“Experience the impact … <spwoosh> … on your wallet!!!”
In which the mooses make the long drive from the Canyon to Tucson, encountering along the way several benchmarks, nice Indians, a disappointment, a pleasant surprise, and hamburgers.
One of the most exciting, and one of the most saddening, aspects of a “whirlwind tour” such as this is moving to the next location after just getting a feel for the present one. I wake up thrilled each day by the adventures that are to come, but I still wonder what we are leaving behind, what else we might be able to discover if we stayed for just one more day. We will return, so I add these questions and desires to a mental list and prepare to leave the spectacular Canyon.
Five months now, since we began planning our trip in January, Rich had promised we’d eat “at least once” at El Tovar. I had a feeling this really meant “at least twice,” so I wasn’t surprised that the old hotel was our destination again this morning. Out early on this cool and quiet morning, we arrived just in time to see a scattering of mule deer grazing on the lawn between the hotel and the rim. Breakfast time for all! Plenty of guests were cautiously milling about, too, on the porch and the sidewalk—quiet for once, perhaps having waited days like we had to catch a glimpse of the long-eared creatures. Nikolea was again absent (I’m sure she wouldn’t deign to get up so early) and we were seated promptly and politely. I dug eagerly into my pancake trio (one each of buttermilk, buckwheat and blue corn pancakes) served with honey-pine nut butter and prickly pear syrup, while Rich gave a distinct thumbs-up to his huge Southwestern burrito and breakfast potatoes. Served with coffee for Rich and Earl Grey tea for me, this was a meal fit for royal mooses about to embark on a long journey!
Thus fortified and fulfilled and full of the beauty of the Canyon, we reluctantly packed up the last of our things, checked out and, after a quick fortification stop at the Post Office and General Store, headed to the East Rim drive and away from Grand Canyon Village. Our first stop wasn’t even going to be a stop. Many times benchmarks that look interesting at home are less than thrilling once we arrive at the spot; oftentimes they may well be interesting, but the other activities of the day may overshadow the desire for a benchmark hunt, or simply push it away. In this case, I was fully prepared to drive on by GQ0194 (T 482), but Rich drove tantalizingly slow past the coordinates anyway, and I couldn’t resist a peek into the woods. Well, what do you know, there’s the witness sign! I hopped out and found the mark easily, along with a bonus mark belonging to a local surveyor just a few yards away. Just a few yards from the road and an old service station, these marks are located in a pretty wood filled with pinyon pines, red rocky soil and with a small woods road running by the sandstone outcrop that holds the NGS disk.
Traveling further along the East Rim Drive, we stopped at nearly every overlook for, well, our long last looks over the Canyon. I was reminded of our experience at the overlooks along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, when car after car veered off the highway, slowed down a little to drive through the pull-off, and went right back onto the highway. We didn’t have much time to spare either, but at least we got out of the car in order to have a view of something other than the wall and the sky above the other rim of the canyon.
Just beyond the Grand View overlook, it was time for one last Grand Canyon benchmark attempt. I had some hope that we’d find GRAND VIEW, a USGS mark placed in the 1903 survey near the old Grand View Hotel on the canyon rim. We knew in advance that the hotel itself is long gone, but we had no reason to be certain the mark, set in sandstone at the canyon’s edge, would also be gone. We did not even need to use the hotel for a reference, since our coordinates should have taken us directly to the mark. Feeling ambitious and intrigued by whatever we might find, we parked in a wooded pull-off and headed along an old doubletrack road toward the site of the old hotel. What a surprise this area was, with the pines that lined the trail, dry pine needles and other debris underfoot, and the grassy meadow we stepped into as we neared the coordinates. The beige horned lizard we discovered just a few hundred feet from the head of the trail was the only hint that we weren’t in an Eastern forest. (Well, I suppose the enormous canyon at the far side of the grassy opening was another clue.)
The hotel obviously had stood in the grassy area, but nothing remains of it now. At the time of the survey, only the Bright Angel Hotel and Cameron’s Hotel offered accommodations in addition to the Grand View, so it’s possible that the survey party stayed here while on their assignment. Unfortunately, though, no spirit voices whispered to us today. We could not find the mark. Our coordinates should be exact, reception is excellent in this open area, and our data took us directly to a limestone ledge that looked like a perfect setting for such a mark. But try as we might, even clearing off as much debris and vegetation as possible, we found no mark nor any sign that one had ever been set there. I searched other nearby ledges, unsuccessfully, just in case we were off somehow (I made Rich a little nervous, I’m afraid, as I poked around on the edge!). The mark either remains hidden from our view, or lost to man or the elements probably decades ago — but without evidence to determine which or when. My favorite aspect of benchmark hunting is the discovery of new places such as this. The real prize here was the view that probably very few of the Canyon’s hordes of visitors have ever seen, at least during the better part of the last century. Had we wine, cheese and bread, and the whole day ahead of us, I would have loved to share a picnic lunch here with Rich, just sitting on the rim and watching the colors change with the sun.
After completing our peaceful sylvan hike back to the car, we continued on our journey toward Desert View. Like Hermit’s Rest, the Desert View watchtower was designed by Mary Colter out of native stone chosen to allow the tower to harmonize with its environment. Its shape calls to mind the old Anasazi watchtowers, but its single purpose has always been to serve as a gift shop. The area was mobbed with tourists, but we nevertheless had a chance to make our way to the overlook railing for one last peek, and we took a quick spin around the gift shop as well. The tower interior is mightily impressive, lined with small staircases and circular balconies leading to an observation area near the top of the tower, but we’ll leave that trek for our next trip. Rich and I were feeling dehydrated already, so we sucked down a lemonade we purchased at the concession, and continued on.
Route 64 passes through the western corner of the Navajo reservation. Thrilled to finally visit the haunts of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn from the Tony Hillerman novels I loved as a child, I paid careful attention. The desert scenery truly looks raw, unspoiled, untouched, really, until you look along the sides of the roads and see the trash and forgotten debris and layer upon layer of broken green and amber bottle glass. Sad.
Rich had described to me the proliferation of roadside stands selling everything from pottery and jewelry to beef jerky, so I wasn’t surprised to see them nor to see the hand-painted billboard announcements. My favorite had to be the one that promised “Nice Indians Ahead!” … as though we were back in the days of the Wild West and had reason to suspect that most Indians would, in fact, not be nice. We loved that sign, and the laugh was well-deserved!
We did not stop at any of the stands, but attempted twice to pull off the highway at the Little Colorado River overlooks. The first overlook was blocked off to vehicles and would have required more of a hike than we wanted. We had better luck at the second overlook, which I believe was the Little Colorado River Tribal Park. We paid $2.00 to access the Navajo Parks and Recreation land, and then browsed through the tables and tents of traditional craft items on our way to the river overlook, where we saw … a dry canyon. There was no sign of the Little Colorado save a single tan muddy spot far below. I believe Rich commented that it was the first time he’d seen the river dry.
Construction encouraged us to bypass Wupatki (Polish Indians?!), which had interested me mostly because of the name, and Sunset Crater. Both are accessed from a single loop road off Route 89, one way in and out. Thirty-four hot miles of dirt and dust and crawling along due to construction didn’t appeal to either of us, so we reluctantly continued on. We hadn’t been able to decide if we should visit these two monuments or continue east to Meteor Crater; at least the construction made the decision easier for us. I’ll have to see the Polish Indians next time, but we did get a view of Sunset Crater from the highway just a short time later.
Traffic in Flagstaff was heavy and mostly standing still. Another construction project slowed our progress from the back of the jam to the I-40 interchange, but once we got to I-40 we were sailing smoothly and swiftly east. I-40 is a major highway, covering the country nearly coast to coast from North Carolina to California. The section east of Flagstaff is high and flat and windy, and filled with tractor trailers (which, unlike in the East, mainly stuck to the speed limits). Once we passed the exit for Walnut Canyon National Monument, just past Flagstaff, there wasn’t much to see other than typical (but beautiful) high desert scenery and bursts of tumbleweed, flying up at us like flocks of birds alighting from nowhere, and then bouncing away like bunnies.
Thirty-some miles past Flagstaff we reached the Meteor Crater exit. They may have their own highway exit, but we still had about six miles to go. Driving here was interesting, passing “watch for animals” signs along the roadsides, and rattling over cattle guards once or twice a mile. “Come get your picture taken with the girl in the flatbed Ford,” enthused a radio announcer from Winslow. Ah, so we had found the corny local station meant for tourists. This one looped the same three over-animated ads over and over again, one of which was an attempt to lure us to Meteor Crater. As we flew along the road, I couldn’t help but wonder what we’d gotten ourselves into. “Experience the impact … at Meteor Crater!” we heard, complete with a loud <spwoosh>, which ostensibly is the sound of a meteorite swooping down to make its impression on Earth. Yes, over and over again. We laughed and made the sound ourselves, over and over again, like third graders. But just how corny would this place be?!
The huge Visitor Center should have been our first clue that this wasn’t going to be anything like the national parks and monuments we had been enjoying. “Fifteen dollars???” I couldn’t believe the admission price was so high! While there is a museum in the visitor center, which I’ve since heard is quite nice, we did not have time for that. We simply wanted to take a walk up to the rim, peek at the crater and enjoy the views. We were approached by a woman who looked like an advertisement for Texas (blonde hair, cowgirl style clothes, drawl) and Rich asked if there was any chance we could pay a reduced rate for a five minute look at the crater. “No sir,” she said, and went on to describe the wonders contained in the museum, and that regardless, the only admission to the crater is now via a group tour. Disappointed, we thanked her anyway and returned to the car. Back on Meteor Crater road, we laughed as we made the meteor sound, but this time we amended the ad to the more accurate “Experience the impact … <spwoosh> … on your wallet!!!”
Walnut Canyon was our consolation prize, and it is a real gem to behold. I’m so glad we stopped to investigate. Walnut Creek carved the canyon some 600 feet deep through this densely forested land, exposing the famous Kaibab limestone. As is typical, some layers of the stone are softer than others, and small caves were scoured out from these soft layers by wind and water, caves which later served as dwellings for local Indians. (Tuzigoot was a contemporary Sinagua settlement, but utterly different in both style and function.) The creek as it meandered cut a U into the canyon, creating an “island” of forested rock which now hosts the aptly named Island Trail. Hiking this trail is the only way to see the cliff dwellings up close, and we were urged by the ranger to try it, because we looked so young and fit. Time was short, though, as the monument closes at 5:00pm and it was already past 4:00. When Rich heard the number of steps involved (in the hundreds), he consulted with his knees and got a firm “Not now! Are you nuts?!” in response.
The overlook just past the visitor center offers a view of the island, the cliff dwellings in the distance, and—oh, look, a benchmark! Neither of us had ever heard of an “archaeological datum,” but we assumed it had to do with a survey of the cliff dwellings or other archaeological ruins in the area. These simple disks, ignored by many, really are the keys to understanding each new place we visit on a deeper level than most people will experience. There’s something fascinating about knowing that the spot where I’m standing was chosen, deliberately, and marked, with care, for a specific purpose that is intimately tied to the history and function of the place. No matter how much the world around it has changed, find a benchmark in its described location and you’re virtually certain that you’re looking at exactly the same ledge, boulder, wall or building that the surveyors setting the monument did, however many decades ago.
Rich understands how these marks add a point of focus and color to each site where we discover them (planned or not), and he was more than happy to help me with the photos. Afterward, still in the mood for a hike but still not up to the Island Trail, we decided to hike the short, level Rim Trail, quickly, before closing. The Rim Trail was high and hot, and I felt sunburn spreading across my shoulders as we walked. I love desert plants, so the small signs along the way were very interesting, and we were able to make a 0.7 mile hike last much longer than it typically does. After reaching the final rim overlook, the trail heads away from the rim into a ponderosa forest, where we discovered a pithouse and pueblo.
Walnut Canyon is well-kept national monument, historically and biologically fascinating, and beautifully peaceful. I could have played all day just among the ruins in the small patch of pine forest! It’s on my short list to explore in much more depth the next time we visit.
Reluctantly we headed back to the car, which was more like an oven at this point. We are convinced that it still cooled off much more quickly than a car sitting in Eastern heat and humidity, however. Hours of driving were ahead of us, and it was my turn at the wheel. Supper that night was hamburgers at a Fuddrucker’s in Phoenix (tasty and fresher than what we get at home, but nothing terribly out of the ordinary). For some reason, the North Black Canyon location was a real bitch to access off Route 17, but we figured it out and were soon rewarded with burgers, fries, toppings ranging from salsa to fresh green onions, and a vanilla milkshake.
We pulled into the parking lot of the America’s Best Value Inn (hmm? We shall see.) in Tucson just before 9:00pm, with enough energy left to do little more than run across South Park Avenue to look for beer and Gatorade at the combination Catalina Mart/McDonalds. Thoroughly wiped out after our thrilling adventures that crossed many hours and many miles, we slept and dreamed and I, at least, know I dreamed of all our adventures from the cool Canyon to the hot cities of the south, and the perfect partner who shares this all with me.