XXXVII
Grand Canyon Is a Weather Bowl


1983
Old-timers, wanting to prophesy Grand Canyon's weather, would survey the sky, or consult an almanac, or listen to the bay of coyotes. Now, a hiker preparing for his backpack journey into the Canyon, simply dials 638-2245. (From out of state one precedes those numbers with the Arizona area code, 602). A tape-recorded voice gives the weather forecast for the North and South Rims and for Phantom Ranch, current high and low temperatures, a summary of yesterday's weather, time of sunrise and sunset, road conditions, and other pertinent information a Canyon visitor might want. * Dial tones have replaced the songs of the coyotes.

This is understandable. Weather is important here. It has been a principal ingredient in the Canyon's formation and its geological history, as well as its ability to provide constantly changing spectacles for the unending flow of visitors. Because of weather, Grand Canyon is never the same, from one season to the next, one month to the next, one day to the next. It can be transformed, with complete change of costumes and makeup, as quickly as a stage actor who is filling multiple roles in a play.

Just at dusk one evening Francis saw what looked like the streaming white smoke of a forest fire pouring down into Bright Angel Fault. Going out to the Rim for a better view, he realized that it was fog. The Canyon, already nearly swallowed up by darkness, was filling with the white stuff as though this was an enormous stream of boiling water rushing in to fill a Paul Bunyan bathtub.

Francis followed the Rim walk up to the lighted area in front of Bright Angel Lodge. Fog filled the Canyon to within just a few feet of the Rim. The strong lights before the Lodge lit up the white contents.

As he looked out into the abyss, there on the white surface of the fog just below, he could see his shadow. He waved his hands and the huge black object down there echoed the motions. As he walked back and forth, his shadow strode back and forth also — a giant black figure stalking the Canyon depths, suspended and levitated — there in the mighty chasm.

Next day, the fog was gone. It was replaced by falling snow as the two of us spent much of the morning in the Yavapai Museum on the Rim. The exhibits there warrant hours of study but on this occasion our research was interrupted by a lady ranger.

"Our lecture was scheduled for outside," she announced, "but the weather is a bit bad. We'll try to carry on in here."

A large group of Japanese tourists came in just in time to join us. Crouching or sitting on the floor, some standing, we heard a heartwarming discussion of the geological wonders which lay just outside, below us.

"Are there any questions?"

A Japanese man spoke up, his words laced with strong accent. "When is best time to come to Canyon, so I can see? When is the weather good?"

The ranger accompanied her reply with an apologetic smile. "That is one question which I cannot answer with certainty. Yesterday was clear. Tomorrow may be. But winter snows and summer thunderstorms can come without any warning. The Grand Canyon weather is unpredictable."

We rose from our reclining postures and started to file out. "Nice," murmured a Japanese woman who was obviously the questioner's wife. "Nice — but unpredictable."

Helen and I went outside, and came face to face with what that Japanese couple had probably seen but which we — who had been in the museum for considerable time — had missed. The snow had ceased, and the fog had returned with a vengeance.

The Grand Canyon, in full 11:30 o'clock-in-the-morning daylight, had been completely erased. It was gone, as though a magician had been at work. Stretching out from the Rim was an unending foam-like carpet of white. In Chicago, according to Carl Sandburg, the fog creeps in on cat's feet. This wasn't the way it had happened here. In the intervening hour since we had last looked out, the fog had leaped in like a Burmese tiger, to swallow the Canyon completely.

We've heard of tourists going to Alaska, spending as much as two weeks in McKinley National Park, and never seeing the mountain. But it had never occurred to us that anyone could come all the way from Japan to visit Grand Canyon, and then not see it.

These Japanese tourist parties sometimes make their visits brief. The average Grand Canyon visitor spends only two hours here, and only 20 minutes of that in viewing the Canyon itself. We held the hope that the Japanese couple and their friends, who had learned that the weather is "unpredictable," were able to stay until the fog lifted.
Grand Canyon weather is a forecaster's nightmare. It is not only unpredictable; it sometimes changes even as fresh bulletins are being issued.

At Grandview Point, on an autumn morning in 1983, we had a cloud display that, when we attempted to jot descriptions of it in our notebook, resulted in a mishmash of metaphors which would have dismayed a literary purist. We rate it as one of the best —and one of the most astonishing and beautiful — displays that the Grand Canyon has ever given us.

The morning was stormy. Driving along the Rim, and stopping at different viewpoints, we encountered only dull scenes of unlighted grayness, or misty indistinctness, or complete "white outs" of fog. What happened that morning made us realize that the Canyon not only changes from hour to hour, and minute to minute, but displays totally different aspects from mile to mile along its length.

We stopped at Grandview, expecting the same blah aspect that all the other viewpoints had offered — even those close by. We were stunned into action by the incredible sight which unfolded.

Helen snapped up a full role of film while Francis attempted to keep up with the display before us with jottings in our notebook. Our motion picture cameras might have done it partial justice; nothing else could, except on-the-spot eyewitness.

White foamy cloud masses were swirling around nearly every peak and temple in the wide area of our view. Cottony clusters of it suddenly burst up out of the depths to engulf great sections of the Canyon. Then there was just as sudden a reversal, and the scattered masses of white flowed back down, and disappeared, leaving the scene as it had been before. Then, as suddenly, it all surged up again.

Great fingers of the white dragon-like foam slithered out and encircled the temples, as though to devour them, and then disappeared.

At the same instant, one cloud of fog would be swirling in one direction while another white mass would rush by it, going the opposite way.

One moment, the view of the Colorado River in the gorge far below would be uncluttered and clear. Less than a minute later there would be no river at all. It was as though a great curtain had closed over the lower gorge.

Curls, swirls, floating ghosts. A ballet of white-robed dancers pirouetting through the abyss. Some giant with a mighty bellows, Helen speculated between camera shots, must be down below there somewhere. A three-ring aesthetic circus.

One has to mix metaphors; half a dozen differing impressions were storming into our consciousness simultaneously. We had proof that this display was a rarity. For nearly the entire time, Francis was broken out in gooseflesh, not from the cold — which was now intense — but from the glory of it all.

An ominous darkness began creeping in, but the yo-yo movements and gyrations of the clouds down below accelerated. It was as though the concealed puppeteer who was maneuvering and controlling all this action was breathless to get the entire act completed before the final curtain. Another change of metaphors, and it was over.

Back at the lodge, we were presently observing disgruntled tourists twiddling their digital watches in the lounge or moping in the bars, lamenting their ill fortune at having arrived at the Canyon on such a dismal day. They had missed one of the greatest shows on earth.

Grand Canyon is exciting — weather or no.