I thought traveling through Arizona alone would be a cinch. What I got wasn’t exactly the picture reel in my head. It also wasn’t bad – I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed. Humility. Fear. Freedom. And to be frank, if you’re looking for a Grand Canyon guide, this isn’t it. I won’t even be hurt if you stop reading here and go about your day, it just feels good to get this out into the world.

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I thought my trip would look a lot like #vanlife on Instagram. The Grand Canyon would be my audition. My to-do list would be the envy of all! Sleep comfortably in the trunk of a rental Jeep (ha!). Wake in the sprawling desert beneath a coral-swabbed sky. Ramble from snap-worthy overlook to brag-worthy site. My whole day would be dripping in splendor, deep in the throes of nature.

Instead, I was dripping in sweat while nature sat in the clutches of a bunch of other sweaty, cranky tourists. From a lunch stop in Sedona to sunset at the Grand Canyon, every square inch of Arizona suffocated beneath bubbling heat and babbling humans. In short, it was my nightmare. And to think back now and pretend I’d have any stretch of the single most visited national park to myself seems like an idiot’s lament.

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Obstacles transform the scenic tapestry I’d spun in my head into a hundred snags on my favorite pants. The “campsite” I’d reserved on Airbnb was nothing more than an empty plot of land huddled adjacent to a forest fire. The hotels were all booked and I didn’t have anyone to help me figure this out. Close to tears, I pulled into the park for sunset only to find that Yavapai Point, the sunset spot I’d chosen, had also been chosen by a thousand others.

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As the sun slithered behind the unfamiliar flatness, I began to count backward, using words and letters, to find the place where I felt peace. The wordless place stuffed between a hundred thousand conversations where I was alone. Suddenly, the people taking jumping pictures from a cliff outcrop miles above a sure death didn’t seem to irritate me anymore. Granted, seeing any idiot plunge to their death would’ve been a buzz kill, but the reckless and irreverent nature of humans in nature suddenly didn’t irk me the way it had minutes before.

I was the last car in the parking lot. After boiling water for a salty camp meal, I remembered I had nowhere to go, so I sat there for awhile letting the bugs eat away at my arms and legs, realizing I’d also forgotten repellent. Driving back into town underneath a velvety black starless sky, I felt alone. Lonely. Scared. After choosing to sleep in the rental car in a motel parking lot, I called my mom to reassure her that I wouldn’t wind up on a poster in the lobby of Wal-Mart. But mostly I reassured myself.

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My glamorous van life evening commenced with backing into a forgotten parking spot, rolling dust-stained clothing in each the back windows for curtains, blowing up my sleeping pad and rolling into a sleepless few hours in the stagnant air of the car until my 3:30 am alarm shrieked.

I drove through the winding roads along the eastern part of the Grand Canyon, dreaming of iced coffee and rubbing my crooked neck. Racing the sun on an empty road felt reckless, sincere. The morning breeze, stale and warm even then, coursed through open windows, teasing my hair and chafing my cheeks. When I pulled into Lipan Point, there was one other car in the lot, likely another sleeper. Bypassing the lookout point, I scrambled to a ridge and set up my tripod. I heard rustling below and saw a young man sitting and waiting for the show. He smiled and we exchanged pleasantries, then all was quiet.

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The wind echoed through the canyon as the dusty orange shadows crept across the canyon walls, slipping from a deep cavernous sleep. The world left. All that remained was the dust—the glowing particles of life gleaming in the space between empty and forgotten. Another world dawned. Something reticent, untouched, vague. In that moment, I inherited my own corner of the universe.

The morning sun crawled into crevasses, clung onto spires. The dark uncertainty of night was replaced with something original, yet completely familiar. An afterthought of yesterday. I looked down at the man, who sat quietly in awe of the canyon. He seemed to be uncertain of his purpose there. There are few times in life you see another person, a stranger, in venerable awe of nature, in a trance set forth by one of her miracles. He eventually left, wordlessly wiping the timeworn moments from his eyes.

I sat alone on a rock, amid something so vast and endless, so arid and nameless that it swallowed me whole. The river seemed motionless from up there, pallid green and stagnant, like snakeskin. But you knew it was moving. Everything was moving, aligning, creating. It’s these moments I’m reminded my place. With the wind whipping at my back I’m once again a tiny speck of dust.

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Lack of sleep became a crippling reality as I headed to the car where I boiled water for yet another bland camp meal. Scarfing down freeze-dried eggs atop one of the world’s greatest wonders felt somewhat less impressive than the fact that only had to pull out one spine out of my leg from the cactus I walked into.

That morning, I hiked the Bright Angel Trail alongside a thousand other tourists, each of us simultaneously melting into a goopy pile of salted human beneath the unforgiving heat. I took a few moments to remind myself that I was actually hiking into the Grand Canyon, feeling grateful for the opportunity to be a part of something that immense. But my mind continually traveled back to that morning, which seemed like light-years before, when I was nothing, no one…and yet everything, everyone.

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I got into the rental car, which had baked itself into a modern-day microwave, washed off my feet with sun-boiled water and smiled. The sandwich I ate from the gift shop was soggy. The beer I drank was already warm. My feet were covered in red clay and I hadn’t showered in days. I didn’t have a bed that night, I had hours to the next stop and my head was starting to ache from it all.

The worry of where to sleep. The calculating cost of gassing up your home. The unsettling fear that you’d roll into the perfect spot to sleep only to find out serial killer also thought it was a nice spot. The certainty that nothing to come would be easy. The flash of that film reel, catching and breaking into a million fragmented pieces of the good life. I looked through the rearview mirror, passing through the gates of the park and smirked as the asphalt stretched for miles behind, and miles ahead.

I didn’t sleep well that weekend. I never felt like I had time to rest. I packed in everything I could and spent the rest worrying about food, sleep, shelter and money. I missed my bed. I missed my people. I stared at my phone, willing it to find service so I could reconnect. Nothing felt right. Yet everything felt like mine…like maybe I had created it one sleep-filled night.

More pictures from my trip!


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1 Comment

  1. I just stumbled across your website Alex. I liked this read. It reminds me of my 3 months solo backpacking through SE Asia. I’d never gone that long solo traveling before. The picture I had in my head of making friends and connections easily and abundantly was a bit different than reality. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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