Monday, March 08, 2010

Winter at the Grand Canyon

Clouds fill the Canyon

The Grand Canyon is silence.

I woke up in the early-morning hours in our bed in one of the Bright Angel cabins and had trouble falling back to sleep. As I lay there, hoping the next day's weather would improve for us, the compressor on the mini refrigerator in our room shut off, and all was silent. Complete, utter dead stillness. It's an experience we don't get on the East Coast, though I suppose if I lit off for the northern New Jersey Highlands on a spring weekday, I might come close. But chances are, I'd still hear a plane overhead as it makes its way to Newark or I'd still have to block out the whir of the trucks on Interstate 80 or 287.

But at Grand Canyon National Park, should you wake up in the middle of the night, you'll hear nothing, provided your companion is sleeping soundly and not snoring. As I lay there, my ears were off duty. I could hear my breathing, so I held my breath. I heard Casey, sound asleep next to me, but was able to block that out. Maybe a truck went by on the nearby village road, but that lasted a mere moment. Everything else was silence.

The first experience for many at the Grand Canyon is the same: You arrive at the rim and stand there looking out at the Colorado River's handiwork and hear nothing but the wind. At least, if you're lucky. If you arrive with a tour group, you'll have that moment for little more than seconds before someone starts talking. But in many cases, visitors are so taken aback by what they see before them that they treat the spectacle like the cathedral that it is. This trip was my third to the Canyon and I still held my breath upon seeing it again.

That is, when we finally did see it. We left Sedona and drove north on Arizona 89A up through Oak Creek Canyon, gaining elevation with every tick of the odometer. Soon the snow was falling, and it continued, on and off -- but mostly on, until we arrived at Grand Canyon Village. Once we walked through Bright Angel Lodge to the rim, we were met with a wall of white. The Canyon was shrouded in a cloud. We were so high up it wasn't just fog; it was a cloud. Snow continued to fall as visitors milled about, walking the Rim Trial -- at this location a path, paved and wide as it passes several of the lodgings and restaurants in the village.

Casey and I filled the hour until we could check in by walking to the El Tovar Hotel, then back to the Arizona Room at Bright Angel for lunch. Once fed, we returned to the desk to get the key(card)s for our cabin and unloaded the car. Restless and not wanting to sit in our cabin while it was still daylight, not to mention the potential that the weather could clear any minute, we bundled up and set out eastward along the Rim Trail, deciding to walk the 2 1/2 miles to the visitor center. There was no particular reason to go other than to pass the time, enjoy the walk and steal glimpses of the abyss when the clouds allowed, which was not often.

From the visitor center, we boarded the shuttle bus for the return, stepped into a gift shop or two near our cabin and enjoyed a drink at El Tovar's cocktail lounge. Following dinner at Bright Angel's diner, we capped the night at the adjoining bar and watched the last few Academy Awards handed out once they changed the channel from ESPN's worthless NBA game of the night.

After a fitful night's sleep -- mostly excitement at what lay ahead on our vacation, though I did contemplate getting out of bed to write down some of these thoughts when I first had them in the wee small hours -- I woke up and dressed around 6:30, walking over to the rim to see if the weather had cleared. It hadn't, though the overnight snowfall had left a thin coating on any remaining roads and paths that had held off any sticking the previous evening. I returned with a report and Casey and I went back to sleep for a couple hours.

Around 8:30, we awoke for good, bundled up and made our way to the rim. The clouds were parting and offering a limited glimpse into the nearby chasms, but the main vista remained behind the white curtain. The sun, rising behind us in the east, was making an effort to peek through the clouds. Casey and I chatted with a French-Canadian on the trail and we all agreed that by noon, we should have a clearer view.

It didn't take nearly that long. As Casey and I walked westward for 45 minutes, the views began appearing. The white snow, evergreen trees and tan sandstone of the nearby cliffs reached out and then dropped off, but where we had once seen a transition in grays to the white clouds, we now saw further -- to the red formations rising from the bottom of the canyon, to the orange spires reaching to the remaining clouds, to the Bright Angel Trail reaching out and disappearing behind another drop on its way to the Canyon floor.

We made our way to the Trailview Overlook before turning back, packing up our things and checking out of our cabin. Once the car was packed, we boarded a shuttle bus westward, disembarking at Mohave Point for a prime view of the Colorado River winding below us. From there, we began our trek back east, following the Rim Trial when we could -- often walking on top of the packed snow, sometimes punching through drifts up to our knees, occassionally losing the trail completely and trudging up to the road to walk along the asphalt. Though not a full Canyon hiking experience, we prefered the potential hazard of a shuttle bus along the road than a slip off the trail -- if we were even on the trail -- into the Canyon itself. Our efforts took us back to Powell Point and the marker commemorating John Wesley Powell's navigation of the Colorado River all the way from Wyoming through Colorado, Utah, Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon. There, we hitched a ride back to the village on the shuttle, ate lunch at El Tovar's main restaurant and got back in the car to head off on our next part of the adventure: Monument Valley.

Happy hour at El Tovar

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