State by State

Apparently there is an entire country between Boston and San Francisco.


by Natalia

The Grand Canyon is a huge attraction. Literally and - of course - figuratively. It makes various lists of seven wonders of the world. No wonder almost 5 million people a year fulfill a desire to visit.

We were in the area and could not resist its pull. The only question was what’s the best way to experience it. The scale is overwhelming, playing tricks with one’s depth perception. Maybe we should fly over in a helicopter? Catch a glimpse from a commercial jet? From space? Alas, tourists are not allowed on space shuttle and won’t be as American space program is drawing to an end. Plus you really need to work on the approach angle to truly appreciate its depth.

Maybe up close and personal is the way to go? The idea of hiking down the canyon and back up the opposite side is alluring. If only our truck could magically cover 220 miles trek between the rims. Sadly Google’s self-driving car project is still in its infancy.

Rafting is another option but, if attempted without a guide, it requires luck. Not just to brave the elements, but mostly to win a lottery. Only 503 permits are awarded a year for non-commercial trips. The lottery was instituted after National Park Service realized that waiting list extends for well over 15 years. There are also commercial trips as long as I’m cool with sharing it with 30 other people.

As this was my second trip to the Grand Canyon I knew what to expect. Or so I thought. Last time we went to the North Rim, which does not open until mid-May. This time of year our only option was the South Rim. Unfortunately 10 times more people go south than north. If April truly is the low season, then my imagination fails utterly at the prospect of bedlam during summer.

In the end we did what most visitors do: checked out recommended viewpoints, gazed down from the rim and got a taste of the real thing on a short hike down to the nearest overlook. Fresh spring air made it quite enjoyable, despite scores of people shod in sneakers and sandals huffing, puffing and cursing on their way back up. Canyons are devious this way: easy to underestimate when you start from the rim, exacting merciless revenge during ascent.

According to NPS 250 people a year are rescued in Grand Canyon. About 12 people a year die here: car accidents, suicides, incidental falls and heat exhaustion are to blame. Given the number of that’s not many.

Nonetheless the park management attempts to dissuade the would-be victims. Trailheads are plastered with warnings about dangers of hiking in desert environment. Most places prominently feature a story of one Margaret Bradley, who ran Boston marathon only to perish of heat and dehydration on an ill conceived day hike. Too bad that, in their zeal to remake the tragedy into a cautionary tale, NPS omits and distorts facts: the most important being that Margaret’s death was as much the result of her lack of sufficient planning as the neglect of others who didn’t start the search for her until 2 days after she disappeared. So the moral of the story is plan ahead, carry plenty of water and don’t rely on others. I am not surprised NPS is not eager to emphasize the last part.


Extinct volcanos are bound to be disappointing. We expect to arrive at the scene of a catastrophe. We end up admiring picturesque hills. I guess Pompeii is an exception: a city buried under ash, destructive power of the explosion preserving ancient artifacts for our benefit. I was thinking of Pompeii when touring Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. When the volcano here erupted sometime before 1100, Anasazi civilization was still very much present in the area. I envisioned pueblo-style buildings preserved in ash, hoping for something spared from well meaning, but misguided, 20th century archeologists. But this is not Pompeii. Inhabitants of Wupatki pueblo were not doing so great before the eruption. Porous desert soil, unable to hold water, was lacking nutrients due to over-cultivation. Ash from the volcano acted as a fertilizer and improved water-holding capacity of their fields. Researchers found imprints of corn ears in lava flow. The working hypothesis is that they were offerings intended to stop the eruption. But maybe we underestimate our predecessors: what if they knew the volcano was actually beneficial and fed it corn to keep it going?


Lowering the pressure in our tires might have helped a bit but it did not help enough. We still found ourself stuck in soft grayish sand on the way to the Medano Lake trailhead. And this time we actually did not try anything stupid. It was not our idea to drive here. I could not even get angry at Natalia who is usually responsible for pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone. This time it was a super nice and extra friendly park ranger. He suggested we try driving unimproved road since wind was too strong to hike the open dunes. I distinctly remember him telling us you can turn back at any point.