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We’ve all had the experience of revisiting some place that meant something to us when we were young, only to find it ruined by the passing years — the blight in tract homes where there had been woods we played in; the proliferation of 7-Elevens or Starbucks; the widening of roads we had ridden our bikes down and the concomitant soot-spewing storm of traffic. The divided-highway bypass and the Walmart near the exit. Time has not been good to the landscape we knew.

But I have always thought, there must be someone of a generation previous who looked at the landscape I bicycled down and thought, how much better it had been when the road was gravel and there were no houses — including the one I grew up in — lining that road.

The fact is, time is furious and eats up the land just as it eats up the remaining years of my life. “Panta Horein” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Everything changes.” Doubtless, there was someone before my elder who loved the same land when there was nothing but a footpath through the forest and thought it better for all that.

And no doubt there will be some future progeny who will look at the scene some 50 years hence and lament the loss of those same 7-Elevens, replaced by something even crasser and more demoralizing. To them, the land I now lament will have been Eden.

Holbrook, Arizona

Holbrook, Arizona

Too often we think of the land as something permanent through which plays the impermanence of our comings and goings — a static stage set for our dramas. Its pace may be slower than ours, but the land changes, also; it has its own drama. I particularly love to see the scars of those changes, the evidence of what used to be, the peeping out from under the macadam of the buried eyes of the past.

Along old 66 Signs and storm

One of the prizes I have is a Rand-McNally road atlas from the year I was born (1948). The map of Arizona has no interstates on it, and you can see that the very getting from Phoenix to Flagstaff was a detour, driving first through Wickenburg and up to Prescott before either heading north to Ash Fork and then east on U.S. 66 to Flag, or taking the more mountainous route up Alternate 89 over Mingus Mountain, down to the Verde Valley and then up the hill through Sedona and up the face of the Mogollon Rim to your destination.

Along old 66 Tumbleweed

Of course, there was a more direct route, through Dugas and Camp Verde, but the road was mostly dirt and rutted.

The thing is, that if you look for them, all those ruts are still there. You can, if you wish, and if your car is sturdy enough, drive those roads up through Bumble Bee, through Orme, through Skull Valley, Iron Springs or Happy Jack. Like Schliemann digging down through layers of Troy, the archeology of Arizona is there — or its fossils are.

West of Kingman

West of Kingman

All of which brings me to the slice of Arizona across its northern tier, now defined by Interstate 40. The interstate ate up what used to be U.S. 66 — Route 66 of legend — and takes the speediferous driver across the flatter parts of the Colorado Plateau, up through Flagstaff, and down through Williams, Kingman and on to California. “You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino…”

Along old 66 Interstate 40

But, if you get off the interstate, right at the state line in Lupton, you can find the ghost road, mostly paralleling the freeway, and you can drive along it, at a steady 45 mph, watching for potholes, and see the scars of the past dug into the dry stony soil. The road is discontinuous — you will have to get back on the interstate for an exit or so, or ride over the tide of traffic to pick up the auxiliary road on the other side, where old 66 will start again. It is a ghost of itself, and along it are a few forgotten towns, many gutted old service stations with their paint peeled, their windows blown out and their driveways split by weeds busting through.

Along old 66 Minyard Feed Store

Time is fierce, it eats everything.

I admit to a weakness for these pentimenti, for the palimpsest of time, showing through the later “improvements.” They provide a glimpse of the process, of the metamorphosis — using Ovid’s word — of the constant writhing and seething of the planet and our place as people in the ferment and bubbling.

Along old 66 sunflowers

It comes in the shorter term, such as old Route 66 being devoured by grasses and crucifers, but it also comes in longer terms, such as the Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly and Betatakin, the petroglyphs of Rio Puerco in the Petrified Forest National Park.

Rio Puerco Ruins

There are remaining parts of old Route 66, running through Seligman, and it is mined constantly for nostalgia. But it isn’t that I am feeding on, but the sense of sand sifting through my fingers, of time leaving. It comes out of some chthonic well and runs past us and dissipating in an ocean of we know not where. The old road is still there, and it will be there even when there are no cars — just as the wagon ruts can still be found along the Santa Fe Trail, sunk into the grasses of Kansas.

Old 66 to Seligman

I relish all the different tickings and tockings of the various clocks running their various races.

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

You stand at the rim of Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Reservation and look down to the braided stream at the bottom that scoured this great hole out of the sandstone and wonder how long it must have taken. Then you see the tiny Anasazi relics built into the walls of the rock and realize how long people have been living here, and then you see the sandstone itself an think about how much longer ago — exponentially longer — that ancient river deltas deposited the silt that later became that stone.

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

How much more do you sense these multiple time scales at this rift’s big brother, the Grand Canyon.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

If you want to have the planetary feeling without racing around the globe, you can get it standing still in Arizona: with your feet planted at the edge of the Grand Canyon. In that case, you stand stock-still and let the planet do the moving.

North Rim, Grand Canyon

North Rim, Grand Canyon

The first time I saw sunrise at the Grand Canyon, my wife and I were camping on the North Rim outside the National Park. We had arrived with the naive assumption we could wander in late in the afternoon and get a room at the lodge. Or failing that, we could get a slot at the campgrounds.

The desk clerk took pity on us and explained that although they were completely booked, lodge and campground, for the foreseeable future, we could find a dirt road just outside the park that would take us to a place in the National Forest where people often camped.

It was dark by the time we got to that road, and when we turned into an open place where two or three other tents were set up, it was already night.

We slept, we dreamed, and we woke before sunrise, when the earliest glow floated in through our tent flap. And when we got out to stretch and start up the camp stove, we gasped: We were about 15 feet from the rim of the canyon. It dropped out of sight below us.

If we had pulled forward just a little farther the night before in the blackness, it would have been Thelma-and-Louise time for us. We were hard on the edge.

But more impressive, the humid late-July weather had left the entire canyon as a gigantic dish of cotton. The clouds filled in the canyon-hollow like apples in a fruit bowl. A 215-mile long fruit bowl.

The mists swirled and wisped below us, over precipices and down canyonlets, in constant motion, rising and subsiding as the new-hatched sun warmed patches of the air the mist rode upon and the breezes wafted the veils.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

The Classical writer, Longinus, said that we enjoy the day-to-day things of our lives, but when it comes to awe, we get that only from the sublime. Hearth fires, he said, were nice, but erupting volcanoes make us consider a planet and cosmos larger than we are and well beyond our control. The sublime is beautiful, but it is also scary: It is the source of religious feeling.

You cannot avoid that at the Grand Canyon, with its stony layers of eons piled upon each other. The Canyon is a great wound in the Earth into which we can look and see its organs pulsating at a rate so slow as to make all of human history a mere blip on its EKG.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a clock. It has a big hand and a little hand.

The little hand moves very slowly, telling the time in geologic terms. To see the hand move, you must wait millions of years.

In that time, you would see continental oceans lay down sediments and tectonic forces push those layers upward, only to be eroded by a river, like a sand pile washed by a hose.Grand View Point, Grand Canyon NP Ariz

One stands at the rim now and looks back into the past, washed away eon by eon, stratum by stratum, until one’s eye stands on the Vishnu schist, the Precambrian footings of the Canyon.

You hardly can take in the vastness of it. It is an earthly reminder of eternity, that time beyond time that turns our lives into flyspecks.

But this geological clock has a fast-moving big hand, too. And it changes all 200 miles of the Canyon second by second. It can seem to the observer like time-lapse photography in real time as the sun jumps from the horizon and changes the shadowed blacks of the deep walls to a burning cherry ruddiness and on much too quickly to the weathered indigo blueness of noon.

Cycles and epicycles, wheels inside wheels, the turning of time on itself in all its speeds.

The first time I saw the Canyon, I got there before dawn. My wife and I had arrived late the previous night and wound up camping in the Kaibab National Forest outside the park. I set our alarm clock for 4 a.m., and when we got up, it was completely dark.

We drove to the overlook at Lipan Point, and I set up my camera in the blackness, out on a rocky ledge beyond the guardrail.

The tripod barely could find purchase on the narrow outcrop, and my wife warned me about taking chances, especially by the glow of a flashlight.

A little after 4, the horizon began to appear. It was July, but it was icy cold before the sun rose. The batteries of my light meter ceased to work in the cold.

Yet it was beginning to be possible, as the far edge of the Canyon contrasted with the blue-gray of the lightening sky, to focus my lens on the ground glass of the camera. And I saw there little more than that dividing line.

But down in the bottom of the Canyon, a mile below us, there was a snaky line of a reflecting light.

Dawn, Grand Canyon

It was the river, a white tube of neon cut off here and there by the mesas and buttes below us. At times, the rope of water actually seemed brighter than the sky.

I managed to take a two- or three-minute exposure of the nearly black landscape. The glow in the sky had begun to make some of the rock texture visible, but less so to the eye than to the camera.

Dawn, Grand Canyon NP Ariz 2

Moment by moment, the scene changed, a slow crescendo of light that began where the river disappeared in the northeast until the fire broke the horizon and the first sliver of sun appeared.

What is most surprising is the quickness of the change. If you were to take a photograph once a minute over the course of a day, you hardly would have two alike.

When the sun is on the horizon, you actually can see it move. And as it rose and sank its light deeper into the Canyon, what had been a charcoal mass of rock mazes became lighted at the top ends of the rocks, like the cherry end of a cigarette in the dawn.

You could see probably scores of miles down the Canyon to the west and see the angle of the sun on the edge of the rock.

Nothing is so like the Earth waking up.

Grand Canyon NP, with shadow

Looking toward the sun, the Canyon became a receding stage set of silhouettes, each lighter and grayer as it retreated toward the sunrise. Looking away from the sun, the rock faces became increasingly red, then orange, then brick, with layers of white and green thrown in.

The Grand Canyon is grandest in the dawn. Those willing to awaken early enough stare into the clock of the day playing on the stone and see their lives moving before them. If time is a stream, as Thoreau says, at the Grand Canyon you can see its rapids. The change continues all day. On most summer days, the midday hours are the least interesting. The hazy blueness of the distant rim seems steady from about 10 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. But if you stare with enough commitment, you can see the changes even then as the downward angle of the sunlight twists slowly from one side of the cliffs to the other.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

Later, when the sun’s angle lowers to day’s end, the changes accelerate once more, taking the rocks back from blue to red and into darkness.

There is no mistaking the Earth as a clock, turning with the sun as the hour marker, moving in orderly procession around the rim of the great circle we live on.

But the two clocks at the Canyon also remind of the conflicting realities of the place. On the one hand, the slow clock tells of the everlastingness of things, their physical endurance. On the other, how can you believe in reality if the same limestone that can be red at 8 a.m. can be blue by 9?

It reinforces your sense of rock-solid reality and undercuts your belief at the same time. To live in two times at once: This is the central message of all the world’s religions.

When people find spiritual meaning in the Canyon, perhaps it is these conflicting clocks more than anything else that create that sense. Certainly, the Canyon’s vast space is inspiring, but it is time that speaks of eternity and our place in it.

Snake infinityClick any image to enlarge

MapI have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.

In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.New York 3

I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.

But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast gravy.red maple

I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.

There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.

If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a relationship.nc church jesus saves

A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.barista

I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.

From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.Seattle docks

There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.

When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.

There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.Badger Creek Ariz

Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.

There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.

My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture.  We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.

The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.

To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.

At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.

We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.

What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.

When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.

And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.

But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.Chicago, Ill

For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.Joes Colo haystacks

But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.

It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains  was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”

There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.

Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.Pawnee Buttes 5

Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?

Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.

I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.

toroweap 6I’ve been to the Grand Canyon enough times that I couldn’t accurately count.

But sometimes familiarity makes us lose the magic. If I’ve been to Mather Point once, I’ve been a dozen times, at all hours of the day. And while it is still beautiful, still breathtaking, there is something missing — that virgin sense of seeing it for the first time.arizona highways magazine cover

This is replaced by the proxy pleasure of watching someone else see it for the first time, but now I’ve had even that vicarious fun often enough that I know what to expect.

But there are other places to see the canyon besides the official viewpoints of the National Park Service.

One of my first images of the Grand Canyon came when I was a child in the Christmas edition of Arizona Highways magazine, which was once a year available on the magazine racks in New Jersey. One of the pictures in it was a stunning photograph of the Canyon from Toroweap Overlook. I never forgot that name, it seemed so odd — although I don’t know why an Indian name should seem exotic to a Jersey boy living between Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus.toroweap 15

Nevertheless, I always wanted to go to Toroweap, to see that vertical panorama, the 3,000-foot drop to the river.

The overlook is reached by 61 miles of dirt road. And those miles start from a point 9 miles west of Fredonia, Arizona, which is already as remote as it is possible to be in the state. On the Arizona Strip between the Canyon and Utah, Fredonia is a little town you pass through on the way to Kanab, which is no Chicago either.

Fredonia is 120 miles from the nearest Arizona town of any significance, Flagstaff, through the Navajo Indian Reservation and across the northern margin of the state skirting the Vermilion Cliffs. It is so remote that when you pass the turn off for the Grand Canyon North Rim, you still have to press on into the wilderness to get to Fredonia.toroweap 9

How remote is it? Well, it is technically considered frontier. Any place with fewer than two people per square mile is officially called frontier, said the ranger at Pipe Spring National Monument, which is also in this neck of the woods.

The Arizona Strip easily qualifies. Arizona, for instance, has a population density of about 50 people per square mile. When you subtract the population center of Fredonia, with its 2100 people, the rest of the Strip checks in with .014 people per square mile. That’s fewer than 3 people per 20 square miles.

That is the official definition of empty.toroweap 7

toroweap 17Well, a little past the sign that reads “Six Mile Village, 3 miles” you find a dirt-road turn off with a sign to Toroweap Overlook. It says, “Toroweap Overlook, 61 miles.”

At first, you feel rather confident. Anyone who regularly drives the dirt and gravel back roads in this state will be lulled into a false sense of security.

The first 20 miles or so are pretty flat, pretty well kept up and surprisingly civilized. You can do a comfortable 50 miles an hour if you don’t mind kicking up a few stones and hearing them clatter against your undercarriage.toroweap 10

But then, after crossing the Antelope Valley, you have to climb the first small plateau and the road begins to wind and narrow. Patches of sand appear in the hollows of the land and you have to slow down or risk losing control of your car.

Yes, I said car. Every guide book I checked out said the trip can be made in a passenger car. And since I am an intrepid risker of my car, I thought that this sounds like a piece of cake. I have driven my car through mountainside cow pastures, through North Carolina woods with no roads, twisting between the trees like a Daniel Boone in a Chevy. I have taken my car on the 30 miles of washboard someone jokingly called a road on the far side of Death Valley from the highway.

I can go anywhere.toroweap 8

But the road to Toroweap became hinkier. About 45 miles in, just after the turn-off for the road to Mt. Trumbull, the road gets questionable. And I mean, like I question that it deserves the name road at all.

Since I was two-thirds of the way to my longed for magic dream, I pushed on.

After all, I am the man who drove my car across Thompson Wash to the north of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I am the man who keeps an entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax in the trunk at all times in case I need to dig out of the sand and chop down brush to thrust under the tires for some purchase.toroweap 13

There were some sand pans along the way, where your tires no longer go where you point them and your careen through the powder like a raft going downstream. The steering wheel becomes a tiller and you just try to keep pointed forward. But if you get up a head of steam going into the sand, you can more or less bull your way through.toroweap 14

But after the Tuweep Ranger Station, where you enter the national park lands, it started getting tricky. I had had some touchy moments in the sand, but nothing I didn’t think I could handle in my Pontiac Grand Am. But in the final eight miles from there to the overlook, the road gets positively grim. The sand — I call it sand, but it is really a fine, pulverized powder that sits axle-deep in the roadway — had previously been in recognizable pans, small patches of up to 100 feet in extent. But along the Toroweap Valley, there is a stretch of about a quarter mile of unrelieved sand.toroweap 4

As I was driving along — careening, really — I came upon the ranger in a road grader smoothing the roadbed. He should have saved his effort. The grader was smoothing off the top of the sand, but that didn’t make it any easier to plow through. In fact, the ruts provided better traction for the tires, as long as the high sand in between didn’t contain any large rocks waiting to score the bottom metal of the car.

With the sand passed, the road got narrower and rockier. The rocks were bumpy and you had to take them slowly, especially around the tight curves up and down the canyon, but they were negotiable. The final three miles slowed me down to a pace of between 5 and 10 mph, but I didn’t mind so much, since at least I knew the road wouldn’t swallow my tires.

At the end, Toroweap Overlook was a small rocky parking lot with a port-o-let to one side and a giant hole in the ground to the other.toroweap 2

They view was spectacular and the rawness of the experience made the South Rim look positively urban. There are no guard rails, no interpretive signs, no ranger walks, just an edge of rock with a vertical drop down to the river of three-fifths of a mile. The canyon at Toroweap is very narrow — it is about a mile to the southern rim across the gorge, and directly below, you can hear the roar of the rapids.toroweap 11

Two German couples were there looking down the hole and taking pictures of each other on the ledge. One of the men, seeing my once-bright red sedan now a uniform dun of dust — and comparing it with their two high-water SUVs, came over to me and asked me which route I had taken. When I told him, the looked at me like I was crazy, laughed and said, “In that car? How did you do it?”toroweap 3

And, you know, I’m not completely sure myself. But I knew that ahead of my was another 61 miles of the same thing just to get out again.toroweap 1

So, this is a warning to you. Don’t believe everything you read in a guidebook.

Yes, it is possible to get to Toroweap in your car, if you have the gumption.

But don’t expect any yellow brick road.toroweap 16