Fun With Iron Karl

Iron Karl, the Fascist Tour Director, spread the map out before him and checked off all the stops that it would simply not do to miss. Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona. Iron Karl knows just how things are supposed to run, and will accept no less. It is Iron Karl that seizes control of your Dad on a family vacation and will not let him stop the car so that any of the kids can pee. Iron Karl wants the journey to run on time.

Unfortunately for me, Iron Karl sat on my shoulder for a week or so on this leg of my trip. I drove from Las Vegas around the north shore of Lake Mead, briefly through Arizona and up into the painted rock country of Utah. The change of scenery from Arizona and Nevada to Utah is astounding. All of a sudden green hills rear up, their breast torn away to reveal red and white striations of rock. Although twilight was coming on, Iron Karl grimly kept the van pointed at Zion. But my back was getting sore from a long day of driving, and I persuaded him that we should stop at a state park campground.

In Zion, it was Iron Karl that goaded me up the 8 mile round trip to Observation Point, even though my back was feeling sore. Usually, Professor Monkey is my companion on hikes. He chatters about the plants, flowers, and birds. He wants to know their names. He wonders about future hikes and past hikes. He brings along disembodied friends, lovers, family and induces me to hold long dialogs with them as I walk. But the good Professor is easy enough to shut up – I can usually simply try to focus on exactly what I am seeing and experiencing, and the Monkey will be quiet and look, too, if only for a moment.

Not so Iron Karl. Once Karl knew that my back was not feeling right, it became a contest of wills. “Look,” said Iron Karl “You’ve already come this far. Surely you can go a little farther. It wouldn’t do to come all the way to Zion and miss the view from Observation Point.” So on he drove me, through canyons of twisted and tortured red sandstone, over paths chipped into the sheer sides of white cliffs, and the walk became less and less about the dizzying views down the Canyon, and more about if and when I should turn back. I made it all the way to the top, and I took a lovely picture that does not reveal my discomfort. I am sure that Iron Karl was pleased by the picture. He collects momentos the way a boy scout collects merit badges. For him, every trip comes with a checklist. It matters most that all the items are checked off in sequence and on time.

After I returned from my hike, back tight and painful, I stopped by the visitor center. There I saw a van with some familiar looking bumper stickers. Then I realized that the van was familiar, too. It belonged to Adam, a new friend from Burning Man (for you cross-referencers, he’s the one that said “Look, we’re in a Dali painting” in the letter “Lightly Singed“) I left a note on his windshield, and returned to my campsite where I rested in the back of the van, reading, and then soaked in the icy waters of the Virgin River. In the cool of the evening, Adam drove up, still clad in his outfit for mountain biking. For a minute, I had to hate him for his physical well-being. But he was kind, and drove me over to the Pah Tempe hotsprings for a soak, and even let me ride lying down on the way back. I spent the next day at Pah Tempe, soaking in the sulpherous waters, doing a little t’ai chi, and my back recovered quickly.

After his day off at Pah Tempe, Iron Karl drove the two of us from Zion to Bryce Canyon, which is about as fanciful a place as you can imagine. The Indian name for it was something like “Valley where the red rocks stand like men”, which is pretty accurate. The canyon is actually the side of a plateau scoured by runoff. (As I overheard one tourist say “Why it’s nothing but a big gully. You give the one behind our house a couple of million years and it will look just like this.”). The soft red and white rock is eroded down into ranks of spires called hoodoos. They look like sculptures made by dripping wet sand down out of a closed fist. It’s quite interesting to wander around in, but I found it almost too fussy. It’s nature at its most baroque.

Once again, Iron Karl took the wheel and headed us to the Grand Canyon, but here I lost him. Neither of us were expecting the Kaibab Plateau. It rises up from the endless plain of sagebrush, “a forested island in a sea of desert” (so says the visitor information center) first clad in Pinyon pine, and then Ponderosa, and golden aspen. We had hit the autumn again. The pines opened up to long green alpine meadows going brown and dry now, their sides bordered with white barked aspen, the trunks rising up thin and straight to a corona of yellow. Iron Karl was struck dumb with the beauty of the place.

Adam and I spent a few days on the North Rim, hiking around. On one hike, Iron Karl and Professor Monkey got into an unholy gleeful chorus. Iron Karl was sure that there was a “best” hike to take in order to most fully enjoy the hour leading up to sunset. Professor Monkey agreed, but started exploring the options, hinting that perhaps the hike that we were on was not the optimal one. This enraged Iron Karl. It simply will not do to be at the Grand Canyon and take a sub-optimal hike! I let Adam in on my dilemma. He was sanguine about the whole thing “I’m sure that whatever hike we take, we won’t be disappointed”. He was right, of course. As we watched, the light of the setting sun fell on Mount Hayden, a single beige sandstone finger pointing heavenwards, and that spire glowed gold to orange to red until the light failed, and the horizon was rimmed with lavender and gray.

The next day, I said goodbye to Adam, who said as he parted “Remember, there’s no right way and no wrong way”. A fitting epitaph for Iron Karl. Then I let Karl go, and went to the south rim, just because I wanted to, not because it was on the schedule. I managed to get on a mule ride the next day. The mule rides are booked months in advance, but you can put your name on a waiting list, which I did. Then I had to show up at 6:15 AM to see if I got on the ride, which just shows you how much I wanted to ride. I did not make the cut – I was the next person on the list. I hung around, looking so pitiful that the guy at the desk called up and got me a place.

When I got to the corral, the Chorus of Cautionary Grandmothers put in an appearance. They’re usually lurking in the background, fretting about the engine overheating, muttering darkly about foolish behavior that will lead to disaster. They wanted to know how I thought I’d be able to ride, me a poor cripple with a bad back. They would prefer it if I simply stood at the top of the canyon and looked in. From behind the railing. Better yet, look at it all from the cool comfortable depths of the IMax theater, just down the road. To appease them, I ate enough ibuprofen to relax an elephant, and strapped on a back support, and clambered aboard my mule “Big G”.

In reality, riding is not hard on my back, but the Chorus of Cautionary Grandmothers needed to keep on checking in for the first hour or two. But their voices faded as I sunk into the experience of riding in that amazing place. I enjoyed the feeling of being on the mule, matching my movement to his swaying, bumpy gait. Riding, you don’t have to look at your feet – that’s the mule’s job, so I looked out over the canyon drinking in the view. We descended through the white sandstone into the red shale and the vermillion something-or-other. We came out on a broad green plateau of sage and rode out to the very edge where we could look down into the dark brown schist of the gorge, the narrow sides rising up from the brown and roiled waters of the Colorado. Across from us, the canyons of the North Rim, behind us the green valley that we had descended, enfolded by sheer red cliffs surmounted with a brow of white.

It was time for lunch with my mule riding companions. I was grateful that none of them were in my head, for the time being.


About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

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