BLOG #7, SERIES 3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS #9
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – SOUTH RIM
February 15, 2012
Early in the morning, snow began to slash at our North Rim cabin windows; as the wind picked up, the snow increased proportionally. After packing, Bob and I hauled our luggage out to the snow-covered Town Car. Then, we regretfully bade our adieus to our already beloved cabins on the rim, the rockers on the porch already filling with May snow. Inside the lodge, once again we breakfasted near one of the great windows, and watched the snow descend into the abyss. All too soon, it was time to leave, but none of us wanted to. The atmosphere in the lodge was totally different from the day before for the unexpected snow had generated a sense of adventure among hotel guests that had not been there before. In this sense of family-closed-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world, there were no strangers: everyone talked with each other as though they were old friends.
But feeling a sense of urgency, we headed out. We were apprehensive because the Lincoln was anything but a snow car. Our hearts were in our throats when the snow deepened as the road climbed over 9,000 feet (one of the key reasons the North rim has such a short tourist season). The Lincoln began to slip, and there were no snowplows. But finally we crested and headed down, and eventually out of the snow.
This was Zane Grey country. In 1907 and 1908 Grey had faced storms much worse than this as he and legendary plainsman Buffalo Jones and Mormon pioneer Jim Emmet lassoed mountain lions in the Buckskin Forest of this Kaibab Plateau we were traveling through. At Jacob Lake, we turned east on Highway 89a. When we’d descended to Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, we walked along the river. For here was Emmet’s home a few miles down river. Though we didn’t revisit it this time, we couldn’t help but think of that tenderfoot Zane Grey eying the then undammed Colorado River thundering down this same gorge; it was maintained that if anyone fell in trying to get across by cable (no bridges then), no one would ever see them again—not in flood season! Born here were Grey’s Last of the Plainsmen, Heritage of the Desert, and Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon.
We then turned south on Highway 89, and right after crossing the Painted Desert, at Cameron, we turned west on Highway 64. As we began our ascent to the South Rim, would you believe it?—once again, the snow began to fall.
It was late afternoon before we arrived at El Tovar Hotel, a favorite stopping place for our family down through the years.
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We can thank Theodore Roosevelt for saving the Grand Canyon for posterity. In 1903, after visiting the canyon himself, he declared it to be “a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world” (Barnes, 102). He followed that up by establishing the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1906, by executive order, then enlarging the Forest Reserve into a National Forest.
Santa Fe Railroad officials, seeing the canyon as a golden opportunity to dramatically increase southwest tourism, determined to create a great lodge on the South Rim. Their chosen architect: Charles Whittlesey, who was trained in the Chicago office of Louis Sullivan. His goal was to “meld the elegance of a European villa with the infomality of a hunting lodge” (Barnes, 105). This grand hotel officially opened on January 14, 1905. According to Barnes, “Steam heat, electric lights and indoor plumbing all made it the most expensively constructed and appointed log house in America. Huge Douglas-firs were shipped by rail from Oregon, pushing the cost to $250,000, a grand sum, especially when compared to Old Faithful Inn, built for $140,000. One-hundred guest rooms accommodated visitors who found comfort in ‘a quiet dignity, an unassuming luxury, and an appreciation of outing needs at El Tovar’” (Barnes, 105). Though western in style, it has also been considered Transylvanian, resembling a hunting lodge for the Romanian royal family.
Here the legendary Harvey Girls waited tables. And here too, in January of 1906, only one year after it opened its doors, Zane Grey and his bride Dolly arrived here by train on their honeymoon. But storm clouds obscured the canyon, so it wasn’t until evening that the clouds parted and they stared into such a sunset as they’d never even imagined. The die was cast: This canyon would become the very heart of Grey’s 89 novels—where the Old West began.
As we walked into the Rendezvous Room, and passed the chairs flanking the crackling fire in the fireplace, we vowed to commandeer those chairs if the occupants ever surrendered them. In the center of the building is the registration lobby, or Rotunda, where all paths intersect. Here we checked in, as we had a number of times before, then moved into our rooms. We hoped to be able to show Bob and Lucy Earp “The Zane Grey Room,” where Dolly and Grey had stayed, but it was booked solid during our two-day stay, so weren’t able to. Our Zane Grey’s West Society donated the Zane Grey memorabilia and books that make it such a special room. XANTERRA owns and operates the hotel today.
Later, we ate dinner in the renowned eighty -nine-foot long dining room, furnished with Arts and Crafts style furniture, and anchored by two huge chimneys, each flanked by large picture windows. The service and food were, as expected, impeccable, as befits one of the grandest hotels in the Great Circle. Here, Connie and I shared an incident from our past with the Earps: Many years ago, when our daughter Michelle was just a tiny golden-haired angel, we’d eaten in this very same dining room. Michelle, who’d never even envisioned such a grand place, was entranced. The waiter assigned to our table treated Michelle as though she were a princess, hovering around her, filling her glass from high up each time she drank a sip from it, refilling the bread basket whenever she took a roll out of it, and grandly displaying the little broom that he’d use to whisk away every stray breadcrumb she dropped on the spotless white tablecloth. To this day, that evening is etched in her memory as one of the most magical experiences in all her growing-up years.
Next day, the weather having cleared, we walked along the canyon rim, taking photos, along with visitors from all over the world. We soon discovered that El Tovar, like Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, is so loved to death by hordes of tourists that hotel guests are hard-pressed to find unoccupied seats in the lobby or dining facilities. So what else should one expect from the focal center of well over four-million tourists every year? But we really experienced the invasion when we entered the Grand Canyon Village building that houses the IMAX theatre that shows the Grand Canyon film. Men, women, and children from all walks of life and from countries around the world (many from Asia and Europe) flooded in, in such numbers that we could barely move! Felt like we were each straitjacketed. What a contrast from the North Rim. We couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in the summer when school is out!
But even so, each person standing by the parapet, staring into the vast reaches of the great canyon, seems to be in a world of their own, no matter how many eddy around them. The first sight of the canyon is invariably the same: no advance hype can possibly fully prepare you for the real thing! And late evening, when the crowds ebb inside El Tovar, leaving you with just the hotel guests, you can once again imagine seeing Zane and Dolly, sitting next to you by the fireplace, a pensive look in their eyes, a hundred and six years ago.
Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks I (Bend, OR:WWW West, Inc., 2002).
The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).