Arizona and the Grand Canyon

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October 27th 2016
Published: October 27th 2016
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I guess the Grand Canyon is so well known, published about, photographed and so forth, that I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I took my first peek over and from the south rim of the Canyon itself to find that on this occasion, my expectations were fulfilled, and neither exceeded nor disappointed. Yes, I know, I am a very difficult customer to please. Don't get me wrong, it is spectacular, overwhelming almost in its vastness, and certainly a feast for the eyes. I think I just expected it to be bigger and grander than everything I had hitherto been led to believe it would be.

It was a one day drive from the campground we stayed in the night after we left Death Valley. That drive took us through Las Vegas itself and the Arizona countryside surrounding that maze of casinos. There my expectations were confounded. I had no idea that this was a city dropped right in the middle of an exceedingly hot and dry desert. We did not stop on our way through, that pleasure will come just before I fly out of there to LA and then back to Sydney. Instead we followed the freeway through the city and out the other side in pursuit of the Hoover Dam, an engineering feat built back in the 1930s I believe and which was single handedly responsible for transforming the Arizonia and California deserts into places where now millions of people reside and work ... LA in particular. For this reason, security was pretty high at the entry point to view the dam and two security personnel inspected our RV fairly comprehensively both inside and out, before we were able to proceed. The drought of the last 5 or so years has taken a toll here and the water level was clearly low. The infrastructure of the engineering works was impressive but what intrigued me even more was the barren surroundings, and the multiple forests of staunchons and wires that littered the skyline and hills.

We did not linger long ... just long enough for Greg to reminisce about his last visit there when he was a lad still at university, and then we were off into the depths of eastern Arizona. The drive was long ... more miles than we could cover in one day, so that night we free camped on the Arizona desert plains, seemingly miles from anywhere, but as we soon found when night fell, surrounded by many many lights spread right across the plain, indicating people lived all over this arid landscape.
Another of my observations from this journey was determinedly reinforced throughout this drive. I have observed a huge gap in the living standards and conditions of the rich and the poor in this country. In Oregon it first became apparent, but I kept my peace. But it has not diminished and I cannot help feeling that America, in its pursuit of status of lead nation in the world, has in many ways forgotten its own people. With the upcoming presidential election campaign raging here at the moment, and the disturbing choice of candidates on offer, I have observed and overheard many many Americans speaking either to their dilemna about which way to vote, or loudly and almost angrily championing the Trump cause ("even though he won't win" they always add). He seems to appeal to a forgotten population in a manner that is almost understandable. From my time living here 38 years ago, I remember the "trailer parks" in which poor Americans lived and the distrust and illrepute in which folk who had no choice but to live there, were held. My current observation is that outside of the major cities, all but the very rich reside in accommodations of a very low standard; trailers, campers, and RV vehicles parked on many and various blocks of land, or very poorly kept housing structures. I did not visit the west 38 years ago, so perhaps this is not new and is merely a reflection of the harsh climate, the frontier tone and remnants of the "wild west" which certainly pervades everything out here.
But enough ... on to our fabulous journey. There are so many tourists going through all these parks that to be able to stay in any park campground, it would have been necessary to make a reservation at least 6-9 months ago. So not surprisingly, there was no room at the inn within the Grand Canyon National Park. However thanks to Emma's fabulous google skills, we found a plethora of free campsites to choose from only a matter of 5 or so miles outside the Park in the Kaibab National Forest. The children were able to have a campfire on two of the three nights we were there, the price was certainly right and the surroundings delightful.

And now to the Canyon itself. Yes, it is mind boggling. Brilliant colours of all hues of the rainbow. I was amazed at how close to the rim everything happens ... walkways, roads, bike paths. Most of the rim is unfenced and I admit to becoming very nervous at times as I watched people braveheartedly approaching the rim, standing right on the precipice, climbing out onto jutting rims, or worst of all, generally taking a very dangerous pose for a selfie or photograph. Most of the major vista points are well fenced, but access to the remainder of the rim is unobstructed. And people pay as little heed to the ranger's urings to always stay a full body length away from the edge as they do to signs telling them it is illegal to feed the wildlife. (I wondered how many of them had noticed a book for sale in all the Park Shops the people who have fallen to their deaths in the Grand Canyon.)

On our first day in the Park, we left about 4pm in search of a campsite having satisfied our excitement and curiosity sufficiently by walking a goodly length of the rim, attending a Ranger "Critter Talk" and visiting the Visitor's Centre. The next day we were back as soon as school finished (8-10am every day is school time for Amy and Oliver) and at 1pm that afternoon, we set off on bikes again to a more distant stretch of the rim where we hoped the tourist crowds would be thinner. (Yes, I know, arrogant of us, we were adding to that crowd, but we also like to be the only ones there). The bike ride took about 2 hours and covered about 10 miles - largely downhill all the way which pleased me. But there were lots of stops at all the viewpoints, and much photography to do. We needed to be at the end of the ride by 3pm to be picked up by the Bike Rental people and returned to the Visitor's centre in their bus. But as we had not had enough and had actually had to speed through the last mile in order to get back at the appointed time, we opted to use extend our time there and use the free shuttle bus that continuously travels throughout the park.
We had dinner in the visitor centre carpark that night after watching the sunset over the canyon, and fronted up for the ranger talk called "Starry Starry Night" at 7.30pm. This promised to be great as the night was dark, no moon, and the heavens were brilliantly covered by the milky way, planets, lots of satellites and shooting stars. Unfortunately about 80 other people (at least) had the same idea, and though I am sure the Ranger did a great job, her loud speaker system was just not up to the task and it was very difficult to hear anything she said. So at about 8.20pm, we wound our way back to our RV and headed off to our free campsite. No one needed much rocking that night.

Next day, Greg, Em, Amy and Oliver had decided they wanted to do a hike down into the Canyon itself. It was such a steep descent (and even more strenuous on the return ascent) and the path looked incredibly precarious as I peered down at it from the rim, that I decided my legs were definitely not up to the task, and that my sense of balance would in fact make it quite risky for me to attempt this with them. So I luxuriated in 4 hours to myself in which time I caught the free shuttle hither and tither to various points and was delighted to find a very pleasant "bush" walk at one extremity of the rim which led away from the rim and back into the scrub where I sighted and photographed some delightful "critters". A stunning Albert's Squirrel, the beautiful Western Scrub Jay, and even caught sight of a Coyote bounding across in front of my path.

The family returned much earlier than they estimated (well, they are experienced trekkers aren't they, so this apparently "strenuous" hike for them was merely a quick stroll up and down the hill), and just after I had returned to the RV and was about to refresh myself with a "nanny nap". No way they cried, there is a Ranger Geology talk in half an hour at the Geology Museum ... its just a quick 15 minute walk along the rim, come on!!! Amy, Oliver and I took the shuttle ... I thought that was clever of me, because I offered to take them into the Visitor's Centre and get their Junior Ranger badges from a ranger there and then come on the shuttle, so Greg and Em could enjoy a "stroll" along the rim together.

The Ranger's talk was excellent .... we can all now tell you how the Canyon was formed and over what time frame. It is presented in accordance with the acronym DUDE ... deposits, uplifts (gentle ones), downcutting (by the Colorado River as it rages its way from the massive height of 14,000 ft in the Rocky Mountains) and erosion. Timeframe? Well its very young really ... its all happened since the age of the dinosaurs, and is merely 5 million years old.

That done, we were all tired, and in need of the free camper services centre for laundry, showers, charging of batterys for computers and cameras. And after an hour or so there, we wound our weary way back to the beautiful Kaibab National Forest for a campfire, dinner and well earnt sleep.

Before we left the park by an exit on the most eastern boundary of the south rim, we stopped off at a point just inside the border of the park called Desert View where a very beautiful replica "native" stone watch tower has been constructed right on the rim with breathtaking views over the Canyon and the Colorado River winding its way relentlessly through the base, and then further out and over the surrounding countryside part of which includes what is known as the "Painted Desert". This place was my favourite ... perhaps because it was "new" to me and I had not seen anything about it before. Here again, one of my favourite features of the Grand Canyon was prominent ... the Ravens ... majestic, graceful, plentiful ... diving, sweeping two by two, lazily circling from the heights above down into the canyons themselves, enjoying the thermals, calling, crawing, black, shinny. They rule the sky here. I had hoped to catch sight of an eagle, hawk or condor, but these I understand have mostly moved on now because its late in their season and they are "migrating". Or something to that effect. On my morning on my own I found a team of three volunteer hawk-watch observers scanning the skies looking for these birds. They record avidly all sightings and have good information and understanding of the populations that exist. Oh, and their observation plateau I also found quite daunting - a flat sheet of rock protruding over the abyss, exposed to sun and wind which was blowing quite hard that morning. One of the three observers was seated in a high-backed canvas chair perilously (I thought) close to the edge ... and the wind was blowing from behind him!!! I didn't hang around too long.

We have spent one night on the road since leaving Grand Canyon National Park. We stopped last night in a town called Kanab and enjoyed showers and wifi while a heavy rain storm (with some distant lightening) blew itself over our heads. The drive from the Grand Canyon to there took us through what is known as the Arizona Strip ... a scenic route that well deserves its reputation. Some of my photos will show you what this still desert, very Arizonian frontier landscape is like. Mostly I believe this area is home to the Navajo people and there were many roadside stalls where they were peddling their arts and crafts. We stopped at Lees Ferry where there are two amazing steel bridges that span a canyon below which the Colorado River flows. It is here that they say the river enters the Grand Canyon and commences its work. And at this stop, we were treated to a sighting of several tagged Condors who were lazily sitting on the strutts of the bridges, surrounding cliffs and occasionally flying back and forth. Much as I wanted to see them, and as pleased as I was to see them and know they are surviving (they were almost extinct and there has been a concerted effort to breed and reintroduce these birds to the desert), they are not beautiful ... quite ugly in fact.
I am writing this from deep inside the Zion National Park. We drove in here this morning and as I knew nothing about it before I arrived, I have been surprised, delighted and absolute amazed. It is a magical and beautiful canyon. Very very different to the Grand Canyon. But you will have to wait for another blog to find out all about it. At the moment we are having a lazy morning in an "overflow" carpark and hanging around in the hope of gaining a campsite in the campground here about 4pm this afternoon. Fingers crossed ... you will have to tune back to this blog to find out how this exciting endeavour turns out.

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