Where the Hell’s the Lift? – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Where the Hell’s the Lift?
Grand Canyon, Arizona

If the Spaniards from Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition were religious people, they must have cursed the Lord’s sense of humour the day they found this place. After weeks of trudging across hot deserts, through near impassable pine forests, and possibly confronting angry Indian tribes along the way, the expedition’s front runners almost fell into a big hole in the ground.

The forestland they had been in for the last few days had suddenly ended, and only a few yards from the last tree the ground just disappeared in front of them. A valley, incredibly steep and so deep they could barely see the bottom, blocked their route. The men could see the other side just short of two miles straight ahead. To the left and right the valley had no end. They must have been so pissed off.

My mind wandered back to 1540 as I stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona, seeing the same breathtaking sight that old Francisco had seen 462 years earlier. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor sod, as I pictured him dismounting his mule, tilting his sombrero back and scratching his forehead while wondering which way to go next: Left or right? I just hoped he chose the shortest one, although ‘short’ is a relative term; the Canyon is 277 miles long.

Spread along the crowded edge, the Grand Canyon National Park have put up posters and displays telling the story of the region. Walking along the edge on the way to the hiking trail to the bottom, you can pick up a few interesting facts in a “learn-as-you-walk” educational tour.

The Canyon was largely unknown until after the Civil War. In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed war veteran with a craving for adventure, took nine men on what was probably the first rafting expedition through the Canyon. It must have been a hair-raising experience, as only six men completed the journey. Apparently the three who didn’t make it jumped off the raft and climbed up the rockface, only to be chased and killed by Indians when they got to the top.

The first pioneers settled along the rim in the 1880s, hoping to exploit the promise of mineral resources. However, they soon found that tourism would be a much more profitable business idea and when the local railroad was extended from Williams, Arizona, to the South Rim in 1901 the development of tourist facilities started in earnest.

In 1920, 44,000 people visited the newly established Grand Canyon National Park. Today, the South Rim is scattered with hotels, lodgings and caravan and campsites to suit all types of 21st century tourists. Five million of them visit the area each year.

Surprisingly, after having seen the American architecture in its prime in Las Vegas (aka “The tackiest place on Earth”) the hotels and lodgings on the South Rim are low-rise and blend into their surroundings. They are quite tasteful. That is, if you don’t mind a stuffed mountain lion or deer above every fireplace.

Before heading downhill I stopped for a moment trying to understand how massive this natural wonder in front of me was. Someone mentioned in passing that you could fit the entire landmass of the Benelux countries in it. So if the poles melt: No worries, Low Country friends – there’s room for you in Arizona.

Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is an experience too big for words. Try taking pictures, and you’ll soon realise that the thing is too bloody big to capture on film as well. So all you can do is stand there, gaze, let your mind wander and simply try to understand how it all happened.

From the edge you can’t see the Colorado River – but it is down there somewhere. Six thousand feet further down, to be precise. For millions of years it has ground itself into the characteristic red and yellow rocks and sand of the Arizona desert and washed it further downstream and finally into the Gulf of California. A large chunk of Arizona is now part of Mexican sea territory.

Equipped with a water bottle and a four-gallon water tank – it was about 24 degrees Celcius on the edge and much hotter further down – I began the descent into the canyon. Graham, my friend from Bristol who studies in San Diego, is disabled and uses crutches to get around. But that has never prevented him from doing whatever he wants.

It only shows his character to mention that he is doing a nine-week road trip from San Diego to Rio de Janeiro in June. Negotiating the Grand Canyon on crutches? Piece of cake.

A few hundred yards down the trail there is a warning sign targeting the average American tourist. It read:

“Be aware that it is harder to walk up than down the Canyon. People collapse and die every year of exhaustion while trying to get back up. There are no lifts or escalators.”

Unfazed by the warning, we carried on. We made good progress, but we soon became aware of an amusing reoccurring pattern.

For every huffing-and-puffing, red-faced and overweight “Doughnut” we passed on the way down (Doughnut is Graham’s pet name for Americans. “They’re round and shiny on the outside, but there’s not much in the middle,” he says), every single one would stop and wheeze to Graham under their breaths things like, “Alright!”, “Nice going, man” or “Keep it up”.

I’m sure they all meant well. It didn’t bother Graham, but we found it slightly ironic that the people who looked like they were teetering on the brink of fatal heart attacks would give us words of encouragement. We considered returning the favour by saying: “Well, your size considered, you’re not doing too bad yourself. Remember to breathe.” But we didn’t. That would be rude. Instead we settled for humming “Who ate all the pies?” whenever a Doughnut passed.

After four hours we realised that we wouldn’t make it to the river. We had only come four miles down, that’s halfway and it was getting late. The last tubby Doughnut was spotted about two miles further up and with him some of the entertainment value for the whole trek had disappeared.

The water tank was almost empty, and a trekker going up told us that it would be a two-day walk to get to the river and back.

So we stopped for a moment and admired the view. Then we turned. And as we gazed towards the top three thousand feet above, we cursed the Americans for not having installed a lift. Not even a single escalator in sight. The Yanks, are they not forward-thinking at all?