Brian came wandering up front and sat down in the folding chair once more as Amanda reached forward to turn off the radio station that boasted to be Arizona's number one.
Outside the sun was high - it was about one o'clock in the afternoon. Nick had stopped along the way and parked the bus in a pull off and they'd all slept for a while in the bunks. After breakfast, which Amanda had cooked while the Boys had gone into the luggage compartment to fetch them all some fresh clothes, they'd set back off on the road again. Brian had opted to stay in the back to write an email to his wife on the wireless that the bus was installed with before they trekked into the desert for the weekend of camping.
But at last they'd made the first destination, and with a feeling of accomplishment at having driven the almost 500 miles from Los Angeles without destroying the bus, Nick parked the bus in the shade in the parking lot that a well-built park ranger was waving them into. He looked at Amanda and Brian, "Stop number one, doors open on the right," he joked.
Amanda, Brian and Nick piled out of the bus and into the dusty parking lot. Amanda shielded her eyes to watch as the ranger jogged over to them, a goofy bucket hat on his head with the draw string pulled tight to his chin. He wore the typical khaki and brown that is associated with park rangers and UPS drivers alone. "Howdy you guys," he called, coming to a stop right in front of them and smiling. "My name's Tom, I'm gonna be your Ranger this weekend." Amanda noticed how perfectly straight Tom's teeth were. Even more so than Nick's.
"Hey," Nick said, sticking out his hand to shake Tom's, "I'm Nick, this is Brian, and that's Amanda."
"Nice to meet you all. So let's get your gear loaded on the Jeep and we'll take off. Getting the tent set up early is gonna be key to keeping the spot. There's a lot of backcountry permits out this weekend but I did stake us out a spot about an hour ago that's right on the Colorado River down in the bottom, so it should be great."
Brian and Amanda looked to Nick, who open up the luggage compartment of the bus and waved to them, "I already packed my duffle for this weekend."
"Bring only what you absolutely need," Tom warned, "Nothing valuable. You'll be leaving all your stuff at the site when we take the burro ride tomorrow."
Amanda and Brian exchanged glances as Nick and Tom lumbered off to the rig in the back to get the tent out. "Apprehensive about the plans?" Amanda laughed as Brian sighed.
Brian smiled, "Nick's a very enthusiastic planner," he answered, "He's always gone for the gold, so to speak. Don't worry, though, most of his most outrageous ideas don't pan out, so you're only seeing the ones that have made it through the sifting process."
Amanda raised an eyebrow as she dug through one of her suitcases for socks and shorts. "You mean there's things worse than burro rides?" she asked.
"There's no telling what's floating around in that skull of his," Brian answered, "But if you stick around awhile, you might start getting an idea for it." He was jamming random articles of clothing into a backpack.
"Think we'll need this?" Amanda asked, holding up first aid kit, "Or do you think he's already packed one?"
"I'm sure he packed one," Brian answered, "And I packed one, too, and I'm sure Ranger Joe there has one, too... But if you really don't think we need another one, then you don't really know Nick too well." He winked and pushed the first aid kit into Amanda's bag with a laugh.
Twenty minute later, Tom and Nick had the equipment all satisfactorily loaded onto the Jeep. Nick and Amanda were sitting in the back on top of a couple coolers that were strapped to the seats, holding onto the crash bars, and Brian was in the front, buckled to the seat tightly, next to Tom. "You really don't need to buckle up," Tom told Brian, "We're not going on the road."
"No, that's okay," Brian said, tightening it more. He glanced back at Nick and Amanda and wishing they, too, would buckle up.
"All right, then," Tom called, "Here we go."
The wind whipped around Nick and Amanda, and her hair, which she'd let down, flew out behind her like a long cloak. Nick kept batting it away from his face when it caught the right wind, laughing as she yelled apologies. Their hands flew up over their heads several times, as though they were on a roller coaster as Tom drove down the steep slopes, further and further into the depths of the canyon.
Brian leaned over the side of the Jeep a couple times - though he regretted it each time - to see the depth below them. His fear of heights made him turn green, and he ducked back into the Jeep.
It took a couple hours before they reached the base, and when they hit the bottom, Tom stopped the Jeep and climbed out to look back up. "Long way down, isn't it?" he asked, gesturing.
This view Brian could handle better. The sheer rock face stretched far and away into the sky on either side of him, allowing only a sliver of blue to stretch by, like a river on the ceiling. Layers of color in the rock wound up the face, like rings. "Wow," he mumbled, staring up at it.
"Beautiful, Bri?" Nick asked, enthusiastically.
Brian laughed, "It is."
Nick pulled his camera out of his back pocket, aimed it upward, and snapped a picture of the snake-like river of sky stretching away above them, punctured only by a couple of wispy clouds.
Amanda felt as though she'd never seen anything so gorgeous in all of her life.
Tom had shepherded them back into the Jeep after a few minutes to snap pictures and marvel at the sight, saying they had quite a ways to go before they'd reached their destination. They were headed for the South Rim, he explained, along the Tonto Trail, to the campsite.
They passed tiny, shriveled looking plants that looked like someone had sat on them when they were young because of the way they curled and swiveled around themselves. Rocks sat in strange formations where they'd landed falling off the sheer face. Every now and then they spotted a crawling gecko that ducked between the rocks on the side of the rough dirt road that Tom was following. They passed hikers, who stared at the passing vehicle - an unusual sight in the canyon's bottom - but who waved amicably as they went by.
When they reached the campsite, Nick was ecstatic. It was exactly as he'd hoped when he'd talked to the woman in the tourist office. The river's bank was about thirty or forty feet away, and a small flat space was nestled among a couple of large boulders, creating a safety zone. Two large logs sat around a small fire pit. Tom parked the Jeep just behind the boulders, where it was out of sight, and the four of them disembarked from its cage. Brian immediately started walking toward the river's edge, his mouth in the form of an "oh" as he approached it.
Amanda ran her hand along the face of the boulders, feeling the dust scratch her palm, and smiled as a tiny gecko peeked from a crack in the side and flickered its tongue.
Nick and Tom got to work taking out the tents and getting them set up in the flat part of the clearing. Nick unrolled several layers of egg crate into the tents to make them softer, before laying down blankets as second floors. "It won't be luxury soft," he commented to Amanda, who had looked over at him from where she stood, "But we're camping, it's not supposed to be luxury." He smiled.
"Look at this, you guys," Brian suddenly shouted to them, "This is incredible. Can you believe we're here?" His arms were splayed above his head, indicating the vast everything that surrounded him. He spun a circle in a way that reminded Amanda of a child in a sprinkler on a hot summer day.
Amanda smiled and laughed. "Well, he likes it here at least," she said.
Nick grinned, "I do, too, this is great."
"Did you see the geckos?" she asked, pointing at the one that was still spying on her from the boulder.
"Epic." Nick crawled closer to look.
Brian was sitting on a rock next to Nick twenty feet away from where Amanda and Tom were sitting, trying to get a camp fire started. The sun was going down, disappearing between the crack of the canyon's mouth, looming far overhead. They were staring off at it disappearing. Nick was on the ground, leaning against the rock. Brian looked down at the top of Nick's head. "Isn't it gorgeous?" he asked.
Nick nodded, "It is," he agreed. He held up his camera and snapped a picture of it.
Brian held out his hand, "Here let me try." Nick held the camera up over his head, and Brian took it, aimed it at the sun, and snapped the picture. The orb of it was only just visible in the crook of the gaping canyon. He smiled at the image on the LCD screen of Nick's camera, then aimed it at the top of Nick's head beside him. "Hey Nick, look up here." Nick glanced up and Brian snapped the picture of him. He laughed.
Nick blinked from the flash, "Dude!" he snorted, "You're such a freakin' nut."
Brian handed Nick back his camera. "That's why you like me, though," Brian reminded him. "If I wasn't completely whacky we'd never be friends."
"Too true," Nick leaned back against the rock, the camera clutched in his hands, and breathed deeply the hot, dry air that surrounded them.
"It'd be awful hard not to believe in heaven in a place like this," murmured Brian suddenly.
Nick's eyes blinked opened and he looked up at Brian again. "Don't." Nick got up and picked up a rock, tossing it toward the river. Brian slid off the large rock he was sitting on and joined Nick as the sky overhead darkened even more into a dark violet velvet. "I don't want to think about it," Nick said, "Death is like the last thing I wanna think about at all. Especially here, in a gorgeous place like this."
Brian smiled sadly, "The beauty is supposed to provide hope."
"And what hope is there in death?" Nick asked, "Huh? Answer me that."
Brian didn't answer. Instead, he clapped Nick on the back of the shoulder. "I'm glad you came with me."
"It wasn't a very hard choice to make," Nick said, "Between staying and coming."
Brian nodded, "I know, but I still appreciate that you decided to spend the time with me."
Nick frowned. "You're my best friend, Brian. I wasn't about to go anywhere else except with you on this trip."
The boys wandered back to the campfire a couple moments later, their arms around each other's shoulder like comrades. Amanda watched them approaching while Tom was using a cast iron griddle, suspended by chains on a tripod over the fire, to cook hot dogs that he rolled with a ridiculously long fork.
"Suppers almost up," he called to the approaching two guys.
Amanda tapped the rough log next to her, and the two boys dropped themselves down next to her on it, Nick closest to her. His arm slid away from Brian and onto her shoulder and she nestled herself into the cup of his arm.
The orange glow of the campfire flickered across their faces, giving them an almost eerie look, and Amanda recalled long nights at summer camp as a child telling and hearing ghost stories well into the night, roasting marshmallows and singing campfire songs. She could almost taste the s'mores.
"You having fun yet?" Nick asked her, leaning forward to look into her face.
Amanda smiled, "Yeah, actually. You sure know how to plan a road trip, Carter."
"And to think," Nick said, smirking, "This is only the first night of stop one."
"Yes," she said, laughing, "Tomorrow, the burros."
"Mmm," Nick murmured, leaning back the way he had been and squeezing her shoulder. He rested his chin on top of her head. "The burros," he said with less certainty than before.