Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Grand Canyon

First, the canyon. It is enormous, not only the main channel of the mostly invisible Colorado, but every side stream has made its own contribution. The high points are raw rock, and farther down eroded sand spreads like skirts, pale green and then almost ruffly then dropping off steeply. There is no where near the colors of other great rock spectacles , some dull reds, and high up paler. The layers are visible, but there is a lot more vegetation than I expected. Perhaps in sunrise or sunset the colors would be stronger. The sheer size is monumental, and the drop off is terrifying. The standard short walk out to Bright Angel Point is a nice paved path, with what feels like thousands of feet of drop on each side. I make it halfway out and decide no view is worth the terror. To my chagrin, lots of others go on by, immune to the call of the deep.

At first look, from the open deck of the Lodge, it seems it must be painted on a scrim. Too familiar to be real, so iconic that when we are faced with the real thing it is some how less real , sort of faded. Several prescribed fires are burning on the South Rim, 14 miles away, and the smog of pollution make most of the distant walls of the canyon a misty blue. Maybe the old photos are what I remember, taken before the air was so dirty.

The Lodge sits right on the edge of Bright Angel canyon, somewhat to the north of the main channel, at 8280’. Only the stone work is the 1928 original, a disastrous fire in 1930 took the rest and one or two of the rustic log cabins. In 1936 the lodge was reopened, rebuilt in classic NPS rustic style, big logs, big stones, local material. Iron work is bold and hand wrought, and the inside has enormous Indian rugs. Outside, around a central court are shops and food, and beyond that, the log cabins that are the only lodging available.

We are here to work. It has been over a year since we were gainfully employed. We understood that we might do almost anything, and so far I have learned to run the telephone switchboard and radio base, then the next day, to work the computer check in check out at the Front Desk. Gasping for breath from altitude and too many new things, the third day I ended up in the Post Office, with a whole nother pile of things to learn: forms, procedures and heavens, making change! How did I get this old and never have to make change? I was exhausted for the first week, tense from trying to get things right, especially the complicated accounting rigmarole. Now, two weeks later, I’m feeling reasonably relaxed and competent.

Although this side of the canyon is quieter than the South Rim, there are still plenty of people coming to see the big hole. By car, and by bus loads, sometimes just for the day (madly rushing from one must see to the next) and sometimes for the night or for two. I would guess that at least 1/3 of the folks are European. That’s only based on the post card stamps I sell, nothing scientific. We have 218 cabins for them, no TV, no Internet for them, and only one nice gift shop. The cabins pretty much date back to the era when people came here in open touring cars, swathed in protective veils as though on safari in deepest Arizona. I get the impression that people are a little surprised by having to live rustic. We are almost always booked solid, and at the desk we get a constant stream of people who drove all the way out here, a good 50 miles south of another motel, without checking first.

It’s 150 miles to Walmart in St. George, UT, and other forms of civilization, so although there are plenty of people here, 200 +/- employees in dorms or RV’s, it is still pretty remote. They run a shuttle bus for us to go shopping, although I am still on supplies from Price UT. Don’t want to waste a day off doing that.

We like working here, the majority of the other workers are still cheerful and pleasant even though they have been here, dealing with the public, since April. This maybe a corporate personality, as this is run by Forever Resorts now, who got the NPS concession here away from Xanterra, a not so pleasant outfit. We are actually considering coming here for next summer to work the whole season. It’s a good fit for our skills and lifestyle, and we need to watch our pennies for a while.

There seem to be two classes of workers at this and other NPS resort facilities. There is us, the retired RV crowd who have the management and guest handling jobs. The physical work, housekeeping, bag handling, cooking jobs seem to be college age drifters who often have no car and go from one park job to another with the seasons. They live in dormitories and eat at the EDR (employee dining room). Many of them are smart, and well educated, but prefer this lifestyle. At the bottom of the ladder, locals and imports who do the most menial work. Many of the lower two groups are from overseas, here on a work visa, and here a number of Navaho. Judging by the number of workers who have moved on from the lower ranks (I have to forward their mail), there must be a pretty high turnover. Many of those who go from park to park have adapted to the isolation, which we like, but for some the lack of shopping or anything to do is a problem.

Until today, the weather has been perfect, high 60’s and sunny during the day, low 50’s at night. Now, in the first week of Oct, it has turned chilly and wet, high of 44 today and rainy, and more for tomorrow. At this altitude, snow is a very real possibility, but we only have two more weeks and then we bolt for sunny southern CA.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Our route from Rapid City begins by going over the southern end of the Black Hills, and over the rolling grasslands of WY. At this time of year, most of the land looks like the fur of a Steiff Teddy Bear. I watch this roll on by, daydreaming as I drive. As the rocks come out more often, and as the road cuts and bluffs begin to show the colors of the past layers, I wonder about their history in an idle way. Looking at rocks, picking up rocks and saving them for a while is something I have a habit of doing. Later, I find them and can’t identify them or where they came from, so I leave them behind. I guess I am a sort of miniature glacier.

As we work our way southwesterly, past the badland hills of Rock Springs, we are heading for the wildest rock show in the west, maybe even in the world. And as we get further into it, I get more and more determined to learn more about these rambunctious rocks.

Flaming Gorge-Coming at this big reservoir from the east, the flaming part is not as obvious, but once you drop down into it and drive across the big dam, you can see the red rocks. This is the Green River that cut down through the layers into the red ones, and created a canyon that is now flooded. Still pretty spectacular from a pure scenery point of view, and as we look back, it is clear there has been some underground excitement here. Instead of the horizontal layers of different colors that we will see in the next three canyons, here the layers are kicked up at an angle, and cut and torn where the edges broke away from their long sleep.

Briefly and so over simplified as to horrify a geologist, there was a huge sea here, and later big lakes. Silt, tiny animals and plants, and later blowing sand formed layers and under the weight of what was added later became rock. As the solid top plates of rock floated island-like on the liquid layers below, they collided. Some times causing a great tipping up, sometimes just raising up a whole huge section thousands of feet as one mass slid under another. These restless edges are an easy exit for volcanoes, and a likely place for earthquakes too, and there will be newer mountains of fresh rock, layers of ash, and evidence of the violence of a sudden upward thrust.

The Colorado Plateau is a huge uplift of the old striped sea/ lakebed. At its edges, you can see theses layers clearly, and anywhere a river starts working on it, these layers get brought out into daylight with astonishing results. Each layer has a name, and somewhere a detailed and jargon filled description of what it contains and what its personal life has been like. All I really care about is why are they all those wild colors?

Bryce Canyon- Not really a canyon, this is actually the eastern side of a wide valley. Water has chewed away the layers in an idiosyncratic way here. On the top, a fairly tough skin, and below that, vanilla ice cream and orange sherbet. The top skin has kept some parts protected, but the rest has “melted” into a 50-60 mile bewildering field of dribble castles, mini mesas, gothic tombs and deep folds. The pillars are called hoodoos, to rhyme with voodoo, because it is too spooky and colorful to be natural. A rancher who settled in the valley below, apparently immune to the spectacle, said” It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow”.

On to Zion, we are dropping down the stairs of the uplift, along the Sevier River valley. On our left, “Pink Cliffs (Bryce is part of this layer), Gray Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs and Chocolate Cliffs. Apparently, the most vibrant colors happened in the lake time, as rivers washed minerals in. Iron, oxidizing or under pressure, makes the nearly tomato red, manganese the purple, sulfur-yellow, copper-green. After following the river bottom a ways, we turn west and begin to climb.
Zion is a really truly canyon,, and we are approaching the rim at 6200 feet. The Virgin River that carved it is down at 4,4,00 feet. The 1928 road in from the east drops gradually and then goes through a tunnel with portholes that we can’t stop at anymore and then a series of tight switchbacks. Any vehicle taller than 13’1’’, or over 40’ long can’t make it at all, and many can only go with the road closed one way ($15) so they can go in the middle of the tunnel. Another example of an engineering marvel built at great expense just for us tourists.

There are three major layers here in Zion: a thin soft bit of the same orange as Bryce, which sits at the top, in a few places. Next, the major layer ranges from white to red in soft swirls that are not always parallel, nor equal in hardness. Instead of the deposits of salt sea or freshwater lake, sand dunes drifted here once, blown by winds that carried slightly different colored dusts. The upper part, mostly white, has washed into shapes like an upside down cow’s udder sometimes, especially at checkerboard Mesa. In other places it looms like a citadel.

Down at the bottom, the lowest layer is deeper red, harder yet which means the bottom is darker red, and narrows to a slot canyon. Since most of the canyon is one type of rock, the sides are nearly vertical, only at the top do the domes form. Cathedrals, a city of window-less, door-less temples. One of these, with a flat top, is called Angel’s Landing, a heli-pad for Gabriel. There is a hiking trail all the way to the top, which makes me shudder to think about.

The river, a creek really, burbles and splashes innocently at the base of the sheer cliffs, and people take off their shoes to paddle. You can even hike up further, walking in the creek with the right shoes. Rain water that fell up above thousands of years ago seeping thought the porous sandstone, drips out of the rocks and flowers have found a foothold there, yellow columbine, red penstamon.
I imagine what the spring thaw is like in here, the river showing its teeth, red brown with silt, throwing boulders and sticks. A good thunderstorm will make the river do this too, making a deadly trap for hikers. Still, it’s hard to under stand how this pretty stream could make this city of cliffs and temples and white topped towers. Its scale is portentous, and the early mostly Mormon settlers named the peaks: The West Temple, Altar of Sacrifice, Towers of the Virgin, The Four Prophets and the Great White Throne. Maybe the Virgin River had some divine help.