Saturday, September 3, 2011

On The Edge I: An Introduction

Once I was standing at Mather Point, Grand Canyon National Park's premiere introductory view, and overheard someone say, "Well, I liked Zion better; the view from the bottom of the canyon is so good."

The Grand Canyon and its the Park are fortunate, in my eyes, that viewing from the bottom still involves a natural, back-country, often wild, kind of experience. The Grand Canyon is pre-eminently a rim experience for the casual visitor. And there is no one experience: Out west in Hualapai land, at what Martin Litton (q.v.) liked to call Batchit View, there is mass industrial tourism, Las Vegas style: highly mechanized, swiftly moving, and dependent on tricksy stuff like the Hong Kong entrepreneur's skywalk. 

But the Hualapai booty-required view is way outmatched* by the dusty drive and rock walk to Toroweap: Straight down, no handrails. And from there you can see remnants of one Grand Canyon dam I approve of, a great lava plug the making of which Powell vividly described. That drive is a freeway compared to the Kelly Point road out the Shivwits: 5 mph if you are reckless. And you end up this magnificent back-country trek thrust way out into and above the entire western Canyon. Fine camp, too. 

I can also remember my "disappointment" as I raced out the trail on the developed North Rim, gradually realizing that the Canyon's topography meant that though the North Rim was higher, it was also cut back much more than the South, and there would be no jaw-dropping rim view here. The disappointment did not last, for the Kaibab Plateau, central, west and east, has a myriad of views, mostly at the ends of dirt roads, an excellent introduction to the Canyon's variety. 

Another view at the end of a dirt road I remember fondly (not the "road" though) goes to Tatahatso overlooking Marble Gorge, one of the spots from which the dam-builders tried to take the Canyon's measure. A view I have not had is off the Great Thumb, though I have looked at it from the north. If all has gone as the Havasupai planned in the 1980's, that view is reachable with a big walk, and must be, like the other big-thrust platforms, rewarding in several directions. But what is interesting about the Thumb is how the boundary between the Park and Havasupai land was determined by rim concerns. When that boundary was being set in 1974, there was fear by Park advocates that the Havasupai might acquiesce in someone building a hotel or other tourist structures on the rim. To allay that fear, Representative Udall, House mover of the legislation, placed the boundary ¼ mile back from the rim. The Havasupai went this one better when they came to make planning decisions by even closing off the Thumb to any travel other than by foot or hoof.

So, back to Mather and the several other Grand Canyon Village overlooks, from Desert View west to Hermits Rest, paved road, shuttle service, heavy summer traffic. All to check out parts of what previous generations considered THE Grand Canyon, Powell-Harrison's big hole. And though now the Canyon can be seen to its fullest extent, from a few dozen vantages located all around it up on the rims, it is still these GCV overlooks, and first of all, Mather, that are the defining perspective for the overwhelming majority of visitors -- which Park Service counts show add up to a good bit less than 200 million people total. For the past 20 years, it has been running 4-4½ million per year. For comparison, it will be relevant to remember that this number was reaching up into around 2 million in the 1970's.

The railroad brought its passengers into the head of Bright Angel Canyon in the early XXth century, providing a narrow first view that visitors then expanded on by travelling along the rim. However, the entrance auto road went right to business, going first to Mather and maximum impact. Close by, the Yavapai Museum was thrust a bit farther out, adding incrementally; you can see the view to the northeast from there at . Both of these locations have figured in debates over just how visitors get to approach the rim, and obtain their first view. I have no doubt that the Spanish experience is best: Knowing nothing, you wander through the woods, and then 

Of course, the Spanish may not have known what they were seeing, or perhaps a Havasupai or other long-time resident of the area warned them. Now I do agree that there are dozens of places, easy and hard of access, around the Canyon where an approximation of this purist approach is possible. So what these rim debates are about is this: What can the optimal first view be for the first-time visitor? To what degree does the landscape have to be de-naturalized, if it is to be manhandled? How much artificial material is intrusive on the experience, how much necessary, how much a helpful guide? And then there is the Canyon itself: What sort of construction, building, rock-bashing and moving, is acceptable at the rim?

To illustrate the extreme, here are three proposals I can think of that called for massive rim desecration at Grand Canyon Village : A hotel that cascaded down the Kaibab limestone west of the Village was hyped as part of the debate over uranium mining in the Lost Orphan Mine. A bit east, a rim church was thought appropriate by well-intentioned souls. And some wanted to replace the Yavapai museum with a much larger structure containing a sweeping glass-fronted amphitheater cut down into the Kaibab. 

The hotel idea was only a bargaining chip, and was shelved when the uranium controversy was "compromised". The church ended up well back from the rim-- the present Shrine of the Ages. The Yavapai scheme was never seriously considered.

A different take on this debate occurred in the 1970's, when planning for the Village considered an upgrading of the Mather Point area that could have included a massive parking area south of the road. The debate centered on whether this would lead inevitably to more governmental and commercial development in that area, creating eventually a second Grand Canyon Village. Canyon advocates argued instead for reinforcing development in the exisiting Village, while changing the Mather viewing area in the direction of a more natural landscape through which the visitors would approach the Canyon, unmotorized. The discussion was shelved for a time until a General Management Plan revived discussion in the 1990's.

I want to consider all these controversies, but my next post will present the outcome (so far) for Mather Point and its visitors, since the Park Service celebrated progress earlier this summer.

*Ok, I admit I havent done the Batchit view from the top, just from the bottom. I think I liked it better.

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