The South Rim Circus

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is one of those places where the intersection of the human and natural worlds begs to be observed, analyzed, and scrutinized.

I’ve floated the Colorado River through the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon three times, and each time I’ve been completely overtaken by the degree of wonder and the sense of individual insignificance that characterize that experience. On the other end of the spectrum, driving up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, parking in a huge asphalt lot, and peering over the railing-bordered edge provides something close to an opposite experience.

The South Rim is nothing short of a three-ring circus, where the human spectacle can almost overshadow the awe-inspiring scenery.

I knew that; and I knew that by choosing to visit the place on a Saturday in August, I’d get an unadulterated dose of the South Rim show. Park Service brochures and radio announcements warn visitors of long entrance gate lines and full parking lots after 9am on most summer days, so I left Flagstaff at 5:30am. When I arrived at 7, the scene was not all that crazy; however, the lack of people seemed to embolden about half of my fellow early-risers to jump the fences at the popular overlooks. They were all out taking selfies on precarious promontories. Meanwhile, little kids were feeding squirrels right in front of signs that exhorted them not to do so. The garbage collectors were just starting to make their rounds for the morning, so the abandoned plastic bottles and single-use coffee cup stashes were still in full sight. Not a pretty display.

Then there’s the whole Visitors’ Center complex, which includes two gigantic parking lots, an interpretive building, and a dozen kiosks scattered along the complex’s concrete pad. There are restroom structures, gift shops, and, of course, the transportation center. Like many of the US’s National Parks, Grand Canyon National Park is being loved to death. Because of this, one of the roads that parallels the rim – the road the travels west towards Hermit’s Rest – is now closed to private vehicle use and can only be accessed via the bus’s orange line. Blue, yellow, purple, and red bus lines exist as well, and although you can drive these routes, the limited parking facilities along them encourage bus use.

I collapsed onto a blue line bus seat with a niggling feeling of defeat and depression, having just just stood in line behind a family of four staring at their phones and drinking from single-use coffee cups I suspected I’d see abandoned at the next overlook. We headed westward, towards Grand Canyon Village. As we arrived at this collection of buildings whose design styles range from 1890’s log construction to 1960’s concrete rectangularity, I was reminded that this human/natural world intersection at the South Rim is not exactly new.

Anglo-Americans began exploring and exploiting this area as early as the 1890’s, when a prospector filed mining claims in what is now Grand Canyon Village. By the early 1900’s, Ralph Cameron, an early adopter of the “Grand Canyon as tourist attraction” idea, the Fred Harvey Company, and others began to create attractions on the South Rim that lured visitors by train to the area. Many of these original buildings remain. You can walk through or even stay the night in the Adirondack style El Tovar Hotel, built in 1905 and adorned with Tiffany lamps and taxidermied elk heads.. The adjacent Bright Angel Lodge has a similar historic feel, but it plays more to Native American motifs, with brightly-painted doors and displays of traditional ceremonial masks.

Architect Mary Colter’s 1910 Hopi House was modeled the Hopi Pueblo’s stone masonry style. It now serves as a gift shop, as does the structure at Hermit’s Rest, another of Colter’s designs. I was genuinely saddened to see this latter building crammed with postcards and t-shirts; its interior holds this wonderful Medieval-feeling hearth which calls up images of exhausted early canyon explorers sipping cocoa in front of the fire. My vision was more than a little impacted by the numerous DVD’s and keychains dangling within view. Why, I continued to wonder, does the South Rim need to have a gift shop in every single building? There are sixteen in all, and they all contain the same stuff – items that people will buy and forget about within a week.

My favorite building along the South Rim is the Kolb Studio, perhaps because I’m so enamored of the history behind it. Brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb ran one of the first tourist photography businesses in the west, taking pictures of mule riders as they descended the Bright Angel Trail and river runners as they navigated rapids. In 1904, they built this studio that literally dangles over the edge of the canyon to process their photographs and show their long-running film of their pioneering trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers. Emery Kolb lived in that building until his death in 1976, when the Park Service took it over.

Just standing in that house brought a smile to my face. People must have thought the Kolbs were crazy to start that business. They were almost certainly crazy to run the canyon in wooden boats, and their dedication to the Grand Canyon was undeniable. I find the shingled construction of the building, its position on the canyon rim, and the sierra tints of the photographs it houses captivating. Really, I love everything about the place.

 

Which I most certainly cannot say about the rest of the South Rim scene.

That said, I know I need to question the role of time in my harsh judgment. Do I just like the Kolb Brothers’ insertion into this natural setting because it happened before the wave of commercialism really took off? For that matter, do I only like travel when it’s off the beaten track? Do I instantly despise locations when they’ve become popularized, corporatized, and commercialized?

Maybe. And this may well confirm my likely status as a travel snob. Or perhaps my opinion is a justifiable by-product of our world’s severe overpopulation crisis. There are staggering numbers of people visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon every year – 5 million is the current number. This is, in my opinion, too many to accommodate. At the same time, however, I’m not one to advocate for the kinds of restrictions on visitation that so often favor travelers with money and connections. So that leaves me in a bit of a bind, watching the wildness of places I love deteriorate while we all love them to death.

The one saving grace I continue to return to is the knowledge that the vast majority of visitors to the South Rim rarely wander off of the paved paths or stray more than 500 meters from a established overlook. I spent several early morning hours walking on the Rim Trail and saw hardly anyone – and, the Rim Trail is a paved, flat pathway appropriate for strollers and wheelchairs. The actual backcountry trails are another creature entirely, and I’d like to think one can find real solitude on those. Even from the vantage point of a crowded pullout, it is obvious that there is an overwhelming amount of untrammeled terrain out there – for now, at least. And those of us with the need, skill, and desire to experience it can get out there.

I know that we human beings have been interacting with our environments since before we were human beings, and that we will continue to do so for as long as we last here.

But for some reason, I don’t find that thought as comforting as I once did, as our current political leader lifts the ban on plastic bottles in National Parks, attempts to reverse several National Monument designations, and promotes oil and gas exploitation throughout our public lands.

Do I really need to be able to buy a latte every tenth of a mile along the South Rim? Do I need a grocery store there at all , much less sixteen gift shops?

I’m worried for this place, and its cousins. I really am.

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