August 15: Grand Canyon National Park to Seligman, Arizona to Needles, California to Los Angeles
Soundtrack: Ancient echoes, NPR all the way home
Suddenly, I didn’t want the trip to be over. I couldn’t stand the thought that I would go to the car now and in an hour or two I would crest my last hill, drive around my last bend and be finished with looking at America,
Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent, Travels in Small-Town America
Room 7162 at the Yavapai Lodge was secluded at the end of a long, rough concrete block complex with metal casement windows. I got up and made the in-room coffee. Deer strolled by as I loaded my car and headed out of the parking lot to catch the sunrise at Yavapai Point. On the way, through drifting mists, four elk ambled by, blocking the intersection on the way to the next turnout, where a huddled group of early risers waited for the park shuttle.
Nearly a hundred people of all ages were waiting at the rim for the sun to get high enough to illuminate a red mesa below: the standard photo opportunity, I supposed. The Colorado River wound like a band of pale green jade below, and the sun, already over the horizon, had not yet activated the deep oranges, browns, and buffs of the sedimentary rocks. I was about 15 minutes too late for the sunrise, but rays of light angled down from from clouds a few degrees above the horizon and the effect was Thomas Moran magical.
A variety of languages were being spoken, mostly in hushed, excited National Park tones, as the tourists maneuvered cameras to catch the moment. An Asian boy of about five with his own camera asked his mother for instructions, determined to get it right. One by one the photos were snapped, sometimes by strangers memorializing the moment for couples and family groups; typically, I had left the camera in the car.
I joined the people waiting for the shuttle, who were by this time complaining about the service and joking about adding a Starbuck’s breakfast trailer to the back of the bus. My shuttle stop was the El Tovar Hotel, where breakfast was elegant and rustic at once in the Fred Harvey Style, with china, crystal, and white tablecloths in a room full of Indian artifacts. The expansive Mary Colter building was begun in 1903, finished in 1905, and declared a historical monument in 1974. I had three kinds of pancakes, with bacon and coffee extra, for $15.00 and read about Route 66. Tout sweet! (perhaps too much so).
When I had first come though here with Charlie, he was six and my sister and I brought him with us to visit the scenes of John Ford westerns and Tony Hillerman novels. We had been through Monument Valley and down into the Navaho reservation, where Charlie and Sister Laura mugged for photos at the junction of the Four Corners. An old Navaho woman selling fry bread asked us to leave Charlie with her for a year to help tend her sheep. What an opportunity that would have been! But we passed on her offer as probably illegal, and drove down through the red rock country, stopping to hike the trail at Navaho National Monument and coming into the Park by the East Entrance. Charlie loved the rock tower, running up and down the spiral more than we could keep up with, and we stayed a little too long to get a good place for dinner in the park. We ended up dining at the cafeteria, driving south out of the canyon at night with no vacancies to look forward to.
All the hotel rooms in Williams, Arizona, with its frontier streets and neon signs, were occupied. After an hour of scanning the town, the red No’s on the Vacancy signs seemed to shriek out from every office of every Best Western, AAA, Travelodge, and variously recommended establishment. This was before Van Dyke Parks gifted us with an Automobile Club membership; learning to use the AAA travel guides was a hard-won lesson in survival.
Nodding, an hour or so later, we ended up in a motel at some wide place in the road west, that had a crazed night clerk beyond Psycho, one lumpy bed with cigarette-burned blankets, a t.v. so snowy we could barely decipher what we were watching from the audio, and a bathtub that ran a thin stream of tepid, black water unfit for Charlie’s nightly calming bath. Since we had carefully reserved the Recapture Lodge and a spa in Desert Hot Springs, this was a miserable experience we never wanted to repeat; the state-by-state guides became our biggest resource on the road. Best of all, they were free!
In later years Charlie was the navigator on trips from California to Texas and back, scoping out turns on the map and choosing the most likely candidates for reservations, miles before we were ready to sleep. We liked to have a pool, preferably a jacuzzi as well, and continental breakfast. The travel guides helped us find the best lodging for the lowest price and we would stop by the side of the road to call every afternoon before it got too late. Ironically, I knew the picture code intimately because he last job I had before Charlie was born was production artist on the AAA guide print layouts.
The weather at the Grand Canyon started out perfect and began to cloud over about noon. I browsed the bookstore in Lookout Studio, where a film of Brighty the Burro played in the corner and Ancient Echoes music drifted over the merchandise like pinon incense. There I devoured the entire chapter on suicide in the best selling book in the park, Over the Edge: Death at Grand Canyon by Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers. I was especially captivated by the stories of people who had driven off cliff like Thelma and Louise; there was a historical precedent. What I was waiting for was a talk by Ranger Paula Sprenger about condors, which we could see cruising in the far distance off the Studio’s patio. On the walk back to Yavapai Point, I spotted a young specimen with the regulation number on its wing, perched on a stone parapet and enjoying a great view of any stray carrion below.
By the time I headed toward the East Entrance, with a bottle of official Grand Canyon wine in the cooler, the storm was striking, and the lightening show was soon obscured by torrents of rain. I took a nap at Moran Point while the shower thinned to drizzle, and visited the tower on the way out, feeling so sad that Charlie couldn’t be with me in another place he loved. With a few more wildflower cards and some lightening earrings from the park store, I headed through the reconstruction site the East Entrance had become, stopping only at a roadside Indian store for a bead necklace on the way to Interstate 40. On National Public radio out of Flagstaff, I had my first encounter with Andre Codrescu, the Road Scholar, and realized there were many more people out there doing the cross-country thing, bless them all!
The rest of the way back was like another Disneyland ride, off and on Route 66 to Kingman (94°), Barstow (for gas), and San Bernardino, too. For the first time on the trip I had a definite deadline, I had to get back and finish my small painting of the Lady of the Lake for the Echo Park Auction on Saturday. My only concession to the Route 66 mystique was a quick stop at Delgadillo’s Drive Inn (Sorry, We’re Open), in Seligman, Arizona, to sit and lick a dip cone in a peppermint-striped swing among junk and memorabilia, while Rocky closed up shop. I had just made it before closing time, the temperature was down to 79° and the cluttered yard was such a delight! Running on chocolate and adrenalin through Needles, where the temperature was 102, in a few hours I was back in L.A., the night was balmy, and I fell into bed without unpacking.