Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Day 309: The Grand Canyon (via the Hoover Dam)

It's cheesy, it's touristy, and everyone goes there. That was my verdict of the Grand Canyon before we set off at 8am, an hour later than planned. Whilst some part of that is true, it was not even close to the crowded hub of Bermuda shirt-wearing overweight Yanks I was expecting.

The drive to the canyon was fun. Not far from the Vegas Strip is the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, the largest water reservoir in the US with 247 square miles of surface, and 500 feet in depth.

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The stop was brief (we had 4.5 hours to cover), and the photos fail to convey the size of the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge (the famous arched bridge in the background which is usually the first thing people associate with the Dam). I suspect this will be a recurring theme throughout the States - everything isn't just big, but big.

After a fuel/Subway stop in Kingman, we got to the Canyon in the early afternoon. We'd opted to visit the South Rim, which was supposedly less popular than the West Rim - mainly due to the distance from Vegas - and which was also meant to afford better views.

We parked up in the South Rim Village, and jumped on board one of the many free shuttle buses which take you on a loop of the Canyon. There are nine stops on the loop with various viewpoints at each, although you're arguably looking at the same thing from nine different angles. But what a thing to look at! Whilst you can get your first glimpse of the Canyon from the Village itself, I ensured we avoided that. I didn't want our first image of one of nature's greatest spectacles to be tarnished by a group of schoolkids blocking our view and jostling for position. So when we got off at the first stop - Trailview Overlook - we were unprepared for the sight.

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My word, but it was stunning. Even the heat and the haze couldn't detract from the immensity of the...place? Scene? Icon? Whichever word you use seems inadequate.

If that wasn't enough, we were also lucky to see one of the world's rarest birds - the Californian Condor. Outside of captivity, there are only - as of May 2012 - 226 of these condors left in the world. We chatted to some conservationists who were tracking the birds in the area; they were using radio equipment to try and track the birds' movement and pin down the numbers. The summer months are a great time to spot them at the South Rim.

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Back on the trail, as it was less than a mile we decided to walk from the second stop (Maricopa Point) through to the fourth stop (Hopi Point), passing Powell Point on the way. The heat was tough, but it was surprisingly cooler than Vegas - I suspect that high winds and lower pollution may have been a factor there.  

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As we went on, we got to see - well, squint at - the Colorado River snaking its way through the Canyon. You can just about pick it out in the below photo, and it looks fairly placid from that distance:

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Zooming in told a different story:

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It's no surprise that whitewater rafting is so popular on the river.

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At the last stop on the circuit before you return, there's a welcome refreshment stand at Hermits Rest. Apostrophes are outlawed here.

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They sell drinks and ice creams, and since it's America and we're talking about junk food, you can bet that it's cheap. I think our ice cream sandwich - which was so big I actually felt a little sick after finishing it - cost about 50p.

Still, we took a nice air-conditioned ride back to the South Rim Village and picked up the car. It was getting towards late afternoon, but we weren't done with the Canyon yet.

To the east of the village is a winding road, appropriately named Desert View Drive, which takes you along the Canyon's rim, but a little too far inland for you to see much. That is, until you get to the Desert View Watchtower:

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The inside of the tower is no great shakes; smeary windows, dimly-lit exhibitions, and so on. The view from the top of the watchtower is something else entirely. Since we were almost at sunset, the sky and shadows highlighted the contours of the Canyon perfectly:

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Then, if things couldn't get any more atmospheric, those grey clouds turned out to be storm clouds. And damn, if they didn't pack a punch. We rushed outside to get a better look, and also take in the flat top of Cedar Mountain:

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There was lightning, and plenty of it, but too far away and too fast for my camera to capture. With darkness slowly settling, we decided to make a move. I'd booked a room in the Grand Canyon Hotel in Williams, about an hour's drive south of the Rim. That hour was an event in itself, as we were caught in a torrential rainstorm, courtesy of the clouds we'd been photographing only minutes earlier. It's bizarre, driving through a desert and feeling the hot dry wind, yet watching helplessly as you get pummelled by sheets of rain and hearing bolts of lightning crash frighteningly close (or at least, loud enough to seem that close). Fortunately there were no incidents, very little traffic, and it had subsided by the time we got to Williams.

If ever you imagined a wild west town, possibly something out of Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman, Williams would likely be it. Optimistically titled a city, Williams has kitsch hotels, odd shops, and bears sitting in chairs on the pavement.

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Kitsch is the right word for the Grand Canyon Hotel. It has soft toys in each room (usually bears), and various mining and "olde worlde" paraphernalia adorning the walls, tables and any spare space remaining. It's like a greatest hits tribute to your grandmother's house, with a wild west twist.

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We checked in, hid our disappointment at being given a twin room despite booking a double, and hit the street to find the Red Raven restaurant which had been recommended by our hosts. It was literally two doors down, and it was brilliant:

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Gilly tucked into a salad and felt healthier than she had done since arriving in the States, whilst I had some amazing lamb and couldn't care less about the calorie content.

The night was topped off when we were walking back to the hotel. Hearing some clanking on the other side of the road behind us, we turned and saw a goddamn cowboy walking along. He had the full gear on; stetson, boots, and yes, spurs. He wasn't even riding a horse. There was no horse around. Perhaps he's parked it somewhere. I didn't even consider that; can you park a horse? Do you have horse bays? Can they get parking tickets? Regardless, he stopped into a bar and vanished from sight. There wasn't a costume party happening, this was actually how he dressed. It shows how even the smallest thing can make you do a double-take. Of course people dress like that. We're just used to being shown caricatures and pastiches on TV and in film. But they're based on something and that something, it turns out, is places like Williams.

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