On Route 66.
Route 66 is a museum of sorts now, oh, Asian tourists love it... Christina and I have different plans on our minds.
On top of Grand Canyon (wiki, NP-site), Monday 29th of November, so early, parked near Bright Angel Lodge: My watch stops these days every now and then so I don’t know the exact time, a faint light glows in from the outside, white, the temperature inside the van is way below zero °C, the gallon of water turned over night to a solid block of ice, the pee bottle is frozen too, outside looks even colder, maybe -10°C, chilly, shall I really get out? It is still snowing. Still before sunrise, Christina still sick, she has been sick ever since Vegas, too many nights in smoky casinos hit the immune system, already Vegas was around zero at night, but Vegas was sunny; cold, windy, but sunny. But what do they say, two Eskimos in an igloo won’t die, one alone does.
The snows hit us yesterday in Williams on Route 66 and I said to myself let’s carry on, quickly, to the Grand Canyon, no interest to get stuck on the road with the Gladiator, with its tires it is not really fit for snow. So we made it and it has been snowing ever since, all night, - and I push myself and crawl out this morning; almost 10 inches, slippery, frozen the path, freezing. The forecast is sunny, actually many days of sun ahead, just for now a snowstorm shakes us and I leave Christina in the igloo, go for a walk along the rim of the Grand Canyon, fool I am, stupid fool I am I think when my face numbs, the camera refuses service, my fingers cramp in thin gloves.
But I keep walking the Rim Trail west, trot on, protect the cam inside my jacket, underneath, hands in pockets, cover my face, I am from Austria, - fool I am on a slippery path, to my right the canyon’s rim breaks several hundreds of meters. Truly inhospitable these first 20 minutes, the horizontal gales want to throw me off the cliff. But then I can already make out some blue through the clouds, is it at Hopi Point or later, certainly a while after sunrise that some rays of sun touch the other side of the Grand Canyon. It remains cold, windy and pretty much overcast, only when I decide to head back and I think about Christina alone in the igloo, that the skies break free, clear themselves. There remains a lot of haze over the canyon, pollution is the culprit, some 1.5kms deep down the Colorado River reflects some blue and green, it seems I can almost hear the sound it makes from where I stand; I cannot wait to see it from close-by.
It is the Colorado River who carved its course through layers and layers of rock to expose and shed light on almost half of the Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history. To get the perspective right, multi-cellular life did not develop until 1 billion years ago, simple animals not until 600 years ago, dinosaurs lived on the planet from 230-65 million years ago, men, Homo habilis since 2.5 million years, modern looking humans since 200,000 years. Here in northern Arizona we fathom an unimaginable log of geological history, look at the building of Earth, the rocks that were formed over the past 2 billion years in ancient seas or sand dunes of past deserts, nearly 40 major sedimentary rock layers can be distinguished. It seems a perversion to the non-expert that the age of the dinosaurs had already been eroded away, these upper-most layers have already gone missing.
The Colorado River was born only 75 million years ago by an uplifting that also created the Rocky Mountains. But only about 2 million years ago it started cutting out the present Grand Canyon. This is just the nutshell, the wonder world called Earth is in fact a lot more complicated (Wikipedia, as always is a good read, Grand Canyon geology, Colorado River, history of the Earth).
Down and Up the Grand Canyon.
In collaboration with Christina
We are lucky; the snow storm, the severe conditions of the past 24 hours made whole groups cancel their visits to the Grand Canyon. All of a sudden there is space available in the Phantom Range Lodge at the bottom of the canyon and we book ourselves in. Christina thinks meals are too expensive and decides to go without or almost without, survive on the cafeteria's 3 dollar bagel and cream cheese. Now the sun is out, a sunny winter. Our descent starts the next morning down the South Kaibab Trail. Yes, I never walked a mountain first down then up. It is still freezing on top, we obviously blow in the winds the authorities suggestions to get ice clamps, I am from Austria. Tadata.
So there we go, we had bought hiking boots for Christina in Los Angeles, not really great shoes but they should do. Christina looks a bit out of place; her fancy leather jacket, designer/hippy hat and shawl, the outfit would fit the streets of New York but is certainly good enough to stay warm, her little bag slung over her shoulder would land in my rucksack pretty soon. My woman has no options but to distinguish herself, - from "experienced hikers", with their "REI gear", sure enough these "die-hards" get a few good laughs every time we pass one of them.
The climb down near the rim is a bit slippery then indeed, certainly not doable in a wheel chair but easy in the boots we have, well maintained, a broad trail. Once we descend deeper into the canyon the red rocks emerge as if the red color melted the ice and we walk in silence breathing in the serenity of the landscape of the immense valley before our eyes. We pass this couple, both beyond 70, both carry huge knapsacks. How are they going to make it with such a load? The descent of 1.5kms to the bottom is hard enough on the knees even with light baggage. Our pace is slow but constant, two hours into the descent Christina feels that "burn in her heart area," thinks she’s "getting a heart attack," this is when I take over her little handbag and she takes some aspirin. A half an hour later the burn had gone, the new boots have caused a blister on the toe and I think she might die like the "Giant from Illinois", there is really only that much you can do, half way down.
Finally the horizon opens up to the blue Colorado River, a sense of relief but still the path is long and the knees have started aching. We make it to the river when sun sets, maple trees overlook the ancient kiva and dwelling places of Pueblo Indians, the canyon cliffs jut out to the sky above in dark blue as we follow the river towards the camp ground.
Christina’s heart pain has long left, her blister is forgotten but the exhaustion kicks in, we both retire to our separate dorm rooms, such is puritan America. Night falls quickly before dinner, we gaze at the silhouette of the canyon against the nightly blue sky, not many stars are visible from below, it feels magical sitting in the belly of the earth listening to the old, old river.
Later I wine and dine in the restaurant, hearty stew and salad and a beer, while Christina chews on her bagel and cream cheese outside, they brutally locked the doors to the have-nots. After dinner I realize the old couple has arrived, nobody told them the lodge was well equipped, no need to bring food and sleeping bags. How will they make it back up? That is what I wonder later while we pour whiskey in our teas, I am glad that I brought the essentials; but better not drink too much; we want to be fit for the tomorrow.
Up early, even too early, it is non-sense to get moving in the dark, some do and miss the spectacle of the first rays of light touching the surrounding cliffs while the Colorado still lies in such darkness. Taking the first steps ascending the Bright Angel Trail I instruct Christina to go in my footsteps and go really slowly, but constant. We pass the old couple again, they had set out early too.
We get to Indian Garden without problems, follow a stream most of the time, spot some deer, the trail is not so steep at first, the canyon walls glow, a group of tourists on mules overtake us, some others on foot, we have found a good and constant pace and heart beat. Indian Garden is somewhere in the middle, a helicopter lands, are they coming in for the olds?
We have a bite to eat, a sip of water and then Christina becomes enthusiastic, in euphoria runs ahead, lets her body feel the energy of the canyon; meditates in sight of the rim and the ravens cheering along her way. But the rim, the top of the canyon is still far, eventually she competes with the mules for space on the trail, the silence is broken by the clown-like cowboy tales their guide utters, the tourists though like it, even I have to smile wryly.
Christina desperately sneaks past the mules and the cowboy, continues at a fast pace, but the mules annoyingly catch up with her, finally outpaced her and she is left to the silence of the canyon again. Towards the top, when the knees hurt more and more, the breath goes away, the body aches and spirit humbles, I catch up with her, find her sitting under a tree, watching the wide open below, she’s become a good mule. A few more turns on the now steep Bright Angel Trail, a cheering raven waits sitting in a tree. Yes, I guess we have made it.
So that was 13km down the South Kaibab Trail from 2,150m of altitude to 754m (where the Colorado River flows, on my not calibrated GPS), 14kms walk back up the Bright Angel Trail to 2,090. That is 1,400m down, a bit less up. My knees would hurt for 3 days.
Christina leaves next morning for Eugene, OR, I drive out east; in Desert View I catch some detailed shots. I want to explore a few more things, see Indian Nation’s territories, then catch up with her.
Navajo and Hopi Nation and Canyon de Chelly.
A beautiful day and I roll down the Grand Canyon plateau, spot another break in the country, there is Little Colorado, a smaller canyon; I enter Navajo Nation (wiki). I land in Tuba City and it is late, I cannot find a bar for obvious reasons, I realise that my knowledge about Native American and the Navajo People in particular is limited, their history or present story equally a blank. Next morning I visit the Navajo Nation museum and buy a book ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee – an Indian History of the American West,’ Dee Brown 1970. I know nothing of Wounded Knee (which is in South Dakota, far from here, the 1890 slaughter of 300 Lakota is of great significance to all American Indians, a new era started after Wounded Knee and everything can be measured before Wounded Knee and after, Native American Netroots), I also know nothing of the Long Walk (which happened here in Arizona, New Mexico on Navajo Land, Navajo call it a genocide attempt), I know that over the centuries millions deceased, were killed in wars against the US, were deceived, cheated upon and ultimately robbed of their land, but I don’t know names, dates, exact circumstances, I cannot get the numbers right.
I need to change this I think and I drive out into Hopi Nation, the land and reservation of a small tribe, the Hopi (wiki). By chance I drive into a village called Old Oraibi, an old man, Randall, has some stuff to sell, rainmakers, a painted piece of wood on a string, makes a sound when you turn it, take two for my kids as I am headed home soon. He tells me the archaeologists were here, that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the US, almost 1000 years old, there are indeed some ruins around, I hold back going anywhere far in the village, out of fear of stumbling onto some holy shrine. Eventually I take Randall and his son to the trading station a few miles down the roads, they spend the money I just gave them.
I get through Second Mesa, the Hopi Cultural Centre is closed, drive on to First Mesa and Keams Canyon, night has fallen when I get to Chinley back in Navajo Nation.
I sit in a Burger King and start reading Dee Brown’s Wounded Knee book. The true story of a genocide; an hour later, I am reading it carefully, I am through the chapter of the Long Walk of the Navajos, the 1860s, one third of the Navajos was being rounded up, sent in several waves on the march East!, where in reservation they faced starvation, disease, death, continued warfare with other tribes, abduction of their children, in winter many froze to death. I learn of Barboncito (Dine biographies) and Manuelito (wiki, Dine biographies, canyondechelly.net), two true heroes down here, who cleverly managed to escape first, then were hunted, also through Canyon de Chelly (which is down the road), also there in an especially sick episode, an attempt to deprive the Navajos of their food source, all cattle and all peach orchards were destroyed in one of the raids. Manuelito and his band are said to have survived with other tribes in Hopi Land or in the Canyons of the Little Colorado or the Grand Canyon. First Barboncito, 2 years later also Manuelito out of lack of food turn themselves in, only to lead the Navajo people back home a few years later, to the land between the four holy mountains. Navajo Nation today is by far the largest semi-autonomous Native-American governed territory in the US.
I start reading the next chapter on the ordeal of the Sioux people, but really this is too hard, too sad a genocide and exodus story, I put the book down. Around me the young Indian folk at Burger King burst out loud in laughs and jokes, they don’t share my current grieve and lack of understanding, this is their Friday night. Western country rock music plays, obese Native Americans serve Native Americans in cowboy and baseball hats the usual whopper, fries and Coke, the pickup-trucks are parked outside. Americanization, "civilizing" seems was successful.
The Great Chiefs of the West, like Manuelito of the Navajos, knew they could never defeat the white man in battle, you kill some then many more would come, thousands. Missionaries, trappers, gold seekers, soldiers and settlers, many had nothing to lose, many had a die-hard Christian messianic agenda and enforced schooling/civilizing/cutting hairs/going to church; some was done with brutal force, great loss of dignity and pride, at gun point. Why are there so many churches around, instead of burnt down to the ground, I ask myself? Why would a Native American want to be Christian when Christians were responsible for killing 90% of their ancestors? Can time really heal the wounds? I wonder when another giggle and screaming burst out on the youngsters’ table while they fall over their whoppers. I am irritated, for them it is just Friday night, like elsewhere on the planet.
So what now? The bluecoats, the prison guards have long left, and the Navajo Nation seems better off than others, still more than a century later after the Long Walk nothing is easy. The reservation has its own rules, no alcohol here; but "many youngsters go to Phoenix, do drugs and gang stuff, come back, do crazy things;" "some go with sisters in their own clan, although Navajo tradition requires us to marry into another clan," so tells me Kenny the next morning, he sells jewelry, Navajo jewelry is exquisite, artistic, his family owns land in the Chelly Canyon. On the reservation unemployment is around 45%, in some districts as high as 85%. Young Navajos who seek their luck outside face discrimination or outright hostility; when you are Native American it is hard to win.
What I don’t get again and again in Navajo Nation are the competing Christians, Mormons, Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, "the number of churches has been growing," tells me then Kenny, his father is a medicine man, but his mother, 86, now is Christian, "now she throws all traditional stuff out, she’s been healed from disease, in the blink of an eye, in a ceremony, terminally ill before she just walked out!" These hocus pocus of Christian’s I think, why would Indians seek out the priest while I look for the medicine man?
"Are you angry?" I ask Kenny, referring to history. "Me not," he explains, "but there is still a conflict of mind with many people; Navajos and Whites!" "Whites on the tour buses very often don’t want to hear the stories; then in the end they give a 100USD bill as a tip, to pay them off." Paying for the sins of our ancestors is an important part of healing, in fact is a way to breathe out peace.
On my way down to the bottom of Canyon de Chelly (wiki) I meet Phil, "Yes he would call it a genocide, 1 million or more dead, with the goal to take away the land fits the definition of a genocide!" he is 35, grew up in Phoenix, never knew his father, now lives on the reservation, learns the language, goes back to college, environmental science. He comes out to the Canyon when there is free time, feel the energy. So I ask him: "Do you come out here to commemorate the killings 140 years ago, do you feel it, I mean do the stones cry out?" Phil tells me calmly: "Not so, just like being in nature. We come here when moon shines, snow and moonshine even better, then the [sheer glazed] rocks shine, reflect the sow and the moonlight". Just beauty! Phil is not angry either, but returns to the Canyon and becomes aware of roots and heritage.
Later down in the valley in front of the White House, the ancient settlement under the cliffs of the Pueblo People (wiki) that are also called Anasazi which in Navajo means enemy ancestors or ancestors that are now scattered, the White House dates from the 13th c., Phil confides that he doesn’t like the history of the making of the United States and we come again to talk about genocide. My head spins; the death march of the Navajos reminds me of the march of Armenians into the Syrian Desert. Israeli/Jewish scholars acknowledge that the Armenian dying 1917/19 comes close to their own Holocaust. The US has their difficulties to attach the term genocide to the Armenian suffering, for diplomatic reasons to not offend the Turks? or to not shed too much light on their own dealings against Native Americans?
Then the restricting of movement and land, ousting, confining into reservations, repeatedly cheating on deals reminds very much of the Palestinian Nakba and the Israeli settlement policy in Palestine, it seems there is a by-the-book-manner of doing things. The history of the formation of the State of Israel reminds very much of the creation of the US, just in the case of the US the time frame is longer and the number of deaths so much higher.
In 1900 the total U.S. Indian population reached its low point: less than 250,000, compared to an estimated 8 million in 1492 (Native American Netroots).
Past Monument Valley a few days later as I drive up to Page, the land is beautiful, dusk falls, the clouds and haze have taken over, I stop to take an old Indian shepherd, he freezes, he is drunk, he is handicapped, can hardly enter the van, but he smiles, squeezes my hand, points out a mountain ahead as we drive north; one of the four holy ones?
In Page some Bar/Grill, Whites as Indians, a Bud in hand or in front, baseball hats on, watch with great excitement the Wrangler National Rodeo Finals on TV, they all (including the Indians) know their favorite white cowboys in the competition; certainly the Indians know a thing about riding a horse too I think, just none is in the completion.
You cannot always be lucky; Monument Valley is a hazy affair. But with a bit of luck I’ll be back one day to experience the red sunsets that make red stones and cliffs glow. I have got a feeling, maybe I was an Indian in a former life, but I keep that for another story.
The great American openness and where radio sucks.
I need to get to Eugene, it is winter and the van isn’t well equipped; I cannot go anywhere where there is snow. From Page this is almost 2000kms. Crossing southern, mountainous Utah, getting to Cedar City over the passes (some are 10000 feet, ov. 3000m high), snow storms hit and I have to make detours via Zion. Most of the Nevada driving then is dry, sunny, follow the loneliest roads in the US, dead straight along the wide trough valleys south to north, then crossing the ridges, there’s the snow again, a few days old, and back down into another valley. So untouched, so beautiful, so high up, and the passes even higher and I imagine the times when the bison came down these valleys in the tens of thousands.
Ely, Eureka, NV, in Winnemucca I shrug off some tiredness, win 30 bugs in the casino, before driving on. At 1 a.m. I stop for the night already in Adel, Oregon, I have almost no more fuel; in the morning I realize all the snow around, here it must be amazingly beautiful at the right time of the year. On the last drop I get to Lakeview, at the gas station I pour myself a huge coffee with added caffeine, it is free, this is America. Later I pass Crater Lake; the mountain is so near, snow is all around from the night before. I slip a bit; drive so slow up and down my last pass, then roll down to the plains of Eugene. The tensions fall off, I have been lucky to get through it all safely. I meet Christina and Eugene is rain and rain and rain and more rain, 24 hours all the 7 days we spend here.
I have driven some of the greatest roads in America, but excuse me I have to let go of this, -
On the road, it has sunk in the thing that I hate most about the van, it has no radio, or better it has only a radio and no CD player, just an old crappy cassette player, and it is radio that sucks in the US, or better country radio stations suck. 1. These stations play either old rock from the forefathers with and occasionally AC/DC tossed in the pot or the most boring country pop, pretending there has not been musical evolution in 30 years, say nay, put the head in the sand is what 10 out of 10 radio stations in rural areas do. 2. So many nutty Christian preachers appear on the radio talking all day Jesus-loves-you banalities, how can u stand that guys? Jesus or Mohamed, in fact God is spiritual matter, for mind and meditation, to be kept to oneself! 3. Obviously there is soo much nutty con. talk about securing borders and stuff, - are we still craving for that 9 years after the homeland security and patriot act? 4. Ads in the US suck too, these would not bring my mother out to buy and the ad-block last forever, so poor is America. YES guys I will take your love-it-or-leave-it comments.
From Eugene via Ashland, the hippy spot turned into an art and culture money extraction place, we come back to San Francisco, a few Anchor Steam Beers in Mission; an excellent Indian lunch in Vice Roy in Berkley, some friends here and there. On 16th of Dec, early morning I put Christina to the airport, then head back to Berkley/Oakland where I leave my van. A Latte from Triest Café where in 1957 Francis Ford Coppola wrote his Pate screenplay, I pack, sun goes up, such a beautiful morning. When Sara walks me to the BART station, an African American greets with a “Morning Whites!” oh, I could love this San Francisco and adjoined areas.
An hour’s ride to the airport, I fly out on time, to London, my feet stink, my armpits stink, sorry fellow travelers. Next day from London to Vienna we are delayed by only 4 hours. This is nothing in snowy pre Christmas Europe. Late this evening, and Christina has gotten here earlier in the day, I have my children Daniel and David back. They are almost 4 and I am happy as can be.