“I want to take you camping in the motorhome.”
“Really?” I replied doubtfully. My background of camping involved long hikes with a backpack with sleeping bag and dried food. The crowded RV parks along noisy freeways seeded hideous.
“Oh Babe, there’s tons of places you would like. I love you. National Parks and everything.”
“It’s Okay with John?”
“Sure. He’d be glad to have the motorhome used.
I had some qualms about the vagueness. We were off to Utah but had no itinerary and no definitive return time, though I did wonder if Linda had more in mind than she let on. The first day out of Tucson, we decided to camp near Cottonwood so I studied guidebooks and chose Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Linda drove and I had the maps.
As we got close I pronounced, “It looks as though you need to take the next one to the northwest and go about three miles and maybe the turn will be on Tenth Street.”
Linda looked across at me. “You need to circumvent the parallaxes and intercept at the peripheral and then figure out the cerebellum and dissect for the angle of proximity to the vortex.”
I laughed, and we soon found ourselves at the Park without the maps.
Happily, Dead Horse Ranch State Park, with the fast-flowing Verde River lined with cottonwood trees, was green and very quiet. Linda disconnected her truck that was our tow vehicle and parked and backed the motorhome into its numbered site under a mesquite tree, as I admired the shady, spacious lot.
“So Babe, come and see. Here’s where you plug in the power. Now you unroll the hose and attach it to the tap here. I’ll do the sewer later cos the holding tank is almost empty.”
I went inside and turned the fridge from propane to electricity, switched the water pump that brings water from the tank to mains water, and ran it through the pipes.
Leaving Yoyo kitty in the motorhome, we walked with Bailey through the mesquite forest to the river and I caught sight of my first zone-tailed hawk. “Look Bub, zone tail!”
Linda looked at me, “Oh Babe, I’s too excited for birds! Just us for weeks! I got you all to myself.”
“Yes, Babe, I’m excited too,” but it was my sweetheart’s animation that gave me the most joy.
Suddenly, Bailey jumped into a muddy flume. “Bailey get outa that dirty water or you’ll get kama sutra.”
“Giardia?” I laughed, throwing a stick over Linda’s shoulder without thinking.
“Son of a bitch,” she said, “I thought it was a snake. Scared the fuck outa me.”
I smiled. Almost anything would scare the fuck outa her.
After cooking dinner on the barbecue grill we sat watching the sunset.
“I’m freezin,” complained Linda, though it was warm. Then, “I’m burnin up.”
I was used to this, with Linda in the throes of menopause. Coats or bedclothes came on and off. And she often had tummy take, booboo, spasm, or painful finger. Linda was, by her own admission, a wuss.
Next morning, as we watched lesser goldfinches at a feeder, Linda remarked, “Hey, they’s good at taking off the outside of the seed.”
I smiled at her interest, remembering how I had once tried to tell Linda about their habits and she had shouted. “Its just a little yella bird.”
After a short silence Linda said suddenly, “Sorry for that,” and I looked at her questioningly.
“Sorry about the fortuitous but a breeze so you couldn’t smell it.”
It took a minute for me to realize she referred to a fart. Earlier she had used the word “elevator” to describe a fart, since she’d once expelled one in an elevator. After a bathroom trip she would sometimes shrug, just elevator.
From Cottonwood we drove to Glen Canyon. Crossing the dam, an array of cliffs greeted us, with the waters of Lake Powell extending into every nook and cranny of what was once, according to David Brower in Let the River Run Through it, a hundred paradises. The apparatus of electric power—dozens of giant steel pylons with high-tension wires—stood as industrial ornaments on the red rocky heights. I had read Edward Abbey and listened to Richard Shelton read his poems. Clearly, Glen Canyon was one of those places that should have been preserved, though I had no concept of its glory before the Dam, before the making of Lake Powell. It was late afternoon and the rays of the sun hit the rocks red and pink. Across from us, fantastic red-brown cliffs began abruptly 140 feet above the surface of the water. In the gap between the water and the brown cliffs, a white salty deposit told of the water level years earlier.
“Gorgeous,” I whispered.
“Holy fuck!” shouted Linda.
We made our way down to Wahweap campground where craggy mountains, sheer cliffs, canyons and islands filled the view, with no trees to interrupt it. We settled into a site with a 180-degree panorama.
“You know they’s not American if they don’t reply when you say hi,” Linda noted, after returning from an evening walk round the campsite. But she was ready for action: “Let’s take the kayaks out.”
“Sure.” And we drove Linda’s truck with the two kayaks on top and drove to the water’s edge.
“You hold the front end there while I unhook the back.” Eventually we got them down and into the water. We paddled out to a mountain of rock rising from the lake. I raced along ahead as Linda called from behind, “You’s hawlin ass, you little circumfiction, let’s paddle round the big-ass rock then.”
We circled round the big-ass Lone Rock and into a cove that led to a series of complicated structures: long finger inlets, the rock faces with strangely rounded humps covered in holes, caves with layers of ledges, and slopes with ridges like ripples in sand. Finally, as blisters developed on our fingers, we returned across the bay.
“Fuck, I’m tired.”
“Me too,” I replied, and put my arm round Linda. “Let’s go home and eat.”
That evening, arm in arm, we sat looking out over the water. I told her about about working in Nigeria on agricultural pests. “It was a lot of fun because the Nigerians love to joke, but I found out what it’s like to be a minority person. There were very few white people where we worked.”
Linda described some of the terrible accidents she had photographed in Dallas.“I didn’t work for anyone, I was always freelance. You shoulda seen them. Julie, so particular her shit didn’t stink, dumpster-diving Paul, sexy Harley Bitch with her motorbike. Sharon was a blow-jobby type.”
After freezing and burnin up in turn, Linda settled to play poker on her iPad and I began reading Travelers’ Tales: Grand Canyon, an anthology of essays by authors who love the place. But it wasn’t long before we were ready for bed. Linda held me close.
“Your eyes are like turds floating in a liquid cesspool,” she crooned, and we fell over laughing on the bed. Linda was fascinated by my eyes, which are yellowish green with brown spots. “Gotta get me a picture a them eyeballs.” This night, when the tears of laughter dried, she kissed each eye and I ran my hand through her black crew cut and over her little, round, suntanned face.
“I grub you Bub.”
“I grubs you too Babe.”
The next day, with Bailey, jackets, fishing gear and cooler, we raced full throttle in a rented powerboat out across the bay and towards the dam. Linda’s eyes shone with the love of water and speed, the remnants of Glen Canyon towering above.
She smiled and said slowly, “Fuuck.”
I thought briefly and said, “Why fuck?”
“Is good fuck,” she laughed. “You s’cute.”
We slowed in the narrows of Antelope Canyon. Linda had the fishing poles, hooks, plastic worms, lures, flies, plastic jerk baits, and most important, frozen anchovies. Ignoring me, who, with a total ignorance of fishing, felt that real bait was needed, she left the anchovies untouched all morning.
“You know this was an amazing hydroelectric project after the flooding of Glen Canyon.”
“Can’t be symposius when I’m trying to fish, Babe.” Then, at last, “Let’s try them albatross Babe.”
While she worked one pole with lures, she attached an anchovy to the other and left it against the stern. Bailey and I lay idly on the floor of the boat.
“Shit, Babe, look at that albatross pole.” It was bending at the tip and she dropped the other pole, grabbed the busy one, took in the slack, yanked it skywards and reeled it in.
“Shit, I got one! Oh, Babe, loook! Son of a bitch, look at ‘er. Get the net, hurry.”
Two feet of fighting silver dangled above the glittering water, and I rushed to get the net and secure the fish.
“Sons of bitches, without that net we’d a lost ‘er, see how the hook is nearly through ‘er lip? Look at ‘er Babe, look at the lovely striper, it’s made my day! what a birthday! Thank you Babe. Quick, take my picture with ‘er. I so happy Babe. I love that sucker. Now for another striper, Babe.”
I watched in admiration until her excitement abated, then peeled an orange as I lay back dreaming. I wore a long-sleeved shirt and wide brimmed hat, and not wanting to interrupt Linda I talked instead to Bailey: “How’s my Bailey-boo? You my big baby? Come on you wussy puppy.”
“Hey Bub, you want some orange?”
“No orange, Babe, that’s how I keep my body swelft.”
I laughed, as I thought of Linda’s passion for chocolate.
Later, Linda cleaned the fish at a special fish-cleaning station but left the cooking to me. “You gotta do southern-style.” I dipped the filets in cornmeal and deep fried them.
Lake Powell had been wonderful. I had enjoyed Linda’s love of water, boats and fishing, but was ready for more of nature and canyons, less of people and dams. Linda did all the driving. She likes to be in charge and the motor home was her domain, her territory. For me it was relaxing to leave it all to her, things she was clearly good at.
At the Bryce Canyon campsite we sat among the ponderosa pines, watching Clark’s nutcrackers foraging for dog food chips. Linda took her camera out as I sat writing on my laptop, happy with the temporary simplicity of life with an improbable lover. Linda was happy for me to just be there, with a love that often astounded. She chuckled that one of the stories I would write was to be about her.
“I sit with the stenographer and she write down all my symposium.”
Later that morning, she was out of sorts. “We should’ve went to Zion.”
With some impatience at her need for new places I said, “Maybe I need some time alone.”
“You have no symphony for me. Usually you so gratuitous and grateful with your time and I always in your despair.”
I looked at her and smiled tenderly. Mollified, Linda set up the tripod and sat with a little more patience than usual for the great bird photo.
It didn’t take long to see something.
“Look Babe, quick, come ‘ere.”
“Can’t you see that sucker?”
“Where?” So quick to see the birds, she had spotted a little mountain chickadee that I had missed.
By midday we were ready to leave and see the great cities of towering rocks at Bryce Canyon. I had never been and I walked gently to a canyon rim to look down at all the hoodoos.
“Come look at this tiny flower in the family Asteraceae,” I beckoned.
“Sons of bitches, you come over here,” Linda yelled, “Yous too near the edge.”
I obeyed, and we embraced, enchanted with the rock and mountains, sun highlighting patches with gold, and shadows enhancing the three dimensions.
As we walked around back at the campsite, we passed the camp host. Linda saw the Texas license plate. “Hi, where y’all from in Texas?” she asked of a big bearded guy. “Used to fish at Galveston. Yeah, all along the coast. Any good fishing round here?”
“Oh, sure, there’s a good lake up the road north a here. Go over the crossroads and you’ll find Pine Lake. Rainbows and browns there, easy. Great place, nobody up there and you’ll see plenty a deer and elk. Get the paste bait at Ruby’s.”
“What’s the limit?”
“Four of each.”
So we planned on Pine Lake next day as we ate barbecued steak. Suddenly Linda coughed violently and I rushed to pat her on the back.
“Is okay, got caught on my hangy down guy. You just woofing it down aren’t cha?”
She always needed dessert to follow: sticky coffee cake, Hershey’s chocolate kisses filled with peanut butter, or shocking-pink and lime-green cupcakes. The plain chocolate we brought would have to do.
Suddenly Yoyokitty began climbing on the screen door and hanging onto to the wire.
“Bub, she is having trouble disengaging her claws,” I called.
“Disengaging,” Linda shrieked, “Disengaging! You little encyclonic, what’s wrong with ‘getting her claws out?’”
“Disengage,” she said again laughing, and kissed my forehead.
“Oh Babe, you want to make a grapht out of it? A spreadsheet? You always with pearls of wisdom on your oyster tongue.”
We held each other, and I gave up on my magazine, no longer caring about Handel’s biography. The laughter was a carefree comfort that quickly turned to a passionate embrace.
The next day we explored the rocky scenes in earnest. My preference was, as always, for the sights and sounds of nature and a walk for a few miles at least, but Linda cared little for long walks.
“Such pain in my laygs. My knees are killing me.”
Later, in bed early, I started a new book.
“What’s that book then?” Linda asked.
“It’s the book of essays, nature stuff and travel sort of thing.”
“Well read some to me, I’m tired and that’ll put me to sleep.”
I looked for some passage that could be read out of context and still have some meaning, and began in the middle of “Gone Back to Earth” by Barry Lopez:
We re-board three large rubber rafts, and enter the Colorado’s quick, high flow. The river has not been this high or fast since Glen Canyon dam. Jumping out ahead of us, with its single oarsman and three passengers, is our fourth craft…
Interrupted by loud laughter, I looked at Linda rolling in the bed with her legs kicking. “Craaaft, raaaft, you so fancy smancy, so eengleeshy, so very queenie.”
And the laughter was irrepressible as silly things will often be when two people are close, “Always you tease me,” I gasped.
“Yes, I a-teasa you, I teasa you, you little contigenera, you doctor doctor.” And she grabbed me into her arms. Whether it was the reading, the exhaustion of so much laughing, or just simple weariness, she fell quickly asleep, allowing me to finish the essay and ponder Lopez’s final thoughts in relation to the splendid scenes we had witnessed in recent days.
The living of any life, my life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the Inner Gorge, the pain trails away from us. It is not so quiet there, or so removed, that you can hear yourself think, that you would even want to; that comes later. You can hear your heartbeat. That comes first.
Pine Lake was surrounded by alpine meadows with high mountains beyond, and Linda was quiet, concentrating on lures and movement. In an hour she had four rainbow trout, and we headed home.
“I’m freezing. Time to put on long pants.”
Then, “Oh, my thumb so sore where that fishhook went in. Toxins vacillated into my cubicles.”
As we were leaving Bryce, Linda went into hyper mode: “Look at them Dutch! Look, midgets —look at that girl’s shorts tucked into her fat butt crack! Need tweezers to pull them out! Look, old fuckers, look at that Mexican, there’s a raven. Look, bunny! There’s a Texas license plate, look, they got a Jesus thing by their motor home.” I couldn’t keep up with her long litany of rapid observations, but I looked at Linda’s face full of fun, vision rushing ahead of her thoughts.
The road meandered northeast along byways of red cliff and boulders, white rock canyons dotted with the dark green of pines, to Capitol Reef National Park. The motorhome struggled up hills, and at the high pass over Boulder Mountain we stopped to walk among aspens dressed in new greens quivering among the white, black-lined trunks.
“Get me some chocolate,” Linda commanded.
“You are incorrigible.”
“Yes I always incognito. I need chocolate.”
As she drove I left the passenger seat for the kitchen cabinet and selected four Hershey’s nuggets. I unwrapped them and handed each to Linda who kept her eyes on the road. She smiled, “We might could go fishing somewhere tomorrow.”
Next day, on our return to the camp from the cliffs and red rocks of the park, there was a cluster fuck, as Linda described it: headaches, booboos, and a grim seventy-mile dash to a vet for antibiotics for a sick Bailey. Storm clouds and lightning, dead elk on the road, speeding on narrow country roads through sagebrush country and over mountains, past lakes and through small towns. But the following day was calm, in a green valley under the great red cliffs of Capitol Reef National Park. Golden eagles glided high and Linda now a birder in earnest, became excited. It was to be her first day of making lists.
“Oh, my god those goldens, Babe!”
We sat among the cottonwoods, leaves flashing silver in the breeze and fluffy falling cotton wafting through the air like summer snow. Bullock’s orioles and Western tanagers flashed their yellows in the branches, black and white hairy woodpeckers pecked the tree trunks, brown headed cowbirds and bold American robins foraged in the grass, and an occasional chukka partridge marched across our sights. We idly watched summer and ate apple pah. There we were, a sixty-five-year old academic and a fifty-one-year old Texas dropout; Australian egghead and fast-brained, street-smart photographer with short attention span. The one work-weary and disciplined, the other a free spirit. But we had love, and it was gentle that soft summer day.
“I’m an adult toddler,” Linda announced.
“And I am a toddling adult,” I replied.
We went northeast to the town of Green River, through yet more canyons red and white, and mountains yellow and grey, to camp on the Colorado River in Moab. It was a shady site with wireless Internet, good for using computers outside.
“Fuck I got a bug on my computer screen! What is it?”
“Oh, just a chironomid fly,” I replied.
“Yeah yeah, I hate chrysanthemums on my screen.”
I settled down to write, but it was not easy to concentrate with Linda.
“What chew got there, bucko?”
“Just revising stuff and adding some anecdotes; nothing much, Bub.”
“OK, you put in some antidotes? You just writing for your bemusement, eh?”
“You talkative little chipmunk,” she chided. I knew she would have liked more chitchat, but was happy to take her professor doctor for the quiet person I was.
“Well, adiose amoebas,” she called, as she went off to shower, “Seeya, wouldn’t want ta beeya.”
Later we lay in bed in each other’s arms as a dust storm raged outside.
“Holy fuck, sons of bitches,” Linda said. It wasn’t the time for me to respond that as dust storms went it wasn’t much, so I held her as memories of research in the Sahara Desert ran before my eyes, and my so-different life swept back from the corners of consciousness. It felt good to stop holding on to the professor’s hat and simply feel the bittersweet of nostalgia as I savored this new life and love.
“Talk to me Babe.” Linda pleaded.
How could I explain my complex emotions? I said simply, “I love you.”
The road south from Moab became flatter with occasional statues of red, the last remnants of strata not yet weathered away. Sagebrush took the place of juniper and pinyon pine until, finally, the red earth was barren. We kept our eyes ready for dark silhouettes of ravens in the sky.
Back in Arizona we climbed into the White Mountains and ended up at Fool’s Hollow Lake Recreation Area, with piney smells and west wind. Above the lake ospreys soared and Linda got her prize photo. Here we relaxed with the memories of our three-week trip.
In bed, Linda had her iPad for a game of Poker and had a new book, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.
Then, lights out, skin on skin. The comfort of being held with love before sleep carries one to another world that recedes again with a morning embrace.
I got up early. I looked from the picnic table, through pines and junipers with their long, early-morning shadows, to a blue lake and a rocky bank beyond. I was relaxed after three weeks travel in Utah in the old, Class C motorhome. Retired, future uncharted, I was learning to feel free, to give up ties to the academic life and write my story.
Linda, grudgingly awake, appeared at the door and waited for that first grouchy greeting.
“Babe, your patience has been evidentiary but I wondered if we should have went to Colorada.”
“Bub, this is our holiday, or as you would say, vacation, and Utah has been splendid.”
She smiled, and seemed happy with that. I cooked the eggs then spread English Marmite on a slice of bread, making Linda smile finally,
“Still eating marmoset, eh, Babe?”
Then, “Is that cool or what,” as a black-headed grosbeak landed nearby, and Linda’s newfound birding spirit soared. I felt a strange melting whenever her bird-delight took wing.
“Bublet, I love you.”
“I love you too, Babe.”
We lazed through the morning. Linda, tanned, young-looking and so boyish in shorts, waited for birds to photograph. She moved my chair into the shade at intervals and tried not to talk as I wrote. I knew I looked like the pale academic I had been for forty years, as I mused on the past weeks of travel through canyon lands, and how love had prospered in spite of our being total opposites, how humor had proved such a brilliant counterbalance to what seemed a mismatch to many—how laughter had enriched our embraces!
Next day, when we set off for home, Linda said, “Sad.”
“Because coming to an end.”
But I was not sad. It had been good, thinking only of the uncomplicated present, and the weeks would become embedded in memory, among the stores of sweet nostalgia. I thought of all the close partnerships I had observed through my life, and one factor stood out in the best ones—an ability to laugh at everything and everybody, but especially at each other and one’s self.
Elizabeth Bernays grew up in Australia, became a British Government Scientist in London, and then a Professor of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley. From there she was appointed Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona where she also obtained an MFA in Creative Writing. She has published forty nonfiction stories in literary magazines and last year, her memoir, “Six Legs Walking,” won the 2020 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award for memoir.