In search of the Grand Canyon

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2013 - 2:49 PM

Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel recalls a trip to the Grand Canyon with great views — of her own feet.


The Grand Canyon

Photo: Richard Perry, NYT

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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.

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