The Grander Canyon

By Julian Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 12, 2004

Nothing banishes the early-morning cobwebs like waking a sleepwalk away from a 3,000-foot drop.

We knew it was there, of course, when we pulled up to the rim around midnight. But there's a difference between sensing the scenery disappear into yawning blackness a stone's throw from your sleeping bag and seeing it lit by sunrise, a geological wedding cake of earth tones and towers plunging half a mile to the glassy ribbon of the Colorado River.

The Grand Canyon has a back door, and its name is Tuweep. Or Toroweap. Sometimes, erroneously, Tuweap, or Toroweep. In any case, this little-known access to the canyon's north rim takes some extra time to reach, and you have to be more self-sufficient than at the national park's more crowded entrances.

But if you're willing and able, the reward is not only the usual phenomenal views, plus a free campsite on the edge and the shortest trail to the bottom of the canyon, but something increasingly precious in a place that sees more than 4 million visitors a year: solitude.

The night before, my girlfriend Laura and I had driven east from the lights of Las Vegas toward the emptiness of northern Arizona. You can visit this part of the Grand Canyon year round (weather permitting), but we chose May, before the heat of the desert summer descended in full. Cut off from the rest of the state by the canyon, the "Arizona strip" is one of the most remote parts of the country. When the Mormon Church outlawed polygamy in 1890, diehard splinter groups fled just across the Utah border to towns like Fredonia, where we filled our car with gas. Here it feels as if the past is not really past, as gingham-clad women pilot vans full of blond children.

A few miles west of Fredonia and about 40 miles west of the turnoff for the North Rim, a dirt road left the pavement heading south. A large National Park Service sign warned that there were No Services Beyond This Point, that the park boundary was 55 Miles Away by Primitive/Unimproved Road, and that beyond this point you had better be ready to Travel At Your Own Risk. (Plan Your Trip, it added, Accordingly.)

But as we sped across the plain, gray-green with sagebrush and tinted by sunset, our spirits were high. The road was wide and flat and we had plenty of food and water and a full tank of gas. Desert pronghorns fled our rooster-tail of dust. The fastest land animals on the continent, they leapt away in a blur of white rumps and stubby horns.

Ninety minutes later we passed a darkened ranger station and the road began to deteriorate. Despite the risk of a jinx, we couldn't help wondering aloud how awful it would be to break down this far from civilization. As we did, flashing lights grew from the gloom. They were the hazards on a black Jeep Cherokee pulled off the road. All four tires were flat, one shredded like a popped balloon.

With a prayer to the gods of automotive maintenance, we drove the last few miles with extra care, set up camp on the still-warm stones and fell asleep to the faint rumble of whitewater.

In the morning, our alarm clock was a raven croaking from a juniper. The sounds were eerily vocal; the jet-black birds can mimic like parrots, count to 10 and beat graduate students at tests of memory.

The early-morning view was different from the ochre sea of peaks and valleys visible from the North and South rims, the park's main gateways. Here, at one of its narrowest and deepest sections, the Grand Canyon is less than a mile wide. It actually looks like a canyon instead of a mountain range seen from above.

The scale is still as mind-bending, though, and the effect just as breathtaking. Steep walls of limestone, sandstone and shale plunge into schist nearly 2 billion years old.

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