Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part II

Photography, dinner, and more photography at the Grand Canyon.

We closed up the shed and headed out to the Grand Canyon at around 4 PM. We’d wanted to get an earlier start to do some hiking along the rim, but it had taken too long to troubleshoot and fix our water problem.

I should mention here that last year when we came to Howard Mesa for Christmas, the water pipes were broken. Mike spent the entire first day and half of the second day finding and repairing broken pipes. Since then, we’ve replaced the PVC with copper. But it seems like there’s always something to fix up here. It’s part of the place’s charm, I guess. Mike doesn’t seem to mind. And in my mind, nothing could be as bad as the mouse problem we’d had, which forced me to start every visit here with a 2-hour cleaning job.

The Grand Canyon is a 40-minute drive from our place. About 1/3 of that time is spent just driving the five miles from our place to pavement. (Not an easy task, as there was more mud and the pickup did a lot of fishtailing on certain parts of the road.) The rest is on SR 64, a two-lane road that stretches from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon. The speed limit on the road is 65 MPH for most of its distance, but because there’s only one lane in each direction for most of the way, it’s pretty common to get caught behind slower vehicles. They added some passing lanes clearly marked with signs that say, “Keep right except to pass,” but since everyone is more important than everyone else, no one moves over to the right. So you basically have to pass on the right.

We were heading toward the canyon at about the same time someone who had left Phoenix earlier in the day for a leisurely drive up there would be arriving, so there was a surprising number of people on the road.

Grand Canyon Wide AngleInside the park, we got a parking spot in the small lot right near El Tovar, where we’d be eating dinner with friends. The hotel is right on the Rim, so we spent some time out on the pathway there, looking into the canyon as the sun was dipping ever lower into the southwestern sky. I played around with my fisheye lens — this was the first time I’d had a chance to use it at the Canyon — and got an interesting shot that includes the snow all around on the Rim.

It was cold. There wasn’t much wind, but the breeze contributed some wind chill to the situation. I don’t own a good winter coat anymore — I’d rather avoid the cold than buy special clothing for it — so I didn’t want to spend much time outdoors.

We went into Hopi House for a short while. This used to be one of the nicer gift shops at the Canyon, a place where everything was high quality. Somewhere along the line, Xanterra (which runs the park concession) had decided to add the kind of tourist crap you can find in most other gift shops there, especially t-shirts, hats, and sweatshirts that say “Grand Canyon” on them and a lot of fake Indian-style dolls, statues, rugs, etc. The good stuff — including a wonderful selection of Native American handmade jewelry — is still in the gallery upstairs, and we made the climb to see it all.

Grand Canyon MoonriseAfterwards, we came out for another peek into the canyon and were rewarded with a view of the newly risen full moon inching into the sky over the north rim. I snapped a few photos of it, but was too cold (or lazy?) to set up my tripod and do it properly, so the shots I took with my 200mm lens aren’t as clear as they could be.

We met our friends inside the hotel. We were booked for the private dining room just to the left of the hostess desk at the restaurant entrance. We’d eaten there the previous year for Christmas Eve. It had been just six of us last year: Mike, me, our two friends, and his parents. A quiet dinner. This year there were ten of us; our friends had invited six of their friends. The rectangular table in the small room was filled to capacity.

Our waiter was excellent. Extremely professional, full of advice, attentive to most details. The food was very good, too — although not as good as I remember from our early days visiting El Tovar 20 or so years ago. (I know: things change.) Conversation was relatively interesting, too. It was a nice meal. The only thing that marred it was when it was time to pay the bill; certain members of the party didn’t chip in their fair share and Mike and I and our friends wound up making up the difference, paying about three times as much as some other members of our party. I know we drank, but we didn’t drink that much.

Christmas TreeAfter stopping for some photos inside the hotel lobby where a tall Christmas tree stretched up to the second floor, we stepped outside and walked back to the Rim. The moonlight was shining brightly down into the canyon, casting shadows that defined the rock walls. It was a beautiful scene, but one my camera couldn’t seem to capture properly. (I really need to play around a bit more with the bracketing feature.)

I’ve been at the Grand Canyon many times at night. If there’s no moon, you can look down into the canyon from the Rim and not see a single detail at all. It’s like a black abyss that could be a hundred miles deep. But add some moonlight and you get a completely different picture. This is part of what makes the Canyon such a special place. Different lighting conditions can completely change the experience.

Hopi House at NightSince I was out there with my tripod, I took a few moments to photograph Hopi House and El Tovar. Hopi House was especially festive with its [electric] luminarias.

El Tovar at NightIt was after 9:30 PM and it wasn’t very cold at all. The wind had died down and the air was crisp and dry. There wasn’t anyone around except us. That made good conditions for taking these photos. They create the illusion that the historic buildings along the Rim are private, special places. In reality, during the day, these places are mobbed with tourists and it would be nearly impossible to photograph them without including a few people in each shot.

We drove back to Howard Mesa in the full moonlight. There were few cars on the road.

As I opened the gate on our driveway, I noted that all the mud was frozen solid.

It was warm and cosy inside the camping shed and even more so under the covers in bed.

What do you think?