Leaving Lees Ferry Lodge and my new friends, Ginger and Linda was hard. Lots of hugs, exchanges of phone numbers and declarations of future visits before I could pull myself away and off to the Grand Canyon.
It had become a mission of mine to reach the Grand Canyon and now, here I was: quite literally on the precipice of what has been long promised to be the pinnacle of my journey out west.
But before heading to the north rim, I delayed my gratification a bit more by first traveling to Lees Ferry landing. This is the only place where you can drive down to the Colorado River before the water snakes its way into a gorges deeper that 6,000 feet. I had to see the river up close and try to imagine the adventure that Powell and his team had experienced when they launched their rafts for the first expedition down into the canyon.
Driving the five miles from highway 89A to the landing passes by large erratics left lying about millions of years ago. These boulders are impressive, especially the ones that unbelievably balance upon smaller rocks, defying gravity.
At the riverside, I walk down to Paria Beach and sit upon a rock, maybe THE rock, where the Shaman had sat the day before to perform his blessing for his people. I can feel the energy here. The river rushes by creating a “riffle”, or small rapid, which is the first tease for modern day Powells as they set off on their trips along the Colorado thru the canyon. People wait up to 15 years on a waiting list to finally be able to make this trip, and now, I wish I had gotten my name on that list, despite my fear of drowning.
The water rushing by is of two distinct colors: aqua blue-green, and a deep grey-brown. These are formed when two minerals of different weight are deposited into the rushing waters. It is beautiful and mysterious.
After Lees Ferry, I travel a few miles north to the Navajo Bridge, originally built in the 1920’s and later, a new bridge was added to accommodate the heft of modern cars. This bridge traverses the Colorado River at Marble Canyon and is magnificent. High up you can see the California Condors which have been re-introduced here after near extinction. They glide by slowly high over head, their outstretched wings creating a distinct shape.
I then head off on my 2 hour drive to the north rim. Since it is now early afternoon, I stop at Cliff Dweller’s cafe for a bowl of cream of mushroom soup before making the slow drive up the plateau.
I pass the Vermillion Cliffs, glowing rosy in the sun, and through mountain sides of Ponderosa pines. After an hour and a half I come to the National Park sign and turn up the long, winding road to the rim.
The anticipation grows as I climb in elevation. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse through the pines of canyon edges and I can hardly wait. By the time I pull into the parking lot at the Lodge, I can see blue and red cliffs hazily in the distance. I park, and walk over to the trail head and then, there it is: The truly Grand Canyon.
Immense. Spectacular. Impressive. Grand.
Now, I have seen plenty of canyons on this trip and I have to admit, I almost skipped the Grand Canyon, thinking, seen one canyon, seen ’em all. But I am so happy I resisted that urge and keep with the original plan, because there really is no place like it on the planet.
The colors are what impressed me. And the size. So large. So deep. I can’t even imagine how people hike down into this over 6,000 foot deep gorge, and then hike back up. But they do, and I met quiet a few people doing the Rim to Rim hike while I was at the Lodge.
I hiked out to Angel’s Landing and then after checking in, headed to my sweet, cozy log cabin, #88. Here, I set up camp for two days at the Lodge and thanked my lucky stars for getting this highly sought after cabin, usually booked a year in advance. I was also glad I wasn’t camping because the temps had dipped sharply into the 20’s up on the rim. I was COLD!
I walked over to the lodge and settled into an oversized leather chair and watched the sun set over the canyon. The canyon glows for over an hour and people sit inside and out sipping beer and hot toddys while snapping photos. It was fun and social and spectacular.
I dined that evening at the storied lodge on Lees Ferry trout. It was delicious but I was so tired from driving and so I ate fast, then headed back to the cabin to stretch and snuggle into the warm bed. Glorious.
The next day, it was even colder, with snow predicted that night. Thankfully, the sun was shining and it was perfect for a hike along the Transcept Trail. This rim trail takes you up and along the rim towards the campground and general store. At the store, I bought a sandwich, then headed back to the lodge, where I had a brief picnic before wanting to go inside and get warm.
The hike wasn’t too long (only 3 miles) but it was challenging, so I went back to the cabin, took a hot shower, then got into bed and took a nap. I rarely do this, but the cabin seemed to invite me to relax and settle in, so I did just that.
After waking up, I strolled back to the old lodge and watched the sun setting once again with the other tourists, and wrote for a bit. As I was finishing up a post, a man approached me looking for an outlet for his phone. I struck up a conversation with Carl and he told me he was going to do the Rim to Rim hike the next morning, but was worried that the weather might not hold. Snow was predicted to start falling around the time he would take off, at daybreak.
I decided to skip the fancy dinner and head to the Saloon where I had an IPA and a slice of pizza and chatted with the bartender about where she would head once the lodge closed the next day. All of the workers at the National Parks lodge seem to be almost gypsy-like, working a season at one park, then traveling to another for rest of the year. Oh, to be young and free. Seemed like a great life if you are in your twenties.
Carl and his friend, Denis, a professor in Flagstaff, came into the saloon and joined me at the bar. We had a nice time chatting and the crowd there was festive. Other park employees came in for a final drink with their colleagues and the talk was an excited mix of “where to next”, “what a great season” and “how much snow are we getting.”
After a beer and a half of a Hot Teddy (toddy), I headed to my cabin and slept a good sleep. By the time the sun was rising, I peeked out my window to see snow falling lightly. It was beautiful. But then, within an hour, there was a few inches and I started to worry. The ranger had told me the night before that they don’t treat the road going out of the park and there isn’t really any plowing. Hmm.
I got myself up, packed, then headed back to the saloon for a breakfast burrito, latte, and news on the storm. It wasn’t good. People were worried, and so I had to make a decision: wait it out or go now.
I had at least a 6 hour drive ahead of me to Gallup, New Mexico, so I steeled myself and headed out, thinking stupidly, that I was used to this sort of weather having lived in New England for over 30 years. What I didn’t realize was that in NE, we plow and treat the roads with salt and sand. There was none of that happening in the park.
The drive back to the main road in good weather takes about 25 minutes. But that day, it took almost an hour. I drove at a max speed of 25 mph and while this may have pissed off the drivers behind me (they passed me), I made it out alive.
Once out of the parks, the roads were treated and easy to navigate. You quickly realize that there are many micro-climates out in the west, all specific to elevation. As you come down off the plateau and into lower elevations, the weather changed and the temps warmed by about 20 degrees.
For a time, I had some light rain, then as I traveled towards Flagstaff, the rain grew steady, turning the dry desert into countless streams of running water and sediment. You can understand how dangerous it could be to be out in a desert wash when a hard storm suddenly hits. The rain has no where to go on the hard packed dust and soon a stream can become a torrent and you can be swept away.
These thoughts were in my mind as I started to climb again up into the mountains, when another fear hit: snow and black ice. The rain started to mix with light snow, which in turn changed to a steady snow, and eventually a full blown blizzard as I approached 8,000 feet in the Coconino State Park and reached the heights of the San Francisco range.
Again, none of the roads were plowed or treated since this storm was an early one and had caught the locals off guard. But incredibly, the traffic around me kept at a steady pace of 65 mph, while I slowed my Rav4 to a modest 45, which still scared the bejesus out of me.
Since there were no pullovers up on this pass, I just kept going, white-knuckling it all the way up and over the mountains. Having never been to Arizona before, my idea of this state was that it was mainly flat desert, so I was completely surprised to find out that Flagstaff is a mountain and ski town. Who knew? Not me.
After about 40 minutes of shit-scared driving I made it to Flagstaff and pulled over into a gas station and mercantile. I sat there shaking. My hands wouldn’t steady for quiet some time. I felt relief but also fear, knowing I still had another 2 hours of driving ahead of me.
I checked the radar and Flagstaff was socked in for the remainder of the day with snow, but if I drove another 15 miles to the east, the weather changed to rain. I sat in my car, made a phone call to some friends for comfort, then got up the nerve to head back out onto the highway.
Interstate 40 is a treacherous road all on its own in good weather, but with steady rain and wind it becomes a nightmare. There are two lanes each direction, but since this is a major trucking route, it is clogged with semis going 85 mph. When they pass you, you feel it. You must have two hands on the wheel at all time and so, by the time I reached Gallup, my nerves were shot.
I pulled into the Best Western and settled my nerves with a glass of wine and some light TV viewing. Take-out from the “famous” El Rancho across the street was the icing on the cake and soon I was feeling myself again. Suffice it to say, I slept well that night and was happy knowing I had managed to survive not one, but two early winter storms.