After our grand hike on Widforss Trail, instead of returning immediately to our campsite, we went to the Grand Canyon Lodge campus to hit the North Rim Visitor Center one last time. It was the late afternoon of Saturday, September 17, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to linger at Grand Canyon National Park the next morning waiting for the visitor center to open if we wanted to get back to Phoenix in time for our flight home.
At the visitor center, we got our postcards, books, patch, and pin. I also got a plush Kaibab Squirrel for joining the Grand Canyon Association. (It was the only way to get the squirrel.) We chatted for a while with Renee and Tim who were manning the visitor center. They were in their forties, and after feeling unfulfilled in their careers, had sold their house, bought a camper, quit their jobs, and hit the road permanently working in National Parks.
Well that was food for thought. And they didn’t feel all that different from Sean and me. Part of our conversation had been about the Chicago restaurant scene.
Speaking of food, we stepped into the lodge and put in a dinner reservation. We were out of fuel anyway, and a final evening treat of a nice meal in Grand Canyon Lodge’s dining room would be the perfect cap to our trip.
Back in camp there was a lot of commotion. A huge extended family from elsewhere in Arizona was setting up camp in two sites adjacent to ours. They were big and boisterous and friendly, if somewhat intimidating. The alpha male had a big Duck Dynasty beard. Yet there was a fair amount of diversity within the family. It was a bit hard to keep track of who was married to whom or which kids belonged to which adults. I retreated into my natural introversion and began to start packing up what I could for our departure the next day. Sean, always more gregarious, chatted with them for a while. They had just arrived for their big family vacation of the year. And Sean pointed out later that the family was clearly led by the matriarch who had the hint of a Scotch or Welsh accent.
In short, they were a bit confusing, but they apparently thought camping adjacent to us was just great, so that was great with us. Truth be told they were really friendly. But still I moved the Jeep over to a different parking spot so that we didn’t have to interrupt their hullabaloo if we needed to get something out of it.
We had plenty of time before our reservation, so we strung up the hammocks one last time and relaxed while the sun began dropping over the western side of The Transept.
We had a 6:30 reservation in the dining room, which we arrived a few minutes early for. I’m really glad we decided to end the trip with this meal. It was our first time having dinner in a grand old National Park lodge. It felt both like a trip back in time and also entirely appropriate.
(An observation: It has been an interesting experience visiting the Parks as a gay couple. Some places were are just straight-up assumed to be a couple. Alaska is notable for this attitude. On the Grand Staircase, on the other hand, we were assumed to be friends as opposed to a couple. I guess it’s neither here nor there, but it was interesting to experience the uncertainty about our relationship to each other after other places where it had been taken for granted.)
By the time we finished our dessert, the sun had long set. Throughout our meal, we’d watched the light change over the canyon through the huge dining room windows. Afterward, we retired to the sun room, sunk into one of the soft leather sofas, and wrote our postcards.
After that, we stepped out onto the terrace and took in the stars and the lights on the South Rim. Twenty-four years before, my Aunt Judy and I had stood on the South Rim at night and remarked that the lights of Grand Canyon Lodge in the distance and darkness reminded us of freighters out on Lake Huron at night viewed from the bluffs of my Grandma’s cottage. Now with my husband I was taking in the opposite view.
Back in camp, we burned off the remainder of our firewood, including the wrench-like poker we’d been using, which was the last to go in.
We had gotten chatting with the big family again, and eventually offered them some of our unused five-gallon water jugs and some of the food we’d not used.
Before bed, we wandered down for one last nighttime look at The Transept. Suddenly, quite near us in the foliage along the rim, something small and sleek moved by and we heard it in the underbrush. We tried with our flashlights to get a look, but we couldn’t. I am convinced it was a Ring-Tailed Cat.
Next morning, Sunday, September 18, 2016, my alarm went off at five thirty. Sean was, unusually, already awake. The baby in the big family adjacent to us had been up and talking, and that had roused him.
We finished packing up in the pre-dawn, and we were seriously overpacked. Between the souvenirs and books and extra dehydrated food, we were in trouble. We did the best we could, but sort of gave up for the moment and headed to the Lodge for the first breakfast seating. We needed to eat and hit the road for our six-hour drive to Phoenix. Our flight departed at 3:30 that afternoon.
As we walked to the lodge past the visitor center, a Murder Raven bid us farewell on behalf of all the other Murder Ravens.
We arrived at the dining room right at seven, when they began serving.
We were seated next to a window, which could not have been more perfect.
(When I am an old man, I want my life to look basically like the photo above. Or perhaps I see a preview of myself as an old man in this image.)
Our server at breakfast was a young man from Miami who had only been there a few days and had never been to the American West before. His enthusiasm was infectious. I think he also chatted with us because we were on the younger side of the lodge’s patrons (who didn’t have young children in tow).
We had a few minutes to spare after breakfast to step out onto the terrace and say goodbye to the Grand Canyon. This had been my first National Park almost a quarter century earlier, and with this Park, Sean surpassed me with total number of Parks visited (at least for just under two months since Dry Tortugas National Park beckoned in November). It will certainly not be our last visit to this icon of the National Park system.
We rubbed Brighty’s nose once more as we left the lodge. Sean noted that Brighty was featured in Pokemon Go.
And then we were back in the Jeep heading north on the Kaibab Plateau out of Grand Canyon National Park and into Kaibab National Forest. At Jacob Lake, we stopped for gas before turning east on 89A, beginning a long drive around the eastern side of the canyon.
The forest was still on fire and would continue to burn into January. We stopped at a pullout on the highway as we wound down off of the Kaibab Plateau to take in the amazing amount of smoke pouring off the plateau toward the Vermilion Cliffs. It was a truly astonishing sight.
The fire had already been raging the week before when we’d driven north past the Vermilion Cliffs toward Utah and Bryce Canyon National Park. But whether because of the wind direction or what, we’d experienced nothing like this. The air and sky had been clear then.
Out to the south of the Vermilion Cliffs, the smoke hung along the ground and actually flowed into the long gash of Marble Canyon.
We crossed the Colorado River at Navajo Bridge. It was one final pass through Grand Canyon National Park, which extended all the way up Marble Canyon to this point and even a little further. The canyon walls and the river were technically part of the National Park.
These days the Colorado River no longer runs red but instead is an anemic green beneath Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.
We continued on, south past the Echo Cliffs, south through the western edge of the Painted Desert, south past the San Franciso peaks, south through Flagstaff, south into the Sonoran Desert, and finally south into Phoenix, where we gassed up the Jeep and did a quick, better repack before we headed to the Enterprise return at Phoenix-Sky Harbor International Airport. (I have in my notes something about a terrible return agent, but I honestly don’t recall the person or the details.)
As we crossed the continent headed home to Chicago, Sean remarked how sad he was to be going home. He likened it to how desperately I’d miss Aunt Judy on flights home to Detroit from California when I was a little man.
The moon, just beginning to wane, hung low over Chicago as we descended.
And soon we were home, and Elsa was very pleased to see us.