Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day Six: Into the Canyon and Beyond...

Today I arise shortly before the dawn and make my way down to the El Tover lodge, alledgedly the best place to watch the sunrise if you do not have the time to shuttle out to either of the two other points. I converse for a time with an Asian woman, who despite being short on breath due to the altitude and having a randomly bleeding nose (due to the altitude) informs me that she walked across the bottom of the canyon yesterday - from North Rim to South Rim. Impressive! It is a seventeen hour walk, I believe, which would mean she would have to do it in the heat of the day. Elks graze on the irrigated lawns outside the lodge, they are large and slightly menacing, showing no fear at all of us small humans.

The sun rises, as it is prone to do.

We check out early, our intention to take in the Ranger Tour down to Cedar Ridge. It is a delightfully warm morning, not hot but a comfortable level where short sleeves do not make you shiver. Parking in the Visitor Centre car park, we catch the shuttle the short distance to the Trailhead and fill up our water bottles at the water station. A dark-eyed junco flutters about and a squirrel watches us, hopeful for handouts. He goes disappointed.

And then we descend into the depths of the canyon. We are not going very deep, just a couple of hours down to a ridge that is approximately one third of the depth into the canyon. Signs proclaim "going down is option, coming up is compulsory" to warn trampers not to take on more than they can manage. The Guide tells us of a donkey that fell two days before and whose carcass now feeds the condors. The first part is steep, with eight switchbacks leading us down through the first layer back into time. The Guide tells us of the different layers, of what they mean and how old they are.


We made it!
It takes us almost two hours to reach the ridge, and then of course we have to walk all the way back up again! The heat is now starting to ramp up and the shady patches on the path have decreased, but with our waterbottles at the ready, we make the climb back up again - in about half the time it took us to get down. Which shows that when you're not stopping regularly to look at the scenary and listen to a guide, and when you are not limited by how fast you can go, it's not so bad!

We then take the road east and out towards the park exit on that side. It is quite a long way and we stop for lunch at the Watchtower.

The Watchtower itself is odd as it does not watch anything and was build entirely to attract tourists. It was constructed in 1904 and has historic murals on the inside, painted by a Hopi Indian artist, Fred Kabotie.

The view is excellent, apparently you can see people on the river - if you have binoculars, I guess!

Leaving the Canyon behind, we head north-east towards Lake Powell. This route takes us through what I believe is Navajo country. It is barren and arid, split with great canyons and studded with stone buttes. Foliage is short bushes no more than knee height and the song of cicadas fills the air with a rattling drone. Flat rocks litter the soil. The arid and desolate nature of it reminds me of Madagascar's wastelands of eroded land, but the colours are different, the land more barren. Roadside stalls are scattered along the highway, their paint peeling and many are empty. It feels rather like we have stepped into a third world country. It strikes me as a ahrsh and unforgiving landscape, and not one where you can easily keep stock, although we do see a paddock of horses. I also see my first identifiable roadkill, a coyote stretched out by the side of the road, jaws gaping in a final, rictus snarl.


As we travel further north the landscape becomes no less barren but the colours become more dramatic. Red rocky ridges rise from the desert of stubby grey-green bushes. The golden soil contrasts sharply with the red cliffs, which in turn are striated in shades of pink, white, red-pink and red. Power pylons march across the plains. Houses feel isolated, even when they are clustered next to one another. Out here, noone has a garden and the buildings are low and long. Around them the land rises in lumps, like sand dunes.


Further into the Painted Desert, more dunes rise and the hardy shrubs have grown taller. There is even a ridge - also called the Cedar Ridge, that is covered in trees which make it quite beautiful, albeit still rather stark and barren.

We detour to the Vermillion Cliffs in the hope of finding condors. Of all the places, this is the most likely in which you will see them - for it is here that the Californian Condor has been re-released in Arizona. We cannot reach the actual release site, but there is a Visitor's Centre beside the bridge, a low red building designed to blend in with the environment. We have seen that a lot - where the buildings try and capture the natural colours and design of the environment. The Colorado river is a rich and inviting shade of blue as it cuts through the steep canyon walls and the cliffs are dramatic and sheer, a rich russett red. There are no condors and the air is still and bakingly hot. Shade and air-conditioning come as a welcome relief.

We double back and continue on our way to Page. Page is a small desert town that sprung up around the Glen River dam. Our accommodation is Debbies Hide-away which comes recommended by the Lonely Planet.  Located in the actual town, upon a little street labelled "The Historic Street of Little Motels." It is a garish, flamingo pink colour and the garden is an array of various ornaments - flamingoes, a fountain, fake flower pots - and of cause real flowers that must be watered regularly. There are also a number of bird feeders and the garden is alive with avian life - sparrows, house finches and doves flap and fluttered, jostling with one another for the food as ravens soar over, cawing. I believe that at one time this - and the other historic motels of this little street, were once small flats. For we had a kitchen, a lounge, a separate bedroom and bathroom, with a short hallway and a bookcase. Everything was set out rather like it was intended to be comfortable quarters for someone staying for a week or so - possibly with children and there were magazines, books and possibly a few boardgames as well as couches, a separate table and chairs, fully equipped kitchenware (if a little worn) and a selection of various seasonings - along with the compulsory coffee machine and a microwave. It would be an absolutely charming home-away-from-home and made me kind of wish that we had planned on staying here for a week or two at least! It is the one and only place that I can adequately prepare a meal and I fry up some mushrooms and toast some bread to go with the leftover spaghetti from the night before. There is a Safeway within (short) walking distance. 

After dinner, we head down to first the dam, and then to a place called Sunrise hill, where we intend to well, you can guess! By daming the river, they flooded the Glen Canyon, and its beauty was said to rival that of the Grand Canyon - and those that dive under the water would agree. The lake that formed is Lake Powell, AKA, Lake Silencio. It is a popular recreational spot for watersports and there is also the largest natural rock bridge, the Rainbow Bridge. That is reachable only by boat. From Sunrise Hill we have panaromic views across the lake and the vivid blue of the water and the sky contrast sharply with the red of the rock. To the north lies the desert plains of Utah, and back south the flat plateau on which perches Page, complete with a large factory that pumps smoke into the air. Far off to the east, the first buttes can be seen towards Monument Valley and the route that we shall follow tomorrow.

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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day Four: Arizona

The desert is vast and sparse, dotted with patches of desert plants - including what looks like a desert cabbage tree and various low, scruffy bushes that range in colour from gold to a yellow-green. It is a harsh and barren landscape, save for the occasional snatch of blue, lingering like a mirage and then materilising into Lake Mead.


Here the Colorado river has been dammed, providing water for Vegas and southern California.  Its levels are low, a pale strip above the surface of the water denoting where once the levels lay. The south-west  is currently in drought conditions. Heat shimmers off the road, creating mirages of its own and the temperature is well into the 80s (farenheit).

Passing through the security checkpoint (a quick look and a nod and a wave on through) we visit the actual dam itself, pausing first to walk the footbridge from Nevada to Arizona and back again, before evading the many pedestrians to drive its length and up the summit on the far side. Once this was the main highway between Arizona and Nevada, now a new bridge removes the traffic - for the most part. Half the dam is in Pacific Time, the other half Mountain Time, and there are twin clocks displaying the difference. We do not look too closely, a fact that proves to be our undoing tomorrow.

The desert continues in its stark monotony. There is a beauty to it, but we are glad to be settled into our air conditioned Camry. We do pause at a wildlife viewing station to scan for mountain goats, the landscape is so bleak and sparse we can see for miles. What we don't see is any goats, although I spend a long time staring at a strange brown blob. It might be a log, or a rock, or possibly a bighorn sheep.

 For someone coming from a small country like New Zealand, where I've never been more than 5 hours from either the mountains or the sea (or both), the one thing that amazes me is the sheer size of this continent. From the car, we can see a 360 degree panorama, occasionally framed by mountains. It is so big and so open that you can drive for miles before finding a gas station or a rest stop. Although I take many pictures through the car windows, they all fail to capture the sheer scape of this land.

After a brief respite at a Wendys outside of Kingman (iced coffee for me, burger for Tim), we make a tricksy right turn across two lanes of traffic to head off north-east on the I-40 to Flagstaff.  Here the landscape gets steadily more forested and elk signs (or are they mule deer?) predominate. Jumbled piles of large rocks litter the landscape and the road is studded with isolated patches of potholes. Road carnage now claims actual animals - not just tyres.

I photographed the clock but failed to take note of the time...

As we rise into the higher elevation of Flagstaff (7335 feet) we enter into actual forest, with widely spaced trees, possibly aspen. Flagstaff is a delightful little mountain town/city nestled in amongst the forest. The buildings have an American Indian look to them - at least to my untrained South Pacific eyes. Upon the advice of the Lonely Planet, we find our way to a nifty little semi-vegetarian restaurant the Mountain Oasis, which resides in a quaint area of downtown Flagstaff, opposite the historic square. We have a very pleasant meal - mine of pineapple tofu with a banana chai smoothie. I am rather fond of the American food that I have eaten so far! It is good and filling and we experience again the American hospitality as the friendly staff member learns we are from New Zealand. She gives us some advice about the Grand Canyon, which is to be our destination tonight (and I cannot remember exactly what it is, so I just hope that we followed it).

We then make a brief trip across the road to the wee square, which is also rather charming. Although it is hot and dry, I am rather fond of Flagstaff and would like to return here one day.

Tiriki and I made a new friend.
 The road to the Grand Canyon takes us through woodland, where the road can go on straight for miles, but without a living soul in sight. Occasionally buildings loom off in the trees, but for the most part it is forest. Up ahead I see something moving by the side of the road, something large, and eagerly stare out the window as we pass it by, staring into the eyes of a russet-brown coyote. He shows no fear, merely standing there and watching, our eyes locking for the briefest of moments as we carry on past.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Day 3: Viva Las Vegas

The serta beds sap our energy and lull us into the best night's sleep ever. Upon awakening at 7:30, I decide to read, but the bed sends me back into the land of slumber. It is 10:30 before we finally rise and prepare to meet the day and the splendour and OTT-ness that is Vegas. Having driven along the boulevard yesterday, we decide today to leave the car safely ensconsed in the garage and acquire shuttle tickets instead. For $7 we can ride the buses for 2 days - more than enough time to see all the sights that need to be seen. Our intention is to grab one of the famous breakfast buffets, but the queues are too long and our appetitites have been diminished by the heat, so in the end we share a yoghurt parfait.

Vegas is insane - the buildings truy to outdo themselves in craziness but somehow it doesn't seem tacky - anywhere else in the world, yes, but this is Vegas. What gets me is the sheer amount of water used for decorative purposes - given that we are in a desert - fountains, waterfalls, waterwalls, pools - it is the sheer height of indulgence. However, it does add a coolness to the air.

First we walk throught the Bellagio - it is too early for the fountains  but their indoor garden with its giant bees and flowers, herons, lighthouse and rowboat is quite bizarre. The entrance hall ceiling is covered in glass flowers. Then we walk through the pillars and statues of Caesars Palace before checking out the wildlife habitat at Flamingoes - the air is much cooler in their courtyard and grackles fossick about on the grass, stealing food from the flamingoes and other waterfowl.

The footpaths are a mass of humanity - people from all walks of life pushing their ways back and forth. On some of the sidewalks and many of the overbridges, homeless people sit beside their signs. One proclaiming "Lost all my money in Vegas" fails to spark much sympathy. Other entrepreneurial souls sell cans of coke or bottles of water from chilly bins filled with ice. And everywhere, there are people flicking together piles of cards that depict scantily clad models, advertising particular strip joints, flick-flick-flicking their cards and attempting to hand them to me. Me more than Tim, funnily enough. The footpath is littered with ones that have been taken then dropped.

We enter into the Mirage, with Sigfried and Roy's secret garden (which has dolphins but costs to enter) and their aquarium. Outisde their lush water garden provides habitat for Asian lions and turtles, tropical plants and waterfalls, flanking their signature volcano, currently dormant.

Further down, Treasure Island's pirate ships make a noteable landmark, and the scorch marks above the masts are somewhat disturbing. Maybe their cause shall be explained later, when we attend the Siren Show.

After sticking our heads into a couple of fashionable malls, we catch the shuttle back to the Gold Nugget. It is standing room only, ant I am separated from Tim and entertainined by a couple of New Yorkers. I also learn of the hazards of biking/motorcycling in LV when they describe - in gory detail - an accident they witnessed earlier between a motorcycle and a limousine. The rider is FUBARed, apparently.

Back in our hotel we take in the pool - complete with sharks. A quick dip, a swift slide (through the shark tank) and then off for a late lunch/early dinner before we catch the shuttle back down to far end of the Strip.

The Excalibur

The Luxor has a great sphynx, black pyramid and egyptian statures. It rubs shoulders with the crenaltions and towers of Excalibur. Next over is New York, New York, in all its splendour - complete with Statue of Liberty, skyscrapers, rollercoaster and inside - a smaller Statue of Liberty made of jellybeans! It is very hot, my fingers are swollen with the heat, hands and face dry and application of lip gloss has become a constant.

New York, New york

We weave through a maze of casinos and overpasses, b efore parting company a few blocks from the Freeway. I head off to see the Mermaids of TI whereas Tim is picking up our tickets for tonight's show - Penn and Teller, over at the Rio.

Tiriki makes some new friends

The Sirens Show is corny - with scantily clad lasses claiming one ship - they are the Sirens, and the pirates entering in another. There is a lot of back and talk arguing and the sirens dancing seductively, followed by a fire fire that sends huge plumes of flames licking up into the sky. Which explains the scorch marks.

Afterwards, I try to reconnect with my husband. This is not as easy as it sounds. We still only have one cellphone and although we arranged a meeting point, we forgot some of the geography of the place and also, it was a longer walk to the Rio than we had expected. Luckily there is a shuttle and we meet up again near the volcano of Mirage, to watch it erupt. Then it is onto the free shuttle and off to the Rio.

Rio is more old school, less kitsch, and we collapse into our seats, exhausted. After declining to join the envelope signing and the box viewing (Teller later jumps out of this seemingly solid box), the show begins.

There are some moments of slightly painful patriotism - (but we are in America), a bit of gore (as they explain the sawn-in-half trick and then proceed to actually cut her in gory half - since we never see her again, you do wonder...), turn coins into golodfish, turn Teller into a teapot (not literally), turn a punter into Teller after a complicated trick including plastic cow cloning and changing as much of the scene whilst distracting the audience, and they open by taking a cell phone from a member of the audience, and eventually removing it from a fish packed in ice that has been hidden in the audience. Throughout it all, Penn insists that magic is false, it is all trickery, and this somehow makes it all seem more impressive. I have no idea how they do it. They conclude with the "magic bullet", where they each catch a fired bullet between their teeth.

Afterwards, the first bus fills before (like just before) we can get onto it, but the second one is only ten minutes away. After dark, Vegas really comes to life - with neon signs illuminating the darkness in all their bright glory. We drop into Paris, watch the Bellagio fountains, listen to two fellows playing "welcome to the jungle" on double basses which is pretty extraordinary given how fast that song is, before catching the shuttle back to our hotel and collapsing, exhausted into bed.