Ahh, where to begin on this day? The man in the hotel elevator this morning with gin blossoms on his nose sadly failed at making small talk. Making jokes about your wife to another lady is always going to end awkwardly. We of the female species tend to stick together unless we’re vying for a certain specimen of the male species. They were returning from a weekend in the giant water drain, otherwise known as Las Vegas.
Successful trip to Safeway included slamming a bag of “crushed” ice onto the parking lot since it had apparently morphed into a stubborn block while in the freezer. This solicited amused looks from the locals, probably dreaming about the iced smoothie they were purchasing ingredients for. I unfortunately, did not bring my blender with me on this trip. I then proceeded to backtrack on Hwy 93 in search of a Wells Fargo I had spotted the evening before. Everything is cheaper with cash. Note to self: explore city streets thoroughly before committing to a highway that only has periodic “cross overs” for lost tourists. Granted I drove right to it after re-entering town the same way I had the previous night. Now being on historic Route 66 with a 2000 Subaru Outback should not warrant strangers talking to you about your car, if I were driving my Mom’s ’71 Plymouth Duster, it would. As the small world turns however, the man waiting for his wife at the ATM asked me what year my very dusty, bug spattered green machine was. Their other car was an ’02 model of mine.
The storied road is popular with Harleys, but I’ve found that any destination in the West, be it a swap meet or the big convention in North Dakota, is a perfect excuse to ride. I’ve been on a motorcycle, and I have to say that there is something attractive, romantic even, about riding in the open air. I passed up a photo-op in Hackberry where one such pod—what do you call a posse of Harley riders?—was posing in front of the General Store there.
The section I drove between Kingman and Seligman was scenic and mostly empty of other vehicles. I was surprised there wasn’t more traffic. It was a nice break from the rat race of Escalades on Interstate 40. For some reason I think that traveling solo negatively influences my tendency to make pit stops. I get into this zone of pushing on through with the anticipation of another opportunity for discovery (and photography) around the next corner. Although, looking through a lens alters your experience of a place. Just as observing the countryside from the back of a “Hog” is (mostly) limitless. and looking out a car windshield limiting.
The singular highlight along Route 66 besides the land itself were the Burma Shave signs. Some of the signs in a series were missing so filling in the blanks was a great way to pass the time. One stand out series I recall was, “Slow down Pa, sakes alive! Ma missed signs, four and five!” The majority of the signs were about speeding, like this one, or drunk driving. They aim to put the fun back in obeying the law!
I knew gas would be more expensive as I drew closer to Grand Canyon so I’m glad I stopped when it was $3.19 versus $3.43 in Tusayan. For comparison, it was $2.79 back in Kingman. I also expected this huge lineup at the GCNP entrance station, but it was no longer than entering Grand Teton on a weekend. I picked up my trailer key at Park Headquarters, met Betty, my supervisor and headed over to the Pinyon Park residence area. My living accommodation for the next eight weeks is a white single-wide trailer with a fake rock skirt. Very classy. A kitchen and dining area separates two bedroom and bath units on opposite ends of the structure. It’s way more posh than the mouse-ridden cabin I stayed in last summer. But while that was rustic and quaint, this is basic and well-worn. I must say that the kitchen counter-top is in better shape than the one in my apartment back home and is a novelty to cook on a gas range. I made it through most of my unpacking when a wave of exhaustion made up of a whirlwind end to the school-year, just having driven 1500 miles, and altitude caught up with me. I promptly abandoned sorting my socks and crashed on my new bed, dead to the world for an hour and twenty minutes. A barking dog awoke me, or was it…wait! I arrived and I haven’t even seen the canyon yet! I was glad for the kitchen items I did bring since the cupboards were basically bare on arrival. (Betty had warned me of this)
After an angel hair pasta dinner I ventured forth to the Bright Angel Lodge, trailhead, Kolb Studio, Lookout Studio and the Rim Trail. On my way I passed near the train depot and the mule corral. Trains? Mule rides? Is this Disneyland? No, in the National Park Service’s defense, they seek to accommodate one and all. Without the support of one and all these spectacular places would not have the degree of protection they do. Ironically, without the unfortunate amount of development and accessibility I am willing to place a bet that there would be less support for their protection. Educating the public is often a slow and painful process (I should know), but once armed with knowledge, the average citizen can cause an uproar when exploitation runs rampant—as was beginning to occur in the early history of white men encountering the canyon. I do believe in the democratic process. These Parks belong to all of us and none of us.
For you free market types there was plenty of commerce going on. I couldn’t walk 25 yards without being ushered into another gift shop. I paid my dues to the economy and added to my personal library: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey (I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, and now I can at the Shrine of the Ages; I am the Grand Canyon: The story of the Havasupai People, by Stephen Hirst; The Incredible Grand Canyon: Cliffhangers and Curiosities from America’s Greatest Canyon, by Scott Thybony; and Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, and Mystery, by Wayne Ranney.
I have to share this bit I just read in The Incredible Grand Canyon about a park naturalist identifying the pink rattler for the first time in 1929:
“He spotted a rattler with an unusual pink color suggesting it might be n unnamed variety. Being a highly trained professional, he grabbed it with his bare hand and hiked out. And by the way, that is how most people get bit.” (Side note—while browsing in the bookstore I also discovered that most people who get bit by rattlesnakes are male, ages 18-35, and intoxicated. I was somewhat relieved to discover this) “Back at his car, Eddie couldn’t find a box or sack to put the snake in, so he held it out the window with his left hand and steered with his right. Unable to shift, he rattled up the dirt road in low gear until he reached the ranger station. The snake proved to be the first specimen collected of a type found only in the Grand Canyon.” Amazing.
So what was it like? Seeing it for the first time? The usual adjectives come to mind: awe, solemnity, reverence. The wind seemed to mute itself and even the tourists spoke in hushed tones. The vastness of it causes you to blink once or twice, waiting for the brain to register and comprehend what you are really seeing. The real. There it is.
On my walk back to the single-wide a woman walking her black lab looked apologetically at me for her dog’s obnoxious barking. The dog was in awe. A cow and bull elk stood quietly in the pines. We surround them, and they surround us.
Jenny Gapp, has twenty years experience as a teacher librarian, four seasons as a seasonal state park ranger assistant, and two summers adventuring with National Parks in an official capacity.