Four Corners, Part VI

Red Rock Canyon * Zion * Bryce Canyon * Capitol Reef * Arches * Mesa Verde * Monument Valley * Grand Canyon

There was only one park that we were able to see at both sunset and sunrise, and I do feel as though we chose well:  Monument Valley.  We arrived in the late afternoon of Sunday, March 9th, pulling into our lodgings at Goulding's hotel/restaurant/shop after trekking once more across the southern edge of Utah from Four Corners.  As we drove out of the 4C park, we could see the other side of the Sleeping Ute, though this angle presented nothing like the wintery colors we'd seen from his north side.  Here it was the high desert colors we'd become familiar with: sandstone reds and yellows and browns, with enough greys and browns to make the other colors jump out alarmingly. 

We took the opportunity to stop at the aptly-named town of Mexican Hat (which I feel sure is the Hispanic cousin of Medicine Hat, Alberta), but the rock formation which gives it its name was just the first of the stony marvels we saw as we approached the Arizona border.  Soon enough the haze before us opened into an expanse of desert peppered with the shapes we'd now learned to correctly categorize:  mesas (those wider than they are high, like the tables that give them their name), buttes (those higher than they are wide), and monuments (a/k/a spires, which are eroded to the point where they have practically no flat area on top).  This was territory Dad had seen before, and not just in his countless viewings of John Wayne movies.  (If DirecTV offered a Sons of Katie Elder channel, Dad would be the first subscriber.)  He'd never stayed there, though, and I could tell he was looking forward to getting out among the monuments in the morning.

That evening, however, we stayed at Goulding' Lodge, which is perched up a slope underneath a pair of sandstone walls.  The flat expanse of Monument Valley itself lies to the northeast of Gouldings, and our ground-floor room opened onto a patio with a beautiful view.  In fact, it was a view that at least temporarily left me tongue-tied.  My notes from that evening read, in full:

Watched sunset at Monument Valley from Goulding's Lodge:  COLORS! 

I did go on to note a couple of slightly less primitive things once night fell:

Night in Monument Valley: headlights are about all the lights you see--and you see them from miles away.

Sound continues to amaze out west--atop Mesa Verde, or even at the hotel, it carries forever.

Sunrise, when it came, was almost instantaneous:  the sky was pale blue, with the valley floor and the hulking silhouettes of the monuments looming in grey-brown.  Then pow! the floor is lit and the stone catches fire.

We hustled out to the Silverado and into our second Navajo Nation park in two days.  This one's entrance is a bit more built up than that of Four Corners, but visitors to Monument Valley Park should be aware that its roads have been tended with what could most generously be described as benign neglect.  The seventeen-mile loop of dirt road through the valley itself is--and I say this with the sort of precise, understated language that I've been known for since I published my first article in The Comics Journal, where it appeared in a column called "A Waste of Trees"--the worst stretch of navigable road ever created by human beings.

In fact, the Monument Valley loop is a lot like a river:  there are rocks, flats, gravel beds, falls, riffles, eddies, and as far as I know undertows.  I can certainly attest that driving on it is more like steering a kayak than a truck.  One must gauge the surface ahead, looking for a clear path between the rocks, and swiftly guide the vessel into the flow so as not to smash up the bottom.  You can't get away from it with a portage, either; the land around the road is privately owned, and trespassing is strictly verboten.  You've got to stay in the flow and make your way as best you can.  If you're lucky, all you'll do is jar your coccyx; if you're unlucky, well, good luck getting that thing to roll back up.

We bumped and ground our way along, circling Rain God Mesa and taking periodic stops to look at interesting formations such as the Mittens, the Thumb, and the Totem Pole.  It was while we were parked to look at the latter that I heard a peculiar downslurred call from behind me.  Back toward Rain God Mesa were a few small junipers, and atop one was a flycatcher.  The morning light was very helpful, making it possible for me to see the bird's dark tail and the fawn-colored underside.  Those, combined with the call, gave me a clear ID of my first Arizona lifer: Say's Phoebe, wild and free and unencumbered by a need to roll its backside over the loop.

We returned to the main road with plenty of daylight remaining, which was good, since we had a lot of Arizona to get through before we reached our destination:  Grand Canyon village.  Monument Valley lies in the state's northeast corner, while GCV is in the western half; as the raven flies, the distance is probably only about 150 miles, but as the Silverado drives, it was a longer affair.  First we had to gas up in the town of Keyanta, which had four service stations at the main intersection, but seemed unwilling to part with the actual fuel.  Some of the individual pumps were out of order, but you couldn't see which ones until you pulled up to them, and the natives seemed to regard it as a point of pride to beat the tourists to the working pumps.  I had been boxed out at the first station like an undersized shooting guard straining for a rebound, but at the second station I had circled the pumps twice in order to position the truck for a fill-up.  At that moment, a fiftyish woman pulled up on the opposite side and had the nozzle in her hand before I could get out of the cab.  The station's other pump, naturally, was out of order.  We filled up at the third station and got out of dodge before anyone siphoned our tank.

For the most part, the stretch of highway 160 between Keyanta and Tuba City is straight and uneventful, but we were impressed by the massive formation known as El Capitan, which looks not unlike a smaller version of Ship Rock, but which got practically no mention in any of the literature we had with us.  Perhaps it's due to the large number of nearby monuments.  We did note a lengthy and mysterious stretch of electric railroad running alongside the road for many miles southwest of Black Mesa, but we were never able to figure out what it was for--hauling away bits of mesa would be my guess.  In the end, the most interesting thing we saw between Keyanta and the park entrance at Desert View was a brief glimpse of slate-blue feathers whipping across the road and settling into a small pine:  a Pinyon Jay.

There was quite a lot of interesting stuff to see once we reached the western end of Grand Canyon National Park, however.  For one thing, there's a watchtower.  It's built of native stone (around a hidden steel support structure), stands 70 feet above the canyon rim, and is the work of an unsung figure in American architecture: Mary Colter

Back in the 1930s, Colter was all over the Canyon's south rim, designing (and supervising the building) of no fewer than five different lodges and observation points.  She carefully tried to match the tower with the surrounding landscape, choosing weathered stones that she felt would go well with the environment and adding exposed timbers and mortar to match.  I'll grant that I'm not a great student of architecture, but I'm the son of one longtime feminist and the husband of another, so I was frankly a little surprised that neither of them had ever mentioned this woman, who was a true pioneer in her field.  Born in 1869, she began studying architecture in the 1880s and was hired to design buildings as early as 1901--two decades before she would be trusted with offering her opinion on a Congressional representative or a president.

And atop Colter's tower, I was suddenly presented with the difference between the Grand Canyon and the other parks we'd visited:  scale.  From the balcony, I could begin to appreciate that scale.  The Canyon's bottom was a mile below me, the North Rim ten miles away, but I could only stare along the curls of the Colorado in futile hopes of seeing the Canyon's length; it's a good 200 miles from end to end.  I'd known that from maps, of course, but it's a bit different seeing it laid out in front of you.

Having digested that bit of understanding, we drove down the rim to the Visitor's Center, where I heard two things I'd never heard before:  one was a pair of Juniper Titmice, their nondescript grey bodies perched appropriately atop a juniper, who were producing a call that resembled nothing so much as the beeping of a video game.  (I once again had to thank the Splitters at the American Ornithological Union; back in Palo Alto in 2003, I saw what was then called a Plain Titmouse, but because of distinctions in call, behavior, and habitat, the AOU had decided the California variant would now be the Oak Titmouse, while the GCNP's birds would be Junipers.  Bureaucracy can sometimes produce positive results, it seems.)  The second thing I heard was a park ranger saying, in all seriousness, that in April and May, the park's California Condors may as well be "yard birds... they're Starlings."  Alas, were were too early to see their imitation of Sturnus vulgaris, but the comparison obviously stayed with me.

The Grand Canyon differs from the other parks in other ways besides scale, I soon realized.  It's not just bigger, but far more carefully controlled.  The government clearly takes a much more engaged and active role in managing the area, and it consequently leaves a much bigger footprint.  You can imagine, in Zion or Bryce or Mesa Verde, that you are in the wilderness, but on the South Rim, at least, you are constantly confronted by roads, parking spaces, lodges, railroads, and other tourist bric-a-brac.  Here the National Park Service is a host, not just a landlord.

And it has to be.  We noted vehicles from over half the United States: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, plus Alberta and Ontario--and that's not counting those from other places who were renting cars locally.  We heard German and Italian, and Japanese and other unidentifiable languages, and we saw at least one guy wearing a UNC toque at Hopi Point.  We'd somehow left the southwest and entered Disneyland.

The tourist I'll never forget, though, was the woman on the shuttle.  Her two most prominent features were her hair and her voice.  The hair was almost hypnotic: a blonde shade that was unquestionably artificial and a style that nearly defies description.  The back was cut into vertical columns, resembling nothing so much as the basalt pillars of Devil's Tower, while the top was disarranged artfully into a roundish mass with stray tendrils, all of it tilted slightly forward over her eyes.  The overall effect, somehow, was that of a cotton-candy muffin tipped dangerously over the edge of its cup. (Dad thought the whole thing was a wig, and he may have been right.)  The hair almost, but not quite, managed to distract the observer from her ensemble, which combined a French manicure, two enormous gold and turquoise rings on each hand, an array of musically jangling gold-and-turquoise bracelets on each wrist, a black bolero jacket with silvery studs at the wrists and waist, and wraparound Coco Chanel sunglasses.  Basically, I would have expected to see this outfit only on Carol Channing, and only if she were in Las Vegas performing a tribute to the Cure.  "We could have each other for dinner... we could have each other with cream..."

The voice was also somewhat Channing-like.  It first came to my notice when, climbing on board the bus at the pickup point, she bumped butts with Dad.  Laughing loudly--I won't say "braying," to be polite--she asked "Was it good for you?"

Dad is rarely at a loss for words in such situations, and sure enough he cheerfully replied, "It's always good for me."  She laughed again and was gone from my notice until we eventually reached the western end of the shuttle run at Hermit's Rest and discovered that she was returning on the same shuttle.  She was reading a book (most likely Over the Edge: Death in the Canyon by Thomas M. Myers) and felt compelled to point out important facts to her escort, a mustachioed gent sitting several rows in front of her due to overcrowding. "They have suicides here, too!" she proclaimed loudly, prompting more than one rider to contemplate it.  Or perhaps homicide.  Anything to end the braying.

Maybe that was why my head began pounding.  Maybe it was the Blue Moon ale I had at lunch.  Maybe it was the altitude, as we were well above 7000 feet.  Or maybe it was the fact that when we'd left the Navajo Nation, where Daylight Savings Time is observed, we'd had to set our watches back an hour--the state of Arizona does NOT observe it.  I no longer knew what time it was, and as my skull throbbed like a rock-beaten kayak, I realized that I didn't really care, either.

IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT: Chet Atkins!  Deep Impact!  Such a fine sight to see!  And sunset at the Canyon!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 10, 2008 5:05 PM.

Four Corners, Part V was the previous entry in this blog.

Four Corners, Part VII is the next entry in this blog.

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