By CATHY SECKMAN
Getting dropped into the middle of Grand Canyon Village in Arizona during a driving rainstorm by an uninterested guide who just wants to shove you off the train is not the best start to a day of sightseeing, but it was all we had.
As tourists at an unfamiliar national park, the first questions we wanted to be answered were: What is this place, and where can we go from here? Neither question was answerable, so we floundered for a bit, going in and out of a building that seemed to contain only restrooms; then up and down an inadequate covered platform that offered no directional signs.
Seeing a shuttle bus across the road we made a dash for it, figuring anywhere had to be better than this unhelpful train station. It gradually dawned on us that we were traveling west along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a sight we had yet to see. The downpour abated to a drizzle, so we got off at the next stop and walked across a small plaza to get our first look at the yawning chasm.
"Grand" is really the only word for it. Teddy Roosevelt once called it "the one great sight every American should see," and he was right. Ten miles across, one mile deep, and 280 miles long, the canyon was carved out over millions of years by the Colorado River. First protected as a forest preserve in 1893, the Grand Canyon was declared a national park in 1919.
The chasm has been a home for Indians for more than 10,000 years. The Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Paiute and Haulapai tribes still occupy the region, and their artistic influence is everywhere. Native-made blankets, baskets, pottery and jewelry are available for sale at every shop, and the Indian-inspired architecture of the area is breathtaking. Depression-era architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter designed many of the park buildings, including Hermit's Rest at the west end of the South Rim, and the Watchtower at the east.
Both buildings still look innovative today, constructed of native stone painted with symbolic Hopi figures. Hermit's Rest features a walk-in fireplace, and the Watchtower has three stories connected by a curving stone staircase.
The Rim Trail
Riding the Red Shuttle line back from Hermit's Rest, we saw the rain stop and the clouds lift. It was time to get off and hike. A meandering Rim Trail runs 13 miles along the South Rim, and can be accessed from dozens of points.
Because the Grand Canyon has sharp dropoffs up to 4,000 feet, one would expect guard rails, protective stone walls, and warning signs, but that isn't the case. There are few signs anywhere, and few guard rails.
At its east end, the Rim Trail is a paved, handicapped-accessible path well back from the edge. But for the most part, the dirt and gravel trail is less than two feet wide with rock piles or brush on one side, and thousand-foot dropoffs on the other. For a person with even mild acrophobia, it can be harrowing. Still, the views are worth it. Every curve in the trail brings a fresh perspective, a new vista to exclaim over.
The mingled aromas of pine, juniper and sage make the thin air heady. Nearly tame ravens shadow anyone with food, and squirrels are bold enough to perch on their hind legs at a tourist's feet, begging for treats. Signs warn that feeding wild animals is unhealthy for them, but obviously not everyone believes it.
A few primitive trails descend into the canyon. The most famous is the Bright Angel Trail, which descends 4,400 feet and is 19 miles round trip. Most hikers and mule riders take two days to complete the trip, overnighting on the canyon floor at Phantom Ranch, also designed by Coulter.
Lack of signs
Art galleries, gift shops, restaurants and guest lodges crowd the center of the park at Grand Canyon Village, but there are almost no signs to tell you which is which. The average tourist would need a week to find and see everything, and we only had two days.
It would have seemed logical to label all sides of the buildings to help with orientation. It would have seemed logical to place arrows at the shuttle dropoffs, pointing out trails. It would have seemed logical to put a visitor's center at the train depot, since so many visitors arrive that way.
But the park planners had their own ideas. Maybe they think it's more rustic for tourists to stumble on the attractions by accident. Near the end of our stay, for instance, we discovered there is a Canyon View Visitor's Center several miles from the center of the village, accessible by car (which we didn't have) or by Blue Shuttle line (which we never saw).
Though the park was a bit of a disappointment, the canyon itself exceeded expectations. Everyone, as Teddy said, should make an effort to see it once in a lifetime.