Tuesday, 18 August 2009
The Great Plains, the Grand Canyon
6.10 AM: We have come to the circular parking lot behind our Las Vegas hotel, to be picked up for a trip to the Grand Canyon. Somewhat happy and proud to have reached the spot five minutes early, we find that everyone else is already here.
6.20 AM: We are at the office of the Grand Canyon Tour Company, behind a long queue, which Americans call line. I pay cash at a counter. The counter clerk counts and puts the money in his till and says, 'Have a great day!' Doesn't give me a receipt. During my first trip to the US, I used to be surprised by the average American's lack of enthusiasm for paper work. A lot of work is done here on trust.
8.00 AM: The coach is moving at over 120 kilometers per hour. Outside is a vast plain, uninterrupted by trees or human habitation. The horizon is made up of flat low hills. The landscape is full of the azure sky and cirrus clouds. The Great Plains of America, read in books, now in front of my eyes.
8.30 AM: The land outside looks even more arid. We see some hillocks with beautiful bungalows on their slopes. Our driver and guide, Ron announces that some Hollywood celebrities have houses there: 'That pink bungalow belongs to Barbara Streisand … the one there on your right now … is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's … and that house with three palm trees belongs to my girl friend, Nicole Kidman ….'
Ron communicates exceedingly well, and like many Americans, takes the business of cracking jokes seriously. As we approach the Hoover Dam, he announces: 'Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going to stop at a checkpoint now. Please remain seated. A police officer will come on board and check for things like guns and explosives. His name is Jack. You can greet him. You can say, “Good morning, Jack!” or “How are you, Jack” or “Have a good day Jack!” … but please, ... please don't say “Hi Jack!”'
9.00 AM: We have just crossed the Hoover Dam. The land surface has turned sandy, scattered with low bushes. The soil seems too dry to support big trees. The only tree that we see has short, stout trunks and cactus like foliage. Our guide informs these are Joshua trees. (Spelt with a capital J possibly in deference to the original Joshua.) We are in the heart of the Mojave (MO'HAAVI) Desert that stretches across the states of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Ron has deep knowledge of the plants and animals of the desert and talks eloquently about the snakes, lizards, birds, and plants that live here. For example, he tells us exactly how long we would survive if we were bitten by different snakes of the desert.
On a serious note, I have rarely come across someone who can talk with equal or more authority on the natural environment around them. Ron has a particularly soft corner for the California condor, which has been saved from extinction in the recent past.
He has been driving tourist coaches here for the past five years. In the evening, he reads about the desert on the Net. Earlier, he had driven trailer trucks for eight years and had logged a million miles of accident-free driving. A reassuring piece of information.
12.30 PM: During the lunch break, I ask Ron if everyone in his line takes the trouble of looking up the Internet to read about the flora and fauna of the Mojave Desert. He smiles, embarrassed, but with a touch of pride.
1.00 PM: After a most satisfying lunch at an eatery named the Grand Depot Café, we are on the final leg of our journey to the Canyon. We drive along the Route 66, a highway that has a place in American history. We pass a small township that looks straight out of a Western. We see Clint Eastwood sitting on a horse, with a stetson hanging low on his eyes.
1.30 PM: The journey was so enjoyable that we almost forgot about the destination. But we are thrilled to hear the announcement that we are about to reach the Grand Canyon. The coach drops us at a place called the Mather Point on the South Rim of the Canyon. We start walking along what is known as the Kaibab Trail.
1.35 PM: We are looking at a relief map below, the only difference is that it is not man-made and the the scale is 1:1. About 65 million years ago, this plateau was pushed up by 1,500 to 3,000 metres (five to ten thousand feet) because of a massive upheaval within the bosom of Mother Earth. The strata we see were formed below sea level. The river continued to flow, undaunted. The waters of the mighty river together with wind and rain erosion created a most intricate pattern of layered earth. The Grand Canyon is said to be an open book of geology. But ordinary mortals like me can only be overwhelmed by its enormous beauty.
The sun is high above us, on the other side of the gorge. The earth and the rocks are of a wide variety of colours and textures. With the sun going behind and coming out of clouds, and the angle of the incident sunlight changing almost continuously, the landscape alters every minute. Actually, we are watching a movie projected from another world.
The River Colorado is much below. We don't know how deep the chasm is, but it could be two kilometres or more. We cannot see the river most of the time. Only at one point, it shows up. It looks like a shining ribbon of silver. We can only imagine the great force and turbulence of the water down below.
We also come across a hiker's and mule trail. If you aren't fit enough to trek down, but wish to raft on the river below, you can hire a mule ride for going to the bottom of the valley. But there is no chance that we can. The mule ride is booked a year in advance. This is not the finest picture on the subject, but it will give you some idea.
A visit to the Grand Canyon is a humbling experience. Here, you come face to face with the enormity of Nature. It offers you a feast for the eyes, and contemplation for the mind.
17 August 2009