Scottsdale / Montrose
|Monday; July 8th, 2002
Start: Flagstaff, Arizona
End: Cortez, Colorado
In the morning, Sharon and I walk to breakfast at a nearby Burger King. There's not a cloud in the sky, and the temperature is just slightly on the cool side.
As I load the bike, the couple next door strikes up a conversation. He used to ride, but hasn't in years... We talk a bit more; they ask where we've been and where we're going. We mention attending a convention in Scottsdale, and the husband says they may have been at the same "convention". Sure enough, the same place. So we talk about the various speakers, events, accommodations, and the heat. Small world...
With the bike loaded, we head northwest out of Flagstaff on US-180. Destination: the Grand Canyon.
Just outside Flagstaff is the turnoff for the Arizona Snow Bowl ski resort. During the summer the ski lift takes tourists to the top of the San Francisco Peaks. But not today - the road to the top is closed due to fire hazard.
Just outside the Grand Canyon entrance, the pine forests reappear. It's slightly before noon, temperatures are warmer, and traffic is light. We pay the $20 entrance fee at the gate, and head in. The entrance gate is several miles back from the edge of the Canyon, and we take our time riding to the rim.
A word about the layout there - if you look at a map, the road goes along the Canyon's edge. There are several scenic overlooks, where you can get off the main road and walk to the edge and look over. Each overlook we pull into is crowded, so we continue on to the central tourist area.
The central tourist area has a campground, camp store, the El Tovar lodge, a large gift shop, parking lots, and a train station built of logs. Early visitors arrived by train, and in recent years that's been revived. Most modern visitors arrive by car, then park and take the shuttle bus that continues west along the Canyon rim. It's the only way you can continue along the canyon rim, private vehicles are no longer allowed.
We're hungry, so we have lunch at the El Tovar lodge. El Tovar is a large rustic lodge, almost on the Canyon's edge. We manage to get window seats, we order Navajo tacos, and then we watch the tourists stroll past our window.
There's a lot of variation in the tourists - we see people that are obviously prepared to hike down into the Canyon, as well as people that clearly should not leave the safety of the parking lot. Young people and old people, thick and thin, foreign and domestic - just a steady flow meandering by. And lots of cameras... Sharon and I eat, talk, and enjoy the view.
After lunch, we play the role of tourists. We walk along the edge with our cameras, we look over the edge, we take pictures of the Canyon, then other tourists loan us their cameras and have us take their photo.
Sharon isn't particularly impressed with the Canyon. She doesn't like the haze, or that you can't see down to the river other than at a few select spots. We aren't in any of the spots where you can see the river, and even if we were we'd need binoculars to make out the big rafts shooting the rapids below. Might not be anybody down there anyway, due to the drought.
On the other hand, I'm dazzled by the Grand Canyon! Among the handful of dream trips I want to do before I die, the Grand Canyon stars in two of them: I want to kayak it, and hike it from rim to rim. I have friends that have done both, and the stories they tell, and the photos they've brought back...
The whitewater is world-class, and huge. The scenery is incredible, whether hiking or boating. And the geology! I've read that there's exposed rock in the canyon that's estimated to be 1.7 billion years old. Every time I visit the Grand Canyon, I want to learn more about geology. To walk along the edge up here at the top, is to take just a very small taste… I'd like a big taste someday - the river trip is 220 miles and two weeks, the rim-to-rim walk is 25 miles and takes 2 days. Someday, I swear I'm going to do it.
Like every place in the Southwest, there's a ton of history in the Grand Canyon. Down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon flows the Grand River, which starts at Grand Lake outside Denver near Granby, Colorado, in Grand County. Then the Grand River flows through Grand Junction and past Grand Mesa, and eventually through the Grand Canyon.
You thought it was the Colorado River, didn't you? The Grand River was renamed the Colorado River early in this century, but I think they had the name right the first time. I've kayaked several other sections of the Colorado, and Grand is the correct name.
In the Canyon itself, at various times there have been plans to:
.... Dam the Colorado and flood the Grand Canyon for better tourist access.
.... Use the Colorado River for the passage of large boats.
.... Build a railroad that would follow the river through the Grand Canyon.
All the above plans either wouldn't have been profitable, or public outrage put a stop to them.
In addition, so many people have passed down the river itself - explorers like John Wesley Powell, who was the first "official" person to boat the Grand Canyon. Or James White, who claimed to have accidentally navigated the Grand Canyon while fleeing Indians - years before Powell. He was discredited at the time, but there are records of him washing out of the bottom end of the Canyon exhausted and holding onto a log. There were witnesses that placed him above the Grand Canyon 2 weeks earlier. At that time, the only way to have gotten from Point A to Point B in that amount of time would have been to have run the Grand Canyon. Many modern boaters think that he probably did it, as the Grand Canyon has been navigated in modern times by swimmers, so why not a guy holding onto a log, running for his life? James White died an old man, still maintaining that he had been the first white man to navigate the Grand Canyon.
Indians have lived in the Canyon; while geologists, surveyors, and tourists have all enjoyed traveling the Grand Canyon in rubber rafts. There have even been some ascents up the Grand Canyon by speedboat, before whitewater rafting became popular and the park service enacted a one-way traffic rule.
The Canyon is another place where I could spend far more time than what we have today. On this trip, we're just passing through quickly, via the most scenic routes we have time to ride. So time is a worry, every day - we're cramming a lot of vacation into the time we've got.
But I've got to come back here again, with 3 days and hiking boots - or 2 weeks and a whitewater kayak. I won't be able to resist forever, it's just a matter of time...
We head out, hoping to make it to Montrose, Colorado tonight.
Leaving Grand Canyon National Park, and the pine forests along the Canyon rim peter out as we enter the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Our plan is to take AZ-64 east to US-89 north, then US-160 east to Kayenta. That route becomes drier and more barren as we go. There are different degrees of desert, they vary in the dryness, altitude, heat, and the amount of vegetation in them. The desert we see on the Navajo Reservation is far more barren than the desert around Phoenix. More sand, less vegetation, I assume there's far less water up here.
Since we're no longer at high altitude, it's hot again. Very hot. We refill our water bladders with ice at a McDonalds, and continue on to Kayenta, Arizona.
Arriving in Kayenta, and our water bladders are empty again. We stop in the Kayenta McDonalds to get ice, and in the parking lot a Native American approaches me. I assume he's local, but he tells me he's been hitchhiking for days and days, maybe 3 or 4 or 5 days or so... he hasn't had anything to eat in all that time, and he's very hungry.
I reply that nobody should go hungry, hunger is a horrible thing, and that if he wants to come inside with me I'll buy him a hamburger, fries, and a drink.
There's a long pause, and then he replies slowly and deliberately that he really had his heart set on a pizza or a taco or a burrito. Wait a minute! I tell him this is McDonalds. They sell hamburgers and fries and soft drinks. I'll buy him a hamburger and fries and a soft drink, but I'm not going to go riding all over Kayenta looking for a pizza or a taco or a burrito.
He thinks for a second, then says: "Thanks anyway..." and walks off. I guess he wasn't that hungry after all.
Around Kayenta, the desert is desolate - and beautiful. Fine red sand, and little tufts of grass everywhere. A little bit of red sand drifted onto the road in places. Kayenta is only about 25 miles south of Monument Valley, and it looks a lot like pictures I've seen of Monument Valley.
We head north out of Kayenta, towards Utah and into Monument Valley. It's an incredible ride! Monument Valley doesn't appear all at once, the landscape slowly become more and more strange until all around is red sand, green grass, and then huge monoliths rising up from the desert.
A few miles into Utah, and there's a pullout with incredible views of Monument Valley, as you look south. Words fail me, so we spend some time taking photos and looking around at the scenery where we've just been. We're up on a rise, looking several miles across a huge valley, and when cars do come from across the valley we can see them for at least a couple miles before they arrive where we are. There's another couple there with us, traveling by car, but with much better camera gear than we have.
We talk photography for a few minutes while looking at the scenery to the south, then turn to look to the north and oh my.... to the north is a wall of brown, a brown cloud several thousand feet high, heading our way. A huge dust cloud, I've never seen anything quite like it.
Sharon and the other couple ask me what we're going to do. I think, and then reply that we may as well ride into it. Standing here we have no protection at all, but moving through the cloud, we have the fairing and our helmets to divert the grit, and we should punch through the cloud much sooner if we're going 30-40 mph north and it's going 30-40 mph south...
Sharon and I suit up and head north; a half-mile later we're swallowed by the dust cloud.
It's not as bad as it looked, visibility is good enough that we can maintain 60 mph safely - though it is very gusty in there. The funny thing is the color inside the cloud - everything is sepia-colored. Sepia sun, sepia sky, sepia ground, sepia cliffs.... 10 minutes ago, we had red ground and green tufts of grass and red cliffs and blue sky. No more.
We continue north to Mexican Hat, Utah. Around Mexican Hat, we see cliffs that look as though they've been painted in layers - there are distinct stripes and swirls curving through the open cliff faces. Maybe on another day they'd be many colors, but today they're just several shades of sepia.
Mexican Hat is a place I've wanted to see for a few years now.
Ernie Pyle was here. In the 1930s, before his fame (and Pulitzer Prize) as a war correspondent in World War II, Ernie Pyle spent 7 years on the road. He wrote a syndicated newspaper column about unique people and places he saw on the road, a 1,000 word column, six times a week. In one of those columns he wrote about whitewater boatman Norm Nevills.
Nevills was one of the first commercial whitewater boaters. A hydraulic engineer by trade, he later pioneered the first commercial trips through the Grand Canyon, as well as a long list of other commercial whitewater firsts. Browsing the web, there's a ton of stuff on the man - including a picture of him standing by one of his boats. It looks like a wooden bass boat - flat bottom, shallow draft, and a dashboard bolted / screwed on in front for passengers to hold on to.
Nevills took Pyle for a whitewater trip on the San Juan River; from Bluff, Utah to Nevill's trading post back at Mexican Hat.
Pyle was unimpressed with Nevills, both initially and throughout most of the trip. Paraphrasing here, but Pyle described Nevills as a scrawny happy-go-lucky boatman with a leaky and beat up boat. The trip was mostly uneventful, with Nevills laughing and joking the whole way down as they ran small rapids, and with Pyle doubtful that the man knew anything at all about rowing a boat as they drifted and talked and laughed.
The pair rounded a bend near the end of the run, and a flooded tributary had pumped the river level up in that spot - the last rapid was a big surprise, much bigger than Nevills expected. Nevills' whole persona instantly changed - he grabbed the oars, telling Pyle to hold on to the dash. Meanwhile, Nevills found the correct route through the rapids. A large wave crashed over the bow, breaking the dash loose and leaving Pyle sprawled in the bottom of the boat.
And then it was over, the boat upright but swamped, with Nevills bailing and laughing and joking again - back to business as usual. In his column, Pyle compared the experience to having a car accident, and came away dazzled by Nevills' boating skills. It's not recorded what Nevills thought of Pyle.
That was my first exposure to Ernie Pyle's writing, and I've been a fan ever since. His style is simple and easy to read, yet paints a vivid picture of Nevills the boatman with his beat-up boat. And of Pyle as the innocent newbie, and that innocence lost.
Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper in April 1945, while covering the war in the South Pacific. By then he was a celebrity, having won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Europe from the perspective of the soldiers fighting there.
Nevills and his wife were killed in an airplane crash in 1949; flying was one of Nevills' hobbies.
Pyle writes the way I wish I wrote: concise, vivid, simple.
And Nevills sounds like me when I've taken innocents down whitewater rivers in my two-seater whitewater kayak. I can picture both men very clearly in my mind, I understand laughing and joking so that passengers are at ease, I understand how much work 1,000 words can be… I admire both men.
But the history lesson above is pretty obscure, there's not much in Mexican Hat now. A trading post, some restaurants, a hotel, and a combination gas station / convenience store / post office.
We continue north on US-163 to Bluff, Utah. At Bluff, we turn east to Colorado through Montezuma Creek and Aneth, Utah. Everything is still sepia colored as the sun goes down, we haven't managed to escape anything. And as it gets dark, the lightnining begins - never near, but always visible, off in the clouds somewhere lighting up large areas of the sky. It's not a good feeling, rain comes and goes, there's "Open Range" signs, visiblity isn't great, and the lightning adds a lot more to the adventure than what I'd like.
I want to stop for the night, Sharon agrees. However, there's no lodging available in Montezuma Creek - the name is bigger than the town. There's nothing in Aneth either - Sharon didn't even notice that we'd passed through a town when we went through Aneth, it didn't register as anything more than a few buildings to her. From Aneth, we head southeast and intersect US-160 just north of the Four Corners monument. Then we head north on US-160 to Cortez.
We don't have any other options, Cortez is the next large town. Thankfully, Cortez is big enough that they'd have to have somewhere for us to spend the night. Between the cloud cover and the lack of moon and the sporadic rain, it's very dark and somewhat cool. We're tired, we really want to be somewhere safe and warm... then off in the distance, we see a glow. Coming closer, and the glow turns into lights - it seems as though we're almost there. Yet it takes a long time to get to those lights, even though we can see them clearly...
Entering Cortez, we grab supper at a "classic" Dennys - it's styled like an aluminum diner of the 1940s-1950s but it's obviously brand-new. We order something light, just to keep our stomachs from growling. Then we check into the first motel that looks well-kept, and go to bed. We've seen a lot today, and just absorbing what we've seen is exhausting...