On the Edge of the World: The Grand Canyon

My journey to Flagstaff did not start with it’s best foot forward. I’ve already expressed how tedious the journey via Greyhound bus was between San Antonio and Albuquerque, but if I’m completely honest, it was only because it was such a long distance. For all the hours I spent travelling on that leg of the trip, everything ran on time and according to schedule. However, the same could not be said for the rest of my experiences with Greyhound. The weather had taken a turn for the worse across the Southwest, which was causing massive delays in the bus schedule. Usually I can deal with unavoidable delays, but this was one was particularly aggravating, and not because I had woken up at the crack of dawn to get from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. When I finally jumped off the Rail Runner at Albuquerque and made my way to the check-in desk, I was informed that the bus would be delayed.
“How delayed?” I asked, slightly relieved that I didn’t need to rush anymore but simultaneously annoyed that I’d rushed so much in the first place.
“We can’t exactly say. The journey has been affected by the weather, so they’re estimating about three hours. But it could be sooner than that, so you shouldn’t go anywhere in case the bus comes earlier.” In other words, I would be forced to wait around the bus depot for three hours with no real indication of when the bus was going to show up, and leaving to explore the city came with the risk of missing the bus, should it manage to make up for lost time.

The weather was pretty crappy, so I wonder if I would have been bothered to go wandering around Albuquerque at all even if they had been able to confirm the arrival time of the bus. Regardless, I was still pretty annoyed by the fact I’d gotten up so early to literally just wait around at the bus depot. There was also an uncomfortable amount of chatter among other travellers about the tendency for Greyhound to oversell buses and have passengers stranded with no other option but to wait for the next bus. And that was so not happening. After about an hour and a half of waiting I ended up sitting in a queue on the floor in front of the doors that lead out to the boarding area. I mean, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I was already behind schedule, so I wasn’t leaving things to chance when it came to getting on that bus. Eventually it arrived, after the initially anticipated three hours, and we all clamoured our way onto the bus, and I made sure I got a window seat so I could peer outside and make sure my bag was loaded underneath the bus – I’d overheard other horror stories from my fellow travellers about Greyhound leaving luggage behind.

The bus ride was another long trek through relatively uninhabited land, slowed down by the fog and wet weather, and with the days were growing shorter, it was dark by the time I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been sending messages to David, the Couchsurfing host who I’d arranged to stay with during my time in Flagstaff. He’d actually been at work for most of the day, so instead of having to kill time until he had finished, he was actually waiting for me at the bus depot when I finally arrived, and together we walked back to his place. Flagstaff was definitely a small suburban town, and probably the only reason that it got as much tourist attention as it did was because of it’s proximity to the Grand Canyon. David was French Canadian, living in Flagstaff and doing his PhD research at the nearby university. He was soft-spoken and polite, but also very chilled out. We went home and he cooked me some dinner, where he managed to make a delicious meal seemingly out of scraps and leftovers that he had lying around his kitchen. The weather was cold and miserable, so once again I had a nice evening in with my host, drinking some craft beer and wine, getting to know each other and sharing our own travelling experiences and Couchsurfing stories.

***

The Grand Canyon is huge, stretching across the borders of several states, meaning there are plenty of places where you can stay and base your visit from. I chose to visit it from Flagstaff because… well, I didn’t really know what else to do while crossing the Southwest. I’d spoken to my mother about a week earlier, when I was in Austin booking all my buses and getting a travel plan together, and she had told me of a friend who had had rave reviews about the helicopter tour that they had done of the Grand Canyon, and told me that I should really consider it and make the most of being there. I shopped around online and found some day-trip packages from Flagstaff that included transport out to the Grand Canyon, lunch at a restaurant in the Grand Canyon National Park, and a helicopter tour that took you out over the canyon. It seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and made the reservation.

However, the weather on the day I was set to head over the Grand Canyon proved to be as horrible as it had the day before. I had rugged up with several layers, including the thermal underwear that Bradley had given me, and made my way to the hotel that was the first pick-up point of the day-trip. There were 7 people on the day-trip – three older couples and myself – and once we were on our way out we received the disappointing news that the cloud cover was so low that the helicopter ride would have yielded absolutely no views of the canyon. Helicopters are not allowed to fly below the rim on the canyon – in fact they have to remain at a certain elevation about it – so that portion of our day unfortunately had to be cancelled (fortunately, it also had to be refunded, so it didn’t end up being a waste of money). We still stopped by the visitor centre where the helicopter would have departed from, and watched a 3D film about the history of the canyon and its exploration, which was also included in the price of the day-trip. After that it was on to the canyon itself.

I’ve heard people talk about how impressive the Grand Canyon is, and I’d seen plenty of photos in the past. Sure, it looks really big, but it’s a huge hole in the ground: of course it’s big. I didn’t really think that much of it at first, but once we arrived and I stood on the edge of the canyon… no pictures, no photographs, and no description could compare to the feeling of standing there and staring down into the open expanse. It honestly took my breath away. And I know I said that photos really do not do it justice, especially not when taken with an iPhone, but you best believe I took quite a few:

IMG_4634

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

And the obligatory Grand Canyon Selfie

And the standard Grand Canyon Selfie

We were dropped at one point on the edge of the canyon, and there were short hikes along the edge with various vantage points and viewing spots. I kept mostly to myself, occasionally chatting to some of the other members of my group, mainly taking photographs for each other.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

Cougartown

Cougartown

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon felt like standing on the edge of the world. I’ve stood on the top of immense skyscrapers and looked down at the people below, scurrying around like ants, but this was definitely something else. I don’t know if its because it’s even wider than it is deep, or because it’s a natural phenomenon as opposed to a man made structure, but its just one of those things that really forces you to look at the world in a new perspective. There’s a humbling effect in standing on the edge of something so awe inspiring and realising how minuscule and ultimately insignificant we are in the bigger picture scheme of things. But not in a depressing way, or a realisation that we don’t matter, but more of an appreciation of what it means to be part of something so huge – something so grand. It’s the kind of stuff religious epiphanies are made of, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had one of those, it definitely increased my appreciation of the world around me, and the forces of nature.

***

After our visit to the Grand Canyon, the day-trip took us home through the Navajo Native American reservation, and our guide explained a little more about the reservations and their existence. We also stopped at a small shop by the side of the road, which was run by a Native American woman, selling all kinds of souvenirs that were all supposedly authentic and handmade by the Navajo people. I must admit I’ll never be able to tell if that is true or not, but I didn’t have any reasonable reason to doubt it. Turquoise was the precious stone used most commonly by the Navajo, and there was a lot of beautiful jewellery designed with it, as well as other stunning looking gems and stones. I ended up buying some earrings and necklaces for my mother and sister for Christmas presents. I hadn’t been one for much souvenir shopping over the last eight months, but as my journey was coming to an end I felt that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to start acquiring a few more bits and pieces to take home with me. After that, there was one last stop at a service station before we were taken back to Flagstaff.

The driving service which was part of the day-trip was a hotel pick up and drop off, but I obviously wasn’t staying in a hotel, so I jumped out as the bus drove through the main street of Flagstaff, as close as I could get to David’s house. When I sent him a message, it turned out that he was having a beer at a bar not too far from his house, so I went to join him there. I joined him at the bar, but when I asked to order a beer, the bartender asked me for my ID.
“Oh, yeah, of course”, I said, as I pulled out my drivers licence. The guy stared  at it for a second, then had an uneasy look on his face.
“I’m sorry, it’s the law in the state of Arizona that we can only accept federally issues forms of identification.”
“Um… excuse me?” For safekeeping, I never took my passport out with my unless I knew I was going to need it somewhere. Literally everywhere else in the entire world had readily accepted my New South Wales drivers licence as proof of age in bars and clubs.
“It needs to be a federally-”
“I know what you mean, but… look, it says my date of birth right there.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t accept it.”
“Are you serious? Look, that’s me, that’s my date of birth, it clearly says I’m over 21.”
“I’m sorry.”

I rolled my eyes and was about to give in and just get a non-alcoholic drink, but it was actually David who ended up kicking up a fuss and telling me to not bother, and we just left to go home.
“It’s so ridiculous,” he said to me as we plodded along home in the cold. “I had all kinds of problems when I first arrived here too. Although, they wouldn’t accept anything because my ID was in French. But I mean, I’m almost 30! I don’t look under 21 at all!” He just shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Oh well. I’m going to go buy some food, I’ll make us some dinner. How about you grab your passport, and head over to the gas station and get some wine, and we’ll meet back here?”
So that’s what we did, and it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Aside from his little outburst after the bar, David was an incredibly chilled out guy, and we spend the evening eating and drinking and talking, with the wood fire burning juniper logs, creating a warm and cosy feeling. It was the perfect way to end the chilly day out by the Grand Canyon.

***

In the morning I awoke to find it had been snowing. I pulled back the curtains to reveal a thin layer of white that had covered everything outside. After my experience up on the mountains near Santa Fe, I was still a little enchanted by the whole idea, especially since the snow was actually in the town and on the houses. David was less enthusiastic, and he let out a long sigh, completely contrasting to my sense of wonder. For someone from Canada, I suppose snow outside your front door was something of an everyday nuisance during the winter, and not something to get overly excited about.

Snow on David's neighbours house.

Snow on David’s neighbours house.

Much like my stay in Santa Fe, I was only scheduled to be in Flagstaff for two nights, a temporary refuge on my trek across the Southwest. David was heading off to the university that morning, so we had a slow start before saying our goodbyes in the morning. I headed off to the bus depot, early enough that I didn’t have to rush to get there, but late enough that I wouldn’t be waiting around for hours. Or at least, that’s what I had thought, and what would have happened if the bus was on time. Of course, the worsening weather had only compounded the delays that the Greyhound buses had been experiencing a few days beforehand. To make things even worse, the bus depot in Flagstaff was a fraction of the size of the depot in Albuquerque, so I was cooped up in the box of a building with the rest of the impatient travellers, with the horrible cold weather bleaching the colour out of the surrounding suburban landscape. There was nothing to do but simply read my book and wait.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

The bus eventually arrived, but once it did, we had to wait for another bus to come through, as there were a few passengers that were catching our bus as a connection. As annoying as it was to have to wait for the second bus, I guess I could appreciate the fact that they did wait, as it would have been even worse to arrive and find you’d missed your connection – buses don’t leave these places particularly frequently, and such an occurrence would have spelled disaster for my travel plans had it happened to me. It was early afternoon by the time our bus finally set off, several hours after the originally scheduled departure time. I sent my next host a text message informing him of the delay, and then settled into another long drive across the desert. It was quite a different feel this time, with snow covering the ground as we drove though the gloom, but despite the weather and the delays, I couldn’t help but feel excited. My next destination was a place that I’d seen in countless movies, and heard countless crazy stories, both good and bad, about people’s experiences there – I was brimming with anticipation about what the city of Las Vegas would have in store for this adventurous traveller.

22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.