2643 Miles: Grand Canyon West

We are greeted with the bad news. We can’t ride the helicopter because unusually strong winds are blowing across the southwestern desert and are preventing flights from taking off into the Grand Canyon West. Instead, we will just have to content ourselves with seeing the portion of the canyon from the Skywalk, a U-shaped cantilever bridge with glass floors jutting out of a side canyon. I slump my shoulders. That means we won’t be able to descend to the base of the canyon and see firsthand the rocks at the bottom, where, according to Richard, lies billions of years’ worth of stories on the earth’s origin.

The day starts in Las Vegas, where, after six hours again on the interstate from Salt Lake City, we base ourselves for the next two nights. After another two hours on the road at early sunrise, we arrive at the edge of Diamond Bar Road, ten miles of dirt road that leads to the part of the Grand Canyon administered by the Hualapai Indian tribe. The site, located just north of Peach Springs town, contains businesses owned by the tribe, which has partnered with commercial tour operators – obviously including ours – for paid entry to the area. For an additional fee, the tribe allows helicopter companies to fly over the canyons and land on any designated zone near the lake shore. Today it isn’t possible.

So we ride a bus from Terminal 1, where helicopters are supposed to take off, and head to Terminal 2, where the main viewpoint – the Eagle Point – is located. The ridge provides good views of the canyon, though it has been said to cause a number of deaths in the past, mostly overzealous photographers who plunged to their deaths. And seeing the landscape with my own eyes, I share their eagerness. Using my left foot for balance, I place my right foot slightly in front and plant firmly on a rock to keep myself from being blown off by the persistent winds. And then I take a couple of shots. Joseph, Ate Sean and Abie soon join in. Suddenly I feel the euphoric rush of being on top. I now realize the obvious – I like climbing elevated landforms.

Mid-morning, after our lunch provided by the cafeteria, we go to the Skywalk. Cameras, among other personal items, are prohibited. Instead, photographers take visitors’ pictures, which can be purchased individually or as a package at the gift shop. The impoverished Hualapai tribe hinges its revenue mainly on tourism, and the Skywalk, despite the flak from environmentalists and conservative tribe members who view the USD 31-million bridge as a desecration of nature, is seen as a starting point for further projects. These include a movie house, a museum, and a posh restaurant. Away from the cliff, the site contains a collection of Native American houses. A large tent provides shade for visitors and a few tribe members rehearsing for their regular performance. Although it still retains a bit of a rustic vibe, it’s hard not to shake off concerns about it one day becoming overdeveloped and plans to help the tribe economically will backfire. For now, I ignore these thoughts, gaze at the canyons beyond the bridge’s railings and feel the winds smack at my face.

A few hours later, after pushing on to Terminal 3, we’re back at Terminal 1. We are handed our certificates for having walked through Skywalk. Richard greets us and orients us on the itinerary for the rest of the day. My sister Yanyan, still reeling from the disappointment of the aborted helicopter ride, mockingly scolds our guide. Richard apologizes and offers to buy Yanyan an ice cream. In exchange, she will sing a song, just as she had two days ago as punishment for getting on the bus more than five minutes late. She agrees, and finally the aborted air excursion is history. We ride the bus and head for Las Vegas. The winds are still strong, but we hope that luck will turn around when we try the slot machines.

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