Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Early on October 5th we got up, had a delicious breakfast at the B&B, and drove back in to Page to the Colorado River Discovery headquarters for the first half of our two-part all-day adventure: a Hummer ride to a slot canyon followed by a boat trip on the river.  The slot canyon tour was only four of us, plus the guide, who, after learning we were all from Northern California and Washington, spent half the time apologizing for the fact that we had to take a Hummer (there was a lot of off-roading and steep drops, and he demonstrated the full capacity of the vehicle in the process).   He used the other half of the time to point out where to take the best photos of the canyon, and what camera settings to use.  Apparently taking photos of the canyon is considered the primary reason to visit!  He also showed us the different types of native plants, which are surprisingly varied and interesting.

The canyon itself was beautiful and quiet, especially in the morning light as we saw it.  It's only a few feet wide at certain points, and nearly 30 feet deep, so one should never visit without a guide who knows the weather patterns.  When it rains, the canyons fill up with water, and flash floods can come up in minutes; it doesn't even have to be raining at the canyon for it to fill, since the flood waters travel for miles toward the river.  The area is beautiful and potentially deadly at the same time.

After the canyon tour, we went back to the headquarters and had lunch, then waited to board a bus for our river trip.  The river tour was with a large group - we were on a pontoon boat with about 12 other people, plus the guide, and there were half a dozen similar boats - and was much more of a production.  To access the river, the bus has to descend a long tunnel cut beside the canyon, passing through federally-protected areas to the base of the Glen Canyon Dam.  Glen Canyon Dam is what creates Lake Powell and the Lake Powell Recreation Area above, and although not as large as the Hoover Dam, was still very impressive, especially from the water.  To get to the boats, we had to walk about 100 feet from the bus across part of the restricted "back of house" area for the dam, and they made everyone wear hard hats for those 100 feet.  It was pretty comical, but whatever makes the security people happy!

Tiebacks grouted in the rock face to keep the rock from spalling

Once at the boats, we were off on our cruise of the Colorado River, finally getting face to face with the author of all the canyon landscapes we had seen so far.  The weather was brutally hot and the canyon was without any shade, but the river was cold, and with the air moving from the speed of the boats, it wasn't too bad.  The rock formations are beautiful along the canyon walls, but it's difficult to get a sense of scale.  The canyon is about 900 feet deep, we were told, at Glen Canyon, which is much shallower than at the Grand Canyon, but still crazy deep.

The coloration on the sides of the canyon are from bacterial oxidation of the minerals leaching out of the rock.  It takes thousands of years for this "desert varnish" to form, and is easily destroyed by acid rain or erosion.  Depending on the mineral content and the light, some of it sparkles, and it comes in many colors.  The petroglyphs (rock carvings) at many sites in the area, which are themselves hundreds of years old in some cases, are made by scraping off this material, which has not grown back in all that time.  Apparently the thing to do on these tours is to invent interesting (read: stupid) names for the shapes in the rocks and then tell them to the group, so that the only thing one can see afterward is the shape that's been identified.  Ergo, Lincoln Pez Dispenser, below.

Abraham Lincoln Pez Dispenser.  You can't not see it once I've told you it's there.
Our guide discovered that one of the passengers was interested in birds, and thereafter took care to point out all the birds and other animals we could see along the way.  We did see a coyote taking a drink, plus other assorted birds.  The highlight of the trip was right at the end, when the bird watcher noticed what turned out to be a California condor circling overhead.  We weren't sure until we got home and analyzed the picture, but the bird's tags were clearly visible when we zoomed in.  California condors are endangered, with about 200 of them living in the wild, and about 400 total alive.  They went extinct in the wild in the 1980s and since then have been re-released in batches.  It was very exciting to see the condor, and the bird watcher commented that that alone was worth the price of the trip for him!

After our boat trip, we returned to the B&B to rest, stopping on the way to look out over Lake Powell.  We went to bed, exhausted, for some rest before our final day of the trip: driving back to Las Vegas, along the north side of the canyon.  After another delicious breakfast, we headed out.  On the way we stopped at a dinosaur bones info site, which explained the types of fossils found in the area, and then decided to check out Valley of Fire State Park.  It took us forever to find it, but once there, most of it was pretty impressive.  Parts of the park look exactly like the Old West movies where the outlaws lie in wait for the heroes to ride down the path.  Apparently some of the area was actually the hideout of some outlaws in the past.  After visiting a few sites there, including an unimpressive petrified wood exhibit, we completed our drive back to Las Vegas, stopped again at the amazing BBQ place under the highway, and headed to the airport.

We think this is Elephant Rock?  Probably?

Rocks!  More of them!
Overall, it was a great trip, despite some forgetting-of-maps and driving-in-circles and consumption of far too many calories in the form of granola bars, for lack of better food options.  We really did pick the best time of year (or at least we were told so by literally every person we met), as the weather was great, and there were no crowds.  Las Vegas was weird, Page was boring, but the rocks rocked.  Deserts are a great place to see what the earth has been up to over the past millennia.  As some of the exhibits we saw eloquently described, it's here that we can see the forces of water, wind, and gravity/compression at work, compacting the layers of soil, then eroding them.  Yet despite the seeming harshness of the environment, plants, animals, and insects find ways to thrive.  I'm glad that much of this amazing area has been preserved as national park for everyone to be able to enjoy.

Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

By late afternoon on Friday, October 3rd, we'd reached the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.  We checked in to the Yavapai Lodge, where we were staying, and headed over to the canyon rim to see what we could see.  The view was lovely; we managed to arrive just about at sunset.  We walked along the rim in the village area, looked into the El Tovar - the oldest hotel on the property - and had dinner at the Bright Angel Restaurant.  Then it was time for bed in preparation for our hike the next day.

If you know us, you know we are not morning people.  So on Saturday, we did the best we could, and managed to get out of the hotel, eat breakfast, gather some snacks, and get on the bus to the trailhead by around 10am.  In the parking lot we saw a huge elk wandering around, so be on the lookout for nature everywhere!  For our hike, we took the Bright Angel Trail, which starts right in the village.  And then it was a long walk down the side of the canyon, fortunately mostly in shade and at the perfect temperature. Most of the way down, we walked along with a group composed of a woman with her 80-year-old father and a guide.  We made it our goal to go farther than this adventurous gentleman.  We arrived at the first rest station, the 1.5 Mile Resthouse, around lunchtime and had our lunch.  The other group turned around at that point, and we decided to head back as well rather than continue on, since we had a schedule to meet; we may not have made it further, but at least we made it as far as they did!  We were back up to the top around 2 or 3pm, and at the same time, there were crazy people returning from having hiked to the river and back that same morning.  Apparently this is something people train for, like running a marathon, and come back to do annually.  Matching t-shirts seem to be part of the draw.  After resting a bit, we then walked along the Rim Trail for some great views back toward the village.

The canyon is so massive that it's hard to get a good sense of it.  It hardly feels like a discrete feature, in the way that a mountain or a rock formation does; it's an entire landscape.  At the top, you can't see the river, and I don't think we saw it at all on our hike.  What's really amazing is to consider that the river carved this entire landscape over time (with some help from erosion and uplift).  It would be great to be able to do the whole hike down to the river, but there's no way I could get back up the same day, and I'm not much for camping...  so it's probably not something I'll ever do.  I'm still glad that I got to see this natural wonder.

After the hike we were pretty tired, but not too bad, and ready to continue on.  If I went back, I'd probably want to start earlier and try to make it to the 3 Mile point.  We had such a packed schedule on this trip that there just wasn't time to do more, but I think we got a pretty good idea of what the canyon is like.

Our next destination:  Page, Arizona, where we would visit a slot canyon and actually touch the Colorado River.  On the way there, we stopped at the Desert View Watchtower, from which we could actually glimpse the river at the bottom of the canyon.  The Watchtower was built in 1932 by architect Mary Colter, modeled after Native American watchtowers of the region, but much taller (about 70 feet tall).  The views from the top were carefully planned, and are indeed impressive.  Finally, we could see the river!

After this stop, we kept driving until we arrived in Page, and then across the Utah border to Dreamkatcher B&B, where we would spend two nights.  This was the nicest accommodation of our trip, and I would definitely recommend it!  Eric & Jarod were wonderful hosts and their breakfasts were amazing, which is saying something since I'm not a big fan of breakfast in general.  We didn't get to try out the rooftop hot tub, but compared to staying anywhere in Page, I think this was the clear winner.

After checking in, we checked out Big John's BBQ in Page for dinner, which was mediocre, as was all the food we had in Page.  But we weren't there for the food, and what we did find was pretty spectacular.

Continued in Part 3.


Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 1

Five days.  Four nights.  Three states.  Two type-A personalities.  One really big canyon.

Last October we took our first "real" vacation ever, just the two of us.  I had been hoping to visiting the Grand Canyon ever since I took "The Dynamic Earth" (aka "Rocks for Jocks") in college, where the professor, Alex Glass, somehow convinced me that geology is awesome.  Let me tell you, that man can make rocks interesting.  (It helped that he included random Star Wars references in many of his lectures.)  Anyway, being the supportive spouse that he is, Justin agreed to visit the Grand Canyon with me, we picked a time that seemed like it would have good weather with fewer crowds, and off we went.

Since I had never been to Las Vegas, we decided to start there, spend a day and a night, then spend four days completing the "Grand Circle," a 700 mile, 12 hour drive around the canyon.  On our way we passed through three states, several Native American reservations, and multiple state and national parks, finally ending back in Vegas for our flight home.

As a dutiful student of architectural history, of course I have read Learning from Las Vegas, that seminal work of postmodern architectural writing.  The book dissects and ultimately approves of the "American vernacular" of neon signs, car-scale design, and the "decorated shed," the utilitarian building with applied ornament.  Written in the 1960s-70s by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, the book is an illustrated foray into the heart of what is now the old Las Vegas strip, before the mega-malls and glass towers came to town.  If you're still trying to figure out what happened to Modernism, I suggest you read this book.  In any event, on our visit I hoped to find at least a piece of what Venturi & Scott Brown saw on their pilgrimages to Sin City with their Yale architecture students of yore, and so we found ourselves at the Neon Museum.  This was one of the glowing highlights of our time in Las Vegas, together with a truly wonderful barbeque restaurant under a highway overpass.  We took the night tour, when the enormous neon signs are illuminated (mostly from the outside, although a few restored ones are self-illuminated), and one can more easily imagine the feeling of years gone by.

The museum gift shop / visitor's center is housed inside a repurposed and relocated motel lobby, which is itself fun to see.  I recommend it.  The rest of our time in Las Vegas was spent at the pretty terrible National Atomic Testing Museum (an exhibit on Area 51 involving fake science on aliens?  give me a break) and trying to sleep despite extremely loud amplified sound until past 2am at the Downtown Grand Hotel.  Don't stay there.

Having survived our 18 hours or so in Las Vegas, we headed out of town as quickly as possible to see the very big things on our itinerary.  Our first stop:  the Hoover Dam.  We can confirm that it is, indeed, very big.  We went on the Dam Tour, which takes you both to the power station at the base on the dam and inside the dam itself; if you have the time, I definitely recommend doing that over just the power plant tour.  Our guide showed us a tiny vent on the outside face of the dam, then took us there where we could look out, back at the point where we began.  It was an incredible view, and was amazing to think of what was accomplished in the 1930s with a whole lot of cheap labor and reinforced concrete.

Until recently, the highway actually passed across the top of the dam, which as you can imagine, was a safety risk.  Now there's a quite nice bridge downstream of the dam that carries the highway traffice and has a pedestrian overlook.  If you're interested in learning more about the dam, check out: this website from the National Park Service and this one from the Land Reclamation Bureau, which built the dam.  I was surprised to learn that flood control was one of the stated primary objectives of the dam, rather than simply for energy production.  Apparently catastrophic flooding was common before the whole series of dams was built that now controls the Colorado River.

Inside the power station
Leaving the Hoover Dam, we continued southeast until we reached I-40, then headed east, parallel with the Grand Canyon.  When we reached the 64, we headed north.  Before the end of the day, we made it to the South Rim Visitor's Center, Grand Canyon National Park.

To be continued in Part 2.


Concert Review: Elton John

And now, a stream-of-consciousness style review of Elton John's "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" tour, at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, October 1st, 2014.

Almost arrived late due to insane traffic weirdness.  Audience appears to be mostly middle-aged women.  But I ended up seated behind a whole row of bros who stood up basically all the time.  What we all had in common - a great time.

John was a great performer, maybe not as virtuosic as Billy Joel, but very talented

He loved the crowd, at mid-point let people come right up to the stage, and high-fived a little boy.  People kept jumping onto the stage to try to give him a hug.  Got up from piano after every song to walk around the stage and wave specifically at each section of the audience.  At the end, signed autographs for the people next to the stage.

Someone brought him a flag.  ???

Sparkly.  So sparkly.

Terrible backdrops.  One of the best parts about my seat at the extreme edge of the arena was not having to look at the screens.  Basically I had the best seats - direct view of the piano keyboard, ie his back.  The giant screens were directly above my head, parallel to my view, and the ones behind the band were all out of sight.  Very close to the stage.

Giant chandelier thingie?  Changed shape?  Colors?  Kinda weird.

Rest of band basically played back-up, the guitarists seemed pretty happy though

Played the majority of the standards/songs I knew, probably about 6 songs I didn't know by heart (Ocean's Away, Grey Seal, some other ones he didn't announce)

Encores were Crocodile Rock, Circle of Life, and....?  time to leave.

Kinda want to be him for Halloween now.  Spaaaarkles.

He can totally still sing.  Some nice improv/interludes before Rocket Man, and at the beginning, which was a medley of famous tunes.

Did I mention the sparkles?