Surprise is a significant part of the pleasure of a road trip. The view revealed for a moment as you crest a rise or round a corner can be magical. But the great tourist sites of the world cannot be a surprise; one has seem them time and again long before one ever sets eyes on them.
May 15: Tuba City to Grand Canyon: Three times today a spectacular view was revealed as we traveled that made me say “Wow!” All of them were along Arizona Route 64 as we drove West from Tuba City. None were on seeing the Grand Canyon.
Coming down off the mesa outside Cuba city is as spectacular as all our other climbs and descents of mesas, with towering sandstone cliffs and fractured rock everywhere. But the real wows come later as the scenery becomes a smorgasbord of all the landscapes of Arizona—but on a reduced scale. The land is amazingly red, whether it be sand or exposed sandstone with stacked boulders and miniature mesas in profusion on both sides of the road. Then there is a section of miniature painted desert with variegated gravel piles all around. There are all the colors of the Arizona landscape, the reds, yellows, browns, greens, and blues, and it seems like every rise reveals a new variation, almost as if it had been designed as an Arizona sampler.
Heading South on US 87 to the park entrance the scene reverts to the typical Arizona yellow grass plain. Once you turn onto the road to the park you enter hills sparsely populated with low desert shrubs and begin to climb steeply. Curiously, as you climb the scenery gets greener and greener and the low desert trees get denser and taller until you are driving through a woodland of low trees with twisted rough grey limbs and sharp needles on flat evergreen fronds. This woodland surrounds the road all the way into the park and on to the Grand Canyon village, which is probably a good thing as it keeps drivers from gorping at the canyon when they should be looking at the road. To actually see the Canyon you have to drive into one of the overlooks and park.
As I have mentioned, I am not one for scenic overlooks. I like to move through a landscape. When you look at a landscape from one spot, it is a bit like looking at a photograph. You rely on secondary clues—blue-shift and haze—to establish depth and distance and fundamentally you are seeing one flat view. That said, the Grand Canyon is a very big hole in the ground. As in very very big. It is also rich in shape and color, though the colors are not as vivid as they are in the sandstone cliffs of the mesas we have just come from. But for all its size, first setting eyes on the Grand Canyon is not a wow moment for me, and I struggle to figure out why.
Partly it is that I could drive through the mesas and watch them unfold, which gave me a much greater sense of scale and a far greater intimacy with the landscape. But more fundamentally than this, they were full of surprises. The Grand Canyon may be massive on a scale few physical features can share, but it is not a surprise. No one gets to see it for the first time in the flesh. We have all seen it a hundred times in movies, on TV, in magazines, books, billboards, and websites. Some people say that nothing can prepare you for seeing it in person, and I was hoping that was true. But it is not. All the pictures I have seen prepared me pretty much exactly for seeing it in person. It was just as big, just as deep, just as wide, just as pretty as I had been prepared to expect. But not more so. I don’t think I was alone in this either. I did not see anyone around me stop and gasp in wonder at their first sight of it. Their concerns seemed to be mostly about finding the best selfie spots.
Anna, however, is much more enthusiastic about it than I am. She has spent the last two and a half weeks helping me navigate the nooks and crannies of Route 66, but the Grand Canyon has always been her main goal on this trip. So now I oblige her for all the car museums and other kitsch I dragged her through by driving from one overlook point to another until we finally reach the visitor center and store. There are people everywhere. We are in shoulder season. I shudder to think what it must be like in high season.
People do dumb things at the Grand Canyon. They take selfies on the edge of precipices. They climb over walls and railings put up to keep them safe. Each year several fall in and die, although not today. Someone must have the job of fishing dead idiots out of the Grand Canyon. I hope they are paid well.
And why do people bring their dogs to the Grand Canyon? Dogs don’t like scenery. If you want to give Fido a treat, take him to the canyon of dog biscuits and strange smells. The paths are crowded enough without your dog leash stretching across them.
Crowded places make me grumpy.
Maybe that is part of why I am underwhelmed by the Grand Canyon. It is not just that I miss the ability to move through the landscape, but that I am here obliged to be constantly paying attention to all the people (and dogs) around me. There is no opportunity for concentration or stillness or allowing the vastness or the loneliness of the scene to wash over you. You are navigating a crowd, hunting for a free spot along the rail, and, once you find one, conscious of the envious eyes boring holes in your back, willing you to move on and give them a chance to look. It is not an environment conducive to contemplation and awe.
Anna wants to walk along the rim trail. This seems like a good alternative to driving from viewpoint to viewpoint and a chance to move through the scenery rather than stare at it statically. But there are two problems with this. First, the rim trail isn’t on the rim. It is several yards back from the rim. This makes sense as the edge is not exactly regular or solid, But because this is a hole, not a mountain, all the scenic bits are downwards, below the rim. This means you can’t actually see much of the canyon while walking the rim trail. The trail really just connects a series of overlook points, which means we are back to a series of static postcard views. And, the Grand Canyon, being in the desert, does not have much motion going on within it, so the scene is unusually static, even for a viewpoint. I think the only way to see the canyon properly for me would be to hike into it or take one of the river rafting trips along the Colorado. But I would need to be half as old and twice as bold to attempt either of those. For the hiking thing I would also need a new set of lungs.
And that is the second problem. I don’t do well at altitude. Signs at the canyon warn that the 7000 foot altitude may affect some people. It affects me. Just walking up the path to the start of the rim trail, a fairly gentle incline, I have to slow to a crawl. Anna and I cannot walk comfortably at the same speed, so usually I go on ahead and periodically stop and wait for her to catch up. Now she is quicker than me. When we get to overlooks, which are below the level of the trail, I stay at the top while she goes down to look, so that I don’t have to climb up again. After a little while, I start to get faint and headachy and we are forced to turn back. I feel bad about cutting the walk short, but Anna says the altitude is getting to her too. We move on to the El Tovar hotel, our destination for the night. Cars are everywhere and I have to circle the parking lot until we spot a car pulling out. I block the road and claim the spot.
We then sit on the bar patio in the shade, drinking beer and eating chips and salsa. For me this is the best moment since we got to the canyon. Sometimes I think travel is just something you do to earn moments like this. Anna decides to go see the IMAX movie, leaving me alone to write this diary on the porch of the El Tovar. A shaded place to sit and write or read on a warm sunny day. I don’t need much more out of life than this. It is a curiosity, though, that on the day we visited the Grand Canyon, the best parts of my day are those before and after that visit.