September 24, 2020

Article at Edward on Authory

The grandest of them all: Billion-year-old rocks, scenic trails and man-made wonders

EDWARD M. EVELD / The Kansas City Star /

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Ann Harvey is here from Dublin, Ireland. She has dreamed about seeing the Grand Canyon for exactly 17 years, ever since she watched a movie about its splendor.

Now, standing at the canyon's South Rim, she looks out and sees: nothing. A wall of white. A bank of blank. The fog is thicker than anything they can whip up on the Emerald Isle. She and her two boys, John and Andrew, retreat to a picnic table to do some coloring.

It's the same with the couple from Paris and their two youngsters, uselessly driving from lookout point to lookout point, squinting, hoping for a glimpse. They have just a few hours before they head to Las Vegas, then back to France. Is it possible they won't see the canyon at all?

"OK, what's Plan B?" asked an American, dejected. "I'm going back to the hotel room," said her friend, cinching her coat against the dampness.

Did I mention the three pals here from ... Namibia?

Suppose you go to the Grand Canyon, easily one of earth's most spectacular achievements, and rather than peering downward past tiers of ancient rock to the squirmy Colorado River, rather than skipping your eyes over the 10 miles of layered chasm to the North Rim, rather than watching the sunset splash across the canyon's rock temples, you see: nothing.

Instead the world's largest dry ice machine chugs endlessly a mile below, shooting up billows of whiteness.

"I would hope you've seen some pictures at least," said National Park Service Ranger Jim Heywood. He was giving a talk at Yavapai Point the next day as the fog persisted, the canyon stretched out behind him. Or so he said.

Heywood described how this particular pile of rock and this major desert river came to form such a grand canyon, a place of "enormous proportions and colorful scenery" unlike any other canyon on the planet. Unfortunately, he was without his visual aid.

A typical stay at the Grand Canyon lasts about four hours. Most people spend it at the overlooks along the two rim drives, which shoot east and west from Grand Canyon Village. But a few hours hardly afford a decent exploration of a geologic masterpiece.

Some extra time allows you to investigate the man-made intrusions along the canyon's south corridor. And, weather permitting, you can take a hike and inspect the canyon's insides. After all, that big hole in the ground doesn't stop at the rim; it starts there.

On Day 2 of the fog-in I was getting anxious myself. That morning in the pouring rain Robert Fliegel, my hiking guide to the canyon's interior, arrived from his headquarters in Flagstaff. But the weather didn't break, and we had no choice but to cancel.

October, when I visited, is usually a superb time to be at the Grand Canyon, everyone said. The crowds are down, the temperatures are cooler, and the summer thunderstorm season is long over.

Luckily I had gotten at least a rim view of the canyon late on the first afternoon of my visit, before the weather turned nasty. I didn't suspect it might be my last.

I had hooked up with another guide, Romy D. Anne Murphy. We first four-wheeled away from the Grand Canyon through the Ponderosa pines of the Kaibab National Forest, where fall had emerged in subtle yellows.

Murphy stopped her truck in front of an elongated hollow. It had a generous rock overhang, the ceiling blackened in places. Boulders sat underneath, their tops kitchen-counter smooth. We climbed up to the hollow, and Murphy pointed out what we couldn't see from below, red and orange paintings on the rock wall.

The pictographs, she said, made of animal blood and lard and tree sap, were evidence of humans in the area going back thousands of years. Cave fires had blackened the ceilings, and the boulders had grown smooth from years of food preparation.

The painted figures looked to be dogs, some elk, a scorpion. The artists might have been painting for fun or to pay homage, Murphy said. Many of the paintings were shapes or diagrams, including simple grid patterns.

"Is it a game, is it a calendar, is it a counting device?" Murphy asked.

As the afternoon waned, we joined swarms of people along the rim at Yaki Point, an excellent place to see some amazing rock monuments, such as Vishnu Temple and Zoroaster Temple. I looked down past some 2 billion years of rock, about half of the Earth's existence, and couldn't help but feel a connection with our spinning planet.

People feel a sacredness here. You understand why the earliest mapmakers saw the canyon's rock formation as temples and named them after ancient, Eastern deities.

As the storms began and the fog came in, I focused on the modern, man-made aspects of the South Rim, structures built early in the 20th century when attempts to mine the canyon gave way to tourism.

One of my favorite places was Kolb Studio, built against the canyon's edge in 1904 by brothers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb. They photographed tourists at the rim, then raced 4 1/2 miles down Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden, where water was available to develop the film. They hurried back up the trail to sell the prints - precursors to those roller-coaster photos hawked at theme parks.

The building today houses a gallery and bookstore, but the real wonder of the place is around a corner, tucked inside the former projection room. Interactive monitors allow visitors to view clippings and still shots from the Kolbs' collection, a fascinating look at the canyon's earliest tourists.

The other man-made must-see is the 1930s Watchtower at the Desert View stop, at the end of East Rim Drive. A conical rock pile of a building, it rises 70 feet above the edge of the canyon. Its observation deck is the highest point along the South Rim.

It was one of several buildings by Mary Colter, famous for her designs that blended into the South Rim. Encircled in fog when I visited, the Watchtower looked more like a medieval turret. Colter modeled it after ancient pueblo towers, which apparently were used for protection and food storage.

As I drove back to the village in the late afternoon fog, I could make out a few mule deer in the woods, their ears flopping as they seemed to hop along. I slammed the brakes for three enormous elk. They had started across the two-lane with no regard for my headlights. It was a pleasure to watch them pass.

Then I realized: The fog had lost some of its opaqueness. I stopped at Lipan Point. Practically running toward the rim from the parking area, I heard gasps from a small crowd.

The fog seemed not to drift aside but to disintegrate, a sudden opening with crisp views all the way to the Colorado River. As quickly as the view appeared, it was gone, like the shutter opening and closing on a camera.

It was that way from overlook to overlook. Visitors waited 15 minutes, a half-hour and - look fast! - an overwhelming snapshot of the canyon. Then the canyon disappeared again in less than a minute. At one spot, a thick-ribboned rainbow was projected on a near canyon wall. It, too, was quickly lost to the fog.

The drama was an unexpected reward, and I was doubly thrilled when the next day dawned crisply blue and sunny. Time, finally, for a hike.

Fliegel, my guide to the inner canyon, arrived early. We stepped off the rim onto Bright Angel Trail at 8:15 a.m., our compact backpacks filled with lunch and water.

Bright Angel is the I-35 of canyon foot traffic in the summer, but this autumn morning was quiet. It's the friendliest canyon trail, with rest stops, some shade and water. It's also stinky in places. The trail serves the famous, and large, mules that take riders into the canyon.

The top of the trail hugs the canyon wall and zigzags as it drops quickly through some six layers - 350 million years - of rock. We noticed the changing hues: The Kaibab Formation at the top is buff or creamy, the Coconino Sandstone is whitish, the Hermit Shale is red, the Redwall Limestone rose-colored.

The trail leveled, and up ahead we could see the oasis of Indian Garden, shaded by cottonwoods. This is where the Havasupai Indians farmed for centuries, but the government finally expelled the remaining contingent in the 1920s. Indian Garden is a good place to rest, have a snack and turn around. But I wanted to see the rest of the trail and the Colorado River.

Rangers tell hikers not to attempt a hike to the river and back in a day. Problems are many, Fliegel said. In the summer temperatures can hit 110 degrees on the canyon floor. The hike's strain is deceptive: The hard part, hiking uphill out of the canyon, comes at the end, just as fatigue sets in. The hike out can take twice as long as the hike in. And the altitude changes, 4,500 feet of elevation each way, are wearying.

The Park Service has rescued too many hikers who tried and couldn't make it or were injured. There are no roads into the canyon, so a rescue, generally by helicopter at the hiker's expense, is not simple.

But we had a cool fall day, about 60 degrees at the rim, perhaps 80 degrees at the bottom. Plus, I had been running regularly and, unlike many day hikers, I had a guide who knew how fast a pace to keep to beat the sunset. Fliegel agreed to continue to the river rather than let me go alone.

We followed two creeks on the lower part of the trail and dropped again at a series of narrow, wall-hugging switchbacks known as Devil's Corkscrew. We met a string of mules and, as is trail etiquette, stood aside to let them pass. As I looked up at the riders on this rocky, narrow part of the trail with long drop-offs, I was happy to have my feet on the ground.

At 11:15 a.m. we rounded a canyon wall and saw the rushing Colorado River up ahead. That thin thread I had viewed from the rim some eight foot-miles away was alive - and loud. We took off our shoes to feel the frosty water. The damming of the river northeast of the canyon keeps it a bone-chilling 48 degrees.

Just then three yellow rafts appeared upriver. They zipped past and hit a series of small rapids that tossed them about. Fliegel said the whooping you often hear from rafters is a reaction to the river's icy blast.

"I used to think they were just having fun," he said.

We rested for an hour and headed back. The highlight of the return: scampering over a smooth rock shelf just off the trail to a short waterfall, a chute that dumped us into a refreshing pool.

"This is the greatest high," Fliegel said, and he was right.

The low point, physically, of the return came in the last two miles. That final climb to the trailhead was painful. As Fliegel put it, the ultimate Stairmaster. But, hey, it was a good pain, mixed with exhilaration.

We arrived back at 4 p.m., and Fliegel suggested I walk my burning quadriceps a few steps farther to the lounge at Bright Angel Lodge, where Butch the bartender poured some beautiful beers. Butch has encountered quite a few spent hikers in his six years at the canyon, which is why he says rimside.

"I can see it fine from here," he said.

Which reminded me. Although a shower sounded great, I thanked Fliegel and rushed, as well as I could, back outside to join the hordes scurrying to the lookout points. After all, the sun would be setting soon on this grandest of canyons, and I needed to find the perfect perch.

The Kansas City Star 1999