Wow, That’s Really Big: A Grand Canyon Adventure

[Christine De Luca mostly works with spreadsheets but can be persuaded (read: outright bribed) to return to her writer/editor roots with fine wine, coffee, and good company. She plans to enjoy those things on every continent during her lifetime.]

The opportunity to go to Arizona presented itself by way of a work conference. Traveling for work [Ed. note: a topic on which I have weighed in previously] is only sort of a vacation, but the conference was a Wednesday through Friday affair, and I immediately found myself toying with spending the weekend in Arizona. However, none of the cities in Arizona–Phoenix, Flagstaff, Sedona–were what was calling to me. No, by the time I was thirty-two years old, I had visited a majority of the states and four continents and had lived abroad, but somehow managed to have never seen the Grand Canyon.

Given that my childhood vacations eerily mirrored those of the Griswolds, that we had managed to miss the Grand Canyon was only by virtue of the fact that my parents preferred to pack us up in the family truckster and head to the middle of nowhere in the south rather than out west. By contrast, my husband had “camped his ass across ‘Merica,” (his exact words) and had visited every state west of the Mississippi but none south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The Grand Canyon was a mere four hours from the conference. I had an idea.

I first sought company in the form of my husband. “I don’t know why you want to go,” he said to me as I explained that I wanted to spend a weekend in Arizona driving across the state and back. “It’s just a giant hole in the ground.” (Again: his exact words, proving that love knows no bounds.) I couldn’t let this opportunity go.

The same day I registered for the conference, I made reservations through Enterprise for a compact car and reserved a night at the Super 8 in Sedona. I pushed my flight to Chicago back another day. I packed an audio book and a GPS system alongside two suits and my work laptop, printed hard copy maps (just in case), bought a USB car charger (aside: this gadget is–not kidding–among the best things I’ve ever bought.), and prepared to drive to the Grand Canyon.

Now, I have a well-documented hatred of road trips (see comment above re: family truckster), so as excited as I was to see another wonder of the world, I was really unexcited about the drive itself. For all my big talk about the driving being part of the adventure, the truth was that if I could have snapped my fingers and arrived, I would have in a moment. I would have also liked a unicorn. Neither was happening.

The first half-hour of the drive was an unexciting tour of the Phoenix highways, wherein I nearly crashed my rental car twice, because automakers have recently decided that what Americans need is a much larger blind spot. They don’t.

I wasn’t able to appreciate the landscape until I was finally outside of Phoenix. Giant cacti dotted the otherwise barren landscape. Mountains and hills filled in the horizon under a blazing blue sky. The road stretched on forever and mountains loomed in the distance. These are not things we have in the Midwest. I settled in to my book and drove.

I was itching to walk around when I hit the two hour point, my scheduled lunch break, and my first gas stop, all of which converged in Flagstaff. Now, I want to diverge here just for a moment. Back home, I’m a big city snob–though I do now live in the suburbs–and I sneer at strip malls. However, one of the tenets of being a good guest and a good traveler is that age-old maxim that begins, “When in Rome,” and so, in looking for lunch, I found myself at an independent little Mexican place in a strip mall just off the highway. It was a good choice. My flautas were phenomenal, even by “I lived in Pilsen for seven years” standards. I had lunch, stopped at a local grocery for a bottle of water, got gas, and got back on the road.

Flagstaff is about halfway to the Canyon, and the last place where you’re driving on an honest-to-goodness highway and not a one-lane road with an absurdly high speed limit. Driving on a one-lane highway is physically exhausting. Driving a one-lane highway with not even a gas station to break up the monotony left me drained. My constant hope was that the Grand Canyon to be “just around the corner.” There were no corners. I was sick of driving. When I did finally after hundreds of thousands of years arrive in Grand Canyon Village, it was a relief to have a place to pull over and walk around. When I finally got my first glimpse, I had to remind myself that I was actually looking at, and not looking at a picture of, the famed Grand Canyon.

Then I heard behind me, “Wow, that’s really big!” I turned to look. He caught me looking. “I’m from Ohio,” he said by way of apology.

“We don’t have mountains in Chicago, either,” I said, accepting his apology.

Now, having driven four hours, reached, and now seen the Grand Canyon, I, uh, had no idea what to do. I had planned for the drive. I had planned a place to stay. I had not given a thought about what I would do once I actually arrived.

I didn’t have time to do something adventurous, like take a donkey down to the bottom of the canyon, and I had driven to the South Rim, and not the North Rim, where the super cool glass walkout is. Having nothing better to do, nowhere to be, and no one expecting me (this is a rarity for me), I walked. Except for a couple key places, there are no guard rails at the Grand Canyon. I kept watching people (including people’s small children!) climb up and down rocks. It was wonderfully unspoiled. Terrifying. I took a couple steps down rocks, and a couple back up. I continued to walk and take pictures, admiring the new view of the canyon every few feet. The farther I walked, the quieter it became. I kept walking. Deer grazed close to the canyon rim. Two hours and five miles later, I was watching the sun set over the Grand Canyon.

Mission accomplished.

Advice:

  • Get a compelling audiobook. Moby Dick isn’t what you want to read while you’re driving what amounts to a fairly barren landscape.
  • Put the audiobook on your iPod. You don’t need to be fiddling with CDs in a car you don’t know.
  • Take breaks, especially if you’re driving alone.
  • Get a map. Seriously. Also, it’s a good idea to have a blanket (if you can) and extra water with you.
  • When traveling alone, take at least 25 percent fewer chances than you usually would. When nobody’s with you, nobody’s expecting you to call, and there’s no cell phone reception, you don’t want to be falling, breaking bones, and getting admitted to the ER as a Jane Doe.
  • Call people often and let them know where you are.
  • Carry ID.
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