Traveling Light on New Year's Eve

There we were, two people in love, on the rim of the Grand Canyon on New Year's Eve, watching the sun go down and realizing that the hotel really was full. Even if it wasn't, we couldn't have afforded to sleep there. But in the first years of our marriage, we tended to take one problem at a time.

My husband had a brainstorm. "I'll bet the ranger in the bottom of the canyon is lonely, especially tonight. Let's call him and see how he would feel about some guests." The idea had merit: Its desperation matched our own.

The telephone number of the canyon ranger was right in the book. We dialed, explained our situation, and offered a barter of groceries packed down. Gary, the ranger, said that he and his most-pregnant wife would love company and would especially enjoy company that brought guacamole and tortilla chips.

The hardest part of the evening was finding avocados at 6 p.m. We did find them, and didn't mind paying the astronomical price. A half-hour after dusk, we were on our way down. No packs, except the groceries. We were traveling light, heading, as we did not know then, into an anti-consumer's paradise at the bottom of nature's greatest hole in the ground.

Whatever mixed feelings I have since developed for luggage must have originated with that night. The freedom of moving without carrying. The beauty of the canyon unobstructed by plans to see it. Gina, Gary's wife, had come on the phone and insisted that we "bring nothing" but the chips and dip. She kept saying, "We have everything."

Little did we know. We arrived near midnight, after a light but uneventful passage down the curving canyon. It was warmer by 20 degrees in the canyon. We had gone down so quickly that we actually passed the ranger's house and went as close to the Colorado River as we could get. There in that warm, lush stretch at the bottom we looked up and saw several deer, like statues, preparing for their own version of "Auld Lang Syne." One coyote seemed to be singing.

As we returned to the ranger's house, we had an attack of shyness. Surely this was it; there was no other building anywhere. But what kind of people were the ranger and his wife, anyway?

What some people see as adventurous others see as stressful. The reverse is also true. The uncertainty that night enhanced the adventure. We knocked on the door and were surprised to be greeted by an ordinary couple about our age.

Gina looked eight, maybe 12 months pregnant. They were dressed casually. They let us into their large cabin and served us a nice dinner. Then we played games.

They apparently had every board game and entertainment device (even a pool table) in the world. No television down that far, but there was a short-wave radio that broadcast all the local happenings on the rim. The games offered just the chance to get to know one another. (These days, I think, we probably would have sat there interminably having a "conversation.") By the time we got to relationships, we were gamed out.

They showed us their "sports room." It was full of abandoned sports equipment. High-class hiking boots. High-class backpacks. Fancy hats, fancier walking sticks. Three-hundred-dollar down vests.

"People can walk in easily enough with all this stuff; they just can't walk out," Gina told us. "That's why I told you not to bring any more stuff. I wanted to make sure you could walk out."

THE next morning - which came around noon - Gina served her famous pancakes. Thin buckwheats, spread with cottage cheese alternated with orange marmalade, stacked seven high and sliced to show the stripe.

"These are guaranteed to get you all the way out from here. I've done it many times." She walked us halfway up the rim and pointed out a shortcut. We did one more verse of "Auld Lang Syne" together and said goodbye.

That night was a lesson in packing light. A lesson in not over-arranging. Walking in is a lot easier than walking out!

Should old acquaintances be forgot? Not these. They had just what we needed.

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