The Grand Canyon is a destination. By that I mean that anybody who ends up at the Canyon must have planned to go there. It's not on the way to anywhere else. And there's nothing around it. In fact, there's a whole lot of nothing around it.
I began my visit to the Canyon at the town of Williams,
Arizona, a flyspeck that exists primarily as a terminus for the railroad
that's been delivering tourists since 1901. I like trains, and couldn't
resist the opportunity to ride the
Grand Canyon Railway to the rim.
The trip is pleasant enough, complete with corny western folk songs.
Although the scenery doesn't get interesting until shortly before our
first brief glimpse of the canyon before our arrival at the appropriately
rustic station. From what I saw along the way, northwestern Arizona is
flat, dry, gray and hostile. Makes me appreciate the determination of
explorers and pioneers who needed days rather than hours to cross it.
It's lucky that the commercial development of the park has been
so carefully controlled. The buildings at the south rim were
intended to fit with their surroundings. And mostly they do. The
Hopi House at left was designed by a self-taught architect named
Mary Elizabeth Colter and built by Hopi craftsmen. Nowadays it's
a Native American souvenir shop. At right is an artist's studio
with the best view in the world. It was built from native stone,
all of which had to be hauled a few thousand feet from the canyon
below. From a distance, the building disappears almost perfectly
into the canyon walls.
The Grand Canyon is over 200 miles long, an average of ten miles
across and a mile down to the Colorado River that carved it. But
knowing its size doesn't give a hint of its grandeur or of the range
of color you experience. Light does funny things at these distances.
The closer structures are sharp and clear; the distant ones take
on a rich and mellow aspect I've never seen in nature and, even
looking at my own photographic evidence, can't quite believe exists.
With limited time (and even less endurance), I had to be satisfied
taking pictures, admiring the views and remembering some small fraction
of what my guide told me. Others have a more athletic, less
contemplative experience. I met a couple who had hiked across the
canyon from North Rim to South over a couple of days. I could see
others who took less exhausting but no less impressive treks along
the Bright Angel Trail, part of which you can see as a bright line
leading to an overlook left of center in the picture at left. Some
traveled on foot; others had the benefit of the famous Grand Canyon
mule teams. These surefooted creatures make the trip every day in
every kind of weather. They have a perfect safety record; in all
these years not a single tourist has been dumped over the side.
Not even the ones who deserved it.
These last two pictures were taken at Mather Point, a couple of
miles east along the South Rim. This viewpoint gave me a small
glimpse of the Colorado River, visible in the picture at right
just above and to the left of dead center. Not too long ago,
the park service moved the visitor center from the village (where
the shops and restaurants are) to Mather Point.
Their intention was to reduce crowding and dependence on automobiles
by making more of the rim accessible using an environmentally friendly
light rail system. Unfortunately, it wasn't until the new center was
opened that somebody discovered a small problem. It seems there isn't
enough electricity at the Canyon to run a light rail system. And with
the new visitor center too far from most people's entry point into the
park, they've actually increased the need to drive instead of
reducing it. Your tax dollars at work. Kind of makes you proud,
My visit to the Grand Canyon was a day trip from Las Vegas: fly into Williams, ride the train, tour the South Rim and then fly back. But a mention in the railroad's magazine of some vintage Route 66 establishments nearby got me thinking. (Always a dangerous proposition.) A few weeks and an order from Amazon.com later, I was ready to experience a bit of America's first great highway, the Mother Road that once ran a couple of thousand miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing straight down the middle of most every town in between.
My journey took me from Silicon Valley
to Las Vegas, across Hoover Dam and
down US 93 until I encountered Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona. I didn't
stay long, although I should have; Kingman has quite a few examples of
classic Route 66 kitsch. But I was looking for the open road, when you
leave one town behind and wonder if there's anything at all ahead. And
then you come around a curve and encounter a remarkable relic like the
Hackberry General Store, a pastiche of every roadside cliche you've ever
seen, heard or read about. This is the Route 66 I wanted to see, even
down to the classic red 60s Corvette convertible of that long ago TV
There isn't supposed to be a Route 66 any more; it was supposed to
disappear for good with the completion of the Interstate. But a few
of the businesses that came into being to serve the old road just
refused to die. And eventually people like me, the kind who get
nostalgic for things we would have hated to experience the first
time around, come to pay homage. Seligman deserves particular honor;
it's here at a barber shop that the effort to preserve Arizona's
piece of the Mother Road began. And it's here I found the Rusty
Bolt, the best Route 66 tourist junk shop I found along the route.
Heck, just the honor of parking my Acura behind a genuine Edsel made
the stop worthwhile!
Route 66 disappears at a town called Ash Fork,
forcing me back to the Interstate. I got off again at Williams,
discovering to my
shock and amusement that those Route 66 establishments I'd read about
on my train ride to the Grand Canyon
a few weeks earlier began a couple of hundred feet
from the station. This time I had no schedule to keep but my own.
So I braved a Mexican restaurant with the unlikely name of Pancho
McGillicuddy's (which does a respectable
you're into that sort of thing), before taking my wander among the
tourist shops of the self-proclaimed Gateway to the Grand Canyon.
No 'Vettes that I could see, or even an Edsel. I had to settle
for a vintage Mustang. At least it was red; that's the important
Route 66 parallels the railroad over much of its length in Arizona.
And unlike the old highway, those rail lines still get a lot of use.
Both run right through downtown Flagstaff, a smallish city with a
lot of charm. Much of the downtown architecture appears to date
from the city's early days in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth century. And the locals are making a big effort to keep
it all looking perfect. Although as much as I admire the hotel at
right I'm glad I didn't stay there. The freight trains rolling by
every few minutes a block away might make for a rather restless
A hundred or so years ago, Flagstaff was a bit darker than it is
today. Which is why Percival Lowell decided it was just the place
to investigate some popular theories about
possibility of life on Mars.
The result of his curiosity and his family's money
was Lowell Observatory,
a facility that has made and continues to
make major contributions to our understanding of the cosmos. It
was here that the expansion of the universe was first identified;
and here that our own solar system's ninth planet was discovered.
These days the observatory's telescopes are used more for
education than investigation; light pollution and the need for
bigger and better equipment has moved the observational work a couple
of dozen miles from town. But the study of those observations still
goes on here.
And the place has a time warp-y kind of magic, with its gracious old
buildings and antique equipment. Even the staff contribute to the
sense of another time:
they're all so squeaky clean it's like they popped out of some sitcom
from my childhood!
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California