known. Her.
Our hike is fun. We sing cowboy songs to an audience of smooth rocks. We catch our breath beneath twisted juniper trees. We pause to laugh about our crazy relatives and drink from water bottles.
And I can think of no better person to daydream with.
I love the American West for the same reasons all grown-up boys love it. Because in my mind, I have galloped imaginary horses along these ranges a million times. Because it is dreamlike.
My wife and I stop to take in another view. We are sunburned. Salt has crystalized on our skin from evaporated sweat. We hug. The dust on our bare arms makes a sound like someone dancing the soft shoe. She kisses my cheek.
“You think that old man will be okay?” she says.
“He sure misses his wife.”
“Would you miss me like that?”
“I love you.”
When we reach our vehicle, we are exhausted. We sit on our bumper, eating sandwiches, guzzling more water, massaging our feet until the sun lowers.
My body’s going to pay for this. I can’t feel my toes. My knees ache. But you should see this sunset.
Then I hear a sound. A few hikers on the trail are applauding. I turn to see a white-bearded Iowan, limping his last few steps on a long path. His daughter is behind him, she’s clapping, too.
He is leaning on his walking stick. Each stride looks painful. His legs have streaks of dried blood on them. A white bandage is on his elbow. And he is all smiles.
He did it.
I stand in line to shake his hand. His grip says nothing but farmer.
“How was the view from the top?” I ask.
He turns to look at the stunning rocks behind him. He clutches his necklace. His lip quivers. Exhaustion and emotion are setting in. He’s thinking of her, I can tell it.
“Well,” he says. “It sure as hell ain’t Iowa.”