A fitting excursion we think for the holiday that commemorates America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
Leaving the state of California behind us and heading East out to Las Vegas – this bedazzled zone of the desert clocking 105 degrees Fahrenheit at 10:30 at night – we pushed on an hour or so further east to the small, poor man’s Vegas, the township of “Mesquite”. We pulled in at midnight to the “Virgin River Valley Casino” after roadside spotting a mountain lion.
We woke at 8:30am to a blazing desert sun. Unable to see the environment due to a night arrival, the morning revealed a “virgin” river – one that had clearly never experienced water. The blistering heat was almost unbearable with the white earth and white, mountainous rock bouncing the light and the heat in all directions. This sort of thing could make a person crazy if exposed too long.
Taking refuge in the air-conditioned casino, it appeared that many were kick starting America Day with a few turns at the slot-machines. Who knew what time of day or night it was? The environment was set at gambler’s temperature and light. Through the blinking, twinkling, high-pitched sirens, low-pitched sirens and dizzying electronic cheers, perforated only by the mechanical jingle of change, we made our way to the $6.99 Breakfast Buffet.
It was here over hash-browns-from-a-box, fridge-flavored eggs and piles of crispy bacon that I saw my first Polynesian family (I’ve seen the odd individual) since living in Los Angeles. Having joined six tables together to accommodate a large (in every way) party, they made me miss my family. I deducted that my sighting must be a result of the fact that we were on the side of Highway 15 which takes you north into Salt Lake City, Utah. Compared to Los Angeles’ 0.16% Pacific Islander population, SLC boasts a 1.9% Pacific Islander Population - the Mormon thing no doubt; they've run a very successful campaign across a lot of the Polynesian islands over the years.
Immediately next to our table, a fifty-something, Caucasian, American couple, dressed up like Hawaiian tourists were munching away on their fake foods, riveted to the Keno screens when we overheard the woman speak. “I don’t like all this fancy, gourmet cheese. I just like American cheese. Just gimme American cheese,” she said.
The Polynesian family’s (who I could tell from their curious, returned glances had identified the islander in me as I had in them) oversized, make-shift table wasn’t vacant for long after they left. A Native American family as big in number as the last, soon filled the spot. I’d never seen a Native American family either and I can report that they are most definitely reminiscent of my Maori relatives. Having observed both these large families enjoying a meal on this American holiday together, I definitely felt homesick.
I found myself over-sentimentally acknowledging Grandpa with his dark brown, leather-worn face, craggy as the desert rocks. His cowboy hat tipped on his thick, clean-cut, dark grey and white hair, his well-pressed pants, striped, red button-down shirt, shiny boots and silver and turquoise bolo tie and belt buckle showed a man of pride. Dressed in his bests for a big day out with all generations of his family, he escorted his equally desert-worn wife with her long, grey braids in a simple shift dress and cardigan (also adorned with some beautiful turquoise jewelry) to the buffet.
Stocking up the car with pallets of water, we hit the road again, heading for the Nevada/ Arizona state line. The big empty of Arizona made me think of my girlfriend Antonia and one of her favorite films, Emir Kusturica’s “Arizona Dream”. So I called her at home in Rome, Italy and we chatted our way across the great expanses until I lost her somewhere in Utah (I wasn’t driving).
Somewhere over the state line in Utah we came to the ticky-tacky town of St. George, home of Dixie State College. Although we’d never heard of Dixie State College, you’d be blind, deaf or illiterate to miss this information. While Australian Universities may be able to boast an internationally competitive level of education, we cannot compete with American college facilities. The football field and its bleachers at Dixie State may as well have been the size of the SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground). These bizarrely perfect, cookie-cutter housing estates seemed to have tapped into water sources somewhere to create these lush, garden-of-Eden oases in the Devil’s lair of relentlessly hot, rocky Martian-land.
We continued our ascent across Utah and back into Arizona to reach the 8000 feet elevation of the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. But not before passing through some of the prettiest country I have had the privilege to see since living in America. We took the long way around and journeyed through Zion National Park, Utah and surrounding little towns. We made the right choice. Utah is simply breathtaking. It is phenomenally beautiful.
I’m sure many travelers not from America are impressed firstly by the sheer size of everything. America is big. But while the size of spaces is impressive, as an Australian, I am already familiar with vast, wide-open, untouched spaces. It’s so much more than that. Hand carved by the Gods, the natural structures are epic. And oh what colors Mother Earth has chosen to paint this corner of the house!
Vermillion Rocks, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, green lagoons like teardrops fallen onto red earth, babbling brooks and creeks cutting through clay where the kids raft in tyres while their small, home-towns dress up for that night’s big 4th of July bash. A montage of America whizzed by through the windscreen and we paused every now and then to stretch our legs and sample some pie.
Back in Arizona and at a much higher and cooler elevation (10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the southern rim and with a greener vegetation of meadow and forest) it became apparent that we were in Cowboy country. The southern rim of the Grand Canyon is where 90% of all visitors to the canyon trek. It is for this reason we chose to view the canyon from North Rim. “High, wide, lonesome country,” is what cowboys called the Arizona Strip. Highway 89 is the only connecting corridor between the communities of northern Arizona and southern Utah with the only road bridge over the Colorado River in 600 miles. The northern rim has only a short season which lends to its mystery and isolation. It is completely closed, snowed under during the long winter.
Below North Rim is Roaring Springs which provides all the water to both the North & South Rims. Only 10% of all water from the springs is actually used between both rims, the rest flowing from Bright Angel Creek, emptying into the Colorado River. The water is pumped up to the North Rim by two, electric, piston engines. This is the greatest height water is pumped anywhere in the world. The water is then piped across to the South Rim.
You can hike from the North Rim to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in a recommended 3 days and two nights. It is only 25 miles apart as the crow flies, but it is the severity of the terrain and climate that will slow you down. It is 220 miles and 5hrs to get from the North Rim to South Rim by car.
The Australian Aborigines follow “songlines” or "dream tracks" across the outback. These are markings left by the totemic spirits believed to have dreamed us into existence. These markings are woven into songs that are handed down through generations and can be used for navigational purposes as they guide you across the landscape. In a smilar way the Kaibab Paiute Tribe - whose 5000 odd ancestors roamed these expanses seasonally - learned the songs of each rock and tree for instance. John Wesley Powell who mapped the area with Paiute guides in 1871 said of the Paiute, “They cannot describe a country to you, but they can tell you all the details of a route.”
We were attracted by the promise of a quiet, peaceful commune with this majestic, natural wonder, carved out by the Colorado River and so we checked in at the only lodgings in the region, (if not camping – and camping was full so book early), the Grand Canyon Lodge. The lodge was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
Ascending through the Sound-of-Music-like meadows of the Kaibab National forest, the air became fresher and cooler. Rain was in the air and the idea of weather delighted us, the two weatherless City-of-Angels-dwellers. Finally reaching the very end of Highway 67 – any further and we’d plummet into the depths of the large, gaping gorge in the earth that we were there to see – we were greeted by a road blockade. Fourth of July fever had hit this remote community.
Truckloads of young firemen, delivery-van loads of lodge staff, golf carts of grounds men and cowboys and cowgirls on mules were embroiled in both a 4th of July parade and water fight. On one hand showering Mardis Gras beads on excited children and tourists and on the other, spraying them and each other with streams and buckets of water. Sirens were blearing and children were whooping and giggling at the decorated water bombs on wheels. It was a fun scene and we hid behind trees taking photos and dodging jet streams of water.
With limited time on our hands over a long weekend, we opted to take a half day mule ride as a means to descend into the Canyon. This was a good choice as it turned out, as a head cold combined with the altitude left me pretty short of breath. Even the mildest of exertions took their toll while we were up there. Somehow Matt and I were assigned a duo of mules, Lesley and Bill. Where Lesley and I led, Bill and Matt followed. Where Lesley took a piss Bill did too. While they traversed frighteningly close to the edge of deep plunging cliffs, it was easy to trust these sure-footed creatures. They knew these trails like the backs of their hooves. These beautiful, hardworking, sweet creatures escorted us both on a journey we shall not soon forget, down into one of the most beautiful sights on earth.
At a rest stop, I was lying on a rock under the shade of a tree, looking back up at the canyon walls listening to the conversation of two cowboys nearby. Their accents were thick and Southern (but form which part I am not yet versed enough to tell). Their speech was lazy and as honey-like as the heat down there and I thought to myself, “Damn, that is just one GREAT accent!” No sooner had the thought left my head when I heard Levi (our cowboy guide) say, “Oh yeah, he rides one of ‘em Australian saddles right?”
To which the other replied, “Sho’ does.”
“Does he got one of ‘em cool Australian accents too?”
To which the other replied, “Sho’ does.”
Levi helped me up onto my Mule and I said, “Thank you!”
And in that accent he quietly replied, “Yes Ma’am.” This reminded me of a poem I read back at the sign-in desk for the mule ride. Stuck between a table and its glass top was a scrap of paper cut out from a magazine that read…
GOD GAVE US COWBOYS
God gave us cowboys for a lot of good reasons
So we could appreciate rainclouds and seasons
God gave us cowboys so we wouldn’t forget
that there’s no harm in hard work, no shame in sweat.
God gave us cowboys so we’d know what to do
with horses and guitars and leather and boots.
God gave us Cowboys so we could see
that in a pinch you can make it on coffee and beans.
God gave us Cowboys so we’d understand
that you’re signing a contract when you shake a man’s hand.
God gave us Cowboys but only a few
so if you’re lucky and meet one, well that’s God blessing you.