The Incomparable Grand Canyon


I knew that drinking a bucket of Bud before bed was a bad idea. In the wee hours of this morning I rolled over in my sleep and was startled awake by the size of my bladder. Unfortunately I was in a strange room and very likely to piss in the wardrobe, so I had to switch on the floodlights. Wooagh ..bright lights .. bright lights.

Sitting down, as I always do at that time of the night to avoid spillage, a peculiar and random thought entered my head. "Didn't Elvis die sitting on the toilet?" I spent the next three hours pondering that question and many others. Then with half an hour to go before the alarm was set to wake us up, I passed out into the deepest, sweetest of sleep. How cruel?

Our 6:00am pick-up was from Excalibur's South Rotunda. When the minibus arrived I was actually queuing in Starbucks for a croissant and caffeine fix. I knew Julie wouldn't leave without me but I still had to run across the foyer trying not to spill my superheated coffee like I was in a sadistic It's A Knockout "egg and spoon race".

We boarded the coach with another couple from the Excalibur. They were a bit odd, certainly didn't look the type to be visiting Sin City USA.

They looked dull, washed out, lifeless people more suited to ornothology and stamp collecting, but of course you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. They may have been rampant ravers and gamblers for all we knew. We exchanged a "Hello" ... "Hi" courteous smile. Oakley doakley.

Julie and I settled down in the back seats ( like all the best "naughty school children") for the long journey ahead of us but because of an obstructed view we decided to moved.

Within another two minutes we changed seats again because it was above the wheel arch and there wasn't a drinks holder. You know we use to be indecisive … but now I'm not too sure.

Before leaving Vegas we picked up six Germans, from Bally's, and a Yorkshire couple from the Mardi Gras Hotel. The average age of the bus was now probably reaching 64 and we did feel a little out of place. "If we feel like the odd ones out God help Hannah and Tim when they go on this trip tomorrow!" said Julie.

The sun was only just rising above the hills as we left the city limits heading out into the Nevada desert.

Along the way our driver talked about the history, focusing on the Bugsy Siegel period and the beginnings of Vegas as we know it. It was fascinating to learn that his father played for a Big Band on the opening night at the Flamingo.

He also talked about the current mogul Steve Wynne and how he started at the bottom and worked the American Dream all the way to the top.

Our driver's name was Dan and whilst he may have looked above the average age for our minibus his elder years did give him with a wealth of experience and knowledge. He came across like what I imagined a Vietnam veteran to be; a regimented military type but with the underlying rebelliousness of a white haired ponytail.

He talked plenty about himself but he never mentioned the war. At one time he owned a small airline company which flew more routes than any other between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. He suffered along with the rest of the aviation industry post 9/11 and his business went bust.

Before his Richard Branson years he had been a National Park guide at the Grand Canyon for over twenty five years and what he didn't know about sedimentary rock formations wasn't worth knowing. It was difficult to determine whether he was incredibly informative or just an incessant talker.

The moment we left Vegas behind we were into the Nevada desert. It was such a contrast. All we could see was dust, rock, more dust, a few shrubs and even fewer but far more rewarding sight of a Joshua tree. Dan pointed one Joshua tree that was huge and bent over like a willow which was reputedly a thousand years old.

He also pointed out a strip of road to the right where they filmed the famous Forrest Gump scene when he suddenly decides to stop running.

We drove across the wasteland towards Boulder City, a settlement that developed from the need to house all the workers who built Hoover Dam in the twenties. We drove through B.C. where apparently Barbara Streisand has a house. We can thank our driver for that droplet of information.

Onwards we shuttled, catching the briefest glimpse of Lake Mead before coming to a comfort stop, and not a minute too soon either.

When we were approaching a casino called the Hacienda Dan''s military training kicked in as he gave us the full reconnaissance briefing on where the toilets were located, where we could get a quick snack, don't do this, do that, and gave us five minutes to complete our mission.

Back on the coach with time to spare we descended down towards Hoover Dam. We were again briefed about what was about to happen next. Since 9/11 the Hoover Dam has been placed on red alert. It's only recently they've relaxed the restrictions slightly to allow traffic to cross the dam. A new bridge to cross the canyon has been started but that's apparently way behind schedule.

Anyway, Dan explained that we were about to go through a checkpoint where the vehicle will be inspected, and a State Trooper will board the coach to check us out. He even gave us tips on how to behave. "Look him in the eye, don't stare at the floor. Laugh at his jokes. Don't look suspicious." We pulled up and as forewarned a trooper boarded the bus. We felt quite nervous just like when you're about to try and convince your parents that your sober when your clearly not.

We stared right at him, smiling like a pair of innocent fools, laughing right on cue when he cracked his joke.

We all passed the inspection, even the Germans, and we continued our way down to the dam.

From our coach we could hardly see the dam, and of course when you cross it, you can't see any of it!

On the Arizona side the road snaked up to give to a reasonable vantage point.

It's not the classic view that we are all familiar with, I suppose you need to hire a helicopter and fly by to see the full stature of the dam.

Nevertheless, the view of the turbines was fine if not the inspiring sight we expected. Once the bridge is completed that will give a great view!

Once the photo op was over we got back in the coach and drove to Kingman. It was a distance of 80 miles and Dan pretty much talked all the way!

I was under the impression that the main reason for stopping here was for the Historic Route 66 as Kingman is the self-proclaimed "Heart of ..." but we pulled up near a gigantic locomotive engine which became the focus of our ten minutes here.

The Santa Fe 3759 was apparently the last passenger train to do the Chicago - Los Angeles route and was presented to the town in 1957 as a historical monument.

I was beginning to bore of the steam engine and the drawling Country & Western soundtrack was sending me subliminal messages telling me to lynch somebody.

Before I actually strung anyone up I made a break for Route 66.

I've always been more Born To Be Wild than Boxcar Willie, so whilst everyone milled around, doing the locomotion, I walked down Andy Devine to meet the old mother road.

It was a road like any other but the attraction of Route 66 is not the tarmac but the businesses who make a living by its side.

The famous Mr. D'z diner is a prime example. It's appeared in many films, apparently. Although I couldn't name one!

I had no time for one of their famous Root Beers as I could see everyone starting to board the bus. For the second time today I was made to run like a chicken before I incurred the Wrath of Dan.

Back on the road before long we saw an airfield which we were reliably informed was the back-up landing site for the 3rd choice runway for the Space Shuttle. Quite a tenuous claim to fame!

So if it was bad weather over Kennedy Space Centre, and it missed Edwards Air Force Base in California, it would aim towards 3rd choice White Sands, New Mexico but if they had a problem, then it would land here!

When Dan stopped to put a film into the video player our heads dropped because it meant we had at least another hour and a half to go. We decided to try and catch up on some sleep but I couldn't because I was secretly enjoying the film and Julie could only dare a light sleep for fear of snoring! The film was "Second Hand Lion" with Michael Caine and Robert Duval. It was actually quite entertaining in a swashbuckling kid's adventure film kind of a way and certainly made the time travel quicker.

Eventually we stopped at the Grand Canyon National Park office where Dan paid for our entry. We were quite close now to reaching the Grand Canyon and I was starting to get a little excited. Although I had to put my excitement to one side for a while as we still had another half hour to go!

Six hours after leaving Las Vegas we turned into the car park at the South Rim, at a spot called Mather point.

Our first sight of the canyon was truly thrilling, real weak at the knees breathless moment. We just stood there in utter amazement, hearts pounding, light headed.

We were in the presence of natural beauty royalty and it felt humbling. It was incomparable to anywhere else on earth.

Two billion years of the planet's history had been unveiled by erosion.

We could just about see down in the bottom the culprit of this entire spectacle, the muddy brown snake of the Colorado River swollen after recent rainfall.

We could not believe how vast an area it covered. It was impossible for us to quantify.

We stood at the widest part with the North Rim visible 15 miles away, but East and West, stretching as far as our eyes could see, was still only a small part of the 277 mile gash in the earth.

At Mather point there was a viewing area for visitors to get right up to the edge safely behind steel barriers. Suffering the classic symptoms of infatuation, walking down the smoothed steps towards the viewing point became quite a challenge. Dizziness and racing heartbeat did disorientate the legs.

Julie momentarily forgot her fear as she followed me all the way down to the edge.

It was quite busy here but not as bad as I had expected. I didn't have to push anybody out of the way to get to the front row for that "Me at The Grand Canyon" picture.

We had two hours to walk two and a half miles to meet up with our minibus at Bright Angel Point. Walking the path along the rim was quite some experience. The view of the Canyon changed with every step, and each new vista had to be photographed of course!

There weren't any barriers here to stop you from falling right off the edge. The path was plenty distance away from the rim to avoid accidents but I did have to concentrate on my steps as I got closer to the precipice to get that elusive classic picture.

I would hate to have walked along here with a young unruly child. Most children do not have the concept of fear and the path at times was only three rapid steps away from the abyss. I wonder, has anyone ever lost one to the Canyon?

Not only was it a very long way to fall, it was a sheer drop. (No rolling down the hillside grasping out for passing shrubbery as often happens in the movies.) Apparently at its deepest it plunges over a mile down. That doesn't bare thinking about.

The other side of Yavapai point, about halfway along our trek, we decided to take some time out and sit at a wooden bench to soak in the grandeur displayed before us.

"Oh, I could sit here all day" I wished. And I could so easily have done so.

Watching the clouds and their shadows drift across the red backdrop; noticing what looked like a rope bridge across the Colorado or a small green oasis deep in the heart of the Canyon where a ranch called Phantom exists.

We soon lost track of time, something I do quite easily. I suppose it doesn't help that I don't even wear a watch. I do wear an abacus watch but divining the time by the beads around my wrist is no easy task.

"Shit we're late!" Julie informed me.

"We'll be fine" I said. Raised eyebrows were her only response.

We had over a mile to go, and 45 minutes to complete it. Whilst I was confident of getting there with plenty of time to spare Julie opted for the quick march approach to make sure that we did. We strode away with purpose. Before too long I found myself lagging behind.

I couldn't allow myself to ignore an opportunity for photograph so like a trained sniper, I would come to an abrupt stop, fall into a one knee brace position, aim my lens, shoot, replace lens cap, then run on to my next position.
In fact I spent the remainder of the hike running to catch Julie who was keeping up quite a steady pace. Reaching speeds in excess of 3mph meant that within half an hour of leaving picnic point we found ourselves arriving at Bright Angel with 10 minutes to spare!

Ten minutes unfortunately meant that we didn't have any time whatsoever to look at the attractions here, such as the Hopi House or Kolb Studio.

The studio was of paticular interest to me. Two brothers (Emery and Ellsworth Kolb) arrived here in 1901 and were pioneering photographers.

So I made a decision to run down to the Kolb studio just to photograph it and run back up to the Lodge before our pick up.

By the time I'd got back, and had a quick scoot around the Lookout studio, I was knackered. I was glad of the seat on the minibus as we left promptly at 2:45pm, for the six hour drive back to Vegas.

We didn't get very far before our first stop which was a chance to be photographed by the "Welcome to the Grand Canyon" sign.

Within an hour we came to another stop; a comfort break at a tourist gift shop with toilets.

The store itself was full of native Indian jewellery and trinkets.

It's peculiar to think that many of these trinkets and dream catchers are just as easily found 6000 miles away in New Age shops in Bangor. It's a small world without a doubt.

We passed through into another room which was a world away from home. Cowboy hats and boots were possibly the most normal items on display.

I dallied with the idea of buying a complete 'Clint Eastwood' outfit with hats, boots and poncho.

Ideal for fancy dress parties and bedroom fantasies, uh … apparently.

My eyes were then drawn to several David Crocket hats with racoon tails which signalled a darker theme. I then noticed the a macabre collection of stuffed weasels, mounted deer heads and an imposing Grizzly Bear which turned the shop into a Natural History Museum.

It was quite a horror show for those of a sensitive disposition. I felt like saying "I'm a vegetarian, get me outta here!"

Only joking really, it didn't scare the shit out of me at all. I did however need to use the toilets but that was just a coincidence. They were worth a visit even if you didn't feel the need as the door handles were very unique as they were revolvers!

Having used the facilities we felt obliged to buy something at least. A fabric snake for Rory and some postcards was a small price to pay for emptying ones bowels in comfort. The alternative would have been squatting behind a prickly bush running the risk of being bit in the buttocks by a rattlesnake. Yes, $4 was worth every penny.

Outside, to lure the tourists, they had a station wagon, and two large tepees. They'd even built a miniature frontier town, in the style of a studio set. i.e. only the front facades to create the illusion.

Another hour; another stop; this time at Seligman a town billed as the "Birthplace of Route 66".

The story goes that some of the businesses in Seligman decided to go for the quirky approach to attract visitors. Something about mannequins and Xmas lights!?

Others along the road cottoned on to the idea as a great marketing ploy and the rest is history.

So it all started here.

We stopped at the Delgadillo's Snow Cap, a quintessentially quirky route 66 establishment.

Stepping inside was like walking into a grotto. The whole place was covered with business cards, police badges, messages of good luck. Dan had briefed us that the guy serving would be quite a character.

We weren't the first in the queue, the Germans were. It was quite fortunate really because we could stand back and watch the show unfold.

They asked for a soda, which came in a paper cup. He paused and with the cheeky glint of a Groucho Marx he stood there and waited for them to ask him "Can we have a straw?" With a dead pan face and perfect comic timing, out came a bunch of straw, real straw! They then asked for some ice cream.

"D'ya wannit in a cone?" he asked. "Sure" they replied. "Large one?" and out came a big orange traffic cone!

"Too big?" so he brought a miniature orange traffic cone.

"I tell ya what I can do. I can do one for half the price, special offer just for you." and out came a proper cone, but cut in half, with the bottom half missing!

The jokes eventually relented and he handed over a delicious looking ice cream cone but he couldn't resist just one more pull. "D'ya wanna mustard on that?" and in a flash he aimed a mustard bottle at the dollop resting atop the cone and squeezed it.

A jet of yellow squirted out towards the vanilla ice cream. Everyone gasped thinking that he'd gone too far and gone completely mad, but of course it was but a joke. It was only string, a mustard yellow string. What a class joker!

Next it was our turn. I stepped up "A vanilla cone" I nervously asked. "Large or small?"

"Small …" I said anticipating some prank but he just turned away towards the ice cream machine and pulled me a cone.

I must admit to feeling a little disappointed that I didn't get my own comedy turn. Then he turned back towards the counter with what could only be described as a thimble full of ice cream. He got me; just when I wasn't expecting it!

What surprised me most was that it actually came in a proper dinky size wafer cone. It was hilarious!

It tasted delicious so I asked for another. This time he came back will a double barrel cone filled to the point of toppling with creamy soft vanilla ice cream. Mmm. Perfect. He still shot his yellow string towards me and despite knowing the joke it still made me jump. You can tell by his face that despite doing the same routine a hundred times a day he still enjoyed it. He was chuckling to himself as he waved his bunch of straw at me, even though I didn't have a drink.

"That'll be $2" so I handed him three and said "Keep the dollar for the show"

As the sunset, we left Seligman westwards, passing preserved wooden houses of historical interest. Dan put on a film that Julie and I hadn't seen before and it seemed to be put on especially for us. It was National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation where Chevy Chase and his wife were in Vegas to celebrate their 20th Wedding Anniversary. What a coincidence! Hopefully our stay here won't be as eventful as theirs.

We had an intermission when we stopped for another comfort break at Love's Pumping Station. I'm sure there's a double entrende lurking in there somewhere! As it got dark the journey back felt longer and longer. We even had to put another DVD in the TV. Dan was building it up as any good compare would. "You guys are in for a treat, let me tell you". He put on a show billed as "Live from Laughlin" which is possibly a great place to perform if you're a stand up comedian. Surely they laugh more in Laughlin! If you thought that joke was bad it was on par to what this comedian called Charlie Rose was churning out. He was no Billy Connolly!

I was surprised when we arrived at the Hoover Dam security check. The last few hours had gone by quite quickly. Judging by my stiff neck I must have got some sleep in there somewhere.

We pulled up at the same vantage point we stopped at this morning to allow us to take a night time photo. I didn't want to get up out of my seat but thought it would be rude not too. I half-heartedly took a snap shot and returned to my seat.

We crossed the dam and drove straight to Las Vegas. As we came over the ridge into the valley Dan put on his microphone and started his wind down talk. He continued the story of Steve Wynne and how he took on the might of Caesar's Palace and won when he bought a strip of land next to the resort. He blagged his way to $2 million for the thin strip of car park because he threatened to build his own casino. He also mentioned that a consortium that included George Clooney bought some land near the strip, (not on it) for $2 billion drew up the plans for a large resort then sold it for $3.5 billion without even spending anything on developing the site. Now that's what I call a profit!!

Shortly after 9pm we turned up very tired and aching limbed at the South Rotunda of the Excalibur, a full fifteen hours since leaving. We were absolutely starving having survived only on a small picnic and a Hershey bar from Love's Pumping station, which incidentally I was very disappointed in. Cadbury's chocolate wins hands down. Far far tastier.

Before going in search of food we popped up to our rooms to check on Hannah, Tim & Rory. Hannah filled us in on how their day went. They had caught the monorail all the way to the Sahara then a bus over to Freemont Street. They then decided to walk back to the strip, which was some distance! In doing so they walked past many wedding chapels which planted the seed for the question she asked us. "Can we get married?"

We were struck dumb, too tired to think about the right response. My immediate reaction was "Why not" it's such a rock 'n roll thing to do, and I'm all for making memories. But then the voice of reason said "Hang on a minute. Not so fast. Are you sure this is the right way to go?" Julie was also grappling with similar thoughts. She's far more sensible and practical than I am, so her instinct was the side of caution, but she knew it was what Hannah really wanted. It was obviously more than just a whim. They had thoroughly researched all the answers to all the questions. Minimum age of consent, obtaining a licence, the cost of the service, they had even decided on a chapel. We awkwardly fluffed our way through our response by leaving it as a very negative "we'll-think-about-it".

Anyway, all that was put to one side as Julie and I left the Excalibur in search of some food.

New York New York was our destination and it was a great choice. Their eatery corner had been designed to look like the streets of Greenwich Village which added to a great atmosphere.

There were plenty of people milling about the pavement cafes and restaurants, and a lively 'Bar On Times Square' with duelling pianists providing great music.

We ended up at Gonzalez Mexican Restaurant and enjoyed our food immensely. Quesedillias followed by veg fajitas for me, and a rib-eye steak with molten-lava-hot chilli sauce luckily put to the side, for Julie.

We just made it back to our room before midnight after having a few beers back at the Excalibur watching a Philippine Boy George tribute singer. Do you really want to hurt me?
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