It was August 20th when I left Phoenix, 53 days and 7,700 miles into my odyssey, averaging a mere 145 miles a day. I headed north on I-17 and climbed 6,000 feet in just 140 miles to Flagstaff. I noticed a number of cars towing U-Haul trailers headed south and I was betting they were more Midwesterners migrating to the Valley of the Sun. About two-thirds of the way up I took a diversionary route to Sedona where I merged with U.S. 89.
Once in Flagstaff, I made a beeline to the historic railroad depot situated next to the double tracks of the Santa Fe main line. I spent about an hour on the platform watching the containerized freight trains rumble through one after another. The monstrous containers were inscribed with either a Japanese or German trademark, like Hundi or Mertz. It was if Japan and Germany were swapping goods with each other by way of America’s railroads. In the meantime, local and long distance rail freight had all but vanished having succumbed to truck and air service. It was then I missed the good ol’ days when it was a joy to watch freight trains roll by with all the different logos on the box cars – Cotton Belt, Rio Grande, Southern Pacific, and so on. And there was also the sad uncoupling of the little red caboose that fell victim to the economic pressures of the times. Things change.
I was really liking Flagstaff with its healthy downtown bisected by historic Route 66, a modest population of 34,600 and a high elevation (6910 feet) meaning most pleasant summers and ample amounts of winter snow. Yes, it was safe to say I could easily live there. I could have hung out there for the day, but there was still a lot of daylight left so I headed north on U.S. 89 out into the Arizona desert through the Navajo Indian Reservation. It was somewhat depressing seeing the decrepit mobile homes surrounded by car carcasses and abandoned roadside curio stands. I couldn’t help but think what a stark contrast it was to my drive through Minnesota.
I crossed the Colorado River at Marble Canyon, which subtly intimated of what to expect down river, to say the least. I drove west on Alt. 89 for about 60 miles on the most grueling stretch of highway on the trip – a narrow two-lane pot-marked asphalt road with no shoulders and an inordinate amount of oncoming traffic, mostly campers and RVs returning home from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The stress of the drive was somewhat relieved by the spectacular view of the Vermillion Cliffs off to the north. I stopped for gas and groceries at Jacob Lake that was more like a pit stop for busloads of tourists.
State Hwy 67 took me south for 45 miles until coming to a screeching stop at the edge of the abyss. Whew, that was close! As I stood panning inarguably the most incredible natural wonder in the world, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it took one river to carve out such an immense canyon. I could only speculate that it was hundreds of millions of years. With my own guess work, I figured that the peculiar geological makeup of the area along the river greatly contributed to the enormous erosion process. It was just a layman’s theory, but it made sense to me. I picked out an elderly couple and again pulled off my “It’s amazing what the Corps of Engineers can do” routine with the same “That’s absurd” reaction. There was still no sense of humor to be found.
The North Rim didn’t get the respect it deserved because of the circuitous route required to get there. The late afternoon sun started casting dramatic shadows over a myriad of majestic colors on the rock formations – a perfect picture postcard. I easily found a suitable campsite and gathered enough dead wood and rocks to build a good fire for cooking wieners on a wire. Ah yes, the fire was cracklin’, the franks were simmerin’, and the moon was shinnin’. I was parked under a cathedral of pine trees, which only added to the serenity of the campsite. As I had commented earlier on the trip (I believe it was in Shoshone Canyon), it didn’t get any better than that. I reposed in the van bed, gazing up at the stars and thanking The Lord for another safe day on the road.
I scrambled to get up early enough to see the sun come up. The experience was just like what an old sage once said, “Seeing the sun rise over the top of the canyon rim is like seeing the first sunrise in the world.” As long as I was up and about, I decided to start a fire to heat up my body along with a pot of water for coffee. The elevation on the north rim was 7,865 feet and my thermometer registered 48 degrees. Good thing I had my warm clothing. I threw some wieners and bread into my cast iron black skillet for a simulated sausage and toast breakfast. The campsite was simply idyllic. It was going to be tough leaving the place.
I definitely wasn’t in any hurry to leave, so I walked down to Bright Angel Point where a panoramic view of the canyon unfolded. It was there I met Chris, an elderly genteel man and we immediately started theorizing how the Grand Canyon was formed. I gave my version of the story and he said, “I’m not a student of geology, but that sounds pretty logical to me.” We talked about how infinitesimal we felt standing next to one of God’s great creations. I said, “You know, there are people in Manhattan who have never been west of the Hudson River who think they’re really big shots. I bet if they came out here and stood where we’re standing they’d get a whole new perspective of things. He wholehearted agreed. Then he mentioned having crossed over Marble Canyon years ago and intuitively noticed it was a precursor to the Grand One. I said, “I had the same reaction yesterday. Someone must have left the faucet running upstream.” I just had to test my gentleman friend with my “Corps of Engineering” jive, and he responded with a good hearty guffaw. I had finally found my good sense of humor man. I had a grand time with gentleman Chris.
I hung around a little longer engaged in one of my favorite pastimes – people watching, especially around tourist attractions. I played a mind game trying to guess where people were from and what they did for a living. I noticed four middle-age women sitting on a bench all dressed in Bermuda shorts, long-sleeve blouses, and huge sun hats. What struck me was the only skin showing other than a pink coloring on their kneecaps were necks and faces white as a sheet. I was guessing they were from Chicago, recalling a January I had spent in the Windy City (doing contract labor for an architectural firm) where I was astounded at how pale the natives looked. So much for gawking at strangers.
I headed back north passing a cautionary sign with a profile of a leaping deer that I liked referring to as an “Impala Xing” warning. I didn’t see any Chevys crossing the road, but I did see a doe and her fawn bounding across the road a few miles later. I thought, “Can’t those animals read the signs and know where to cross the highway?”
When I got back to Jacob Lake, I noticed that I reached the 8,000 mile mark on the trip. It had been such a casual journey that it was hard to believe I had traveled that many miles. I crossed the state line into Utah on U.S. 89 and stopped in Kanab for gas. I continued north on Hwy 89 for about 60 miles where I hooked a right onto State Hwy 12 out into the wild unknown of southeastern Utah. The day was getting short, so I started looking for a favorable spot to spend the night. I finally found a commodious campground in the Dixie National Forest. I thought, “A strange name for a park in the middle of Utah so far away from Alabama.”
There were plenty of pine trees to park under, but the place didn’t quite have the aura of the north rim. For one thing, the only way to cook anything was on one of those freestanding, bowl-shaped metal grilles that I disdained. I never could cook on those contraptions for the simple reason that I never stocked charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid in my cooking arsenal. I had always preferred the mountain man method of a dugout pit, some good-size rocks, dead tree branches, several sheets out of the Rocky Mountain News, and one match. Consequently, I had to settle for some precooked frankfurters and a can of beans. Hey, I couldn’t live a life of luxury every night. The thermometer registered a cool 62 degrees as I nodded off into dream world, but not before giving thanks for another beautiful day.