The Grand Finale

My very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon was squinting through the lens of my red plastic Viewmaster. I was seven or eight years old and highly impressionable. I have Viewmaster to thank for planting the early seeds of my travel bug.  Each Viewmaster came with themed reels; Wild Animals, Seven Wonders of the World, etc. You popped in a reel, peered in through the lens and with a flick of the wrist, presto – a 3-D image would appear. My memory puts the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Pyramids on the same reel, which I don’t think is correct, but I do remember being enthralled at the image of the Grand Canyon and finding out everything I could about it. My dream was to one day ride a mule down to the bottom of the canyon.  All these years later, we are here and nothing prepares you for seeing The Grand Canyon on the big screen. It is overwhelming.

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Both Stephen and I had imagined the Grand Canyon to be somehow smaller and more contained, I don’t know why. The Colorado River runs through it for 217 miles. The canyon is one mile deep and 10 miles wide, and because so much of it is visible from the 14-mile Rim trail, you get a tremendous sense of its scope. We met one gentleman who has been coming to the Grand Canyon for over 20 years; each year brings him a fresh perspective and a different adventure.

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I appreciated this apt quote printed on one of the interpretive boards: “No language can fully describe, no artist paint the beauty, grandeur, immensity and sublimity of this most wonderful production of nature’s great architect.” C.O. Hall, Grand Canyon visitor, 1895

Once again, Stephen’s perseverance paid off and we managed to grab a three-day cancellation at Mather Campground, right in the Park. It is a gorgeous campground, with loads of space and privacy and our very own resident elk population. We had been told that this is their birthing season, and if we were lucky we would witness a live elk birth.

When I asked where they might go to give birth, I was given a rather incredulous look. While I realize that wild animals do not have midwives, I thought they might seek out a bit of privacy and have favoured spots. However, we were also told we might see one of the magnificent California condors that have been brought back from near-extinction, but that is not likely, either.

Our closest wild animal connection so far (besides the elk) has been hearing coyotes howling a couple of nights ago.

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Back to the famous Grand Canyon mule rides I heard about in my youth. These days, you need to book months, if not a year, in advance and you have a choice – a one day or overnight trip. We passed fresh evidence that a mule train had already passed by on the way down on our hike and then these two cowboys appeared, leading more mules down to the bottom.

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We wondered what the difference was between a mule and a donkey and this sign explained it, as well as giving us a bit of a history of the use of mules in the canyon.

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So why the use of mules and not horses? According to a mule wrangler, “The difference between riding a mule and riding a horse is like the difference between riding a Cadillac and riding in a washing-machine. Mules are a whole lot smoother.” 

There are so many things about the Grand Canyon that will have to wait for another trip. Mule ride, Rim-to-Rim hike, overnight hikes – these are all essential GC experiences that require a bit of planning, different gear, and I’ll be honest,  a higher level of fitness than I currently possess. Stephen is like a mountain goat – he can climb up steep inclines without pause; I’m huffing and puffing, with my heart pounding and legs cramping. I take breaks and work through it and eventually it gets easier, but there’s work to be done.

Still, there are plenty of day-trippers in the Grand Canyon, and if a few hours is all the time you have, you can begin by visiting the Desert View Watchtower on the eastern edge of the park. This was designed by famous architect Mary Colter, as well as a number of other buildings within the park. She chose to build it “in the Indian spirit”, based on many examples of Indian architecture she had admired. It is possible to walk up to the top for a better view of the canyon.

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Our very first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. It choked us up.

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There are dozens of hikes within the Park – from easy 2-3 hour hikes to very strenuous multi-day hikes. However the 14-mile Rim hike, which follows right along the top of the canyon, and is quite flat and fully paved, is where every tourist sooner or later ends up. It is a linear hike, but can be done in segments and there is no such thing as a bad view.
We were on the South Rim, by the way, which is by far the busiest part of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim does not open until May.

Although we were there on Easter weekend, it was not nearly as crazy as we had feared. It was busy,  but bearable, although at times we had to wait for a space to clear to snap a photo, as cameras were in overdrive, capturing their loved ones from every imaginable angle.  My favourite.

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My second favourite.

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Every year people fall to their death at the Grand Canyon and sadly sometimes it is because they have taken a foolish risk to capture that Instagram-able moment.

These three young people were much closer to the edge before I snapped this shot. One of them had been sitting with her legs dangling over the side, looking backward for a photo. It took my breath away.

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But these two young women actually drew a horrified crowd. We watched while they posed and stretched backwards, just inches from the edge; clinging to one another like death-defying contortionists.
Are they “influencers” – that strange new breed of media stars who must always seek a better photo, a bigger thrill?

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We took one  three-hour hike down into the canyon, but not before reading the stern warnings about the potential hazards, especially between May and September, when canyon temperatures reach the 100’s.

Many hikers have to be rescued and every year there are fatalities related to heat and/or dehydration. Hikers are either poorly prepared, run out of water or underestimate the power of the intense sun and heat. Each year over 600 assists are required in the Canyon and over 150 helicopter rescues take place.

At a number of strategic locations, there are free water filling stations; a much-appreciated service, even for casual walkers.

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We chose the popular Bright Angel Trailhead; it offers several hikes and we went for one that lasted about  three hours.

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We descended about 1200 feet, which is a whole lot easier going down. However, we met up with a mother and son, who were concluding their 2-day, overnight hike from the south. They had camped in the rustic campground below and rose at 4:00 am to make their final hike back up. They were tired and hungry and looking forward to ice-cream!

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The trail is narrow in spots, but very well-graded and easy to walk. It was still early in the day when we hiked down, so most people we ran into were in quite cheery moods.

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Stephen, still cheery.
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Our little beacon on the trail – called Resthouse 1.5 – restrooms, a bit of shade and time to contemplate the long hike back – uphill.

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A view from another part of the Rim
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And…another view

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It’s not all about the hiking – there is quite a rich history here. The Village of Grand Canyon has about 1500 residents, swelling to 3000 in the summer. They are all park employees, and their work revolves around the various lodges, restaurants, gift shops, services and amenities that the village and the visitor centre and the market offer.

Most of the original buildings are intact and well maintained, such as the Mary Colter-designed El Tovar hotel:

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The Kolb Studio was the photography studio of the quirky and daring Kolb brothers, who began working in 1904 and became famous for their photos of visitors on mule rides.

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They were avid outdoorsmen and went to great (some said foolish) lengths to capture a shot.

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When trains began arriving in the Grand Canyon, they brought the first intrepid tourists and once the depot opened in 1910, a community began to develop.

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Train travel was very popular until the road from Williams was paved and tourists chose to travel by automobile. This depot closed in 1968, and only resumed again in 1989 when a clever marketer devised a package using a vintage train that included singing cowboys a Wild West shootout in Williams and a mock train robbery. Trains run twice daily and take two and a half hours, combining breathtaking scenery and corny, fun entertainment.

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The Grand Canyon was so much more than we had hoped for.  We only scratched the surface of what there is to do and see here, so it has been added to our “Must-return” list.

We waited this long to see it, which is less than a blink in its geological timeframe. This is an example of one of the oldest rocks in this area.

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From the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas – we are letting ourselves down gently! We will be back in British Columbia in about a week.

“Standin’ on the Corner”

Everyone’s heard the lyrics – this monster hit song co-written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey and released on The Eagles’ debut album in 1973. It put  the whistle-stop town of Winslow Arizona on the map and has created huge business for merchandise with T-shirts, keychains, posters and hats bearing “Take it Easy”, “Standin’ on the Corner” and “Route 66” imprints.

The backstory of this song is intriguing. Jackson Browne’s car broke down in Winslow and as he was waiting to get back on the road, he noticed a number of attractive young women driving pick-up trucks – a Western phenomenon he found “damn sexy.”  It inspired a song, but he wrestled with the lyrics and just couldn’t find what he was trying to say. His friend Glenn Frey took a run at it and added the critical lines,” it’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me. ”  Bingo. Browne loved the lyrics and “Take it Easy” was born.

Forty-six years later, tourists line up to pose for photos beside the statue commemorating Jackson Browne’s fortuitous stop in Winslow. It would appear from the second-floor mural that the girl in the flat-bed truck did more than slow down.

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The main street of Winslow is the old Route 66 – The Mother Road.

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Like many American Main Streets – there is a look, and definitely worth slowing down for.

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For some reason, this sign just struck me as being absurd – “The Good Job” award.  Not “Great“, not “Best of”  – just “Good.” Is this the Winslow Historic Preservation Commission’s  version of a kindergarten participation award? (“They coloured within the lines”.)

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There are Remembrance Gardens all over the United States – pieces of metal beams from the wreckage of the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 have been donated to create permanent memorials. The one in Winslow is especially poignant as it also flies the flag that was at the Pentagon before the attacks.

We all remember where we were that day and it is wrenching to touch these beams and wonder what part of what tower they came from.

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It is also wrenching to read the hopeful words “we will  not fear terrorism” and understand how far away the United States is from realizing that hopeful goal.  Rising white supremacy, racism, hate crimes, anti-Muslim rhetoric, ramped-up border tensions – they all point to a country who is more fearful than ever – it is still looking over its shoulder.

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Winslow is a major railway centre – we have heard that up to 100 trains go through in a day; Amtrak still runs two passenger trains a day. The train whistle is such an evocative sound; we enjoyed listening to the rumble of the trains from our campground just a few miles away.

The Santa Fe Railway was the cornerstone of travel in the Southwest until 1996, when they ceased operation.

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During those years, a number of fine hotels sprang up on the route – the brainchild of Fred Harvey – who wanted to provide travellers with decent food and accommodation.

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Renowned American architect Mary Colter designed both the Winslow train station and   the signature Fred Harvey hotel – the famed La Posada – the finest hotel on Route 66. Everyone from John Wayne to Dorothy Lamour to Albert Einstein stayed there.

Fred Harvey was fussy about keeping high standards for his hotels and when he became exasperated with the male waitstaff, who often brawled and boozed and came to work hung-over, he fired them all and decided to hire women – unheard of at that time. He put out ads for “women of high character“, and offered room, board, a decent wage and “liberal tips.” This was a clarion call for adventurous (yet respectable) young women and Fred Harvey’s staffing challenges were over. The “Harvey Girls“, as they were affectionately known, were well trained and disciplined. Fred Harvey and his “Harvey Girls” were credited with civilizing the West.

Winslow was on the map for bigger and better things until Route 66 was bypassed and the town abandoned.  La Posada sat empty for years and then became offices until the railway decided to tear the building down. Entrepreneurs Allan Affeldt and his wife Tina Mion rescued the building in 1997 and took years to restore it and bring it well beyond its former glory.

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Tina Mion is an internationally-acclaimed artist. She painted this image of her dear friends, Ruby McHood, (on the left offering tea and wearing the Harvey Girls uniform), and Dorothy Hunt on the right. They are two of the original Harvey Girls.  Wouldn’t you love to have tea with them and listen to their stories?

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La Posada is a delight to visit – we planned to drop by for 15 minutes and stayed for two hours. The hotel halls are hung with Tina’s paintings – most of them portraits of such depth of feeling that you can’t look away. I love paintings that  create ambiguity and confusion and are open to interpretation.  We actually bumped into Tina as she was walking her poodle up the stairs of the hotel. She stopped to talk and was quite modest about her incredible talent.

Here are just a few of her paintings:

This one, entitled “My Mother’s Wedding”.

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Tina calls this painting “Two Stars“. I see two women who are angry at one another. They may be friends or sisters, but there is intimacy and rivalry and long-standing feuds.

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Tina did a series on First Ladies (she got as far as Hillary Clinton). Each portrait was  brilliant – capturing Rosalynn Carter’s watchful side-eye to Jimmy’s open grin; Nancy Reagan’s openly adoring gaze to her Ronnie, and this ( showcased at the Smithsonian): Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. Such an eloquent expression of shock in those eyes, it takes your breath away.

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In 2000, Tina  painted Hillary Clinton in a fishbowl, circled by sharks. She felt Hillary was unfairly attacked for everything from her hair to her pantsuits to her ambitions. “It seemed to me the story of this woman, who lived her life in a fishbowl, was far from over.”

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We didn’t head to Winslow so we could “stand on the corner” – it was a strategic location to allow us to camp for a few days and use the area as a base for a couple of day trips.  Winslow ended up being a pleasant surprise – lots of history and stories we hadn’t known anything about before our arrival.

At our last campground in Cornville we were plagued with Spring Break families. Most of them were okay – excited, kids tearing around on their bikes – good happy vacation noises. On our last night, we had three or four couples get together two doors over and yell – for hours. I put in ear plugs but kept waking up and finally at close to midnight, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I went out and asked them to please keep it down. They dialled it down a touch, but only enough to prove to themselves they weren’t total jerks and yet still loud enough to prove they weren’t going to be told.

In Winslow, we camped at Homolovi State Park, which is also the site of 14th century ruins of the Anasazi people (known today as the Hopi Indians).  Homolovi was the opposite of that campground in Cornville – people who love nature, who walk their dogs and stop to chat and are respectful of others. Homolovi is the campground we are always so happy to find – beautiful sunsets, train whistles, fragrant air through our open windows and even a good chance of seeing a rattlesnake.

We didn’t see a rattlesnake, but we did see remnants of the ancient village. It seems the rangers have been having a rough time with miscreant tourists for a long time.

We came upon this sign:

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The evidence of holes where treasure-seekers had been digging  before concentrated efforts were made to stop it.

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Signs are also posted asking visitors not to remove anything from the ground – pottery shards, petrified wood, etc. We came upon dozens of collections like this one – large rocks covered with pottery shards – horizontal inukshuks.

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I asked the ranger about these collections and he sighed, “Visitors are not supposed to do that – I have to go out every week and disperse the pottery.”

Petrified Forest National Park ( with Painted Desert within the park) was just an hour’s drive from our campground.  I was never that excited about the Petrified Forest – great hunks of very dense, colourful logs strewn about a desert landscape – not something I would have gone out of my way to see.

But here we were – armed with a map that guided us through the 28-mile drive from north to south, with umpteen stops long the way and numerous lookouts and short hikes to enhance the experience.

Our very first Painted Desert Overlook – multi layers of basalt and sandstone and limestone that is between 207 and 225 million years old.

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We hiked down this rather vertiginous path to the bottom of the canyon.

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Like walking on Mars – no signs of life at all.

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And we reached the Petrified Forest at the southern end of the park. After walking among the giant colourful quartz logs at a number of different stops, we had both a sense of wonder at the transformative process of millions of years, and a sense of “seen one, seen them all.” I have the same reaction to fossils and arrowheads after a while – my eyes glaze over.

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This piece of petrified wood is about a foot in diameter.

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This is the largest log in the park – Old Faithful.

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On our way out of the park, we drove by this old Studebaker – commemorating the days when Route 66 helped to shape this part of the country. It is in alignment with the telephone poles that roughly mark the grand old highway.  Just to the left is a ramp to Hwy. 40 – the new highway that bypassed so many small towns, like Winslow and left them to either wither away or find ways to revitalize.
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We’ve left Arizona for a bit – we’re up in Bluff, Utah now to hike a couple of their famous parks.  See you again in a few days.