ROAD TRIP, Grand Canyon – Part 1
My best friend Lana and I worked together at the same advertising agency back in 1975, and one hot sunny afternoon, decided to take our two-week vacation on the road…from Texas to California via the Grand Canyon. You have to forgive these photographs, because they are almost 40 years old!
It’d only been a few short years since the sixties, and we were still a naïve pair, setting off as if for a permanent move to the coast. We needed the break, picked the date, loaded up the car and were on our merry way. We had packed the trunk and backseat to the brim with everything we would need for our two week sabbatical and finally closed everything down on a mish-mash of clothes, books, butane stove (which blew up halfway there), tennis rackets (oh please), hair dryer, hot rollers, regular rollers, make up kits, coats, blankets, sleeping bags, towels and shoes. Hair spray – no food.
The weather looked extremely promising. Sunshine, few clouds, balmy. Ready for anything, we took off.
A little over an hour later, we finally found the Hempstead Highway, a rather blighted thoroughfare, which would lead us out of Houston and onto the main highway to our first destination, the Grand Canyon. Drops of rain began to fall, and from then on, it was drizzle for the next hour or so, occasionally relieving the monotony by really slamming it down when things got dull.
We had stopped on the road to fill up with gas, and buy some much needed items, such as ice, Cokes, potato chips, sugar and Pream for the coffee. After checking the ice chest to make sure we had enough for two weeks and then some, we rolled on to the strains of “Sister Golden Hair” on the radio.
We got lost trying to leave Houston.
Why is it that when some well-intentioned soul gives us directions, we never fail NOT to follow them? After much discussion, we both decided “He’s wrong!” and proceeded to end up somewhere back downtown. Perhaps we’d been a bit hasty; after all, the man had lived in Houston for 40 years. Doubling back, we followed his instructions to the letter, and were actually on our way.
The day had turned a whiter shade of gray by this time, misty, drizzly. The forecast was not promising. We hadn’t left Houston, yet we were already down to half a tank of gas (about 55 cents/gallon).
The next gas station appeared just beyond a railway trestle around a sharp curve. Waiting at the curve for oncoming cars to pass by in order to turn across the road, a truck, unused to a car parked in the middle of a highway, came barreling towards us at 60mph. The squealing of tires, and the cursing of the driver did not go unnoticed, but we ignored it. He missed us by an inch.
Once we made it into the gas station, we discovered our air conditioner was not working –we were out of Freon. The gas station couldn’t help us, so onwards to the next town. It was close to noon on a Saturday, and everything was closed. In small Texas towns, everything closes at noon on Saturdays.
Well, did we need A/C? Apparently we didn’t – we could manage. Back onto the highway at a solid 75 mph, we headed onwards. The rain had faltered into a fine drizzle by this time, and sunny patches were beginning to appear. The freeway loomed ahead, mile after monotonous mile. At 75 mph, we barely seemed to be moving. But a black speck in the distance started to get bigger, and before we knew it, we were behind a fast-moving truck and a few motley cars.
The truck began drawing away from us, and at that moment, a giant tin sign propped on a wooden sawhorse hove into view, the truck clipped its side, tossed the sign into the air, and straight into our path. With no time to slow down and only a split second to utter a prayer, we headed right into it, and just before we rammed it, it slid beneath the wheels. Hmm. Somebody trying to tell us something?
Patting ourselves on the back for missing that close shave, we realized again, running low on gas. Seeing the Phillips sign ahead, we slowed to 50 mph onto the feeder, heading for the gas station. At the same moment, an old black Chevy roared out of a side road, turned the wrong way and headed directly towards our car – once again missing us by inches. Great road trip so far.
We gassed up the car and once more, were on the road again.
Driving out of Houston on the way to West Texas could not be a more monotonous road trip. The rain had stopped, the sun was full out, and a slight dusty haze clouded the air. The highway stretched before us like an iron carpet. You kept going and going and going, and never seemed to be getting anywhere! Like the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland,” you ran as fast as you could to (seemingly) stay in one place.
We switched seats, and Lana got behind the wheel. All we wanted by this time was to get across the border into New Mexico and find a decent place to rest. We passed Lubbock at a fast clip, and headed down the highway to the Texas border. Something moved on the grass verge, and a highway patrol car pulled swiftly and silently up behind us.
He stayed behind us for a minute or two, until we understood we were indeed the ones being followed. We pulled over, and so did the cop. “Do you know how fast you were going, Ma’am? You were going 76 in a 55 zone. Is there an emergency to warrant such excessive speed?”
Well, we were trying to make the next town before dark. “Ah’m sorry, ma’am,” replied the officer, “but that kind of emergency isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’ll have to make you girls out a ticket. Let me ask you a few questions, and you can be on your way. You’ll have the citation in the mail by the 18th. By the way, where y’all goin’?”
We mentioned California, he handed us the ticket, and we headed down the open road… once again. The sun was beginning to sink into the west, shadows began to draw in, and all we wanted by this time was to get to Clovis, New Mexico. The highway just kept on going on and on, into nothingness. We thought if we saw one more cactus we’d go crazy.
Suddenly, a strong barnyard odor invaded the car, getting stronger and stronger, until it became overwhelming. Geez Louise. All we could see for acres around us were barns and more barns…and cows. More and more cows. We could have run the car on the gas from those cows!
We were beginning to wonder: would we never get across the border? Finally, as the sun turned into an orange ball and fired up the sky, we escaped over the New Mexico border and breathed a sigh of relief.
Too soon…more barns hove into view, carrying with them the same unadulterated aroma. It was too much! It inched through the windows and wiggled through vents and pervaded the Puffs we’d spread across our faces.
On the verge of hysteria, driving 55 mph the entire way, we plodded onwards toward Clovis. A gentle breeze wafted through the trees; the barns gave way to city lights, and a Holiday Inn came into view. Holiday Inn is not necessarily my idea of Nirvana…except just at this moment. Greasy and lank, we hobbled into the lobby. Although we looked like a couple of hobos, the desk clerk was extremely understanding, giving us a room what seemed like miles from the front office. Probably didn’t want to give the inn a bad name.
Never has a motel room looked so inviting. We completely unloaded the trunk, don’t ask why. Dumping all on the floor, scrabbling wildly for nightgowns and toothbrushes, we fell into our respective beds. The only sound heard for the rest of the night was the toilet flushing, and Lana bumping into the wall, or vice versa.
The next morning found us rested and refreshed. Leaping from the bed and stubbing the toe, I commenced to the bathtub for a long soak (probably needed a pickax to get the dirt and grime off). Once I mustered enough energy to move from the tub, I wrapped a towel around my parboiled form, and walked into the living area.
Perched on the floor looking like Betty Crocker after a bad batch of buns was Lana, holding a pan of water over the butane stove. “I’m boiling water for tea…if you take the pan, I’ll turn off the flame.”
Taking pan in hand, I turned to the cups, only to hear a garbled shriek from behind, as the stove had burst into flames, which were gushing from the top of the cylinder. This prompted a major huff and puff operation, and we succeeded in finally blowing out the flames…but unfortunately the gas was still pouring out.
No matter what we did, the stove was either in flames, or exhaling gas. Grabbing the directions, and reading about everything but turning the stove off, we did the only thing we could do: we kicked it – still aflame – out of the room into the adjoining field. We got hold of the bellboy at the front desk, who arrived promptly with a cylinder of aerosol foam, which put out the fire, but did absolutely nothing about the gas.
At this point, we packed our things, bought a cup of coffee, decided coffee shops and restaurants were the way to go in the future, and left the poor bellboy to get on with it.
Finally! The day was sunny and bright, not a cloud in the sky. We turned our faces toward the Grand Canyon, and hoped for the best. The road sped past and the air was clear.
Around midday, we noticed the empty gas tank; an Exxon station loomed on the horizon, and we pulled in. A friendly voice greeted our request to fill ‘er up, and we wandered to the Coke machine while things were being taken care of. A couple of minutes later, we were greeted by the same friendly voice advising us of an air bubble in one of our tires. Checking our spare, he pronounced it dead on arrival. So we bought a new tire. He’d seen us coming.
Two minutes later, the friendly attendant came strolling over. “Ya’ll need three new tires,” he mentioned. When asked why, he pointed out slits and bubbles galore, and once again we thought we were up against it. So three new tires were purchased.
New tires in place, we waved goodbye to our newfound friend, and hit the road. A few hours later found us zooming through Arizona to, we hoped, the Grand Canyon. There is something about being on the open road with nothing to think about that puts it all into perspective…sort of.
The flatness of the country began to change: we were coming up to Flagstaff. Mountains in the distance became not quite so distant, and the dry, deserty look began to give way to a misty green haze. We reached the base of a mountain, and stopped to take photographs from every imaginable angle, using up the two rolls of film we had with us. (Two photographs turned out.)
Finally: Flagstaff, a most picturesque little town, with curves, bends, hills and dales. We were enchanted just to be there, and when we saw a sign saying “To the Grand Canyon,” we thought we’d hit a home run. That was about 7PM.
We rolled on up the road, going this way, going that, and although we thought we were on our way to the Grand Canyon, it finally occurred to us that we were actually on the way to Mexico. Back we turned, but the multitude of signs did little to help. We stopped for directions.
Five minutes later, Lana turned to me and said: “He’s wrong!” and we once again proceeded on our own path…in the opposite direction. Once again, hopelessly lost. Once again, we agreed to stop questioning everything anyone ever told us, and managed to get back on the right road. We careened down the hill at full gallop, hit a gigantic bump, sending Lana bouncing all over the front seat of the car, me to the roof, and the ice chest’s contents all over the back seat.
But enough of all that. We were on the road, bound to be at the Canyon in about 30 minutes. We thought.
The road rose steadily, and by this time it was completely dark. Black is the actual word for it. No lights, very few cars, and every curve held signs to watch for animals crossing (wild?). So we inched on.
Still, we almost headed full-tilt into three large cows, gently ambling across the road and into the thicket. So much for wild animals.
By this time, we were almost going backward, we were moving at such an infinitesimal pace. The highway, thicketed with trees which made the dark even darker, was extremely winding, making for a very unsafe journey. And once again – more cows!
We decided we weren’t going to be reaching our destination any time soon. Seat belts were also a good idea. But we couldn’t for the life of us unjam the safety belts, and breaking nails in the process was quite aggravating. We pulled into a side road, stopped and managed to dig the belts from under the seats. Then it was back on the road. Two hours later, a few lights far in the distance gave us faint hope, and eventually and at long last, a store came into view. We pulled in for directions; the store was closed, and a very large dog was taking care of the premises.
Time to move on again. But minutes later, we were at the Grand Canyon. We knew we were safe, except for the slight worry of driving off the edge. As it seemed to be the middle of the night – pitch black – with only large rocks marking the side of the road and what looked like infinite nothingness on the other side, we drifted along on a wheel and a prayer. And then Bright Angel Lodge was there!
We pulled the car into the parking lot and sat quietly for a moment. A few boys were seated on the railing, one strumming a guitar. The moon rose high in the dark blue window of sky and the pines whispered on all sides. The night air was distinctly chilly, and we thought longingly of jeans and sweaters, since we were still in our shorts and halter tops.
Our cabin was right on the Canyon rim; we picked up the key, drove round to the front door, and carried our luggage into what would become our home for two nights. Not much to look at from the outside, the interior was quaint and, better yet, clean. The beamed ceilings, pine board floors, lack of air conditioning and television and tub, and a non-working telephone, only added to the feeling of the middle of nowhere.
The one surprising feature was a lack of two beds. A single double bed, with a dip in the middle, was what we had to look forward to. But, exhausted (and starving), we thought it looked like heaven on a plate.
We were directed to the dining room with the admonition that it was about to close (it was after 11PM). We made it just before the final bell: the chicken was cold and the ribs were greasy, but all tasted like ambrosia. More importantly, we managed to find the pub, and had a revivifying drink. Then, bed. We planned to be up at dawn to watch the sun come up…ha!
Awake at nine (the sun didn’t wait for us), and juggling makeup, shower and hair in the tiny bathroom, we dressed and walked to back to the dining room. Jeans and backpacks were everywhere. In our dainty little shorts and tops, we looked as out of place as tulips in an oat field.
But we were ready to take our first real look at the Grand Canyon. The day was clear and clean – glorious. A few white clouds ruffled the sky, and a slight breeze rippled the feathery pines. Everything was in perfect harmony – including us – and we felt on top of the world as we walked along. The next thing we knew, we WERE on top of the world, looking down into the Canyon’s vast depths. It was a breathtaking sight, to be slightly pedantic about it. Too vast and awe-inspiring to be believed, on one hand … and unreal, just like a painting on a picture postcard, on the other. It stretched down to bottomless depths, and its cliffs jutted out at fantastic angles, throwing deep shadows across the vast expanse.
A tiny white ribbon of trail threaded its way through the Canyon floor; the river itself was hidden in the deep gulley in the depths of the Canyon, too far for the eye to see.
At first, we couldn’t get enough of the view, taking pictures from any and all angles. The sun was brilliant and hot, the sky vivid, Autumn was in the air. After wandering aimlessly for a while, we asked one of the passers-by to take our photograph. About ten minutes later, after the camera moved up and down around twenty times, the photograph was taken. Still have it, as a matter of fact (I hope the guy got an eyeful).
The rim of the Canyon was incredible. We wandered on, and about an hour later, came to another Lodge for a beer and snacks. It was so pleasant, sitting at the window looking out on the spectacular beauty of it all – extremely happy.
The remains of the day were spent running to the store for food, making sandwiches, taking photos, eating and watching people of all sorts – and in all sorts of dress – pass by. Hippies everywhere. So much fun! After a short nap, we walked down the trail…it was steep, but not too steep, and narrow, but not too narrow. A quaint feature was the mule droppings along the route; the aroma was enough to knock you over.
The Canyon’s fantastic sculpture revealed ledges, rocks and figures of fantasy. We climbed out to some of the furthest reaches, looking down, down, down. A very strange feeling, to be sitting on a finger of rock and have nothing but miles of space below. As we moved on, a small plane appeared from nowhere and flew through the Canyon, looking like a miniature bird. And here we were, connected to the ground, yet higher than a plane in flight. Very cool.
Before we turned back, a couple of guys hanging out on the path took our photo as we sat on a ledge overlooking a particularly steep cliff. To get to the ledge, we scrambled along a small trail about an inch wide, leaped across a small space (with nothing but air below) and perched on the rock just wide enough for two people.
The guys were pretty mellow; nothing like a couple of joints to make you unaware of the miles of space between you and the Canyon floor.
Once again, back at the top, we decided to take a breather and a nap. Then we set out for a walk around the Canyon’s western rim. It was late afternoon, and the weather had cooled considerably. We took a blanket, with plans to sit and read on the rim. Which we did, until a swarm of bees decided to dive bomb us.
We moved upwards to a lookout point, where we sat on the rim with the entire Canyon spread below us. The sun began to fade. The Canyon became a shimmering mass of violets, pinks and greens, until the sun, a ball of gold, slipped from view and disappeared. Everyone seemed to sit in a kind of dream, until the bus showed up, and then everyone dashed madly to get a seat. We did not…get a seat, that is. We took off, and the bus, bouncing down the hills at 90o angles, constantly precipitated one or the other of us into someone’s lap.
Black as pitch, with just lantern light showing us our Lodge, we stumbled into our little shack, took quick showers, and began packing for the next day. We were due to leave at 7AM, so wasted no time getting everything together and falling into bed. Snore!
The next morning saw us up at (to us) the crack of dawn. We hastily piled everything into the car, and prepared for take-off. The car took off into the clearing, and stopped. One more time…halt. The engine was flooded. So much for the crack of dawn.
We finally barreled off down the mountain, reaching a small town an hour later, and pulled into a Phillips 66 station for gas
What a surprise when we were told by the attendant that our shocks were “gone, girl gone.” We left the car in the grimy hands of the attendant, asking him to hurry it up, and went to breakfast (which was delish – something about the air round there). We ambled back to the garage, only to be told “it’d be a good idea, ma’am, to put back shocks on as well, as they look a little worn.” For a change, we decided NOT, and he decided not to push the matter. Did he think we were neophytes here?
Then…on our merry way to California. Little did we know we were not to rest again until we reached the Golden Gate to San Francisco. Stay tuned for Part 2!