Archive

Tag Archives: grand canyon national park

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

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Dawn, Grand Canyon National Park

Dawn, Grand Canyon National Park

It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that we live on a planet.

That we are lodged on a wet rock spinning in cold, black, empty space and hurtling through the void, down through time like water into a storm drain.

You are not likely to notice this while waiting at a red light downtown although sometimes waiting for the thing to change will get you a glimpse of eternity. Nor are you likely to notice it on the recliner, tuning in to American Idol. Or waiting for a table at the IHOP.

Consumer culture and all of our measly daily scratching conspires to hide from us the fact that the ground under our feet is really a large bolting asteroid.

But there are places you cannot avoid the sensation.

For me, driving long distances on the prairies of Saskatchewan or Alberta will do the trick. You watch the grain elevators rise up on the horizon in front of you like the sails on a clipper ship, and watch them lower down behind you after you pass: You know you are on a sphere and every direction falls off downhill around you.

You recognize it on an airplane, too, watching miles pass under your seat like so many inches, seeing at one time Lake Superior to your aft and Lake Michigan afore. You can take in a significant arc of the planet’s circumference at 30,000 feet.

But each of these epiphanies requires that you be traveling: the moving point on a geologic ordinate and abscissa.

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.

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.

North Rim, Grand Canyon

North Rim, Grand Canyon

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.

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.

Sunrise is always a magic time. For me, all the more magic for how seldom I see it, being a night person and late-riser during every time of the year except vacation. Familiarity has not had a chance to dull the morning’s effect for me: Every dawn I witness is a rebirth.

The following summer, we came to the Canyon again, to the South Rim. We camped outside the park once more, and got up at 3 in the morning to drive to the rim to see the whole process of sunrise.

Even in July, it was cold in the dark. We parked at Lipan Point, where we would be able to see northeast into the canyon, where the sun should pop up. With a flashlight, I set up my 4X5 camera, with its bellows and tripod, and pointed it down into the blackness below.

By 4 a.m., the glow on the horizon widened into a band of dull brightness. I managed to focus the camera on the now-visible horizon line, and then pointed it back down into the ink.

A minivan pulled into the turnout and a few people got out, looked around at the black hole, and deciding there was nothing to see, got back in and drove off.

I moved the camera over the restraining fence and out onto a rocky knob with an unhindered view. My wife fretted I might slip off the cliff and down into the hard centuries of geology below: A very physical way to meet eternity.

By the time I got the camera set, the glow from the horizon had made the rock below us seem less like the river Styx and more like a darkened charcoal drawing. It was beginning to take on detail. I made an exposure of five minutes or so, to try to get some of the charcoal registered on my film. Dawn, Grand Canyon with river

The river below us began to reflect the lightening sky and became a glowing white streak in the sooty rock. It pointed in one direction northeast directly at the place the sun would arise, in the other direction, it curved around the coal-colored cliffs and disappeared.

The moment the sun broke the horizon, though, was the moment we realized we were sitting on a spinning round rock: The effect is unsettling and eerie.

I’ve had this happen a few rare times in my life. When the sun is still in contact with the horizon, its motion is quite noticeable. You can actually see it move.

But at that moment, the sun stopped moving, just as if Joshua had commanded it. And as the sun stopped, the Earth like a giant machine, whirring its gears began rotating forward in front of us, lurching from under our feet. An earthquake wouldn’t have felt more tactile.

It was as if we were coming over the top of some giant Ferris wheel. The still sun made our motion all the more apparent. It was Einstein in action: relativity made palpable. A shift in frame of reference.

The rock we were reeling on, trying to keep our balance, was pulling forward toward the sunrise.

”Whew! What was that?”

It didn’t take long, though, after the disc of the sun broke free from the horizon, all that motion ceased. The common light of day had re-inaned the world. We would eat breakfast, talk about baseball, read the newspaper all the quotidian fuss of our lives and rejoin the society where the search for a good five-cent cigar seems important.

A friend was telling me once about the trouble he has been having with his insurance company. He had run into a bureaucratic Catch-22 in which he needed an official letter before the insurance would take effect, but couldn’t get the letter until the insurance was working.

”Sometimes, I don’t know how the world keeps turning,” he said.

As we fight rush-hour traffic, heat up our Pop Tarts, pay our bills, worry if our taxes will devour our raise or if Congress will ever become more than monkeys squabbling over a banana;

As we worry if our daughters will safely negotiate the pitfalls of adolescence, if the rebuilt transmission can last another 30,000 miles, and we put a few more dollars into an IRA;

As we submerge ourselves once again into the inclarity of what we call our lives, it’s good to remember that there is something larger out there, with a wider frame of reference.

We need to be reminded every once in a while that we live on a planet.