Thursday, May 17, 2012

America 3 - the desert

So once we'd regrown what little brain could be harvested and used for higher functioning, we hopped onto a shuttle bus and zoomed out to the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon. And by zoomed I mean caught the bus to another hotel where we queued up for a while as some guy was telling us "what you're gonna wanna do." Then we made little cups of coffee in little paper cups, I learned about that strange thing called 'creamer', and THEN we got to the zooming.

Our bus driver was very informative, telling us all kinds of interesting and occaisionally not-so-interesting tidbits about the local area and its development. The local area, for what it's worth, is beautiful once you reach an area devoid of human settlement: on all sides, steep hills and ridges follow you as you drive. As the vista opens up, these ridges start to look increasingly like the skeletal remains of long dead super lizards. Snake spine country on a monumental scale. Deserts always feel old and the Mojave is no exception.

Speaking of all things monumental, the Hoover Dam is impressively huge. a grand total of 112 lives were sacrificed to its construction, not including those who died of illness such as TB or disentry contracted in the workers' camps. Interestingly, the first man to die on the job, J. G. Tierney, and the last, Patrick Tierney, were father and son. J. G. was a surveyor tasked with finding the best spot in the Colorado River to construct the dam. He drowned in 1922 in the midst of his assessment. His son, Patrick, fell from a crane 13 years later to the day. 

Back in the present day now, with the construction of the Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge completed in 2010, we were able to get views of the Hoover Dam once available only to people in helicopters. It was a nice walk to get up there especially after so many days of enforced sloth, and though I was feeling somewhat unfit, I was guiltily pleased to see that many other people were struggling with the simple walk up the gentle incline to the bridge. Fat Americans, my self-esteem salutes you! Being a dick of epic proportions, I jogged back to the bus.

The next few hours of driving saw us go through some incredible countryside punctuated here and there by tiny settlements baking in the sun. If there are such things as ghost towns, which there are, these looked to be at death's door. I thought they were beautiful.

We drove through the Joshua tree forest, the largest of its kind in the world. The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is an ancient species that can only grow between 400 and 1,800 metres elevation. These trees are technically a kind of cactus and were named by Mormon settlers who thought the bifurcated branches of the trees looked like the arms of the prophet Joshua outstretched in prayer. Of course, some of these plants had many, many branches and unless Joshua bore a striking resemblance to a many-armed Hindu god, I don't really see the connection. At this stage, we cannot rule out dehydration-related mass hallucination. As the Joshua tree is of the cactus family and so has no rings from which to calculate its age, scientists say that if you want to know how old a specimen is, you should count the total number of branch splits and then multiply the number by ten to get an approximate age. Based on that estimate, some of those trees are over 900 years old.

The section of the Grand Canyon we visited was part of the Hualapai Indian Reserve. The people of the Hualapai tribe commissioned the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which is a bustling tourist attraction. It's a horse-shoe shaped structure made of thick and extremely durable glass that extends out over the Canyon. The views, both horizontally and vertically, are breathtaking. It costs $25 to walk on and you're not allowed to take any camera or mobile phone with you. Instead, staff take photos for you and sell them at exorbitant prices (I bought two). This was infuriating at first, but once you realise that every cent goes to the local people on whose land you're standing around and eating ice-cream on, it's hard to begrudge it.

The Grand Canyon is well deserving of its title as one of the Wonders of the Natural World. It stretches forever and from where we were standing looked to encompass the whole world. The sense of size that being at such an elevation gives the land is a real stretch for the mind to process; it just seems... not real. You can imagine how a place like this would generate endless stories -- and speaking of stories, one of the best things about the Hualapai area of the Canyon is that we were able to see the incredible Eagle Rock formation, which looks like a giant bird descending on a its prey, talons outstretched. 

If there was one thing disappointing about the Grand Canyon (and I have to really think hard to find any fault), it's that I was really interested in the local legends of the Hualapai people and adjacent tribes. I wanted to know what stories they had about how the Canyon was formed and if they had any stories about the giant Eagle or any other animal. There were lots of ravens around. Was that bird significant? All that side of things. Unfortunately, though there were many local people at the site, there wasn't much information about the Canyon's place in storytelling and spirituality. Something to look into when I get home.

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