January 15th will forever be an important and special date on my calendar and not just because it’s Captain Beefheart’s birthday. It was the day I finally got to stand astride the Grand Canyon, a dream I’d held for a few years. As an amateur landscape photographer, I’d spent many hours studying photos and documentaries about the Grand Canyon, learning about its geology and history, fantasizing about the day when I’d finally get to see this wonder of the world up close. I moved to the Vegas valley in 2012, the nearest metropolitan hub to the GC, so after a couple years, it was starting to make me crazy that I hadn’t seen it yet, knowing the Grand Canyon was RIGHT THERE. But I was always thwarted by something, either the lack of money, time or health. I finally managed to get to the GC last Thursday, for a brief overview excursion and it was well worth the hassle.
I booked a South Rim tour, a bargain at $79, with the Grand Canyon Tour Company. Now bus travel has always been my least favorite form of travel, so I was trepidatious about the whole thing. I knew it would be hard and girded myself for the worst. But it turned out I didn’t have to worry. The bus was comfortable and gleaming, not full to capacity so I had an empty seat next to me and could spread out. My traveling companions on board were some of the world’s best tourists – quiet, polite, well-behaved folks from China, Singapore, the UK and Italy. Aside from the driver, I was the only local on board. No screaming babies, no drunks, no rude people jostling or yelling. I couldn’t believe my luck. The driver was friendly and professional and you could tell she cared deeply about everyone’s comfort.
Still, it was a bus and I was on it all total for something like 11 hours that day. A coach is like an airplane on wheels. And you know what it’s like to be in an airplane – the constant jarring motion, the lack of leg room, the miniscule, cramped restroom, it all gets to you. But traveling is arduous. You have to expect to be uncomfortable for awhile and keep in mind it’s only temporary.
We made a few stops before arriving at the Grand Canyon. We pulled over at Hoover Dam, Kingman, Arizona and lunched at Williams, AZ. I was alarmed when Tess, our driver, announced that water wouldn’t be available at Grand Canyon. They don’t sell bottled water at the Grand Canyon for environmental reasons and, she explained, that they’d shut off the public taps because of the winter weather. So everyone had to stock up in Kingman with enough water to get them through the day. I have a medical condition that causes chronic dehydration and have to drink 2 to 3 gallons of water a day or else suffer serious consequences. Had I known about the water issue, I’d have brought along a jug to see me through. As it was, I had to buy about 15 of those little water bottles in Kingman, about $22 worth of water. I was irritated but I’ve traveled a lot and was prepared for unforeseen circumstances. I placed the bottles in my backpack, and was grateful that I’d had the cash on me so I could purchase them at the stop.
We pulled into the quaint mountain town of Williams, AZ for an all-you-can-eat lunch, free with the tour. We were seated cafeteria style in a pleasant lodge-like room, my companions, two tiny Japanese girls who looked to be about 18 years old or so. I sat down with my plate, a modest salad with a veggie egg roll, while these ladies had two dinner plates each, with mountains of food piled high. They had salisbury steaks and french fries and stir fry chicken and vegetables and egg rolls, etc. I tried not to gawk and marvel at the amount of food these small women were shoveling into their mouths, thought it was funny how little food I had comparatively, seeing as I’m a foot taller than them. I asked if they were enjoying the trip, they nodded and smiled. I asked if they spoke much English, they glanced at each other and said, “uhhhh…” So I left them alone to inhale their food while I picked at my iceberg lettuce. I couldn’t help but notice when one of them speared an enormous broccoli floret and held it up to bulging eyes, both of them leaning in to it, chattering away excitedly. I guess they don’t have big broccoli in Japan?
Back on the road, we zipped up to Mather’s Point at the South Rim, where we were given the option of checking out the view for awhile, then getting back on the bus and being taken to Bright Angel point, or we could hike the two miles from Mather’s and meet up with our group at Bright Angel after a couple hours. I chose the hike and I’m so glad I did. It was the highlight of the trip for me.
The path skirts the edge of the Grand Canyon, in some places, perilously close with no rail or wall to protect you and the views, of course, are awe-inspiring. The weather was on the warm side for this time of year with clear blue skies. We landscape photographers don’t like clear blue skies, we like bad weather to make for more dramatic photos. At a minimum, we want some clouds but there were none on this day. I wasn’t bothered by it though, as I was just so excited to finally see the GC after all these years. Fact is, nothing can ever really prepare you for the real-life sight of it. It’s all about the scale. And pictures simply can’t capture it, no matter how beautiful they may be. You’re standing there, thousands of feet up and the canyon stretches off into the horizon. I saw one woman, about thirtyish, standing there with tears streaming down her face, so freaked out by the height, she was demanding to be taken back to the bus. I heard people gasping, saying “woah.” Really, if you don’t gasp when you see it, then there’s something broken in you.
Confess it DID make me feel a bit cranky, when we first arrived at Mather’s Point, that I had to weave through crowds with their selfie-sticks as I tried to near the railing to look out over the GC. So I decided that the sooner I could escape them, the better. I soon left behind the crowds at Mather’s and had the path mostly to myself.
There were still patches of ice on the path from a recent snowfall making it so that I had to watch my footing. But the walk was beautiful, maybe the most beautiful that I’ve ever taken. The path dips and curves and rises and at 7,000 feet, if you’re not reasonably fit, you’ll shortly be huffing and puffing. I was huffing and puffing.
At one point, a large mule deer lazily grazed right past me, startling me and sending my heart up into my throat. You’d think that for someone who once lived alone in a rustic mountain cabin at 7,000 feet, I’d be a bit less wussier. I blame my up-bringing – you can take the girl out of Orange County, CA but you can’t take Orange County out of the girl!
As I closed in on Bright Angel lodge, I heard a young female voice, coming from the canyon side, crying out, “help me, please help me!” I looked over and couldn’t register what I was seeing for a moment. All I could see was the head and hands of a young, slight, Chinese gal, as she held on to the wrong side of the cliff. I rushed over, saw that she was standing on a very narrow ledge – one slip and she was going down. I grabbed her right hand, made sure I had firm footing and wasn’t on a patch of ice and yoinked her over the edge as she pushed herself up with her other hand. She was crying out in fear as I maneuvered her onto terra firma. Thankfully, she turned out to just be shaken but otherwise unharmed. She thanked me profusely and I went on my way. Just another day at the Grand Canyon, I guess! It looked to me like what had happened was she had seen the small ledge off the main path and thought it would be a cool place to take a picture, so she set her camera and purse down by the cliff, climbed down to the ledge, realized how precarious it was and panicked, because there wasn’t actually much ledge there and she had no way to hoist herself back up. I wasn’t afraid during the whole thing, because it all happened within the span of seconds. It wasn’t until I was walking away that the gravity of what had just happened really struck me! After a quick Google, I read that on average, 12 people die at the Grand Canyon each year!
At Bright Angel lodge, I had time enough to order some fries in the bar and chat with a couple of tourists from South Carolina. The lady and I had a conversation that went like this;
Me: “I’m divorced, thinking of moving to Phoenix.”
Her: “You don’t have children?”
Her: “So you’re free?”
Me, shrugging: “Yeah, I guess so.”
Her, rolling her eyes: “Must be nice! Well, you’re young enough looking that you can get away with it.”
I’m still not sure what she meant by that…
Anyway, back on the bus for an uneventful ride home. The bus driver did, however, show a video of Terry Fator, which made me cringe (I don’t understand ventriloquists. They’re amusing for about 4 seconds. But an entire hour?! Kill me now… )
As the bus pulled into Vegas, it had to stop at everyone’s hotels. With me being a local, it meant I had to go back to Main HQ so I was the last one on. When the bus was emptied of tourists, I moved up near the front and chatted with the driver, who was delighted to find out I live in Henderson. She explained that an elderly lady from our group had taken ill at lunch and that it was serious enough that her family members wanted her hospitalized, but the old lady had refused, insisted on continuing on the trip. Tess said she spent the rest of the day worrying about her. I told her I admired her, that it must be a tough job, to drive a huge coach over treacherous mountain/desert roads while also having to be concerned about everyone’s safety and well-being. She explained that she has every other day off to regroup. I think everyone needs to hug a bus driver today, for they have an awfully difficult job and get little recognition for it.