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Travel guide: turns out the slogan "Jesus is my copilot" is just a paraphrase of the Gospel of John.

THE FIRST TIME I SAW THE GRAND CANYON WAS IN THE middle of a blizzard. Fourteen inches of snow had fallen that day as the Hopi Tour bus snaked its way to the Bright Angel Lodge. Only two people were on board: the Hopi driver and me. The other two passengers who had traveled with us since Phoenix had thought better of pushing their luck and gotten off at Flagstaff. The snowstorm had all but eclipsed visibility by then. The driver, a kindly older man, asked me if I wanted to get off, too. "I'll be going up in the morning," he said consolingly. But I had no money in my thin wallet for a motel room. The driver then offered to take me to his home in Flagstaff--"My wife would take good care of you till morning," he promised--but now that I was this close, I was determined to see the canyon that very night.

Growing up back East, I'd had Grand Canyon dreams all my life. I'd seen the pictures in school textbooks of those impossibly blue skies and red, orange, and purple walls of soil and stone. I had seen the intimations of vastness that a two-dimensional photo can only hint at. I had heard that you had to spend at least two weeks at the canyon in order for it to "open up" for you. It takes the brain that long to gain perspective on such a vista. But I didn't have two weeks. I only had two days, and I didn't want to waste the first night still imagining the wonder that was so near.

"I'd like to keep going," I said timidly, "if that's OK." The driver grinned, bought us two cups of steaming coffee, and shared his wife's homemade snack cake with me on the empty bus. Then he climbed back into the front seat and we were Off.

"I've done this a hundred times in worse weather with my eyes closed," he said reassuringly. "Trust me." I did. I had to. Since it was just the two of us, we passed the time swapping stories. He told me what it was like to grow up on the Hopi reservation, and I talked about life in a coal-mining town back East. We arrived at the lodge well after dark as the flurry continued to cascade us with flakes as big as feathers. The bus driver, now my best friend in the state of Arizona, carried my bag inside and up to the front desk. "You're staying here in the lodge, aren't you?" he asked, as he stamped clumps of snow off his shoes. I shrugged uncertainly. I was a student with just enough money to cover the price of a bus ticket. The trip had been an impulsive one. At 22 I was young enough to presume something would work out on the other end.

THE FRONT DESK CLERK ANSWERED FOR ME. "WE'RE FULL up," she said. "Not another room available, not even at El Tovar. If you don't have reservations, there's nothing we can do for you." My driver friend could tell by a glance in my direction that I didn't have reservations. "Stick with me," he said. "I've got an idea." He leaned over the desk and asked for Mel. The clerk pointed to the far side of the lodge, and there, standing near a fireplace, was the closest thing to a real live cowboy I'd ever seen. The boots, the Stetson hat, the jacket, and the arrogant jaw were so made-to-order that I was tempted to laugh.

"Hey, Mel," my bus driver said. "I've got a situation."

"You always do," the cowboy drawled, as he stretched languidly and then moseyed over. My Hopi friend explained that the lodge was booked solid and I needed a place to sleep. Nobody said anything about how ignorant it was to arrive at the Grand Canyon without reservations. These two men were strangely free of judgment about my precarious circumstances, for which I was immensely grateful.

"Normally," the cowboy said at last, take you over to the priest. But I know for a fact he's full up over there, too. But I've got one more trick up my sleeve." He excused himself, sauntered over to a wall phone, and made a quick call. "Darlene can have you," he said with satisfaction when he returned. "In the employees' dorm. It ain't fancy, but it's warm and dry."

My bus driver winked at me. "See? Stick with me and things work out." By then I was convinced both he and the cowboy were angels sent by God to save me from my own recklessness. Since Darlene wouldn't get off work for another hour, I had time to go out through the lodge to catch my first glimpse of the canyon. The snow had stopped falling, and the sky was matted with constellations of stars, the kind of star-dense sky you never see above a town or city. The canyon itself was in front of me: black, vacant, still a mystery. But I knew it was out there, empty and waiting only for daylight, and I felt compelled to throw myself into the nearest snow bank to make an enthusiastic assortment of snow angels in an act of wordless thanksgiving.

STICK WITH ME, THE KINDLY NATIVE AMERICAN DRIVER HAD said. Trust me. And he had been as good as his word over the hours and miles of our acquaintance. That trust had gotten me all the way to the summit of a dream. It's not easy to put confidence in a stranger, especially when you have other options. As a young person with more nerve than money, the options had been sorely limited in those years. In the 25 years since, I've managed to acquire the credit cards and the pragmatism I lacked earlier. Yet it seems that as my foresight and options have improved, the commodity of trust has inversely diminished. Now that I don't have to trust, I prefer not to. Perhaps as a result I have made fewer snow angels in recent years.

Trust becomes a key factor in the Last Supper narrative in the Gospel of John, which is read during the Easter season. Stick with me, Jesus says--or "Remain in me," as it is rendered in more formal church-speak. Jesus is the friend to have along the way, particularly when we're on an uncertain journey to an unfamiliar destination, short on resources and long on risks.

Since human life can generally be described in those terms, Jesus remains a better bet than the American Express card, without which it is reputedly best not to leave home. Jesus can take us places where no credit card has gone before, where all mortal resources are in fact pretty useless.

But the older we get the harder it can be to place our confidence in things money can't buy. We want even less to entrust ourselves to the power of other people, even when we know them fairly well. The stranger Jesus remains to us, the more difficult it is to surrender ourselves into his safekeeping. We'd much rather have guaranteed reservations in heaven paid for by our every good deed and fulfilled religious obligation than to get on the "Jesus saves" bus and trust that his name is the only reference we need.

REMAIN IN JESUS? ISN'T IT ENOUGH TO REMAIN IN CHURCH, in the ballpark of the Ten Commandments, or within shouting distance of good behavior? None of those are bad things, certainly. I experience parish life as a great place to be challenged to grow in faith and love. I wouldn't advocate disobeying the Ten Commandments either, nor would I sneer at trying to be good. I want very much to be good. I would like to be thoughtful, generous, kind, and compassionate, too--or at least to be thought so by the people who know me. But alas, those who know me are aware of how often I fail to be any of those things. While I may not consciously choose to be bad, I rarely deliberately choose to be good. Even by hearsay, we all know Jesus well enough to know that no one was ever called to be a nominally practicing Catholic.

So we struggle, instead, to stick with Jesus rather than simply getting the religious profile right. We get back on the bus and hope for the best, knowing that when it comes to Jesus, the best is pretty darn good. He'll share his food with us, and he's a fine driver even when visibility is close to zero. There will be plenty of stories to share along the way. He'll get us where we're going, and he'll find room for us when we get there. He'll take us to the land of our dreams if we are willing to trust him. But it's all up to us, of course. We are welcome to get off the bus at any stop along the way. So why not go a little further, and see what may be up ahead?

ALICE CAMILLE, co-writer of the homily service Prepare the Word (True Quest Communications) and co-author of A Faith Interrupted (Loyola Press).
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Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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