Grand Canyon Love Story chapter thirty-six

Return to North Rim

Three almost completely different meanings are wrapped up in the first word of the Grand Canyon’s title. “Grand,” according to Webster, means:

1. Marked by great magnificence. Fine or imposing in appearance.
2. Having higher rank or more dignity than others having the same general designation.
3. Of large size, extent. Of a size conferring distinction.

The qualities inherent in the first two of these definitions wove such a spell over us that with every Canyon visit we often became intoxicated — almost drunk — with the magnificence. Absorbing the beauty taxed us physically. We had come to expect that problem. But the third meaning — the Canyon’s sheer size and extent — presented another dilemma.

We began to find that Grand Canyon is so enormous that, even for those who love it, portions of it may be neglected for extended periods of time. We had become so caught up in the lure of the South Rim’s trails and viewpoints — combined with our new love, Supai and the magic waterfalls — that the North Rim went, for a long period, completely unattended by us. There were other contributing circumstances. The North Rim season is short. And on our May 1 wedding anniversary — the one day of the year that we always head Canyonward — the North Rim and Kaibab Forest are clothed in impassable snows.

Absence perhaps does make the heart grow fonder. When we returned to this area which we had neglected, just at the moment that late summer was flirting with early autumn, in 1983, each vista seemed like a new world which we had never discovered before.

Jacob Hamblin — at least a large oil portrait of him hanging in the Jacob Lake Lodge — welcomed us to this Kaibab-North Rim world of grandeur and isolation.

The isolation is complete, more so than nearly any other large area in the United States. Visitors come, of course, by driving a couple of hundred miles from the South Rim. But no newspapers are available for purchase, no magazines. The Jacob Lake Inn can get TV reception — a couple of stations boosted in from Salt Lake. But the Kaibab Lodge and the North Rim Lodge are mercifully removed from television influence, although they are trying to draw in a signal from Bill Williams Mountain west of Flagstaff. The North Rim rangers can see their voting precinct, ten miles away, on South Rim, but they need to drive the 200 miles, or commandeer a helicopter, to cast their votes.

When the geography of an area bars the daily news — and even the voting activities associated with the political process —it can be considered isolated. A unique experience for the 1980s.

The ghost of Jacob Hamblin rode with us as we left the tiny spot which bears his first name and headed upward and southward into the Kaibab Forest. The “lake” itself is a mile to the west — a nearly dried-up pond of brownish water no larger than a few saddle blankets spread out on the ground to dry. That lake, however, and others like it scattered over the Kaibab Plateau, mean the difference between life and death for the forest animals which inhabit this land. These geological sink holes filled with melting snows are their source of drinking water.

Jacob Hamblin himself probably meant the difference between life and death for many of the early explorers — and the Indians — of the whole Grand Canyon region. During the middle years of the nineteenth century this Mormon pioneer was something like a “Johnnie Appleseed” of mercy, scattering seeds of friendship, help, and goodwill wherever he went, appearing first here then there, all the way from Lee’s Ferry to the land of the Havasupai. He was the friend of every Indian tribe in this part of the West; he befriended them, and they trusted him as one of their own. The place which bears the first half of his name — either the “lake” or the wide place in the road — is so small that most people miss it altogether, but Jacob Hamblin was a man who deserves a large and enduring monument. His spirit rode with us as we penetrated the Kaibab Forest.

The road gradually ascended through a world of pines and aspens, transporting us deeper and deeper into the land of isolation. Then the forest parted, to make a lush Kaibab meadow.

A mile or so down the road there was another meadow. And then another. And another. And another.

Some of them were small, some large, opening up grass-clothed parks in the deep forest which were like — well, there is no other word for it; these meadows turned this vast jungle of trees into a series of natural, sylvan parks. Parks undisturbed by humans; unscarred by civilization. We recalled a wall motto we’d read back at the Jacob Lake Inn:
“The Lord created the Kaibab Forest on the sixth day so he could rest there on the seventh.”

This was the Sabbath, we suddenly realized, as we were penetrating this wonderland of the Kaibab. This was the “seventh day” and the creator of these meadows was resting. The whole world was resting. The isolation, the quiet, the ageless beauty and wonder of this North Rim world was seeping once again into our veins and making new persons of us. We had returned!

At one of the meadows the isolation was temporarily broken. Tucked back on the far side of a great expanse of openness in the forest was Kaibab Lodge and we were soon absorbing the warmth from its great fireplace as we visited with Cliff Cox, son of the couple who had established this tiny oasis in the Kaibab years before. He filled us in on the details of three scenic areas which, providentially, we had never before visited. It is always good to have new fields to explore. By side roads east from Kaibab Lodge, three Grand Canyon viewpoints can easily be reached — East Rim, Marble Canyon, and Saddle Mountain. “Marble Canyon View is best” said a girl at the lodge, so we decided to do that first.
What the comparative quality of the scenes would be, we would not know until our explorations were over, but the roads leading into them were, in themselves, enough to make the explorations worthwhile. Ten thousand young aspens had sprung up in the soil which had been stirred and broken as the narrow road had been put through. A breeze caressed their branches, and a million leaves lining our way began shaking and shimmering like the clicking tambourines of Spanish dancers. The whole forest was shivering deliciously.

These dancing leaves were green but then, rounding a bend in the narrow road, we plunged into a world of gold. The aspens had changed color. Autumn had won out over summer. A million clicking golden tambourines were stirring the world alive.

From our narrow road, a still narrower one branched off toward Marble Canyon View. Grass not only lined the sides, but lined the middle. Throughout our entire day we would encounter only one car. No newspapers. No television. Almost no cars. A woods trail in place of a freeway. Isolation!

But a magician must have been somewhere about. He waved his magic veil and we suddenly emerged from pines and aspens to behold a great cliff escarpment, then down and below, House Rock Valley, with the Vermillion Cliffs in the background. The gash of the Grand Canyon cut through the far edge of the scene.

This had been the favorite viewpoint of the girl at Kaibab Lodge. But, for us, Saddle Mountain viewpoint was better. Fourteen miles of an enchanted woods road, winding and dipping and climbing, led us to it. Much of the Marble Canyon View was visible from here, but also we looked out eastward toward another portion of Grand Canyon. Immediately below us was the deep cut of Saddle Canyon, looking as narrow as a knife blade. And just out beyond us, reached easily by hiking trail, beckoned Saddle Mountain itself. We climbed it. We lunched on ripe wild raspberries as we climbed, which was partial recompense for the destructive clawing of the berry bushes. Surrounding us were 12 giant dead skeletons of trees. We were in an isolated world of beauty.

East Rim View, though less dramatic, was good too, and the narrow forest road which led to it added to the touch of isolation.

Cape Royal, 20 miles east and south of the North Rim’s Grand Canyon Lodge, is reached by paved highway. Tour buses include it on their schedules. A sense of apprehension traveled with us as we turned our car onto the road which would lead us back to this place where, in a series of half a dozen different visits, we had obtained the most significant motion pictures of our filming careers. That was at the time that World War II was ending, in 1945, when a hummingbird and a thistle plant had upstaged the giant Grand Canyon itself. (see Chapters 15 and 16)

The thistle, we discovered, was gone. Even if a hummingbird — perhaps a great-great grandchild of the one we filmed — had been in the vicinity, it would have been frightened away by a busload of German tourists who had timed their arrival to coincide with ours. For nearly an hour we waited, until all visitors were gone.

Cape Royal had changed. The vegetation, the trees, were different. Different paths to viewpoints had been constructed. There was an expansive parking area, and we could not even find where we had camped, in 1945.

We waited for the sunset hour. That, except for lack of hummingbird, was as dramatic as it had been nearly 40 years before. With yet another added attraction which we would soon discover — a phenomenon that perhaps no one else has witnessed from this cape.

Sunset was at 6:32 p.m. At 6 o’clock, shadows began to creep up the red formations about us. We were looking westward toward the sun. Five minutes before the sunset hour a gloom of approaching darkness began to swallow most of the Canyon, but Wotan’s Throne still stood out.

A three-quarter moon shown in the sky above Desert View on the South Rim. With our field glasses we could easily see the Watch Tower over there. A wind suddenly whipped up out of the depths. The pine and juniper limbs shivered and swayed. A low moaning of restless branches filled the air.

The sun touched the distant westward horizon, with everything else down in the Canyon, in that direction, becoming grey and subdued. The golden ball itself was now easy to look at, without injury to the eyes. It takes approximately three minutes, after that first horizon contact, for the sun to disappear. We looked at our watches. The earth had swallowed up half of the orb. Now only a small segment of the disc was visible.

Something suddenly clicked in Francis’ brain. Almost as though it were a repeat of the hummingbird episode of nearly 40 years before, he called out to Helen. “Quick, look for the green flash.”

That requires an explanation:

From our view over the Pacific Ocean back at our home in California we had acquired the habit, just at the sunset hour, of looking for what is known as the “green flash.” It is a phenomenon a bit hard to comprehend. At the moment the sun dips below the horizon, its white light is broken up into all the colors of the spectrum. The earth’s atmosphere absorbs every color, up to green, the wave lengths of which are least affected by atmospheric absorption. At the instant of sunset, just as the disc disappears, there is sometimes — but not always — an instantaneous tiny green flash. One would not notice it unless he were trained to observe it. On rare occasions the last bit of the sun’s disc itself will turn green just before disappearing. (We were careful, always, if the sun was bright or undimmed by mists, to view it through a piece of exposed film, or dark glass, to avoid eye injury).

Where the horizon is unobstructed and flat, this green flash phenomenon can be observed best. Ocean horizons are ideal.

But the western skyline at Cape Royal was unobstructed and flat. Had we not thought about the green flash possibility, we would have missed it altogether, for one must be intent on that, and nothing else. But, “Look for the green flash,” Francis suddenly called.

We looked. We saw. We thrilled. There it was, instantaneous but definite and clear. In talking with rangers, Fred Harvey employees, and others, we have never run across anyone who has observed this phenomenon on either Rim. Perhaps — just perhaps — this was another Grand Canyon “first.”

The sky darkened; the Canyon depths gulped up nearly all remaining light. Then — as though miraculously revived by some hidden new life — the sky turned pink. The Canyon forms came back into light. The hue of the sky deepened to dark rose. The Canyon walls followed suit. Then darkness again.

We waited for another encore but that was the final curtain. The moon brightened in the sky. We saw a car light over on South Rim. As we took the winding road back to North Rim Lodge (no camping permitted now at Cape Royal) our car lights fell on the white aspens, turning them into tall slender ghosts scattered through the pine forest. Suddenly, four young deer appeared in the road right before us. We slowed nearly to a stop. Frightened, they eyed us timidly, then bounced away. We drove slowly for the rest of those 20 miles, taking no risk that we might strike a frightened deer. Also, we needed time to digest the miracles of our latest Cape Royal visit.