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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Grand Canyon at last (a post almost as long as the Colorado River)


We were up and on the road before 8 on Friday the 21st, driving the 50 odd miles to the canyon on Rt. 64. Gas was $4.05 a gallon. Whew. We could feel the excitement mounting as we wended our way north. Somewhere around 10 miles out of Williams we crested a hill and thought we saw the North rim of the canyon. All the time, we were being watched over by the enormous, and still snow capped San Francisco Mountains to our east. I fell in love with these watching behemoths who dominate the landscape within 100 miles of Flagstaff. They reminded me of our own Peaks of Otter out in Bedford County, VA. Of course, the undulating landscape lifted us high enough and droped us low enough to make our ears pop and swell and we both experimented with ways of releasing the pressure. My favorite was to fake a yawn, BD's was to blow his nose – which, alas, had stopped up too – for he had caught a bit of a cold. Air travel and the change from swamp to desert climate had its effect.

We were soon in the Kaibob National Forest and as we rose higher towards the canyon the Ponderosa Pines took over. These trees are thicker at the base than either our native Rosemary pines or the ubiquitous Loblollies of the local tree farms. Their branches extend from the entire trunk, though they are short and curved. They seemed slightly taller than our trees, but in VA pines are farmed so they usually get logged by the time they're 40 years old. It may be that they'd grow taller if they weren't cut.

The air was crisp and fresh and that set the tone for the day. We parked at the visitor Center and walked straight out to the rim at Mather Point. It was a heart stopping moment and it brought a gasp and then tears from my eyes. That first view of the canyon is an indescribable experience, though I am going to try anyway. I just stood there, feeling the enormity hit me like a wave – my lungs sucking in the cool air – my whole body absorbing the bigness of the canyon. Stretching before me was a landscape of rocks and crevices, peaks and cracks and windows, paths and cliffs, overhangs and strange formations in colors of rusty red, cream, grey, black and tan. Because we arrived after sunrise we missed the vivid colors brought out by the slanting rays of the sun at the horizon, but anytime you glimpsed a portion of the canyon in shadow you could see how the colors would intensify and contrast each other. I didn't mind, though – because the canyon is more than colors. It is an adjective turned into a noun. Think of every descriptive word you've ever used to describe something huge and that is the Grand Canyon.


I stood a long time, clutching BD's arm and whispering to him “We did it! We did it! We're here!” I am sure I repeated that phrase a thousand times over the rest of this trip and I know he felt the same way because he always responded with the same wondering enthusiasm. After a while we walked down to the edge of the point, joining other tourists as we peeked over our first edge. A charming young family from Miami was snapping photos and they offered to take one of us. We returned the favor and chatted a little. They had 2 little boys, about 5 and 8 and the older proudly informed us that his younger brother was “From Virginia”. His mom explained that he was born in Charlottesville and I remembered how I always insisted my sister was a yankee because she'd been born in upstate NY. Some things don't change.
This family was typical of all the tourists we met, overheard, or even just saw. Friendly and completely in awe of the magnificent place they had the good fortune to be visiting. It was an amazing experience to realize I was feeling the same thing as the hundreds of strangers with which I was mingling. Every conversation I overheard echoed my own wonder at this marvel. It didn't matter if they were from here or abroad, everyone was kind, courteous and protective. Litter was virtually absent. In the 16 miles of rim trail we walked we saw only 2 pieces of litter and we picked them up to throw away at the next trash can.

A word here about the crowds. The guide books all advised that the crowdedness would be within a mile of the GC Village and they were right – the farther away you walked from either the visitor center or the GCV, the thinner the crowds. And yet – you were never more than a mile or two from a bus stop and yes, the paved road does come close to the walking paths at times, but I never once felt herded. In fact, none of the national parks we visited had a “Don't Touch” feeling about them. Of course there were signs that said you were not to remove bits of nature from the park but it was not oppressive or scolding. There was this sense of trust in humanity – in crowds of humanity – that made us feel welcome.

The path between the visitor center and GC Village is paved, making for easy walking. And for all the enormous vast grand vistas there are also small miracles to see as you stroll along. Out on the very edge of a rock, a tiny flowering plant would sprout, somehow, and bloom, in spite of the fierce canyon weather.

At the last jutting point between the visitor center and the village we came to a geology museum where we chatted with 2 park guides and an author who had written a book on how to safely climb down and out of the canyon. I meant to at least get the title, but I admit – I was still too giddy from the many incredible views I'd been absorbing, through eyes, skin, nose and lungs. Yes. You can see with your nose and your skin – when it's something that colossal, you need every part of your body to take it in. Later, after lunch we bumped into one of them walking up Angel Falls trail and he pointed out petroglyphs we would have otherwise missed.

It's hard to figure out how far you're walking along the trail because there are a hundred places where you'll stop and gawk and gasp and gaze and just experience the canyon. All I know is that I was hungry by the time we reached the Grand Canyon Village – where lodgings, mule rides, and restaurants cluster. Oh – and bathrooms! I was really really hungry and insisted on lunch. I could tell BD was feeling a little off. He wasn't very hungry and didn't really want to go indoors but I insisted. In spite of the crowds – and there were plenty of people about, we were seated right away, by a window, where we could watch people walk by, and I had the best meal of the trip! A simply heavenly smoked corn chowder and a half a pastrami sandwich big enough to feed a quarterback.

There are several really lovely places to stay in the GCV and I wished I'd gotten my courage up earlier so that I could have booked something. El Tovar would be my first pick, but Bright Angel Lodge was a close second. Alas, by the time I'd screwed my courage up to actually pick one, all the rooms in our budget range had been booked. In fact, by the time I'd wrapped my brain around the realization that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and yes I can pop for the pricy room, they had all been booked. I didn't realize it was National Park week or that it was the last week of off season travel in the GC. Ahh well. I am a newbie tourist and I'll know better another time.

 Another attraction at GCV was a demonstration of Navaho dancing. We came upon the dancers as they were getting ready and commented on their lovely costumes. They really were pretty, but alas, political correctness has it's tentacles  in everything and evidently the word “costume” among the tribes is taboo. Perhaps they have never heard the expression “native costume” used to describe ethnic dress and only assume that costume means Halloween. When the dancers came on stage the singer gave a rather lengthy lecture on never calling their regalia a costume but instead, tocall it an outfit. I'm glad I didn't pick up on the fact that he was aiming his scold at me and only realized it that night in my hotel room as I thought back over the day. Well. We shall never meet again and I certainly didn't mean to offend but I also think that, while language is important, if one is working with tourists, one should cut them a little slack.

And the dancing was very interesting and the singer told the myth (Hmmm. Is that a taboo word too?) of the eagle. There were once 4 monsters and the people fought them and finally defeated them. The eagle asked for his life and in return promised that he would swoop down to the people, gather up their prayers and then soar up to God to deliver them. A wonderful story and a very convincing dance.

GCV is also where you pick up the Bright Angel trail down into the canyon and yes! I did go down it. Not very far – but a few hundred feet.

These trails are folded with switchbacks and they have no railings along the edge. There are signs that say pedestrians must give way to mules, so you can believe I was glad we never encountered any. Walking west, we had the outside edge of the trail whenever passing anyone, but here I refused the courtesy and clung to the rock wall. I do have vertigo issues – not outrageous ones – but nonetheless, I get a slightly dizzy head walking along a precipice. I discovered very quickly that if I wanted to look out, or even down into the canyon, I had to stop walking, put my back to the rock face and take several deep breaths first. Otherwise, I mostly had to look at the path as I walked. I got through the stone doorway and down to the next jutting point before I had to turn back, but I'm proud to claim I went down into the canyon. It was here the friendly trail guide pointed out the petroglyphs, as we neared the rim of the canyon again.
That's an elk, I'm sure - look at those antlers

 Believe it - that trail looks a heck of a lot narrower when you're on it than it does in this photo! I'm about 100 feet below the top now and, though I'm smiling, I'm also scared. 

By mid-afternoon we continued walking west on the rim trial covering several more miles. At points along the way there are railings where you can step up close to the edge but there are also ledges where you can step out and feel the thrill of danger. Nobody was behaving recklessly, but you could see that some folk were absorbing the sensations of boundlessness that viewing the canyon without any railings offered. I found that as long as there were railings I never minded the sheer drops – and even, now and then, I could go out to a rock ledge. Just never too close to the edge. I liked a little shiver up and down my shins, but I had no desire to be terrified.

At each designated point along the trail a shuttle bus will pick you up and by the time we'd made it to Maricopa Point, I, at least, was ready to hop on. The buses show up every 15 minutes but we found them always crowded. Lots of people visit all the lookout points only by bus. Add to that the tired people who have trekked the paths, and there never did seem to be enough buses. That was, perhaps, the only think lacking in the Grand Canyon. I wonder if they have more of them during the high tourist season which begins today.

As for TheQueen, she was done for the day. We took the red bus back to GCV and the blue bus back to the visitor center and headed out of the park, down 64 to Valle where we picked up 180 that goes southeast through the San Francisco mountains and into Flagstaff. I'd booked a room at the Econo Lodge University because it was so cheap and got such good reviews on Expedia dot com. We weren't disappointed either. Though not a new motel, it was not decrepit. Rather, we got an enormous king size bed in a scrupulously clean room – good TV reception, coffee maker and, bless me, a hair drier! The one bad review this motel got was that it's pillows were “awful” and evidently they took heed, because our pillows were obviously new.

I can't even remember whether we ate dinner anyplace – I didn't make note of it if we did. I am sure I was just flat out exhausted. What I remember was that I slept like a baby, ready to head back for Day 2 at the canyon - which I will tell you about tomorrow. But if you want More Photos - visit me at Flicker dot com, and click on the set Grand Canyon 2011. ( Please leave a comment if the links don't work)

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