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When I Turned 21, Part Three

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When I Turned 21: Part One, Part Two

It was the summer of 1994 and I was stuck on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I had a back breaking job that allowed 4 hours of sleep each night. I shared a tiny dorm room with mean, bitchy girls who hated me, I didn’t have any friends, and I was far, far from home. Character building, you would say. I built a veritable ass-ton of character that summer.

I began to get used to the work, though as time went by, I got worse and worse at it. My prior experience spending so much time on my feet was running track (poorly) in 7th grade. Then, I was in drum corps and marching band in high school (I played the drums. I was super badass). I knew I had fallen arches. But I wasn’t aware of what it did to me. I didn’t realize that bones flatten out. And muscles get pulled out of whack. And knees ache. There’s not a lot I could do. I wore arch supports, but my big duck feet quickly flattened them. I was only 20, so I rebounded fairly quickly after each shift. But damn. There were some physics going on there or something.

As the days and weeks passed, and I got to know more of the residents on the North Rim, I began to realize there were distinct advantages if you were Mormon. All the people in charge, the people assigning jobs, making dorm arrangements, assigning stations in the dining room…most everyone was Mormon. There were lots of people from all over the country and all over the world. But many people were “local,” meaning, they were from Utah, Arizona, or Nevada. I heard phrases like “Oh my heck!” or “Oh my stars!” Because you couldn’t say “god” or “hell” or “Jesus Fucking H. Tap Dancing Christ.”

Everyone was friendly, certainly more friendly than gruff the New Englanders of my homeland, and it was easy to fall into conversations. I got to know some of my fellow bussers at work, because work was similar to being soldiers on a bloody battlefield during busy shifts. Friendships formed and we frequently helped each other out.

Two tall, corn-fed, blond Mormon girls I worked with were moving out of the dorms into one of the nice, big cabins in the woods near the campground. They were somehow on a list to get a room upgrade. They “technically” needed a roommate since their cabin was so big. But they would have likely gone the whole summer with the cabin to themselves. They were both sweet Utah girls and I was friends with them. They knew of my situation with the mean girls in the dorm. They invited me to share their cabin.

Total fricken score. I got the benefits of being Mormon by association. I liked these gals a lot, besides the fact that they were taller than me. I’m always slightly suspicious of women who are taller than me. I’m 5’8,” so I’m not an amazon. But somehow, I don’t meet a lot of women who are much taller than me. Something in the water in Utah makes people very tall.

My new roommates’ names were Kamas and Val. They were from Cedar City and they were best friends. We all got along famously. We ended up spending the majority of the summer together. We worked together, went on hikes, and explored other parts of the canyon. We shared the cabin in the woods, and they said I snored, even when I slept on my stomach. Even with a pillow over my head. I didn’t believe them.

We made friends with a couple of guys, Rus and Gene, and we were all buds. Rus had a truck that was a stick shift, and he began teaching me how to drive it so they’d have rides home after drinking. We made trips to Lake Powell, Bryce and Zion Canyons, and Cedar City. Innocent little romances formed. My roommate Kamas was quite a stunner, and we were not unaware of the boys who liked us. Rus liked Kamas, and Gene liked me. Remember the bitchy mean girls from the dorm? Gene dropped one of them for me.

I seemed to get lots of male attention and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. I still felt like a skinny kid with too big feet and knobby knees. On the night of my 21st birthday, a gaggle of friends came out to celebrate. We had dinner in the dining room, where we normally would be working, and a string of drinks came from the maĆ®tre d.’ I think he was another one who had the hots for me, and he wanted to get me tipsy. I remember being propositioned a number of times on the night of my 21st birthday, but my vigilant roommates would have none of it. They served as my chaperones for the evening. I was grateful.

After dinner, it was dark and we went out to the veranda of the lodge. The air is dry in the desert, and without civilization, the stars and moon provided the light. We continued drinking, looking out over the canyon and told stories. Some of the employees at the North Rim were veterans that returned year after year. They spoke of summers past, and looking out over the canyon and watching thunderstorms below them, in the vast chasm, and how the thunder rolled and echoed off the canyon walls. People talked about hiking rim to rim. We talked about work. We talked about home. On the veranda at the North Rim Lodge. That was my 21st birthday.

In the rest of the summer, work never really got easier. Kamas, Rus and I decided to end our season by hiking from the North Rim to the South Rim over three days and two nights. It was 27 miles. Over 8000 feet down, and over 6000 feet back up. We carried all our food and water on our backs. My only equipment for sleeping was a bedroll and a sheet. I think I slept on the picnic table when we saw two rattlesnakes slither through our first campsite at Cottonwood. We stayed at a campsite at Phantom Ranch the second night, then hiked up the South Rim on the last day.

That was my summer. I haven’t been back to the North Rim since then. I have been to the South Rim a couple of times, but it’s different. Still gut-wrenchingly beautiful. But more noisy. More commercial. So many people. Recalling that summer makes me want to see it again. I’m ready to go back.

If I have time off, or I want to plan a vacation, I will always opt for a trip to a national park or some beautiful, natural place. I haven’t seen Paris, and I haven’t been back to the German town where I was born. I certainly would not turn those down. But if I’m packing for a perfect vacation, I’m packing a tent and some hiking shoes. My life always changes when I visit the the grand, beautiful outdoors.


  1. Wow. Great story!!! I hope some of them find this story someday and realize what kind of impact they had on you that night. What a proper 21st birthday, unlike any other!!

  2. Awesome story! A lot more exciting than when I turned 21. I don’t even remember my 21st birthday. Not in a “drank-so-much-I-don’t-remember” kind of way, but more of a “nothing-terribly-exciting-happened” kind.

  3. My turning 21 story is boring:

    It was the same day that Clinton was elected in 1992. Everyone watched election returns on TV rather than go out with me (I was in college and most of my friends weren’t 21 yet; if it were now I’d go to a bar to watch the election returns!).

    I walked up to Safeway and bought a bottle of Vermouth, because I didn’t know any better. Ich.

  4. Aw, Dave. You’re cute.

  5. @Heather – I’m not superstitious but ever since my 21st birthday I’ve kept a bottle of vermouth in my fridge.

    (And as we’ve recently discovered, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to risotto!)

  6. For Steve’s birthday I think he went to the Rialto with David to play pinball!
    On My 21st, David was yet again the star, bought me my first drink–a strawberry daiquiri and my second–a margarita! Thanks David! We went to Chevy’s in Beaverton.

  7. You returned after that summer a different person. Much more relaxed and wise.

  8. On my 21st birthday I was 2 months pregnant with you but I didn’t know it yet. Drinking was no big deal cuz in Germany toddlers had Becks in their bottles.

  9. ironically, my only trip to the grand canyon was to the north rim in 1994. We probably crossed paths…

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