Grand Canyon Love Story chapter sixteen

Cape Royal Celebration

We needn’t have been frantic about our filming. The hummingbird worked about the thistle plant until dark.

And it was there again at dawn. I was set with my camera while the whole Canyon was still swallowed in blackness, so I even beat the hummingbird to its work. “The early bird catches the worm,” Helen joked.

That hummer became the focal point of our filming for three days and nights. We caught it against a background of the Canyon in sunrise and sunset light, subdued by clouds, one morning wrapped in a gentle fog, once even under a veil of rain. Then — a chromatic climax — the colorful hummingbird against a flaming red before-dusk Canyon, with a double rainbow arching the entire scene.

The month was wearing on — August 14, 1945. Too emotionally worn out with it all — physically tired also — I didn’t sleep too well that night, and switched on the car radio in the wee hours. The hummingbird sequence had been for us a personal climax in our careers as professional motion picture photographers. What I heard on the radio at 2 or 3 o’clock that morning was a climax for the entire world. I uttered a shout, more frenzied than had come at first view of the hummingbird. It awoke Helen and the kids. They crowded into the car — and all bent to listen.

“Japan has surrendered. The war is over,” I shouted. The news came to us in one of America’s most remote spots. We were completely, unutterably alone. But at that moment the whole world seemed very close — and dear. Peace! We said some prayers of thanks that early morning.

I never slept at all, and never took my ear from the radio. Toward dawn another flash. Strange — yet really perhaps not so strange, after all — that this second news flash should be the first vital one following the surrender bulletin. Shaking Helen awake, I relayed to her the radio bulletin: “Gas rationing is ended.”

Helen prepared a hurry-up breakfast. I filmed several more shots of the hummingbird but can’t even remember whether the sky was cloudy or clear. On the way to the nearest phone — 60 miles distant, at Jacob Lake, just a wide place in the forest — we held a Council of Peace.

For years we’d had almost no gas. Our professional film work had suffered considerably. We needed other scenes of the Southwest to complete our film story of this vast area of which the Grand Canyon was the centerpiece. What better time than now.

Yes, Grandma and Grandpa Blackburn said, it would be perfectly agreeable for Gail and Victor to be gone a while if we wished to take them with us on our journey.

It chagrined me that there were still a few unused gas coupons in our ration book. But without need of them we filled the tank, turned our car — not back to Mt. Carmel — but east and south toward Cameron and Flagstaff, and started out on the strangest week of touring we had ever had, or probably will ever experience again.

Flagstaff. No room at the Inn. Or at the tourist camps either.  Holbrook the same. And Winslow. And Gallup, New Mexico.  Highway 66, as we traveled by night, was almost one
continuous makeshift camping spot and row of campfires. Tens of thousands of gas-hungry and vacation-starved citizens of California and Arizona were celebrating America’s victory by taking to the road. Highways that for a year had seen only a handful of cars a day — no tourists whatsoever — suddenly became thoroughfares of commerce. A thousand campfires of an army bivouacked in war might have produced a sight such as we saw between Flagstaff and Albuquerque. But these were campfires of peace. Americans seeking release from the emotional strain of war. An emotional binge. A Niagara of travelers flooding Highway 66. A thousand campfires — creating a strange path of light across western America. Someone flying above in an airplane might have thought that the desert was on fire.

For a solid week we were never able to find lodging in a hotel, motel, or regular campground. The banks of impromptu night campfires lining the highway — America’s “Main Street” — was one of the strangest sights, in its way, that we had ever seen.

Helen and I like to camp out. But that week was seven days of nearly continuous storm! Albuquerque — rain, and no place to stay. We spent most of the night — five of us — sleeping in our five-passenger car.

Santa Fe. Somewhat the same. Since it rained but little, Helen and I found places to stretch out on the ground. The three youngsters did quite well in the car.

The message which the raindrops and the overflowing campgrounds — and auto courts — was drumming into us was beginning to take effect on our planning patterns. We must abandon tourist centers, get as far removed from Highway 66 as our car could take us, and pray for clear skies.

Arizona’s White Mountains. That area was remote, and we had business there. Two years before I’d made a film — SHEEP, STARS, AND SOLITUDE — following a herd of sheep on a wilderness trek from Arizona’s Salt River Valley up over the Mogollon Rim. I had shown the film twice on the National Geographic’s lecture course at Constitution Hall in Washington and they had asked me to repeat the trek, to do an article and stills for their magazine. This second journey — to be taken next year — would continue even farther — from the Mogollon into the White Mountains. To get some acquaintance with the area now would help.

So, early on a Sunday morning, we nosed our car south toward Socorro, then turned due west over one of the remote roads in the state.
Pie Town stood out in isolated splendor on the map. But unless we had driven slowly, and with sharp attention, we might have missed it altogether — two eating places and a filling station.

“Five pieces of apple pie,” we said to the woman behind the eating place counter.

“Don’t have any pie,” she explained. “Not enough customers to keep it fresh.”

Here was the first solid evidence, since leaving North Rim, that we had escaped the Highway 66 influence — or at least were ahead of the sudden postwar tourist flood.
With high hopes in our hearts we went on to Springerville — just across the state line in Arizona — for the night.

We had never been to Springerville on a weekend. No doubt, during the week, people live there. But not on Sunday. At least, not one person was visible as we drove around the few streets which held its clusters of houses and stores together. Not one.

This didn’t really matter. The one point of interest, to us, was as visible as the Vishnu Temple rising in isolated splendor in the Grand Canyon which we had so recently left. The large white wooden Cattlemen’s Hotel had a light inside. Two whole floors of warm rooms. Bathtubs. Showers.

The lank western-dressed cowboy-clerk behind the counter gave me a patronizing smile.

“We got no rooms vacant, pardner,” he drawled in a Texas accent. “Sorry. Our rooms are all took on a monthly basis. Ranchers. They use ’em every so often. But they’re all rented up. Sorry.”

No pie in Pie Town. No vacancies in a two-story hotel in a town where no one seemed to be living.

At least it wasn’t raining.

Helen was mad — not angry, but mad.

“I don’t care if it’s raining or not,” was her ultimatum when I went back out to the car with my message of despair. “I need a bath; we all do. Why aren’t there any vacant rooms?” She and I went back into the hotel together.