Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Tour.


The Tour. (1) "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

Las Vegas to Zion National Park.
Plastic bags flap on the desert bushes and broken fences that line the highway on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The white passenger van, with it`s trailer full of baggage, is filled with twelve strangers setting off to view the arid world of the American South West.

This is a unique experience for my wife Heather and me: our exploring has always been of the unguided more solitary type. We are here now because I won this week-long tour by Trek America in a BCAA contest and experiencing this guided group experience will turn out to be just as fascinating for us as the canyons we will be seeing. Our leader John, (a country boy from Mississippi and proud of it! ) tells us we will be stopping soon at a Wal-mart to stock up on cheap supplies for lunch and breakfast fixings. His passengers strain to understand his fast talking southern accented English over the microphone as they also struggle to grasp what they are saying to each other in their own accents. Nine of us come from Canada, England, Ireland and Australia, and one couple hails from New York and is off to explore their own enormous and diverse country. We listen to John effortlessly making conversation with the person "riding shotgun"in the front passenger seat over the insistent pulse of the Country and Western theme music that, like it or not, adds that extra layer of authenticity to our daily travelling experience.

Zion National Park is about three hours drive east of Las Vegas, our first stop on a circuit that will land us back in Las Vegas just in time for our tour leader to start all over again with another group the following day. Over the next week we will learn a lot about John, his life on the farm back in Mississippi, the Trek tours he has lead all over North America, and we will marvel how he can continue to maintain his interest, energy and professional dedication to his job. He will be our window into the personality of the people of America and no matter how unique the public personality he presents to us is at times, we will feel the unreserved warmth of Americans shining through.

Our group is mostly in their thirties and forties, and interested in the social aspects of travelling together: beer was picked up at that Wal-mart and will serve to lubricate the evenings in motels: unlike many Trek tours which are camping ones oriented towards younger people, this one provides a motel each night and has attracted a slightly older and well heeled demographic. There is an interest in walking and hiking each day that we all share and which is our leader`s speciality. He makes sure that those who do not wish to challenge themselves on difficult hikes have lots of alternatives and are not made to feel second class because of it. Behind the public persona we see John thinking, watching and evaluating his group, constantly adjusting to both our needs and the needs of the schedule. We are going through a kind of boot camp and John is a very good sergeant.

Zion`s sandstone cliffs.

Our first ‘free day’ in Zion ( no travelling, no required participation) sees most of the group up before dawn with John and off to climb a steep trail to a spectacular lookout in this beautiful canyon. Feeling like the grandparents we are, we choose to explore on our own. We walk the box canyon trail in the cool, shadowed light that bounces down to us from the sheer sandstone rockfaces. I photograph the flowers that are a month late this year thanks to a cool spring and muse about the Indian peoples who once called this home. This is not easy to do amidst the streams of park visitors on the paved and well signed trail. Zion is one of the oldest national parks and gets a lot of visitors each year, so the staff work hard to both protect the park and yet give access so that the landscape can speak directly to those individuals who pause to learn it`s language. This park originally was named after a local tribe, but somehow the park and the landscape became known by the names assigned by the early Mormon settlers who took this land. At some level, the biblical names - the Patriarchs, the White Throne, the Altar and Pulpit, serve to tell us that we stand on holy ground: that reverence is the appropriate attitude to nature. On the other hand, that only takes us so far, it is so culturally specific that it is difficult to reach past it to that secret space where we can touch nature directly and discover that we and nature are one and the same: we speak the same language, but with different accents.

Cactus flower.
The dominant voice here is the sound of flowing water; of the Virgin River that carved this landscape over the millennia and of the little streams, pools and waterfalls that splash down the canyon sides. We walk , pause, listen and edge along other trails that zig-zag along mountain sides. I stop to offer to take photos for couples and families that would like evidence that they are all here, experiencing the special quality of this canyon. As an ex- Park Ranger I have done this service a thousand times and it is so rewarding for me to see individuals so touched by this experience of nature. As Thoreau said, " In wildness is the preservation of the world."and the truth of this familiar statement reaches us even in this well walked place.

Back in the motel over supper we share our experiences. The hiking group is a tired and happy crew: they have achieved their own version of revelation in overcoming fear and pushing personal physical limits. For those whose normal lives are lived among complex layers of culture this must indeed have been a mind altering experience. Our leader smiles: tired, happy folks are a lot easier to manage and tomorrow we will be "back in the saddle again".

Lunch break.

The Tour .(2) "As long as the rivers shall run."
Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley.
As the van winds its way higher and higher on the way to Bryce Canyon which lies still farther east in high plateau country the conversation has a different feel, the disparate crowd of individuals now have a common background: they have struggled and helped each other and it has been a bonding experience. We are getting used to different accents and even our leader`s taste in music is having its effect of grinding down our individuality and making us a team. As our companions chatter, the landscape unrolls on either side of our ribbon of road. Heather and I try to imagine the miles and miles of ‘unspectacular’ hills, trees and peoples that lie outside our narrow channelled view. This zooming along is frustrating.

Bryce Canyon.

Our visit to Bryce Canyon does n`t touch Heather and me as did Zion, although it is an amazing sight - an enormous amphitheatre filled with thousands of hoodoos. We walk the rim trail and listen to the sound of cool wind whistling through pine needles but it seems more of a show stopper kind of freak landscape; a photographic opportunity! Our personal mood can influence how we experience what we think of as the world out there and this day we are resisting the pressure of the group . Our one fellow Canadian later reported that this was his most meaningful experience of the trip - perhaps because he walked it on his own.

The rodeo.

That night we visit a small rodeo near our motel and later walk through a curio shop. We are struck by the open friendliness of the local folks and the special quality of the peoples of this high, thousand mile view western country. We are aware of our Canadian restraint in this environment which surprises us because when we travel abroad, say to Europe, we so often feel our lack of restraint compared to the people of older cultures. As usual, Canadians walk a middle path! The European members of the group are having their own difficulties in this environment: for them its so very raw. The rodeo puts them off with its ‘man and horse work with cattle’ focus. Somehow they miss the point and can only see a form of cruelty. Travelling broadens the mind, or it can if the mind is prepared to loosen its belt. It is so automatic for all of us to hold up the unfamiliar to the gold standard of our own culture and see how this or that falls short. I take the opportunity to describe to an English woman, how when I visit Europe, I feel oppressed by the very weight of the centuries of history and culture that she holds up as a ruler to measure this sweeping vista by.

Monument Valley.

At the end of a long days drive, with a stop for horseback riding or a hike (take your pick.) we arrive at a different kind of experience - Monument Valley , a Navajo tribal park . John primes us in advance for what we will experience and tells us that he and another tour leader made a point of contacting a new family operated tour company and showing them what ‘Trek’ would like to have included in the tour. Because of this attention to quality we get an unforgettable ride in the back of a truck through a landscape of buttes in the evening light.


Our guide, Willy, cannot resist giving us a movie tour like all the other tour operators ( a lot of John Wayne westerns were shot here) but then collects himself and takes us to visit an elderly lady called Suzie in her Hogan where she demonstrates Navajo spinning and weaving techniques that will lead eventually to beautiful and expensive rugs. Willy soon has us moving on to some rock-arch formations and pictographs. Here the rocks have Navaho names and stories attached rather than "Sleeping dragon" or "Camel" or "Snoopy". "Now" he says, "We will go and look at religious stuff."He means that there is serious thinking ahead.

The spirit of the wind.

Under a high arched rock roof with a natural round hole in the centre - a natural kiva, Willy first thumps his drum and sings a chanting song and then makes us lie on our backs and look up at the ceiling. "See the Spirit Bird of the Wind," he says, and sure enough there, as part of the natural rock formation, is a great head of a bird of prey with the centre hole forming the eye. Coming from the west coast of Canada, I recognize the Thunderbird. "Just keep looking." he says, as he pulls out an Indian flute and starts to play. Now I know this may sound weird, but the flute and the overarching image suck me into a very sacred space. A space without words or concepts, that probably if our guide had suspected it might actually happen to a tourist he would have been careful to avoid the risk of exposing even this little bit of sacred stuff to us. He has spoken earlier of how so many Navajo are marrying ‘Anglos’ and the old ways are being forgotten by the people, but now he is teaching just a little of Navajo thought to a wider audience and that may in the end be it`s enduring legacy to help us all preserve the world for as long as the rivers shall run.

Heather and Bill.

We end the evening with Navajo tacos, deep fried and served by his son and family in a rock amphitheatre lit by the setting sun. We all feel we would like to exist here forever in this moment but Willy brings us humourously down to earth. "You sleep here tonight, you will find scorpions sleeping beside you!"

Soon we are off to our hotel for a safe sleep in clean sheets but we know that so far this contact with real personalities is what we will cherish; that and the glimpse into another culture.

The Tour.(3) "We happy few..."

Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon.
We look forward all day to our arrival at the Grand Canyon. We are tired of the van and we will get another free day tomorrow. After our experience in Monument Valley it will be difficult for the world`s biggest hole in the ground to measure up! We really are consumers of scenic real estate as we drive from one fancy canyon to another and there is something wrong with this that we don`t really want to get our minds around. We shrug, stop analysing, and pile out to stretch our cramped bodies. John has dropped us off to walk along the rim of the canyon and we immediately understand as we peer into vast space that the size of the canyon is too grand for us. The far rim is fifteen miles away, the depth measured in thousands of feet. It is beyond a human scale. We are like aliens standing on the brink of a whole new world.

That evening, after settling into our last hotel of the tour, we carefully step out onto a rocky spur that juts out into the canyon and experience the sunset that brings dramatic colour and structure in dark and light to the endless vista. The Colorado River has carved so deep a trench over the millennia that it lies hidden in the shadows below. After the flat blue lighting of the afternoon this is our first grasp of the beauty of the canyon. Our spirits expand to encompass this giant world!

Three of our group have decided to hike the Bright Angel Trail down to the river and back despite John`s many alternate suggestions for less ambitious commitments. It is the end of May and it will be thirty degrees hotter in the bottom of the canyon than on the rim. That means over one hundred degrees F., thousands of feet in elevation going and coming back and about sixteen miles of walking on rocky trails. People, fit young people, have died hiking down there. John drops them off at the trail head before dawn after going over and over every facet of the journey. We are aware of him biting his nails all day as he shuttles the rest of us to less dramatic walks.

Heather and I opt to walk the rim trail, stop at galleries, and buy Ice Cream in the over eighty degree F. heat and even then I feel a little out of sorts due to forgetting to drink lots of water. The first of the three hikers arrives at the rim again at eleven-thirty and indicates that the remaining couple is far behind. As they should be; he is an experienced mountain walker in the British tradition and has beaten our leaders best time by two hours! We take the free shuttle bus to Hopi Point to eat our lunch and get a glimpse of the river far below. If we look very hard we can catch a glimpse of the rapids that make this an exciting river to raft down.

Suppertime, and we are told to walk down to the restaurant as John is still waiting for our last two hikers. As we worry about our comrades, I`m reminded of the television WWII series Band of Brothers and realize how close knit a group we have become over the span of only a few days. We have had meaningful conversations, taken risks and won through, helped each other in adversity, laughed a lot and shared the common burden of our leader`s taste in music. When John shows up with our tired but proud hikers we all feel a tremendous burst of camaraderie.

On the long drive back to Las Vegas the next day we feel a let down. That really was a high point last night and it will not be recaptured on this trip toward the dissolution of the group. Our leader keeps up his cheerful conversation and switches the music to classical ... ‘that`s classic country, ya hear!’ We stop for a swim in the Colorado River that winds through the hot desert two hours short of our destination and then suddenly we are back in Las Vegas and being given a tour down the Strip with all its ostentatious glitz that is so much harder not to hate after our canyon experiences. We part at the hotel, already slipping back into our separate lives with planes to catch. And yet: "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers".... we really had something there for a while.
"Perhaps man will someday reconcile the greatness of his human creativity with the greatness of the wild that created it. If we can do this without diminishing either man`s great work or nature`s, then we shall indeed walk in beauty for as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow."
From: 'Navajo Wildlands.' Steven C. Jett.

At Hopi Pt. Grand Canyon.

Monument Valley.

Virgin River. Zion.

Pictographs. Monument Valley.

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