We awoke from our first warm night in some time excited by the unfamiliar urge to peel off layers. I stepped out to start breakfast and took in the Colorado River cutting through Glen Canyon from our camp on the hill. The Paria River funneled into the Colorado just upstream. The sediment it deposited created a riffle which disturbed the placid surface of the rushing water.
The serenity was disturbed by a couple using their phones to cycle through YouTube videos. The volume pierced the quiet of the canyon. Even a non-camper like myself can recognize that much like littering or leaving a fire burning, this behavior is unspoken, bad camp etiquette. J’s fearsome stink-eye seemed unable to penetrate across two campsites, so I brushed off my manager voice and stalked over. Rudeness rectified, we were able to spend the morning writing, breaking occasionally to take notice of the ravens. We chatted softly over peanut butter and banana sandwiches, our only irritation our anger at a simpler time gone, one before childhood allergies forced the banning of peanut butter from schools.
The theme of Marble Canyon was to be one of relaxation. We rose before the heat, eating well and taking some time to write. Two ravens scuttled and kibitzed in the shade, watching the slow proceedings of the campground. We had a light snack, then drove off to see the Navajo Crossing Bridge. Again, the lush tapestry of history spreads over the entire journey, and we learned of the area’s humble beginnings as a river fording site to Mormon waystation and crossing to its modern role of the gateway into Arizona. The original bridge remains as a footbridge, its successor mirroring both its style and route over the Colorado. Glancing down, we could clearly see the whirling eddies and clouds of silt, layered in shades of emerald, moving swiftly.
A river tour group, the individual people barely discernable from their crafts, yelled greetings and waved up at us, but were quickly swept downstream. We crossed the bridge, touching down into the Navajo reservation. In shaded stalls, old Navajo women were selling jewelry, softly chuckling and exchanging jokes in their native tongue. We turned and walked back across the Colorado and drove back to our campsite, stopping for photographs along the way. Despite being equally as awe-inspiring, the terrain does not seem as oppressive or alien as Utah. This sentiment is perhaps the byproduct of the American Experience and the bedrock myths of the vaunted American West.
At the time of its completion in 1928, the Navajo Bridge was the tallest single-arch bridge in the world, built on the spot where Navajo people crossed the Colorado for generations. It replaced Lee’s Ferry, the only method across for 600 miles, and its implications for transportation and commerce caused newspapers to laud it as the biggest thing to ever happen to the Southwest. The historic bridge was now a pedestrian walkway, having built a new one alongside it to withstand the weight of modern vehicles. We peered down at the swiftly moving waters, the swirling silt a visible testament to their violence.
Exploring the Lonely Dell Ranch, preserved by the National Parks Service, felt like stumbling upon some bygone catastrophe, as though its inhabitants had left in a great hurry. All four families charged with operating the ferry had taken a turn on the ranch. The home is so remote it had not received electricity until 1965 and the tenants had to support themselves off the land. An irrigation ditch was built to channel water from the Paria, resulting in a grand orchard, an oasis of peaches, pears, plums, and apricots set strikingly against the dusty canyon. Rusted tools and pamphlets told the story of the ranch’s inhabitants, and once again we were confronted with the narrative of a cult. We walked the eerie grounds, specks in the grand vista, darting grey field mice our only company.
Enthusiastic after the short field trip, we took another to the homestead that would become the anchor for the region, walking first through a surprisingly prolific orchard. As we learned, all the soil of the region needed was a little water. Being alone on land that had seen over 150 years of use felt eerie, and we turned back after taking a few pictures of a long-abandoned truck that looked to be from the early 40s, slowly melding with the desert. We stopped at a beach on the banks of the Colorado and tested the frigid waters before we returned to camp.
The afternoon had grown hot and we headed to the Colorado River to cool ourselves from the walk. A sandy beach lines the length near the riffle and we relished the unexpected feeling of sand between our toes. The waters maintain a brisk 42-degree temperature, which is refreshing to the point of numbness, but the river’s beautiful strength left me reluctant to hurry my wading.
Gusts of wind began pummeling the campgrounds as our desire to start dinner struck, strong enough to make us concerned for the tent. A fellow camper came by with an offer of fire, an act of primal generosity in our current conditions. However, J and I both relish the act of making a fire, in addition to being bullheaded, and so we prepared dinner as usual, over our own. The wind died down just as we had finished our meal, returning the canyon to the muted stillness we had grown accustomed to. It was only 8pm, but the weather had driven everyone to bed, and we were tired too.
I was reminded of the semi-sacred community of campers, as the act of setting up a temporary home in the woods is an act of contrition and vulnerability. Even camping as we were, at sites with enclosed toilets, electricity and at times, running water, hearing coyotes amble through your site is more than unnerving. There is a loose confederacy to be found among campers of all stripes, as you literally have to worry about never locking your door.
True to this, a father from a neighboring site offered us the use of his fire, as a wind storm had seemingly complicated the thought of starting a new one. Fire, the beginning of civilization, being offered as a simple gift of courtesy. The irony danced madly in the hills. We assumed from a distance that he was older than both of us, given the lofty role of paterfamilias, but his baby face showed a man a decade our junior. Never assume things in the desert.
As the sun began to set, the wind blew harder, though not hard enough to prevent us from having our own fire, thank you very much. Dinner went down easily with the aid of Portuguese wine, and later, an errant flask of Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy. It was a unique experience to watch the fire slowly lose to the wind, to have the air rush around while the stars glimmered implacably above. Y has proved to be a full-on badass as far as camping expectations, taking poor sites, subfreezing temperature, windstorms and lackluster equipment all in stride, all while doing things like making foil-packet stuffed french toast for breakfast. Soy muy fortunado.
After enjoying bespoke stuffed french toast the next morning, we headed off to Page, AZ, hoping again for a semblance of a cell signal and some passable wi-fi. At the very least, we knew a hot shower was in both our futures. On the way, we visited the Glen Canyon Dam, largely arriving before any significant crowd had developed. The dam itself is truly an amazing mastery of environment and is staggering in its beauty.
It was amazing to consider the massive Colorado and how it had been cowed and changed by structures as this. The museum itself was fantastic and answered an endless torrent of questions neither of us had gotten around to asking. Of special note was John Powell, who, after rearing his head again and again, continues to be a figure of great inspiration. We owe him an unpayable debt for the groundwork he laid, ensuring the national beauty he explored, in some part, be preserved for us.
We opted to skip the tour of the dam’s interior. I had previously been on a dam tour, albeit a much, much smaller one, and was more of a mind to do it at the Hoover Dam besides. We continued on to Page. We were able to check in early, taking advantage of the empty hotel’s unused bandwidth to goof off. We washed up, then headed next door to Fiesta Mexicana for some of ‘The Best Margaritas In Town’. Being from the decidedly sin caliente area of the country as I am, I often look askance at Mexican restaurants, especially those that seemed primed for tourists. Yet again, the Southwest is legit, even in a town built solely for the fact of the Glen Canyon Dam. The food was par excellence and the admittedly silly Coronaritas were exactly the cure for our ailment.
Myths of John Wesley Powell had been permeating our consciousness since reaching the Grand Canyon, so we overshot Page for a detour to Glen Canyon Dam. The dam is one of the world’s longest, and after completion, 17 years passed before Powell’s namesake lake would finally fill. The man was part Professor, part Survivorman – a geologist, teacher, cartographer, and outdoorsmen who spoke ancient Latin, lost an arm in the Civil War, and was the first director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. He led numerous expeditions and is responsible for much of the early mapping of America’s major waterways. In 1869, he led the first non-Native American passage through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado. When the group reached the Virgin River, 80 days later, they found their obituaries had already been published.
The dam traps the Colorado’s muddy waters, its sediment collecting at the floor of the lake. Again we looked down at the newly emerald waters emitted below. A condor caught our attention, its expansive wings extended above us. Savoring the day, we attempted to get a closer look at the lake itself. A brief trip into Utah proved that none of the nearby access points to the lake were without cost, but we found an overlook off the highway providing views of the desert, the lake, and those wealthy enough to enjoy its refreshment.
We returned to the hotel for some housekeeping, ironing out our dinner plans along the way. We had reservations at Into The Grand- a dinner service only, reservation strongly encouraged spot that featured live music and native dance as part of a prix fixe experience. We had no idea what to truly expect, but we were more than happy to oblige the disclaimer that we should plan to spend the night with them.
On the walk over, some girls in their early 20s at best were unabashedly listening to ‘Ironic’ sitting on the stoop of their motel room, wearing mostly black on a Friday the 13th. It was all a little too much for our jaded asses, and we sauntered off cackling like hyenas, breaking the relative calm of the cool evening. Y mentioned the jagged little pills were one bad boyfriend away from jail.
Though only in Page for a night, J had scored us a reservation at Into the Grand, a dining experience featuring Native American performances, from what we could glean from its website. A brief stop to wash away four days of grime and moisturize any chapped bits, and we were being greeted with warm handshakes by Hoss, the proprietor. The walls of Into the Grand, located in a warehouse, were covered in murals of rapids. Rafting paraphernalia punctuated the decor. A troubadour crooned 80’s ballads from a stage at the room’s center.
The most incredible smelling pork carnitas passed us en route to another table and it was enough to ease any concerns we were harboring over the general weirdness of it all. My first, long-awaited sample of Indian fry bread immediately won me over, even before diving into the astonishingly inexpensive craft beer list. It is a beautiful marriage of naan and funnel cake that could not be bestowed upon a more grateful carb enthusiast.
We arrived at the restaurant and were strangely charmed by ‘Your Eyes’ soulfully renditioned on the acoustic. Before the inner cynic could begin to mouth off, our Coppercity Bourbon, beers and the next number, ‘Time After Time’ had arrived. We were happy. Eventually, Hoss, the proprietor, came out to introduce Wally Brown, a Navajo code talker, musician (who actually told a short anecdote about Alanis, among many others) and actual living fucking legend.
Wally introduced a series of native dances, all accompanied by the universal heartbeat of the drum. The young dancers absolutely killed it. I had been fortunate as a child to have seen native dance before, but this time it will be the fluid movements that will stick in my mind, not the regalia. We left after graciously thanking the performers and our hosts, glad that even on such an inauspicious day good fortune continues generally unabated in our travels.
After an obligatory cover of Hotel California (a song whose popularity I can only assume is payback for some past-life transgression of the highest order) and a truly absurd duet of Don’t Worry Be Happy featuring Hoss himself, the real festivities began. We were introduced to Wally Brown, a hero veteran, engaging storyteller, and recent stroke survivor we would next see on television, being insulted at the White House when the president used his military service as an in for a joke about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage. After the war, Mr. Brown had played with a number of notable artists, including Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys, and would be our guide on the night’s journey through traditional Native American dance.
A procession of Navajo youths performed with prodigious skill. I wondered at the intensity one must feel watching an entire group of adults passionately executing these dances as part of an actual ceremony. Wally Brown intimately ushered us through the succession, enthralling the cavernous room into rapt attention. His introductions were interrupted only once, by the humorous yawns of an impatient young performer more familiar with his role as a long-winded grandfather than an American hero.
On a trip rife with singular experiences, the night was especially moving, and I awkwardly wondered if clapping was an appropriate sign of respect. We thanked all for the warm immersion into their culture and congratulated Hoss on the exceptional space he had created.
Interested in taking your own trip to the Lee’s Ferry? Check out our guide to Lee’s Ferry at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area here.