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Over the edge at Grand Canyon

I was uncertain about camping at Grand Canyon. I knew there were some private campgrounds outside the park, but ever since I was a kid, I had always had trouble with private campgrounds. They were too tame, too kitschy, too made up. National park and national forest campground were more rugged, the facilities more primitive, and the locations more picturesque. I was sure that some private campgrounds were nice, but I had never in my adult life experienced a good one. I thought that if we didn’t find a camping spot at Grand Canyon, we would do a car tour and go off to find a motel in Flagstaff. We’d take off for Kansas City after and go home a few days early.

“Will there be a swimming pool in the park?” Syd asked after we were underway for about an hour.

“No, it’s not that kind of a park.”

“We ought to go to that kind of a park.”

When we arrived at the Grand Canyon east entrance, we found a few sites left at the Desert View Campground. I felt relieved. Our camp was still 22 miles away from the visitor center and the park facilities, like trading posts where we could get Virginia and Syd’s mom, as well as Syd some souvenirs. But we were still in the park. We had a place to stay, and although Syd was in a muff, she was going to have a good time. Besides, I’m not much of a souvenir kind of guy. A good map and a couple of picture would suffice for me. But I knew Syd might want something more substantial besides the pictures she was taking with her kiddy polaroid.

At the time, the Park Service published a weekly newspaper, The Grand Canyon Guide. We picked up a copy at the campground entrance so we could plan the next few days. It had been a week since we left Virginia at the airport at Denver. I called her about every other day to report on our progress. She enjoyed talking to Syd, and I found Syd’s impressions interesting. We called Virginia now on the park phone at the campground. Syd told her she was upset that none of the places we’d gone or see had a swimming pool. Other things I hadn’t noticed took her attention. “There’re pictures on the rocks in the desert,” she said. “They are kind of like cartoons but different. Dad says the people who used to live here drew the pictures. They have funny faces, some of them. There are horses and other animals. I wish we could draw on the rocks.

“The Indians called Navajos make these carpets for their houses, called hogans. The hogans look neat. I want Dad to build one for us.”

For the next four days, we spent our time doing one good thing every day. We toured the rim overlooks and went to the Desert View Tower, where we were able to buy some trinkets for Syd and for home. The park’s main visitor center took our attention for a whole day. Every night, we went to a campfire program at one or the other campgrounds and visitor center, where we listened to rangers tell stories and explain the formation of the canyon. One program Syd took particular interest in dealt with the people who used to live at the canyon, as well as the people, the Havasupai, Hualapai, and Navajo who still made their lives at or in the canyon. We took a short hike down into the canyon, one which taxed the poor girl but that she didn’t regret. The whole time, Syd behaved herself. I only had to hear about a swimming pool twice and only briefly. By the end of the second day, she ceased talking about the canyon. The display of rafts and boats people used to explore the canyon took her attention and she wondered if we could make a tour of the canyon from the river one day.

One night, we had attended a campfire program at the visitor center. When the ranger concluded his presentation, it was dark. The moon was up full. We stopped at an overlook to see the canyon in the moonlight. The scene that was so colorful in the day shone in hues of silver and black. We could see lights deep in the canyon at the Phantom Ranch, where hikers with permits stayed overnight. We were completely alone. No cars passed on the road. Syd said it was the most beautiful things she had ever seen, better even than the view of the canyon during the day. We stayed at the overlook for over an hour.

It rained on and off during the days we spent at the canyon. We took hikes from the campground that took us through seas of sagebrush and Mormon tea and desert rose. After the rains, the fragrances of the desert bloomed with the desert rose. The atmosphere smelled of rain and it had the tang of sagebrush and cut grass. Syd was falling in love with the park.

One afternoon, I thought to call a motel in Flagstaff to make a reservation. Since it was high tourist season, I didn’t want to get to town late in the afternoon (and I knew we’d spend our whole last day in the park) and find no room at the inn. The day before we left, I told Syd that we would stay in a motel where she would be able to swim.

“But I don’t want to leave, Dad,” she said.

“What?”

“I want to stay here. I don’t want to leave.”

The next day, we struck our tent and loaded the car. Syd was less than helpful. She had an air of sadness on her. She was grouchy and uncooperative. Where I could count on her to gather our goods while I took down the tent, she now sat at the picnic table, staring out toward the canyon. As we looked out over the canyon, I stood absorbing as much as I could, thinking, as I always do, that this will be the last time I will ever see these sights. I wanted them to become a part of me. Sydney looked as if she could have stayed in the canyon the rest of the summer.

When we drove away from the visitor center and turned toward Flagstaff, Sydney began to cry. I tried to bring her around. We were going swimming, after all, just what she’d wanted to do all along.

“I don’t care,” she said between sobs. “I want to stay here. It’s a great place. I don’t ever want to leave.”

“Don’t you want to see your mom and Virginia?”

“Yeah . . . but they can come here. I don’t ever want to leave.”

She cried all the way across the Kaibab Plateau and through the forest up in the highlands, then across the desert to Wupatki National Monument. She settled down only when we stopped the car. We visited the elaborate pueblos, again making us think of people living in the middle of these beautiful places, among the sagebrush and pinion. The complexes at Wupatki absorbed Syd and her mood expanded. She was soon out of the funk she’d been in about leaving Grand Canyon. We did the things she needed for her Junior Ranger badge and spent a good deal of time hiking to the pueblos distant from the road.

We drove on through the Painted Desert and stopped at an overlook that allowed us the broad sweep of the desert and its incredible color. The scenery brought Sydney even further from her down mood. She took pictures with her camera and asked if she could pick up some of the pieces of petrified wood for souvenirs.

“No, babe, we better leave it here.”

“Why, Dad, there’s so much of it?”

“Imagine if everyone took a piece home.”

“There wouldn’t be any left.”

“That’s right, Syd. Let’s leave it for other people to see.”

Arriving at the motel, Syd was circumspect. I could tell that even with the pueblos at Wupatki and the Painted Desert, the trauma of leaving the canyon had not completely healed. We checked in and before we unpacked anything else, we pulled our swim suits from our goods and went directly to the pool. Syd lost any sadness that she might have felt earlier that day. She ran and jumped and frolicked until after dark, when I made her give it up so we could go get something to eat.

“But we’ll be back before the pool closes. We’ll go again.”

“Yes, I imagine we will.”

We didn’t have the chance. She came back to the room after tacos and pop and lay down on the bed. Within a minute, she was asleep. I wondered what kinds of images went through her little kid’s mind. Would she be seeing the colors of the desert, remember the smell of the desert rose, think of the ancients in their rock palaces? I let her sleep while I watched television for the first time in over two weeks. After a while, I turned the lights off and set the chair by the window. Traffic dribbled along the avenue in front of the hotel. Lights raced in white and red on the interstate. It would be another three days before we arrived home.

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