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Arid Zona: Keeping cool in the Grand Canyon State

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Guilt and my own two legs prevented me from renting a mule at the Grand Canyon.

At Pima Point, on the Grand Canyon’s south rim, they say you can hear the Colorado River a mile below. It might have been the breeze or the din of countless unfinished conversations in the air, but we couldn’t hear it.

First sight of the Grand Canyon tends to cut conversation short.

“Whoa …” said my son, Ryan.

“Holy …” said my wife, Leah.

“That’s a mighty big ditch,” said a man nearby in a deep Texan drawl.

“Uh-huh,” replied his wife.

We had come by train from Williams, 100 kilometres away. The local historical society had staged a Wild West shootout before our departure. A Navajo singer had serenaded us on board. And the dusty desert flats passing our windows had lulled us into a midday doze.

Perhaps that’s what added to the spectacle. It’s not until the last minute that the Grand Canyon reveals itself. Set against such an epic backdrop the sky seems only more infinite. And it’s just as well there’s so much room on the rim because tourists like us are everywhere.

Ryan's nabbed by a wild west outlaw for looking too cute.

Fortunately, the Grand Canyon, like Arizona, is big enough to absorb the crowds. Better yet, it’s cooler than the cauldron of Phoenix, where we’d arrived and rented a car a few days before. It had been 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) and even the locals were complaining.

“It makes you wonder who showed up here all those years ago and thought, ‘Hmm, this looks like a good place to settle,’” said the car rental rep, not quite looking at home in a suit and tie.

I had to agree. Phoenix no doubt has its attractions, but with only six days in Arizona we’d headed north after one night in Tempe, a suburb near the airport.

Phoenix’s urban sprawl leeches north for about an hour’s drive but eventually the two-lane Highway 17 set us among cacti and rolling desert hills on our way to Montezuma’s Castle in Verde Valley.

The Disney-sounding name is misleading. When early settlers first saw the five-storey fortress somehow built into a cave 30 metres up a cliff they assumed it had been built by the Aztecs and called it Montezuma’s Castle. In fact, Sinagua farmers using ladders and gravity-defying courage are now known to have carved out 20 residences in the limestone recess. Support beams – cut from white-barked Arizona Sycamore – are still visible 900 years after the Sinagua erected them.

Literally meaning ‘without water,’ the Sinagua culture all but disappeared in the 1400s, likely because of drought or warfare with the rival Yavapai people.

Until midway through the last century, visitors could still use a series of ladders for a closer look at Montezuma’s Castle. However, when Highway 17 was completed those visitors became hordes and concerns about safety and damage prompted the U.S. National Park Service to remove the ladders.

You'll be glad of the air conditioning at Montezuma's Castle.

Despite being treated to the sight of one of North America’s best preserved cliff dwellings, we were constantly distracted by something much more down to earth: lizards. Among the mesquite and saltbush growing around an empty riverbed, lizards were always on the move, but occasionally stopping for photos.

We were less hardy. The unrelenting heat beat us back to the car and higher into Arizona’s Black Hills. Thanks to a tip from a friend in Vancouver we found the town of Jerome, a place cool in both senses of the word.

About 32 kilometres from Montezuma’s Castle and 145 kilometres from Phoenix, Jerome calls itself both America’s largest ghost town and it’s most vertical city. A mile above sea level on Cleopatra Hill, prone to disastrous fires and once home to a thriving copper mine, Jerome probably doesn’t disappoint on either claim. But to me Jerome’s charms lay in its narrow, winding streets and the fact that its funky bars, restaurants and galleries don’t so much perch but cling to the 30-degree incline. (In the late 1930s blasting at the mine triggered a slide that sent the town’s jail 70 metres downhill while still in tact!)

Atop Cleopatra Hill, the whitewashed Jerome Grand Hotel – once an asylum to house the mine’s burn victims and TB sufferers – presides over the community. Jerome looks nothing like mainstream America; more like a European citadel.

The 15,000 copper miners are long gone and in their place is a thriving artist community of about 450 people. Which could explain the presence of so many great places for coffee. The café cubano (an espresso shot sweetened with sugar as it’s brewed) at Jerome’s Flatiron Café was the best java jolt I’ve ever tasted.

The air was distinctly thinner (and cooler) in Flagstaff, 2,100 metres up and with as fine a view of the galaxies as you’ll see anywhere. Just outside downtown Flagstaff on Mars Hill astronomers at the Lowell Observatory discovered the former planet Pluto. (It was downgraded to a ‘dwarf’ planet in 2006: Don’t ask me why.)

On a clear and chilly August evening we lined up for an hour to take a turn peering into the heavens through the same 61-centimetre telescope erected by Percival Lowell in 1894 and used to find Pluto 36 years later. Even to the naked eye, the glowing red of Jupiter was hard to miss and once inside the old wooden observatory dome we were treated to a glimpse of the Wild Duck Cluster — an estimated 2,900 stars seemingly confined to a few small inches of the sky and thought to be 200 million years old.

Parents of small children can imagine the profound bedtime conversations after such an evening. (“But why was Pluto downgraded, dad?”)

Daytime revealed more down-to-earth pleasures in Flagstaff and with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals conducting preseason training at the town’s Northern Arizona University Campus, hundreds of crimson-clad fans flooded the historic core’s coffee shops, restaurants and brewpubs. Coffee was outstanding at the downtown Hotel Monte Vista, where scenes from the movie Casablanca were shot, and the sushi at Karma was worth the trip. B.C. travellers might also appreciate the fact that pubs here welcome children.

For all the attractions and distractions off Arizona’s beaten track, naturally it’s hard to compete with the Grand Canyon. A jeep tour in Sedona came close though. About 80 kilometres south of Flagstaff, the town of Sedona lurks within rust-red monoliths and mesas. With a reputation as a spiritual mecca, Sedona is home to about 11,000 people, most of whom came from somewhere else.

Steve Williamson came from New York City with his wife who wanted to be anywhere but the Big Apple after helping with 9/11 relief efforts. A geology major and web designer, Steve is in his element working for Red Rock Western Jeep Tours; contorting a so-called iron pony up, down and over impossibly steep and rugged desert trails while spinning yarns about the area’s history, culture and topography.

Following part of the trail built by General George Crook’s soldiers in 1871-72 and surrounded by Soaptree Yuccas, Prickly Pear plants, Pinion pines and Utah junipers, Steve put names to much of what we had seen on our travels through northern Arizona. Seemingly oblivious to boulders, potholes and our occasional screams, Steve regaled us with tales of Crook’s Apache campaign and made sense of Sedona’s dramatic landscape.

But even Steve might struggle with the trails of the Grand Canyon where rented mules are the fastest mode of transport. We stuck with our own two feet and hiked about 15 kilometres over two days. We descended Bright Angel trail into the Canyon and felt the temperature rise with every narrow switchback. We also strolled the extensive network of trails along the south rim, watching bleached white clouds cast their shadows on an otherworldly landscape.

By all means buy a souvenir at Verkamp’s Visitor Centre, a drink at the El Tovar Hotel or dinner at the Thunderbird Lodge, but don’t be distracted from the main event. Put your camera down and take at least a few moments of solitude and silence here. The Grand Canyon is 446 kilometres long, up to 29 kilometres wide and 1.6 kilometres deep. For those who are prepared to get a little dirt under their fingernails and some sweat on their backs there are memories to last a lifetime.

How the Judd family managed to obtain such a prime viewing spot must remain a secret.

Written by nevjudd

December 5, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Posted in Arizona, Grand Canyon

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