It wasn’t at all hard to wake up early, get ready, and be at the bus on time. The prospect of a helicopter flight through the Grand Canyon was a good motivator. As commercial as it might be, and for as many people as probably have done it, it seems like one of those more privileged activities – I don’t know anyone who has done it, and was relishing the prospect of dropping the story oh-so casually at dinner tables I might find myself at.
An overwhelming majority of the tour was doing one of the Grand Canyon options. The first option was a 30 hour flight, the second was a 45 minute flight, and the third was an all-day flight and trek. I’ll explain each. The first option was the cheapest, and it consisted of a flight over the top of the canyon for around 8-10 minutes. The rest of the time was taken up with flying to the canyon and back to the helipads. The second options saw you go into the canyon in the chopper, covering a much larger area, and you would have views of the Canyon for an additional 15 minutes. The third option saw you get in a helicopter, fly into a part of the Grand Canyon, land, then hike down around the river and what-not, all the way to a special Native American reserve, where you would pay to get in, walk for some more, scale down a cliff to find a scenic waterfall, and then reverse the whole procedure (though not get your money back), then catch the helicopter home. As I said, this last option was an all-day one.
When I was first thinking what to do, I thought I might do the cheapest flight option, at US$150. However, when I thought about it more, and looked at how much the second option was, US$210, I thought “You’re paying $150 for 10 minutes in the Canyon – pay an additional $60 and you more than double your time in the Canyon. So, in a sense, you are saving $90”. I decided to go for the second option. I also voiced this logic to the person I was sitting next to on the bus, and they thought I was something of a genius for thinking like that, and upgraded their choice too.
The all-day adventure was US~$600 plus the additional US$65 to get into the Indian reserve. That was never an option for me. I’d have loved to do it, but there was no way I could afford something like that. Maybe next time.
We drove out to the pads, and were all weighed (the women were scared of this part the most!). I clocked in as having lost weight since I last weighed a week before I left for holiday. I was rather pleased about that. We sat around, watched a safety video (and got a sticker to show that we watched it, which I think I still have somewhere), and then waited till we were called. We were assigned groups and seats, according to our weight. From the looks of the other people in my group, I assessed that I was in the ‘light weight’ group. Maybe I was there to give more weight though …
The helicopters take up groups of 6 – one person sitting beside the pilot (the most coveted seat), two with their backs to the pilot and the person in the seat beside him (so they are flying backwards), and three across from them. I assigned seat 5, and was sitting with my back to the passenger beside the pilot.
Being the first time I’ve been in a helicopter, I was a little nervous, but still excited over the whole activity. The take-off was extremely smooth, and there was no turbulence or shaking as you might expect of a thing thing in the sky. When it moves forward, you feel the whole cabin angle forward. Same when it moves left or right. It’s rather loud, there being an engine right above you, and in the tail, so they have you wear headphones. The pilot is able to speak to you over the headphones, and generally he would point out landmarks or interesting shaped rocks, and tell you a bit of history. When he isn’t speaking, they play scenic music.
The flight does take a little under 10 minutes to get to the canyon. You fly over a vast amount of trees and forest to get towards the rim. You can distinctly see where fires have gone through in recent times. Thankfully, none had been through that year yet, so where the trees were gone or sparse, there was a lush bed of bright-green grass. You knew when you were flying over a cleared area because the grass was a deep shade of green. There is only one road going through the whole area, and once you pass that, you could be forgiven for thinking you were back in the frontier days, looking over an area devoid of man or society. In one clearing we had the chance to see a deer wandering about.
As we grew nearer to the canyon, over the headsets played the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme. It must be programmed, because as we passed over the rim, the music was perfectly placed. The ground just gave way, and what went from being a few hundred metres below you went to kilometres. The sight was accompanied by an experience of amazement and shock – for the second time, the Grand Canyon had literally taken my breath away.
Passing further over, you get to some of the deepest points, where you can make out a squiggle on the ground (the mighty Colorado River), with points rising up like natural pyramids from the ground. Sometimes there would be trees growing on flats at the bottom. The helicopter would make dips into the canyon, ascend into the sky, and then back down among the rocks. When the helicopter reached a sustained height, and I looked out both windows, this natural phenomenon stretched as far as I could make out. It was a magnificent sight that humbled and inspired me through the sheer imagery of what I was witnessing.
As much as I might try, there’s no way that words or pictures or videos can allow you to comprehend how great an experience the Grand Canyon is. A few people on the tour didn’t share my overwhelming joy of having been to the Grand Canyon – I heard people say it was just a big hole again. I think you have to go and want to be blown away by it. I think you might have to be a certain kind of person who is looking to experience something so different to what people normally holiday for. It’s not a theme park, it’s not a city, it’s not meeting someone new. It’s something so different to what I have experienced in my time on holidays. And it’s not something I’ll soon forget.
After the flights and the wait for everyone else to get theirs done, we bused it to the main entrance of the Grand Canyon National Park for a photo with the sign for the group. A few laughs ensued, I took an 18 Cup photo (after which, I had to explain to a handful of people what the go was), and then we drove back to our cabins. I prepared myself for a long hike into the canyon along one of the trails with my cameras, the Cup, a bottle of water, and my trusty Akubra. We had been warned to not try and go too far because you could, well, die. Exhaustion and fainting from heat could see you fall off the track (which is quite narrow at points) and into the abyss. I decided to work not on distance, but on time.
Anyone who goes anywhere with me knows that I’m a brisk walker. I walk at a tick under the speed of a jogger. I don’t know how I do it, but I’m generally faster than people I walk with. And I can sustain that pace for a lot longer than one might think. So, for my walk, I decided to walk on a basis of time, rather than distance. I knew how long it had taken me to walk the Rim Trail (the 7 mile one-way walk I did in the previous post to get the best view of the sunset), and adjusting for the steep inclination that I would have on the trip back up the trail I was about to take, I thought that if I walked down for 45 minutes, it would take me 1 hour to get back up, factoring in tiredness and stops. If I had tried to go down to the first stop on the trail, it would have taken perhaps 1 and a half hours to get down, and as long as 2 hours to get up. The time was ~12pm, the heat at the rim was somewhere around 30C, which meant further into the canyon it would reach 40C. Additionally, the whole group was meeting at a shuttle stop to get out to a good spot to watch the second sunset, some 2 miles South of where we were staying, 9 miles South of where I had watched the night before’s sunset. I was anxious to get a different view for my photo collection and compare (really, to justify if my trek away and on my own would reap more rewards than following the flock like a sheep).
My tick under 2 hour trip would do me fine under all these conditions, I thought.
I was the first of our group to go down and in. I passed a couple of people who had no intentions of going down. I kept up a steady and brisk pace going down, stopping only for the occasional photos. This wasn’t the most ideal path to take for scenic photos – there would often be a tree in the way, or you would be positioned deep behind a cliff face. I got some photos, and was once again struck by the size of the canyon – here I was standing in 40 degree heat, while on the other side of the canyon, there was lightening and a thunder storm raining down. Yet if I looked directly above me, there wasn’t a cloud in sight. Remarkable.
I reached the 40 minute mark and stopped. I was enjoying this walk – I was having fun. I knew I could easily keep going, as I didn’t feel the slightest bit tired. But I looked up, and recalled the ease at which I was able to skip down. The trek up would be tiresome, even for someone like me. I walked a little further to a point I could see, then sat down, energised, and started walking back up.
The walk back up was hard at points. Everything seemed steeper, more difficult, and rougher to navigate. My feet began to feel like weights halfway up the return, so I stopped and sat down on the nearest rock for a drink of my water and to catch my breath. A group from the tour passed me, heading down, and asked me how I was. I said fine, and that I was headed up. They said did I make the first marker, I said I did not because I wanted to be back at my cabin with time to spare – to shower off from the dusty, sweaty hike, and the re-pack my suitcase (something I’d do every second day to gauge how much space and weight I had left), get some tea, before heading out for the shuttle. They seemed mystified as to why I didn’t just go the whole way. Perhaps they don’t mind smelling awful, and looking the part, but I do. They also asked how the up-hill battle was going. I said it’s tougher than you might imagine. This seemed to worry a few of the people as they walked away.
I set off again, and stopped maybe 2 more times before I made the rim again. I was rather pleased with myself – I’d been walking in the Grand Canyon. Another little tidbit that I could drop into dinner conversations in a nonchalant way and expect few, if any, to have something comparable. It was, however, an exhausting exercise. As rough as I might have felt though, I knew that I would fall asleep quickly that night, with the knowledge that I had actually had a productive and tough day.
I made my room, prepared myself and my case, before going for some tea. I can’t remember the specifics, but it was light. We had a voucher for a free meal there, which I decided to use for a big breakfast the following morning (as we weren’t stopping anywhere for a ‘serious’ lunch), so I would have got something light (which equates to cheap). I do remember it being average – I guess that the canteen spent all their money on the views rather than their food.
Following this, I brought some trinkets in the gift store, went back to my cabin to pass some more time, then went to the shuttle meeting area, where the whole group was to gather. We got the shuttle up to a point which I can’t remember the name of, and posed for some group photos. Then people grouped off – though I went by myself again. Most of the people there were, at that point in time, bumbling and goofing around. The previous sunset, the one I went to by myself, was a moving experience, and a somewhat personal one (such was the way I treated it). I didn’t want to spoil another chance at that with skylarking.
I found a spot around the bend, where a few people had figured out the view was much better fro here – no obstructions, facing the sunset, and less persons. A couple other tour people wandered over, perhaps looking for a self-reflective moment too. I watched the sun set for a second time and noted that I was an extremely fortunate and lucky person to have had this opportunity again. While it wasn’t quite as special as the first sunset, the second was just as scenic.
The group gathered together again and we all made our way back. On the shuttle, I began to get a bit tired, and by the time I was in my cabin (certainly before 10pm), I was quite drowsy. I changed into my sleeping clothes, and climbed into bed to watch some television. Now, in Australia, when channel 10 has free time to fill in, or need to fill a slot on the schedule, they show Simpsons repeats. It’s a guarantee. Well, in the US, I found the equivalent station, however, instead of showing Simpsons repeats, they show repeats of That 70’s Show. I quite like that show, and I haven’t seen it enough for it to annoy me. So I settled with that, and watched it for a while. When it became a battle to keep my eyes open, I gave up, turned the TV off with the lights (other than my roommate’s bedside light, who wasn’t home yet), and fell straight asleep – not just pleased that I had had a productive and tough day, but one of the most memorable days of the trip. And my life.