Sunday, 20 May 2018

First Trip to the Grand Canyon, 1983

In 1983 I attended a big trade show and conference in Las Vegas, with my friend and colleague Kevin. The purpose of our trip was to demonstrate the very first implementation of the new standard for connecting computers, OSI - long since eclipsed by the Internet.

We'd both spent a lot of time in the Boston area, home of our employer, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) - then one of the biggest computer companies in the world, though now long since defunct. But neither of of us had been to the vast expanses of the West before. We decided that since we were so close, we should explore it, including a visit to the Grand Canyon. We rented a car, and set off. The car was a Renault 11, during one of the occasional brief periods when French car manufacturers tried to sell in the US. Even though contemporary American cars weren't that great, the Renault did not compare favourably. They didn't last long.

The first leg of the journey goes across the desert to Kingman, of which more later. Just before getting there, we saw a side turning to a place called Chloride, so we decided to go and see it. After a mile or so down a paved but unkempt road, we arrived. It was my first sight of a genuine ghost town. Well, not quite - a handful of houses looked occupied, but mostly it was deserted. (I've been back there several times. In the last few years it has come back to life, and even has a general store - I have a tee-shirt to prove it). It was built as a dormitory for an enormous quarry, invisible from the town but vast when seen from the air.

Interstate I-40 heads straight east from Kingman towards Flagstaff and the turn-off for the Canyon. But US Route 66 takes a more leisurely path, and how could we resist that? It starts by heading north-east towards the western end of the Canyon, getting quite close in the Hualapai country at Peach Springs. It was on this stretch that we ran into the most impressive hailstorm I've ever seen. Visibility was quite literally zero. We pulled off the road, deafened by the noise of golf-ball sized hail hitting the car. Within a few minutes it was over. Surprisingly, the car was undamaged, and we continued on our way.

Shortly after Peach Springs and the turnoff to the Havasupai village in the Canyon itself, we came to Grand Canyon Caverns, which I believe is still there. This is a big underground cave system, with absolutely nothing to do with the Grand Canyon apart form borrowing its name. We opted to go for the tour. After descending a long, cold, damp staircase cut into the rock, we finally arrived at a huge underground cavern, full of the expected stalagtites and stalagmites. The guide pointed to some very faint scratches high up on the wall, explaining that this was where a giant sloth had fallen through a hole in the roof, thousands of years ago. We couldn't help asking where the sloth had got to - after all, he could hardly have climbed out. We were assured that it was in a museum, but we didn't really believe there had ever been a giant sloth, just some scratch-like marks on the wall.

And yet... years later, we were passing through Price, Utah, and stopped at the museum there. And in pride of place is the skeleton of a giant sloth. It didn't say where they found it, but I couldn't help wondering whether it was the very same one.

It was dark when we arrived, so it was next day before we saw the Canyon. It's vast beyond belief the first time, and every time afterwards too. There is nothing to be said about it that hasn't already been said thousands of times. We visited all the lookout points, walked up and down the rim, visited the Visitor Center, and all the other things millions of tourists have done before and since.

Taking the road eastwards out of the park lets you stop at several more lookout points, and so we did. It eventually brings you to the Navajo trading post at Cameron, on US 89. It was the first time I'd ever seen Indian country, and I knew nothing at all about the Navajo culture. It all seemed very poor and depressing to me, a few scattered small houses and trailers here and there. It was only years later when, thanks to an excellent Navajo guide at Monument Valley and then to Tony Hillerman's novels, I learned that it is traditional to live spread out like this.

It was late when we started our journey back, direct on I-40 this time. We were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm, the lightning striking into the distant mountains almost continuously. Back then there were still towns that I-40 passed through, one direction either side of a town center consisting entirely of fast food outfits and motels. We stopped in one of these for an entirely forgettable dinner.

By the time we got to Kingman it was late and we decided to stop for the night. We found a motel on the outskirts and asked the guy on the desk where we could get some dessert. He directed us to a nearby Dairy Queen. We'd never heard of Dairy Queen, and even then in 1983 it was a bit past its heyday, a fast food joint with a distinct tendency towards over-sweetened desserts. In a small, isolated town like Kingman it was the night-life centre for the local youth population. The parking lot was full of pickups and teenagers, girls in high heels and boys in their best evening outfits. It was just like a scene from Grease.

Many years later we stopped for lunch in Kingman and I set out on a quest to find the Dairy Queen. It didn't take long. It had only recently closed down, and was exactly as I remembered it - though without the partying teenagers. In small towns, of which there are plenty in the United States, Dairy Queen is still popular. Arriving late one Friday evening in Globe, Arizona, it was the only place still open. And when we visited Prineville, Oregon for the total eclipse last year, it was the place to take my grandson for a slightly nostalgic ice-cream.

The following morning we returned to Vegas. By way of a change, we took the road westwards across the Colorado, joining US 95 northwards through Searchlight. It was the first time I'd seen one of these seemingly infinite long, straight roads. They're even more impressive in the mountains, where you cross one crest and see the next hour of your life stretching down into the valley then climbing up to the next ridgeline. We took our little Renault up to its maximum speed, unimpressive by today's standards but pretty scary considering its handling.

And soon we were back in Vegas, in plenty of time for our flight back to England. I've been back several times to the Canyon, which never loses its power to impress, and I've got to know a lot more of the vast American West. But the memories of that first trip remain vivid. There are no pictures, though - I guess I didn't have a camera with me, back in the days before cellphones had even been invented, much less become cameras and everything else.

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