USA Trip: Day 15 – Canyons & Near Death Experiences

USA Trip: Day 15 – Canyons & Near Death Experiences

Grand Canyon -> Salt Lake City

We hit the hay early the night before as we were up at 6am for the sunrise. Most of the other RVs had gone in the night and we had Desert View to ourselves. It turned out we had parked up right near the trail and it was just a short walk to the view point. The sun was just breaking when we walked round past the watch tower which wasn’t open yet but there was a platform that stepped out over the edge of the cliffs for phenomenal views. We had a three hour drive to Page and getting up so early meant we could take in the canyon. It was quite cold and Emma was feeling it. The view was breath taking and I was thanking Fred for sending us here. Just us and another couple ambling up from a neighbouring RV here to enjoy it all.

PanoramaSmall(Click photo above for panorama)

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Initially I thought it was a mother and son. He was young and spritely, she was layered up with a hood and sunglasses. She sounded quite groggy and moaned at him constantly. It was only when I looked closer I realised it was his girlfriend. She had had a tough life and was so miserable even the Grand Canyon at sunrise couldn’t cheer her up. After a while she took some half-hearted photos and they left. Fred was right this really was a good view. The way the sun illuminated everything made it look like a film stage background. The sort that looks good until 2 guys with headsets wheel it out the way. I tried to take photos but I don’t think I did it justice. It is the sort of place I could happily go to for a week just to relax and go on photo shoots at different times of the day.

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We spent quite a while there taking it in before walking back to Bertha. It was well worth the extra drive this morning. We were making our way to Page to visit Antelope Canyon but the journey been made difficult by a rather large landslide. US 89 going north is the only direct route to Page. In February 2013 there was some sort of seismic activity and a 50 metre stretch of the road was ripped apart by a landslide. Fortunately no one was on that stretch of road when it happened but it crippled transport in the area. The mountainside is unstable and geologists are still running tests to try and find a long term solution with no timetable on reopening the highway. That is seven months after the occurrence. It isn’t helped by the remoteness of the road and the severity of the damage. The detour in place for the first six months was meant the original 100 mile journey took nearly three hours. However working with local Indian community the DOT (Department of Transportation) got permission to pave a dirt track to cut the time and distance down by 40 minutes. This opened just a week before we passed through but the detour signs were still in place. Because of this we still took the three hour detour, brilliant. I had spent months observing the situation and was even in communication with the Arizona DOT to make sure that I knew of any changes to the detour.

Horseshoe Bend

To make things more complicated we had been told this part of Arizona had its own time zone. So we weren’t even sure what the time was when we arrived in Page. We went straight to the tour company that was running our excursion to the canyon to check if we had to leave instantly. The staff at Antelope Canyon Tours were friendly enough and were constantly turning away people who hadn’t pre-booked. We had booked months before as there was supposed to be a limit as to how many people were allowed in the canyon in a day. Fortunately we had a couple of hours before our tour was due to start so we headed south a bit to Horseshoe Bend. We pulled off into the car park and met quite a steep sandy hill. It’s a small price to pay for the view I  told Emma and we started up. From memory it was around 200 metres from the car park and this hill looked about right. Sweaty and out of breath we got to the top and had a great view of the rest of the half mile sandy trek down to the bend. Emma expected me to turn round but I had been looking forward to this for quite a while. The thin layer of sand on rock is surprisingly slippery and after a few close shaves we made it down. I estimated it would be at least a 30 minute trek back up to the car park. It was only a 250 feet up to the crest but the path zig-zagged and for every step you took forward you slipped back a bit.

There was no observation deck here and no railing. If you wanted to just walk in a straight line off into the canyon you could. It was nice to have the freedom to roam around such a beautiful place. There were some crazy people who ventured just centimetres from the edge making me nervous but they moved like climbers. Being a coward I got close then laid on my belly and commando crawled to the edge where I hung my arms and camera off over the edge of the 300 metre drop. Emma who is scared of heights refused to go anywhere near the edge until I convinced her it would make an awesome selfie. She edged back and forced a smile before scurrying back to safety. I loved the view, a true wonder of nature how the Colorado River had doubled back on itself. Secondary to the view I didn’t want to leave as it meant the climb back up and over the crest. Just under 40 minutes later we collapsed in a heap against Bertha. The air conditioning went straight on we pulled out onto US 89 again. A momentary lapse of concentration led to the first of two dangerous driving situations that day. Despite being in the US two weeks for some reason I auto piloted into the left lane and right in the path of an oncoming car. Fortunately both I and the other driver spotted this idiotic mistake before it was too late and while I  swerved back into my lane, he took to the hard shoulder. Not a mistake I’d be making twice. With the adrenaline still running we turned up at the tour centre.

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The tour buses were converted flatbeds with monster truck tyres on them. They looked pretty cool and with no windows you got a good view of the local area as you flew by. We were the only English people there. Two thirds of the group were Chinese tourists with the rest being Dutch and German. They were calling out group numbers and fortunately everyone understood English and we were loaded up onto the trucks. Our driver and tour guide was a huge Indian guy whose name I didn’t catch. He had a few inches in height and a couple of stone in weight over me and wore a classy black and white Arizona Cardinals New Era cap. He herded us on and drove like Colin McRae down to the canyon a few miles out of town. Antelope Canyon itself is very small in the grand scheme of things. Whenever the area gets rainfall the basin above the canyon fills and the rainfall funnels into an old river bed that eventually drains into the Colorado River. Around halfway along it hits two hard rock formations of sandstone which over the years has carved the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons. As the area dried out the canyons primary use now is for flash flooding. The flash flooding can be unpredictable and deadly. In 1996 there was a thunderstorm 20 miles away and the water gathered in the basin and swept through the Canyon. 12 people were caught in the flash flood with 11 dying. Only the guide Francisco “Poncho” Quintana survived and to this day still searches for the bodies that were not found once the water drained away.

Antelope Canyon

Despite improved safety and precautionary measures flash flooding is still dangerous, in 2010 several tourists were washed away and others were stranded during a flash flood. Fortunately everyone survived despite minor injuries.

Obviously I didn’t elaborate too much when telling Emma this on the rollercoaster ride through the river bed to the entrance. When we got there I was a bit confused if we were going to a slot canyon or a football match with the amount of people milling around. The canyon in parts is only wide enough for one person to walk through and yet I counted 10 buses of people. I was now not looking forward to this. A lot of the Chinese tourists had tripods with them and our guide told them that this was not a photography tour, you had to be there earlier for that. Magically their grasp of English quickly faded and the tripods came along anyway.

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The first thing I noticed when walked into the canyon entrance is that is was too crowded. We couldn’t move into the canyon because it was one giant queue. We had a group in front of us and another behind waiting for us to go in. The photos we had seen of people on their own in the canyon with shafts of light around them were a lie. You would need a gun to clear everyone out to get that photo. Close to the opening there was a rock created god ray shining down to the canyon floor. It was tough to see without a camera until our guide produced a spade and flicked up sand into the light. I struggled with the camera to try and find a setting that would capture it. People clambered over me to get their shot with cameraphones and in the end I gave up. There were a number of photo opportunities to get but for the most part they were unachievable to due to constantly being pushed on boy the loud mouth guide in the group behind. She would shout in a squeal to our guide:

“Kenny get a move on we are waiting here.”

He would turn round and in a calm distinctly Native American accented voice boom back:

“We are going as fast as we can, Mary is not controlling stragglers in her group ahead.”

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Over the centuries the water had carved grooves into the rock which held acoustic ability. Kenny leant down and hummed into one and it echoed all around the section of the canyon we were in. A couple of teenage girls tried it and got no echo. Kenny said for me to have a go as I had a deep enough voice to get the right pitch. The first go didn’t work but the second hit the right note and it echoed round. It was very strange humming into a wall and hearing it come up behind you. We stayed quite close to Kenny as he was trying to tell us all about the history of the canyon and cool little details. I genuinely think we were the only ones listening, the rest were too busy talking to each other and taking hundreds of photos. On more than one occasion the guide behind threatened to kick out a Chinese couple after their kids were left to run around the canyon knocking people taking photos and generally causing havoc. In a small space with people trying to take photos I’m surprised one of them didn’t get an elbow in the chops.

The enjoyment went once we had gone through to the south end of the canyon and I just wanted to leave. I was being jostled out the way by rude fellow tourists who wouldn’t think twice about elbowing you in the ribs so they could get in front. Once through the canyon you turn round and walk back north past everyone still viewing. This is where a lot of the congestion occurs as people don’t just walk back through. They stop and take photos which blocks anybody from moving. There was one Chinese man in particular with a tripod who did not want to listen. He had elbowed me a few times and insisted on using his tripod despite being told not to. In the end I got sick of the guides telling him to move on, he stopped to set up for a photo and blocked the canyon one too many times and I just kept on walking bumping him forward and told him to keep moving and asked him how many photos did he need. I looked at his screen and saw he had taken 400 photos in 20 minutes, and I prayed they were all rubbish. His English was fine when he was talking to the staff arranging to get on the bus but had drastically deteriorated when he needed to listen to anyone. Emma managed to calm me down with promises of beer and sammys (sandwiches) back at Bertha. She is possibly the most patient person I have ever met but even she had had enough of the congestion and general rudeness of others. I’ve been around tourists from many countries the last 20 years but the Chinese tourists were the worst yet. Sorry China. Each country has its qualities that are funny or annoying but these tourists were downright rude and unresponsive.

We got out the canyon eventually and stood by the bus waiting for the rest of the group. I don’t know how Kenny keeps his cool. I was half expecting him to walk out with a tourist under his arm screaming with a tripod sticking firmly out his arse.

As we were about to board a screaming child stomped from the canyon. It was one of the children that had been ruining photos earlier. His parents were behind him just starting at him. The child screamed something in Chinese at the parents which the mother looked shocked at and the dad shoved the kid in the face and it fell over. It got onto its knees and pounded the sand before tossing a load everywhere. At this point the parents were like rocks, staring at the child not doing anything. The kid got louder and I couldn’t believe that they let this go on. This was not a small child, I reckon he was about six years old and he was making an absolute fool of the three of them. The kid seemed to realise he had done wrong and still crying tried to hug his dads leg and got a shove in the face again. He got up and another shove in the face. The dad wasn’t hitting the child, he was just pushing the screaming child away. Eventually a guide went over and said something to the parents and the dad shouted at the child and well I gave up then. I turned to Emma:

“If we ever have children after this, and the kid turns out like that. Smother it, then smother me for letting it get that way.”

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The Navajo Nation own the land the canyon sits on and you have to have a permit to visit. The main way of getting a permit is via the local tour guides which are all Navajo. The canyons are a cash cow for them and I feel this has clouded their judgement. The experience of the canyon is being lost because they want to cram as many people in as possible to maximse profits. There were 12 of us on our bus and we had paid $36 each to get in. That is $432 per bus. The buses were coming and going all the time, the next group was gathering as we were unloading. As far as I could make out there were five buses at each of the five time slots. The buses were all prebooked, which meant they were pulling in nearly $11,000 a day. They were not the only tour company running people to and from the canyon. I will not recommend Antelope Canyon to anyone. It really isn’t worth the hassle. There any many other slot canyons around the Arizona/Utah border. Go to them. Spooky Gulch Canyon is meant to be less crowded.

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One Second From Death

We loaded up and got out of Page and Arizona. We drove north west through Utah and Zion National Park to pick up the Interstate to Salt Lake. Before we reached Salt Lake City we had our second scary road encounter of the day and possibly the scariest moment of my driving career. We were on a highway with a single lane in either direction. Every few miles one side would stretch to two lanes to allow people to overtake slow lorries. We waited patiently behind a large lorry even declining the opportunity to overtake a couple of times until he was trundling along at 52mph in a 65mph zone. When the time came I pulled out into the overtaking lane and put my foot down. Bertha is a big girl she hasn’t got a lot of poke but she picked up speed and we were steadily going past the lorry. That is when I noticed the lorry had sped up. Not enough to stop us overtaking but enough to slow us down. Our cabs were level and I saw the overtaking lane ending, so I pushed forward trying to complete the maneuver before it ended. I couldn’t and the lane narrowed leaving me on the wrong side of the road still trying to overtake this damn lorry. Then a car appeared in the distance coming the other way. We didn’t have much time, we were so close to overtaking and it was too late to pull out. Emma let out a slow “Luke?”.

I nearly put my foot through the chassis of the RV I was pressing so hard. It got to a point where there was no time left and if I didn’t pull in we were going to have a head on collision with the car coming the other way. So I gritted my teeth and turned in. I reckon we missed the car coming the other way by about one second and the front of the lorry by inches. The lorry driver then got on the horn and gave a long blast. I looked down and saw we were doing 82 miles an hour. The lorry driver had sped up from 52 miles an hour to 82 to try and stop me from over taking him legally. We had been seconds from a fatal car accident because some idiot didn’t want an RV overtaking him. I was incensed and genuinely considered stopping the RV in the middle of the highway and dragging the driver from his cab. I still wish I had. The whole trip I had noticed people purposely cutting up the RV and speeding up so they weren’t overtaken by us. But this took the biscuit. So in conclusion Emma and I came within about one second of having an 80mph head on collision in the desert in Southern Utah. Sorry to our mums!

I still had four hours of driving to do after that incident and we relaxed a bit once we hit Interstate 15 to Salt Lake City. We arrived after dark and had the choice of drag racing or the Drive-In. After the long day of nearly dying and obnoxious tourists we opted for the drive in. It was just like the movies, literally. We went to the Redwood Drive-In Theatre. It was the last day of business for the theatre before it shut for the winter and we opted to see ‘Planes’. The staff were quite surprised when two English people rocked up in an RV but there were only half a dozen cars in there so we snuck in at the back. If by snuck in you mean rev the engine lots and bottom out Bertha on the bumps that normal sized cars are meant to park on. I put her sideways in the end and we sat on our comfy RV chairs and watched the movie through the side window. They give you a radio frequency to tune in to and that is how you get the sound for the film. It was awesome! If I had the choice I’d go to the Drive-In every time!

I ate my weight in nachos and dip while Emma watched the film. When the film was over we tidied up and by that time the other cars had gone. The front gates were shut and we had no idea how to get out. There were two other screen still with films going. We drove round a bit and two staff members with torches pointed them along a track that took us near the second screen. So off we rolled down there to find it dark and with no exit. Emma spotted the exit the other side of the screen and off we went totally ruining the film for all the cars watching it. As Bertha lights full beam rolled slowly across their view trying not to bottom out again. The only thing that would have made it more comical would have been a Daisy Duke horn.

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Slopping Turds

We found the KOA (Kampgrounds of America) site in the city centre and pitched for the night. I went and showered while Emma hooked us up. When I got back she informed me the waste pipes were open already.

“Well they can’t be I haven’t opened them.”

“I read the manual, they are given to us them open to prove the tanks are empty. We then have to shut them.”

“Well I didn’t shut them did you?”

“No.”

“So they’ve been open the whole time?”

“Yep.”

“And the tanks are empty at the moment?” I said this knowing full well we had been using the toilet.

“Yep.”

“So for the past week we’ve been slopping turds all over the interstate?”

“Yep.”

I had noticed wet patches on the ground whenever we had stopped and at the grand canyon noticed some peas on the tarmac next to the waste pipe and assumed some must have fallen out the pipe when we washed up the night before. I refused to believe that we had been driving along with the toilet waste pipe open just dumping everything on the cars behind us but the black water tank light said it was empty. We hadn’t used it before Vegas but since then we had been living in Bertha. It was another thing that Cruise America forgot to tell us in their haphazard rushed handover of the RV. Four states and nearly 2000 miles with open waste pipes. Maybe that is why no one wanted us to overtake them?

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