Not so grand, not so grand at all

“It’s not about what you can see, it’s what is missing that is the true genius” a man with large, black-rimmed glasses and a tweed jacket exclaims. He’s standing behind a lady dressed in hipster-chique who has paused in front of an abstract painting in an art gallery.

It would take a very creative mind indeed to conjure similar enthusiasm towards a tourist trap in the form of a large trench sandwiched between parched earth. I have found myself snagged in the trap that has made it into guidebooks around the world, often referred to as ‘The Grand Canyon.’

Sitting in a cluster of bench seating, I stare up at the sky. That’s where I’m headed. No, I’m not imagining a worst case scenario. I’m about to be hurled up into the air in a glorified bumble bee. It’s fifty degrees outside, yet I’m almost shivering in the starkly-decorated, temperature-controlled airport ‘lounge’. Nerves swim around my stomach, exacerbating my low body temperature. I’ll be lucky to avoid the flu at this rate, alternating between ice-cold air conditioning and the sweat-drenching heat of the Nevada Desert.

Our mode of transport to the canyon is helicopter. Propellers rotate violently above us and we lift towards the horizon. I’ve got the much-coveted low-level window seat. Unfortunately, I have a fear of heights, a rather inconvenient family trait. My travel companions mouths are agape in awe. I scan the horizon to double check that I haven’t missed anything. No, just burnt orange earth littered with clusters of rocks and the odd tumbleweed rolling around.

The booking agent must have decided to match our group of New Zealand tourists with a Kiwi-born Pilot. Our fellow country-man introduced himself. I ponder how he found his way into this job when there are so many spectacular places to fly tourists in New Zealand. Plus, they all have one thing that The Grand Canyon doesn’t: an abundance of water.

The Pilot’s voice booms into the headset over the hum of the engine:
“Alright guys, we’re about to fly over The Hoover Dam.”
The Dam supports sin city. Thousands of people were involved in building it. Unfortunately more than one hundred workers never saw the opening of the dam. My attention is easily diverted as we drone over a square kilometre of vacant ‘lots.’ The lots were destined for development into luxury villas, overlooking Lake Mead. The lack of visibility of Lake Mead was a likely contributor to the development’s downfall. Now, vagrants have drawn their caravans onto the scene and created their own shanty-town. They dwell, or technically squat, on the land without electricity. Fascinating.

We descend alongside the canyon’s West Rim onto the helipad. I’m paranoid the propeller is going to take my head off in one clean sweep. I drop low as I disembark and walk like the Hunchback of Notre Dame even after what is probably a safe distance. We stand against the hand-rail in the blazing mid-day sun and teeter over the edge of the canyon.

Layer upon layer of rust coloured sediment is stacked like Lego before us, sprinkled with scrubby growth, clinging to the outer edges. The parted earth falls into a concave drop where our eyes meet a distant, mud-churned river at the bottom which seems no more than a puddle. I struggle to process the scale of what is before me. The use of the word ‘Grand’ seems inappropriate. Especially in a country that super-sizes everything from soft drink to motor vehicles. It’s not hard to see why the city suffers from a water shortage.

Shade is also in short supply and something I would happily part with the ticket price twice over at this point for a reprieve from the sun-scorched desert. I turn to my travel companion and whisper:
“People travel six hours by road for this?” while thanking the desert stars that I am not one of them. The flight back to the base is full of air pockets and creaky seats. I check the box against ‘ride in a helicopter’ and ‘visit the grand canyon’ off my bucket list and make a mental note never to come back again. We wobble away from the helicopter to find that the bus is twenty minutes away but we are “welcome to look through the gift shop” while we wait.

C Harger

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