This is the second of three posts about my recent holiday in the US.
On the morning of Thursday, September 6, we drove from Williams to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Much of the later approach to the canyon was lightly forested, providing no hint or indication of the vista to come. The canyon itself, when we finally saw it, left us scrabbling for superlatives with which to do it justice. Before us opened out a vast valley – 18 miles across – the precipitous slopes of our upland vantage point tumbling down to a lower plane, itself scarred with deep chasms, where, almost a vertical mile down, with the aid of a keen eye or binoculars one could occasionally espy the might of the Colorado River. All the way to the horizon massive peaks and ridges rose as a lithic pantheon, standing in solemn splendour over the canyon floor far beneath.
We spent most of the day at the Grand Canyon National Park, visiting the various viewpoints along the rim, each of which afforded spectacular and varying perspectives of the majesty of the canyon. Between two of the viewpoints we noticed that several cars had stopped and their occupants were taking photos of some elk, which were wandering in the forest next to the road. We were fortunate enough to see a bull elk at very close quarters. In the evening we drove from the canyon to Tuba City, stopping off to buy some Navajo gifts, and visit the Little Colorado River canyon along the way. At Tuba City I ate some traditional Navajo stew with fry bread: a new national form of cuisine that I had never tasted before.
On Friday we planned to visit both Monument Valley and Mesa Verde. However, when we reached the Monument Valley visitors’ centre and viewpoint, we decided to drive through the valley instead of travelling on immediately. A dusty and incredibly bumpy road snaked between the titanic monoliths. Monument Valley looks like the weathered ruins of some ancient city of giants, with towering steeples of sandstone vaunting themselves out from the desert earth, hulking buttes that would dwarf the largest cathedral. After a few hours of driving around the Valley and a gruelling workout for our vehicle’s suspension we arrived back at the visitors’ centre, from where we drove on to Cortez, where we stayed for the evening.
The next day took us to Mesa Verde National Park, the site of several remarkably preserved Puebloan cliff-dwellings are located, over 700 years old. We began by visiting Spruce Tree House, a cliff village with over one hundred rooms, where 60-80 people once lived, after which we visited several other vantage points, from which we were able to see some of the other major complexes, most notably Cliff Palace. Nestled in large clefts of the rock-faces beneath the mesa tops (where the former inhabitants would have farmed the land that they accessed by means of precarious routes of footholds up the rocks) were clusters of stone buildings, aeries from which the plunging valleys beneath could be surveyed. These sites were abandoned in the 14th century, but were known to the local Native American tribes, and later discovered once again by the early prospectors and other settlers that passed through the region.
From Mesa Verde we drove to Durango, where we visited the Durango Railway Museum (my father is a huge railway buff) and ate our lunch. From Durango we drove towards Silverton, the road flanked by the beautiful wooded slopes of the towering San Juan Mountains. We stopped off at a hot spring by the side of the road and also to see the steam train from Durango to Silverton pass by. The mountain pass that led to Silverton rose high into the mountains, over 10,500ft up. Besides the stunning natural beauty of the descent into the valley of Silverton – the golden aspen trees and the immensity of the mountains that surrounded and sheltered the valley on all sides – one found oneself occasionally rather preoccupied with the vertiginous drops from the edges of the road, with no guardrail present to protect the unfortunate person who might lose control of their vehicle.
Sunday morning we worshipped in a Southern Baptist church in Silverton. My first experience of a Southern Baptist church, it was certainly a memorable one. The pastor’s attire was especially striking, not according with the customs of liturgical vestment in any of the traditions with which I can claim a familiarity. Wearing cowboy shoes, a belt with a huge cowboy buckle, a checked shirt, a bolo neck tie with a turquoise clasp, a tan suit jacket, and a Stetson hat (removed during the service), the only thing seemingly lacking to complete the ensemble was a sheriff’s badge. The sermon was a challenging exhortation drawing upon various themes in the book of Daniel. After the service was over, we were invited to join the congregation for a meal. We then went to see the train arrive in from Durango.
In the afternoon we visited the nearby Old Hundred Mine (named after the psalm). From Silverton we then followed the Million Dollar Highway to Box Canyon Falls near Ouray. Entering the maw of the canyon by a metal walkway, you are surrounded by rock on all sides, the walls of the canyon looming over you, with the din of the falls in the background. Later we climbed to the top of the falls and took a circuitous walk back to our car. From there we drove on to Gunnison, where we stayed the night.
The next morning we travelled via Crested Butte to the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. Had we realized in advance that the route we chose would take us along a narrow gravel road up and down the side of a mesa, with nothing intervening between us and a more or less sheer drop, we might have regarded the prospect with slightly more trepidation. While the scale of the Grand Canyon was awe-inspiring, the depth of the Black Canyon was more immediately striking, as the sides of the canyon were sheer: we could look down upon the Gunnison River almost 2,000ft down below us. At such a vertiginous height, I confess that I approached the edge rather gingerly. After a meal at Applebees we drove on to Grand Junction, where we stayed that night.
The next day was spent at Colorado National Monument and Arches National Park. Colorado National Monument was very impressive, but the weather began to turn while we were there, so we moved on to Arches. While the rain didn’t follow us, the weather remained overcast all day. We were able to visit many of the principal arches at the park, spending the majority of our time at the Windows section of the park, before climbing up to a vantage point, from which we could see Delicate Arch, perhaps the most famous of all of the arches at the park. My favourite of all of the arches was the Double Arch, two huge stone arches, spanning a large gap in the rocks and converging together at the other side. That evening we stayed in the nearby town of Moab.