As the arid northern Arizona landscape whizzed past our observation car, our peppy hostess urged us to visit the train’s bathroom before disembarking. To put it bluntly, she said, there weren’t very many nice restrooms at the Grand Canyon, “So I want to make sure that you’re all pottied up.”
I sneaked a peek at my husband, who sneaked a peek back at me.
This kind of intimate attention wasn’t exactly what we had anticipated when we decided to take the train to the Grand Canyon. We had thought riding the train meant we were ecologically responsible, cutting down on pollution, taking sensible mass transit across the fragile desert.
What it really meant, apparently, was that we were seen as old, feeble, perhaps with overactive bladders, and in need of assistance.
What had we done?
We got off the train shortly before noon. About a thousand people got off with us.
We had come to the Grand Canyon to see the most amazing natural vista in the American West.
Instead, we saw the wide backsides of tourists as they ate ice cream cones, perched on walls, swigged bottled water, played Frisbee, and — really bad idea at the edge of the Grand Canyon — zipped past on skateboards.
Our savvier friends had urged us to visit the more remote North Rim instead, and I was beginning to understand why. But the North Rim wasn’t open in April, and it was hundreds of miles from where we had been staying.
Doug, who likes crowds even less than I do, did not look happy.
“It’s like being at the State Fair, but with a canyon next to it,” he muttered.
In front of us was the Grand Canyon. Directly behind us were lodges, souvenir shops, a museum of some sort called Hopi House, and — aha! A path! A soft pine-needle trail that led through the trees. We started walking. Within seconds, the path took us to the parking lot of a dormitory. Cleaners were hauling out bundles of soiled laundry. Idling trucks belched fumes.
We trudged back toward the rim. Long lines waited for the free rim-tour shuttle bus, and every bus was full. We only had three hours before we had to reboard the train. We weren’t going to spend it standing in line, and we refused to spend it sulking about that Shangri-La, the North Rim.
Resolutely, we set out on foot along the Rim Trail. So did a million other people. For a while, we were trapped behind two teenage girls in sweatshirts, and in front of a family of six. But eventually, we all began to spread out. It got quieter. We could breathe again.
The paved trail was edged with small, sharp rocks. On our left were scrub brush, trees and rocks. Buses zoomed past, unseen, just beyond the trees.
On our right was a flat rocky buffer zone that kept us about 10 feet away from the canyon’s edge. We stopped to take in the view, a mile down and 10 miles across.
It was hard to grasp its magnitude — the canyon looked flat in the strong midday light, like a theater backdrop painted in hazy pinks and greens. I could see the trails that zigzagged into the canyon, and I could see the long line of ant-like specks that were tourists trudging ever downward. Their trail looked just as crowded as ours, but they faced a steep uphill climb back.
We walked on. And then, a mile or so up the trail, the right side just fell away. There was no rocky buffer, no gradual slope with trees that you could grab if you fell. There was the trail, and then there was air. All I had to do was take one step to the right, and down I’d go, into the abyss.
I stopped. My head spun. I could not move. I tried, but I could not make myself lift my foot. I just kept thinking, one misstep, and down I’d plunge. I began to shake.
Doug helped me off the trail. “Vertigo,” he said.
Families continued past us. Elderly women with handbags. A woman with her dog. A little girl ran up the trail. Her dad called to her, “Jenny! Stay on the inside of the path!”
A boy raced past and then turned and shouted, “Mom? Wouldn’t it be a long time before you hit the bottom?”
“Look at your feet,” Doug said to me as I struggled to breathe. “Don’t look at the canyon.”
“Kind of defeats the purpose of being here, doesn’t it?” I grumbled, but I took his advice. Staring at the ground, I was able to shuffle forward. I felt like I was swaying. But I kept moving.
We crested a small hill and stopped. I looked toward the canyon. Crows wheeled and screeched on drafts of air. The flat colors had intensified as the afternoon deepened. It was mammoth, and it was magnificent.
That night, over dinner in Sedona, we lifted glasses of Oak Creek Pale Ale. We had survived the crowds and found beauty. I had survived vertigo and found my equilibrium. We clinked glasses.
Doug gave the toast: “Next time, North Rim.”
For information on visiting the Grand Canyon (north or south rim), go to www.nps.gov/grca.