The Agony of the Odyssey

Jet Blue SFO to Vegas. Picked up the car at the Vegas Avis, engaged my Google maps audio who I long ago named Madeleine. Madeleine was a waitress I met in Malmo, Sweden two years ago who spent considerable time one un-busy restaurant evening diagramming and explaining pronunciation differences between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. It was extraordinarily nice of her, and she was part of the eye candy Scandinavian blond blizzard. I wanted to carry that memory forward, so Madeleine became my Google Maps app audio. We talk often.

It was a long drive from Las Vegas but I needed to stop at a grocer first and pick up a dozen bottles of water that would be essential on the all day excursions planned. There weren’t many towns where I was headed and thought it better to stock up rather than panic when I arrived. It was a 6.5 hour drive from Vegas to The View Hotel in Monument Valley. Definitely wanted to make it before dark and there was a time change between Nevada and Utah.

I-15 to St. George, then Madeleine guided me through a series of turns and a jumble of crisscrossing state routes. Crossed the Colorado River in Page, AZ. The Vermillion Cliffs loomed to the south, Lake Powell to the north, then nothing. Vast expanses of flatland, studded with chaparral, sagebrush and other low-lying wiry bushes, an occasional scrub-grazing cow or two. No trees. Formidable mountains loomed on the horizon. Traffic was meager.

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Kaibito, Shonto, and Tsegi were alleged towns on the map, but in reality, they were but three or four poor Navajo farms that constituted the settlements. Route 160 was long and straight and I put petal to the metal as the sun eased behind the hills. The western sky turned puce, orange, pink, purple, then twilight as I entered the only real town in the area. Kayenta. The town of 5,000 had a Sonic Burger, McDonald’s, Hampton Inn, and a Chevron station. Left on US-163, twenty-five miles to The View Hotel. In the dimness, giant rocky monoliths dotted an endless expanse of tableland. Monument Valley. Spectacular.

Next morning, I made a beeline to hotel’s restaurant where the only food option was the breakfast buffet, and the next eating option was 25 miles away. Little did I know that breakfast buffet would be my undoing within 48 hours. Outside I met my guide for the day. Vernon was native to Monument Valley, grew up one of nine boys about three miles from where we stood. Monument Valley is off limits except to those with a Navajo guide or Navajo blood. I had arranged a private Jeep tour months before.

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Vernon asked what my interests were, noted the camera I was toting and said, “hop in.” He took me to John Ford Point with its sweeping panorama of the Valley, its impressive sandstone formations, buttes, spires, and towers – the geological oddities that gave Monument Valley its name – the result of millennia of erosion and uplift, water and drought, wind and volcanoes. The red sandstone cliffs and pinnacles were shaped 160 million years ago. It was vast and overwhelming to comprehend, distances incomprehensible, the sun and clouds closer than the other side of the Valley.

About an hour into it we bonded, and Vernon became more friend than guide. I think Vernon liked me because I showed interest in him, his family and kids – he had five daughters to balance out being raised in a family of all boys. The land was still home to dozens of Navajo who eked out a living selling jewelry to tourists, and raising small herds of livestock, mostly sheep and cattle. It’s a rugged life with minimal luxuries. Vernon said he lives “off campus” very much liking running water, indoor plumbing and electricity. We visited all the tourists stops. Then lunch.

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After a sandwich he said, “now we start the real tour,” Mystery Valley, where he grew up. The 4-wheel drive Jeep was amazing, through drifts of red sand, along wet and dry creek beds, up steep mountain paths, across the tops of mesas, forging our own road as we went. We explored ancient cliff dwellings where Anasazi Indians lived a thousand years ago, though there is evidence of a human population in the Valley for over 14,000 years. Vernon took me to fractured rocks where ancients painted petroglyphs of birds and antlered animals, hand prints and men with shields and spears.

More importantly, I learned about Vernon, his life and his family. By extension, I was learning about Navajo culture, how tied to nature they still are. Towards the back edge of the day, Vernon said he had one special place to show me. It was a large overhanging cliff with a significant cliff dwelling tucked inside. Our voices echoed when we spoke. Vernon produced a six hole wood flute and played, the sounds reverberated on the hardened sandstone and shale. Sacred music in a sacred place. The wood flute had a more hollow sound than a metal flute, primitive, guttural, and absolutely essential to that moment. Vernon told me not to tell anyone (sorry) that his flute was made by a Hopi and not a Navajo. “Just sounds better,” he said.

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The View Hotel was populated with Chinese, French and Polish families. Kids, lots of unwashed kids in line for the self-serve buffet. Okay, I don’t know that they were all unwashed but it seems unlikely that parents would hose down the kids every night in a place like that. Desert, warm, dusty, informal to say the least. Germ carriers. They grabbed food, not impolitely, but the tongs themselves became bacteria conveyers.

I was in the restaurant early Friday, I wasn’t alone, I was backtracking two hours to Page, AZ. I signed up for an afternoon tour of Upper Antelope Slot Canyon. I had plenty of time and planned to drive south of Page to the Vermillion Cliffs area and Marble Canyon. It rained on and off, turning the ruby granite mountains a rust color instead. Still breathtaking though despite the inclement weather.

Then, lunch in Page though I wasn’t much hungry. I stopped at a Texas barbecue place but ate sparingly. Then tour time, and it poured for about fifteen minutes. Our guide herded 14 of us into a stretch Jeep and drove us twenty minutes west of Page then onto a red dirt road another ten minutes. Gloria, the Navajo guide/driver, said it was a blessing it had rained, it kept the dust down. One could only image because we were covered in red dust when we pulled up to the canyon entrance.

A slot canyon is formed by water rushing through relatively soft rock, usually sandstone. Slot because they are significantly deeper than wide. Flash flooding is always a danger and can germinate miles away before descending on the unsuspecting. We didn’t drown. Upper Antelope Slot was about 1/8 mile of dazzling beauty. Light filtered through the top illuminating the walls in crazy unexpected ways. Stunning and jaw-dropping are words that came to mind.

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Two hour drive back with another startling sky, a distant rainbow, purple mountains, opaque sunlight, then suddenly sharp, shadows stretched to infinity. I was starting to feel unwell, not awful but strangely bloated and uncomfortable. Again, I put pedal to the metal and kept a constant speed of about 90-95. I needed to get back to my room and access my well-being.

I arrived at twilight, took two Excedrin and felt the slightest pang of hunger. In the dining room though, nothing on the menu sounded good so I opted for a cup of vegetable soup and a small salad. That was the last food I could face for the next six days. The next six I-don’t-ever-want-to-live-through-that-again-days.

Saturday, departure day. Drove two+ hours from Monument Valley to Moab, Utah, through Mexican Hat, Bluff, White Mesa, and Blanding. Incredible beauty and something to behold around every curve, over every hill, through every rocky pass. Not much traffic, the sky sapphire, the red rocks and formations otherworldly. Huge craggy formations, sometimes like huge discs piled up resembling the Necco Wafers I bought for a nickel at Baxley’s Grocery store in hometown Ottawa, Illinois a half century before. Amazing formations, arches and balanced boulders held up by the tiniest of stones that defined odds and gravity, the laws of physics suspended in this odd region of earthly terrain.

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I skipped the breakfast buffet before checking out, not one bit hungry which was alarming since I hadn’t eaten much the day before. I didn’t feel bad, just kind of a hollowness in my stomach which I dismissed as hunger pangs. Pulled into Moab mid afternoon, gassed up, located the adventure tour operator I had signed up with. An all day private Jeep tour of Canyonlands on Sunday and an all day private Jeep tour of Arches on Monday. The owner told me to show up around 8:00 am and just bring water, they would pack sandwiches.

I checked into the Gonzo Inn, a clean room and comfortable. I was hungry, though not famished, and there was a diner across the street. I played it safe and ordered a green salad with chicken, ate about half and headed back to my room. I barely made it. Diarrhea. Big time. Bad time. Incessant. It just wouldn’t stop, frequency increased as the night wore on. I got on the Internet and read up. If I had certain symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. I had those symptoms but held off until 6:00 am Sunday. It was all I could do to drive to the Moab Regional Hospital Emergency Room. I thank my lucky stars Moab had one, next hospital was hours away.

I was the only patient at that hour and was immediately ushered in and made as comfortable as possible by a male nurse. And ever so glad it was a male nurse because I could tell him the specifics about the assault on my body. I was in the ER all day, tended to by that nurse and a young female doctor. I had blood tests, urine specimens, stool specimens, blood pressure every five minutes because my BP was up and down like a yoyo. They inserted an IV and gave three units of liquid because I was dehydrated. I was still heading to the bathroom every five minutes now accompanied by the rolling IV.

Early afternoon the doc gave me a shot off Dilaudid, a morphine derivative, side effect, constipation. She said I might be a bit loopy for awhile. It had no effect. More blood tests, more blood pressure, pulse, temperature. Still jumped up every five minutes. Around 5:00 she gave a double dose of Dilaudid. Nada, at least in terms of loopiness. The saga continued but I was slowly improving. They discharged me but told me to come back if symptoms didn’t improve overnight. They didn’t.

Monday, I was back in the Moab ER having been in and out of the bathroom all night. I’m sure the ER staff cringed when they saw me drive up. Another IV, a CT Scan, blood tests, samples for the lab. Yet, through the ordeal I didn’t feel particularly bad, no nausea, no headache, no serious stomach cramps. It was peculiar.

The urgency increased as they pumped fluids in me. Around noon, I stabilized, more or less, at least not having to roll my IV with me into the bathroom. I was getting twenty minute breaks. Optimism. They discharged me at noon. I was supposed to check out of the Gonzo Inn. Fortunately, mid April, midweek, I was able to extend my stay. Had it been summer, I don’t know what I would have done. Moab is jammed with campers, backpackers, day hikers, white water rafters, sightseers. No Vacancy.

Gorgeous day. From my room, I saw the tops of trees with tender spring leaves, the bluest of skies, inviting mountains. I just wanted to go home. Canceling the remainder of the trip was a forgone conclusion. I notified the guides and hotels at Canyon de Chilly, Grand Canyon and the hotel in Vegas where I was going to spend two nights. Salt Lake City was my closest option, a four hour drive.

I called Delta and made a reservation to fly from SLC to SFO on Thursday. I was plotting. If I could drive to Salt Lake City on Wednesday, I could make it home in two jumps. I made a hotel res near the airport for Wednesday night. But how could I get there?

The hospital advised me to drink, drink, drink to stay hydrated but whatever I put in my mouth flashflooded through my body. If I had any chance of making it to SLC, I couldn’t drink, not a drop. I went cold turkey, water-wise on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, my throat was parched, my lips chapped, I felt more shriveled prune than man. But the urgency subsided. I checked out and headed towards Salt Lake City.

The route I took was part of I-15 for about twenty miles. Posted speed limit was 80, I’d never seen that before. For me, 80 was a suggestion, not a law. I cruised along at about 95 or so. Then off the Interstate and back onto two lane roads, drove them as fast as practical, through Utah coal country, over mountain passes, along snowy mountain tops. I pulled into the Courtyard by Marriott just after 3:00, checked in, took a mental diagnostic. It was okay, I was okay, I was going to make it home.

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Touching down at SFO about 9:30 am Thursday, I hurried to get my bag, to my car and head home. I kissed the front steps, hugged the air inside my house, noted the familiar and appreciated it more than ever. Then, off to my doctor who was awaiting me with more tests, more samples, more possibilities checked off the list of what I had, or did have. Bacterial infection of some kind or another, we’ll never know. What I know is that Arizona and Utah returned to flyover states in my mind. No inking to ever go back and complete the odyssey.

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