Grand Canyon at dawn

The Grand Tour 19: Of Altitude, Fairy Tales, and Earrings

This entry is part 19 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

Seen in the right light, there is a fairytale quality to the Grand Canyon and to the forests that line the rim. But the forest path can sometimes lead to the witch’s cave — in our case, the US medical system. 

May 16: Grand Canyon to Flagstaff: I am usually an early riser and when we travel I usually end up reading in the dark for an hour before Anna wakes up. But last night she said, “wake me up early so we can see the Canyon at sunrise.” I did. She said, “I didn’t mean this early!” Nonetheless we saw the Grand Canyon at sunrise, in the chill of a desert morning, and watched the light creep over the rim and one by one reach the temples below.

Grand Canyon at dawn

This brings a good deal of animation to the canyon, which makes it more interesting than it is later in the day. Unfortunately there is smoke in the air from recent wildfires. You can’t see it normally, though you can taste it on the wind, but it adds to the haze of the air in the canyon and mutes the colors a bit. It doesn’t help my lungs either, which are already struggling with the thin air.

The Grand Canyon is actually a lot greyer than the popular pictures had led me to believe. The problem with photographing the best bits in the best light, and then juicing them up in Photoshop, is that the real thing looks less vibrant by comparison. While the spectacular bits are the sandstone cliffs, in their various shades of red, a lot of the canyon is actually gravel piles eroded from the cliffs above, and they are gray. Rather than the blazing glory of the popular photographs, the Canyon present some more muted, almost grim and spooky aspect, which is enhanced by the haze of smoke that hangs over it.

Grand Canyon grey rock

Structurally, it has the aspect of a giant maze. Because there are so many spires and islands of rock climbing upward within the canyon, it is impossible to get a sense of the actual structure of things on the ground. From your position on the rim, it looks like an uncoordinated, almost uncanny, jumble of cliffs and spires. The fractal order of its structure is clear from aerial photographs, but is practically inconceivable from the ground. It is like a fairy tale landscape, full of confusion, from which no prince or adventurer could hope to return without some charm or amulet. And it seems more so at sunrise than at any other hour.

Grand Canyon maze

To warm up, we have breakfast in the El Tovar dining room, which is sumptuous. (I can no longer remember if I meant “sumptuous” here to refer to the dining room or the breakfast. Possibly both.)

El Tovar

After breakfast, we take the shuttle to the western rim road. No private cars are allowed on this section, but there is a shuttle bus that makes multiple stops along the route and a parallel walking trail with multiple canyon views. Our original plan was to take the shuttle all the way out to Hermit’s Rest at the far end of the shuttle route and then start walking back along the trail, catching the bus back whenever we got tired. What we learned yesterday about my response to altitude and Anna’s response to the sun put the kibosh on that plan. Instead, we picked the two shortest walking segments .5 and .3 of a mile respectively and walked those.

The first of these, the .5 mile trail between Maricopa Point and Powell Point, winds through the low woodland that covers a lot of the rim. It is a fascinating environment. The trees are low, gnarled, and incredibly twisted – a fairytale landscape once again. There is a lot of dead wood, some standing, some fallen. The fallen trees seem to have incredibly shallow root systems. I had expected that the roots would go deep in search of moisture, but perhaps their strategy is to go wide in the hopes of intercepting the rare precipitation that falls here before it all drains away.

Forest along rim of Grand Canyon

We also see a few clusters of small flat-leaved cactus. This is one of the very few encounters we have had with cactus. This seems odd, considering how long we have been traveling through deserts. But this is a desert of yellow grass and low shrubs not a desert of cactus.

Cactus on Grand Canyon rim

While this is a pine forest, a landscape feature for which I generally have little patience, it gets a pass from me on the no-pointy-tree rule. For one thing, the trees are twisty, not pointy. For another, this is open forest with virtually no undergrowth and none of the crowding brush that makes Eastern forests into an impenetrable wall of green. This is a forest you can see through and into as you move through it, a forest in three dimensions such as I have only seen before in mature deciduous forests who’s canopy’s have cut off light to the forest floor. Here, I suspect, the trees keep the floor clean by claiming all the water rather than by blocking out the light.

That said, it is a very still forest. Nothing seems to scurry across the forest floor. We see a few birds doing aerobatics over the canyon and once I glimpse a deer from a shuttle bus window, but, by and large, the forest is quiet and still (another touch of faerie). Even the wind does not move it, does not produce a sigh or a rustle of leaves. Everything is too dry and stiff to move in such light breezes as we have this morning.

We meet almost no one on this trail, a marked contrast to the endless river of humanity that is the Grand Canyon village and the overlook system.

The second trail, from Powel Point to Hopi Point, is less interesting—though I may be the only one in the park who think so—because it runs beside the Canyon.

Grand Canyon from Rim Trail

It is also gravel­—which is to say bare rock in many places, with irregular steps that slow us down. By the end of it, the altitude is getting to me and the sun is getting to Anna, so we decide to ride the shuttle out to Hermits Rest where lunch is available. This proves to be a disappointment. Food eaten outdoors after exertion is supposed to taste better than anything, so the ham sandwich, which was the best offering the highly limited snack bar menu could provide, should have had a big head start. Alas, it still disappointed.

We then headed back to the village on the shuttle and the real drama for the day. Anna was feeling that her right earring was very tight and wasn’t able to get the stud off. After struggling with it fruitlessly for a while, we decided to go to the park clinic. It was our first encounter with the US health care system and, given the stories we have heard, we approached it with some trepidation. As it turns out, though, we provided most of the morning’s entertainment for the clinic staff, who had no other patients. (Apparently no idiots had fallen into the Canyon yet that day.)

When we walked into the clinic we were warned that they were not able to process travel medical claims so if we wanted to be treated there, we would have to pay up front and make a claim to our travel insurance company afterwards. If we wanted the claim to be submitted direct to the insurer, we were told that we should drive to the emergency room in Flagstaff. That did not seem like a fun way to spend the rest of the day, so, with some trepidation, we decided to be treated at the clinic, hoping that the remaining credit limit on our Visa would be sufficient to cover a hefty US medical bill.

With two people doing paper work, three people selecting appropriate instruments, and a doctor and a male nurse performing a gold-stud-ectomy, visions of dollar bills flying out the window began to dance in my head. But when the stud was safely removed, and the infected earlobe was dressed, and the pharmacy in the next office of the same building had supplied us with several day’s supply of Polysporin and an antibiotic prescription, the grand total of the bill came to less than we had paid for dinner at El Tovar the previous night. I still don’t understand the US health care system, but it served us very well that day.

Yellow grass with mountain in the background

The road out of the park took us through the familiar low forest of the rim out into the typical Arizona yellow grass prairie with low shrubs and mesmerizingly straight roads. After we turned onto US 180 towards Flagstaff, the landscape changed as we got into the Coca Chino National Forest and the San Francisco peaks where we entered a tall pine forest—still quite sparse in the undergrowth and therefor more three-dimensional and more interesting. We got several good looks at local mountains along the route into Flagstaff.  Some good salads and a good bottle of Columbia Valley Riesling for supper.

And just like that, our visit to the Grand Canyon was done. I suppose one can approach a road trip as bouts of driving between attractions. But to me a road trip is about the road and the attractions are just milestones. The Grand Canyon was definitely a milestone, the first of what I think of as the trifecta of quintessential American tourist stops on this trip. But it is the road, always, the road, that draws me on.

Series Navigation << The Grand Tour 18: Amazing Scenery, and the Grand CanyonThe Grand Tour 20: Mannequins, Dinosaurs, and Fuzzy Stars >>
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