Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Loss

It was my travel companion, being second only to my wife on accompanying me around the world.

I bought it in 1996, possibly 1995, at Eddie Bauer in the Bayshore Shopping Centre. Having a profound hatred for umbrellas, to the point that I'd rather get soaked than to hold one or walk with someone trying to shelter me, I felt that I needed to protect my head, not only from precipitation but from harsh sunshine and ultraviolet light.

The hat, I thought, had to be all-weather. Light enough to breathe but hardy enough to protect me from all but the coldest elements. I don't like cowboy hats but realized that their shape was the most practical to do the job, and when I found the light-brown, felt expedition hat, I knew that it was my best choice. I didn't really care for its appearance, but I bought it nonetheless, perhaps too because the sale price made it compelling.

I have a large head. I take a 7 1/2-inch band size. It's very hard to find a hat that fits me, unless the hat is adjustable, like a ball cap. The Eddie Bauer hat that I found was sitting in the clearance section, perhaps because many people get lost in an extra-large hat. Again, I saw the hat, it fit, I liked the price, and I took it.

One of my earliest memories of the hat is walking near the Alexandra Bridge, near the National Gallery, and I was becoming cross with my wife, who kept trying to pull my hat tighter on my head, for fear that the wind would blow it off. I was cross because I don't like people touching my head or anything on my head, and also because I had already pulled the hat down on my head and it wasn't going anywhere.

There was no strap for the hat, but I could make it snug by pulling down on it.

Korea 1998
I wore that hat to Korea, used it to shelter myself from the humid sun, to keep my hair dry during the rainy season. It accompanied me throughout Southeast Asia, from Hong Kong to Singapore, to Beijing and Thailand.

When my family and I trekked, by canoe, through the Rideau Lakes system, from Kingston to Ottawa, that hat sheltered me from sunburns and kept the one day of rain from being more miserable than it could have been.

So when I travelled with my family to Arizona, it was no surprise that I left Ottawa with my expedition hat firmly on my head, kept it on my lap on the flight, and made sure that it was always in our rental car, in case we found ourselves pulling over and exploring, and I would need reliable protection from the sun.

As I climbed Camelback Mountain, the hat was with me every step of the way. At the summit, I remarked on how long I had had that hat, and while I had aged for the worse, the hat looked almost as good as it had the day that I first bought it, despite the leather band having been exposed to sun, heat, cold, snow, and rain.

If only I had aged as well.

God, I'm getting fat.
Even though I was sheltered from the sun in the Lower Antelope Canyon, I kept the hat on my head to keep any sand that blew into the abyss from settling in my hair. My hat was my silent but helpful travel companion.

No matter how big you imagine the Grand Canyon to be, no matter how many images you see, your brain is unable to fully comprehend how vast and how deep it actually is until you stand on the edge of it and witness it first-hand. To see some clifftops on the northern rim, and realize that you could be looking 10 miles or more is indescribable. Somewhere, in between, the long Colorado River flows westward. When you can see it through the gap, not only are you looking at a body of water that is several miles away, but also another mile below you.

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring site.

My wife became separated from me and the kids when she discovered that her sunglasses were missing, left behind in the visitor center. She told us to go on, to take the shuttle bus to the westernmost end of the Rim Trail, that she would look for her glasses and explore around Mather Point, would meet with us in the parking lot in a couple of hours.

It took longer than we expected to get out to the Hermit Trail point and we walked back to the second-last bus stop. It wasn't a long hike, only a half mile, and the girls and I stopped only a handful of times, taking a couple of minutes, at most, to take photos.

At one stop, as I knelt down and changed lenses, a gust of wind snuck up behind me and knocked my hat from my head. It landed on the opposite side of my camera bag, that lay at my knees, and I managed to grab it before the wind could carry it further. I returned it to my head, pulling down to make it snug. The next gust of wind did its best to dislodge the hat from my head, to no avail.

Return buses came, but because the afternoon was drawing to a close, few passengers got off, and we were unable to get on. Several visitors were ahead of us, and were complaining about the lack of buses with space, but after about 20 minutes or so, we made our way onto the bus and made our way to the end of that route, where we were to transfer onto a second bus that would return us to the visitor center.

With less than a minute before we reached this transfer point, my youngest daughter became ill and vomited in the aisle of the bus. Again, when she got off, she was sick again at the edge of the trail. I gave her water to rinse her mouth, and we waited a few minutes for her to recover and feel that she could continue. The lineup at the transfer point was long, and we weren't sure that we would get on the next bus anytime soon, so we started to walk toward our rendezvous spot.

We were more than an hour late with meeting my wife, but my daughter was feeling much better. When a bus came along, we decided to get on it to speed our return. But it was not to be. Shortly after we were underway, the bus began to experience problems: the air compressor that closes the rear door was failing, and even though the doors would close after someone got off, the compressor would not fully engage, meaning that even though the bus was running and in gear, the brakes would not disengage and allow us to move. The driver would open and close the doors several times before the problem would solve itself and we could move, but it happened every time someone exited by the rear doors. (Being at the front, I suggested to the driver that she make everyone exit by the front door, but she wouldn't listen to me.)

It was an hour and a half later than we planned, when we finally found my wife, chilled, and not pleased, waiting at the bus stop. The sun had set, the winds had picked up, and the temperature was dropping steadily. I was the only one with a set of car keys and the visitor center had closed. Tired and cold, she wanted to leave the park immediately, but when the kids complained that they needed to use the washroom and wanted to wash off the meager remnants of vomit from their hands, shirts, and shoes, my wife saw the glow from the canyon and said that she would take her camera to capture images while I waited for the girls. She would meet me at Mather Point.

The girls took a long time to clean up, and I was afraid that there would be no light left for me to capture the canyons. When they did emerge from the washroom, my first instinct was to abandon the plan, to get them in the car and bring it close to the canyon, where we could pick up their mother. But the photographer in me told me that this was probably going to be my last visit to the Grand Canyon, and that I would never have an opportunity to capture the sunset here again.

The wind was becoming worse, blowing all sorts of debris about. It had become too dark to keep my sunglasses on my face, and at first I placed them on the brow of my hat, but then I remembered that the wind had once knocked my hat off; should that happen again, I didn't want my sunglasses to hit the ground and get scratched. I attached them to my camera bag, pulled my hat firmly against my head, and went in search of DW.

Even though the sun had dipped below the horizon, warm light still flooded the canyon. The red layers of soil stood out across the chasm and a few clouds reflected pinks and purples. Many visitors stood along the edges to admire the beauty of the landscape. I looked for my wife but could not see her in the crowds.

I moved to the edge and took some photos while my kids, at my sides, scanned the crowd for their mother. As I snapped, I moved along the railing that protected people from tumbling over the edge. Few places along the Rim Trail offer this barrier, but considering the number of people who throng to this spot, it was no surprise.

Not finding my wife, I surmised that she may have already taken her shots and had returned to the last spot that she saw me. I told the girls that we were going to head back, and I was just about to turn to leave, but thought that I would take one last photo.

As I lifted my camera to my face, the wind, which was nearly at a gale, which may have pushed some people over the edge, had the barriers not been there, violently grabbed my hat and flung it into the abyss.

My first reaction was to dive after my hat, to make a last-ditch effort to rescue my loyal travel companion. Perhaps that is another reason that the barriers were in place: to prevent people from suffering the fate of lost objects.

The brain does not fully comprehend the depth of the Grand Canyon until you witness it with your own eyes. But even then, it does not understand that depth until it sees an object move away, get smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller, seemingly fall without end.

When the hat was taken from me and blown beyond my reach, spinning, level, like a Frisbee, not tumbling but floating further away, my first reaction was a cry out, which made bystanders also gasp, perhaps out of fear that a life had been lost. Some saw the hat, remarked on it; others made an uh-oh sound; a few laughed at my misfortune.

My Eddie Bauer expedition hat was gone. How far it fell, I'll never know. Whether anyone would someday stumble upon it, I can't tell. But it was now on its own journey, separate from mine, possibly in its final resting place.

"Farewell, old friend," I cried out to it, before it faded from sight, "you have served me well."

I have a new hat. I found it in a shop in La Jolla, San Diego, California. It's a felt expedition hat, a darker brown than my old hat, with a tan leather band. The brim is wider, does not naturally turn up, like my old hat, which is perhaps a boon: when it rained, I had to periodically bow my head to let the water that had accumulated pour out, before it soaked through. This brim slopes down so that no water gathers.

My wife likes this hat better. She says it fits my face better. My face is bigger than it was 20 years ago and I have to agree: my Eddie Bauer hat seemed to look smaller on me than it had in the past.

My new hat and I will have new experiences to share. We've already explored San Diego together, wandered the USS Midway and enjoyed some craft beer. It protected my head from the sand at Coronado Beach and the snow and freezing rain when I finally returned to Ottawa.

I will never forget my old hat and the memories that it brings. But the new hat is fitting in well. If I can get 20 years out of this one, I'll feel lucky.

Who knows? Maybe it will even outlast me.

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