Four Corners, Part VII

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

The headache I'd started the evening before had abated by sunrise on the 11th, which was good, as we had decided to spend our one full day at Grand Canyon National Park driving several hours eastward toward the town of Winslow, which sits at an unfamiliar point on an entirely familiar road:  Interstate 40, the same road that passes by Chapel Hill.

That's not Winslow's claim to fame, however; it has three.  First, it's the home of La Posada Hotel, designed by architect Mary Colter.  Second, it sits not only on I-40, but on another more celebrated road, thanks to the lyrics of "Route 66":

You go through St. Louis, Joplin, Missouri, and Oklahoma City looks mighty pretty/ You'll see Amarillo... Gallup, New Mexico/ Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona/ Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino...

Sadly, despite a perfectly rhymable name, Winslow didn't make the cut for songwriter Bobby Troup, possibly because it would be hard to say in the same line with Winona.  A few years later, however, Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey would right this wrong in the lyrics of "Take It Easy" and give Winslow its third and greatest claim to fame:

Well I'm standin on the corner in Winslow, Arizona/ Such a fine sight to see/ It's a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford/ Slowin down to take a look at me

Now boasting a pop song it could call its own, the city of Winslow spent several decades basking in the Eagles' mellow, smoke-obscured glow before realizing that the band had broken up and that continuing to take its advice would result in a loss of tourist dollars.  In 1994, however, the city began work on what would eventually become the nation's first civic monument to Seventies country-rock:  Standin' on the Corner Park.

Yes, you too can stand next to a life-sized bronze statue of a dude with an acoustic guitar (Dad and I each did) and note the flatbed Ford parked nearby.  It probably wasn't the stupidest thing I did for a photo on this trip, but it had to rank in the top two.

Luckily for my self-image, we had another much better reason for being in Winslow: to track down a kachina.  Dad has been collecting Hopi-made kachina dolls for some years now, and he remembered a shop in Winslow that offered a good selection.  Unfortunately, in the decades since his last shopping trip, the shop had apparently shut down, so we did a little hunting around town.  A local pawn shop had no likely kachinas, but I was delighted to find two CDs that I knew Dad and I could both enjoy:  the two discs of Chet Atkins' The RCA Years: 1947-1981.  Cranking up Chet's duet with Les Paul on "Avalon," we headed across town to another likely spot, where Dad found both a lapis bracelet for Mom and a Navajo chief's blanket for the house.  I was well out of my price range--the CDs had run two bucks apiece--but I fell in love with the samples of Zuni pottery in the shop, marveling at the three-dimensional lizards that decorated the rims.

On the way back from Winslow, we decided we couldn't pass up a chance to visit Meteor Crater, a place I'd known about all my life without ever considering visiting.  With it less than ten miles off I-40, however, there was nothing to do but to head in, pay the fee, and walk out onto the crater's rim, staring down into its hollow and feeling vaguely frustrated.  The problem, much as it is at the Grand Canyon, is one of scale.  The crater is simply so big that the viewer can't see how big it is.  Park officials have tried to help solve this problem, placing a life-sized astronaut figure at the bottom--Apollo astronauts came to the site to train in geology back in the 70s--but for something so visually startling, the crater's impact is surprisingly unsurprising.  Then again, perhaps it simply didn't compare well with the enormous hole the Colorado River had been eroding a few hours away.

We returned to that enormous hole in the early afternoon, gathered our cameras and binoculars, and made our way out to the South Rim, passing by several elk on the way.  (They're not terribly afraid of cars, and they'll stroll arrogantly across the park's roads in search of forage, secure in the knowledge that traffic will screech to a halt and tourists will leap from their cars to take photos.)  Our plan was simple: get to Hopi Point, generally regarded as the best place on the rim to see the sunset, and watch said sunset at 6:30.  We arrived just after six, feeling smug as we watched scores of other tourists spill out of the shuttle buses over the next twenty minutes.  Dad and I are normally somewhat snobbish in such places, considering ourselves above the common herd of tourists in terms of our ability to plan our travels and to appreciate our surroundings, but here we both just threw ourselves into the role of Guy With Camera, snapping pictures relentlessly.  I took shots facing the sun, hoping the clouds in the west would hold some color attractively, then turned east and realized that the best thing about sunset in the Canyon was what it did to the rocks in that direction: set against a leaden-gray sky, the rocks out toward Desert View fairly burned, and the shadows of the outthrust rocks painted stripes along the walls for miles.

Darkness finally fell, the shuttle bus returned for us, and we trundled our gear back to the hotel.  I spent the night finishing David Quammen's superb collection Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, going over my notes, and feeling vaguely dissatisfied that I hadn't seen a life bird since a Mountain Chickadee turned up under a bench near Mather Point.  Perhaps our trip back to Vegas would provide something new.

Unfortunately, the bird life on the way west from GCNP was decidedly similar to the bird life I'd already observed.  We did spot some new plant life, however: many small orange and yellow-orange blossoms were springing up along US 93 as we made our way to Hoover Dam--some kind of columbine, perhaps?--and the big barrel cacti were sporting rosy red needles, possibly as a result of the season.  The season was actually a little hard to figure out, what with the temperature varying from 28 degrees when we left Grand Canyon to over 70 by the time we hit Nevada, but I suspect the change in elevation--from over 7000 feet to under 3000 along the way.  (Yes, my ears were a-poppin'.)

The trip's last notable feature was man-made:  Hoover Dam.  Standing as it does athwart one of the continent's great rivers, its power as a barrier somewhat obscures its second crucial function:  as a bridge.  It's the only way across the Colorado for miles.  There's a bridge forty miles south in Laughlin, NV, and another about 200 miles uperiver at Marble Canyon, AZ.  If you don't want to swim Lake Mead or ford the river, your options for getting across in this part of the world come down to exactly one.  It's an incredibly narrow choke point for transportation in the southwest, and it's therefore a serious concern for the Department of Homeland Security, which had checkpoints in several places on the way up US 93.  The realization that having all the region's transportation AND water supply issues in the same concrete basket (along with a serious tourist attraction to boot) has also inspired the powers that be to begin construction of a new bridge, just downstream from the dam but at a higher elevation.

We pulled off to scope out the dam and marvel at the remarkable waters of Lake Mead, which now lie a good fifty feet below their usual level thanks to a relentless drought.  The water is a brilliant green, clean and crystalline near the shoreline, and the rocks that have lain under that water for decades have been bleached to a dull white, which makes the water's color even brighter.  Our parking place was far above the surface (and the dam, for that matter), but with my binoculars, I could easily pick out birds below:  a Great Blue Heron standing patiently on a spur of rock... a Western Grebe far out in the lake, almost impossible to identify... a Double-Crested Cormorant coming in for a clumsy landing on the surface... and a Pied-billed Grebe in the shallows, its brownish plumage still visible through the clear water as it swam down in search of prey.

It is perhaps a sign of how ready Dad and I were to get home that we simply forgot to look at the spillway.  We drove over the dam, up the west side of the canyon, and down into the Las Vegas basin without even realizing that we'd missed a whole half of the dam--and possibly the more impressive part.  Nonetheless, we were dialed in and preparing for our final night out west.

We had yet another Close Encounter of the Incompetent Kind at the otherwise excellent Mexican restaurant Macoya's; clearly Dad and I were not meant to be eating together.  We left another in a series of very small tips before making our way past the lights of Vegas's Finest and back to the hotel.  All in all, the place looked very much as it had on our first night:  too many people meeting in the wilderness in order to throw money in the air and hope they can grab more than they threw up before they have to give up the whole Golden Calf thing and head back to their Hebrew camp.

But as an entry point into the Four Corners region, I can say only good things about the place.  The United States is a far bigger place than most of us can imagine, and a visit to an unfamiliar part of it embiggens us as well.  (Hey, it's a perfectly cromulent word.)  I'm hugely grateful to my father for making our trip possible, and I look forward to making a return visit to the desert.

But no, I'm not flushing another dollar down the slots.  C'mon, people; I'm no math major, but even I know not to bet against the house.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 11, 2008 4:35 PM.

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

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