There it is, a dinosaur footprint. How about that?
We’ve just finished the lower Antelope Slot Canyon tour, outside Page, Arizona. Along the way our guide, Ryan, has been giving us a short course in geological history, which my wife translates from English into Italian for our friends Luigi and Adele. Her translations are brilliant, embellished by her impressive knowledge of American Indian culture.
In our little group of twelve people is a woman our age, dressed in fashionable khaki hiking-touring attire. She’s by herself, shooting pictures with a very big camera. I’m thinking, journalist? Along the way, it begins to seem like she’s edging closer to us, lurking. I’m trying to gauge her expression. Is she peeved by these translations? Does she think they’re slowing us down?
Could we go any slower? I estimate we’re traveling at 500 photos a minute. At the bottom of a ladder we have to scale, I turn to this woman and say, “I’m taking all these pictures. They’ll probably all look the same when I get home.”
She holds up her camera and smiles. “I’m Italian,” she says, in very accented English.
Now I get it. She’s been listening.
From this point on, she stays close to us. Ryan points out rock formations—the eagle, the lady of the wind, a lizard, a bear. They even have an Abraham Lincoln.
When we get outside, she and my wife, and Luigi and Adele break off from the group to have a chat, while Ryan concludes the tour by pointing to dinosaur tracks in the rock.
“Hey, guys,” I say to them, “dinosaur tracks.” Looks like velociraptor. (I know my Jurassic Park.)
The footprint is six inches long. It says, millions of years later, “Hey, I was here.”
The next morning in the breakfast room, between bites of automated pancake and scrambled eggs, I read t-shirts people are wearing. Thin woman with a limp, London. Tall late-middle-aged man, Cottowood 300, two wheels, three days, 5280 vert. Male senior with a bushy mustache, Durango and Silverton. Muscular man in his forties, Texas. His muscular wife, Good Stuff.
Alaska. San Francisco. New York.
The room fills up. A thin young guy in work boots and pants walks past me; he must be a construction worker. Zero Travel, it says on his bright yellow shirt. He’s up early. He’ll get somewhere eventually.
On the wall at the far end of the breakfast room is a large world map, with the US on the far left. A couple Asian kids are looking at it, one of them on the left, pointing to the exact spot on earth where she is standing at this exact moment, the other in front, with a camera, taking her picture.
Hey, we were here.
Next day, on our drive across Monument Valley, we’re helping Luigi and Adele with their English. We’re concentrating on hiking and food English on this trip, un viaggio linguistico, Luigi calls it. This day is trail English, mostly one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words. Path. Sand, rock, dirt. Front, back. Snake, deer. We also repeat a couple useful two-syllable words—ladder, backpack, chipmunk—and, anticipating dinner, practice saying a common three-syllable word, hamburger. They say ahm-BOOR-gar.
Around 10:00 a.m. we get out of the car at a place called Bucktank Draw, our first hike of the day.
Creek, brook. Cave, bridge. Wash.
Later, crossing the Valley of the Gods, we pull off the road a few times to take a picture. On our third stop, I see it. I mean the big it, in the Jack Kerouac On the Road sense of the term. IT.
I’ve been looking for the iconic Utah shot, the long two-lane highway gently sloping downhill, stretching out to the horizon, desert wastelands on all sides, a couple lonely buttes in the distance. The great vast, empty America, a place where hope springs eternal, with great difficulty in some places.
On this stop we are not alone.
We’re on Highway 163, just south of Mexican Hat, 20-30 of us standing by the side of the road, waiting for traffic to clear. By traffic I mean a lone vehicle crawling up the long hill.
People are parked on the shoulder, standing next to their cars, waiting for an opportunity to claim the middle of the road, all alone, so they can take the picture. What good is a photo of this road if there are a couple guys with goofy hats in the picture?
Squating in the sand, a guy with a lot of tattoo is powering up a drone. He’s going to rise above the rest of us.
“Me and my buddy,” he says, “we got a whole car full of camera gear.”
I hold up my iPhone.
“Everyone wants the Forrest Gump shot.”
I tell him I’ve never seen the movie.
“Me neither,” he says. “But this hill is in that movie. Kinda made it famous.”
A woman walks up behind us, watching. On her shirt it says I love my church. She says we should also drive over to Dead Horse Point to get a shot of the Thelma and Louise cliff.
Cliff, I think to myself. Saving the word for Luigi and Adele.
The woman waits. A big truck blows past us. “The end of the movie?” she says. “You know?”
Yes, I’ve seen that one.
It takes 15 minutes for me to finally get my shot. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the picture, but I feel good, fulfilled in a weird way.
In 1971, on my first road trip, I drove out to Colorado with some pals and tried to be a working hippy in Breckenridge for the summer. I had a Kodak Instamatic. In four weeks I shot three rolls of film, rolls of 24. Most of the shots were mountains. When I got home, and developed and looked at the pictures, not only did they not begin to do justice to what I had seen, I didn’t even know where I was when I took the photos.
They just said, Hey, I was somewhere. Which was sort of okay. But also not.
I don’t know what became of those photos.
A few years later I drove through Yosemite with some friends. At the visitors center I bought a light blue t-shirt with GO CLIMB A ROCK written on the front in bold black letters. I loved that shirt. I felt validated. It made me feel worldly. Hey, I was there.
A few years after that my wife and I were in San Francisco with our kids. She took some pictures with her Nikon, mostly cityscapes. Among them is a photo of her with Tony Bennett, standing outside a restaurant called the Tazze D’Oro in North Beach. Tony looks just like Tony, smiling, spiffy. My wife looks just like herself, smiling, and giddy. I think I know where that picture is. Somewhere in a very big box.
A friend of ours said once: always put a person in a picture. Hey, I was here. With him.
My wife does this. Go stand over there, she says.
That’s me, in the middle. Small by association.
That’s her, just left of center.
An acquaintance back home does sports news on tv. When I went to his house once, he took me down in the basement, which served as his photo gallery. On the wall were photos of him with sports celebrities. A photo of him with Mohammed Ali. A photo of him with Sparky Anderson. A photo of him with Magic Johnson. A photo of him with Jack Morris. Two walls, a hundred photos. Him and a famous athlete. Hey, the photos say, I was with him. Great by association.
After the Forrest Gump photo, after Bucktank Draw, we drive from Moab to Arches. More one-syllable words. Fence, gate, path. Arch, bridge. Edge, cliff, slip.
In this car we are four people, three cameras, two languages. At the end of the first week, Luigi says he’s taken 1500 photos. That’s one camera. I figure together we’re heading for 10,000 images. We’ll go home and look and look. Hey, I was there. And there. And there. In the middle of those infinite landscapes, great by association, small in comparison. We will look and look, then file the images away in their 0’s and 1’s, infinitely small bits.
Not out of nowhere exactly, I get an email from Elena one night. She’s the Italian woman we met in Page. My wife gave her my email address. Elena says, Hi, maybe we can swap some photos, by email.
Hi, I say back, where are you now? I know she’s somewhere out there. For the time being, we’re all out there somewhere.