GRAND CANYON - Arriving at the end of a globe-spanning trip — travelling from New York to Milan, Amsterdam to Beijing, Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles — my pal Mike and I landed mid-January in the city of sin, Las Vegas. Here we spent a couple days walking bug-eyed up and down the Strip, our necks swivelling like loose screws, taking in the head scratching re-creations of Paris, Venice, New York and the Pyramids. But, being notoriously unlucky gamblers, we decided to spend the last day of our trip making a dash out to a real world wonder, the Grand Canyon.
Our destination was Tonto Plateau, a lookout point a few kilometres down from the south rim and a four and a half hour drive from Vegas. So, early the next morning we made our way to a cramped Enterprise office carved into the back of the SLS Resort. We were greeted by an employee named Trent — bless his soul — who offered a bite from his tuna sandwich while simultaneously mopping his sniffling nose with the back of a sleeve and rambling needlessly about the reform of his ex-inmate girlfriend. Regardless, by mid-morning we were whipping across the Nevada flat lands in a shrunken, white Chevrolet.
With our nose pointed east we passed into Arizona, the landscape transforming into undulating mountains, our little car straining over the surges in elevation. Around 2 we arrived at the national park. Uncorking ourselves from the car, we stumbled stiff legged to the rim of the world’s most famous hole. It really is grand and ancient and we half expected dinosaurs to bound over the stratified ledge.
However, there was no time for contemplation. We were behind schedule and quickly caught a shuttle bus to Bright Angel Trail, a winding switchback that descends slowly to the base of the canyon. Not absorbing much history at the time, I later learned that the trail had been established as a toll route in 1891 by a group of enterprising miners, taxing tourists for the opportunity to witness the glory of the Grand Canyon. Legal battles, however, ensued, with railroad companies and the federal government contesting ownership. Eventually, in 1928, ownership of the trail was turned over to the National Park Service.
Left: Patches of snow make the canyon even more beautiful. Right: Andrew looks out on the majesty of the Grand Canyon.
By the time we got our start it was 3 p.m. on a crisp afternoon, which meant we had only a few hours of sunlight left and Tonto Plateau was a 10 kilometre descent. We started at a brisk walk, passing busloads of tourists meandering back to the top.
The path was slick with downtrodden snow, making traction an issue and the sun was perched on the rim of the canyon threatening to sink into the abyss. Mike and I exchanged glances and in a silent consensus decided we needed to go faster, so we broke into a run. We tore down the slippery switchbacks as the canyon glowed a rusty orange and the clouds above were painted blood red. Soon the snow began to melt away and we emerged on flat terrain, formally referred to as Indian Garden. We hustled through a campsite and sprinted along a dirt path running through a field of low lying shrubs and cactus until we had to suddenly skid to a halt, the earth having fallen away in front of us.
Breathing heavily and stripped down to t-shirts, we looked over to see a group of wide eyed campers less interested in the Colorado River below and more interested in the two northern wild men who nearly ran off the edge of the cliff. They couldn’t fathom anyone from outside the campsite coming down to the lookout so close to sunset. Did we know it was a 10 kilometre hike back up? We did, and we were to pay for it. After we soaked in as much of the view as we could, we nodded goodbye and began the ascent to the rim in the dark.
It took two lung busting hours to get back to the top but a bright moon shone down on the snow illuminating the canyon and guiding our way. When we reached the top, ours was the only car left in the parking lot.