The woman’s hands waved high in the air. “There’s a big elk right there!” she whispered. “I know,” I said in a relaxed tone. “I see it.”
The young bull elk was eagerly tending to a thicket of brush about 10 feet away. I calmly walked right by him as the woman and her friends stood petrified with shock. “Are you from around here?” a man whispered. “Uh…no, not really,” I stammered, continuing on my path along the edge of the Grand Canyon.
I’m not from this place, but I’ve seen it before. That’s probably why the elk didn’t bother me, or why I didn’t bother it. The narrow, paved path along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon holds a special place in my mind—it was the first place I truly ventured to on my own out west.
I remember landing in Phoenix just over a year and a half ago. I remember being dumbstruck by the brownness and vastness of the desert. I remember driving all day, and I remember eating a Big Mac while a man in a black cowboy hat played guitar on the side of some Interstate pitstop; mostly, I remember reaching the South Rim at sunset, realizing my perspective would never be the same.
On that first afternoon in the desert southwest, I plopped down next to a dying old pine tree and watched the sun go down on a completely new world.
531 days later, I found that tree again.
This time, I found the world around me less changed. The glowing afternoon sun was still there. The grazing elk on the canyon’s edge were there, too. The landscape below me was instantly recognizable, but the photo I took was not.
531 days after my first trip to the Grand Canyon, I checked into the same low budget Route 66 hotel, put on the same t-shirt, drove down the same road, listened to the same CD (Bryan) and sat by the same tree. But shoddy camera work can’t hide the fact—I’m the one that’s changed.
I sat by the dying tree for a final time. (If it’s there whenever I meet America’s greatest chasm again, I’ll be shocked.) I thought about the canyon, the view, the road behind me and the road before me. All those sunsets ago in this very spot, something clicked in my head—the switch that helped me realize how much was out there to explore, the switch that tells me to go for it, the switch that removed the “no” from my vocabulary and replaced it with “go.”
In my travels, I’ve seen grander trees like the sequoias. I’ve seen older trees like the ancient bristlecones. And I’ve seen more resilient trees like the joshua trees. But in 531 sunsets in a new world, I’ve never seen a more meaningful one.
The compass will not point west again on this journey. It will not point back to the old, dead pine on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but it won’t have to. Some things stay with you. And as the elk shows, even if you’re not from somewhere, you can be of anywhere.