I awoke early, still a bit looped from the previous night’s festivities and eager to indulge in one last hot shower before embarking on another camping stretch. But first, the car needed to be dealt with. Thirty days had passed since picking up the rental in Nashville, and the extra time we had spent in the South meant we were nowhere near our prescribed dropoff point in San Diego. I had taken for granted that towns in the Southwest would be more recognizable as towns than the vast swaths of desert they actually were and having had sporadic cell service at best, for weeks at a time, was making it impossible to remedy our situation.
The hotel in Page had been booked in the hopes of attaining reliable Wi-fi, thus enabling us to trade in the car. I bitterly muttered at web pages as they persisted to time out, and what information I could glean was disheartening. I was frustrated and my lingering drunkenness had ripened into a full-on hangover. J awoke to find me frenzied, leaning over my laptop. Having exhausted every option of car, RV, or camper van within a three-hour drive, I was now desperately searching for a Uhaul to rent.
After plying me with carbohydrates, a shower, and soft repetitions asserting that (if we could survive an engine seizing while in use,) we could exchange a damn rental car, I mustered my capacity for adult behavior. I called the rental company once more and discovered that said company didn’t even put out an APB on an unreturned car until it was three days overdue. Realizing I had been shamed by librarians more diligent, we scrapped the idea of returning it altogether. Adults do what they want, and sometimes that means driving a car that isn’t yours to Vegas.
We exited Page, with its disproportionate adoration of Alanis Morissette, on our way towards the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. In a part of the country where truckstops pass for towns, there’s only a single road to get anywhere. People were abusing the hell out of this one. We defended ourselves against the speeding Dads scarring their reluctantly freighted brood (at a rate thirty miles over the limit) with every weave. And also the impatient tourists, blowing past RVs across solid yellow lines. We turned West and the Little Colorado River Gorge opened to our right. Genuinely impressive in spite of its diminutive name, we passed up the chance to explore, eager to get to the main event.
After a morning dominated by the realization of exactly how significant a limb had been severed by poor wi-fi and reception while trying to manage logistics, we were finally ready to head into the Grand Canyon from the East. Our plan thankfully went off without a hitch, and we were able to snag the last campsite available then explore the absolutely magnificent Desert Watchtower and the East Rim. As always, the ravens were wheeling and cavorting, doing barrel rolls and flying in tight, small squads.
The interior of the tower was another moment of childhood memory shook free. The art of the Pueblo people has always held an enchantment over me. We enjoyed the three floors of the tower, delighting in the tiny details that infested the edifice before heading home to enjoy two beers from the gift shop, relishing the fruits of industrial-grade tourism. We set to work on a dinner of penne and tuna with an arrabbiata sauce, our bellies full as we took the quick journey to take in the sunset at a Ranger-recommended vista.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the Disney Theme Park of the National Parks System. The village boasts a rail line, airport, entire fleet of buses, kennel, mule stable, hotels, restaurants, art, geology, and cultural museums, campgrounds, three visitor’s centers, two entrances, and a partridge in a pear tree. Much like Disney, it is also perpetually mobbed. In an act of providence, we were able to secure the last site available at the Desert View Campsite the day before it was to be shut down for the winter. We pitched our tent below an exquisite, craggy juniper and made our way to the Desert Watchtower.
The tower looked ominous, a fairytale castle encircled by ravens, situated on the edge of the canyon. It was built to look imperfect, like a forgotten relic. Each of its three interior levels had been adorned with petroglyphs created by a different artist. They depicted joyous scenes of Hopi ceremonies, their candy-colored hues seemingly more befitting a Paul Klee canvas than my image of the American Southwest. The ceiling too was covered in figures and kachinas, and the collage created a sky of Hopi constellations above us.
We hit up a series of overlooks before stopping to watch the sunset at Moran Point. Our legs dangled over the rock ledge as the deep cracks and rocky temples of the North Rim were set ablaze with the sun’s last gasps. Our adventure was also in its last throes, and with that came the arduous task of running through the liquor stores we had brought along. As the sun dwindled, then disappeared, the evening took on a chill, and we headed back to camp to pair the warmth of the fire with a bottle of Refosco.
Travelling for an extended period can be draining and the next day found me weak and congested. I reminded myself of all the brunch shifts I had worked blindingly hungover and mobilized. You rally for the Grand Canyon. We packed up, stopping at the nearest Visitor’s Center for surprisingly baller breakfast sandwiches. My request for hot sauce directed me to a condiment table possessing individually portioned packets of Cholula. I’ll admit they’re not the most environmentally friendly option. Nevertheless, my mind was blown, and I thought, ‘That canyon has some real competition.’
We broke camp the next morning, sad to leave one of our favorite sites of the trip. Interested in getting a jump on the day, we opted to avail ourselves of the amenities nearby, obtaining the same sort of delightful breakfast sandwiches one would find in any of this nation’s finer food courts, mere minutes from the edge of the Grand Canyon. As we came closer to the Mecca of the Great American Road Trip, the similarities between Jurassic Park and what awaited us on the South Rim multiplied rapidly. Industrial tourism is a very, very real thing, and it comes color-coded and packed with seemingly lobotomized tourists with the occasional eager pilgrim.
The Tusayan Museum sits alongside the 800-year ruins of the remote pueblo which once stood there. It houses a small, but stunning array of artifacts from those who once inhabited the region. Pottery, rattan jugs, jewelry, tools, and dolls fashioned with twigs were all arranged by tribe and era. We toured the ruins, noticing how the San Francisco Mountains, the Hopi’s Mount Olympus, was directly aligned with the pueblo’s courtyard and ceremonial kiva. Markers around the trail alerted us to different plants and their many uses, and it was humbling to be faced with our ignorance of the abundance that surrounded us.
Tourists swarmed Mather Point like ants on an apple core, a sea of dialects with selfie stick flotsam bobbing above. Dozens had left the horde to climb past the railing onto slim ledges. We watched them jump, arms and legs splayed, in search of an Insta-worthy moment, and renewed the vow we had made early in the trip, promising each other not to become statistics.
Truly, there was very little middle ground between humble worshippers of nature and those who may casually throw a dirty diaper into the parking lot, among other things. Seeing Kokopelli crudely tagged on an ancient Juniper tree was enough irony to propel a body straight to the canyon floor, which is stunning. So stunning in fact, that it may account for the multiple cases of lapses in spelling, grammar and general legibility all over our poor arboreal friend.
While the views are obviously legendary, it is the people watching at the main campus of the South Rim that’s truly remarkable. Highlights include:
A young boy on a walkie-talkie: “This is Legendary Fart Master”
A group of Japanese women loudly chanting and singing, taking turns assumedly throwing into the canyon the bad juju of exes- or perhaps it hadn’t been their day, their month, or even their year. In any case, the invisible pile of regrets and bad decisions lining the Grand Canyon climbed higher that day. I silently fired off a few bad thoughts of my own in the direction of the North Rim.
A mountain of a man, with an aggressive beard, wearing a shirt that read: “I FLEXED AND THE SLEEVES FELL OFF”, his massive Dad bod being pulled here and there by a mostly pink-clad and incredibly eager tiny daughter.
A mean-mugging boy, not much older than a decade, rocking a silver chain, black sleeveless shirt, some very crispy Nike hi-tops and some Pikachu sweatpants. If I were nine, that kid would be a god. From my current stance, that kid is heavily favored to be in band camp, albeit as a percussionist, potentially dating a nice girl from the flag corps.
Shuttles along the trail of the West rim served to disperse the throng, and with most people exiting at the first few lookouts, only a handful remained by the time we had reached The Abyss. The Abyss curves deeply in on itself, named for the 1000 foot fold it forms at the canyon’s mouth and provides a staggering perspective.
We walked into the sunset, hiking the three-mile trail to Pima Point. Here the sun’s light was obstructed by the valley’s immense rock formations, cloaking it in shadow despite the early hour. Its rapid trajectory through the sky afforded an ever-changing picture of the temples below. Crows flew wing to wing above the rocky scrub desert in an elaborate mating dance. Not ones to let their prowess be overshadowed, the swifts rolled nimbly and dive-bombed in their own impressive spectacle.
A lone hiker before us captured my attention. He had paused to look at something off-trail. I followed his gaze to a hulking mass directly to our left. Signs posted throughout the park warn visitors to keep their distance from elk. Though the animals are usually docile, they will charge if feeling threatened. I grabbed J’s arm and pulled him forward, putting a few more paces between us and the animal. In the stillness we were able to notice additional activity, eventually spotting five more. It was unnerving how well camouflaged they were amongst the vegetation, barely visible despite their size, but for their movements.
Sufficiently riled and suspicious at this point of anyone not carrying a massive Sierra Club banner, we moved west, further into the park, fully ensconced in what is a small city unto itself. We hopped a shuttle to view the westernmost vistas, grateful for the relative quiet and respectful trail-goers. On a stroll of barely 3 miles, we saw the Abyss, among several other vistas; shadows challenging then quickly enveloping the canyon floor in a premature evening, ravens galore and a small herd of elk, which barely took note as we cautiously strode through their midst.
Pima Point offered panoramic views of The Abyss and the sprawling valley. The Colorado River could be seen working tirelessly to wear away at the earth below. The turbulent waters of its rapids drop three stories in places and advance its depth each year by that of a sheet of paper.
We hit just the perfect amount of heart rate and red rocks far as the eye could see and took the shuttle back. We wandered the sprawling complex looking for a Ranger, those wonders in khaki, to guide us to what the fuck next, but to no avail. Kaibab, Land of Many Uses, would be our home for the evening on the South Rim, and we would be looking for it in the dark, without a map. Slightly deflated, we hopped back into the car and headed out to navigate to some semblance of a safe spot. We stopped in Tusayan, which similar to the town of Bryce, just outside of its National Park namesake (founded 2007), is not really an actual place, but a series of hotels, restaurants and all the other things you would need to please the Canyon-going masses. After a pleasant dinner at a Mexican place, we set to navigating around a seemingly endless procession of road-raging Dads, our only zen moment the distant pulsing red lights of a nearby wind farm.
Eventually, we found ourselves on I-40, making a lucky guess as to the whereabouts of our Kaibab campsite for the night. Getting in and parking was more than a little scary, and until we spotted an RV, we weren’t even sure we weren’t getting in line for some type of backwoods massacre. The sites and roads were decidedly a little rougher than the North Rim, and our scree-field site managed to be even scarier in the morning, surveying the wreckage of a previous camp and letting the inferences fall where they may. We were stiff and in short temper, but we had circuited the Grand Canyon, the centerpiece of our venture, and moved along the Interstate happy in spite of our selves.
The crest of the Hoover Dam, once the premier crossing from Arizona into Nevada, is now an access route to a parking lot. The art deco masterpiece was recently replaced by a four-lane bridge above it. The dam itself, however, is still a lovely monument, with striking details throughout. Two large bronze angels sit on pedestals to its West. They hold court over a mosaic marble star map. The map portrays the night sky the evening of the dam’s completion and was meant to be a means of communicating with future beings. The patina had been rubbed from the angels’ feet, rumored to be good luck, and people lined up for a chance to caress them. J tried to get me to follow suit, but I was somewhat repulsed at the idea of stroking feet, especially ones covered in the grime of the grubby tourists that came before.
Though the light fixtures, cacti finials, and other details were undeniably gorgeous, the dam’s most interesting features were its memorials. 98 men and a dog were lost in its building, and a statue and plaque respectively commemorate them. Even those who didn’t perish withstood abominable living conditions (some with families in tow), and it was hard to find a dam, even one as arresting as this one, to be an adequate tribute to their suffering.
On the way to Las Vegas, that promised land of neon and cell service, we stopped at the Hoover Dam, which will hereafter be known as the Hoover Scam. After parking for the bargain price of $10, we stood in line for a few minutes before realizing that the vaunted Dam tour was $30 a person. Shame on us for assuming that a massive public works project, tax-funded, which pays for itself via the power it produces should charge less than $60 for a curious and enthusiastic couple. We jumped out of line, confident in the knowledge we had previously gleaned at Glen Canyon Dam.
The grounds themselves were free to roam, and the gorgeous architecture and sculpture were well worth a ten-spot, and the walk along Monument Bridge provided a wonderful context to the population explosion of the region. The throbbing mass of people was proof positive, and we were eager to get into a hotel room. We were equally nonplussed by distant Lake Mead. As Y put it, “I’d rather drink Mead than look at it.”
We were finally heading back into civilization, soaring onto a highway bearing multiple lanes, our internet access springing back to life, tall buildings shimmering in the distance. We parked the car in the hotel garage just off Fremont, promptly got lost in the casino, checked in, and managed to get lost again before finally settling in, happy for a few nights in one place, with a proper bed to boot. After collecting ourselves, we walked to Atomic Liquors for some treats, settled some housekeeping then walked to Park on Fremont for a delicious dinner.
Once again, we were enjoying the sample-sized bites of experiences our off-season journey yielded. Downtown Vegas is awash in an array of murals, and neon, peppered with exactly the type of people you might expect to be walking around Downtown Las Vegas at dusk on a Monday. Namely, your parents, massive adult slurpees in hand, gambling addicts, moving with the shaky knowledge that the hour of the day doesn’t affect their odds and the few unsupervised Millenials, trolling along in a pedal-powered party barge, or squealing overhead as they sail down Fremont on a zip line.
Interested in taking your own trip to the Grand Canyon? Check out our guide to the East Rim here.