When I got out of the shower, I heard voices outside my door and the grinding chords of black metal blaring from portable speakers. Workshop participants were working on the construction project underway on the embankment below the guest quarters. If the room had cost more than forty dollars, I may have complained about the early morning noise. But really, I was more charmed than anything else by the whole situation. After breakfast, I put some laundry in to wash and met up with a tour at the ceramics studio. We watched a bronze pour and learned all about how the artisans make the beautiful Arcosanti bells. Over lunch, I wrote out postcards and watched the residents eating and talking together. I gathered my laundry, left my key, and walked up to my car. I wanted so much to stay on there. It felt like some kind of home, and I was sad to leave.
After talking with a few native Arizonans back in Tucson, I thought that I would spend a day or two touring Prescott, Jerome, and Sedona before going on to the Grand Canyon. But when I got to the highway junction heading west toward Prescott, I found myself continuing north. I had a campsite reserved that night, anyway. Why not roll up and see about getting some information from a ranger? It would be better to get there and figure out the scene, especially if I wanted to get to the North Rim at some point on this trip. I'd read that the services up there might already be closed, and the weather reports were predicting snow. I had no winter gear. I figured that, if it turned out that I wouldn't be able to go to the North Rim, I could always come back down to the Sedona area on my way back to California. In Flagstaff, I stopped at a local market. I tried to shop for every contingency: hiking, hotel stays, car camping, and backpacking. I'd told myself it wasn't a good idea for me to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon alone, but I'd put my gear in the car at the last minute, just in case...
I wove back through Flagstaff and out route 89 toward the Grand Canyon. I passed only a handful of other cars, and I wondered what it's like in summer. Speeding down the flat straightaway, I imagined a crawling train of RVs, bumper to bumper all the way across the Coconino Plateau, and I was glad to be there in the off season. The landscape around the 89 gives no indication that the biggest hole in the Earth is just a few miles away, but I was so close now. Mine was the only car at the entry gate. I asked the ranger for directions to the Backcountry Office. He showed me a confusing map and warned that the office would be closing in ten minutes. When I arrived at the front door of the office, my clock read 5:02. Roll-up blinds pulled down, doors locked.
I followed the maze of roads back out to Mather Campground. While standing in line waiting to check in, visitors pointed fingers and cameras at a huge elk foraging nearby. I noticed that only one of the other people in line was American. I was especially impressed by a German couple on rented dual sport motorcycles with very little gear. Considering that Mather Campground has something like 350 sites, it's quite nice. My site was large with a lot of big trees. I could have had a really nice night eating refried beans and handmade tortillas while reading guidebooks and looking over maps, but instead it was just OK. The couple in the RV next door insisted on running a generator for three hours while they watched a movie or something, and the sound of it irked me something fierce.
I woke before dawn. It was cold. I put on most of my clothes, packed up some yogurt, fruit, and granola, and rolled out of the campground. I parked at the Backcountry Office and walked over to the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail runs thirteen miles along the very edge of the South Rim from the South Kaibab trailhead on the eastern end to Hermit's Rest on the western end. It's a mostly flat, paved walkway with vista points, history lessons, and geological information at frequent rest points along the way. I headed west from the Bright Angel Lodge. As the sun began to rise, I sat at the very edge of the canyon and ate my breakfast. When I finished eating, I laid on my belly so that I could hold my head over the side to look straight down. It was only a little bit before seven, so I walked a mile out to another view point before turning around. When I arrived at the Backcountry Office about ten minutes to eight, there were five or six other people milling around. When the doors were opened, it became clear that the others had received queue numbers from a ranger before I'd arrived. I asked for a number and waited. Two men and a woman came in together. I liked the looks of them. They had bright eyes and a comfortable way about them.
When I finally got my chance to talk to a ranger, I had so many questions. After watching the sunrise and peering over the edge of the canyon, I was sure that I couldn't leave without walking down into it. The ranger was so kind; he spent over half an hour with me, showing me maps and giving me advice. I expected him to discourage me from traveling on my own, but he was so helpful and was excited for me to be visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. He told me to come back the next morning at eight o'clock and that, as long as I had my paperwork, I would be first in line when they opened. And even better, he told me I'd be guaranteed a spot at Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the canyon on Friday night.
Elated, I drove back to Mather, ate a huge mess of eggs and refried beans with pico de gallo and avocado, broke down my camp, and drove the twenty-four miles to Desert View Campground. With only 48 sites, Desert View is just lovely, and since only two of the sites were claimed, I had the pick of the place. Stopping at every site that looked appealing to me, I finally settled on 46. On the outside of a bend in the drive, the shady site is set back a bit from the road with a secluded table and fire ring. I noticed a faint path and followed it for a while. When I thought the path was petering out, I looked up and caught my breath, realizing I was just feet from the edge of the cliff. What a sight. Auburn, umber, terra cotta, blood red dirt in ancient strata descending over six thousand feet down, the faces of the canyon cliffs dotted with deep emerald, silver sage, black and grey, and the bright blue sky rising up and up above it all.
To be continued.
Go to Part I