Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The great Arizona road trip - 5

The tortuous road through Oak Creek Canyon

Friday the Thirteenth - the Grand Canyon
The wind rises and sky darkens as we take the scenic route out of Sedona through Oak Creek Canyon up into the mountains. The Garmin valiantly tries to show the hairpin bends of the road but eventually gives up and the car icon simply spins round and around on the screen. We reach the peak and pull into the national park viewing area. It is also an approved trading post for native American Indians to sell their handmade arts and crafts. A cluster of stalls filled with jewellery, pottery and feathered dream catchers are ranged in line. The Navajo Indians huddled under hoods and umbrellas against the biting wind are cheerful, charming and informative. We buy intricately woven bracelets for the grandchildren, each with a sheet explaining the various images.

We walk to the viewing point. The view is spectacular. Huge ravens soar and dip above our heads. Excitable Japanese and Italian tourists arrive, crying out "Bald eagles, bald eagles!" Their jocular and patient guide does his best to convince them otherwise, but in the end decides to opt for the possibility that they are turkey vultures. This seems to satisfy them and after various combinations of photo opportunity all move back to their minibus.

We too retreat to the warmth of our vehicle and continue down the scenic route to Flagstaff. After a rather challenging negotiation around the town we find the road west to Los Angeles and then strike off due north to our destination, the Grand Canyon. Skies to the west have encouraging stripes of blue. Skies to the east are distinctly grey.
First view of the Grand Canyon

The Ranger issuing our pass at the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park tells us that there is a 70 per cent chance of precipitation, between 2 and 5 inches. Precipitation means snow. But shouldn't be a problem, she smiles. Rod looks thoughtful.

We check into Yavapai Lodge, where a tall chap with wire-rimmed glasses, whispy beard and prominent Adam's apple welcomes us cheerily. He too assures us that even if there is snow, it shouldn't be a problem, although he would advise against taking the tortuous scenic road back Flagstaff if the weather does change.

Our room on the second floor is large, comfortable, nicely furnished and very warm, with a wall of windows overlooking the pines that creates the feeling of being in a tree house. We go back to the car and open the boot to get out our suitcase. It is not there.

I stare in disbelief. How come someone managed to steal it without setting off the alarm? Was it the two grubby hippies munching burgers in a battered station wagon parked next to us when we stopped at the art gallery in Sedona? I sit down on a rock on the pathway, thinking of my computer and my jewellery roll. I also remember jokingly telling friends that as we were visiting the Grand Canyon on Friday 13 I would stay away from the edge. The jinx has clearly taken a different form.
Rod quietly says, "I left the suitcase in Sedona."

I remember him carrying it down the stairs from the room. "In the car park?" I ask.

"No, in the corner of the registration office," he replies. Relief that it has not been stolen or left in a car park overrides panic at the loss of a computer. Even lack of fresh underwear, contact lenses and make-up are minor issues. A call to the Canyon Inn, Sedona confirms that they have our case and have even sent us an email, not yet received due to intermittent reception.

Extraordinary glow at sunset

Dedicated snapper
There is only one thing to do - go and take a good look at the reason for making the journey. And it is worth making. Like other extraordinary sights of the world, photograph and film do not do justice to the sheer vastness, grandeur and colour of the Grand Canyon. We walk a stretch of the Rim Trail, visit the geological museum and take lots of photographs, despite knowing that many of them will look like rosy porridge.

We call into the General Store, which proves to be impressively large, well stocked with fresh food, household goods, clothing, crampons and hiking gear. Toothbrushes are purchased, together with milk and muffins for breakfast, humous, crackers and red wine for a restorative appetiser. As we return to the lodge, a mule deer strolls nonchalantly along the edge of the car park, nibbling the grass.

Reading the park newspaper reveals a wide range of activities, including a talk this evening entitled Gold, Glory and discovering the Grand Canyon. We set off, wearing all the clothes available from our limited stock, topped with our windproof macs. The auditorium fills with a mixture of mature, serious types, young hikers and multiple generation campers with offspring ranging from babies to teenagers, including a collection of what turns out to be Noisy and Unmanageable Toddlers.

The young, bearded Ranger lecturer strides energetically around, interspersing rapid fire questions to the audience (What make the Grand Canyon grand? What did you learn today?) with a galloping ideosyncratic and entertaining history of Spanish kings, errant daughters and conquistadors who wandered the desert like ancient mariners searching for Cibola and the seven cities of gold.They didn't find the gold, but they did discover the Grand Canyon.

The Noisy and Unmanageable Toddlers cause mayhem, impervious to the shushes and increasingly disgruntled comments from the main audience and a plea from the Ranger. Eventually relegated to the lobby by their spookily silent mothers in floaty skirts and wool beanies, they continue to run amok. Nobody bothers to shut the doors but eventually the volume dies down. At the end of the lecture the Ranger tells us to leave the site quickly as street lighting is kept to the minimum in the park in order to reduce light pollution. We head off for dinner at Bright Angel Lodge, the historic place we would have liked to stay but which, like El Tovar, is booked a year in advance. 

Warm welcome at Bright Angel Lodge

Bright Angel Lodge is warm, welcoming and stylish. Designed by the innovative architect Mary Jane Colter in 1935, it is built of wood and stone, with a blazing fire in a magnificent fireplace to greet us as we walk through the lobby door. Above the fireplace hangs a large carving of the thunderbird, the Bright Angel of the canyon and namesake of the lodge. Sadly the history room is closed, so we cannot admire at first hand the fireplace which Mary Jane Coulter had constructed of rocks to match the geological formation of the canyon itself.

Regarded as the best-known unknown architect in the national parks, Mary Jane Colter's philosophy was that a building should grow out of its setting. Her style of architecture became known as National Park Service Rustic. “It should belong to its environment as though indigenous to that spot,” according to her biographer Virginia Grattan.

Colter became interested in building and design whilst working as an apprentice architect to help fund her art studies. She spent 15 years as an art teacher but in 1902 she found a summer job with the Fred Harvey Company which specialized in railway stations and hotels. After doing interior decoration for the Indian Building adjacent to the new Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, Colter was commissioned to design the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon.

Mary Jane Colter
Although these projects were successful, it was another eight years before she was offered a permanent position at the Fred Harvey Company. But she remained there as architect and designer for 46 years and was responsible for 21 projects, including La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, La Posada in Winslow and the Union Stations in Kansas City, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Despite her regular commissions and the magnificence of her designs, success did not come easily in a male-dominated profession. She was not listed as architect on many of her buildings and her name did not achieve the recognition of many of her peers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Irving Gill. 

Today all six of her public structures within the park are included in the Mary Jane Colter National Landmark District or have National Landmark Properties status.  More people tour a Mary Jane Colter creation in a single busy weekend than visit some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous sites in a year. A satisfying thought.

Endless vista
We go to the large dining room, combining rustic wooden panels with ornate light fittings, intimate alcoves and tables to accommodate a dozen or more people. We eat excellent steak with fries and salad and share a rainbow sorbet, at a very reasonable price. I note how our fellow diners wrap up in multiple layers as they leave, discussing how cold the weather has become. I buy a pair of bright Navajo patterned socks from the excellent shop (the closest I get to taking home Indian weaving).

We find the car and start to find our way back in the intense darkness to Yavapai Lodge. Our Garmin lady descends into a semi-hysterical babble, trying to guide us on to non-existent roads, one way streets and dead ends. As she tries to persuade us to turn right onto the railroad track, I consign her to the glove compartment and just as we think we shall have to resort to navigating by the stars, we spot signs that relate to the rather vague map and triumphantly locate the lodge. After a warming glass of red wine, to compensate for lack of night attire, we go to bed.

All photographs by Sandi Rhys Jones, except for portrait of Mary Jane Colter, from the National Parks Archive.

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