Posts Tagged ‘Grand Canyon’

Martin Litton, environmental activist and Grand Canyon river runner, died late last year at 97. He was a fierce and effective advocate for conservation in the American west for 80 years.

Litton was a staunch opponent of roads in wilderness areas and dams on the Colorado River. He was the spark behind the Sierra Club’s celebrated activism in the 1960s and 70s.

At a time when river-runners were switching to inflatable rubber rafts, he founded Grand Canyon Dories, which carried passengers in traditional wooden boats. In 2004, at age 87, he became the oldest person to row the length of Grand Canyon.

Litton has been lauded profusely, and I won’t list the battles he fought or recap all the posthumous praise here. For that, go online.

But I do want to pass along some statements he made over the years that are revealing of his character and influence.


People always tell me not to be extreme. “Be reasonable,” they say. But I never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation. Because what you give away will never come back — ever.


There are reasons why the river should be natural. One is the joy of running on a natural river, knowing you’re as close to nature as you can be. And the other is — whether we run it or not — nature has its right. It has a right to be here, untrammeled, unfettered.


My feeling has always been, you can’t always win, but you can always try. And that we’re not as poor for the battles we’ve lost as for the ones we never fought. Win or lose, there’s a measure of victory in the endeavor.


Man doesn’t have to screw everything up, and yet we go out of our way to do so. Greed is the motive, and it’s important to frustrate greed. We’re all greedy for one thing or another, but some of our desires are on a higher plane.


We have no right to change this place. Do we have a right even to interrupt nature, even for a short time? To exterminate species? To kill the last fly? That’s not really our right. We’re the aberration on earth — humans are what’s wrong with the world.


It was once said in a Sierra Club publication that the only way we’d ever accomplished anything was through compromise and accommodation. That’s exactly the opposite of the truth. The only way the Sierra Club ever won anything was by refusing to compromise. Grand Canyon dams, Redwood National Park — you can go right back through the whole list. When we compromised, we lost.


We created something more beautiful by not defiling it. Saving it is an act of creation. We kept it undesecrated. We had made the case that the Grand Canyon was worth saving. The Grand Canyon is holy, you know. In the public’s eye, the Grand Canyon should not be fooled around with.


The best way for people to understand how important it is to have the bottom of the Grand Canyon preserved, and have its aquatic life saved, and its riparian zone, with the beauty that’s there, kept, is perhaps to have them on that river and let them feel the way it stirs and rumbles and moves you along at its own pace, and to sense the kind of “life” the river has. It has a tremendous force and appeal that I can’t describe.

And the memory of the majesty of the Grand Canyon — what it does to their lives to be away from their routines for a while — even a short while. They begin to realize there’s something more in the world than their tiny little bit of it. The experience has somehow opened their eyes to something bigger and greater in life. They understand the whole universe better because of having been in the Grand Canyon and isolated from other things and having time to think.


You’ve still got to try to save the earth, even though we know it’s hopeless — it’s too late. But that’s when great, heroic things are done — when you’re going down with the ship.


Litton and a small group of contemporaries created the environmentalist movement from scratch. They made it effective because they didn’t pull their punches.

We can thank them for the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and many other important protections to our national parks and wildlands.

I’m a true believer. It’s clear to me that our survival depends on the preservation of the world we have left. But the reality is, I’m just a follower. I’m not cut out to be a take-charge activist.

Over the years, I’ve tried to pay attention, made my feelings known, and donated more than my share to a range of environmental organizations — Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society, and others that were passionate and effective, but stopped short of spiking trees.

A few years ago, I stopped donating.

Today’s environmental groups are bigger and richer than ever, but they lack the passion and dedication of Litton and his contemporaries. Greenpeace acts up on occasion. But for the most part, the organizations are preoccupied with fund-raising and deal-making. The fire has gone out.

In the 1960s, the Disney Corporation wanted to build a resort in Mineral King Valley in the Sierra wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service was on board. Litton opposed the plan (which was abandoned because of much vocal opposition) at a Sierra Club board meeting.

When board member Ansel Adams expressed surprise that the Mineral King project would involve constructing a highway through Sequoia National Park, Litton barked, “Look at a map! Pay some attention!”

Litton had a long and consequential life, and now he’s gone. He was a voice and a conscience that we really couldn’t afford to lose.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

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In March 2007, I hiked the dusty eight-mile trail to the village of Supai, Arizona, located in western Grand Canyon, truly in the middle of nowhere.

Supai is the home of the Havasupai tribe. The village is located in Havasu Canyon, which leads down to the Colorado River and is famous for the spectacular waterfalls along Havasu Creek.

It’s also famous for being isolated and  remote. No roads lead to Supai. You get there by foot, mule, or helicopter. You visit by reservation only.

The trailhead and the helipad are at Hualapai Hilltop, a desolate parking area 60 miles from the nearest town. No services are at the trailhead — only a few trailers and a couple of tribal officials who check permits.

For a fee of $85, you can helicopter down to Supai. For another $85, you can helicopter back out. Otherwise, you hit the trail, which winds down to the village on the floor of the canyon. Park Service campgrounds are located two miles beyond Supai along Havasu Creek.

For my trip in 2007, in order to avoid the weight of camping gear, I made reservations at the tribal motel in the village. The motel is a small, bare-bones place, but clean and adequate.

The trip was a blast. The weather was ideal, the scenery astounding. I got plenty of good photos — although I discovered that the season was wrong for photography; in the spring, when you face the waterfalls, you’re facing the sun.

In 2009, I twice wrote about that trip on this blog.

One story was about the tribe’s long struggle to maintain its homeland and identity.

The other focused on something I didn’t expect to find down there: a healthy population of mongrel dogs living at large in the village.

But neither story got around to documenting one of the most indelible memories of that trip: the harrowing finale, when a sobering realization brought everything to a proverbial screeching halt.

Let me begin at the beginning.

After flying into Las Vegas, I picked up my rental car at the Budget office, drove east into Arizona, and stopped for the night in Kingman. The next morning, I got up early and drove the 100-odd miles to Hualapai Hilltop.

Bird's-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

Bird’s-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

On arrival, I parked, got out my gear, locked the car, obtained my entry permit from the tribal guy, and set off down the trail.

For the next two days, I explored the village and the waterfalls at my leisure. Meals were at the Supai Cafe, the only place in town that serves hot food.

How was the food? Expensive and awful. The cheeseburgers were served on sandwich bread. The lettuce was wilted, the tomatoes overripe. Tater tots came with everything. The breakfast burritos were frozen.

Some of the tourists were unhappy and vocal about it. My attitude: you shouldn’t go to a place like Supai expecting an Outback Steakhouse.

On the third morning, in a heartbeat, my trip unraveled.

I awoke, showered, and dressed. My plan was to grab a bad breakfast and hike down to the waterfalls for more photos.

Then, as I puttered around the motel room, a strange sensation came over me. A voice inside my head spoke to me.

It asked if I had seen the keys to my rental car lately.

Hmmm… Let me think… After I locked the car, I undoubtedly put the keys in my waist pack. Actually, I haven’t seen the keys lately, but what of it?

Well, you carry all your personal stuff in the waist pack — wallet, loose change, penknife. You empty the contents onto the dresser every night. Where are the keys?

Where, indeed. After calmly checking the waist pack, I calmly searched the motel room. Then I calmly went through all my clothes and possessions thoroughly. Twice. The keys were not there.

My blood ran cold as I realized the implications of that turn of events.

The keys could be anywhere. I could have dropped them during the initial hike. Or at the waterfalls. Or somewhere in the village. At that very moment, one of the town mutts could be gnawing on the transponder.

Fighting back the panic, I methodically covered all the appropriate bases. I asked the motel manager if anyone had turned in a set of car keys. I did the same at the restaurant, the general store, the post office, and the tribal office. No luck.

Back at the motel, I made the decision to call the car rental office in Las Vegas. Surely, they would know what to do about lost car keys.

Supai had no cell phone service then, and probably still doesn’t. But several places had land-line phones. They’re for official use, of course, but the motel manager graciously allowed me to call the Budget office in Las Vegas.

The Budget lady seemed a bit surprised about my situation, but was quite sympathetic. She gave me the phone number of a locksmith in Kingman and said to call him. He could meet me at Hualapai Hilltop and set me up with a duplicate key.

I asked what sort of spectacular bill his service call might incur. She couldn’t say.

I sat there for a few minutes, weighing my options and bemoaning my situation. Just as I was concluding that calling the locksmith was my only solution, the motel manager spoke up.

“Did anyone call Hualapai Hilltop?” she asked. “Somebody could have turned in the keys up there.”

I was incredulous. Call Hualapai Hilltop? Hualapai Hilltop has phone service?

Well, sort of. As the manager explained, the people on duty at Hualapai Hilltop carry two-way radios.

The manager called the tribal office. Minutes later, the tribal office called back. Yes, my keys had been turned in at Hualapai Hilltop.

I was so delirious with joy, I nearly swooned.

To celebrate, and to get my hands on those keys as soon as possible, I promptly checked out of the motel, gave the manager a lavish tip, and treated myself to an $85 helicopter ride out of Supai.

When I climbed out of the helicopter at the trailhead, a Havasupai man was standing nearby, smiling and dangling my keys.

Two hikers, a man and a woman, had turned in the keys earlier that morning. They found them on the ground next to my locked car. Apparently, when I dropped the keys into the zipper pocket of my waist pack, I missed.

“You were lucky those two were honest,” the man told me. “They could have taken your car. Some folks would do that.”

So, my trip ended happily, not in utter disaster. I drove back to civilization and spent the next week at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, slowly calming down from the experience.

How sweet it is to dodge a bullet thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.


The village of Supai.

The village of Supai.


The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.


Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.


Havasupai Lodge.

Havasupai Lodge.




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The two best American nature writers in my lifetime are Craig Childs and David Quammen.

Both men write as passionately as Edward Abbey, but are more articulate. More insightful. More willing to edit their stuff.

The website of Craig Childs describes him thusly:

“Childs is an Arizona native, and he grew up back and forth between there and Colorado, son of a mother hooked on outdoor adventure, and a dad who liked whiskey, guns, and Thoreau. He has worked as a gas station attendant, wilderness guide, professional musician, and a beer bottler, though now he is primarily a writer. He lives off the grid with his wife and two young sons at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado.”

You would expect such a man to hike into Grand Canyon in January, during a storm, to experience and reflect upon “the full weight of winter.”

Those reflections became a superb essay in the January issue of Arizona Highways Magazine. Here is a small excerpt.


The winds this morning are of a different nature. They are winter-storm winds, built of turbulence from a large system dragging itself over the Canyon. Vortices are set up behind cliff faces, great swirling eddies inscribed in the clouds. I stop at one of the long points of land under the Coconino. I’ve seen ravens here in better weather. I’ve sat on this point in the fall and watched them play in the rising air, banking and swimming around one another. Now, I stop and look into the bottomless Canyon, wondering where ravens go. This peninsula of Hermit formation just hangs here. I feel as if I’m being held out for sacrifice and that the Grand Canyon is this gulping infinity beneath my feet. No sign of solid ground anywhere. Occasionally, I will see something, some tip of land suspended out there. Then it is gone.

Now I see the ravens. They rise out of the abyss, taking form where there should be nothing. Two of them look like black shreds of fabric hurled against the storm. They spin up, pausing over my head to take account of this figure standing in the clouds. This close, I can see the curve of their armored toes, tucked under as if holding a marble or a stone. (Damn ravens, coming here without parkas or backpacks or extra food. Swirling through this storm as if it were a playground.) I have to protect my eyes with a hand. The wind takes snow down my neck, against my skin. Once the ravens get a good look at me, they continue up and are absorbed. And I’m standing here alone.

I turn back down the trail. Within a couple of minutes, I see someone coming up. He moves slowly, working his boots through the snow. Head down. Shoulders humped forward. He must have started walking from the desert during the night, or slept in the snow, which is not too uncomfortable if a person has the right gear and the proper mind-set. As he approaches, I can see he looks like he’s just been rolled from a Dumpster. Plastic garbage bags cover his body. He’s torn a hole in the bottom of one in order to breathe and see ahead. The clothes underneath are insufficient. Maybe he’s got a sweater and a coat. In both hands are walking sticks, their tops splintered as if they were hastily broken for this purpose.

He doesn’t notice me until I am about 4 feet away. When he sees my legs in the snow, he inches his head up a notch. His face looks like the result of a trying night. Dull, vacant eyes. He can’t hold eye contact. Late 20s, maybe 30s. “Be careful down there,” he says, with more of a groan than an actual voice.

Down there. As if he had just climbed out of a monster’s stomach — the empty space that gave birth to the ravens. I ask whether he needs help. In the same ponderous tone, with a touch of anger, he says, “That Canyon almost killed me.”

As he passes, I turn and ask again, offering food or water. He does not stop, does not ask how far to the rim. In fact, his pace has not altered at all. “I’ll make it,” he says. I look for a limp or some sign of injury. There seems to be nothing but fatigue. He’s close enough to the top that he’ll be out within an hour. Like the ravens, he is taken in by the storm above me. Is he delirious? Has he fallen? I imagine him sledding down, arms flailing, and catching a piñon trunk just at the edge of a chasm, snow spraying all around him. His comment about the Canyon made it sound as if it were malevolent down there, as if he had narrowly escaped and the Canyon still had his hair in its teeth.

So I follow his tracks. They keep to the trail down to Cedar Ridge, a clearing of hitching posts for mules and three outhouses. The outhouses are sturdy structures with a deck and solid wood doors. His tracks begin here. I open the middle door and am confronted with a nest. My first thought is that some large animal burrowed here. It look like a mouse nest on a huge scale. Wood chips, used for the composting toilets, are a foot deep all over the floor. Food wrappers lie unfolded. A bag of bread. A candy bar. A flashlight is propped on the toilet-paper dispenser. He slept here, using the chips as insulation. A locked storage closet joins the back of one of the toilets. Its door hangs off its hinges, ripped from the wall. He had found the plastic bags and wood chips in there, as well as the broom handle he’d busted for walking sticks. A box of screws and various small tools he had examined and rejected.

I would later discover that he had hiked to Phantom Ranch, down at the river, with the intention of returning to the rim that night. It was a day hike. Backpackers had tried to talk him into staying. He had refused, mentioning that he needed to catch  a plane. He accepted their offerings of a flashlight, bread and candy, setting off for the South Rim in the late afternoon. When he reached the only emergency phone on the trail — at some outhouses 2,000 feet below here — he was desperate. Night had come. A storm has set in, bringing rain and wind. He had no idea that it would turn to snow above him. He made a call to the Ranger at Phantom Ranch, and he sounded panicked. He wasn’t asking for anything, just wanted to hear a human voice, said he had to catch a plane. The ranger patched him through to someone closer, but in the transfer, he dropped the phone and continued up the Canyon. The phone dangled off the hook, draining its solar battery.

He arrived at Cedar Ridge in a blizzard. Ice had formed on his clothing, and he probably was suffering from hypothermia. When he found these outhouses, he found plastic bags and wood chips, enough to keep him alive. If he had not reached Cedar Ridge, I probably would have come across his body below O’Neill Butte, curled in the mud in one of the sheltered alcoves. No one at the Canyon knew his name or ever saw him again. There are only a few trails with outhouses and emergency phones. He was lucky.

The Grand Canyon is not the thing that almost killed him, as he had said. The Canyon is here, with its winds and sunshine at random intervals. There is no pretense. The rocks do not bear ill will, nor will they offer to save you. The personalities of storms deal with updrafts, moisture content and temperature, not with grudges or malice. A person must learn how to move inside of this place. Like the ravens. I close the door and continue into the Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Refuge -- the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Refuge — the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.


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House of Reprehensible

I’ve never added up the nights I’ve spent below the rim at Grand Canyon, whether in a sleeping bag, dorm, or cabin. I’ve been going to the Big Ditch regularly for 19 years, so the number is getting up there. A guess: maybe 60.

Last week, I had plans to add two more nights to the total. But alas, the House of Reprehensible — specifically, the Republicans in the House of Reprehensible — sabotaged my trip.

Please note that the government shutdown wasn’t caused by “Congress” or “the politicians,” although most of the news people frame it that way. No, the shutdown is 100 percent on the Republicans. They thought it up and did it all by themselves.

Before I go off on the mindlessness and mean-spiritedness of the conservative mentality, let me explain how my hike to Phantom Ranch, which is at the bottom of Grand Canyon near the Colorado River, got aborted.

Phantom Ranch is a magnificent oasis along Bright Angel Creek. Each day, a hundred or so people have reservations to stay there and groove on the Canyon. The place consists of a campground, a handful of rustic cabins, hiker dorms for men and women, and a restaurant/beer hall. You get there on foot, by mule, or via the river.

Reservations for Phantom Ranch are made on the first of the month, 13 months in advance. In my case, I made reservations the morning of September 1, 2012, and I booked two nights at the hiker dorm in October 2013.

It works like this: You dial and redial the phone number, usually hundreds of times, always getting a busy signal. Then, after an hour or two, you miraculously get through to the switchboard.

If you are unlucky, Phantom Ranch is already booked solid for the month in question; if the gods are merciful, meals and a bed will be available sometime during the month. In my case, I was able to make reservations for October 1 and 2, 2013.

13 months later, I drove west to Arizona. I arrived at the South Rim of Grand Canyon on September 30, checked into the Bright Angel Lodge, and reported to the Transportation Desk, the official sign-in station for Phantom Ranch.

During the drive west, I was well aware that the Republican jackals were scheming to shut down the government. It was expected — a part of their normal delusional behavior. But, fool that I am, I thought I would be safe if I could get inside Grand Canyon National Park before the shutdown occurred.

I was scheduled to begin the hike down to Phantom Ranch early on the morning of October 1. I figured I would be halfway down the trail by the time the gears of government ground to a halt.

But, as the dude at the Transportation Desk signed me in, he explained the reality of the situation.

“If they shut down the government tonight, all trails below the rim will be closed immediately,” he said. “They closed the park entrances about an hour ago. No one else is being allowed into the park.”

“We’ll know by bedtime whether the shutdown will happen. If it does, I’ll give you a refund in the morning. If it doesn’t, you can head for Phantom Ranch.”

“And I’ll tell you what I tell all the hikers: don’t get any funny ideas. If anyone plans to get up early and head down the trail anyway, they’ll be facing a fine and trespassing charges.”

After that sobering news, I retired to the Bright Angel Lounge and had a few beers.

By bedtime, we all knew our collective fate. The shutdown was on, and the park would be closed in 48 hours. All trails leading into the canyon were closed.

The next morning, I got my refund and spent a couple of hours walking along the rim trails, taking photos — photos of the same scenes I took on my previous trip, and the trip before that, and the trip before that. I can’t help myself.

After lunch, I decided to exit the park at the east end. That way, I could take advantage of the scenic drive along the rim and stop at the viewpoints along the way.

But the park police wanted everyone out, pronto. Every parking lot along the east rim drive was blocked with orange traffic cones. The authorities were trying to encourage the tourists to hasten their departure.

In practice, this had the opposite effect; since the visitors couldn’t use the normal parking spots, they merely stopped their cars along the roads and walked to the overlooks. This caused traffic to back up and further delayed the departure of the tourists and the closing of the park.

So, I drove all the way to Grand Canyon with my cherished reservations, but I didn’t get to use them. I might as well have stayed home and saved a thousand bucks.

It’s hard for me to get too exercised about missing out on the hike. I’ve done it a dozen times. It’s a blast, but I know practically every step of every trail. And I can always book another trip, albeit 13 months from now.

But I do get exercised when I think about people who were going to Grand Canyon for the first time. People who flew to the canyon from Maine or Germany or Japan, and who might not be able to make the trip a second time, and who wasted a lot of money for nothing.

And I get angry about the Republicans, the mean and selfish Republicans, whose philosophy, by any standard of normalcy, is perverted and preposterous. Delusional lunacy.

Their worldview is driven by the myth of the welfare queen. They believe our national problems will be solved if we only stop giving money to undeserving black freeloaders. It’s that simple.

The Republican politicians are easy to understand. They don’t really believe the crap they espouse. They are just professional shills, working diligently, and quite successfully, to separate the conservative masses from their money.

And what about those masses, the herd of conservative voters who elect the jackals in the first place?

Conservative voters are not particularly stupid people. They just don’t use their brains for thinking.

They listen to the propaganda, and they elect people who will stoop so low as to sabotage their own government.

I weep for the future.

Trail closed


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In September 1995, I shelled out the sobering sum of $2,061.00 for a 12-day raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

One year earlier, on a crazy impulse, I had taken my first Grand Canyon raft trip, and it had been a life-changer. I was smitten by the experience. Infatuated. Hooked forever.

Accordingly, as soon as the trip was over, I got busy planning to do it again.

That second trip began in Las Vegas. Per the outfitter’s instructions, our group was to meet “No later than 3:00 PM at McCarran Airport, main terminal, level 1, in the seating area behind the information counter between the baggage claim areas.”

I recall the place and the moment vividly. As I descended the escalator to the aforesaid seating area, lugging my rafting gear, three or four people already were present. They sat quietly, waiting for someone in authority to arrive and tell them what to do. I joined them, quietly.

Minute by minute, more gear-laden people arrived. Taking their cue from the rest of us, they dumped their bags on the floor and sat down to wait, quietly.

Then Candi came down the escalator.

Candi Butler from Toledo, Ohio, was a 40-ish woman with short brown hair and thick, rimless glasses. A spectacular, high-wattage grin illuminated her path.

She stepped off the escalator, beaming, and surveyed our group, which by then numbered about 12 or 15.

After a few seconds, she walked over to me, dropped her bags, held out her hand, and gushed, “Hi! I’m Candi! What’s your name?”

I leapt to my feet and introduced myself. We chatted for a few seconds, and then she moved to the next guy.

“Hi! I’m Candi! What’s your name?”

Soon, the entire group was engaged in a flurry of introductions. It was still underway when the authority figures from the rafting company walked up.

Candi’s arrival had been memorable, but in all honesty, she didn’t make a very positive impression on me. She was cheerful and pleasant, but she came across as a bit of an airhead. Naive. Possibly not very bright.

All I can say is, first impressions can be deceiving.

During that trip, I became especially close to four of my fellow passengers, all of us traveling alone. Candi was one of them.

We soon learned that she was a veteran river-runner. She rafted somewhere every three or four months.

She explained that it was a pressure-relief mechanism. She said she needed regular time away from work to decompress, relax, recharge.

That’s because Candi was a surgeon.

Her specialty was breast cancer.

Meeting with, talking to, and operating on woman with breast cancer was what she did — all she did — every day.

It was work that weighed heavily on her and took its toll.

Fortunately, she discovered that a week of rafting, when she was isolated in the wilderness and far removed from thoughts about patients and hospitals, was wonderfully healing and restorative. It allowed her to keep doing her work.

Without the safety valve of the river trips, she told us, she couldn’t possibly continue in that specialty.

Galdalf the wizard said about the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, “There is a lot more in him than you guess.”

A lesson, I submit, not to judge people until you get to know them.

Our merry band of voyagers, September 1995. That's me to the left of the cowboy. Candy is in the center, yellow shirt and blue hat.

Candi Butler, M.D.

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I haven’t posted anything about Grand Canyon lately, and I need to remedy that.

What follows is a story told by Cameron “Cam” Stavely, a veteran river guide who first ran the Colorado River through Grand Canyon in 1969 at age 13.

Stavely was interviewed as part of an oral history project being conducted by Grand Canyon River Guides and Northern Arizona University. This is an excerpt from the interview.

Cam Stavely is the grandson of Grand Canyon pioneer Norm Nevills, who ran the first commercial trip there in 1938. Stavely is recalling an oar trip in 1978.

None of my river trips have been quite this exciting.


Things were going pretty well until we got to Bedrock.

Bedrock Rapid. Right side good, left side bad.

At that point in time, I think we all had probably one oar trip under our belts. So we were bursting with experience down there.

We got down, and I was gonna be first boat through. Water was a pretty decent level. It was actually pretty user-friendly, maybe 12,000 [cfs], somethin’ like that. And there was a lot more room then than there is now. So it wasn’t a big deal. We just stopped and scouted it.

So I’ve got two folks, a father and son, in the front, and then I’ve got my swamper or trainee and another passenger in the back.

We pull out and start goin’ down. I’m making the ferry over there to the right, and just kinda gettin’ ready to take that last stroke, ’cause there was a lot of room — and my right oar snapped.

So I’m tryin’ to pull the stub out and get the spare in. And of course, soon as I didn’t have that last stroke, I started kinda movin’ back to the left and center.

So finally, I get the spare stabbed in there, into the lock, and about that time realized that there’s no way to avoid the Bedrock. We hit that sucker smack dab on the point.

So I had time to straighten it up, pretty much. That’s all I had time to do. We just climbed right up the face of that thing.

Jim was the father, and Glenn was his son, 15- or 16-year-old son. And they were literally just dangling right over my head.

The boat was sitting absolutely vertical, and it was kind of shaking, but I was leaning forward and trying to hold on.

The boat actually slid off the left side, just hugging the Bedrock the entire time. And I figure I know what’s gonna happen now: You know, that current coming from the left, into the downstream side of the Bedrock, we’re gonna flip.

That was the first thing that I thought. The second thing was, “You know, I used to have two people in the back of my boat, and they’re not there anymore.”

So I’m looking around for them, and the frame is just scraping along the Bedrock.

Marilyn was the gal’s name — she was the passenger. She pops up, right in front of the boat, and I can see her.

I yelled to Jim to grab her, but Jim was terrified. He was absolutely stonelike.

So the boat is doin’ this kind of thing [makes a wobble motion]. So I jump over my kitchen box, into the front, and I’m gonna try to swing her around, away from the wall, because the boat is just playin’ cat and mouse with her.

But I realize there’s no time. We’re just comin’ — it’s just gonna be impending impact.

So she reaches up, and I shove her head down under water, because I didn’t want her to get squished.

I push her down like that. Almost as soon as I get my arm out of the way, boom! We hit the rock and bounce off.

So she’s back under water again. She pops up a few seconds later, and I’m yelling at her, “Marilyn! Marilyn! Grab my hand.”

Well, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me at that point.

So finally, the river kinda pushes us together, the boat and her, and I grab her and pull her in, and she’s definitely in shock. I still don’t see Billy, the swamper.

Time? I don’t know. Maybe it’s 15 seconds or whatever it is, but I still don’t see him.

We’re goin’ down the left channel. We get even with the downstream end of the Bedrock, and Billy pops up about 15 feet off to the left.

He’s just — his eyes are kinda rolling and he’s just ashen, not even voice responsive. I mean, he’s conscious, I’m yellin’ at him, and he’s just kinda dazed.

So a couple of things happen right then.

The front of the boat is starting to sink, because when we went up the face of the Bedrock, the granite sliced the front two chambers, just like a cat or somethin’.

So I tell Jim and Glenn and Marilyn, “Get in the back of the boat.” We’re sinkin’, so they’re pretty motivated to get back there where it’s a little higher.

So they get back there. Billy just kinda drifts over. We’re able to get him, too.

I tell Jim, “You gotta help me pull this bow over the frame, because I can’t row the boat like this.”

So we get up there and both get a side, and we just pull the front of the tube over the frame.

And then I row downstream and get to the right bank, and then get everybody out of the boat, and just, you know, do an assessment — how is everybody?

There’s a few little cuts and scratches. Nobody’s seriously injured.

Then I look back upstream, and there’s this frenzy goin’ on. I’m thinkin’ “Oh [expletive], they’re gonna come save me.”

I’m tryin’ to get their attention, to say, “Hey, I’m okay, I’m fine.” But nobody’s lookin’ at me. Granted, it’s over a hundred yards for sure, but they’re just not even lookin’ in my direction.

So here comes Bruce [Steinhouse], and Bruce almost looked like he lined up for the left run. I mean, it wasn’t even close. He goes over and down the left channel and gets stuck in Forever Eddy.

And he’s just goin’ round and round and round. And I’m still trying to get his attention and say, “Hey, everything’s fine over here, everything’s good.” But nobody’s lookin’.

So he pulls and pulls and pulls and pulls, finally tucks one oar, gets both hands on the other oar, and just yanks as hard as he can.

And his boat comes flyin’ outa that eddy, goes sideways into the downstream side of the Bedrock, and — it’s a 22-footer — boomp! Tips over, upside down.

So we’re got five passengers and Bruce in the water, boat upside down.

I have half a boat. And we still have [Jim] Norton up at the top, who doesn’t row hardly ever, and I’m thinkin’ “This is just gettin’ worse.”

Norton comes down and makes this great run. He gets lined up, goes right down the right channel — no big deal.

Bruce is floating by me, and I’m yellin’. He wore glasses that were really, really thick, so he comes up without his glasses on, and he can’t see anything — absolutely nothing. He’s just lookin’ around.

A couple of his folks have grabbed onto their boat, and I’m tellin’ ’em, “Get up on the bottom of the boat!”

Of course, they’re goin’ down past me, and Bruce gets over there, and Jim comes through, and they’re floatin’ down to that little riffle above Dubie [Deubendorf Rapid].

And I look back upstream, and here comes a motor rig. And Bill Trevithic — by the time he gets down there, I can see who it is — he looks at me, and I say, “I’m fine” and point downstream.

So he takes off, and he catches them down there just above Galloway [Canyon]. He pushes them in to shore, and then I get everybody in my boat, and we row down there.

By the time I get there, Kim [Crumbo] and Brad [Dimock], they’re camped down at Stone Creek — they’ve seen all this flotsam going down. By the time I get down there, they’re there.

So I get in there, and we turn Bruce’s boat right side up. And whether the latches failed, or whatever happened, the freezer lids came open.

So we lost almost all of our frozen perishable groceries, which is kinda critical, because we’ve still got four more days.

So Bill Trevithic gives us — he always carried an extra canned ham. He gives us this big canned ham and some other stuff, some bread and stuff.

Brad says, “Maybe I should come down and help you guys.”

I said, “Nah, I think we’re okay.”

He says, “Well you could probably use an extra hand. You’ve gotta patch your boat, and a couple of your folks are pretty wigged out. Let’s go talk to Crumbo.”

So he and I go over and talk to Crumbo. Crumbo says, “Yeah, that’d be fine.”

So Brad takes off, goin’ down to their camp and gettin’ his boat together, and gettin’ anything off that Crumbo might need.

And everybody jumps in the two boats. Jim and his son walk around Deubendorf. They don’t trust me — plus, I only have half a boat anyway.

So I just go down the right run, the right side, which I’ve never run since. I don’t know if I could find it, but it’s over there someplace. It was a pretty easy run in higher water.

Anyway, we go down to Racetrack [camping beach]. We’re derigging my boat, gotta patch that thing. The front is just mauled. Just all kinds of patches we gotta throw on that thing.

And we’re cooking, of course, some of the canned ham, and we had a few things.

Brad’s helpin’ me patch, and he and I are both running’ back and forth, workin’ in the kitchen, and he says he’s gonna cook potatoes O’Brien.

And he’s up there, and the rest  of the dinner’s been ready for a little while, and he’s takin’ a long time. So I walk over there.

“Brad, are those potatoes almost done? Doesn’t look like they’re brownin’ up very well.”

“God,” he said, I don’t know what’s goin’ on. They just won’t brown.”

I said, “Well, you got plenty of heat. What did you put in there?”

He said, “I just put some cookin’ oil in there — the oil over there in that bottle.”

So I go over there and pick up the bottle, and it’s our hand soap.

That was kinda the climax of our afternoon.

Potatoes O'Brien when properly prepared.

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Gunnar Widforss

Gunnar Mauritz Widforss was a Swedish-born artist who came to America in the 1920s and specialized in painting National Park landscapes.

Today, Gunnar’s watercolors are renowned throughout the world, but nowhere more than at his adopted home, Grand Canyon National Park.

In the early 1900s, Gunnar honed his artistic skills in Europe and Africa, gaining acclaim among European royalty for his intricate landscapes known for their almost photographic detail.

But Gunnar was a true artiste, and he declined to cash in on his connections. By the time he came to America in 1920, he was living a Bohemian lifestyle, trading his paintings for rooms and meals.

In Yosemite Valley, he became friends with Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service. Mather became one of Widforss’ greatest advocates and suggested that he focus his artistic attention on America’s national parks. It was advice Widforss followed for the rest of his life.

Eventually, Gunnar established a studio at the South Rim of Grand Canyon and painted canyon scenes extensively.

He made a deal with the Fred Harvey Company, which operated the South Rim visitor services, to exchange his paintings for an employee dormitory room and meals at Bright Angel Lodge.

His works were exhibited in the art gallery in the lobby of the ritzy El Tovar Hotel. Over the years, Gunnar cultivated an extensive network of friends at Grand Canyon.

In 1934, while he was in St. Louis for an exhibit of his work, Gunnar became ill. A doctor told him that he had a serious heart condition. It was imperative that he leave Grand Canyon and move to a lower elevation.

Gunnar was devastated. The canyon was his home and his favorite subject to paint, and he loved his friends there.

But he had no choice. He returned to the South Rim to say goodbye and collect his belongings.

His friends proposed that they gather at the Bright Angel Lodge for one last game of cards. Gunnar packed his car at the El Tovar Hotel and began the short drive south along the rim to Bright Angel Lodge.

On the way, he experienced chest pains. He pulled his car over, got out, and collapsed.

A doctor arrived quickly, but it was too late. Gunnar died of a heart attack, next to his car, just yards from the rim of Grand Canyon. He was 55.

Gunnar Widforss is memorialized three times at Grand Canyon. The first is the Widforss Trail, which meanders along the North Rim of Grand Canyon.

The second is Widforss Point, a narrow, wooded promontory overlooking the canyon where the trail ends.

The third is Gunnar’s grave. He is buried in the pioneer cemetery at South Rim Village.

Grand Canyon detail by Gunnar Widforss.

The San Francisco Peaks.

Gunnar at work in Yosemite Valley.

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Scratching the Itch

My first trip to Grand Canyon was in 1994, 15 years ago. I may have mentioned that I was quite taken with the place and  have been a regular visitor ever since.

Over the years, I’ve squeezed in trips to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, Arches and other parks, but Grand Canyon has been my Numero Uno vacation destination.

I can’t explain the appeal, exactly. Millions of people visit Grand Canyon, stay for half a day, one day, two days, and are never compelled to return. Why did the Canyon bug bite me?

The closest I can get to an answer is this: every time I go to Grand Canyon and take in whatever panorama is before me, I am overwhelmed. It’s like a religious experience.

No, I don’t hear choirs or anything. But whether I’m hiking, rafting, walking, or gawking, there’s something about Grand Canyon that is both supremely gratifying and deeply humbling. I don’t get that feeling anywhere else.

Normal people don’t understand the appeal. They see a long, deep canyon in the middle of nowhere — impressive, yes, but nothing more.

Pretty regularly, friends and relatives politely inquire why I keep going back to see the same hole in the ground again and again.

I don’t lay the religious experience thing on them. I just reply that Grand Canyon is so big and so multi-faceted that no single human in a single human lifetime could possibly experience all of it.

I tell them I’ll probably keep booking trips until (a) I get tired of it or (b) I’m too old and decrepit to continue.

Coincidentally, I departed the South Rim of Grand Canyon just this morning.

I spent two delightful days there taking photos, walking great distances, observing the menagerie of foreign tourists, taking photos, shopping for souvenirs, dining lavishly, and taking photos.

I also paid a visit to the mule barn and, when no one was looking, harvested several samples of dried mule dropping. These trail souvenirs will be lovingly boxed and given as special gifts to a few select persons on my Christmas list.

But I digress.

When you add up all the river trips and hikes I’ve done in Grand Canyon, I’ve been to the place 20 times. Not bad for a dude who lives in Georgia.

In all candor, I assumed that, except to a few friends and family members, nobody knew that I’ve been here 20 times.

Au contraire, mes amis.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the mammoth corporate entity that handles the Grand Canyon visitor services — they know.

I found that out yesterday afternoon when I checked in at the Bright Angel Lodge front desk.

“Last name?” said the clerk.


“First name?”


After a long pause, she looked up from the computer screen and said, “Well, you’re quite the frequent visitor, Mr. Smith. How many times have you visited Grand Canyon?”

“Well actually, this is my –”

“No, Don’t tell me — I’ll look it up.”

For several seconds, she focused intently on the screen.

“My goodness!” she said finally. “This is your 20th visit with us!”

When she informed me that the Xanterra computers had that information, I instantly thought about all of the malevolent corporate entities conjured up by Hollywood.

You know — Umbrella Corporation, Cyberdyne, Tyrell, Weyland-Yutani. You would expect those guys* to be keeping an evil corporate eye on you.

Chances are, Xanterra isn’t evil. And I have nothing against them. They’ve never messed up a reservation or given me a hard time. Plus, their computers seem to keep very accurate records.

But it spooked me a little bit to know that someone — anyone — has kept tabs on me for the last 15 years like that.

“Wow,” I said to the clerk. “I had no idea you guys were keeping track of me like that.”

She laughed heartily and said, “Me, either!”

When I arrived at South Rim yesterday, I ate dinner at the Arizona Room, which is a steak house overlooking the rim. I mention it because of the woman who served me. When she seated me, she said I looked familiar; had I been to the canyon before?

I told her I was a regular visitor, to the tune of 20 trips.

“Well,“ she said, “I’ve worked here for 30 years, so the odds are, I’ve served you before. No wonder you look familiar.”

In other words, after 20 trips to this place, someone here finally remembered me.

And that brings up a point that had not occurred to me until now.

It’s true that most people can’t relate to this Grand Canyon thing that has taken hold of me.

But when I visit the place, I know I’ll be in the company of others who’ve also been infected with the Canyon virus.

When I go to Grand Canyon country, I can I.D. the real Canyon people — the kindred spirits — immediately. It’s sort of like gay-dar.

Never mind that there are a thousand tourists for every true believer. I can spot my people every time. On most trips, I’ll cross paths and chat with 10, maybe 20 people about past hikes, raft trips, and future destinations. Very gratifying, indeed.

This morning, with no small amount of sadness, I checked out of the Bright Angel Lodge and paid my tab. As the clerk was adding up the charges, he said pleasantly, “So, was this your first trip to see us, Mr. Smith?”

His name tag read Tony — Nebraska. I told Tony I was a regular. I’d been to Grand Canyon quite a few times.

Then, as an afterthought, I said, “I thought the only people who knew that were family members. But I’m told that Xanterra knows it, too.”

Tony cackled and said, “Oh, you must be the fella from Georgia who’s been here 20 times!”

The front desk at Bright Angel Lodge, a unit of Xanterra Corporation.

* Those guys are the thoroughly despicable companies featured in the Resident Evil, Terminator, Blade Runner, and Alien movies. But you probably knew that.

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So far, I have been on four rafting trips on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. The first trip, in 1994, was a one-weeker. The other trips were two weeks.

I know it’s crazy, but even today, that first trip lives in my memory as the longest of them all. It was as if time slowed down and allowed me to savor every moment of the experience.

Oddly enough, the only time I was in any danger was on dry land, not in the rapids. It happened during the 1994 trip.

On either the first or second afternoon (I can’t remember everything), our group made camp.

Either at Georgie‘s Camp, river mile 19 (the 1st night) or at Buck Farm Canyon, river mile 41 (the 2nd night), we passengers dispersed to stake out our sleeping spots on the sand, and the guides proceeded to set up the kitchen and start supper.

We had about an hour of free time, so I decided to stroll off into the surrounding wilds to see what I could see. Per the trip rules, I informed Andrew, the trip leader, and departed.

In an ideal world, I would have had my camera with me, but the accursed thing had died that morning. Stopped working. Croaked.

Andrew said it was my own fault; I had somehow offended the River Gods. He said they won’t put up with crap from anybody, least of all a tourist.

The trail was good, and the walk was fairly easy. But soon, the trail being rather monotonous, I decided to venture off-trail. I headed up a slight incline to the right that appeared to lead to an overlook.

The route I followed was a faint sheep trail that climbed the hill in a mostly straight line, angling from lower left to upper right.

The overlook gave me a great  view, but I couldn’t see the river. I wanted to see the river. So I continued upward.

Before long, I was 20 minutes into the ascent and beginning to gain altitude. I was too far from camp to see or hear the activity below.

Not only that, the nature of the slope was beginning to change.

In Grand Canyon, the rock layers change as you go higher or lower. I don’t know what layer I reached that afternoon — my understanding of Grand Canyon geology is only superficial — but whatever it was, the terrain consisted of a layer of thin, fractured, flat grey rocks that were exceedingly unstable.

As I proceeded up the slope, I was forced to ascend on all fours because the loose chunks of slate or shale covering the slope would not be still. They were very slippery, constantly sliding and shifting underfoot as I walked.

Situation: I was on a steep, slippery hillside that was getting steeper and slipperier with every step.

At that moment, the voice of common sense and self-preservation that dwells in one’s brain, the survival instinct that one should heed in such situations, spoketh.

I looked around. The sheep trail seemed to have faded out. If I continued, I might become ledged out and in real trouble. The voice said it was time to turn back, and I concurred.

Carefully, I turned around on the path and positioned myself sideways, using my right arm to form a tripod and gain stability.

It was a good thought, but it didn’t work. I took one step, and my feet slid out from under me. I landed on my backside with a thud.

I tried again, this time descending backwards, looking over my shoulder, both hands on the trail for stability.

After one or two steps, I ended up flat on my belly. By golly, that slope was a lot easier to ascend than descend.

I turned around, sat up, and studied the slope. It appeared that the dicey part was a stretch of only 10 or 20 yards. If I could cover that distance without losing it in a spectacular way — and by that I mean cartwheeling head-over-teakettle several hundred vertical feet back into camp — I would be back on more firma terra.

I probably took a sip of water, adjusted my daypack, and wiped my brow with a bandana. Then, very gingerly, standing sideways, I took a step downhill.

Immediately, there came a deep rumble, as if of thunder.

The ground around me shook. Dust began to rise. I was being shaken violently, but somehow remained standing.

My first thought was earthquake! My fate was in other hands, and I probably was doomed.

But something wasn’t right. In spite of the sudden wild activity and movement, the ground beneath me looked perfectly normal. The earth should be splitting asunder, shouldn‘t it?

Then I realized it was no earthquake. It was a landslide.

A giant slab of the shale/slate material, probably a dozen feet square, had broken loose and was sliding down the slope in one chunk, with me on top of it.

Our slow, rumbling, downhill slide probably lasted 10 seconds. The slab stopped and started three times.

Each time the slab stopped, I thought, Thank God! Thank God!

Each time it started again, I thought, Oh, God! Oh, God!

And believe me, I wasn’t addressing the River Gods.

Eventually, the slab came to rest. For a few seconds, rumbling and booming echoed through the canyon.

The dust was awful, but I didn’t care. I had ridden the beast, kept my balance, and survived completely unscathed. It was good to be alive. It was SO GOOD to be alive.

The slab of rock had moved about 15 yards downhill and stopped at the base of the slope — the very spot I needed to reach. I stepped onto more solid ground and joyfully made my way back down the hill.

On the way back to camp, I decided not to mention the event to my traveling companions. The guides might bar me from leaving camp alone. Or at all. Besides, no harm was done. It would be my little secret.

When I arrived back at the beach, Andrew was waiting.

“I was about to go looking for you,” he said. “There was a rockfall somewhere back up there. We heard it in camp.”

“Really?” I said. “Too bad I missed the excitement.”


Technical depiction of your average rockslide.

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In late 2000, I laboriously planned a trip to Grand Canyon National Park, to take place in February 2001. It was to be my 10th trip to Grand Canyon.

Planning any trip to Grand Canyon is complex, but this one was especially so.

I applied for by mail, and got, a backcountry hiking permit to camp two nights at the very remote Lava Falls Rapid on the Colorado River. After that, I would drive back to the South Rim, hike down to the floor of the canyon again, and spend two nights at Phantom Ranch.

This is more complicated than it sounds. In addition to going through the tedious application process for a backcountry permit, I had to arrange for a shuttle to drive me to the Lava Falls trailhead at Toroweap, which is at the end of a horrid, 60-mile road that would destroy a passenger car. Then the shuttle had to return two days later to collect me.

Getting reservations at Phantom Ranch is also a burdensome process. Those guys take reservations 13 months out, and the place is chronically booked up. If you’re lucky enough to get a reservation, it probably won’t be on a date of your choosing. You take what’s available and build your trip around that.

Then, of course, there was the shuttle van to the airport; the flight to Las Vegas; a rental car; specific motels in specific places on specific dates; the return flight; and the shuttle van home. Complicated stuff, indeed.

But I got it all done, and after work on Friday, February 2, I climbed aboard the airport shuttle. My trip was officially underway.

At 950 PM MST, my Delta flight arrived in Las Vegas. I picked up my luggage and wheeled it over to the Dollar Rent-A-Car counter, psyched and ready for a grand adventure.

I placed my rental papers on the counter. The agent scooped them up. “Driver’s license, please,” said he.

I took out my Georgia driver’s license and placed in on the counter.

The agent picked up the license, studied it, and handed it back to me.

“Sir,” he said. “This license is expired.”

I stared at the man without comprehending. He may as well have said, “My horses will juggle four hammers when the cheese puffs are in bloom.”

“What?” I said, blinking.

He held the license in front of me. “This license expired on 01-26-01. If you don’t have a valid license, I can’t rent you a car.”

Like a bolt of lightning, the gravity of my plight sunk in. My blood ran cold, then drained from my head, taking all my vacation hopes with it.

Without a rental car, I was going nowhere. I was dead in the water. Lava Falls, Phantom Ranch, all the planning — out the window. Not going to happen.

The rental agent handed the license back to me. “I see your birthday was last week,” he said. “I guess you didn’t notice the expiration date.”

“No, I didn’t notice,” I replied, still stunned.

I added, as if it were relevant, “Georgia issues five-year licenses.” My head was swimming.

“You know,” he said sympathetically, sympathy being a cheap commodity, “Some states will fax you a temporary license in situations like this, You might want to call them and ask.”

I nodded, collected my luggage, and left, still numb.

Although my brain was abuzz with frantic thoughts, I had already latched onto a few certainties.

I knew that my motel reservation in Las Vegas was unaffected, so I had a sanctuary where I could stay the night. Probably huddled in a corner.

I knew that the Georgia DMV wouldn’t open until Monday, which would be too late to salvage the vacation.

I knew that for me, it was unequivocally, emphatically, without a doubt, game over, man.

These few shreds of certitude, while not exactly comforting, at least helped bring my raging brain under control. I knew what I had to do: get on the phone, cancel everything, and see about getting myself home.

With a heavy sigh, I wheeled my luggage back through the airport and walked up to the Delta desk.

The Delta agent was quite sympathetic, sympathy being a cheap commodity. For an additional fee of $75, she cancelled my February 16 return flight and booked me on the next available flight back to Atlanta, which was Monday, February 5.

With a heavy sigh, I pocketed my new ticket, wheeled my luggage outside to the curb, and hailed a taxi.

My usual practice when staying in Las Vegas is to book a room near the airport and the Strip; this time, however, in a regretful case of thinking too much, I had reserved a room at a Best Western on the northern edge of the city.

The idea was to avoid the city traffic when I departed the following morning. Instead, the decision bought me a long and expensive cab ride.

My motel, the Parkview Inn, was way the heck out North Las Vegas Boulevard. The name sounded very pleasant, but it turned out to be in a less-than-desirable part of town. The Factoryview Inn would have been a more appropriate name. Too bad, since I would be stuck there for a couple of days.

I checked in and immediately started making phone calls. I cancelled the motel in Fredonia, cancelled the shuttle to Toroweap, cancelled my room at the South Rim, and cancelled my bunk and meals at Phantom Ranch.

Remarkably, I didn’t forfeit a penny to anyone. Well, I did lose $20.00. That was the cost of the backcountry permit to camp at Lava Falls. You know — the permit that I wasn’t going to use.

After the do-able tasks were done, I took stock of my options. Essentially, I was marooned in Vegas for the weekend. My return flight was a few minutes after midnight Sunday. (Naturally, they gave me a red-eye flight. More salt in my wounds.)

So, I thought, I have all day Saturday and Sunday. That’s plenty of time to wander around and see some new stuff. Things could be worse. I’ll just stop at Hertz or Avis, pick up a rental car and — DOH!

Later, I discovered that Clark County, Nevada, has a pretty good bus system. The CAT — Citizens Area Transit — can get you from anywhere to anywhere else cheap. That buoyed my spirits greatly.

The next day, I climbed aboard a CAT bus bound for Fremont Street, AKA Glitter Gulch, the second-most-famous tacky district in Las Vegas.

“Vegas Vic,” the neon cowboy seen for decades in Las Vegas advertising, resides there. So do many of the famous casinos from the old days, such as Binion’s Horseshoe, the Golden Nugget, and the Pioneer Club.

They say the odds in the casinos on Fremont Street are somewhat better than those on the Strip. I wouldn’t know. The odds gods did not smile on me that day.

If you like neon, Fremont Street is your place. But I got my fill of it pretty quickly, took the CAT further South to the Stratosphere Tower, and rode the Space Shot, the world’s tallest tower ride. If you have acrophobia, vertigo, or dyspepsia, don’t go there.

On Sunday, I checked out of the Factoryview Inn, took a cab to the airport, and stashed my bags in a locker. Thus unencumbered, I spent the rest of the day wandering along the Vegas Strip.

The highlight, hands down, was a visit to the Star Trek Experience, an attraction in the Las Vegas Hilton that had opened a year or so earlier. It consisted of two main features.

One was the Klingon Encounter, a 20-minute simulator ride with terrific visual effects. The script called for the emergency evacuation of all tourists to escape a Klingon attack. It was complete with tilting floors, flashing lights, sound effects, jets of air, a teleporter ride, a shuttlecraft ride, and regular on-screen messages from Commander Riker.

The other feature was the History of the Future Museum. This ingenious exhibit consisted of numerous artifacts from the world of Star Trek displayed museum-style.

The museum also featured a lengthy historical timeline, starting with the Mercury Astronauts and continuing into the future, using Star Trek episodes as a framework. The exhibit ended with elaborate displays about the various alien races — Borg, Klingon, Romulan, Ferengi, et al.

The Star Trek Experience closed about a year ago. It’s expected to reopen elsewhere in Las Vegas in 2010 or 2011. I hope it does. It was very cool.

The Space Shot and the Star Trek Experience didn’t exactly add a happy ending to my vacation. The trip was too spectacularly ill-fated and wretchedly horrendous for that. But they cushioned the awfulness somewhat.

Naturally, I renewed my driver’s license immediately when I got home. I also trained myself to check the expiration date on my license often — not just on my birthday, but, like, constantly. Compulsively.

At the moment, however, no worries. My license doesn’t expire until 1-26-2014.

But I intend to keep checking anyway.

Fremont Street's Vegas Vic.

Fremont Street’s “Vegas Vic.”

The Stratosphere Tower.

The Stratosphere Tower.


Small humanoids aboard the “Klingon Encounter.”

A display in the History of the Future Museum.

A display in the “History of the Future Museum.”

Borg drones, baddest dudes in the Delta Quadrant.

Borg drones, baddest dudes in the Delta Quadrant.


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