LETTER TO A STRANGER: THE GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA
BY ANJALI SACHDEVA
I met you because we were both seeking refuge. We were coming up the Bright Angel Trail, climbing from the bottom to the top of the Grand Canyon, more than 4,000 feet in elevation gain. Bright Angel is the superhighway of hiking trails: broad, smooth, crowded, bare to the sun. But you had found a tree that shadowed a corner of the trail, and sat down on a large, flat rock to catch your breath, and I joined you.
You looked 45 or 50, fit and tan, with an anonymously pleasant face. The kind of person I would pass without bothering to look at twice. You spoke first, asked me where I was from, and I answered warily. If my trip had taught me anything up to that point, it was that men assumed a young woman hiking alone was looking for either a lover or a father figure. I had been given advice about “taking it slow” and not “wearing myself out,” had been presented with bowls of chicken soup and contact information scrawled on scraps of paper. In the air-conditioned dining hall in the canyon bottom, I had been propositioned by a married man who had not bothered to remove his wedding ring. By the time I met you I was not interested in being offered anything else.
But when I said I was from Pittsburgh you mentioned a distant relative there, and that led us to talking about your wife. I asked if you had children and you said two girls. You looked back down the path, and I realized they were with you, the three of them, hiking more slowly the steps you had already taken. We let that settle for a moment: their imminent presence, the limited time for talking.
You asked me if I wanted to have kids, a question I was asked often in those days, and one that I found irritating and invasive. But somehow, in that place, it seemed an honest inquiry that deserved an honest answer. I said I didn’t know. That I thought about it a lot but I didn’t think so. I was 27 then, and even though I was well into adulthood such choices seemed far off. You told me to think about it carefully because it was the only decision in life you could never take back. Like jumping off a cliff, you said. It got my attention. I was never good at decisions, always afraid of making the wrong choice, even about small things.
You looked down the trail again, said you loved your girls with all your heart, but that kids take over your life and it is never what it was before. I nodded; this was what I had always suspected about kids. I said I liked to take care of people, and you told me that was even more dangerous, that it made it easy to forget about the things that matter to you until it was too late.
I don’t recall any bitterness in your voice as you spoke. All I remember is relief—from the sun, the ant-like stream of people moving up and down the trail, the loneliness that always accompanied my stubborn desire to travel alone. But now I wonder what made you walk on ahead of your family. Was it simple impatience, the physical need to move at your own pace? Or was it a deeper desire, a longing to walk right away from them and into some other life, a feeling akin to the one that sent me in and out of canyons and forests and backcountry trails for fifteen years with no one accompanying me, a yearning for something wild and solitary?
It has been a decade since that hike but I remember you more often than I do the parched air, the burn in my muscles, the excitement of reaching the top, the towering red sandstone walls of the canyon itself. I have two daughters of my own now. Having children has indeed been like jumping off a cliff, in that your old life recedes so quickly there is no time to think about it. You sometimes feel like you are flying, and sometimes like you are about to crash into the ground. Unlike other choices in my life I’ve found great pleasure in the finality of this commitment, but I can’t say that I have ever found whatever I was searching for in all those miles of hiking. I still have my craving for solitude, my longing for the wild. I think of you sometimes and wonder if it ever left you either.
When we stopped talking we smiled at each other, and a moment later there were your wife and your children, coming around the bend in the trail. I felt the things we had said float between us like the heat, things too honest for people we loved. Then you said goodbye and walked back to meet them, to join your steps with theirs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anjali Sachdeva’s work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, The Iowa Review, Yale Review, Gulf Coast, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Literary Review, among others, and her short story “Pleiades” was included in Best American Nonrequired Reading. For six years she worked at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, where she served as Director of Educational Programs. Her short story collection, All the Names They Used for God, will be published by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, in 2018. One of her favorite places to be is that compound under the Bloomfield Bridge.
Photo by Owen Murray