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Names in the Canyon
By Lisa Michaels
This is an excerpt from Grand Ambition, a novel based on the lives of a pair of newlyweds who set out to raft the rapids of the Grand Canyon in a homemade boat. In 1928, one year after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Glen and Bessie Hyde were swept up by America's obsession with feats of daring. They hoped to set a record for speed by completing their entire rafting trip in seven weeks. A month after their journey began, they vanished without a trace.
They floated deeper into Stillwater Canyon, passing abandoned Indian dwellings cut high into the walls, camping at night on narrow beaches hard against the cliffs. Later, Bessie would come to think of this time as their honeymoon: the privacy and quiet, the effortless gliding. No chores, no one in the bedroom down the hall. They would sleep late, make love, boil up coffee on the box stove. While Glen packed the boat, she would draw in her sketchbook. Then they drifted through scenery more striking at every turn.
On the afternoon of October 28, they made camp on a thick crescent beach on the right bank. The cliffs formed a curving wall around the sand, giving it the feeling of a giant buttery room. Bessie went down to the river and filled the water bucket, so the silt would have time to settle before supper. Glen pulled the mattress up against the wall and made the bed. The weather had been clear since they set out, but there was a slight nip in the air. "Let's go sit in the sun," Bessie said, pointing to a wedge of golden light at the far end of the beach. Glen picked up the Kolbs' book and followed her. Halfway there, he stopped and stared at the cliff face.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Come look," Glen said. Just at his shoulder level, scratched into the sandstone, were the names of previous river voyagers: Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, 1911; the Eddy party, twelve names in all, dated June, 1927. Bessie looked down at the volume in Glen's hand, Through the Grand Canyon from Wyoming to Mexico, by Ellsworth Kolb, then back at the same name, carved in the stone in front of her. That leap -- from crude scratching to finished book -- gave her a thrill. Perhaps her own plans were possible.
"Should we add our names?" she asked. There was an odd hitch in her voice.
"Why not?" Glen asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I guess it seems presumptuous." She ran a finger over the list. "They've written books, made the papers. We haven't exactly braved much so far." In fact, their first week on the river had been so peaceful, she could hardly call it an adventure.
Glen smiled at her. "Neither had they when they got to this point. That didn't stop them."
"I suppose you're right," Bessie said with a laugh. She watched as Glen got out his penknife. A few minutes later, he had still only made the downstroke of a B. The stone was harder than it looked. "Blade won't be good for much after this," he said. "I can't believe I forgot my whetstone."
"Why don't you use a nail?" Bessie offered. They had brought along a whole sack, in case the scow needed repairs.
"Good idea," Glen said. He went down to the scow and dug among the crates, coming back with hammer and nail. He stuck the point into the rock and tapped, carving a thin path in the stone. "Works like a dream."
Bessie went to sit in the sun. With her back against the cliff and her heels dug in the sand, she closed her eyes and listened to the tap of the hammer. Suddenly it stopped. She heard Glen laugh softly to himself.
"What?" she asked.
"I feel like I'm fourteen," he said. "Carving a girl's name in a tree trunk."
Bessie came over to look at his handiwork. "It's a bit more permanent than bark," she said, admiring the neat lettering. Bessie & Glen Hyde 10/28/28.
"How do you like those eights?" Glen asked, slipping the hammer in his back pocket, the nail in his teeth. "Those were tricky."
"Neat as a figure skater's," she said, smiling up
He cocked his head. "Now I know why they charge so much for headstones."
Together they stared at the fresh cuts in the wall. It was the same primitive impulse that prompted memorials. To leave something for those who followed. A way to say: We were here. We lived.
That night, as they fed driftwood to the fire, Bessie looked over and saw his handiwork, flickering in relief on the wall behind him. "Strange, isn't it? To leave your name in a place like this. It might be years before anyone sees it."
Glen didn't answer, just broke a stick over his knee and tossed it on the fire. Flames stole up around the fresh wood, lighting the crease between his brows.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked softly.
He lifted his head and stared for a moment.
Bessie held very still, as if a dragonfly had alighted. He never spoke of her.
"We had to leave her in Prince Rupert. Her grave, I mean. It always bothered me." He looked at her with a bare expression.
The canyon was silent. No sound but the snap of wood breaking down in the fire. "What was she like?" Bessie asked.
Glen picked up a fresh stick and worried the coals. "She was a polished person. Very elegant." He smiled faintly. "She used to wear her hair piled up on her head, never a strand out of place. When I was little, I thought that it grew that way. One day I passed by their bedroom and saw her with her hair down -- it came all the way to her waist -- and I started crying. I must have been four or five. She came out and picked me up. Asked me what was wrong. I said, 'Your hair's all wrecked.' She just threw her head back and laughed."
He fell silent for a while. Bessie watched him but didn't speak. She sat cross-legged on the sand--her chest radiating from the fire, her back cold-- as if she were poised between the present and the past.
At length he looked up. "I know it sounds stupid, but I never expected her to die. My sister Edna told me later that she used to imagine it all the time -- sort of trying it on for size -- what it would be like to lose her. Of course she's always been the nervous type. But I had this absolute faith that she and Papa would always be there. So it hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn't even cry at the funeral. I felt terrible about it. Even Papa had tears streaming down his face. I was sure people would think I didn't care. I just sat there with this pain in my throat. Felt like someone was breaking my windpipe."
Bessie imagined the skinny boy he had been, twelve years old, frozen with grief on a country church pew. She got up and put her arms around him from behind, tucking her chin over his shoulder. "What did she die of?" she asked softly.
"My father never said exactly," Glen said, rubbing a hand over his face. "I think life on the ranch did her in. We were homesteading, and she hadn't been raised to that kind of labor. Pumping water, working a garden. She used to name the chickens and cry when they were killed. For the first three years of their marriage my father did all the cooking -- she hardly knew how to boil water. He used to spend all day clearing the land, cutting timber, and then wash up and start in the kitchen. She was stubborn. Tried to do the work anyway. I guess it just wore her out. Then she got sick, and went back to her parents in Vancouver to recover. We never saw her again."
There was something about the stillness of the canyon, the fire burning a brief hole in the darkness, that made him want to talk. And in the silence after, the things he said drifted up through her mind like smoke. Strange that a loss like his --
a beloved mother -- hadn't made him cling to life. Instead, it seemed to have done the opposite. He had told her once, shortly after they met: he figured it was all chance. He would die in some unexpected way, impossible to guess and most likely mundane, and so he forged ahead. Death didn't miss you because you stood still.
Lisa Michaels is a former Noe Valley resident and the author of a memoir, Split: A Counterculture Childhood, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Grand Ambition, published in June 2001 by W.W. Norton, is her first novel. This excerpt is reprinted by permission of the author. Copyright ©2001 by W.W. Norton and Company.
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