Sunday, May 24, 2009

Grand Canyon-South Rim

The canyon is the canyon, a vast sculptured reverse mountain of colors and crags, the South Rim is a different view of it, and the best part of this side is that it is madly developed, the great old lodge, El Tovar, all dark shingles,

the rustic Bright Angel Lodge and cabins,

and several other more modern accommodations. Many more people working here, maybe even 10 times as many, more snack bars, and more parking and way more people even on this early spring day. This is a theme park, well done but still a theme park.

The things I really came to see are the oldest buildings, especially those by Mary Colter. The Santa Fe RR and Mr. Fred Harvey were the big movers in developing the South Rim, and you can still take the train from Williams, today a vintage stainless Budd car train with a big silver diesel. We pass on what appears to be a featureless train ride from a scenery point of view, the only thing fun would be to see the interiors of the cars, big bucks for even a cheap ticket.

El Tovar predates the national park rustic, it is shingle style, but Bright Angel Lodges and the train station are all of logs. Mary Coulter’s four buildings are all of stone, meticulous copies of the Sinagua walls of local stone, unfinished rough and often with small elements that mimic ruins or even petroglyphs. She took seriously the directive that the buildings look as though they predated the white man.

Hopi house is a pueblo from the outside, complete with upper layers and ladders, and a few small windows. Inside it is full of gifts, but of a really high caliber including a lot of pawn silver that I long for.

Next, going west is the stone Fred Harvey gift shop, hanging over the edge of the rim, with two porches that let me feel safe enough to look over, except for a rock chimney; it could be an ancient dwelling.

All the way out west where you have to take a bus, is Hermit’s Rest. A small rustic stone guest house set into the hillside.

The center room has a fireplace that is a great 7’ arch, like Soleri’s naves, and two side rooms that were bedrooms. This quiet intimate little building is a treat, nice to imagine coming out here by van and being left in solitude for a few days.

The best of Mary’s buildings and really the best of the whole South Rim is her Desert Watchtower, all the way on the eastern end of the park part of the rim.

This stone tower and smaller rooms clustered at its base are on a height that gives you a view down the river and the canyon as well as toward the east where the Painted Desert and the canyon of the Little Colorado spread out.

The view from the base is wonderful, and the tower is a series of rooms, with small windows, and the inside walls are smooth cement that have been painted with all sorts of Hopi images, by Hopi artists.

It doesn’t duplicate any one ancient structure but is a sort of visual poem about Hopi art, with the canyon as art set in the walls too. I really liked it here, I love her tower, and I much prefer to see the canyon from inside a building. The invisible tentacles of the depths that reach up to pull me over the edge can’t get me in the tower.

Another aspect of the South Rim that is good is the length of roadway and the many stops along it. At the North Rim, there are only three or four views of the canyon that you can drive to, and they are not sequential. At the South Rim you can get a wonderful, ever shifting panorama of the differences in the canyon at the different view points.

We had a rather grand lunch at El Tovar, and snooped around the gift shops, but I didn’t feel that another day would have gained us anything. I certainly would neither walk nor ride a mule down the side of the precipice. I guess with money we would like a helicopter ride, I think I might have been OK with that, or maybe a raft ride.

We were given a list of books to read about the Grand Canyon so we can be helpful to the guests, one of them is called Death in the Grand Canyon. This is a compendium of every death from any cause in the canyon, the point being to analyze the whys and perhaps improve safety. It seems that most deaths are people being colossally stupid: hiking with no water, showing off by dancing on the very edge of the rim, taking short cuts, not wearing a life vest on the river. Being youngish and male is very dangerous. The book also has some interesting history, and I enjoyed that part, but really, reading about people dying in the depths didn’t help my feelings about the big hole one bit.


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