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Grand perspective

Sky high over the canyon and the Colorado

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 10, 2007

GRAND CANYON WEST -- Sometime before 6 a.m., on the arid plateau that is home to the steel and glass platform known as the Skywalk , a stage show for vertigo that projects tourists into empty air above the 4,000-foot drop of the Grand Canyon, the sun crests an eastern mesa and cuts through cloudless sky. Sun rays miss the canyon at first, hitting instead the western rim, where bulbous bees buzz and long-eared jack rabbits bound in starts and stops between huddles of yucca, agave, and prickly pear cacti . Immediately, unseen birds in bushes sing. Then the canyon yawns, striations of black and gray stretching into sunlit shades of gold and green, red and white.

So it is an uncertain thing, only two hours after such a sunrise, to step aboard an air-conditioned bus with a small group of khaki-clad tourists for a short ride to Eagle Point and the suspended Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped balcony in which two 6-foot-thick steel beams support a glass floor 2 1/2 inches thick.

After leaving cameras with a clerk (electronics and other personal items are not allowed on the Skywalk) and passing through a metal detector, visitors slip on cloth booties and stagger or stride, depending on confidence, past the cliff face. Some stop in the center of the walkway and stare through the glass floor to red earth directly below. Many more stay above the comforting opacity of the side beams, one hand clenched to the railing, eyes locked on the horizon.

An intimate dynamic quickly emerges as each person adapts to this terra incognita -- somewhere between the calm of walking across a bridge and the chaos of leaping from a plane -- in ways visible and not. A few minutes after finding his footing, Doug Duncan, a Canadian with a gentle manner and floppy hat, strikes a whistling-while-the-bridge-burns mood, strolling from railing to railing with whimsical cheer. A silver-haired woman with flexible hamstrings sprawls facedown on the glass, then stretches into a yoga pose for a $21 souvenir photo. Duncan, who happens to teach meditation in Japan six months of each year, points out that humans typically overcome anxiety produced by adrenaline in 15 minutes. We get used to an unknown situation and adjust. Something that overwhelms, in other words, becomes normal.

So it is, apparently, with the Grand Canyon.

Since much of the canyon was designated a national park nearly a century ago, millions of people from around the world have made the pilgrimage to the winding chasm that sculpts the northern edge of Arizona. Planes, trains, mules, helicopters, river rafts, bicycles, and automobiles have delivered visitors over, under, and around the rims rising above the limestone layers cut during the past several million years by the Colorado River.

For some, it is enough to hike to the canyon's edge and survey a scene that is full of mule deer and cougars, warblers and condors, juniper and mesquite, yet is most striking for its distant emptiness. For others, nature is not enough, and several years ago, David Jin, an entrepreneur who makes his money shuttling Asian tourists from Las Vegas to the canyon, thought of offering them a new thrill.

Like many such things, the Skywalk took shape in Las Vegas, two hours west of the limestone ledge where it is now anchored 46 feet into the earth. Jin enlisted Lochsa Engineering, a firm that calculated the physics behind concrete shear walls and post-tensioned floors for the Wynn Las Vegas, luxury suites atop the Palms Casino, and a 3-million-square-foot tower at Mandalay Bay . Hanging a balcony more than 50 feet past the edge of the canyon, though, was uncharted terrain: Wind gusts needed to be measured, rock samples dug, and plans made for installing such a contraption in a remote location without wired electricity.

So too was deciding exactly how the Skywalk should look. Jin hired Mark Johnson , an architect who has designed homes for Andre Agassi, the tennis player, Randall Cunningham, the former National Football League quarterback, and high rollers among the Las Vegas gambling elite. Were it up to Johnson, a straight-talking man who prefers to live alongside the Vegas scene rather than in it, the Skywalk would have stood more starkly in its natural setting. Johnson preferred a design echoing the steel-and-concrete Art Deco influences of the Hoover Dam, built in the 1930s downriver from the Skywalk site .

Yet Jin's big idea also depended on the will of the Hualapai Tribe, whose 2,500 members hold claim to more than a million acres bordering the Grand Canyon, including more than 100 miles of riverfront.

The Skywalk was built on Hualapai land 100 miles due west of park headquarters and the more-visited North and South Rim sites, in the center of a series of remote canyon overlooks where the Hualapai have been welcoming tourists for several years. There was debate within the tribe about whether anything should be put atop a place so long unspoiled. Tribal tastes for the Skywalk design were more subdued: Steel beams were muted a soft peach, and plans for an adjacent visitor s center, yet to be constructed, limit windows and call for faux-rock siding that mimics the canyon walls.

There is little of planned appearance 50 miles southeast of the Skywalk in Peach Springs, the settled center of the Hualapai reservation, established for the long-nomadic people in 1883. In the town, a spareness of terrain and industry exposes layers of life. Squat homes open outward, some with cracked windows, many with yards littered in plastic, paper, glass, and steel. Slow-moving cars bump from paved roads to side streets. There is hardness: Posted fliers promote an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and education about diabetes. And goodness: A bulletin board showcases drawings by town schoolchildren, and two women making Indian frybread chat with older customers in the soft rhythms of the Hualapai language.

Peach Springs is split by the blacktop lanes of Route 66. At an intersection, the modern and comfortable Hualapai Lodge welcomes tourists, and serves as a base camp for Colorado River rafting trips begun after a drive along a 19-mile dirt road. Most traffic, though, passes on two rail lines. Dozens of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight trains rumble past each day, their whistles clearing the way, their cargo containers -- Hanjin, Maersk, Chinese Shipping -- confirming a broader booming economy that long passed by the Hualapai.

The tribe tried to promote gambling on their land, as so many others have successfully done. But Las Vegas loomed too near. Why not, then, buy in with Jin and his Skywalk idea? That, the thinking went, would lure people from the Vegas luxuries toward the canyon's edge.

In Peach Springs, the sun beats high and hot by mid morning and, on windy days, dirt devils rise in the center of town. A middle-aged woman pauses on an otherwise empty sidewalk before returning to her desk in a tribal training office. She considers the Skywalk and the Grand Canyon West tourist development, connected to Peach Springs by the winding, rutted Buck and Doe Road.

"I am proud of the work the tribe is doing," she says. "Out there, it is something."

Grand Canyon West, with its loose network of overlooks connected by shuttle bus, offers more than the Skywalk, from buffet lunches at picnic tables with stunning canyon views, to an exhibit of traditional mud lodgings. A Navajo hoop dancer greets arrivals at Eagle Point, entertaining with traditional flute melodies and ideas of respect for elders and the natural world. He chides tourists in the crowd who would complain of the 14-mile dirt road approach to Grand Canyon West.

"You are coming to the canyon," he says. "It's not going to be paved. We as natives, it's what we know. We're close to the earth, and some of us get too close to that synthetic world. "

With the first steps onto the Skywalk, a person becomes, even while surrounded by others, alone, vulnerable. Skywalk officials do not disclose the distance from the balcony to the ground directly below; the canyon, though, cuts to a total depth near 4,000 feet. In any case, when standing at the center of the arcing horseshoe, there is a strong sensation of physical disconnection. Senses at first pick up on simple things -- sun and breeze and not much more.

"We are above the soaring hawk," one man says.

A gray-mustached, yellow-shirted security guard says to no one in particular: "When you're a kid, it's 'don't jump off the ladder,' 'don't jump off the roof,' 'don't walk off a cliff.' That's what you just did."

A young girl squeals. A couple waltzes. A man jumps up and down, like a leaping frog, across the glass floor. There is lots of laughter.

Slowly come comfort and closer inspection. The Skywalk is set above a side canyon; the Colorado River traces a mile-and-a-half north. The soaring bird is a red-tailed hawk. The breeze refreshes.

Finally , familiarity, and introspection. The canyon, obscured so long by air-conditioned coaches and bottomless buffets, dominates. The Hualapai heritage, generations of reverence for the physical place, resonates in layers of rock.

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

If You Go

How to get there
Grand Canyon West, the remote, rim-side outpost home to the Hualapai tribe's tourist attractions, is best reached from Las Vegas, roughly 150 miles northwest. Visitors can arrive by car (the drive includes a 14-mile stretch on dirt road), bus, or plane.

What to do
Most tourists shuttle among three main spots: the overlooks at Eagle and Guano points, and the Hualapai ranch, a replica Wild West town. Helicopter rides and short boat trips on the Colorado River can be arranged from Grand Canyon West, as well as 4-wheel-drive tours, and horseback and wagon rides.
Packages vary from the basic -- which includes a permit to enter tribal lands and shuttle among the sites -- to lodging in a comfortable cabin. Meals, including a buffet beef barbecue lunch at Guano Point, are included in most packages. Prices range from $49.95 to $199. With most packages, expect to pay an additional $25 to get on the Skywalk.
Reservations are handled by Destination Grand Canyon, the Las Vegas-based marketing agency for Hualapai ventures. The agency also books one-day bus and plane itineraries from Las Vegas, $289- $369 per person.

Destination Grand Canyon
6206 West Desert Inn, Las Vegas
1-877-716-9378
destinationgrandcanyon.com

Where to stay
For independent travelers, Kingman, Ariz., makes a good base camp. It sits at the intersection of Route 66 and Interstate 40, and hosts an impressive collection of hotels, motels, and restaurants. For information, go to kingmantourism.org. Those who want to see more of Hualapai life can head to Peach Springs, 50 miles southeast of Grand Canyon West. Overnight accommodations are offered at the Hualapai Lodge, which also serves as headquarters for rafting trips from nearby Diamond Creek.
Hualapai Lodge
900 Route 66, Peach Springs
928-769-2230
destinationgrandcanyon.com
Doubles $99.95.

Where to eat
Diamond Creek Restaurant
Adjacent to Hualapai Lodge
A pleasant cafe serving roadside fare. Dinner for two $25.

Information
To see the area, search "Grand Canyon West" in Google Earth.

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