By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007
A bird flies beneath my feet, gliding under the clear glass floor of a horseshoe-shaped structure that juts 70 feet from the rim of the Grand Canyon. The canyon floor is more than 4,000 feet below.
Maybe you've gone to the top of the Empire State Building and looked down at cars that seem like Matchbox toys. From the Grand Canyon Skywalk, you are more than three times farther from the ground below than when you stand at the top of the Empire State Building.
Only five thin layers of glass stand between your feet and the abyss. A glass railing, 4 1/2 feet high, surrounds the skywalk. When the wind blows, you feel the sensation of flight. When the wind gusts, you can feel the skywalk gently sway.
Honestly, though, you don't need a ticket to the $30 million skywalk, which opened to the public this spring, to see the most stunning views: the majestic rock formations formed over millenniums by earthquakes, volcanoes, wind, rain and the power of the Colorado River. From either the skywalk or the canyon rim just next to it, you see Eagle Point, so named because nature has sculpted into the rock the form of a gigantic eagle, wings spread, head held high.
You can stand on firm ground or on the skywalk, and either way watch the colors of the canyon rock shift and change with the movement of the sun. Burnt orange. Sienna. Yellow. Enough shades of brown to fill an artist's palette, and an occasional splash of purple that makes the phrase "purple mountains' majesty" run through my head.
The Grand Canyon, long a symbol of the grandeur of America's landscapes, is more than 200 miles long. Just over 100 miles of that is within the Hualapai Indian Reservation. The skywalk is about 120 miles east of Las Vegas.
For more than 100 years, that part of the canyon was off-limits to non-Indians. Then, 19 years ago, the impoverished Hualapai decided to welcome tourists. Even so, the vast majority of visitors kept heading to the famed Grand Canyon National Park.
But there are several reasons to consider the Hualapai-owned section of the canyon, either in addition to or instead of your trip to the national park.
Be aware that a visit to the three tourist sites on the reservation, within a five- to 10-minute drive of one another, is not free. It costs a minimum of $49 to see the three sites: a spectacular canyon called Guano Point, where a buffet lunch is offered on picnic tables; a recently constructed "cowboy town" called Hualapai Ranch, where you can have lunch and take a horse-drawn wagon ride and, for an extra fee, ride horseback; and Eagle Point, with the skywalk, a visitors center and an Indian "village" with samples of Native American homes. Walking on the skywalk is an additional $25.
For many people, the main draw to this section of the canyon is the skywalk itself -- an engineering marvel constructed of a million pounds of steel and 90 tons of tempered glass. An even more compelling reason, in my opinion: the relative lack of tourists, at least for now.
The skywalk created an exponential boom in tourism to the million-acre Hualapai reservation. Still, that means on average 1,200 tourists a day -- or about 438,000 a year, if the current rush continues throughout the year, including winter, which is unlikely. Compare that number with the 4.1 million visitors annually to Grand Canyon National Park. Most visitors arrive by tour bus from Las Vegas, and after an hour or so of gawking, they eat lunch and head back to Vegas.
The reservation also offers a good selection of activities, including rafting trips, pontoon boat rides, Humvee tours, horseback riding and helicopter tours of the canyon.
Then there's the righteous feeling you get knowing that the skywalk is the financial hope of the Hualapai people. Of the 2,000 or so Hualapai on the reservation, about half live below the federal poverty line, and unemployment rates have traditionally hovered between 50 and 70 percent. Hundreds of jobs have been created with the opening of the skywalk.
The Hualapai, by the way, traditionally roamed 7 million acres around the canyon. In 1833, by presidential executive order, they were confined to a 1.5 million-acre reservation. In 1945, the U.S. government realized the land wasn't as worthless as originally thought, and took back half a million acres.
Another reason to consider this section of the Grand Canyon: the thrill of looking out and knowing that to the Hualapai, this land is sacred. Eagle Point, where the skywalk is located, is one of the two most sacred sites in the entire canyon for the Hualapai, which means "people of the tall pines."
"There is something spiritual about this place, and people feel it," says tribal council member Wilfred Whatoname. The point where nature has carved out the likeness of an eagle is revered because the eagle is revered. The eagle, Whatoname explains, "delivers the prayers of the people from the earth to the heavens."
And then there are the cowboys who work in the admittedly fake cowboy town but are themselves authentic American cowboys. Guys like Robert Clement Jr., who has been a wrangler all his life. A guy who mentions that he writes poetry and, at my request, brings some worn typed copies along when he comes knocking on the cabin doors of visitors who had requested sunrise wake-up calls. At 5:20 a.m., as the sun rises over the canyon, he reads aloud his rhymed words about the beauty of nature, about loneliness, and about love.A Great View, for Now
The drive to the skywalk from Las Vegas turns out to be particularly scenic. The two-lane highway winds over Hoover Dam, through high desert and along mountain peaks that offer scenic turnoffs where you can catch glimpses of Lake Mead, gorges and red rock cliffs.
The last 50 miles is on a lightly traveled country road that takes you through Joshua Tree National Park, where the straggly yet strangely elegant Joshua trees dot the landscape. The last 14 miles, for now at least, is dirt and gravel. A bobcat crosses the road in front of me, and stands on the side of a hill to stare apprehensively when a friend and I stop to watch.
An Apache dance troupe is performing outside the gift shop when we arrive at the entrance to the skywalk. Such performances by visiting native peoples are a regular feature. The Hualapai also invited other Western tribes to construct samples of their traditional style of housing, which resulted in about a dozen structures, including tepees and houses of adobe and wood, called Indian Village. At particularly busy times, visitors are expected to spend only 15 to 20 minutes on the skywalk, but usually you can stay as long as you like. Weekends are the least busy times, except on holidays. (Since most visitors are also spending time in Vegas, they save their weekends for the big city.)
At times during my 70-foot walk along the horseshoe-shaped skywalk, I felt serious twinges of acrophobia. Those similarly afflicted will be glad to know that along both sides of the glass floor are sections of colored glass over steel beams. The project's engineers say the skywalk is strong enough to support 71 fully loaded 747s.
The skywalk stirred a great deal of controversy when it was proposed, with critics denouncing it as the desecration of a national treasure, a tacky carnival thrill. But the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit group devoted to preserving the canyon's vistas, did not oppose the skywalk. In return, the tribe promised to keep future development on the reservation far from the canyon rim, according to trust spokesman Richard Mayol.
That promise is already being violated, as David Jin, the Las Vegas-based developer who funded the skywalk and shares proceeds with the tribe, has announced plans to build a huge visitors center next to the skywalk, with restaurants, shops, displays and Imax movies.
That strikes many observers as a major mistake. A hulking building along the rim, competing with the view of the canyon, will disappoint anyone with even a slight sense of aesthetics. The site may need more attractions to draw more people and have them stay longer and spend more money, but why such a building would need to be on the rim is a mystery, and will turn off more people than it will attract. One can only hope that Jin and the tribe will sacrifice the current plans, and move the center back a hundred yards or so.
After getting all worked up over the thought that Eagle Point could be ruined by development, I hop one of the buses that leave every 10 minutes or so for the short ride to Guano Point. Although it doesn't have the same depth of spiritual meaning for the Hualapai as Eagle Point, I find it even more beautiful. High atop one cliff at Guano Point is a mesa that looks like a Mayan temple. From here you also see the Colorado River meandering through the canyon.
I get my first sense of perspective when finding out that what I thought was grass growing all along the river below is actually a long line of willow trees. A second sense of scale comes when a helicopter touring the canyon passes by. Although it's far enough away that I can't hear the rotors, it looks like a real helicopter until it drops deep into the canyon, at which point it begins looking like a toy.
Lunch is simple but excellent: grilled chicken, beef barbecue, salads and cornbread. Nearby, about a dozen Hualapai women sell jewelry from tarp-covered tables.Waking Up Happy
A lone cowboy is demonstrating lasso techniques when we arrive that afternoon at the Hualapai Ranch. It's a small and rough facsimile of an old town, with simple but clean cabins. The check-in area is a table in a corner of the restaurant, which has picnic tables and unfinished plank floors. The staff has no record of my prepaid reservation, but a cowboy rushes off to clean a spare room.
The advertised petting zoo is just a few animals behind a fence, but this is an excellent place to ride well-groomed horses through the high desert and along the canyon rim, which is within view of the cabins.
The $149-per-person price to stay overnight includes meals and a ride in a wagon drawn by Thelma and Louise, who are half quarter horse, half Belgian draft. The climactic scene from the movie "Thelma and Louise," in which two women deliberately speed over a cliff and into a deep canyon, was filmed here. It's one of a number of films that have used this section of the canyon as a backdrop.
During the wagon ride, cowboy David Dosch tells stories about the history of the area and points out plants and how they were used by the natives. He notes that the U.S. cavalry and diseases brought by the white man almost wiped out the Hualapai. By 1833, he says, only 300 survived. Since no one had counted them before the slaughter, it's unclear how many died.
While waiting for dinner, I chat with Clement, who said that before coming to the Hualapai ranch he worked in Denver as a bus driver, security officer and short-order cook. He loves it here, and says the moment he toured the ranch, he knew it was his destiny.
There's no television, no radio, no way to find out what's happening with the Denver Broncos or NASCAR or world news, he says, "but I watch the stars at night. I get to wake up and see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon every day. I've had three days off in 2 1/2 months, but I go to bed with a smile on my face, and wake up with a smile on my face."
My friend doesn't trust him to do the wake-up call, so sets her BlackBerry to ring at 5:20 a.m. It goes off at 5:20 a.m. Washington time, 2:30 a.m. Grand Canyon time. Plus, she can't figure out how to turn it off.
That and the whiskey from the night before, sipped beneath the stars, explains how groggy we are when Bob, as promised, bangs the door. The sun is just beginning to rise. By the time it climbs above the tops of the canyon walls, we have smiles on our faces.