The woman in the leopard print dress looked me in the eye, extended her arms upward and proclaimed, “This is Shangri-La.”
I had stumbled into her business—photos of women from 1960s James Bond movies on the walls—in search of some gelato. And though, with this line, she sounded more like a Bond villain than a Bond Girl, she had given me something more than frozen desert. She had given me affirmation I wasn’t alone.
To her, Shangri-La was where we were standing, Sedona, Arizona. A forested oasis in the southwestern desert, Sedona is known for its vortexes. Some people believe these sites imbue them with benefits like healing and increased vitality.
While in Sedona, the only kind of energy I felt was the kind when you have one too many prickly pear margaritas (one) the night before. But I did understand the Shangri-La notion. After all, I had just spent a week in northern Arizona and southern Utah looking either straight up or down, my mouth ajar in awe.
My wife and I had conceived the trip as one to check off boxes. We have some history with this part of the country, with our first trip there five years ago having been decimated by a federal government shutdown. Visits to Grand Canyon National Park and Zion National Park had to be cut out of our 2013 itinerary, our trip remapped from a Las Vegas hotel room. In 2018, I still hadn’t forgotten about it.
But I couldn’t explain why—with such a big world to see—I yearned to retrace my steps so soon. I somehow felt I needed to be there.
I didn’t understand it until I was there, on the rim of the Grand Canyon. The canyon is beyond the mind’s comprehension, stretching as far, deep and wide as the eye can see, different colors, shapes and sizes in every direction. Even with this fantastical description, I have not done it justice.
I have been lucky and privileged enough to see many wonders in my life—the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, the Hawaiian islands, natural and manmade masterpieces in Italy, Mount Rainier in Washington state, Yosemite Valley in California, Acadia National Park in Maine, a meatball pizza from DeLorenzo’s—but nothing has ever affected me the way that first look at the Grand Canyon did. I am not an outwardly emotional person, but I’m not ashamed to admit that, as I processed what I was seeing, tears formed in my eyes.
This probably seems strange. I’ve heard of people—heck, I saw plenty of people—who merely peer over the canyon rim, say “Yup, that’s a big hole in the ground,” and move on with their lives. But, to me, this displays a lack of appreciation for the Grand Canyon—which at its very least is a testament to what can be accomplished just by chipping away every day, year after year.
The next day, at sunrise, made me feel more secure in my wonderment. We were on the South Kaibab trail, 1,200 feet below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, when the canyon walls began to light up in watercolor reds, oranges, yellows, greens, browns and blues. South Kaibab is a ridgeline trail, which means there’s nothing obstructing your view on either side of the trail. (Also nothing to hold on to.) It’s just you and the ground beneath your feet, with panoramic views all around.
Here, below the rim and out in the canyon, I had to acknowledge my place in the world. We are very small. Very temporary. This, oddly, made me feel at peace.
We moved on from the Grand Canyon after a few days, but not before I had a conversation with a friendly park employee who expressed his lifelong desire to visit New Jersey and see our “trees on steroids.” He said he wished the Grand Canyon had similar trees, and spun a fantastic yarn about the stories he had heard about how our tall, green trees formed canopies over roads and how beautiful it must be. It was a lesson in perspective that what provided me with a life-altering experience to him was just a backdrop. And what to him was “beautiful” to me was “Nottingham Way.”
This wasn’t the only time I had been forced to confront myself and my perceptions. Just as the Grand Canyon had given me perspective, so had the people and other places I encountered. Like, in the Navajo Nation, seeing people trying to make a living selling jewelry or fry bread roadside in makeshift wooden shelters. Or their homes, many of which have no electricity or running water.
Or in Zion National Park, where I grew to appreciate my experience there five years earlier. In 2013, my wife and I stood alone at the barricaded south gate of the park, the entire canyon in front of us silent. At the time, we cursed the fact we couldn’t step foot into the park. But, after navigating the traffic jams and full parking lots of Zion in peak season, I had come to realize the shutdown had given me something unique—a taste of Zion Canyon as it was when first discovered. (That said, even at its busiest, Zion National Park provides a tranquility few places have. My return confirmed my feeling that, if I had to stay one place forever, Zion’s at the top of my list.)
On the flight back to Philadelphia, I thought I had found someone else who had come away from the Southwest with some food for thought, when a woman in the row behind me began talking to the person next to her.
“Everyone is ‘Me first,’” she said. “We need to think about others more.”
Then, our plane landed, and the woman jumped out of her seat in the plane’s last row, and elbowed people out of the aisle so she could be the first off the plane.
Yes, I truly had arrived home in the Northeast. But like an elbow to the back, my trip had left a mark that won’t fade soon.