Man In A Suitcase

Grand Canyon National Park

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, doesn't it?

Along Historic Route 66

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 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 show.

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 mole, if 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 thing.

Flagstaff, Arizona

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 evening.

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 the 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!

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California