A Writer Returns to the Grand Canyon, This Time With His Mother’s Ashes

I’M HAUNTED BY my own recklessness as I pull on a base layer and a flannel in the slowly illuminating dark. It’s dawn on a blustery January morning in Williams, Ariz., and after I cut the tags off my hiking pack, I load it up with microspikes, trail maps, a compass and a first-aid kit — like a guy who knows what he’s doing.

Passing, that is.

I’m not a hiker, not really. At the REI in Los Angeles earlier in the week, stocking up on cold-weather gear, I told the cashier where I was headed. “The Grand Canyon? In January?” she asked. “Brave man.” She was surprised, but being a beginner has never stopped me from risking my body before.


T’s Summer Travel Issue

Three writers retake trips they made when they were different people — and experience a place other than the one they thought they knew.

Switzerland: Maaza Mengiste revisits Mount Pilatus after a life-changing first trip there.

The Grand Canyon: Thomas Page McBee returns to the landmark with his mother’s ashes and reflects on what he’s forgotten — and remembers.

Istanbul: In trying to understand the complexities of the city, Aatish Taseer examines both his past and present selves.

I turn 41 this year, my 11th injecting testosterone. As my horizon extends, it’s daunting to realize I never expected to live this long. There hasn’t been enough research into the long-term health outcomes of hormone replacement therapy on trans men, and the studies that do exist have often been contradictory. While some have found no increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a large 2019 study in the Netherlands noted that trans men taking testosterone were three times as likely as cisgender women to have a heart attack. I’ve begun to wonder about the medical miracle of my body, the price I’ll eventually pay for this gift of becoming. I don’t know many trans men older than I am. Will the treatment that saved my life also claim it?

Death is on my mind this morning. I open a black plastic box and begin the grim work of pouring the last of my mom’s ashes into rubber talcum powder containers. Seven years ago, in a different America, she’d died suddenly and left no plans for her remains. Mom was a physicist and an agnostic; as her eldest, I felt duty-bound to lay her to rest. But I hadn’t finished the job. My siblings and I had scattered half of her ashes across a lake in central Pennsylvania, where she’d spent her childhood summers, when I was suddenly struck by the limits of the location, so small and specific given her big, bold life. And so I’d taken the rest, hauling the plastic box from apartment to apartment in New York City and then Los Angeles as I grew broader and more muscular — becoming the man she birthed but now would not easily recognize.

I try to push away the dread as I go about my work, careful not to touch the chunky bits of bone poking through the ash as I funnel it into the containers. “You only live twice,” my trans friends and I joke, and though we are, of course, referring to the looping quality of our second lives — the visceral experience of another puberty, the work of restaking a place in the world — even this understanding feels reductive to me, as if life can only move forward, the past an artifact to make meaning out of and not an organic constant, braided endlessly into the present. Energy can’t be destroyed. That’s physics. Mom taught me that.

A body never disappears. It transforms.

MY LAST VISIT to the Grand Canyon was 33 years ago. I was 8 years old, and though my memory of it, like that of most of my early life, is pockmarked with trauma holes, I remember flashes of the trip, always in motion: Mom’s laugh as she rode shotgun in the Jeep, her head tilted back in the sun, mouth open so wide that I could see her fillings. My brother and sister and me shimmying to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in the back of a minivan, my stepfather’s omnipresent can of Coors sweating in the cup holder. The blur of sand and stone as we drove farther in, the pinks and blood reds and deep greens of this ancient landscape, alien and expansive. For me, coming from the hilly cloister of late ’80s Pittsburgh, smokestacked and river-rich, this desert landscape was a lesson in possibility, proof that there were parallel universes beyond my imagining, just as Mom promised.

Still, as I pull into the visitor center on the South Rim, nothing looks familiar. Two years after that initial trip to Arizona, in 1991, I would tell my mom that her husband was abusing me and watch our family implode. I am here because I know that in those last few years of ignorance she was truly happy. I wish I could picture what that looked like now. Frustrated, I watch a young couple sitting on the bumper of a Volkswagen bus, lacing up their boots. I roll down the windows, feel the cold smack of winter wind against my face and will myself to remember. Nothing sparks. I might as well never have been here before.

In the men’s room, a man in motorcycle gear and a cowboy hat meets my gaze and holds it a beat as I exit the stall. That same week, Arizona lawmakers introduce two bills that are part of a larger movement of anti-trans legislation appearing across the United States — both target trans youth, with one that explicitly criminalizes care that helps transgender kids transition. (The bills are signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey in March.) I am tense as he stares at me, instinctively mapping out the exits while simultaneously evaluating what it is about me that’s drawn his attention. I have never completely lost my animal fear of angry men — I’ve got my stepfather to blame for that. Catching my reflection, I see what he does: an outsider in a Patagonia vest and hiking boots, signaling blue-state urbanity with my KN95 mask strapped to my face, obscuring my mustache.

An urn sits under a lamp in the motel room.Credit…Photograph by Melody Melamed. Set design by Piers Hanmer. Projected image: Darrell Gulin/Getty Images

Everybody passes. As we stand side by side to wash our hands, I am aware of the assumptions I make about his body and what he means to do with it. I nod assertively, offering a kind of masculine greeting I learned to cultivate during my first decade on T. He nods back, reluctantly but to my great relief.

When he leaves, I remove my mask and see what he didn’t: a man beyond imagining, made manifest and invisible at once.

On Being Transgender in America

Phalloplasty: The surgery, used to construct a penis, has grown more popular among transgender men. But with a steep rate of complications, it remains a controversial procedure.Elite Sports: The case of the transgender swimmer Lia Thomas has stirred a debate about the nature of athleticism in women’s sports.Transgender Youth: A photographer documented the lives of transgender youth. She shared some thoughts on what she saw.Corporate World: What is it like to transition while working for Wall Street? A Goldman Sachs’ employee shares her experience.

LATER THAT DAY, I head toward the canyon. Evidence of the pandemic is everywhere: in the masks of the few tourists I see on my walk along the Rim Trail; in the sidewalks stamped with six-foot spaces for nonexistent lines to Mather Point, a popular scenic vista along the canyon’s South Rim.

But it all falls away when I reach the edge. I stand before a bright blue sky and survey the abyss. It’s hard not to be gobsmacked by the cathedral-like beauty, the spires pointing up to the heavens, the falling layers of red rock dusted with snow.

I stop to sit on a large rock hanging over the canyon and eat my peanut butter sandwich. I dangle my feet over the lip, staring into the chasm of rock upon rock, my awe eclipsed by terror as I accidentally dislodge a few stones into a free fall. I think of the Hopi, one of the 11 Indigenous tribes with ancestral claims to this land (the park administration has worked with these tribes on restoring their presence in recent decades, but the horrifying displacement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans haunts every aspect of its history). The Hopi people believe that the canyon is a passage to the underworld, a place made sacred by its proximity to death — a warning not always heeded by the nearly five million annual visitors to the park.

The Grand Canyon is a dangerous place. There were reportedly 828 search-and-rescue attempts in the park between 2018 and 2020, and it averages 12 fatalities per year. Three weeks before I arrive, the body of a 57-year-old hiker was found 200 feet below the Boucher Trail near Yuma Point, just west of here. It’s hard not to consider his fate as I watch a California condor divebomb the shadowy depths. Life and death are twins, we all know that. But I’ve rarely stood so close to the brink.

“Keep it in perspective,” my mom always said; it was a constant refrain throughout my teenage years. I was a sensitive child. As if summoned, a sprightly woman in her 60s walks past and calls out a warning to me: “Be careful, kiddo!” I back away from the rim.

As I walk, I admire the shifting light illuminating the gradients of the canyon’s opposite walls — differentiations that make manifest time itself, according to the geology museum I discover farther along at Yavapai Point. The schist and granite at the bottom of the canyon are almost two billion years old, with younger and younger layers of sandstone, shale and limestone stacked on top in horizontal bands. In the 19th century, expeditions to the Grand Canyon helped geologists to disprove creationist myths about the planet’s age. The canyon is time embodied.

Like me. My body is layered, my past selves a foundation my whole life is built on. I used to feel differently — when my siblings and I cleaned out Mom’s home after her death, there wasn’t a photo of me in sight. This had been at my request — at the time, I found old photos dysphoric and impossible to reconcile. But I was later shaken by those empty squares of space, by the suggestion of erasure. I may be different, but wasn’t I also the same beaming child at a karate tournament, the same high schooler squinting into the sun on graduation day?

The question felt urgent because it wasn’t just about me. It’s hard to reconcile my mother’s legacy — Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist, civil rights activist, lifelong feminist, insistent eccentric, devoted parent — with her rapid, horrible decline. We were incredibly close. She encouraged my writing. She loved my queer friends. Our home became a safe place for those with less accepting parents. She knew what it was like to be different and always fought for the underdog. When I told her I was trans back in 2011, when less than 10 percent of Americans reported knowing a transgender person, she responded with a simple, perfect “I love you just the way you are.” She was my best friend.

I knew she drank, of course — like all children of alcoholics, I kept count of her screwdrivers and noticed how fast she went through the wine in the fridge — but she was eminently functional, so much so that I didn’t realize how bad things were until it was too late. At least, that’s the comforting lie I tell myself now. The truth is, in the last months of her life, as the ammonia broke through her blood-brain barrier, she began behaving erratically: calling at all hours, confused and paranoid. Something terrible was happening, and I did nothing to stop it. It was 2014, and Time magazine had just featured the actress Laverne Cox on its cover, optimistically declaring a “trans tipping point” of visibility in popular culture that portended a sea change of social attitudes toward trans Americans. I felt the declaration was premature, as my own lived experience as an out trans person, even as a cis-passing white one, was still mostly defined by fear. I was alone and felt lower than ever, new to New York City and to being a man, fresh off the painful breakup of a nine-year relationship, afraid my landlord would Google my name and change his mind, afraid of landing in the emergency room and being made a subject of ridicule, afraid of spending the rest of my life alone. I was also angry — trapped, in what sociologists call the “man box,” the constrictions of masculinity that tightened around me as I attempted, every day, to prove my right to exist. I was unrecognizable — a fact that haunted me in my mother’s dwindling days when, in her confusion, she lost her short-term memory and me along with it. I suppose I hoped that by bringing her here, I might be able to stitch together the past and present and find a way to hold our whole history within each.

“In the men’s room, a man in motorcycle gear and a cowboy hat meets my gaze and holds it a beat as I exit the stall,” McBee writes. “That same week, Arizona lawmakers introduce two bills that are part of a larger movement of anti-trans legislation appearing across the United States.”Credit…Photograph by Melody Melamed. Set design by Piers Hanmer. Projected image: David Ponton/Getty Images

Before I left, I thought about calling my younger sister, who keeps all my mom’s old photos in her basement in Boston and functions as our family archivist. I’ve long depended on others to help me make sense of my own story. This time, however, I wanted to go alone, without any facts of our itinerary, hoping that I might find my way back to the past on my own.

Yet the earlier the body I try to conjure, the harder it is to recognize — never mind reconcile — who I was with who I’ve become. It was Joan Didion, after all, who wrote in her book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968), “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” Still, that life is buried under this one. If I can find the throughline, maybe I can stop the slip of my other memories: her infectious laugh; the taste of her homemade cinnamon buns; the feeling of walking in the front door of my childhood home and finding her there, waiting for me.

Later that day, before the sun sets, I take the flat Rim Trail a few miles out to Mojave Point, stopping along the way at Powell and Hopi Points, two of the canyon’s most storied overlooks. Though there are several trails that lead off the rim straight down into the canyon, I pass few hikers and fewer sightseers as I wind along the treacherous edge. What you see depends on where you stand. Here, a foregrounded shadow full of shrubby, resilient trees and rock covered in snow; there, a clear view of sun-soaked craggy stone in its gorgeous, blown-out earth tones that photos will never do justice.

Every time I consider hiking down into the canyon, the warnings give me pause: “Dangerous conditions: Do not hike alone.” I am certain that my family did not make this hazardous trip into the void back in 1989, though I’m sure, too, that Mom would have felt its call irresistible. I consider that scattering her ashes on the canyon’s floor could be a kind of completion, a journey she surely contemplated and never took. I stare down the icy, harrowing paths and think about what Mom would have wanted. I listen for her voice but hear nothing. She’s already gone.

The waning sun keeps me moving. Each map I pass along the way says, “You are here.” I make it to Mojave Point in time to witness the sunset soften the unforgiving landscape, a blanket of color so spectacular as to make the teeth-chattering chill of the coming dark well worth it. As the light fades, the sky is illuminated in pastel pinks and blues, and it’s impossible not to think of the colors of the trans flag, and then of my trans body, natural and ancient as nature itself.

THE NEXT MORNING, I wake exhausted. I hiked seven miles yesterday, and I feel my age. I boil three eggs for later, bandage my blistered toes and — because I am thinking about bodies and how we lose them — call my doctor to make an appointment I’ve been dreading, a follow-up about an abnormal test result. At my last physical, I’d asked him about trans men and testosterone, and was concerned to discover he knew little more than my initial doctor did 11 years ago. I worry about my future these days, which is new. Transition saved my life, but only now do I realize that I’m entitled to more.

Mom was, too. She came of age in a world not ready for her: the daughter of a mechanic too proud to submit the financial paperwork she needed to claim the scholarship she was offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By the time we’d landed in Arizona, she’d made it, and I remember not the facts but the feeling of those halcyon days before she discovered that my stepfather was abusing me. It was a truth from which she never recovered — and, I realize now, was how I began to lose her. Because, though I never blamed her, my mother could not, for the rest of her life, stop blaming herself.

I load up my pack, placing the talcum powder bottles at its bottom. The Grand Canyon’s enormity is difficult to convey. It is 277 miles long, and 18 miles from rim to rim at its widest point. The chasm’s greatest depth is more than a mile. All of the planet’s 7.9 billion inhabitants could fit into the canyon with room to spare, as noted by the educator Michael Stevens on his YouTube channel Vsauce — the shocking expanse of the space is hard to define without resorting to such experiments in logic.

In his 1958 book about the Grand Canyon, the literary critic and conservationist Joseph Wood Krutch warns that our initial reaction to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World is that it “seems too strange to be real.” Because we have little to which to compare the canyon with, he theorizes, “it stuns the eye but cannot really hold the attention,” appearing “like a scale model or an optical illusion.” We observe, but don’t register, the sight and, “because we cannot relate ourselves to it, we remain outside.” He continues:

After a few days well but quietly spent, one begins to lose the sense of unreality and to come to terms with a scale of magnitude and of distance, which could not at first be taken in. And it is only then that the spectacle, even as mere spectacle, makes its full impression or that one begins to have some dim sense of what the geologists mean when they talk of the millions of years during which the canyon was cut and of the billions during which the rocks were prepared for the cutting. The canyon requires what we call in the lingo of our day a “double take.” 

A dinette table with freshly baked cinnamon rolls for breakfast evokes McBee’s mother and his fading memory of her. On the carpet is a postcard from Sedona, Ariz.Credit…Photograph by Melody Melamed. Set design by Piers Hanmer. Projected image: Scott T. Smith/Getty Images

I SETTLE ON the Bright Angel Trail — the name speaks to me, but it’s also the most well maintained of all the South Rim hikes, and therefore best in the icy conditions that linger after the recent winter storm. Before I leave, I watch a YouTube video by a death doula about how to properly scatter ashes (away from the wind, with a utensil or your hands, in big arcing motions). I imagine touching Mom’s bones barehanded and shiver; I grab a serving spoon from the kitchen of my Airbnb and throw it into my pack.

The ranger at the park entrance, a man about my age, warns me that I’d be better off with poles — he did that trail yesterday, and it was slippery going in. But, he adds, “if you’re in good shape, you should be all right.” This tentative permission liberates me.

It’s bright and sunny when I arrive at the trailhead. The canyon is easier to perceive today — still breathtaking but more accessible in its antiquity. There are few tourists — a group of young men emerge from the trail, faces red with sunburn and exertion. I see an elderly woman in a wheelchair and her younger companion staring over the rim in amiable silence. Two young women, perhaps a couple, zip up their packs and set off energetically ahead of me. One is immediately forced to crab-walk downhill, and nearly slips into the canyon below. I take a deep breath and follow them in.

Every step down the path, used for centuries by Indigenous travelers, then by prospectors and explorers with pack animals strapped with supplies and now by tourists and mule drivers, feels dangerous, an awesome reminder that risk is only meaningful in its proximity to loss. I am struck by the park’s troubled history, the stolen tribal land, the many mines built here at the end of the 19th century, including one that was operational as recently as 1969. (Uranium mines are still active in areas not far from the canyon; a bill that would permanently ban new uranium mining claims on public lands in the region is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate.) I descend, passing through tunnels of rock and around rugged trees, barely able to take in the shifting perspective and changing light. I consider turning back just as a young man rushes past me without poles or microspikes, performing a masculine type of peacocking that’s more familiar to me than I’d like to admit, nearly colliding with a pack of mules. Spooked, they rush backward, almost falling into the abyss. Their driver chastises the man: “Stay on the trail! You’re gonna get yourself killed!” I stand to the side while the mules, tied together and loaded down with supplies, plod by me. “Crazy,” says the mule driver. I nod in agreement as he passes, and he tips his hat to me in thanks.

At the 1.5-mile rest house, I eat my hard-boiled eggs and protein bar, surveying the red rock of the inner canyon, spotted with plants and snow. There is no one else around. I am alone in the earth’s belly. I remember to look up. The sky is a cold, cloudless blue.

Perhaps here is as good a place as any. I remove the bottles from my pack. But as I uncap them, I feel woozy. Call it intuition, or maybe something a little more spectral, but I know in my body that this isn’t right. I am certain my mom never set foot inside this canyon. She does not belong here. This silent moment belongs only to me.

So I turn back. The ascent is steep and slow going. I watch birds land on rocks whose ages I cannot fathom. I pass trees more resilient than my body will ever be and think about adaptation and trauma and how trans people are native to this moment, to history, to the ground I walk, to time itself. I think about the land. I think about my unrecognizable body, about the fear in my mom’s eyes before she died. I think about how the mind creates a narrative for what it sees, about the stories I tell myself, about the man I am, my mother’s son, whether she knew it in the end or not. I veer off path a few feet to touch the walls of the canyon, and my palms tingle with their energy, sparky and alive. Or maybe I just feel my own life reflected back to me. It strikes me that both can be true. I am here, alive in this moment, both inconsequential and tremendous.

I climb out of the mouth of the canyon, relieved and exhausted. At the bench near the trailhead, I pull off my spikes. Why didn’t I leave her here, as I had planned? If the lake seemed too small-scale, the canyon is the opposite — too massive, almost impersonal. Here, she would be dwarfed by its splendor for all eternity. And that isn’t all. It just feels wrong — and it is, as I will discover later that night when I look up the park’s policy on scattering remains and find that the practice has been permanently suspended at the request of the local Indigenous tribes who find it disrespectful.

“My body is layered,” McBee writes, “my past selves a foundation my whole life is built on.”Credit…Photograph by Melody Melamed. Set design by Piers Hanmer. Projected image: Mariusz Prusaczyk/Alamy

A young man in shorts, a Patagonia hat and a giant hiking pack plops down beside me. “You hike in there, bro?” he asks with a toothy grin. I nod. He lights an illicit cigarette. “Gnarly ice, right? I skated a bit,” he adds. He is just another guy out here alone, seeking connection. I am not passing any more than he is when I turn toward him and say, “I felt like I had the whole canyon to myself.”

We sit side by side, quiet, as he smokes. I am aware that I am alone and never really alone. Maybe he is thinking the same thing. When he stubs out his butt, he says, “Take care, bro.” He reaches out to give me a high five and — though I feel lost and not a little defeated from the exertion of covering so much ground with nothing to show for it — I don’t hesitate: I lift up my hand and meet his palm with my own.

MY FINAL MORNING, I wake up electrified by a new idea. I’d hoped to return to the park to hike the South Kaibab Trail, but now I know I cannot leave my mother’s ashes on sacred land, just as I cannot bear to put her back in a plastic box. Instead, I drive an hour southeast to Sedona, home to New Agey stores, energy vortexes and red-rock hiking.

At a roadside crystal shop, I meet with an aura reader who tells me my “male and female sides” are the most balanced she’s ever seen. I feel it again, that sense of passing and then transcending passing — and, since I know that being seen is a choice, I take a risk and tell her what I’m here to do. Does she have any ideas about where I can scatter my mom’s ashes?

She closes her eyes, telling me to close mine, too. After a moment, she asks: “Your mom liked views, right? Perspective?” That word — Mom’s endless refrain — shivers through me. Later, when I call up the babysitter who accompanied us on that first trip, a woman I’d not spoken to since I was 10 years old — who knew me in another body, and yet this same body — she will tell me that we had, in fact, stopped in Sedona. Mom had loved it there, she will say.

The body remembers, even when the mind does not. When the aura reader suggests the Airport Mesa hiking loop, also known as Table Top Mountain, I don’t hesitate. I’m to look for the trees with knotted roots. They’re a sign of being near a vortex, the reader says, powerful places where the earth’s energy swirls like a tornado. Sedona, like Cairo and Stonehenge, is known for them. People describe feeling a sense of peace, goose bumps, tingling — even toothaches. She tells me to listen to my intuition, my “feminine side.” I’ll know what to do. “You’re well balanced,” she reminds me. Am I ever.

I arrive near sunset and climb a rocky trail with extraordinary views of the red rocks and desert below. There is a warmth to this place, a feeling of expanse and joy, a sensation of shedding skin. I’m mostly alone and, as I walk along the side of the mountain, I breathe. The air is soft on my face, the wind grazes my arms. I make my way to a juniper tree. “You only live twice,” I think.

I pour the ash into my hands. The bone is cool. I no longer feel squeamish as I throw big palmfuls of the ashes around the tree, until the branches and roots are white with them, until they’re lodged deep into the crevices of my knuckles and nail beds, painting my hands chalky white. For an hour, I sit and look out over the landscape until I feel ready to leave.

I think about what led me to this place — my intuition, a pure and felt sense of history that defies the neat, backward-looking narrative of linear memory. My instincts animated by the lives I’ve lived, all still present, all still within me.

As I drive back through the forest, heading north in the gathering dark, I brake for a doe standing in the middle of a mountain road. I breathe hard as she stares at me peacefully, then bounds back off into the red rocks. It hits me: My body, this miracle, had remembered. As I throw the car into gear, I notice that my hands are no longer white. The ashes have disappeared, as if they were never there. My mother was here, and now she is gone — absorbed into my body, this body she knew even if she could not remember, this body she gave me, this body I gave myself, this body that will also return to the earth in its own perfect time.

Set design by Piers Hanmer. Photo assistants: Xavier Muñiz, TK Kim. Set assistants: Neda Mouzayanni, Joseph Bell, Louis Sarowsky. Production assistant: Ryan Riley