“You folks Americans?”
As a traveler, I have lied answering this question, but that isn’t what gave me pause. Nor was it the novelty of traveling in my home country. The thing was that Leroy—hat, flannel shirt in spite of the red desert heat, swagger, braid down his back—was Diné, a Navajo, a real Indian cowboy, so I took a second to process before I answered.
“Me and him are.”
I jutted my chin at my fiancé who was exchanging suspicious looks with a swayback gray. Our third wheel, my gothed-out teenaged cousin, Elena I’ll call her, was Swiss. A decade earlier, when I was Elena’s age, her parents had taken me through the Alps. Now that it was our turn to host, Elena had been to New York City with my mother and Niagara Falls with our cousins and Washington DC with my sister. Since she had come west, Steve and I had whisked her off for a whirlwind trip to the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon. (But where was the real desert? Elena wanted to know, searching for sand dunes.) Beside that corral in Monument Valley, I hoped she felt a really long way from Switzerland. Switzerland is pretty in a cowbell-and-meadow kind of way, but the U.S., for all the practice I had finding its faults, can be one hell of an O-beautiful-for-spacious-skies kind of place.
Clearly my zeal as a tour guide was motivated by more than a debt of reciprocation, or at least a debt owed only to Elena: after years of living abroad and trying to explain our country to people in other countries, Steve and I could actually show someone. Even if what that someone’s own quest was to find a pair of black suede moccasins with fringe.
“We’re from Albuquerque,” I added. I was showing off for Elena, but most of all I was trying to get in right with Leroy: I didn’t want to have paid $300 for a tourist-trap trail ride only to get stuck on the dud horse.
“New Mexico, eh? We don’t get locals here much.”
Truthfully, I’m from New York, but I’d lived in Albuquerque long enough to know not to say so, which I suppose is something. Instead of answering one way or the other, I gestured at Steve.
“You don’t? Well, this one’s from Gallup.”
Leroy turned and looked my lanky fiancé up and down.
“Gallup? You royalty?”
Monument Valley straddles the border of Arizona and Utah, a bit west of the Four Corners and almost two hundred miles from Gallup, New Mexico, across some of the strangest looking landscape I’d seen on four continents. But it’s all overlaid by Navajo Nation and Gallup’s one of the biggest border towns, replete with all the usual border-town politics, not least of which was the question of “royalty.” For many years, albeit incorrectly, Gallup claimed to have the highest number of millionaires per capita of anywhere in the world and attributed this to the (white) family-owned trading posts that deal in Native American handicrafts.
Steve was quick to clear his name of trading post affiliations—his parents worked for the schools. But he and Leroy were both enjoying the joke. I laughed too, and not because I didn’t get it. I’d been in the vaults at Richardson’s Trading Post in Gallup, a series of back rooms behind a massive door like something out of a movie, which it might well be given Gallup’s prominence in old Westerns. Inside the vault were racks loaded with guns and saddles and walls hung heavy with enormous antique silver-and-turquoise squash blossom necklaces. In the vault was live pawn.The front of the store was a mix of dead pawn and made-for-sale artwork. Belt buckles and old tack, bead and silverwork, kachina dolls, old spurs, western saddles, used rugs that smelled vaguely like the piñon smoke of their past lives. Leroy’s royalty joke had a few hundred years of American history woven into it; we might as well have been standing on the White House lawn.
Leroy was still chuckling when he hitched his lead shank to the first horse, a plodding bay, and led it out of the corral.
“Hey, can I help take a horse?” I called after him, trying not to sound overly eager but failing. I wanted to tell Leroy that I could ride any horse he had, so long as it wasn’t some pack-mule trail-ride nag, but I knew better. I’d had enough jackasses tell me the same thing when I’d been in Leroy’s shoes, only to watch them clutch mane and bray for help. When a person doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know, there’s no faking it (a phenomenon hardly unique to horses).
But Leroy didn’t hear me. Another guide was climbing out of his truck in the dirt lot and Leroy couldn’t wait to let him in on the joke.
“Hey, we got some real live Americans! This one here, he’s from Gallup! Not royalty though—I already asked him.”
It was a good joke—an icebreaker akin to mocking the IRS or stating the obvious about the weather—and Leroy’s buddy appreciated it by slapping his blue-jeaned thigh. Steve had grown up on the border; he knew what people said on both sides and he knew his place. He shrugged bashfully, hands deep in his pockets, kicked the dust, offered himself up as the butt of the joke.
I looked over at Elena. I wanted her to see all of this, an exchange as iconic as the scenery. She was off kicking a rock in the dust, but I realized that other people were watching: the show—cowboying around those iconic red rock formations—had begun. And Steve and I were part of that show and it wasn’t just because we’d been the lucky contestants picked out of the audience. We weren’t lost. We weren’t foreigners. We weren’t wondering what we should be doing with our bodies, where we should be waiting, what everyone was saying. We were, as Leroy had confirmed, Americans, and America was the show.
As basic as fitting-in and fluency in a native tongue might sound, Steve and I had met five years earlier in El Salvador. After two years on the isthmus, we’d spent a year in the Andes before returning to the U.S. for graduate school. Being a foreigner—removed from the central action, aping gracelessly the language and gestures that those who weren’t passing through produced with perfect fluency—had begun to feel like my natural state.
Taking Elena around for her forced-march American tour, I kept feeling like I wasn’t there for the show, nudging in close for a good view. I was an actual character. Okay, I didn’t feel like a desert dweller, or like a Diné cowboy, but I was an authentic American, a native. Whatever I did was representative, quintessential, an American thing to do.
Having Elena for an audience helped, but she hadn’t been there, when, a few days earlier, I had starred in a little romantic comedy at the Grand Canyon. She hadn’t been there, but the Harley Davidson club from Cairo, Egypt, was, smoking cigars and cheering my little victory. And so were a few hundred other representatives from around the globe. Even as I bantered with Leroy in the corral at Monument Valley, my ass, or rather photographs of it, was already in a dozen other countries. An American ass.
I would venture so far as to guess that nearly all of the Grand Canyon’s five million annual visitors take in the view at Mather Point because it is the lookout at the Visitor’s Center, which also happens to have the first public bathrooms after the bottleneck of traffic at the park’s gates. And Mather Point isn’t just convenient, it’s also really impressive: a jut of rock that looks like the prow of a ship thrust into the abyss of air—ten miles across to the opposite rim, and down, one full vertical mile, to the canyon floor. Which is to say that, with an average thirteen thousand people visiting each day, not accounting for the extreme seasonal swells, then it is quite possible that if one were to stack all the bodies that stand on Mather Point on a given, mid-July day one atop the other, like logs, the pile would be as high as the Grand Canyon is deep. The point here isn’t that the canyon is big—better writers than I have failed to express this—my point is that there were A LOT of people at Mather Point.
But, early in the morning, before the park opened for day visitors, we had had that rocky prow to ourselves. There was a pungent desert rain falling that morning and the canyon was lost in the mist, but we planned to hike part way down anyway. It wasn’t a serious plan—Elena liked to sleep in, which I interpreted as a shortage of enthusiasm for hiking or rain—but it seemed like something that ought to be done, particularly since the concatenation of the hour and the limited visibility gave a false sense of solitude. The real hikers had been over the brink of the Bright Angel and the South Kaibab trails since before dawn and the hordes that would stroll the Rim Trail were still hunkered down in their rented RVs.
Taking a moment on Mather, on our way to the South Kaibab trailhead, I inhaled the misted morning air, willing myself to appreciate the grandeur I could sense if not see, to think thoughts about the vastness of the universe in proportion to my puny self, as one is supposed to think in such places. Getting into it, I leaned against the waist-high rail and stretched my arms to either side of me. I felt the damp updraft out of the canyon, and summoned mental images of condors and Hollywood heroines.
This was too much for Steve—a middle brother of three—to resist, even if I was the girl he had only that month asked to marry him. He crept up behind me and gave me an I-saved-you shove.
He succeeded in startling me out of my wits and I did what anyone would do in the moments before plunging into an abyss: I flapped my arms and screeched. As I did, I dislodged a slender article of wire (and duct tape) and lens, from Steve’s face.
In silent slow motion the glasses tumbled—almost fluttering—in front of us.
“Whoops,” I whispered.
For a few moments, Steve and I stood staring into mist that was for me only a matter of weather and not a condition that threatened to last until we returned to civilization and ophthalmologists.
The glasses actually didn’t fall far. They caught on a crag maybe eight feet below us at the apex of the point. But the outcome was the same: they were out of reach of even someone set on committing suicide.
“Look!” I said without thinking.
Then I described the scene to Steve.
“Maybe a Ranger?” I suggested.
“Please.” Westerners, I should have remembered, never ask Rangers for help.
“Do you have some string?” Elena asked, suddenly interested in what was going on. In a burst of unprecedented helpfulness, she began tearing a paper bag into a single, spiral strip.
“What, lasso them? Impossible. We’d need something rigid. Maybe a Ranger—”
In any case, our hike was off. Traveling half-blind as a metaphor is one thing. As travelers, we pack our bags and bring our frames with us—our prejudices and constructs, our blinding expectations—and we subject the world to the confines of our limited viewpoint. I’m talking about Elena here. But mostly I’m talking about myself.
In any case, I am talking about the indigenous couple who got on our bus at Saquisilí, in highland Ecuador, she with a red blanket wrapped over her shoulders and a bowler hat on her head, he in a poncho and a Panama hat (which really originate in Ecuador). The woman was carrying a large white live goose. There were no seats, so they sat on the block behind the driver. As the bus rattled out of the hills, the three of them, man, woman, goose, fell asleep huddled together. This, I thought of the post-card moment, was Ecuador. Or it least it was what I had come to Ecuador hoping to find.
Or maybe I’m talking about the lady leper who always sat with her tin cup on the corner by the Hotel Tibet in McLeod Ganj, India, where my college study abroad program had held classes. Every morning she greeted me on my way to school, whether or not I had any rupees for her (although this became rare as time went on and my affection for her grew).
“Namaste,” she said to me, holding her bandaged hand in front of her face.
“Namaste,” I answered, thrilling at the notion that I was passing acquaintances with a leper in India. India!—just as I hadn’t dared hope it would be.
I know Elena had been struggling with this, searching for the saguaro-and-Wiley-Coyote desert of her imagination, unable to see what was in front of her because it wasn’t what she anticipated, because it wasn’t the America she sought. But she was trying.
“Americans, you talk to everyone,” Elena observed in her throaty German-Swiss accent. “When you don’t know people, you still talk to them.”
I tried to interpret for her, not language, but actions, exchanges, those human expressions of culture and national identity. After I had gotten warmed up to this role, I couldn’t stop. I was acting out culture not only for Elena, but for random onlookers. And I felt a weird pride in doing so, like I was fulfilling some patriotic duty.
Look, an American girl. See what she does? That is how an American acts/talks/laughs, how she faces a problem, how she asks forgiveness.
Not that I was sure I wanted to ask Steve for forgiveness yet. I wasn’t even ready to concede fault. Walking back to our campsite from the shuttle bus stop, Steve took every opportunity to pretend to stumble and cast around blindly. I didn’t think it was funny. I was too busy trying to piece together the rest of our trip with Steve unable to see. I would have to drive, to navigate, to entertain not only Elena, but also my sure-to-be-grouchy, mole of a fiancé.
“You know, we do have tent poles,” Steve remarked, as if he’d been thinking it the whole time and had just been letting me hang out to dry in worry for the fun of it.
It was as good an idea as we were going to get.
Back at our campsite, we dismantled the larger of our two tents and attached one of the hooked stakes to its end with a little bungee cord. Then I stood on a picnic table and practiced hooking a pair of sunglasses.
Elena was about to witness American self-sufficiency in high form, I thought. But perhaps she thought she’d seen just about enough American everything, or had been dragged from her sleeping bag too early too often by then, and opted to stay in the one remaining tent while Steve and I climbed in our car to drive the half-mile back to the Visitor’s Center.
By the time we found a parking place at Mather (since we’d left the park had opened for the day and the rain had stopped) the lookout was packed with bodies maneuvering for a spot at the edge so they could snap their own photograph amidst the din of shutters clicking. There were tanned, teenaged girls in halter-tops, speaking English, speaking French. There were little boys being scolded for running, and there were the requisite Japanese with their cameras. And, I noticed with some amusement, there was a group of swarthy, middle-aged men in chaps and gold jewelry and leather jackets emblazoned on the back with “Harley Davidson Club, Cairo,” by which they did not mean any Cairo Huck Finn had ever been to.
I braced myself, and started to elbow my way to the very tip like everyone else. When I got there, I assembled my tent pole gaff.
A murmur took up in the crowd, but I didn’t turn around.
A man next to me put the pieces together and began to narrate.
“There are glasses down there,” he said, and the crowd stopped jostling, settling in for my little show.
“They’re my fiancé’s,” I said to the man, under my breath. “He did one of those “I saved you” numbers to me.”
The man laughed. The woman with him laughed too, knowingly. Then he confessed that he had once knocked her glasses into the whitewater of the Rio Guadalupe.
“Did she forgive you?” I asked. They both laughed again and shook their heads.
I took a deep breath, and leaned out over the fence with my tent pole. The canyon floor was now clearly visible, far below the glasses that I tried to keep my eyes focused upon.
Around me, the crowd leaned too. If the point had really been a ship, we’d have been in trouble.
As I reached tentatively forward, I felt the collective intake of breath. But my own breath was suspended by the vertigo that swept over me. At last, I hooked the glasses on the side that had closed on impact, close to the hinge, which had worked best with my sunglasses experiments. For a moment, the glasses hung from the tent stake, teetering, and then the hinge opened and the glasses tumbled, a little farther out this time, a little closer to oblivion.
Focusing my eyes so that the canyon floor stayed blurred and peripheral only worked so well. My head began spinning.
“My hands are shaking,” I said to Steve and the couple beside me, standing upright for a moment to clear my head. “And I can feel all the cameras on my ass.”
The other woman’s boyfriend patted my shoulder, said something soothing. Steve wisely kept out of it.
“You just happen to have that with you?” someone called.
People laughed. I leaned back over the fence, resting most of my weight on the rail, and reached my pole towards the glasses once more.
“It’s my tent pole,” I said too softly for the speaker to hear, trying to concentrate.
“It’s her tent pole,” filtered back, switched languages, circled.
The second time I hooked the glasses, it was by the nose bridge. This, Steve and the couple agreed, was not the best way. But I had hooked them, and I was able to press down enough against the rock surface below the glasses to slide the stake up the pole a bit and thus close the circle with the glasses inside.
“She might have it!” someone called around.
The glasses slipped left, tilted, but stayed hooked. I began to raise them, hand over hand. And then they were over the fence and people where cheering.
“So you’ll still marry me?” I asked when he could see me again, once again feeling a little bit Hollywood.
We were congratulated all the way back to our car. But Elena was nonplussed when we reported our exploits back to her. Like everything else about the Grand Canyon, it’s hard to reduce to words.
We made it to Monument Valley without any other catastrophes, but we still felt like stars.
“That isn’t an American accent, is it? Not Canadians, are you?” joked one Navajo jewelry vendor.
We booked a tour of the closed-off sections of the park, which apparently isn’t the American thing to do at all. Americans drive through Monument Valley on the straight road everyone recognizes from road trip flicks like Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise. The jeep tour we took crossed the aptly named Mystery Valley and required a Diné guide. All around us, other tourists were speaking German and French, but we were picking our guide’s brain about the candidates for the upcoming presidential election—the Navajo Nation presidential election, that is. The vendors at the little market the tour stopped at pulled Steve and me aside and spent some time showing us how we could tell whether or not a Navajo basket had been made in China. Meanwhile, I kept hoping that Elena couldn’t tell that, on an ordinary day, around ordinary Americans, a girl from New York doesn’t have much in common with Navajo cowboys, even if she is an American too, and even if she can ride a horse.
The mount Leroy finally assigned to me, after I helped him brush down the horses and tack them up, was a dust-colored mare. I could tell just looking at her soft eyes and low head that she didn’t have much spark, but she had something far better: a chestnut foal that followed, skittering from one side and then the other, rambunctious and bucking at flies with little squeals. I had been cynical about this trail-ride plan, but Elena had wanted so badly to ride out in that desert (even if it wasn’t a real desert) that I had shelled out those $300 against my better judgment to give her the chance. Now I was on board, enjoying everything about it, from the feel of the deep western saddle, to the desiccated landscape, to a certain bit of cultural asymmetry.
When I had visited my distant relations—Elena’s family—in Zürich, Switzerland, as part of my pre-college backpacking-Europe rite, I was taken to visit my ancestors’ dairy farm, to ancient Appenzellerland, and to the old bridge at Lucerne where I posed for pictures with eleven-year-old Elena and her sister. I even got see the Marc Chagall windows at Fraumünster and climb an actual Alp (replete with chiming cowbells). What I remember most clearly, however, was the night I sat down to dinner and Peter, Elena’s father and my third or fourth cousin many times removed, asked me:
“You k-know horse?” (Know—hard k—was his preferred verb in English.)
I nodded, wondering why he was asking a question he knew the answer to; I had shown him photographs of my very own horse, after all. All I talked about in those early days traveling were the horses I had grudgingly left behind in order to be cultured by foreign exposure like some kind of cheese.
Then he gestured at my plate of breaded meat.
“You eat horse?”
Or maybe it hadn’t been a question.
Foreigner and faux pas are as good as synonymous, but I’m glad that I can’t remember exactly how rude my reaction was (though I have no doubt it was universally so).
Now Elena, who probably hardly remembered my visit, sat astride a bay gelding in the middle of iconic America. But once on the trail she was terrified, hunching and gripping so that her horse wisely decided not to budge. Leroy came to Elena’s rescue, first swapping his gray for her bay, and then roping the former and pulling the pair unceremoniously through the spiny cholla and red siltstone boulders. By the end of things, I suspected that Elena preferred her horses breaded.
Our trail ride culminated at a giant teardrop opening in a red rock formation. Like a natural viewfinder, the opening framed an image of desert, an image that was vast and empty and seemed to be emitting heat as the sun, part of the choreography that I had paid so much for, dipped into the golden hour of late afternoon and black shadows stretched out from the base of each red-ochre butte. It really was a good show for the tourists, myself included, this cowboying with Indians, this sunset vista, this single golden drop of postcard-perfect Americana.
I turned in the saddle searching for Elena. I was ecstatic with pride in both my country and in its delivery. But on her face I saw something else. I saw, in fact, my own self reflected, all the times I had been just the outside the circle of the world and words and ways of where I found myself, all the times I had felt misinterpreted, lost in translation: she wanted to go home.