Joel’s Ring of Fire

26 02 2013

This would not be my first trip to California, but it had been some time since setting foot inside the Golden State. One of the fringe benefits of working at the Grand Canyon was an opportunity to explore the Southwest either through trips offered by the employee rec center or independently. The group from Singapore had planned an impressive tour of the US before returning home — Las Vegas, LA, San Francisco, Yosemite and New York. I requested to tag along for the LA part, provided I could get there. This was part of the challenge and, as most travel agents will tell you, part of the fun.

Since noticing the Amtrak station in Flagstaff, I had been intrigued by the train and what it was all about. Rail passenger service in the South is almost nonexistent. Hurricanes have decimated tracks along the Gulf Coast and the states there seem to have no interest in restoring routes. Most of the poor and those without a vehicle travel primarily by bus in the South. Having experienced Greyhound before, I was in no hurry to ride the dirty dog again.

So in figuring out the way to LA, I decided to take the Grand Canyon train to Williams, Arizona where I could connect to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and ride into Los Angeles just before dawn. It would be around a 15-hour trip and luckily I would not be making it alone. Joel, one of the Singapore entourage, would travel with me while the others went ahead to Las Vegas. Joel’s work contract called for him to stay a few more extra days in the Canyon and although he was not happy about it, he honored the deal and consequently missed out on the Vegas portion of the group’s American adventure. Of all the Singapore guys, Joel had the most uninspiring Grand Canyon job. He was a kitchen utility worker at Yavapai Lodge, where he cleaned cafeteria tables and loaded dishwashers.

“So much wasted food,” Joel would grumble when I asked about his duties. He cheerfully added, he would get me all the soda I could want when I was in the cafeteria. One of the few perks of his job.

I had gotten to know Joel better one afternoon when we hiked up the Hermit’s Nest Trail to watch a rare solar eclipse. A fierce soccer player, Joel described his matches as if they were all out war and revealed he was often at odds with his coach. He was also quite the romeo and not long after arriving in the Canyon, Joel began dating a cute Thai girl from housekeeping. As the solar eclipse got closer, it was Joel who found an awesome spot to view it. We climbed down from the rim — beyond the guard rail — and settled on a flat column of rock just past Hopi Point.

Hopi Point Solar Eclipse with Joel

Hopi Point Solar Eclipse with Joel

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and essentially creates a “Ring of Fire.” We had equipped ourselves with special viewing glasses and from our vantage point overlooking the Colorado River and the many chasms of Grand Canyon, the eclipse was indeed an awesome sight to behold. But staring too much into the sun is never a good thing. As we posed for pictures afterward, I remember Joel stumbling and damn near falling into the Canyon. I don’t think even he realized how close he had come to certain death.

Traveling by train to LA would be much less risky. As employees, the train ride to Williams was free, but it sure wasn’t fast. On average a 45-minute trip by car turned into a 2-hour slow descent through barren land. Joel had made the trip before, taking his girlfriend to Williams for an overnight excursion. He knew what to expect, right down to the super corny staged “holdup” by wild western outlaws. The entire train ride was geared toward children and families. We were merely taking advantage of our employee status and thus endured stale jokes for the free lift.

Once in Williams we had a few hours to kill before catching the Amtrak so Joel recommended grabbing a bite to eat at a nearby Thai restaurant. After months on a steady diet of National Park cafeteria food, I gladly agreed. The women working the restaurant remembered Joel from his previous visit and we were treated like kings. The food was flat out delicious. As we dined on Pad Thai and other recipes that I cannot begin to spell, Joel let loose frustrations of working with some of the Native Americans at the park. They were sentiments similarly expressed by the blunt Western author Edward Abbey in his great novel, “Desert Solitaire.”

I did not dispute any of Joel’s observations and served more less as his therapist when he told me how, on his last day, he had basically told this one older Indian woman to take a long walk off a short pier.

“She was always telling me what to do,” he said. “And she never did anything.”

After dinner, we returned to the train depot where a bus waited to take us to the Amtrak station, a few miles south of Williams. But as we would find out, there was no station and no train in sight.


Pain sets in

14 11 2012

As soon as we arrived at Indian Gardens, I headed straight for the outhouse. I had been holding in pee for a good while and just too prudish to stop along the trail. Traffic had begun to pick up as there were several groups of people resting underneath the massive Cottonwood trees. We were still three miles deep into the Canyon.

It was after my outhouse visit that a sharp sting shot out of my left leg. It was severe and it damn near knocked me off my feet. I was surprised by the pain and could only surmise that it was caused by my brief stop of motion. Whatever the case, it hurt. Bad.

I was afraid to let Desmond know just how much it hurt. He had joined a dozen or so other weary hikers around a small water fountain encased in stone. Everyone looked beat. It was still plenty hot and most were battling dehydration. Some took off their hiking boots and rubbed their feet relentlessly, while others laid near comatose alongside their life-sized backpacks.

Desmond was eating his last sandwich when I limped up to the fountain for a sip of water. Nobody said a word. Damn, my leg hurt. Finally, an older woman with a British accent spoke up.

“Are you alright?,” she asked.

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

She was British to a certain extent. She actually declared her independence from the Crown by stating she lived in some obscure island off the coast of France. She wore dark, large rounded sunglasses. Exhausted, I could not find her eyes.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to speak with a fellow hiker. She had hiked down from the Village, leaving her husband along the way. “He can’t make it down here anymore,” she said. “His knees gave out a long time ago.” But here was this woman, significantly my senior, huddled around the water fountain telling her story. Her knees were fine. One of mine was damn near killing me. After about 15 or so minutes, Desmond was ready to go again. He wanted to make it out by sunset and we were losing daylight.

The pain was tempered by the fact I was now hiking into familiar territory. I had hiked this part of the trail before, returning from Plateau Point where I communed with a condor. Surely, he was circling somewhere, I thought. Desmond, meanwhile, began to open up a sizable lead as we neared the dusty redwall limestone part of the hike. The sun still beating down, I lingered in shade every chance I got.

Most hikers will tell you that everyone has their own pace. And almost all will admit to having been part of some race. Desmond was viewing this as a competition. Initially that is. We would go on other hikes where time was not so much a concern, but for the rim to river excursion, Desmond was looking to break records. At this point in the hike, I was just trying to keep up.

I tried to keep him in eye range. It became more difficult as we climbed and with eager tourists appearing at every turn. You could tell the hikers from the tourists by the simple fact that NO ONE would try to hike the Grand Canyon in flip flops. And yet they appeared more frequently as we neared the rim. There were a few times where I stopped to catch my breathe and I would see Desmond on a cliff in the horizon waving his arms for me to catch up. The sun was beginning to disappear as the trail took to one corner of the massive canyon. The climb out was underway.


Reaching the River

24 09 2012

We dipped our feet in the river and the cold water was a welcome relief. Having hiked downhill nearly seven miles to the bottom of the Grand Canyon this was the payoff… the reward and hypothermia be damned.

When you first set eyes on the Colorado River, it gives you pause. Desmond and I made it to the river just before high noon and we immediately started to snap pictures. This was an accomplishment to take note of. Before reaching the river, there is a small tunnel drilled out of a huge boulder just before you cross a narrow suspension bridge. The tunnel was dark, but the midday sun kept it from being too scary. I also felt safe with Desmond.

We walked through the tunnel, across the bridge and down to the river bank, which was guarded by a maze of prickly pear and Beavertail cactus. And it was hot. Mid May at the bottom of the Canyon brought near 100 degree temperature with not much of a breeze. But we weren’t the only ones at the river bank, gazing up at the Kaibab Bridge and the mountains all around. There were about a half a dozen college aged kids soaking their feet in the river and just as we joined them, a large rafting group floated up to the beach-esque bank and unloaded for lunch.

Phantom Ranch was nearby and that’s where we would have lunch and, more importantly, shelter. Sitting on the river bank, we didn’t say much to each other, instead basking in the fact that we had reached the halfway point. The water was extremely cold. You could put your feet in for a couple minutes but then they started to get hard and hurt. And no one dared go more than ankle deep, except for one of the rafting hands who had to jump in and tie up the raft.

From the river we wet our shirts for the first time, a tip Desmond picked up from reading some travel guide, and headed towards Phantom Ranch. It’s a short hike up the North Kaibab Trail and one that is teeming with life, from deer resting by the stream, ravens flying overhead and campers singing songs and playing music. As we approached the ranger station, a large American flag welcomed us to Phantom Ranch, prompting Desmond to remark how much we as a nation loved to wave the stars and stripes.

“There is not a lot of this in my country,” he said.

Americans, Desmond had quickly learned, are very patriotic in addition to their love affair with fried foods and beer.

We went inside the canteen, unloaded our packs and chowed down. My sub sandwich was pretty disgusting. It had damn near deteriorated on the hike down, but I ate it anyway. The canteen was about half full. It’s a simple setup with long cafeteria type tables and a cash register near the door. They had some souvenir T-shirts and hats for sale, but we just bought postcards. I told the clerk I worked at Maswik Lodge up on the rim and he immediately tried to recruit me to come down and work on the ranch.

“We work hard and we play hard,” he said. I had kind of gotten that vibe earlier when I was eating my sandwich and one of the employees came out of the kitchen to reload the napkin dispenser. He was a young, hipster type with a full beard and tight jeans. He looked me straight in the eyes and smiled.

“It’s a great place to work if you like to hike,” the clerk continued, making his best sales pitch. “We make good tips here too.”

This I did not dispute, but the reality of living in a place that was a hard 8-hour hike from civilization, and a partial one at that, was too daunting to consider. Being nice, I told him I would think about it.

We refilled our water bottles and soon were on our way again, this time hiking up. As we departed the canteen, the clerk reminded us to wet our shirts before crossing the river. We had not yet experienced the day’s full heat.

Isolation sets in

1 04 2012

I’ve only been here a month, but it seems like a year.

I thought I knew what isolation was like, living in Panama City. That was nothing. The Grand Canyon is remote. It is a National Park, after all, on the edge of a cliff, some 7,000 feet up. It’s a good place to go into exile.

Many of the workers here are older people who have retired from their career jobs or military service and are now enjoying a little extra cash in a natural setting. There are also a large number of Native Americans working in the park. The Navajo, Hopi and Apache reservations are close by and their numbers are well represented inside Grand Canyon. And then there are the foreign workers, brought in from countries like Ecuador and Thailand for a three month stay and usually made to clean rooms and bus tables.

I have been assigned to work inside the gift shop at the Maswik Lodge, where my retail experience has helped tremendously. Running a cash register is kind of like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it. My first cash register work came as a high school teenager at the Port St. Joe Piggly Wiggly and now, more than 20 years later, I’ve never been robbed and my drawer has never come up majorly short. Knock on wood. Big ponderosa pine wood.

But I’m not selling necessities at Maswik. I’m selling souvenirs — from t-shirts and jewelry to pottery and greeting cards crafted out of mule dung. Of the dozen or so gift shops in the park, Maswik is the only one designed to be a “green store” and by “green” I don’t mean money. The Maswik gift shop is an example in environmental stewardship and United States ingenuity. Almost all of the merchandise is designed and distributed within the United States and this manufacturing is carried out with strong regard to softening the environmental impact.

It’s a refreshing change from the Wal-Marts and Targets of suburban America, supplied by China.

However, aside from the store’s feel good eco-friendly message, I have noticed some of our top sellers are Tylenol, Advil and Tums. The elevation catches many tourists off guard. So many assume Arizona is the desert and the Grand Canyon is on a river. And while they are right on both accounts, Northern Arizona is not Phoenix or Tucson and very few visitors to the park actually make it to the bottom of the Canyon.

I haven’t ventured in yet, although I do plan on making an initial hike tomorrow, weather permitting. So far, it has been very cold and windy on my off days. The second week I was here, a huge winter storm blew in and dropped 18 inches of snow on the Canyon. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to warmer conditions.

And as difficult as the isolation can be, I am thankful to be working a lot and saving money. I had a plan in mind when I accepted this assignment. You might call it a mission in discipline and capitalism. The early going, as they say, is always tough. If I can stick it out, the rewards will be great.

A Cold Is A Brewing

8 02 2010

The drive back, for the most part, was pretty anti-climatic. We had planned to pass through Sedona before bunking down in Flagstaff for the night.

It was getting colder by the hour. When we got to the hotel in Flagstaff — another Holiday Inn Express — we rested in the room and Jim caught up on his daily dose of Fox News.

Although I was not very keen about getting out that night, Stallone, the young server from the Canyon was in town and wanted to see me again. We decided to meet at a historic hotel in downtown Flagstaff, or as the locals like to say, “Flag.” I can’t recall the exact name of the lodge, but they had a live band playing that night and it was a popular hangout for the college crowd.

Stallone was there with a bunch of his Canyon cohorts. They were lounging on the sofas in the lobby. Stallone informed me he had taken a room for the night. No telling how many people were expected to stay, but I didn’t feel like reliving another late night pow-wow with the Canyon crowd.

So Jim and I had a beer and we snapped some more photos with Stallone and his girlfriends. Stallone was very friendly that night. Sitting on my lap at the bar and all. He was so sweet, but it did make me a little nervous. We were in Arizona after all.

The Drive to Roswell

Jim didn’t want to stick around very long. We had quite a drive ahead of us. Roswell, New Mexico was the next destination and, as usual, Jim had the schedule planned out in precise fashion. The old engineer wanted to see the meteor crater and petrified forest on the way.

Temperatures continued to drop that morning. We left at dawn and it was a blistering seven degrees outside. Who knew Flagstaff got that damn cold?!?

Jim was determined from the start. He pushed hard that day. I remember asking for time just to wolf down the complimentary breakfast that morning. We made it to the meteor crater before they opened the gates. We were the first visitors in line. Jim promptly paid our entry fee and we went inside, looked around, snapped some photos and left. I wondered why the hell we even bothered. It was really just a big hole in the desert.

We spent a little longer in the petrified forest. This was much more sentimental to Jim. His family had taken him here when he was a youngster and he still had a faded yellow picture as proof. A skinny preppy kid, with wavy dark hair, sitting atop the petrified tree.

“They won’t let you do that anymore,” Jim boasted.

Indeed, the park ranger confirmed that we were not to be climbing on the petrified logs. Jim showed the ranger his photograph and she was impressed. What a job those rangers have. Must be fun as hell to come to work everyday.

We watched a short film about the forest and the message was clear — don’t take these rocks home with you. It’s a felony. The film also documented the wildlife in the forest. Coyotes, prairie dogs and such. The only creature we saw that morning, however, was a hungry black crow.

From the petrified forest to Roswell was pure hell. I must have sneezed a hundred times. I’m not kidding. The wind was picking up and snow covered the countryside. I drifted in and out of sleep. Not wanting to be a total bore,  like Gabe had been, I tried to stay awake and talk, but my condition was rapidly deteriorating. Jim realized this and he drove faster. Too fast, in fact.

I woke up and the car was stopped. Jim had pulled off the side of the road. We were in a small town a few hours north of Roswell. Behind us were the flashing lights of the law. Welcome to Vaughn, New Mexico.

The After-Hours Tourist

10 01 2010

John wasn’t about to kiss and tell in the Canyon …. there is a code among Nerds, one that is sometimes solved by Queers.

But Gabe was another story.

“They can’t grow grass up there,” he said, in his thick Jersey Shore accent.

We were back in Panama City, comparing notes on the trip with Jim and Gabe was unveiling his turf research. John, admittedly, was envious of Gabe’s youth with that baby face that would never be kicked into the streets — at least for very long.

In Vegas, Jim had even encouraged Gabe to walk The Strip, but the youngster keenly stayed inside the casino’s cozy atmosphere.

The Canyon was a different climate, entirely. “How can you stay inside a place like that?,” Gabe declared.

The workers in the park rarely mingle socially with visitors. Tourists, despite being their life source, were usually held in contempt at “after hours” get-to-gethers.

And I was about to get my first taste of Canyon “after hours.”

Stallone, the twinky Hawaiian server, invited me back to his apartment after dinner to meet some of his friends and Jim gave me the green light, offering up the keys to the Murano.

It was cold that night and very, very dark. I drove slow and tried to remember the way, knowing the drive back would be a solo affair. Stallone was a friendly fellow and his language skills impressed me… and then he surprised me, “You don’t have a joint on you, do you? Because I would really like to smoke a doobie.”


The answer, of course, was no and this seemed to solidify park workers’ biggest complaint.

“You tourists,” Stallone said, shaking his head with a sheepish grin.

We arrived at Stallone’s apartment before the herd. Stallone introduced me to his roommate, a short lesbian who liked football and beer. I don’t recall her name as shortly after introductions the apartment began to fill with Canyon people, all workers in the park and all with vastly different personalities.

Still sporting my blazer and khaki pants from dinner, I was overdressed for this soiree, but still my ‘Southern Good Ol’ Boy’ wit attracted quite a crowd. The girls seemed to like to hear me talk. So did Stallone, who grew more girlish by the hour.

A whiskey bottle was passed around and inside Stallone’s living room people huddled on the floor and lounged on couches, conversing about Canyon life. There was a young Asian girl there who dispensed the trouble with housekeeping and her beef with management.

Her comments made me wonder why Jim always tipped the bellhop but never the maids.

There was no music playing and nobody was dancing. I guess you could say it was a drinkin’ party…and since I was the token tourist in the crowd, an outsider, I wasn’t offered any mind-altering substances.

And that was cool with me. The decade of decadence was coming to an end. Stallone probably would have had more fun with Gabe.

After a few hours of spin the bottle, I said my goodbyes and returned to the El Tovar, driving ever more slowly through the dark park. A steady wind made the cold air slightly bitter.

On the way, I came upon a large elk, casually walking a long side of the road. There was no fear in this magnificent creature’s eyes as I passed by. Back home, that elk would be a welcome addition to many walls. My trophy, however, was seeing this beast roaming free.

Something only a “tourist” could truly appreciate.