June 04, 2019
The following is an excerpt from Noah Cicero’s new novel, Give It To The Grand Canyon, which is forthcoming from Philosophical Idiot.
On the bus heading down the west rim, six in the morning, looking out the window. Barely anyone on the bus. I decided I would hike down to the bottom of the canyon. I hadn’t done it in over a decade and knew I had to do it again. The shimmering green world had always haunted me. I had to get back. The Grand Canyon had something to say to me, some truth, I knew it was down there, I just needed to get to the bottom.
The bus stopped at Yaki Point, the sun barely up, a pale light. I went over to the water bottle filling station and loaded up six bottles, put them in my backpack. The bag was heavy on my back, but I knew I had to carry it. There was no water on Kaibab Trail. There wasn’t going to be any water until I got to Bright Angel Trail.
I started hiking down, there were tourists at the beginning, all bumbling around holding one bottle of water. I walked by them telling everyone good morning, hello, have a nice day. I smiled and felt good.
I had not smiled in a long time, happiness was not there for me, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I used to have a shit-eating grin. I used to smile, I used to feel enthusiasm, things changed, I felt no enthusiasm anymore. I would hear my favorite songs, and they sounded like dead noise. My favorite movies would come on and I would fall asleep before the exposition was over. I would encounter beautiful women, women I usually found entertaining, women that captivated me, and I wouldn’t even notice. A month earlier, I was sitting next to a woman at a bar, after three hours she said, “Billy, I’m trying to sleep with you, don’t you care.” I responded, “Oh, I never noticed.”
I was smiling though, as I entered the canyon. I stumbled down through the cliff faces and white colored rocks. Eventually the tourists holding one water bottle disappeared, now there were tourists with backpacks with three water bottles heading to Cedar Ridge. As each moment passed, it got hotter and hotter. Everyone told me, “It is hot down at the bottom.” I believed them. I took my shirt off and let the sun hit me.
When I got to Cedar Ridge there were some families there, a restroom and posts to tie mules to. There were no mules, only families. I hung out for twenty minutes, drank some water. I started to sweat, I could feel that hiking feeling come over me, my toes were hurting from being pounded into the front of my shoes from walking downhill. Cedar Ridge had no shade, I had to rest in the open sun.
The deeper you go into the Grand Canyon, the more desert it becomes. Little cactuses, jack rabbits and lizards. I came upon a train of mules carrying goods up from the bottom. Wranglers, strong men and women rode the mules.
After the mule train was over, I hiked on, kept moving down Kaibab Trail. There was a rich man and his son, the rich guy bought several thousand dollars in gear to walk down the trail. His backpack was huge, something designed for a two-week trip to Alaska. He and his son had on REI clothes, Merrell shoes, everything brand new, they were totally set, the dad didn’t know what he was doing, he had gone to school to be a lawyer or doctor, or maybe he owned a business and had too much money. He was used to buying expensive things, that was his identity, and he maintained it even at the bottom of the canyon. I didn’t laugh at them, I asked them how they were doing, the dad looked tired. The dad was with his son, I could see my childhood for a second, there it was in my mind, a vision. That engulfed me, tangled me all up. I was in Sigel, Pennsylvania, on the old dirt road leading up to Grandpa’s cabin. A stone and wood cabin built on 500 acres of land deep in the forest, it was decorated with deer antlers, at least 30 antlers with the names of the hunters that brought them down and the years written on the wood. There were rattlesnake skins, a strange voodoo head one of my grandpa’s friends brought back from his time in the military, a tank bullet from World War II and a strange picture of a marlin in the sea so covered in dust it gave the painting a texture of its own.
When I was seven years old my grandpa and his friends fascinated me. They had all been in World War II. One man had been at the Battle of the Bulge, another in the South Pacific, another escaped the violence by being a cook. They and their wives had lived through the Great Depression, the war. They were real men, they drank beer, ate meat and killed animals. Their arms and chests were strong, but they were also members of the Masons, the Kiwanis, and local historical societies. They participated in local politics and gave to charity. When I was little they were kind to me, and there in the canyon I realized they were dead. The men of my childhood had died. I started to worry that I had no cabin for children, that I had no antlers with my name on them, and I never would.
The vision ended with me waking up in the old cabin as a child on a cold fall morning, going down and sitting at the big wooden table where we played cards the night before. I was smiling, it was true and I felt safe. I looked at my grandpa, a big man, a man that killed rattlesnakes, a man that once carried a deer two miles on his back after killing it with a single shot and gutting it with a buck knife. He had fought in the war, then became a trucker, he’d had four kids and they were all fed. He wasn’t perfect, a bit of a cheater and he drank too much Black Velvet, but I didn’t know that then. He was this big man, a man much bigger and more determined than my father. I always felt safe around my grandpa, I knew he would protect me. Grandpa would make me hot chocolate, scrambled eggs and sausage all while calling me his “right-hand man.” That’s what he would tell people when I was with him, “Here’s Billy, he’s my right-hand man.” He died while I was in Korea.
After the vision was over, I wasn’t smiling. There I was alone, on Kaibab Trail. I was no one’s right-hand man alone on that trail.
Farther down the canyon I went, my body started to hurt. I was getting a case of “the wants.” I wanted to get to the river, I wanted to see the river, thinking if I could get to the river, it would mean something. I had to tell myself, the river has no answer, each step is the answer, you’re in the canyon, you’re okay, don’t bother yourself having to get somewhere.
Before getting to the river, you go through a tunnel carved out of the rock. I wanted that river, I walked through the tunnel and came out on a metal bridge. A great feeling came over me. I had made it to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. No one would ever be able to take that from me, and that’s what I needed badly, one thing no one could take away from me. Experiences are the best things to get, because they can’t be taken away.
My mind stupidly thought, “I wish she could see me here. I want her to feel proud of me.” A ghost had chased me to the bottom of the canyon. I didn’t like myself for thinking that, I wished I would stop thinking thoughts like that, but I guess that was not the day I was going to stop thinking those thoughts.
For an hour I hiked along the river toward Bright Angel Trail, I stopped at picnic tables and ate lunch. There was a strong creek there with water from the river, I laid in it to cool myself down. For a minute I wanted the water to wash me away, to carry me down the Colorado. I would end up in the Pacific Ocean, a shark would eat me.
I worked my way out of the canyon, up Bright Angel trail. As I was walking I saw a bighorn sheep. He jumped out in front of me, I was alone, the bighorn sheep looked right at me, and said, “Hello, I’m Solon.”
I smiled and replied, “If you are Solon, who are the happiest men that ever lived?”
Solon grinned and said, “There were two very happy men, one was named Marcus Tullius Cicero. He served his people with sincerity, generosity and energy. He believed in the beauty of each citizen, and how each citizen could contribute and make a strong commonwealth. He had a wife and children, he worked in society, he was a moral man. When the soldiers came to execute him, he didn’t complain, he didn’t plead for his life, he didn’t scorn the government for killing him even though he spent his whole life trying to make that government better. He lifted his chin and let his neck be split open.”
“Who was the other man?”
“The other was Dazu Huike, the Second Patriarch of Zen. This man was very different than Cicero, Dazu Huike was alone in the world. He had no wife, no children, he had no money and never had any power. He spent his life seeking and perfecting his enlightenment. And spent his later years spreading the dharma, not waging wars and getting into controversies. Still, the government could not stand a man like Dazu Huike, they considered him a freak of nature, a creature so incomprehensible that he had to be killed. And just like Cicero, they cut his head off. Both of these men were decapitated, both of them died fearlessly. They knew how to live and how to die, one for society and one for enlightenment.”
I smiled and hiked on, the bighorn sheep leaped into the brush and I never saw him again.
Exhaustion had arrived. I could feel myself wanting to stop. I was alone, walking and walking, putting one foot in front of the other, my mind started to fizzle out. Coherent thoughts about my life didn’t come anymore. Finally I was getting to my goal of complete mental breakdown. That’s why I came to the canyon, to destroy my mind. For months it had given me nothing but agony. But there I was walking through Indian Gardens with no thoughts, no thoughts of the past, no thoughts of the present and no thoughts of the future. A breeze would hit me and that was all. I would pass a cool rock formation, I would touch it with my hands, put my cheek on the rocks, close my eyes, and that was all, nothing but the feeling of the rock on my face.
After moving my feet for hours, I finally made it to a faucet that shot out cold water, I put my whole body under the faucet, letting the water soak it. I had no sense of embarrassment, I knew I didn’t look good, in no other situation would I allow myself to be completely soaked by water. But there I was, pummeling my body with cold water. I needed it, I needed the cold water to shock me awake, to give me power to keep hiking, to keep me moving my feet.
After Indian Gardens I was heading up the canyon switchbacks, one switchback after another, where was I going? Who was I on those switchbacks? I wasn’t me, I wasn’t Billy Cox. The canyon had no intention of naming me, the canyon didn’t care about my childhood, the canyon didn’t care about what happened in Korea, the canyon didn’t care if I died there or made it to the top. The canyon preferred nothing.
I hiked by a couple in their upper thirties, they were white, slightly overweight and Northwestern. They were covered with sweat, their whole bodies looked strained. I asked them how long they had been hiking, they said nine hours. But they had started from the bottom, they were taking a break at the end of every switchback. The woman said she was from Seattle and had always dreamed of hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. She had made it, but she was paying the price for having a wild dream like that. Somewhere else on the planet there was a married couple in the Caribbean at that moment, drunk on a beach, lying in the sand, and then there were those two, sweating and begging God for mercy at every switchback.
I knew I had to keep going, I needed to get to the top by nine, the cafeteria would close at ten and I would be screwed for food. To me there was no point in stopping. If my legs could move, let them move. I did a sun salutation and kept moving my feet, one after another.
I began to feel the ground beneath my feet, step by step, step step step, pick up your legs Billy, pick up those feet. Started to have visions of football in the humid Ohio summer, middle-aged men yelling at young boys to run faster, to hit harder, to not be lazy. They were always screaming about us being lazy and not giving 110%. I always gave 110%, I always hit the hardest, I always tried to finish laps in the first five, I always wanted to win. There I was, on a switchback on Bright Angel Trail, 2000 miles from Ohio, 10,000 miles from Korea, and still yelling at myself in the voice of those football coaches. Everyone put pressure on me, as soon as the teachers realized I could get A’s, they turned the screws, kindergarten through 12th. As soon as the coaches realized I was fast and could hit, they were turning the screws on Billy Cox.
And then in college, all over again, professors, fellow students, girlfriend, everyone turning the screws on Billy Cox. Everywhere, on TV, on billboards, on the sides of buses, everyone turning the screws on Billy Cox, screaming at me to do better, because I was better, I was stronger, I was smarter. Everyone expected great things from me, but I couldn’t deliver. Visions of my grandpa’s death again, when he died they listed all of his descendants and their spouses, everyone was married and had kids but me. My name was alone, the only name alone, I was the only one with a master’s, the only one that had lived abroad, the only one that read Infinite Jest all the way through, but I was alone.
Grandpa’s right-hand man was alone on a switchback in the Grand Canyon. I sat on a log and drank water. I rubbed my eyes, visions of Grandpa, is this what he really wanted for me? His idea of nature was the forest of Pennsylvania, sitting in a tree-stand for hours wearing camouflage, waiting for a buck to come along. Standing by a clear creek trying to catch trout, holding his caught trout in his hand, showing it to his friends, making jokes about the size of fish the other guys caught. That was his nature, that wasn’t mine. My obsession with nature had grown and grown until I found myself tired, sweaty, with sore knees and feet on a switchback on Bright Angel Trail.
Even though, at that moment, I was doing something incredibly hard, something most people would never do, I had never felt so weak. A real weakness came over me. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Grandpa’s right-hand man, Grandpa’s right-hand man, Grandpa’s right-hand man.” I asked my mother once if he said that about his other grandkids, she replied, “No, only you. He told me once there was something special about you, something unbreakable, but at the same time he said you had no sense, that he had never met anyone with so little common sense in his life, and that he felt sad for you because he knew your life would be strangely hard, he knew this because he had met a few men like you in his life, when he was younger he was scared of them, but he knew in his old age, that there were men out there who lived different lives, and you were going to be one of them.”
The top of the canyon would not come, I kept walking and walking. The visions ended, I truly couldn’t think any longer, my consciousness was wiped out. I felt as if at any moment I could have laid down and gone to sleep, but I also felt that I could make it, that there was an end to Bright Angel Trail.
I was on my last switchback, almost done, and there were two Koreans. I could hear the Korean words being spoken, it felt like a joke, I had hiked 17 miles to destroy my past and in the last 50 yards I returned to Korea. I told them hello, we talked about Seoul for a little bit, then I finished the hike.
When I got to the top, I sat on the cement walkway. Tourists taking pictures looked at me, they asked if I’d done it, I said yes, I had done it. They were happy, they would never do it, but they liked the idea of someone doing it. A little boy was there from Northern Africa, Algeria or Egypt, I don’t know. He looked at my sweaty body, my face strained and ugly. His dad told him what I did, and the boy smiled.