Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the Edge V: In the Flesh

On a visit to the upgraded Mather Point, Friday, 21 October, I walked about, listened, chatted with a few people, contemplated, made lots of notes, and took some photos with my Jobs-book. I left with the notion that I was having two legitimate reactions:

1. The changes at Mather Point and the new visitor center are greatly to be applauded; they bring a huge improvement. They are the ultimate realization of Mather's potential as a first-look orientation focus.

2. Why, oh why, couldnt it have been done with more inspiration from the Canyon and respect for the importance of the visitor's first look, that Spanish experience? (see my previous post, 26 October)
President Garfield said this about education: My definition of a University is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student on the other. Well, that 1872 statement may need updating, but my definition of the first-look experience of the Grand Canyon will remain: A visitor standing on the edge, the Canyon opening out beyond.  A straight-forward, untrammeled, connection. 

But you decide; here is what I recorded:
To start, a couple of overall views, the first from 1956, looking from the south out toward the Canyon:
The second, an aerial of the 2011 upgrade, this time from the Canyon, looks southerly (that is, north is toward the bottom) over most of the new complex:
Two oval parking lots dominate; on the right for tour buses. On the left (east), for private vehicles, the lot is divided into 1 nearer the rim with a few cars and rv's, and 2 nearer the visitor center.
A curving, whitish, concrete walk/trail/path/broad-way is laid out from between the lots to the actual overlook on the west point, with the Park shuttle loop (with tree) stop to the right of that.
From Lot 1, there is a short asphalt walk-way to the rim. Another two lead from the tour-bus lot to the edge, half-way over to the overlook. Just west of the walk-way from Lot 1 is the new little amphitheater at a point on the rim. 
Oh yes: it is not clear from the photo, but the drainage here slopes south away from the rim; the buildings are lower than the edge, and the walk-ways go up to the rim view.
There is an asphalt walk-way all along the edge here, though obscured by trees in some places. None of the asphalt looks very black in this photo, but see below. The big, brown, east-west swath is the old road and parking area, now being re-vegetated.
The importance of trees, their shade and visual relief, is indicated by their use near the walk-ways and parking lots, though this cover can be contrasted with the denser forest beyond the complex. Not just roads, there were also fire(s) in this area.
Lot 2 is closer to the buildings of the complex: bathrooms, beyond them the book store; on the right the visitor center/station-that-was-to-be. Lot 4 is beyond all that. Hands up; the cars have you surrounded. 

Squint for a moment at the curve of the station building; imagine the lots disappeared, replaced by vegetated area, and see a curving track for the light rail coming through the trees on the left, passing around the station to stop on the north, and all of the slope between track and Canyon edge also with trees and other native vegetation. Imagine scattered cleverly among the trees several narrow, natural paths winding gently up the slope to the rim, where you stand, without a fence, but guarded back a bit by rocks placed much as they are along the edge in some of the photos below.

Here are the notes I made as I wandered about, trying to balance my impressions. Arriving during a very sunny October mid-morning, Lots 1 & 2 were easy to negotiate, the tree islands and other vegetated plots hoping to give a foresty feeling. 

Walking first toward the buildings, it felt a bit like a campus with a central plaza. People moved about in every direction, a number that increased as the morning went on, and led me to wonder how it would seem in the height of the summer season. I thought of an anthill stirred by a stick; but perhaps that is unkind; there was more leisurely strolling than scurrying. 
The bicycle rental spot is south of the buildings near Lot 4; $10-35. The activity was not feverish, nor did I see any cyclists.
The bus lot seemed huge, even with the attempts to break up the sweep of the asphalt. 

Does the orientation work? Was the signage clear to first-timers? Is there a rationale to the shape and placement of the lots? I did overhear a first-time family debating where the view was. 

The more I walked, the more it did seem as if the guiding spirit in the layout and physical appointments of the improvements leaned toward the clean and geometic, rather than the not-always straight-forward of a natural scene. For instance, the paths were very broad and very black, bordered by a rock line and chains, vegetation kept beyond.

Although not very obvious in the photo, I was struck by the large amount of revegetation work; in a few years, it should be a good case study for what can be done to re-claim battered ground in this location.

Next is the walk-way north of the lots and buildings as it slopes up, the Canyon beyond becoming visible, but  not yet revealed. The concrete, longer, walk-way, moving at an angle to the rim (see aerial photo) comes to a crossing with a mandala for some of the tribes who claim a Canyon connection. However, important tribes -- scientists and river-runners come to mind-- were not represented. There were several very large standing boulders; I dont know why. Pretentious to me, but still, a number of people used the spot to take their pictures, even though the Canyon is still screened.
These walk-ways come to a fence at the rim; as always this sometimes just acted as a temptation for those who want to get as close as they can. The "planters" of trees at the rim reinforced the blessing of shade in our Southwest.

I found the rim amphitheater also a little pretentious: "Look at what we can do." (For NPS photos of that, see my 4 September entry). Still, compared to the more negative views I had of the entire upgrade in my 12 September overview, many of the choices the Park Service made (did they seek the public's or any non-NPS advice?) did seem to me on this visit to fit together, presenting a renewed, vigorous, conception of welcoming visitors, getting them out of cars, and up to the rim in a more ordered fashion. There is an integrity of perspective in the wide walk-ways, cleanly paved, neatly bordered, amid spruced-up vegetation. Not unusually, a gesture made of good intentions may have become ponderous and over-bearing in execution.

Next is a piece of the Rim Walk-way (this is not the road); quite broad, asphalted, with the trees kept back. However, the fence has ended, though there are some rock borders in places.

Perhaps my picture-taking exaggerated the road-like feel of the walk-ways; I think golf carts could pass each other easily. And I do wonder about the feel of walking here at 2 p.m. on a cloudless June day. Was I being too harsh in thinking here was the ultimate realization of Mather Point under the 1950's program of Mission 66? Yet, do first-time visitors care? The young couple I talked to about the Kaibab trail had used the visitor center and were very pleased. And after all, I can still say, with Mefistofele, that the Canyon, as always, evokes "Arrestati, sei bello!"

Here's a view of the outlook point itself. Interestingly, the outlook is offset from the walk-way approaches, so the crowd that gathers there does not interfere with the walkers coming up to the rim. I should have taken a picture from the walk-way where it turns to go out to this point: It impressed me as a huge mouth pouring down (like a rapid's tongue?)  to, well, to all the people standing out there enjoying themselves. No intimacy there; it and the Amphitheater bookend the upgrade's pretentiousness.

Between this overlook and the shuttle stop, there is a billboard, replacing that irritating one they had in the 1970's, and did not take down for ever so long. The old one was a big map, with the Canyon shown as "217 Miles Long". Well, thats gone, although I did not much like this line in the new one's description:
"The Canyon is bounded by two great dams and the lakes they contain"! The f-ck you say.

I close with what epitomizes the aspect I found most problematic:
If there had been a more public process for planning this upgrade, would it have been different?

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