Days 38-40: The Grand Canyon
Thursday, July 21-Saturday, July 23
Vegas is history and we are en route to the Grand Canyon. I can’t help thinking of the alpha and omega idea again. The U.S. is a country of extremes. Going from dark, endless rooms with people crouched around gaming tables or mindlessly pushing buttons on slots to perhaps the most sublime setting on the planet Earth—and all within a matter of a few hours by car—where else does something like this happen?
The normal four-hour trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon takes us close to six hours since our trusty Google Maps steers us toward the South Rim. By the time I figure this out, we are well beyond Hoover Dam. But, hey, how can you understand the Real America without driving across Hoover Dam—going and coming in our case? It is a bit disconcerting to see Lake Meade at 37% capacity, another reminder that water is a finite and limited resource, which we are using up very fast. Maybe the rains one day will return and all will be well, but you can’t help thinking that at least in the West, supply and demand are frighteningly out of balance.
Once we get our directions right,we head back through Las Vegas, and take I-15 north. We find ourselves once again in a desert with only minimal glimpses of evidence that humans or animals ever lived here. This is perhaps the big story of the Road Trip—just how far you can go in the West in what can only be described as a vast, arid, vacant wilderness of sand, sage and towering peaks. My guess is the landscape we are witnessing is not that different from what the pioneers saw in the mid 19th Century. However, I do not believe their covered wagons had air conditioning or were able to whiz along at 80 miles an hour. One might conclude that we Americans have gotten pretty soft with all the comforts we enjoy, which we now call necessities. Maybe the awareness of our softness is behind the ultra marathons like the one after we departed Death Valley or the 180 mile event that will happen in the Grand Canyon this fall with runners responsible for carrying their own gear, food and water. I am certain that it is one of motivations of the Serious Hikers. We realize that with all the modern creature comforts, we somehow have lost something—our primeval connection with the land, the sky, and Earth itself–and yearn to restore this lost connection.
I am not sure the early pioneers would necessarily agree with this perhaps overly romantic notion, but do believe the Native Americans they displaced surely would.
The drive to the Grand Canyon takes us through Nevada, then the south tip of Utah and finally into Arizona. Talk about extremes. In Nevada, brothels are advertised alongside gas prices, booze is sold at every grocery store and drug store, and guys walk around with pistols in holsters. In Utah, if you can find an alcoholic beverage to quench your thirst, you will be limited by law to less than one ounce per drink. We are indeed a vast and diverse nation.
The Utah part of the ride is especially beautiful and spectacular as we travel through several deep canyons with red rocks before starting our long climb to the high plateau. Just as it was when we drove through southern Arizona on the way out, when you reach an elevation of around 6,000 feet, Ponderosa Pines start springing up everywhere, and the higher you climb the taller they get. By the time we reach the gate to the Grand Canyon at an 8,100 foot elevation, they are huge—some reaching close to 200 feet—and the gray sand and sage of the valley has been replaced by lush, green forests and golden meadows. The landscape is much like that of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite but with deeper greens and no mountain peeks visible.
It is now twilight as we make our way to the North Rim Lodge. During the entire ride up the plateau, we have seen only a handful of cars, and now we see a convoy of lights coming toward us. Could a massive evacuation of some sort be underway? As the lights get closer, we see they are huge tanker trucks and count over 30 before they start to thin out. Then we start to smell smoke and look up to see a smoky haze in the evening sky turn a bright orange. This is happening long after the sun has set.
The forest fire started on June 29, almost a month ago, caused by a lightening strike. We learn when we check in that it was thought to be under control until about 10 days ago when the winds picked up, creating a huge furnace effect, which now has consumed over 14,000 acres, with some 600 fire fighters trying desperately to contain it. It is anyone’s idea as to what will eventually happen though the lodge and camping area do not seem to be in imminent danger since the fire is still miles away, and because of a southerly wind is heading north, away from the settlements in the park. The impact on tourists is that a large of the park is now off limits to visitors, and most major trails are closed.
The ranger at the front desk tells us that forest fires are not that unusual and are a natural part of nature’s renewing process. They usually burn themselves out and would not be the menace they are were it not for the danger to humans.
Since it is pitch black when we check in the lodge, our first view of Grand Canyon will have to wait for tomorrow morning.
This is my third trip to the North Rim, Embry’s first. I am always astounded. You really don’t get your first glimpse of the canyon until you walk through the lodge lobby onto the large outdoor patio, and there it is. As far as you can see, there are colors of bleached white, gray, beige and red. What really gives the Grand Canyon its character is its relationship with the sun. The sun’s angle casts deep shadows into the depths and brings out the deep red and brown colors. Because the light of the sun is constantly on the move, the canyon is never the same. The shadows are moving. The colors are changing; and from one moment to the next you are looking at a different landscape—subtle but always in transition. The most beautiful times are early in the day and late in the day when the shadows are longest and the colors the brightest, but it is stunning all of the time. Judging by the number of people at or near our age who find a chair on the patio and seem to remain in it all day, almost as if in a trance, I surmise that the Grand Canyon’s mystical power is as strong as ever. It certainly is with me.
The only thing that detracts from this sublime and peaceful setting are the fearless people—mainly 20 and 30-somethings–who feel compelled to walk a few hundred feet down to one of the overlooks and then climb up a rock with thousand foot cliffs on each side and take a selfie with their iPhone. One false move and it is over. Better yet, give your camera to a friend and ask her to take a photo of you extending your arms in an embrace of all that is beautiful around you and shouting a primal scream. Oh, to be young again!
The two days here are well spent. We pass the time in our own trance, walk an easy 2.5 miles around the rim loop trail, take in a few ranger talks, eat in the elegant lodge dining room (great views and ambience, excellent service, mediocre food) and get some needed rest. The second afternoon Embry takes one of the Serious Hiker trails down toward the canyon for a strenuous 1.5 mile hike.
One of the things that makes this place special is how few people are here. That is because it is so far removed from civilization that day trips are out of the question, and the lodge has only about 250 rooms and a few hundred campsites. Even on a popular, easy trail like the Rim Trail, you pretty much have it to yourselves. Something like five million people visit the park every year, the second highest number in the national park system. Over 98% go to the South Rim, 20 miles away by the way the raven flies, on the other side of the canyon. The North Rim is a rare gem in the national park system.
This is our fourth national park so far on the Road Trip, and the accommodations are without question the most basic. The cabins are a small step above the tents in Yosemite ( a tad larger and they do have their own bathrooms, no small achievement). My guess this is by design—an effort to keep the lodge as close to its original concept as possible. There are no swimming pools, no luxury options like in Death Valley, no Wi-Fi, very limited cell phone connections, and nothing anywhere resembling a television set. The lack of communication with the outside world turns out to be a blessing during our stay here because we miss the last three days of the Republican Convention.
Tomorrow we set out for Zion.