Grand Old Party Canyon

Part 10 of Across America, 18 Jan 2012

View from the South Rim.

In which the intervention of the Moon leads to dinner with a Republican.

“The Grand Canyon is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is…” (inspired by last night).

Walking up from the train it just appears in front of you. A vast rent in the Earth. You can’t take it all in. Perhaps sitting down and looking at one bit will bring the scale under control? Nope. OK, perhaps strolling a few miles along the rim? No. It’s just too big. But I’ve got ahead of myself. The time between last night and reaching the Canyon wasn’t without incident.

I woke up. It was four in the morning. We should have reached Williams by now; perhaps the conductor had forgotten to wake me? I ate the breakfast I’d brought with me and checked the map on my phone: Williams was still ahead. Half an hour later it was time to disembark (or detrain as the Americans would have it). As we pulled into the station I asked the conductor if the connecting bus would still be waiting for us. “Oh yes” he said with a chuckle. “We’re not allowed to leave you here without the bus. You’d be eaten by bears.”

To call Williams Junction a station was to endow it with grandeur far above its… err… station. It consisted of one sign and one light. There wasn’t even a public road, just a dirt track and moonlit snow. Five other passengers joined me on the bus and we were soon bouncing along the track to civilization.

The train to the canyon itself wasn’t due until after nine, so I sunk down into a large hotel chair to wait. My wait was ended early by one of my fellow passengers. His wife had accidentally drunk her tooth guard fluid and was unwell. She was going to be fine, but wasn’t up to breakfast, would I like to join him? I gratefully agreed. Having had two breakfasts (Hobbit stylee) I was ready for the two hour journey to the canyon.

Canyon Sunset.

As the train was a tourist service, I had feared the advertised “entertainment” would be tacky and annoying. So I was pleasantly surprised when we got some classic guitar and harmonica numbers. My favourite was California Zephyr, originally by Hank Williams. As we approached the canyon we found ourselves in a ponderosa pine forest. We had one tantalizing glimpse of the canyon from afar, before the tree closed up again.

The train pulled into the station and we climbed out. Could the canyon (and my room) really be across the track and up a few stairs? Yes. My door was twenty paces from the canyon. I couldn’t decide whether to be horrified that building had been allowed on the rim or thrilled to be staying so close.

That evening, I wrapped up against the cold and went to watch the sunset, or rather its effect on the canyon. The Sun itself was merely the lighting director, the real show was on the canyon walls. The rich light of dusk transformed the pastel rocks into shining oranges and reds.

There was more to come. The Moon was full and would soon emerge over the eastern horizon. I patiently stood facing east, while everyone else watched the last light in the west. Then a tiny white spot appeared in the purple above the canyon. Every time you blinked it seemed to get that bit higher. Soon everyone else cottoned on, but I felt privileged to have seen the first moment it peeked above the horizon. As someone commented, you really feel like you’re on a planet watching this.

During the moonrise I talked to a middle-aged American, his daughter and son-in-law. With the Moon fully up and the cold creeping in, he asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. My second meal invite in one day, I was on a roll! We ate in his hotel restaurant, a much classier affair than mine. The food and beer were good and we soon got on to discussing American politics (a topic close to my heart). That’s when he told me he was a Republican (cue horror music), the first person to admit to such on my trip. Was I going to be assailed with fire and brimstone? Thankfully not. My Republican dining companion was eminently reasonable, supporting Jon Huntsman for president. After several hours of discussion, I thanked them for dinner and returned to my cabin through the freezing night air.

Canyon Moonrise.

Monday morning I missed the dawn and had a relaxed breakfast. I went to look at the Bright Angel trail, which runs down into the canyon. Alas the snow on the north-facing path had been compacted into the approximation of a bobsleigh run. Reluctant to buy crampons and sticks, I decided to remain on the rim at 2100m. The Colorado River, some 1700m below, was hard to see. You’d catch a glimpse here and there, but it’s mostly hidden within the inner canyon.

In the evening I went on a sunset tour, which consisted of driving to a few of the more dramatic points on the rim. We saw some elk (like large red deer) and a uranium mine before watching the sunset. It was a great location, the clouds and the light combining to make a dramatic sky as well as brilliantly illuminating the canyon. Standing on a promontory by myself was an enthralling yet spiritual experience.

Back at the lodge I was brought down to Earth. There was an email from Kitt Peak Observatory. The weather forecast for my observing session looked dismal. I went to bed hoping things would improve by the time I reached Tucson.

Tuesday morning (10th Jan) I got up before dawn, which is thankfully rather late here (around 07:40). It was pretty, the light gradually making it’s way down the canyon walls, but something of an anticlimax after last night’s sunset. The Moon hung on near the western horizon, before bowing out behind some cloud to give the whole sky over to the Sun. I returned to my lodge for breakfast. The fruit and yoghurt came on a cabbage leaf, which struck me as rather odd. It was neither decorative nor (I suspect, for I didn’t actually eat it) a good match for pineapple.

I was back on the road again, heading down a long straight road towards the San Francisco mountains. At Williams we turned east onto the interstate. Williams was the last place to have its section of Route 66 replaced (in 1984). I wondered what it would have been like as we sped down the Interstate 40. At least the pine forest and patchy snow provided some distraction. The shuttle bus dropped me off at Flagstaff Amtrak station, but this wasn’t my destination. For the first time on my trip I was going to take the Greyhound.

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Tags: AcrossAmerica, Amtrak, Arizona, GrandCanyon, Train, Travel, USA