The centerpiece of our trip through the Southwest last October was to have been the Grand Canyon, one of those destinations you’re supposed to visit before you die. I confess that sort of thing bothers me. Having something be compulsory as it applies to my whole life pretty much guarantees I won’t like it.
We put up in Williams, Arizona, a couple hours drive south of the canyon, one of several towns that serve as jumping off points. It’s a pleasant little place with a decent selection of accommodations and restaurants, and it’s dedicated to preserving the memory of the old Route 66, the first major highway across the country to the West Coast. For some reason, this seems to include a number of statues of Elvis Presley, who to the best of my knowledge never traveled on or sang about Route 66. However, if you’re going to have an icon, I guess The King is a better figure than a bunch of broken, weed infested sections of concrete that once served as a road.
Having risked a broken axle and several chipped teeth exploring Monument Valley, Barbara and I agreed to forgo the nostalgia of driving Route 66. Meanwhile, the guidebooks we consulted about visiting the Grand Canyon warned us that it could be tricky, subject to traffic jams and serious parking problems.
Thusly scared off about the prospect, we decided to put ourselves in the hands of the Grand Canyon Railway, which runs out of the old railway depot in Williams to the South Rim and back, and connects with a bus tour to see the Canyon.
The idea of a vintage train trip through Arizona had a certain romantic appeal. Visiting the canyon the way people did a hundred years ago sounded preferable to sitting in a traffic jam or trying to find a spot in a crowded parking lot at the visitors center.
I won’t say it turned out to be a mistake, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone else. Our first clue came when we saw there was an Old West gunfight scheduled at the station the morning before we boarded. Several guys dressed up in Old West costumes were hanging around the platform when we arrived. We took one look, turned around and headed across the street to have breakfast.
Right then we began to suspect we’d gotten something wrong. The Grand Canyon Railway’s idea of a charming excursion was different from ours. They were planning to entertain us!
I have to give them credit for warning us about it in advance. Gunfights are not one of my favorite forms of entertainment, and I generally prefer not to show up for them. Our quick thinking enabled us to hide out at a place called the Pine Country restaurant while a troupe of faux cowboys battled it out with six shooters loaded with noisy blanks.
At least, we assume the bullets were blanks. In the current political climate in this country, who knows whether one of the participants might decide to exercise his Second Amendment rights and shoot off live ammunition?
In any case, we were safe and sound at Pine Country, a place that serves home made pie for breakfast. That was an epiphany. We found pie to be the ideal breakfast dish; never again will we go without it. I’ve read elsewhere that pies were invented in England and originally intended to be eaten for breakfast. Makes sense. The world would definitely be a much better place if everyone started their day by eating pie.
By the time we returned to the depot, the faux dead gunfighter bodies had been cleared away and we boarded the train. We boarded under the helpful eye of a grinning, well-scrubbed young man who looked about twelve. This was our guide for the trip. Turned to be the guide from hell.
I don’t remember his name; let’s call him Jimmy. He let on that he was twenty-three (but I still say twelve and he lied during his enlistment); and he proceeded to chatter mindlessly the entire trip. Somehow, this juvenile delinquent thought a railroad car full of adults two to three times older than he was couldn’t live out the day without his deep insights.
Mostly, they had to do with him, his life, his interests, the funny story that happened to one of his friends, and on and on and on. You can rejoice that I won’t fill you in on the details; luckily I don’t remember most of them.
Occasionally, he delivered a historical tidbit about the establishment of the railway line in the late 1800’s and the development of the GC as a tourist site. On the latter subject, he went on at some length about many of its facilities being constructed in the 1930’s as part of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to pull the country out of the depression. The trouble is, about half the people on the train were alive during those years and knew far more about the subject than this kid had any idea.
One bit of information about himself I wish he hadn’t mentioned was that, due to some kind of quirk in the driving license laws between Arizona and his native New Mexico, he never had to take a driving test. A cold chill crept up my spine when he said that, and I strongly considered abandoning our car in favor of walking back to Colorado. Though we ultimately did drive the rest of the way, I suffered bouts of trembling whenever it occurred to me there might be others like him on the roads in that part of the country.
Turns out, the gunfight at the OK train station had been only a prologue. Our trip kept being interrupted by Old West reenactors. There was an outlaw who came through the car for no apparent reason followed a few minutes later by a guy with a badge. The outlaw couldn’t have been too worried about the lawman because he took time to chat with several passengers in hopes of collecting tips.
This was another absurdity. Here, people were pulling out dollars to give these guys not because they were doing anything but just because they had cowboy suits on.
We were also visited on two occasions by cowboys playing guitar and singing C-W songs. They weren’t too bad, but we could have done without them. The worst interruption that day came on the return trip, when we had to put up with a train robbery. The crew actually stopped the train somewhere in the middle of the desert to let on four guys in Western drag who had ridden up on horses and were shooting cap guns at nowhere in particular. I could see their pickups and horse trailers over the hill behind them, which kind of lowered them a couple notches on the authenticity scale.
The only good thing about these interruptions was that our adolescent tour guide was forced to shut up while they were going on. On the other hand, the trip would have been a half hour shorter if they hadn’t stopped the train in the middle of nowhere.
So, we finally got to the GC and board a bus waiting for us to tour the South Rim. The driver did a little commentary as we climbed the road to the top. Pretty soon, we could catch glimpses of the canyon and passed a lot of people walking toward signs for the first overlook. Our bus driver pointed out that we were nearing one of the best and most famous canyon views.
And then he drove right by it without stopping!
He went a little farther around a couple of bends and came to another area where people were walking to catch the view.
And then he drove right by that one without stopping!
By now it had become clear that our so-called guided tour of the Grand Canyon was in fact a driveby in which we weren’t actually going to see anything. .Barbara and I were ready to jump out of our skins; the faces on the other passengers registered resigned horror. We knew we had to do something, so we sprang into action.
On a count of three, I made my way up the aisle and slid into the space behind the driver, With a blindingly fast wristal movement, I slipped my glasses over the driver’s eyes, which totally blinded him because they’re trifocals and I got them at a discount warehouse whose name will be . . . well, nameless. Meanwhile, Barbara crept up behind me and unwrapped her belt from around her waist. As she flicked it through the air, it made a cracking sound like a bullwhip and deftly caught the gearshift by the buckle, slamming it into Park.
The bus lurched to a stop and a large, beefy male passenger directed his wife to kick out the rear emergency door. Meanwhile, the bus driver, realizing he was the object of a mutiny, finally announced we had a twenty minute stopover at this canyon overlook. We were thus finally able to escape through both the front and rear doors of the bus to free ourselves and, at long last, view the Grand Canyon.
OK, OK, so I made this last part up, but the bus driver really did drive past several stops before he finally let us see the GC. And I don’t recommend buying eyeglasses at a discount warehouse.
When we finally got to see the GC, it lived up to its billing. You feel like you’re standing on the edge of the world with eternity stretching out beyond. Below, the Colorado River ribbons through the canyon and 100-foot trees stick up like toothpicks at an appetizer table.
It was all so overwhelming that my mind couldn’t comprehend it. My sense of perspective totally disappeared. I couldn’t be sure whether I was really at the canyon or seeing a picture of it. The sense memory that sticks with me is not so much the sight of it but the feel of scrambling over the rocks at the edge of the cliff — my brain just couldn’t deal with the visual part.
There’s a dichotomy in how one can experience the canyon. To really explore it takes at least a couple of weeks. I’m sure it’s the trip of a lifetime to take a week-long raft trip or mule train ride, camping every night in the canyon along the way. However, you have to make reservations up to a year in advance for one of those trips, due to Park Service limits on how many people can go down there.
For the casual tourist, there aren’t a lot of options. In one day, you can theoretically hike the 9 1/2 mile Bright Angel Trail down to the river, but that’s still a commitment. What we had intended to do was take a one-day raft trip on the river, driving back for a second day. Unfortunately, those trips had been suspended when we were there due to flood conditions.
So, standing there looking out over the canyon was the sum total of our GC experience. Not much to do but look at it. Still, it’s a sight well worth seeing. I would have liked to look at it a little longer before the train left.
Every experience is a learning opportunity. From our GC trip, we took away two important life lessons —
DON’T: TAKE GUIDED TOURS – EVER.
DO: EAT PIE FOR BREAKFAST.