USA 4 – Grand Canyon

Saturday – we check out from Bally’s and collect our hire car – nothing fancy – a Chevy Cavalier with usual incomprehensible ding-dong noises and crazy “central locking system” that requires you to press an assortment of buttons. Have GM never heard of keys?

Never mind. It’s a fine cloudless day and we’re off to the Grand Canyon! First direction on US 93 towards Arizona. About half an hour out from Vegas we are in Boulder City and have a hill top view of the shimmering waters of giant Lake Mead. Surreal in a dry desert country. Soon after, we pass by the reason for this lake: the giant Hoover Dam, an engineering wonder built between 1931 and 1934. We’d like to stop and visit the museum, but we have no time, there are still many miles to the Canyon! Security at the dam is strict: no buses and trucks allowed at all, all cars and RVs have to pass a security check. Uncle Osama has not been caught and they’re evidently taking no chances.

US 93 continues into Arizona desert country. First we pass through barren brown mountains stretching away for miles on all sides. Then through a flat, featureless desert. The road is straight as an arrow for thirty miles or so, disappearing ahead into a mirage. This is the great American West, the landscape is huge and there are few signs of human habitation. The sky is equally huge, and the few clouds dotting it are a vivid part of the scene. How come we don’t notice it in our everyday life?

We get to Kingman, Arizona (“the heart of historic Route 66”), grab a coke and bagful of beef jerky, and join I-40, the main interstate heading east from L.A. The traffic is mainly the huge American trucks with number plates from all over the US: Maine, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee…. Incidentally, the speed limits are generous (75 mph on I-40, 65 on the state roads), and there are no snarling cops to be seen. The landscape changes again: no longer desert, but arid plains and barren hills, unlike any European scenery. Ever so slowly, the road rises: we pass 4,000 feet, then 5,000, mile after mile we climb onto a high plateau, studded with small conifers.

We leave I-40 at Williams, Arizona, a small frontier town, with Highway 64 heading directly North: its only destination, the Grand Canyon! Again, more miles of driving in high plateau country. This is the Kaibab National Forest. The few settlements we pass appear to be populated by Indians (Sorry! Not politically correct: they’re called Native Americans and now live in trailer homes, not in teepees). We pass the type of dusty gas stations you see in films: two pumps, signboards flapping in the wind, freezer chests with “ICE!” written on the side. Miles of nothing on both sides, the road points straight towards the only feature in this plain, a red rock butte.

We pass Tusayan, Arizona, and the Canyon is near: there are a few motels, a supermarket, a McDonalds, an airport with signs offering Canyon flights. Five hours and 280 miles from Vegas, we are there: the Grand Canyon National Park entrance. We pay the $ 20 entrance fee, and proceed onwards in a juniper and pinon pine forest. Can this be it? It’s not what I expected. I assumed we would be in some kind of mountain range! We proceed towards a newly built visitor center when a road sign indicates a view point: Mathers Point.
Grand Canyon Mathers Point.jpg

What I see takes my breath away: a huge gash in the Earth as though some giant had cut a zigzag separating the North Rim from the South Rim. In between, thousands of rock columns, amphitheatres, pyramids, walls, terraces, cliffs, crags and pinnacles, in hundreds of shades of red, yellow, ochre, grey. Far, far below, the blue water of the Colorado River can be seen. The North Rim is far away across from us, more than 16 km away, say the signs. What a sight! This is nature at its most majestic. What a difference from the tacky kitschiness of Vegas!

As we go (on foot) from one viewpoint to another, we begin to appreciate the subtle nuances in the rock layers, more than a dozen from rim to canyon floor – a geologist’s dream! As the afternoon wears on, the light changes, the shadows lenghten, and the whole view changes too. We are now at Hopi Point, and have a fantastic outlook on the sun setting down on the Kaibab plateau and of the reddening rocks of the Canyon walls. Soon, only the highest spires are bathed in the evening light, and as the sun finally sets, the full moon is rising on the opposite side. A chill wind sets in – we are at about 2,500 metres here! But soon the shuttle bus arrives and takes us to our lodge.
Grand canyon Hopi Point.jpg

Evening meal at Bright Angel Lodge – a southwest steak fajita with guacamole, refried beans and tortillas and an excellent “Fat Tire” Colorado ale. We retire tired but happy.

Sunday – we take the shuttle bus to the viewpoints we didn’t see yesterday – here I must admire the organisation of the US National Parks – with a regular free shuttle bus service they have eliminated the traffic of the hundreds of private vehicles, whilst providing access for all. The informative panels at each viewpoint and at the park center are exemplary. At every point we admire the Grand Canyon’s unique beauty and changing scenery. But at 11 we have to say goodbye, we must drive back to Vegas to catch the 5pm flight to Denver and thence to Minneapolis. The drive back retraces our previous day’s route, but it is not at all tiring, we just set the cruise control and enjoy the endless vistas.

As I write, I am brought back to earth after the wonderful Grand Canyon experience. Or rather, I am up in the sky – in a cramped centre seat in the DEN-MSP flight with nowt but a packet of peanuts and a coke to eat, and a 23:45 arrival time!

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