Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 25, 2010


A gathering of even well-behaved teenagers is not destined to be a quiet place. So when husband Art and I climbed aboard the bus carrying the Gold Orchestra, the youth string group directed by Kansas State University's David Littrell, we knew what to expect.

But after more than an hour of steady chit-chat since we had left our motel in Flagstaff, the bus quieted. Someone had caught a glimpse of the Grand Canyon - the highlight of our tour through New Mexico and Arizona. As the word spread, the joking, playing with electronic games and checking of text messages gave way to faces pressed to the windows.

And it wasn't just the teenagers who were straining to see. Every curve provided yet another spectacular view of the red, green, purple and yellow layers of the cliffs.

We stopped at a collection of buildings where Wayne, our tour guide, joined us. He was a tall, slender man with silver hair and a sun-tanned face etched by smile crinkles, no doubt deepened by hours spent in the sun and wind.

In a slow and seemingly effortless speaking manner, he filled the time between the stops with an overview of the canyon's history, geology, plants and animals.

We learned:

*In the 1890s and early 1900s, the canyon had 40,000 visitors a year; now the number is about 4.5 million annually.
*The canyon has 4,000 archaeological sites, but only 10 percent have been excavated. Several Native American tribes claim ancestral linkage to people who lived in the area. Those "Anasazi" or Ancient Puebloans lived primarily in agricultural societies but they also traded with communities in New Mexico, southwest Colorado and Mexico.
*Although the landscape looks rugged, in some regards, it is actually very fragile. Plants and animals that live there must adapt to the lack of moisture and hot days followed by cold nights.

As we drove along, Wayne drew our attention to various native plants. Pointing to the tallest species of tree on the South Rim, he identified it as a ponderosa pine. The tree has dark bark when it's young and then, as it matures, the bark changes to cinnamon as iron oxide moves to the surface. Color is added to the landscape by the cliff rose, an evergreen shrub decorated with cream-colored flowers. Native Americans used the yucca, eating its fruits and harvesting its fiber to make rope and sandals. The Utah juniper supplied them with a source of edible berries and the pinyon pine provided a nourishing seed within its cones.

The lessons were interesting, but we wanted to see everything ourselves and up close. But before we got off the bus, Wayne spoke about the dangers. In most places, the initial drop at the canyon edge is several hundred feet with jagged rocks below. Surviving a fall is unlikely. And the beauty of the scenery, plus the high altitude, a sun that shines almost every day and very low humidity can easily lure hikers into attempting walks for which they have inadequate food, water and stamina.

He drove the point home by mentioning that, on average, one person dies each week and ten more are seriously injured.

The youngsters streamed off the bus and then paused to drink in the scene before us. Soon some handed their cameras to friends and crawled over rocks to position themselves for pictures with the canyon as a backdrop.

At a second stop, there were a couple of gift shops and a small store that provided necessities for those who live in the area. Some of the youngsters opted for lunch, while others went to the Watchtower - a re-creation of the prehistoric towers scattered over large areas of the Southwest.

Art and I headed in a different direction and almost immediately were surprised. We were alone after just a three-minute walk along the rim trail - not another human or anything man-made in sight.

A bit farther along, we could see the Colorado River, just a blue-green ribbon thousands of feet below and miles to the west. Although it winds almost 300 miles through the canyon, it is visible from only a few spots along the trail.

Between stops to soak in the view, we walked carefully, as there were no guard rails. Small gray lizards skittered here and there. At one point, I took refuge from the sun on a large flat stone under a small bush as Art continued walking. While I waited for him to return, an Eastern fence lizard with a bright blue patch under its chin popped up from under a rock.

Later, at another stop, we saw swallows swooping down along the cliffs looking for insects and cliff chipmunks chattering and jumping from rock to rock. We were startled to see a California condor, a bird once almost extinct. In 1982, only 22 remained, but a breeding program conducted by several zoos increased the number to 375. Of those, 75 now make the Grand Canyon their home.

At every turn, the colors, vastness and sheer cliffs took our breaths away.

At the end of the day, a story Wayne had shared earlier came to mind. A British tourist in a group he was guiding could only stare and say, "Wow!" at each stopping point. He began to kid her, suggesting that perhaps she could come up with another word. But in the end, she, like we, found it to be the most fitting description.


Left, several orchestra members find a nice setting for a souvenir picture. Right, Wayne shares his knowledge of the Grand Canyon.

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