Going through the Christchurch pictures: still too depressing. So let’s have some photos of the Grand Canyon and related scenic things instead.
The thing I liked immediately – and, in retrospect, best – about Las Vegas was the mountains. I know that’s not the thing you associate first-off with Sin City, but we had a perfect view of them from our hotel room window, and compared to all the glorious artificiality that makes up the city – from golf courses to casinos – they were incredible. I have grown up and lived in temperate climes, with a couple of visits to tropical areas; the naked geology of this desert region was more foreign than anything I’d seen before.
We headed off at 6.30am – a challenge when still jetlagged -for the four-hour drive to the Grand Canyon. Just over the hill from Vegas, though, we came across a well-kept secret: the enormous Lake Mead, the second-largest reservoir in the world, right next to the desert city. (It rather contextualised all the powerboats we saw parked in people’s driveways.)
Lake Mead is, of course, not natural, but created by the infrastructure works of the 1930s, in particular their most famous expression: the Hoover Dam.
The white deposits are calcium carbonate, from when the lake was higher; I was told by the guide that it’s not as low as it’s ever been, but still pretty low. The dam itself is nearly as wide as it is tall, down below the water where you can’t see it. They poured concrete day and night for years to build it.
We were looking at it from a new bridge; before it was built, driving over the dam itself was the major highway between Arizona and Nevada. It was allegedly built to reduce the terrorism risk, but given the wide-as-it-is-tall-and-it-is-very-tall thing, I sincerely hope this was a smart capitalization upon a current fixation to fix a long-term problem (i.e., a tiny, windy road.) It probably wasn’t.
We then drove through a whole lot more desert. The weird bit, though, was how many people were living in it. According to the guide, the community in this area is mostly survivalists: a desert wouldn’t be my first pick of retreat for living off the land, but I suppose it’s cheap and isolated…ish. If you were just trying to get away from humanity, though, I wouldn’t recommend it. Way too many people for that.
About half-way along, we stopped in Seligman, Arizona, along historical US Route 66 (and also apparently the inspiration for the movie Cars, if you’ve seen it or been made to watch it by your children or care about it, which I can’t say I have or do.) It died, pretty much, when the interstates bypassed it – being a car and truck stop was its only industry – but has been revived or at least zombified by gift shops.
After that we drove through a lot more desert, and pine forest, and even some grassland, until we got to Grand Canyon National Park and then Village. Yes, village; about two thousand people live full-time in the Park, because of the tourist industry. There’s even a school. When you get five million visitors a year, I suppose you do need some infrastructure. There’s pretty much nothing for hundreds of miles in either direction, though.
We walked through the lodge, to the patio out the back. And then there was this.
The Grand Canyon is exactly what its name implies: a very very very big hole in the ground. It was first encountered by Europeans by people trying to cross to California (gold!). Imagine walking and riding across flat land, for months, and then coming to this. It’d persuade you to turn around and go home if nothing else could.
Geologically, it’s the result of a very stable area; stable long enough for the Colorado River to erode through sedimentary rock, down and down and down…until it hit metamorphic rock, not so long ago, and started to slow. It’s still going, though, until the snowmelt runs out. The river itself isn’t visible in the above picture; it’s over the escarpment about half-way up, another few hundred metres down. The far cliffs are between five and fifteen miles away. I’d known about the depth of the place; I hadn’t expected the width, had sort of imagined straight walls going down for a mile (silly, geologically, but I’d never seen a picture of it.) But it’s just big in every dimension.
Above is the Bright Angel Trail, the one with the mules; it’s a lot wider than I’d envisioned too. You could practically drive a car down bits of it. Well, a Mini. Or a motorbike. Carefully. In the picture below you can see a rest house and a mule, for scale.
The Canyon – or its rim, where we were walking – did also have wildlife. A lot of crows, especially near people and their edible detritus, but also larger things. There were warnings. I was told ground squirrels actually cause the most injuries to tourists, because they’re perceived as harmless and then you get the BLACK PLAGUE. (Okay not really, that’s prairie dogs.) Kind of like Labradors, I suppose (they bite people a lot because people don’t expect them to.)
I did see some of the larger wildlife. It was hilariously blase about our presence, after we spent all this time sneaking up and whispering. (Well, I say sneaking. We were all from large cities. I suspect “sneaking” wasn’t really in it.)
Then weather happened, scenically. There is only one thing better than being at the Grand Canyon, and that is being at the Grand Canyon and being the only member of your party including the guide who brought a raincoat.
Finally we reached a point where we could see the Colorado, far below us – and, in the far, far distance, the shadows of mountains. Otherwise the land just went on, flat, forever. So did the Canyon, seemingly. (It’s about two hundred and seventy miles long; we could see fifty or so miles down from this point.)
The rim of the Grand Canyon is, of course, high; we were at 7071 feet. The altitude was most easily felt in how quickly I became winded when walking – not a noticeable thinness of air, just more difficulty breathing.
Then we took advantage of the dirty secret of this part of the Park (though most of it is wilderness): there’s a shuttle bus along the rim. With a nice road. Part of me thinks that’s cheating. Part of me thinks it’s extremely accessible and that’s great. Okay, most of me thinks it’s cheating. But also accessible. Oh well. In any case, we caught the shuttle back to the lodge, and our van, and thence returned to Vegas – which city is for another post, and day.