Sunday, May 24, 2009

Assualt on Walmart

We head up to Page, AZ to stock up on food and necessities. I didn’t know what to expect, more high desert, maybe some pine highlands, but this drive up the east end of the Grand Canyon goes through some astonishing country.

This is the great Navajo reservation, a dry red dirt land that in its better areas will support sheep and cattle, but up this edge of the earthly pile up of two tectonic plates, there is one huge wall of toothy red rock after another, and in the valleys, drifts and piles of dangerously colored sands.

I described these colors in TX in terms of cooking, and these look like the piles of dry ingredients, flours, sugars, and spices that you put together in a bowl before mixing in the liquids. Or maybe the different powders in earth tones that are the raw ingredients of pottery glazes. It is other worldly, so barren of life that it makes me wonder if it is all mine tailings, but I know it is just the results of time and weather on the piles of rock and ash left by the volcanoes that vented here where the edges ran over the top of each other.

There are rickety open shelters in every turn out by the road where the Navajo sell to the passersby. Some of them lean as if into the wind, and most of them are empty this early in the year. The times I have stopped, most of the wares are strung beads, some rough pottery, and only very little of the silver work that I adore. The really outstanding new work and older pieces that I like don’t appeal to passersby, I guess. I sort of wish I could support them, life out here is pretty grim to my eyes, although the scenery is amazing.

We are driving up a valley that must have been cut by a stream that went elsewhere long ago, it isn’t the deep cut that practically every creek makes. We follow the impressive canyon of the Little Colorado for a ways, which doesn’t have the depth or colors of the big hole, but here the land is flat flat flat and then suddenly the canyon is there as if a knife was cutting a wobbly line into a sheet cake.

Further north, the ramparts of red get bigger and begin to have the same colored layers as the Grand Canyon, this section was just pushed up higher, and we come out into the Marble Canyon area, where the Colorado River first carved a great wide valley and then plunged the rest of the way down. As we climb up a wall of red rocks this great wide valley opens up, we can see the infant Grand Canyon and beyond, the Vermillion Cliffs that tower over to the north, another step in the kicked up sandstones of the Colorado Plateau.

Page is up on the top of this plateau, but has its own brand of wind whipped red rocks, here they are old , compacted sand dunes that still hold the ripples of ancient winds, and voluptuous rounded shapes. Our campground has a cliff behind it that swells up almost smooth to a crusty top, and around the corner the rocks look like giant red petrified cow flops. In the distance, the wild rocks of Lake Powell poke out of the water, a riot of colors and shapes that were a canyon and now are a boater’s paradise.

We pass boat dealers that have rows of enormous house boats for sale, some of them are 50-60 feet long and three decks tall! I had no idea that Lake Powell was so huge. I guess it has miles of rocky, spectacular inlets and coves to explore and stay in, fishing, swimming, driving small fast boats, big fast boats, and these stately house boats. I’ve seen pictures of this desert water fun. Maybe someday we can go see for ourselves.

Our job here is to buy enough food to last us all summer. Two hours in a Super Walmart. And $500 dollars later we have stuffed both fridges, and the small freezer with food, and the floor of the Airstream resembles a warehouse of canned goods, toilet paper, and paper towels. It is true that they run a van into St. George for shopping from the North Rim, but it is a 3 hour drive and another 3 hours back, so that’s 6 hours in a bumpy van with people that I don’t really want to spend that much time with. Seems like a terrible thing to do to a day off when you only get two every week. Besides, it’s kind of a stunt to see if you can survive that long without shopping. We do have meal privileges in the Employee Dining Room, but the food is pretty poor, and there are all sorts of temptations like cookies, brownies and worst of all, ice cream.

So now the last leg: we have to drive back over the sharp red ridge and down to the one bridge, Navajo Bridge. There isn’t another bridge for 250 miles south at Hoover Dam, and none for 100 miles north up in Utah at Cataract Canyon. The canyon is pretty much an infant here, we sort of hop over it on the bridge and then skirt the edge of the Vermillion Cliffs. These are less chewed on and eroded, more like a solid steep wall with the red and pale bands. They stretch for 100 miles as we work up a wide grassy valley, with the cliffs on our right. Over to the left rises the high forested plateau of the North Rim. The bridge was at 3752’, and we climbed slowly as the valley narrowed, then we headed for the Kaibab Plateau . Suddenly the rocks are covered, and there are ponderosa pines and grass , and we climb very steeply, diesels thundering, up to 7935’ at Jacob’s Lake. For everyone else, the road south into the park is still closed, and we meet one of our bosses there at the gate. The park itself is not open either, and we go through the locked gate and on through the wide parks still holding snow and big vernal ponds of snow melt, and finally to the North Rim, at 8325’. (Don’s GPS is on all the time telling us the altitude)

Feels good to be back here, a number of others have returned, but there is much to be done until the curtain goes up on May 15. [so much to be done, gently reader that this is kind of late…]

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.


Due north of Phoenix, where the desert is still dry, but has begun to roll and tip and actually have creeks with water in them, a visionary Italian architect called Paolo Soleri bought a huge tract of land in 1970, and preceded to begin building a city.

There is a picture of my brother at my parent’s house, lean and bearded, leaning on a shovel in only cut off shorts and work boots. Behind him is an arch, and the whole picture is sort of bleached out, suggesting blinding sun and heat. My brother went to Arcosanti for a workshop with Paolo Soleri which was part seminars on his theories of city planning, and part working on the city.

In the visitor center there is a model of this city, some 5-6 buildings now complete are in grey, small on the edge of an arroyo, and behind them in white are huge curved shell like apartment complexes and open spaces and green houses and fields and, well a whole city, yet unbuilt.

The dream is a sort of compacted city that needs no cars, everything you need, work, play home, shop, is within walking distance. The vast waste of suburban yards and parking lots and roads and streets and highways is rendered obselete. It was an intriguing idea in the 70’s, and seems fresher today, at least in theory. Soleri makes no attempt to dictate behavior, only wants to provide the structure for a more ecologically thrifty way of living. He calls it Arcology, Architecture + ecology. He is still a successful practicing architect, modern, quirky, organic concrete shapes, and also supervises the making of ceramic and cast metal wind bells. The income from the bells, his work, and seminar fees was to pay the way for construction. Architecture students (including my brother), and seekers and hiders still come, 6,000 of them since 1970.

The tour takes us from the 4 story visitor center, hung over the edge of the arroyo, up stairs and down, past the naves, band shell like, that house the ceramics and casting operations,

the big double vault of the concert hall,

and the amphitheatre.

These all face the south, and behind them are living quarters, all fairly small.

There are lots of nice planting and Italian cypress, mature and a nice vertical accent to the naves.

We are instructed in the rudiments of Arcology, and the offerings of the workshops.

Paolo Soleri was born in 1919. He studied at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright. Great ideas, a great style, and years of admirable work here, and at Cosanti the smaller Phoenix center.

And now ? The road in is rough dirt, the concrete of the buildings is showing it’s age. There is a sort of dreamy hopefulness about the place, but not a great fire of zeal and ambition. Unfinished projects are everywhere, steps half done. The bells are arty and sound good in the AZ wind, but how many bells will the market bear? Arcosanti was to be a laboratory for Arcology, testing, tweaking and demonstrating. I’m by no means in the mainstream or even a backwater of architecture or city planning, but Soleri’s ideas seem to be lost in the desert, a side bar in alternative living ideas. Maybe there aren’t enough hippies left. Well, we are all still here, but we are too old to take our sleeping bags off into the desert and work with cement, or cast bells. I did have a moment of wondering if I could do that, more out of curiosity about what it would be like, not a burning desire to change the face of urban society. The spaces that are here are well thought out, at least the part that we get to see, lots of different levels and nooks relieved by the big open public spaces. I really wish I could have seen a living space.

The ones designed for the resident architects and other important folks look very open and full of desert light, I suspect the others may be a little cramped. The site has a good view over fields and the rolling desert.

I wonder how such changes could ever be made, to get us to give up our cars and our yards and our possessions and the setting to display them. For one thing, our financial world depends on the selling of all this to us, and to the example of public display of wealth. We have a serious mess on our hands right now because of this insidious system. The homes in the suburbs that have choked our roads with cars are now emptying, the cars and their makers are in trouble. The tangles of roads are getting old and weak, the fumes are killing our protection from the blasting sun.

So much of what Soleri identified as dangerous is coming true, but can we live in a rabbit warren of small apartments ? Can we be content with just a few stores ? How will we know if we have succeeded in life ? And can we do this out in the Arizona desert ?
Alas, it seems faded, naïve. But I am really glad I finally got to see what my brother was up to out in the Arizona desert.

Sedona and Sinaguas

We stopped into another ruin, Tuzigoot. This is high on top of a hill in the valley, a whole series of rooms spread over the high ground, with the highest giving a great view. Back in the 1930’s, when the bottom dropped out of copper, the WPA decided to excavate and stabilize this ruin to give the miner’s something to do, and it is pretty nifty to be inside one that has been much more restored than is considered proper today. There is a roof top and stairs up to it, and lots of cement work on the stones.

This is the upper end of the Verde Valley, where most of the Sinagua ruins lie, and although the Spanish name, without water, seems to indicate dry farming, they seemed to be near a pretty lush valley compared to the rest of AZ. They also raised and wove cotton in beautiful and intricate patterns.

The Grand Canyon where we are headed, and Zion and Bryce canyons are all holes cut into the vivid rocks that rose up as the Colorado plateau. As we drive north, there are hints of the colors to come in the road cuts, but at Sedona the wild west of rocks jumps up with a war whoop.

The towers and canyons are like another movement in the tone poems of Bryce and Zion, the same sequence of white tops, then bands of pink and orange and rust and wine. In Sedona, we can drive and built vastly expensive homes in the midst of this grandeur, one exotic tower and bluff follows another. Downtown is full of expensive shops and bistros, all built since the 80’s. I’m guessing the foreclosure rate here is pretty high.

The road heads north up spectacular Oak Creek Canyon and climbs 2000 feet through the layers until we are back on the top dusting of black volcanic rock at 6200 feet in Flagstaff’s back yard. The walls are dark, and the canyon narrow, with lots of places to tent camp or play in the creek. Although the views in Sedona seem to be a little better from the south, I think the canyon might be more spectacular going down in stead of up. That way you would be able to see the descent into the red rocks better. Steep windy roads seem to be the motif for this section of our trip, these would all be great sports car roads, but that doesn’t stop Don and the truck from pretending and roaring up the hills and blasting around the curves. He has a straight sort of widened tail pipe on his truck that makes a mighty roar that I would know anywhere.

The next day we learn that Don’s fridge needs only a new fan in behind. Because it is contained in a slide and can’t vent out the top, the heat exchange process needs extra help. We probably have been under achieving for a while, but didn’t notice until we were in 90+ heat. A new part will be sent to us, and we will have to deal with it later. In the meantime, it is cool enough that we are OK.

Now we are off to Williams AZ, to investigate how the folks on the South Rim handle the touristas.

Desert to Red Rocks

Leaving Salome (pronounced without accent on the final e by the locals) we went off through the desert, flat with the slightly purple mountains scattered around. In Aguila, one of the huge canals turns this flatness into fields smelling wet and green. It’s a smell that non desert folk think of as normal rural smell, but after a winter in the high desert, it is nice déjà vu, if you can have that in a smell. Aguila is the world center of Cantaloupes.
Soon, our view is back to the sort of hopeless, raggedy rubbish filled house lots that are common out in the desert where there is no town to work at. Dead campgrounds, motels, shops, and gas stations, with one or two brave palm trees, all sort of shriveled by the summer’s heat.

Wickenburg is a much more prosperous place, a big town, and close enough to Phoenix to be civilized by folks with jobs and money. Up the road, in Congress, an Escapees park called North Ranch is home for three days. Escapees is a huge operation that runs a dozen or so parks all over the country, and also acts as a sort of support group for RVers, especially full timers and snowbirds. This park has a number of graveled sites for the travelers, and the rest is a sort of hybrid. You actually buy a lot outright, and some are large enough for a real house, others only just a trailer, or a more permanent park model or a modular home. Most of the lots are pretty spiffed up, a lot of serious desert gardening, cacti and succulents, and desert trees, and some are just paved. Nice place, and friendly people, but again, what would I do all winter if I stayed here ?

We do a little more geocaching, including a huge frog like rock painted up in green. Frogs in the desert ? I don’t get it. Prescott is our next stop, pretty much the gateway to the south side of the Colorado Plateau with its outrageous rock formations and canyons. We take a drive up and over a larger mountain range, not a road to take the RV;s over, and very spectacular as we rise up with the desert floor below us. We gain 1500 feet in altitude, and above this first range of mountains, it is cooler and must rain more, as there is grass, and wide open park like areas This is called Peeples Valley and appears to be entirely owned by one outfit called Maughan Ranches. There are a lot of horses, and some cattle, and lush grass, and miles and miles of expensive white welded metal pipe fencing. Clearly big bucks, and a really lovely valley.

I investigate Maughan, and discover that Rex Maughan, who made his stake money producing and selling aloe vera products, branched out into the resort business, and now is enormously rich, is the owner of Forever Resorts, the company that I will be working for at the North Rim ! His signature is on my pay checks. He supported Mitt Romney as a good Morman should, and was a buddy of James Watts, the not very eco-bambi friendly Secretary of the Interior. Rex sees no reason why folks touring the National Parks shouldn’t have good accommodations and good food, and believes the private sector is best to provide that. He also promoted smowmobiles in Yellowstone in the winter, not popular with us tree huggers, but since I think Yellowstone is mostly a theme park anyway, not a problem. Nice Ironic coincidence anyway.

The next mountain grade, a pretty scary road, takes us up to 6000 feet, and into the Ponderosa pines of the high mountains. We drop into the higher end of Prescott where the houses are perched on steep slopes, and come down into town. Prescott is kind of homey and self consciously western. It was established to be the capital of AZ, just a site chosen as near the bigger mining centers, although it lost that crown to Tucson and then to Phoenix. At the north end of town are piles of soft granite, pinkish enough to look like the classic western red rocks, and our CG is in the middle of these rocks that just might be a giant movie set.

The next day we pack up and take the RVs to Prescott, but not over the big grade, this time we go west, following the RR up a more gradual climb. Once we are parked, we discover that Don’s fridge is not cooling. Oh gloom. We transfer everything to the Airstream and to the small freezer in my truck, and hot wire it around the thermostat to see if it will cool. We are getting grumpy waiting and measuring, so we take off to see Montezuma’s Castle and Arcosanti.

The geology of this area is always surprising, north of Prescott, the top layer is dark volcanic and underneath that in the road cuts you can see the pastels of the sand stones, a first hint of the wild colors to come. We cross over into the Verde River Valley, where there is water and fields and the rocks are suddenly pale limestone, white or a little pinkish, and eroded and corroded wherever water has touched it. It reminds me of the Hill country of TX.

Montezuma’s Castle- is not Montezuma’s of course, but a cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua culture, pretty much contemporary with the other great cliff dwelling folks in the southwest. The first white men to see it, abandoned and crumbling, didn’t know their history or geography very well, but the name has stuck. The rooms are plastered up in a niche on the white, cottage cheesy limestone cliffs above Beaver Creek, which even now, in a drought, still runs by busily. They farmed, and made pots and grew cotton and wove that, and then in the 1400’s, for no one knows what reason, they disappeared. The modern Indians claim them, but there is no real proof. The castle is magnificent; we can only stand below, among the poetic white barked sycamores, and look up. Before 1951, visitors could climb ladders up into the rooms, but the safety of the people and the ruins was at risk. We know so little about these folks, I wonder what they feared enough to build this mud fortress up so high.

Down the road is Montezuma’s Well, a huge sink hole in the limestone with a great spring coming up and flowing out a side hole, over a million gallons a day that flows into Beaver Creek. Along its edges, more dwellings, some secure on the cliffsides of the sink hole, and others out on the bluff over the river.

Next day, we drive over the high road to Jerome. This is one of the few mining towns that has not turned into a ghost town, instead the main road winds through the cliff side town like an Italian mountain village. It had a huge copper mine in the early days, and somehow when the price of copper fell in the 1930’s, it managed to stay alive. The streets are lined with the usual tourist attractions, including many references to the good time girls that were often the only women in these rowdy mining towns. In Prescott, one whole side of the town square is known as Whiskey Row, with attendant pictures and risqué signs. It is indeed history, and I would like to know more of these ladies real lives, but buying the Tshirt doesn’t interest me.

Drifting North

Drifting North

The wind blew hard from the west, driving us down out of the mountains and onto the desert where sand raced us down the highway.

There were folks out on the dunes riding around even in the cold wind. These sand warriors have special camping trailers with mini garages in the back to store their All Terrain Vehicles. They have ramps that fold down, and the back area is a sort of bunkhouse-garage. They park out on the sand with no hookups, and drive around. I never did that, and I must say I don’t see the point, except for the possible thrill of dangerous speed which has never tempted me.

First stop in Yuma a snowbird Mecca, and we are at a huge snowbird parking lot that passes for a campground. Most of the residents are gone, and they are herding up the picnic tables into tight stacks and trimming the palm trees down to a Dr. Seuss tuft on the top. I have no idea what proper palm tree care is, but it seems to be a pretty radical pruning. Maybe they stand the summer heat better ?

Being on the road feels good, although getting ready after sitting for 6 months is a lot of work. There are a myriad of little things that need to be put away and secured, and buttoned up, and my increasingly leaky brain needs a lot of time to remember them all.

The tire on the Airstream that developed a leak last year in Las Vegas was supposedly fixed by a tire place in San Diego, but still leaks slowly. I distrusted the false jollity and hard sell noisiness of the place just on principle. They have read some cheap how to book or attended a cheesy seminar about keeping business rolling, and I felt like they would bully me into new tires in a second. They also told Don they had put the requested 80 lbs in his truck tires, and when he checked they were at 65, so they flat lied about that. The sort of undertone of the place was that these old farts won’t know the difference so why bother ? It is difficult to find reliable repairs and service when we never stay still, and I sometimes think they see our SD plates and perform accordingly.

I spent the next day in bed fighting a cold, and then we headed north again.

Through Quartzsite, which is now a ghost town, a few trailers around, waiting out the snow storms up north, but a lot of the vendors are gone and so are their buildings/tents. They didn’t look like tents while we were there, wandering and poking around, but they must have been, since vast stretches of stalls and businesses are nothing but gravel. I’m glad I got to see it once, but like so many tourist destinations it’s more about shopping than anything else. I will admit that the people watching was pretty good, and the Kofa Mountains are still magnificent and strange.

We are now in Salome, AZ, in a very small park of elderly RV’s and even more elderly people. It’s clean, and the sites would be way too tight if there was anyone left here. A lot of industrious paint work on everything, including the trunks of the few trees. Cheap enough for the social security crowd, no pool, no activities, just miles of desert and the mountains.

The town was named for Salome Pratt, wife of a founder, who danced as the hot sand burned her feet. Also the hideout of Dick Wick Hall, a vintage humorist, who wrote a poem about a frog in the desert, so there are frogs everywhere.

Don took out his golf clubs for their annual exercise, and found some old friends at the spiffy golf resort up the road. They have a lot on the course where they park their big motor home and little red Jeep. Nice, but too tidy, too expensive, and what would I do all day ?

The toy to have here is a Quad, a 4 wheel all terrain vehicle. Everyone who winters here has them, and there are trails everywhere. Since AZ registers them as street vehicles, you can even go on the road, although going off into the great sandy nothing of the desert would be the best park, with the mountains all around.

We went out geocaching yesterday, in Don’s truck, and went down a dirt road and got stuck in the sand. His transmission, not 4 wheel drive, and engine make a powerful pulling machine, but have no low range torque, especially in reverse. We spent a hot hour digging and trying to get out of the hole, while I said a few Hail Marys, and lo, a nice young man in a red Jeep came and towed us out. Once out of the sand we got out in a hurry.

My Darling Daughter ran the Boston Marathon for the charity she works for, Community Servings. I am imagined her back in the huge mob, plugging away. I can’t imagine running for 4 hours, which at her amateur pace is how long it will take her. As a first timer, she just has to finish to be a star, and she is a star to me for even trying.