Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Day Five: Grand Canyon

They say it is always darkest before the dawn, and that certainly seems to be the case in the Grand Canyon. We have risen early to catch the (second) shuttle and watch the sunrise from one of the two best points - Mather Point. It is very dark, the stars forming a canopy above us that, despite the fact that I spend little time staring at the sky at home, and as I live in the city, it is hard to see the stars; looked unfamiliar. Tim brings out his Ipad to show off his star map App, which identifies the location of the constellations. All is still and quiet. The wind blows chill from the depths of the canyon and I guess it is true - deserts are cold after dark. Nothing stirs - if there are ringtails and foxes out there, than they are silent, elusive hunters indeed. The shuttle seems to take a long time coming and when it does we crawl into its welcome warmth.

Its clock reads 3:55 am. We are an hour early. This is not the second shuttle, this is the first.
How can this be, Arizona is Mountain Time, right? Not Pacific Time.
Right, and wrong. Had we not A, succesfully switched off our alarm clock whilst trying to charge the camera the night before; B, looked at any of the three clocks we had passed by the day before or C, paid attention when Tim's Ipad refused to switch timezones, we would have realised:

Arizona does follow Mountain Time, but it doesn't practise Daylight savings. Therefore, it is now on the same time as California.

The Grand Canyon before the dawn is eerie, a deep, dark abyss that seems to swallow up the light. Slowly, as the sun crests the horizon and dusts its light upon the land, it is revealed level by level. We ride the shuttle to the Hermit's Rest, laughing as the driver announces: "Now approaching the Abyss," and disembark on the way back at Powell's Monument. From here we can walk to Mather Point but in the pre-dawn light it is apparent that a tour bus has disengorged its passengers there, and thus we decide to linger here, which avoids reasonable views with the added advantage of being less crowded.

 The golden globe crests the rock, painting the stones with colour and dazzling us with its radiance. We had seen the canyon the night before, when we checked into the Bright Angel Lodge, but it feels as though it is being revealed to us again in layers.

The birds seem to be slow at wakening too, and we decide to walk back instead of waiting for the shuttle. It is a pleasant walk, early morning moisture still lingers about the trees and birds flutter through the undergrowth. It takes almost an hour, and we smile and nod at passing joggers or other early risers. At one point I hear a tapping noise, which makes me think of woodpeckers but, suspecting it is an insect, I comment; "I don't think we're going to see in woodpeckers." This comment was inspired by the fact that my earlier investigation of the Bird Guide showed that not many species of woodpecker lived along the route we were taking. Two more steps, and there it is - a woodpecker in the most traditional sense of all - black on top, white stripe, speckle of red. It raps its beak on the bark again, regarding me as though to say "here I am," before flying away just as I fumble for the camera.

A jay scolds us and a  little speckled bird with yellow patches preens in a tree, whilst Tim snaps photos of it:

He's a wee bit shy, but I think some sort of Warbler?

There are Mule Deer waiting for us back near the Lodge:

We arrive back at our cabin, around 6.30 am and Tim heads back to bed. He deserves it - he has been driving an awful lot and I have the added advantage of being able to doze in the car. I am also too hyped up to sleep and sit outside for a time with my sketchbook. There are some black and white birds hopping up and down the tree. They have black eyestripes and caps, and grey backs, but do not really resemble anything in my guidebook. I wish I had photographed them, as I never do make an authoritive identification, but I imagine they were either a nuthatch or a chickadee, although I recall their beaks being longer. I also chat for a time with a French man, but his English is very limited and my New Zealandish too fast for it to be a proper conversation.

My intention then is on taking one of the Ranger Tours and I head out towards the meeting point. Upon reading further details, I discover it basically takes us over the path we have already trodden and thus I decide instead to do some exploring on my own. I hang around the Bright Angel area for a time. There are squirrels. They are cute, even if they are cheeky as anything and quite demanding. Also, a couple of chipmunks dart about. Considerably smaller than the ground squirrels, they move in quick, darting dashes, a little like mice. But so much cuter!

"Got nuts?"
I chat with some Alaskans who seem amazed at the fact that in New Zealand we do not eat our wildlife. Not even the seals! Everyone seems surprised that we don't have squirrels - or other land mammals - in New Zealand. Nobody really knows much about our country, but then again, why should  they? They've such a massive one of their own.

  It is still only midmorning and I have seen all there is to see in the vicinity. I return to the cabin, not yet wanting to rouse my husband from his well-deserved sleep (I feel a little guilty about getting him up at 3.30 am), so I pen a quick note. "Off to explore, will be back by 12. Saw squirrels!"

And then I walk partway towards the main "shopping" village of Canyon and jump on a shuttle, riding it to the Visitor's Centre and walking back along the rim.

It is a long way. The sun has now reached its peak and brought with it the heat. I take many, many pictures of the canyon - but none can quite capture the full scope of it, the breathtaking depth and the many towers and buttes that rise like stone cities from its maw. If you look deep into its depths you can see the sparkle of blue that is the Colorado river and the crisscross of trails, like thin white scars that bissect its depths. Signs everywhere warn the risks of going down and up in one day, the temperature down at the bottom is 20 degrees hotter than that up here, and dehydration is a real risk. Despite the warnings, many people make the journey every day. There have been many deaths in the Grand Canyon. Some from dehydration - or people getting lost down in the huge crack that is the canyon. Others fall - or jump - over the edge. There are no guard rails along much of it. And people do like to engage in tomfoolery. I pause and eavesdrop on a conversation re: recent deaths. One was a probably suicide. I suppose, if you are going to kill yourself, then the Grand Canyon is the most scenic place to do it.

 My legs are sore - I've walked several kilometres and the heat is starting to ramp up. It is reaching 12, and I do not want Tim to worry that I have fallen down the Canyon. We both have US cellphones now, but they don't work in the Canyon. We are out of touch with civilisation. Plus I am tired and hungry. I find my way back to the shuttle stop and catch a ride back to the door of the Bright Angel Lodge.

We take our picnic lunch out to the woods near the Shoshane walk. This is a pretty and slightly hidden walk, according to the (out of date) guide book. It also has a sign saying "Permit Only", so we decide not to risk it and picnic in the woods instead. A raven hangs about, hoping for hand outs and a squirrel scampers by. It has tufted ears, and I hope it is an Aberts squirrel, instead of the more common ground squirrel. The afternoon is spent at a more leisurely pace - it is too hot to do much of anything. I write a letter home, whilst watching people tease the squirrels on the back porch of the Bright Angel Lodge. Noone gets bitten.

Ignore the sign! Feed me!

I attend the condor talk, learning a lot about these fascinating birds - of which I *may* have glimpsed sight of earlier in the day - hovering high above the observation point near the visitor's centre.

We watch the sunset, before grabbing dinner at the Bright Angel Diner. We both order spaghetti and meatballs. Each meal comes with an entree. The entree is filling enough (mine is sweetcorn chowder), and neither of us can finish our noodles. I take a "doggy bag". Tomorrow night we are staying in Page, and I believe it has a kitchen. We can have reheated spaghetti with some vegetables thrown in. Excellent! Saving money and not being wasteful.

In terms of accommodation - the Bright Angel Lodge rooms are pretty basic - we stayed in the cheapest which have a shared bathroom. They had a fridge and a washbasin, which was pretty handy. Plus a small desk and a bed of reasonable comfort. Nothing flash, but within (sleep) walking distance from the canyon, and right near the Bright Angel trailhead. No air-conditioning, although there was a fan in the closet, and I found you didn't really need it here. The rooms did not get too stuffy and hot.

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