Along Asphalt Trails

A writer's visits to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite offer a different perspective on the typical park experience.

By Laura Hershey

South Rim Trail
Grand Canyon National Park 

The paved path I wheel along curves to my right, and I follow. Its smooth black surface glides me easily through this rugged, ancient landscape of assaulted rock, stunted trees, and blooming cactus. Without this path—without a whole sprawling web of trails, streets, and freeways—I would not be here. I would live in a smaller world, bounded by the caprices of natural terrain.

As I round the corner, squinting watereyed against the sun magnified through my glasses, I see two figures whose very color and shape mark them as part of this landscape in a way that I will never be. Two deer stand a few feet from the trail, eating from ground and bush, calmly going about the business of survival. I brake, partly to avoid interrupting their lunch, partly with voyeuristic intent. This is an ordinary, everyday scene at the Canyon, but in a city-dweller like me it creates a sense of extraordinary wonder, as if I’d been invited to dine with geniuses or saints.

I try to be quiet, though of course I am not quiet, even with my wheelchair motor stopped. My ventilator continues its regular pumping, pressing oxygenated air through my nostrils and into my lungs. Will my breathing sound like a snake’s hiss, or some other threat? Apparently not. Although the deer seem to take passing notice of me, they continue eating, tentatively accepting my presence.

They are beautiful, these two white-tailed deer, a doe and a buck, his Y-shaped antlers still fuzzed and unbranched. Their brown fur establishes a family resemblance to the baked earth; their bodies hold an obvious but not ostentatious potential for speed and strength. Their large brown eyes shine with the animal wisdom that comes from always watching, always listening, always inhaling the details of their environment. They stand 20 or 30 feet apart, chewing different species of brush, but they clearly travel together.

My partner Robin and I also travel together; she’s already gone further up the trail. I feel no rush to catch up with her. When we go hiking, we both vary our wheelchairs’ speeds, each sometimes accelerating, sometimes lingering, and sometimes matching the other’s pace so that we roll along side by side. Robin saw the deer before I did, had her own moment with them, and moved on.

Closer by, at the moment, my attendant Mallorie is taking pictures with my digital camera. I’ve instructed her to shoot liberally, and I can see that she too recognizes this scene as a gift. Mallorie is a veteran hiker—though as an ambulatory 19-year-old, her treks involve greater range, rougher ground, and more changes in elevation than mine do. Now, though, she finds herself walking with me and Robin, or somewhere between us. She walks slowly or briskly; we set her pace. Mallorie stands with her sneakered feet planted far apart for steadiness, and pushes back unruly blonde curls to peer through the camera. She’s focused on the buck, his sculpted half-crown and his eager grazing.

Meanwhile, I’m negotiating a tentative connection with the doe. She continues eating as she eyes me with a mix of curiosity and mild nervousness. Gradually the encounter grows deeper, closer. She’s distracted now from chewing, as she gazes at me, seeming to see me for the first time.

What, I wonder, does she see? In her expression I fancy a kind of inquisitive bafflement, something like the perplexed expressions I get from the human hikers I meet. Perhaps she notices, like they do, that I’m different from the other park visitors who stop to watch her. Maybe her ears have picked up the whooshing pulse of my ventilator, or the thin hum of my wheelchair motor when I turn to look at her more directly. Maybe she perceives my relative smallness, or the fact that I am sitting down, or that I move by machine, not by foot.

Or maybe she notices none of this. Maybe the anomalous facts of my body escape her completely, or are too unimportant to hold her attention. Maybe in this wilderness we share, I’m just like the other humans: loud, stinky, clumsy, and hoofless; innumerable and indistinguishable; provisionally welcome, but not entirely trusted.

In any case, the moment lasts longer than I had any right to expect. In the doe’s large yes, I begin to sense the innocent interest of a fellow creature. I meet her gaze, meaning to communicate—what? Respect. Reverence. Harmlessness.

The doe ducks her head, continuing to graze, giving no clear response. Still, she deliberately keeps me in her sights. I want nothing more than to watch her, to study the simple, elegant contours of her body. There’s a taut muscularity to her which suggests violence restrained, though she displays no aggression. I know she could fight if she needed to protect herself, but her first instinct is to flee.

And now, I can see that that instinct is beginning to kick in, though as far as I know I’ve given no new hint of threat. Perhaps the wind has shifted, taking the full force of my sweaty scent to her nostrils. Or maybe I’ve just been sitting there a bit too long. The doe regards me more suspiciously, and begins backing up, just a step or two, then a few more. She gives me one last look, then turns and bounds away into the trees.

Mariposa Grove Road
Yosemite National Park

Human bodies seem miniscule here—tiny as toys, as if viewed from a great height—even though I am right here among them, part of this Lilliputian crowd. We all look small, as we meander through the ancient grove. The Giant Sequoia loom like gods. The bodies of their dead sprawl among them, rotting.

Awed by these trees, these largest living things, Robin and I had been wheeling along the bumpy road silently for a while. Somehow, though, we have gotten distracted by an argument, some household matter or something equally trivial, pulling us into a peevish back-and-forth. Her blue eyes blazing with impatience, Robin gestures emphatically, making her too-large beige ball cap slip a bit. I frown against my girlfriend’s stubbornness, and against the sunlight that pierces the trunks and branches.

Now we’re silent again, not from woodland wonder, but from mutual irritation. The road widens as it approaches the parking lot. I’m about to argue a point, one last word—but as I open my mouth, I stop short, my attention pulled to a spot in the dirt, just a few feet ahead. “Look at the snake!” I say instead.

Robin and I both halt, grinning as if we’ve seen gold glinting from the hard ground. It’s more orange than gold—a rough, rusty orange with a brown and yellow diamond pattern running the length of the King snake’s body. From the lofty height of our chairs, we examine the small but striking reptile. The sharp, geometric angles of the color pattern contrast with the graceful waves of the infinitely flexible spine—curves and corners, composed in artistic harmony. Unperturbed by our attention, the snake moves at a leisurely pace, covering dusty ground effortlessly, unhurriedly.

I glance up and see two men and a woman nearby, all sun-baked, lean, and looking as if they had slept in their clothes. “How do you operate that thing?” one of the men asks me, not even bothering to indicate my wheelchair, as if no other topic of connversation were conceivable.

“Yeah, you gals do real good in those things!” says the other man.

“There’s a snake right there,” I tell them, for no particular reason except to deflect their attention. I’ve found that tourists often displace their natural curiosity onto me and my wheelchair, and need to be prompted to notice the wonders around them—wonders they have traveled far, and in many cases paid fees, to see.

Refusing the role of park attraction, I offer up instead our precious find. The campers take the bait, and for a minute or two I’m relieved. Now we’re all just ordinary park visitors, together admiring a minor marvel of nature.

But the three campers can’t leave it at that. Soon they’ve surrounded the snake. One gets down on all fours; the others make barriers of their boots. In this predicament the snake looks more delicate than before. They’re poking it with a stick, trying to pick it up. Briefly they succeed, and the snake hangs like a dead thing as they gawk at it. This insult seems to rouse the snake to resist at last: With a quick, whip-like movement, it flings itself off the stick. The captors scramble to stop it from skittering away. While this tussle is going on, Robin and I make our own escape from the scene.

I trust the snake can take care of itself, but as we go I feel a twinge of guilty regret for subjecting it to that harassment, for sacrificing its dignity to spare my own.

Yosemite Village Shuttle Bus
Yosemite National Park

The park doesn’t seem crowded, even though it’s late Spring. We pass people on paths, say hello, and move along, still feeling that we have ventured far from urban density. We’re not alone in the wilderness, but we’re not bumping into each other either.

Until we board the shuttle bus. Suddenly scattered travelers, who had been so easily absorbed by the park’s sprawling trails, groves, and meadows, coalesce into a big, sweaty, cranky mob. We are packed in like rush-hour commuters, but without newspapers and iPods to occupy our attention. Restlessness jostles us along with the bumps. Many passengers are openly chafing to be somewhere else—the stables, the North Pines campground, a trailhead marked with a yellow circle on the map, or just off this bus. Others sit quietly, looking either tired and serene, or tired and bored.

The wheelchair tie-down system has me sitting near the front of the bus, facing toward the rear. From here I have a clear view of the body language and facial expressions of dozens of bus riders—and they have a view of me. We regard each other with a mix of curiosity, friendliness, and puzzlement. I note some of them checking out my body and its support system: my curved torso and bony, sunscreened arms; brown eyes, brown hair, sun-mottled skin; tube lodged in my nostrils, leading to an unseen machine that pumps air into my lungs; and most conspicuously, my power wheelchair, with its network of tubes, wires, pads, straps, and metalwork.

For the few minutes of this bus ride, they are my audience, as if my front-of-the bus reserved wheelchair space is a stage. But then, I am also their audience, and the rest of the bus becomes the stage. I examine them: A bleach-haired boy of about 14, wearing a skull-and-crossbones T-shirt and a sharp stud embedded in his chin. An elderly white couple, the woman wielding a handcarved walking staff, looking for something in her straw purse covered with embroidered flowers, the man adjusting the settings on a chunky camera. A little Asian girl bouncing on her father’s lap, exchanging smiles with her mother, who sits nearby studying a park guidebook printed in Japanese.

Out of the crowd I hear a woman speaking shrilly in a Midwestern accent. I see her standing near the rear door of the bus with two younger women, evidently her daughters. “No,” she is saying urgently. “I have to get something to eat now.”

“I know, Mother,” says one of the women soothingly. “I’m just saying, let’s stop off at the visitors center, which is in two stops, to confirm our moonlight tour reservations. Then we can walk over to the village to find some lunch.”

“No! Lunch first!” the older woman insists. Her voice gets louder: “Driver, where is the deli?” Concentrating on the road, he seems not to hear her. Her voice rises to a scream as she repeats, “DRI VER , WHERE IS THE DELI?!” Both daughters put their hands over their eyes and one sighs, “Mother!” in an embarrassed whisper.

The driver answers that she can get off at the next shuttle stop, and walk past the general store to get to the deli. And so they do, hurriedly—the mother driven by hunger, the daughters by their eagerness to leave the scene of such a shameful display of gluttony.

I find myself smiling, appreciating the woman’s frank physicality. I think if I’d seen that performance on my local city bus, I would have sided with the daughters in their chagrin; I would have ridiculed the woman’s impatient, hypoglycemic shrieking. But here, I’m more aware of people’s bodies as natural phenomena, needing sustenance. Just as the rivers and lakes need replenishment by the yearly snowmelt, and the plants require sunlight and fertilizing scat, so we humans must be fed, protected, warmed or cooled, and rested. Some of us also need to be physically supported in other ways—by walking staffs or wheelchairs, by the loving laps of parents.

Entering a national park, or any patch of preserved wilderness, we do not leave our needy bodies behind. In this landscape, less altered by human design, our physical needs simply become more prominent. Here, we can see our bodies for what they are: forces of nature.

Laura Hershey is a Colorado-based writer, poet, consultant, and advocate. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Topic, New Mobility, and several anthologies and websites.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 issue.

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