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AUG 2005
Issue 063

Fatal Beauty
— 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 destinations.

Canyon X

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 visitors.

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 flash flood.

“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.

Glen Canyon

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 Area.

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 driving.
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.

Grand Canyon

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 attract vultures.
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 gash.

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 below.

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.

Text and Photos: Stephen Ausherman

:: Online Articles


Dance machines
Kansai street dancers


Fatal beauty
The canyons of Arizona


One piece or two?
Summer beachwear style guide


Solar flair
Cirque du Soleil — Alegria 2


DJ John
The rhythm in the heart of Osaka

:: Listings


Up to date cinema listings guide so you always know what's on, where and when!

:: ART

Best exhibitions + listings


Best events + listings


Best gigs + listings


Parties not to miss + listings

:: Also in this month's mag


Green Earth
Vegetarian and vegan cuisine, Honmachi


Snacks Romana
IL Bar, Kitahama


A summer survival kit
Keeping ahead of the heat


New releases and top ten paperback books


Reel reviews of the silver screen +
Short Shorts Film Festival, Osaka


Net security on the cheap
Keep the worms out of your PC


Domestic and international news

Ways & Means

When in northern Arizona, make sure you don't miss:

• Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
Rosy 1,000-foot sheer cliffs buffer a short detour from Bitter Springs to Lees Ferry. Historically a deadly river crossing, Lees Ferry is now a popular launch site for rafting expeditions into the Grand Canyon.

• Lake Powell National Golf Course

Plush Kentucky bluegrass fairways create an oasis in the arid red desert.
On the signature 15th hole, the tee is perched on a mesa ledge 115 feet above the green. www.golflakepowell.com

• Grand Canyon Railway
Spend 135 minutes in the 19th century on a ride from the South Rim to Williams, Arizona. Vagabond musicians, armed bandits and a full bar add up to campy fun. www.thetrain.com

When to go

April through October are recommend-ed as winter snow can close roads and cancel some outdoor activities.

Getting there

Fly to Las Vegas, Nevada, or Phoenix, Arizona. Most of the above attractions are a five-hour drive from either city.

Internet Resources
• Canyon X via Overland Canyon Tours: www.overlandcanyontours.com
• Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: www.nps.gov/glca
• Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas: www.lakepowell.com
• Grand Canyon National Park: www.nps.gov/grca
• Maverick Helicopters: www.maverickhelicopter.com