John’s mom Patricia flew out from Florida to see the Grand Canyon with us. We met up in Flagstaff then drove to the Grand Canyon National Park. We had a great time seeing the sights together, and her timing was perfect – she got to see the canyon in all weather conditions, ranging from sunny and clear to dense fog with snow showers. Which is maybe not really ideal for sightseeing, but it does make for a complete experience. I mean…it gets boring when it’s sunny all the time, right?
Our first full day at the canyon was sunny and warm, so we took that day for our main viewing tour, driving 26 miles east to the Desert View area of the park. While growing up, Patricia and her family took many road trip vacations and her father had a saying “never overlook an overlook”. John stopped at nearly every pull off, but with so many it takes serious dedication to abide by that proverb.
We were on a bit of a schedule, hoping to make a ranger program at Desert View, but we still took time to tour Tusayan Ruins before finally reaching our destination. At the desert view parking lot we were debating whether or not we had time for lunch before the program when we realized that the program was actually at the Tusayan ruins! Oops. Oh, well…lunch then time to check out the Desert View Watchtower.
These reflectoscopes reminded me of an interview I heard recently. An inventor (who is not an artist) recreated a famous mid-seventeenth century painting by the artist Johannes Vermeer. The inventor though that Vermeer must have used optics to create such a photo-realistic painting 150 years before photography was invented. To demonstrate the method, he recreated the room shown in the painting by building all the furniture himself, hand-ground the lenses to have optics of a similar quality that was available in the time period, and recreated the painting! The interview I heard was on Science Friday, the documentary about the process is Tim’s Vermeer.
A storm blew in the following day bringing a few clouds, cold temperatures and strong gusts of wind. Uninspired by the inclement weather, we had a lazy morning and didn’t arrive at our intended target, the main Visitor Center, until 3:00 pm. We planned to watch the movie about the canyon shown throughout the day at the Visitor Center, then to head over to the Yavapai Geology Museum. However, our plans were thwarted by the storm. The power went out while we had lunch just before entering the Visitor Center…the 18 kilowatts of solar panels are apparently not enough to keep the movie playing, and the Geology Museum also closed for the day. We headed back to the cabin where, thankfully, the power came back on around sunset so the room didn’t get too terribly cold.
The storm really picked up in the evening and overnight. Wind gusts shook the van and we could hardly use any propane appliances (which includes the refrigerator, water heater, room heater and stove). We are accustomed to turning our refrigerator off during periods of high winds common in the desert, as strong gusts blow out the flame that (through a feat of engineering genius) keeps our refrigerator cold. But this storm brought a whole new level of problems, causing alarms to sound off when using any of the propane devices. RVs are equipped with both a propane alarm and a carbon monoxide detector for safety while using flames in a small space. After trying to heat and cook in a high-elevation storm, we now know these detectors work! We had to turn on the exhaust fan while cooking and washing dishes to clear out the toxic gases, so the van was freezing during dinner preparation and cleanup. Thankfully we ate inside the comfortably heated cabin room. Even when the wind was low we had trouble with the refrigerator staying lit, which we attribute to the relatively low oxygen level at 7000 feet elevation.
With the storm upon us full force, the canyon was completely obscured by a wall of clouds on the third day. We ventured out in in the storm only long enough to enter museums. First stop was the Verkamp’s Visitor Center and Pioneer History Museum. We entered the museum just as a ranger program on the history of exploration and development was beginning. Stumbling into this program without knowing about it was ironic, as we completely failed at our first two attempts at attending programs: the first one we attempted to attend was at a different location then we thought and the second required registration but was completely booked. From Verkamp’s we headed over to the geology museum we weren’t able to visit the prior day, then back to the main visitor center to see the movie we missed the previous day. I walked the “Trail of Time” (more on that in the next installment) between the Grand Canyon Village and the Yavapai Geology Museum while John and Patricia drove over. On my way, I found evidence of the high winds overnight.
We had a great time learning about the cultural history of the canyon at the morning ranger program, so we were excited to discover a newly announced ranger-led nature walk scheduled to start shortly after we finished the video at the Visitor Center. We were the only three in attendance for what turned out to be the most bizarre ranger program we’ve attended yet. It was led by a jaded 30 year veteran of the park who talked more about the politics in and around the park then about the natural history of it. He told us about “rescue inflation” in regards to the signs posted everywhere warning that the park performs over 350 rescues each year – it turns out a “rescue” may simply be a ranger advising a hiker to rest in the shade and drink some water before continuing. This was actually somewhat interesting to me, hearing about how the park works behind the scenes, but I was sorry that this was the “nature walk” Patricia experienced. The national parks do a great job at education through their programs, but this walk did not exemplify that. Near the end I did finally get him to talk about plants for a couple minutes by asking about the growths we had seen on many juniper trees, which turned out to be a juniper-specific mistletoe. After that he also explained the “mormon tea” plant to us. The plant contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the latter of which you may be familiar with as a decongestant. Ephedrine was used in diet pills until it was banned in 2004 because it caused stroke and heart attacks in some users. Both are stimulants with effects similar to caffeine. Since caffeine is forbidden for use by Mormans, early Morman settlers of the west drank tea from this plant instead.
The storm still enveloped us on the fourth day, so we visited the last museum on the list, the Kolb Studio, as well as the Lookout Studio.
On the final day of Patricia’s visit, the skies cleared again. We spent the day taking the free shuttles the park offers down Hermit Road scenic drive, where we did not overlook any overlooks, but took a view at each stop.
Wildlife abounds in the park, and many of the creatures are so accustomed to humans that they are not bothered at all by our appearance. More wildlife pictures will come in future editions, but for now I leave you with a mule deer and some elk.