Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Grand Canyon

There is nothing like it on this earth, and it is indescribably beautiful, breathtaking, and magnificent. There is nothing to which it can be compared to make it comprehendible to someone who has not been there and tried desperately to take it in with their own eyes. Despite many visits, what can one say about it? Even the iMax giant-screen theatre presentation devoted to the Grand Canyon is unable to define what the eyes and the soul attempt to digest and grasp.

I first saw the Grand Canyon in June, 1964, when I was 16 years old, traveling across country by rail on a trip I'd planned for over a year. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway took me there on a day trip off their mainline from Williams, Arizona. I rode the Santa Fe's train, EL CAPITAN, to reach Williams, and watched the SUPER CHIEF come in while waiting for it to take to L.A. the next night--but that's another story.

In late October I traveled back to the Grand Canyon with an old friend, a lawyer addicted to his electronic connectivity gadgets. It was supposed to be a "old boy's weekend out" trip, four of us, including my brother plus another close friend. But two backed out, and so just two of us went.

This was perhaps my 12th or 13th trip to the Canyon in the forty-three years since 1964, and I was looking forward to another fill-up of its spiritual grandeur. Every time I go I am overwhelmed and humbled, just like the first time.

Unfortunately, my old friend and lone traveling companion is wired differently from me. The Grand Canyon generated no such awe or inspiration for him. After the briefest of glimpses into the Canyon's overwhelming crags, cliffs, dappled colors and multi-hued depths, he was anxious to get on his cell phone to a tax dodger client back in North Carolina because, as he indignantly put it to me when I complained that his yammering about how to settle with the IRS was bad karma, "Hey, I have to make money!"

Why the hell, then, I wondered, did he come on this trip? Later, I was to find out--but I am getting ahead of myself.

The trip had started rather well, at least getting to Phoenix, from whence we drove up to the Canyon. American Airlines was on time on both flights through DFW, a miracle in itself. And the in-flight catalog, "Sky Mall," which I browsed out of sheer boredom (having lost my book), boldly offered two can't-live-without items for sale: a solar-powered talking Bible, and, on a nearby page, a shock bracelet to cure snoring (no doubt adapted from shock collars for dogs).

It was only en route from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon that I began to doubt our weekend together would be altogether pleasant for me. My friend, in-between interminable and tedious business calls with clients on his cell, queried me about (a) going to the so-called Grand Canyon West to see the so-called "Skywalk," and (b) the possibility of returning home a day early. Inasmuch as our trip was just 4 days as originally planned, I was disappointed to contemplate its attenuation when we had really just arrived.

Neither was I desirous of driving 265 miles (one way) from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) to the so-called Grand Canyon West area where the Skywalk has been constructed for the benefit of (but not constructed by) the Hualapai Tribe who live there on a 1,0o0,000 acre reservation.

But we ended up doing both: driving over hell's half acre to get to the Skywalk, and then going home a day early. However unhappy was the prospect at the time, by the time the last flight touched down at RDU, I was relieved the trip was over.

And that's because my lawyer friend's absolute apathy to the spectacular beauty of the GCNP, along with his ignorant determination to see the Skywalk (an attraction that Phineas Tyler Barnum would have been proud to stage) eventually tipped my spiritual scale in favor of his choices. As the days wore on, being soon separated from my friend was a more spiritually rewarding prospect than the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

So it was that we spent but a single full day at the Grand Canyon. Having arrived on a Wednesday late afternoon, we departed at daybreak on Friday. Those two nights and one day would have to do for this trip, I knew. And such is the power of the Grand Canyon, they did.

I managed to get us in for dinner at the El Tovar both nights, one outside on the porch and the second in the famed dining room. Though the meals were slightly better than mediocre (I advise skipping the steaks), my wine order was a good one, and we watched the full moon rise above the Canyon as we ate and sipped in the gorgeous old El Tovar digs. Later I walked out to the rim under the full moon and gazed in wonder at the shadows of deep blue and black made by the bright moonlight.

Our rooms were at the Maswik Lodge, one of the best bargains to be found anywhere: We paid just $79 per room (plus tax) per night. Rooms all have two queen or double beds, toilet, shower, bath, and cable TV. If we'd opted for the smaller but classier rooms at the El Tovar, the prices would have been in the $200-300 range per night (GCNP rooms can be booked at

The Grand Canyon has always been, despite the crowds, peaceful. One reason for the relative quiet was the lack of cell phone coverage at the Park. However, I was appalled this year to learn that cell phones now work there (they never did before). I questioned a ranger, and he admitted that the lack of cell phone coverage had been the number one complaint of visitors, so the Park had let a cell tower be constructed locally. I asked him whether the Park would build an elevator to the bottom of the Canyon if enough people complained about having to walk. No reply.

My friend, of course, was delighted that cell coverage enabled him to pursue his law practice while stumbling along the upper reaches of the Bright Angel Trail. Several times he had to ask a client to hold on a minute while he flattened his body against the Canyon wall to let a mule train pass. Then he'd pick up his discussion again, no doubt charging his client for the interlude. My friend's tepid enthusiasm for ambling along the trail a bit (done solely to placate me) evaporated when he realized that the coverage bars on his cell phone dropped more precipitously than the Canyon's sheer cliffs once we had traipsed not far down below the rim. We regained the altitude of the rim so that he could continue the fleecing of his flock back home via cell phone.

I threw in the towel and agreed to drive us to Grand Canyon West the early morning of the third day. 265 miles later we reached the Skywalk. En route we managed to drive one of the last remaining bits of Route 66 between Seligman and Kingman, Arizona, which I enjoyed immensely.

But I did not enjoy the final 21 miles to the Skywalk on Diamond Bar Road, the first 14 of which are an unimproved dirt road. I've driven from Windhoek, Namibia across part of the Namib Desert to the remote coastal town of Swakopmund, and that African dirt road was a damn sight better than the bone-jarring, alkaline dust devil 14 miles of Hualapai Tribe Reservation road to get to their multi-million dollar Skywalk.

Oh, and there are no gas stations any more on Route 66, so we learned too late to fill up when departing I-40 at Seligman. We almost didn't make it to the Skywalk.

What exactly is the Skywalk? The Hualapai Tribe hype it as "a horseshoe-shaped steel frame with glass floor and sides that projects about 70 feet from the canyon rim." We were told it was 4,000 feet above the canyon floor.

As soon as we arrived (finally) at the main parking area for the Skywalk, I grasped the concept in its entirety: Las Vegas come to the Grand Canyon. Fresh off the dirt road, we were met by an army of Indians and hired folk from Vegas directing us into a parking lot, then to buy tickets, then to the buses to take us to the Skywalk, which is another few miles away.

$81 (per person) is the cheapest "package" that can be booked to walk the Skywalk. That included a "meal" (if you wait another hour or two and take the extremely crowded buses to yet another stop beyond the Skywalk) and a viewing of the largest bat guano site known on earth (I am not making this up).

Truth is, the good folks from Las Vegas seem to have co-opted the Hualapai folks into letting them run the place Vegas-style. So the $81 "package" is just another Vegas-type tourist rip-off to lighten your wallet when all you really want to see is the Skywalk.

Or do you? After long waits for the buses, we pulled up to the Skywalk and made our way to the entrance. There we were charged another $1 to put all electronic devices (including cell phones and cameras) into locked storage boxes, as such things are not allowed on the Skywalk. After that we were security-screened through airport-style magnetometers and given booties to put over our shoes. Finally we walked out onto the Skywalk itself and mightily tried to get our $81's worth (each).

Me, I was on the Skywalk for all of one or two minutes. It was crowded, and somehow reminded me of being at the top of the Empire State Building. The huge steel horseshoe appears to be well-constructed, but it's an abomination in this place of such natural beauty. Certainly the Hualapai Tribe has lost its spiritual center if it conceived of this blight upon the landscape. Whatever the tribe claims credit for, it smacks of Vegas, pure and simple.

Though I tried to like it for my friend's sake, I didn't, not even a little. The Skywalk is horrible, yet the hordes come daily, mainly from Las Vegas, lured by boredom, stupidity, and shallowness: to be able to say, "I stood 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon [for 120 seconds]." They endure that long and bumpy ride in a big bus from Vegas, and then, after a minute or two standing on the thick glass over a second rate part of the Grand Canyon, they go munch on their "meal" while they gaze at the bat guano, and then are whisked back to their comfy Vegas hotels, just in time for a night of drinking and gambling.

My friend redeemed himself a little by being likewise disappointed in the Skywalk experience, though his disappointment was less acute than mine. We managed to get back to Phoenix by late Friday evening (after retracing the 14 miles of bad dirt road), and flew home very early Saturday.

En route on American Airlines I once again browsed the Sky Mall catalog and wondered if I could get a volume discount on those solar-powered talking Bibles. They'd make great Christmas gifts, huh?


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