— The Canyons of Arizona
The American Southwest is a
rugged landscape peppered with stories of untimely demise. Several
harrowing tales haunted my mind during a recent breakneck road trip
through northern Arizona. And yet, morbid as it sounds, these reminders
of my predecessors' misfortunes somehow added to the allure of my
My guide is a tatooed hippy who speaks with a
German accent, and whose name is Charly. I am trusting him with
my life in this place that will occasionally turn on and kill its
Charly's partner at Overland Tours has exclusive
access to a cracked tract of Navajo land. The fissure runs about
150 feet deep. They've dubbed it Canyon X. Technically, it's an
upper segment of Antelope, the most famous of the slot canyons.
At the lower, more accessible entry, photographers arrive by the
busload and jockey for shots within a crevasse that often narrows
to a hawk's wingspan.
Rather than scrum with shutterbugs, I follow my
inky German guide into the craw of Canyon X. Just before ducking
into a sandstone alcove, he points out a railroad tie lodged in
the rocks ten feet above our heads and tells me it's new. What he
means is it's a good indication of the depth and power of a recent
“A flash flood in a slot canyon sounds like
…” Charly pauses. Maybe he can't find the word in English.
Maybe there's no way to describe it. “… like something
you do not want to hear in a slot canyon.”
For some who marched these deep trenches before
me, it was the last thing they ever heard. On August 12, 1997, rain
from a thunderstorm 15 miles away spilled into this canyon, sloshed
along its sinuous walls, and caught 11 hikers and their tour guide
by surprise. Only the guide survived. Rescuers found him clinging
to a rock, stripped of his clothes and much of his skin.
Ferocious as they are, floods are what sculpt
basic drainage cond-uits into curvaceous masterpieces. In Arizona,
however, beauty is often a lure to danger. It's true. Just look
at the markings on a diamondback rattlesnake. They're gorgeous.
About two million visitors descend Lake Powell
each year. Sounds like a lot, but stray off the main channel and
you can get lost for days without seeing a soul.
A lake this big in Arizona just doesn't seem natural.
In fact, it's man made. Builders completed the 3,700-foot Glen Canyon
Dam in 1966. Over the next 17 years, the Colorado River backed up
behind it to create Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation
With its labyrinth of bays, finger lakes and tributaries,
Lake Powell has no shortage of ways to lose a boat, even the one
I'm at the helm of a 46-foot houseboat with nine passengers on board.
I cut the wheel hard, but the vessel maintains a steady course directly
toward the chalky walls of a 100-foot cliff. That's when the captain
tells me about his most recent sonar survey of the lake: “We
found 43 boats down there.”
Down there can mean 400 feet beneath the surface,
which is relatively shallow. After a five-year drought, lake levels
are 150 feet below normal. The receding waters left an alkaline
stratum, kind of like an enormous white bathtub ring, and now expose
geological features not seen since the last days of disco.
For our captain, Steve Ward, it's like opening
a time capsule. “I remember where everything was before the
lake covered it up,” he says. Now he spends every free minute
revisiting his favorite caves, arches and tributary canyons along
the shrunken 2,000-mile shoreline.
With the melting of recent record snowfall, levels
are expected to rise 50 feet by the end of summer. Meanwhile, I'm
still waiting for the houseboat to turn. As the prow nudges away
from the cliffs, Ward instructs me to straighten her out. I spin
the wheel back, but it's too late. We're now on a collision course
with a powerboat parked 50 yards ahead. At this speed, I figure
he's got about ten minutes to get out of my way.
I'm traipsing up to Mather Point on the South
Rim when six — count 'em, six — California Condors rise
like kites from the abyss. These massive raptors just swoop up like
they'd come to greet me, then quietly spiral away.
For the Navajo people, this would be an auspicious
sign. For me, I'm thinking they've spotted carrion below. A fallen
hiker, perhaps. A drowned rafter. There's no shortage of ways to
One of the safest ways to see the Grand Canyon is by helicopter.
It's also one of the most dramatic, particularly that moment over
the rim. The earth seems to drop away a good 4,000 feet in the span
of a second as green cattle lands below suddenly rip open in a rust-red
A moment later the pilot announces: “She's
a hungry canyon. Eats about seven people each year.”
Yes, it's a deadly ditch. The Reaper's visits
to the Grand Canyon are too numerous to catalog here — about
600 and counting. One that springs to mind while hovering a mile
above the Colorado River involves two commercial airline flights,
each with a pilot who wanted to treat his passengers to a scenic
detour. The planes met high above the canyon, where the DC-7's left
wing clipped the tail off the Super Constellation.
All 128 passengers and crew ended up scattered
over Temple Butte and miles elsewhere along the Paleozoic rocks
The helicopter pilot points out Temple Butte,
but doesn't mention what happened there on that tragic morning of
June 30, 1956.
An updraft bucks the helicopter. My stomach tingles inside. Colors
change as we pull away. The orange luster fades, and in the hazy
distance ancient stone takes on the purplish glow of a fresh bruise.
The worst part about this ride: It's over too soon.