The Mother of All Calamities
When I hit 13, I was old enough to go on a YMCA Caravan. Caravans were cross-country trips in which two leaders and a dozen barely-teen boys would pile into a van and head for parts un— well, semi-known. My trips to Yosemite and the World’s Fair had their snags. But the Grand Canyon trip was the Mother of All Calamities.
It was a busy summer and all the real vans were booked, so we were given an oxidized green airport limousine, with eat-your-heart-out-Buck-Rogers fins, that someone had donated to the Y right after it reached the 100 trillion mile mark.
On day one, in 113 degree heat, the brakes gave out and we sailed half a mile into the desert before nesting in a prickly pear cactus patch. On day two, after just two hours back on the road, our transmission stopped transmissing. So we spent the next two days at a tiny gas station/auto repair shop in the town of Tiny Gas Station/Auto Repair Shop, waiting for it to be rebuilt. We slept in the limo (i.e. didn’t sleep) liked kippers in a tin.
By day five, our frantic parents were demanding that the trip be cancelled, but we voted to keep going. We were going to have fun if it killed us.
It nearly did.
We made it to Oak Creek Canyon. Millennia before humans created fiberglass waterslides with names like Black Hole and Perilous Plunge, there was Slide Rock. Built by God. We walked almost a mile on jagged pebbles, but it was worth it. Sleep-deprived, with nerves ajangle, we hurled ourselves into the wondrous cataract with ruthless abandon, sliding down again and again—until our bodies betrayed us. One by one, we crawled up the bright red embankment, like an artist’s conception of evolving amphibians, and fell asleep. For five hours. In 109 degree heat.
We awoke not as frogs, but as overcooked turkeys. We were redder than the Sedona soil. We walked the crimson mile back, our sunburned soles hitting flinty fragments. Screaming all the way.
We sat in a stream near our campground, hoping our dead red epidermis would float away in the cool blue water. It didn’t. We lay in our sleeping bags that night, moaning, and despite being manly 13 and 14 year-olds, openly crying.
The next day, the worst of us were taken to a nearby clinic to have Buick-sized blisters lanced. It was the most severe sunburn the doctor had ever seen. We smeared our bodies with prescription ointment, weeping in pain and relief. And then, somehow, we began to laugh again. We were a band of brothers, we’d survived the unsurvivable. We’d bonded big time. And somehow that made the misery almost worth it.
We did eventually make it to the Grand Canyon, after having all of our money stolen, our brakes fail (again), our trunk catch fire while we were searching for the deer we’d hit, and…
Oh, yeah, the scar. That came 20 years later when the basal cell cancer—courtesy of five hours in the Arizona sun—was cut out of my shoulder. Now, when I see the scar in the mirror, I think, “Don’t ever do that again, you idiot.” But also…
Boy, I miss those guys.
To read my next Scar Story, click here.