Tuesday, April 1, 2008

dateline: Provo

The Grand Canyon--what a sublime place, and I mean this in the Kant/Schopenhauer/Lyotard traditions. [check out sublime in the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sublime_%28philosophy%29#German_Philosophy] Of course many of these places to experience the sublime are also at high altitudes and the lack of oxygen may contribute to the feeling of fear and overwhelming presence of nature (fortunately the nature part is very grounding). Alice felt that oxygen stations should be available as a park amenity, or at least in the bars. As any of you who have been at the rim of the Grand Canyon know, this experience cannot be captured in pictures. It is also an amazing eco system, with wide variations between the high rim and the bottom of the canyon, where 90 degree temperatures occur in March, and scorpions and rattlesnakes abound.

We were very fortunate on Sunday (March 30) to experience the atmospheric display of the canyon's weather system. As we left our hotel and picked up espresso at the multipurpose cafe/bookstore/viewflights shop, the agent told us all scenic flights were cancelled that afternoon, as the Park Service regularly does on wi
ndy days. We had lunch at El Tovar (see below) and decided to try a brief nature walk from Yavapai point where the park geology staff long ago decided that was the most revealing view. When we arrived, smallish snowflakes were fluttering past our hats as we walked to the glassed in observation station. There we learned from a ranger with a telescope that the walk was cancelled due to the weather: precipitation was beginning to fall in the canyon. We soon saw this was an understatement.

The rangers said there was no warning about this particular weather phenomenon, but at the same time, such storms do take place spontaneously. Jim took a photo as best he could of the remaining sunlight canyon, and then the snow flurries came along with the wind. This station is very solidly made, but these were pretty strong winds, and the building responded with vibrations. There came a point where the canyon was barely visible for all the snow/blizzard surrounding us. It was beautiful. Not long afterward the sun came out, and while there were clouds and shafts of light around, you would not know it snowed except to look at the few flakey remnants on the ground.

Since the nature walk was canceled, we hoped the ranger would still provide some information about natural history or at least ecology, but we only heard some commentary on the weather and apologies. In Moab, fortunately, I had obtained A Naturalist's Guide to Canyon Country, which does not actually cover the Grand Canyon. However, it's a good introduction to the subject. and since there is no comparable work for GC, I recommend it. (The author now lives in Seattle, what can I say?) We decided to stay for the evening ranger talk at 7:30 which was to be about the human history in the park, having snacks at the Yavapai lodge (where you can get accomodations with little lead time). I will only comment that this food is not as good as what we used to get on the ferries and the value ratio is greater than the "fine dining options."

The evening ranger, Mike, imparted a good deal of information in his canned talk about how to behave in the park. As with the staff in the North Cascades, management is clearly having to cope with the stresses brought on by the 5 million yearly visitors. There were very large rv's and the campsites ($30 per night) required rigorous maintenance. Many visitor areas are only accessible via walking or the numerous every 15 minutes shuttles (natural gas powered, but not hybrid). As in many national parks, these are part of a park and ride system. At the west edge of this system, beginning this week, construction crews will widen the roads for these shuttles. They are currently closed to all traffic but small buses. (Here's a view from inside the bus, looking at the Grand Canyon engine [in canyon camouflage] which goes twice daily to Williams. You can stay in Williams and take the train north to the canyon for a three and a half hour visit.)
We found the shuttle drivers, personable, informative and very patient. For example, a large family with 5 very young children needed to load one disabled child and two strollers, one of which was a twin stroller. The driver explained protocol to the (very strong) young father, lowering the lift on the bus for the girl's walker, and cleared the front area of abled folks to make way for the family. The family itself was impressive in that the parents had clearly collected the kids and were returning to their campsite before kid exhaustion had set it (they were all very well behaved and the eldest, probably not more than 11, helped with everything).

The evening ranger told us briefly about the local original inhabitants of the area and their ideas, especially the Hopi about the origins of the people being in the canyon but that they should only use it for ceremony. I like to think that our pilgrimages and contemplations of the sublime are related to this concept, if interpreted by our commercialized culture.

A little backtracking about accomodations and history. We breezed in after our experience of Monument Valley and arrived, breathlessly, at our hotel in Tusayen. We weren't too disappointed we were unable to book a room within the park when we later learned that reservations can often be unavailable as far as 23 months in advance
. (It's even more difficult to book than the Ross Lake Resort!) The dinner was ok, but like most places in the southwest, the most reliably prepared meal was... steak and potatoes. Salads were ok and the vegetables, simply prepared were fresh. I think it worth mentioning that most of the meals we had in the area were relatively low on salt, which I found helpful not only personally but as a healthy general approach to high altitude dining. For some real venting about food at the Grand Canyon, check out Trip Advisor. We didn't need to write. [Needless to say, we expected it to be as disappointing as the usual restaurant fare which can get away with business close to amazing scenery.]

On Saturday, we briefly visited the Lookout and Kolb studios (Lookout was closed). The Kolb brothers were photographers who built a beautiful studio with a downstairs gallery. Classes are also offered there as is displayed a collection of wo
rks (all strangely enough landscape paintings) by artists in residence to the park. [Here's a dome car on the GC train, right.]

We enjoyed a good dinner at the El Tovar lodge, which Ranger Mike informed us was inspired by a "Norwegian hunting lodge," complete with mooseheads, despite the moose being nowhere near the park. During dinner, we mused on the omnipresence of the kokopelli image, how its commercialisation obscures its meaning. The ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan had in the 1980's enthusiastically suggested it as a symbol of the trickster nature of wildness in native seed strains, then reversed and almost apologetically noted this hic et ubique infection of necklaces, t shsirts, etc. For us, anthropology has been a way for those of us reared in the Western tradition to understand, even if not very well, other cultures. For others, photography is this "in," even if imperialist in its "male gaze," often because people don't have any other way of understanding. Jim also noted that Gustav Mahler was alive when the El Tovar was built.

Jim: Kaibabs and Albuquerque Jim do not feel the effects of altitude at this level; they generally cavort on the North Rim, where the elevation is significantly higher. Mahler aside, how does one explain the absence of moose in the Grand Canyon NP? It seems obvious to me they were chased out by hordes of fierce kaibabs long ago, even before the advent of modern anabolic steroid supplements. Kaibabs are also most likely responsible for the failure of the Spanish Conquistadores to subdue this area, and present a plausible reason to explain the mysterious movements of the old Pueblo people (Anasazi) at various times. However, Jim did sleep late most mornings, since he was on vacation hassling people.

Aside from communing with the native squirrel population, Albuquerque Jim exercised forbearance at the park. Many boorish and disrespectful people escaped harm or humiliation due to his distraction with the strength and power of this unique land, which affected him deeply and led to a mood of tolerance and affection toward his fellow humans. Those who safely visited this area recently should ponder this, and feel gratitude.

The coffee there was good: strong, and better than the espresso in Tusayan. We were not able to sample the elusive cream of polenta soup, but did enjoy cream of asparagus and onion soups. The duck dinner was also delicious and perfectly cooked. Salads in this area, as in others, seem to sport cheese spontaneously.

We saw the Saturday March 29 headline issue of the Arizona Daily Sun, from Flagstaff, in a newsstand when getting espresso: “Uranium’s toxic legacy looms large.” Looks like Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force is on the move again, taking advantage of political distractions and folks’ dissatisfactions at the pump. The above the fold photo features Lawrence Stevens, of the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, speaking at Flagstaff City Hall. Next to him is Kris Hefton, ceo of VANE Minerals, US, LLC. The uranium mining industry is proposing opening new mines in the Kaibab National Forest south of the Grand Canyon. Tusayan, a couple of miles south of the GCPark entrance, where we are staying, is in this area. In addition, five companies want to mine uranium reserves, estimated at 500 million pounds or more, and Texas based Uranium Resources Inc. wants to reopen a mill. A geologist formerly with USGS and International Atomic Enegry Agency, Karen Wenrich, says, “The industry has come a long way...This is nothing like the mines on the Navajo Nation.” As you may know, mines were left to contaminate when the mining companies went bankrupt. Navajo people have sustained this mess with more than 1000 abandoned mines and mills on their land, poisoning local people. [Don't know whether the Navajo Nation qualifies as a superfund site.] There were 200 folks at the council meeting and most were opposed to the mining. Three environmental groups have sued to overturn Forest Service approval. The Navajos are, not surprisingly, skeptical at best. “It is unconscionable that anyone would allow uranium mining to be restarted anywhere while we are still suffering,” Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said. “I cannot believe the industry is going to come in and mine uranium and then clean up. I cannot believe that.” Here’s a link for more information http://azdailysun.com/articles/2008/03/29/news/20080329_front_page_5.txt There is also information from an article reprinted in the Sun from the Washington Post about the Navajo land issues around uranium mining. We will keep our eyes on this one.

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