North America,  Travel,  Travel Rambles

GART: Tucson to The Grand Canyon

This is part of a series reflecting back on the self-described Great American Roadtrip that David and I took in July. See our itinerary here!
Also check out Albuquerque and Tucson!

After awaking mildly groggy from my prickly-pear margarita, it is time to leave our fancy Airbnb.

As we walk out the door, the Airbnb host is nowhere to be found but her dog Tugboat is wagging his tail and demanding we pet him. Awww, 10/10 good boi doggo. Then we go to throw something into her trash can and he changes his mind about us. Bark bark! Get away from my mom’s trash can!

Goals & Garbage - A photo of Saguaro National Park

It’s already almost 100 degrees at 8 am, but we still decide to eat some breakfast before hiking. We plan on exploring Saguaro National Park today, and then driving up to Phoenix.

Phoenix will be our hub for the next two nights. I decided on this for a few reasons:

  1. I knew we wanted to explore Saguaro today and The Grand Canyon the next day. However, Tucson to Flagstaff is almost 4 hours which would mean we’d have to rush through the park.
  2. Phoenix is also about an hour and a half closer to Los Angeles than Flagstaff is, plus along the drive you pass Joshua Tree National Park.

We stop by a little gas-station-turned-diner for some quick breakfast. Unfortunately there are no tacos for breakfast, so I settle on some vegetarian Huevos Rancheros. And about five cups of coffee.

There is a saguaro cactus outside of the restaurant, giant and inviting. It’s love at first sight.

Goals & Garbage - A photo of Saguaro National Park

My excitement to see more saguaros ends up jinxing us though and we end up getting lost on our way to the park. For some reason, Waze takes me to a “scenic road” rather than the Visitor Center. Only – the road is a winding, rocky dirt path that is only meant to be taken by off-road vehicles.

For 15 minutes I continue on this roller coaster road thinking it will maybe, magically end at the center? We bounce up and down and up and down. Rogue rocks threaten to break our windshield. I think I saw the rental car shed a tear. Fuck this. We turn around.

After a little more getting lost and a lot of me getting angry, we finally find the Visitor Center. The woman inside is incredibly friendly, which calms me down a bit. We purchase a few post-cards and magnets for friends and David goes to fill up our water bottle from an outside spigot. He is gone all of five minutes before he is back, panting, no water in tow.

“Bees,” he says. “Bees everywhere.”

Apparently there is a hive right next to the water source. Prime real estate.

Goals & Garbage - A photo of Saguaro National Park

By now it is way later than we anticipated arriving and is 105 degrees. But it’s dry. The lack of killer humidity makes it feel almost more tolerable than Missouri. We have hot Gatorade that we left in the car overnight and settle on two one-mile hikes.

Our first hike is the Valley View Overlook Trail. It’s easy, with a very mild incline. There are saguaro’s everywhere.

Some stand tall, with multiple appendages. Spider-like. Some flipping me off. Some asking me to fight them. Atop their fingers are flowers and birds and spines.

Others are decaying in the sun, black and exposed. Slowly dying. A few are dead, just mush on the ground. And the rest look like zombies. They are still standing but are sucked completely dry, turning them into a white crisp. They look like apocalyptic skeletons.

After an almost unfair lack of effort, we reach the peak of the hike. Atop the overlook, we can see a flat land of brush. Booooring. I came here for the cacti!

Goals & Garbage - A photo of the author in Saguaro National Park

“Those are saguaros!” says David.

“They are?”

Upon further squinting, I realize the brush is actually tiny dots of saguaros. As far as the eye can see, miles and miles of hundreds of saguaros. An imperial army of saguaros.

It is easily one of the most entertaining parts of this trip so far.

Goals & Garbage - A photo of the author in Saguaro National Park

After Saguaro, we depart from Tucson and head north through the Gila Reservation. Everything is flat and red and we are still being threatened by dust devils.

David gets a sad and bad phone call and we sit in silence. He’s a quiet type and would rather sit in his thoughts and ponder. I try and respect this and resist the urge to ask: “do you wanna talk about it?” But I am driving and staring into the desert-abyss, no iPhone or radio or human to distract me. My creepy crawly anxiety thoughts spring up and threaten me – “what if you get caught in a dust storm and die!”, and then I am annoyed at myself for making everything about me. Me me me. Even if it’s just internally.

(How did people with GAD function before the invention of smartphones? The millennial in me screams for constant preoccupation.)

A dust devil blows over us and I pull off to the side of the road. Blinkers off! Seat belt on! Something something! No one else pulls over and instead they speed into nothingness and disappear. We look like noobs. It breaks the silence.

My stomach is shouting MORE TACOS! and it’s the first thing we eat upon arrival in Phoenix. We go to a loud restaurant that has a wait of over an hour because it’s Tuesday and no one has to work tomorrow. We kill time by walking around in the suburbs and happen upon a handful of stray cats. I plead for them to let me pet them, but instead they quizzically peer out from the bushes with their little minced ears. Just out of arms reach.

We head back for sleep to ready ourselves for the next day’s adventure. As I drift off, I wonder where to buy a trap to catch the cats.

Goals & Garbage - A photo of the Grand Canyon

We wake up early and it’s the fourth of July. The sun is already beating down but the entirety of Phoenix is empty, as everyone sleeps in on their holiday. We grab a goat-cheese-spinach-thing for another rendition of bleary Starbucks breakfast. I attempt to drive and eat and instead just drop it on myself. Angrily, I throw it in the trash.

I get so pissy when driving, I can’t help myself.

I should be excited, because today we are going to the Grand Canyon. It’s a 3 hour drive from Phoenix and a holiday, so we are eager to get there to try and evade the crowds. After an attempt at cleaning spinach-ey stains off of myself, we continue.

The drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon is fascinating. We head up, up, up through desert mountains. The ascent is horrifying, as the little rental car mightily squeals and complains, and other drivers angrily fly around me, shaking their heads. Noobz! Again!!

But at last, we are through the climbs and are now immersed in a forest. Pine needles litter the highway and everything is a lush green. An eager mist swallows us whole. That’s weird, I think. We were in Arizona but I guess we drove to Portland.

And then, past Flagstaff, the world transforms again into just pure flat yellow. We hurtle down the two-way road and David wonders aloud if we will be able to see the canyon before we get there. I don’t think so, I think. You can see mountains because they’re tall but a canyon is like… In the ground.

Turns out, you can’t see the canyon from outside of the park but it is mostly because the NPS keeps ya out. First you have to pass their guards and pay your fees, then swerve through a little more forest, and then navigate their Disney-like set up.

I guess the Grand Canyon gets A LOT of the NPS government moneyz, which they have used to construct an entire city with. There are lodges, shops, restaurants, equestrian stables, pet hotels, concrete parking lots, and a miniature train. It reminds me of Niagara Falls which is essentially like falling into a Looney Tunes movie. Who needs nature when you can cater to needy tourists?

Despite the holiday crowds, we score a parking spot that I am honestly proud of. We navigate a short distance through the fake cabins and then find ourselves face to face with the grandest of canyons. CANYON FOR FOREVER. A rainbow of layers – purple, red, orange, green, all through the hot, summer haze.

Goals & Garbage - A photo of the Grand Canyon

“It looks fake,” I say. “It looks like a giant painting.”

Before we decided to come to the Grand Canyon, two separate people had told me they found it to be underwhelming. It’s just a hole in the ground, they said. Well, I think. It’s a nice hole.

We begin our descent down the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, at the recommendation of many Facebook friends. The weather is serendipitous. It’s warm but with a cool breeze – perfect hiking weather. A nice reprieve from the thousand degrees in Tucson.

Goals & Garbage - A photo of the Grand Canyon

The trail is crowded but the further we hike, the thinner the crowds become. Soon our more frequent companions are squirrels. There’s so many chunky, oblong squirrels. They come up to us and curiously bop their heads around. Do these hoomans have teh food?

I look back up and we can see miniature humans peering over the edges. The trail is so steep and the elevation change so quick that it feels like the canyon has just eaten us whole. We are hiking so fast! Every now and then a person labors back up past us.

“Going up is worse,” they huff and puff, as a reminder.

We stop close to 3 miles down and find an outlook point where, as the photographer does, I ask that David pose with me over and over and over to get the perfect kiss photo.

Goals & Garbage - A photo of the author at the Grand Canyon

It begins to lightly sprinkle, and we decide that this is a good turn around point. We still have to hike back up and then drive another three hours back to Phoenix (remember at the beginning of this post when I thought that this driving schedule made sense?). We are a little disappointed to stop hiking so soon in but agree that the Grand Canyon needs to be it’s own trip in the future. I want to go all the way down!

Before we begin the way up, David decides to eat a snack. He opens a protein bar and the package crinkles sonar squirrel wavelengths. Sque-e-e-eak, sque-e-eak, the bag signals. All of the sudden I look and there’s five fat squirrels in battle mode.

“These squirrels seem aggressive,” I audibly note to the world, in case there is any mystery to who pushed me off this rock and murdered me.

We try to leave the outlook point and get back on trail but the squirrels block us in. I tell David to throw a rock to the side of us to fool them. He does and the squirrels rabidly pounce on the fake food as we tiptoe away. We make it safely back to the trail and begin working our way up.

Only – David still has more protein bar. The squirrels sense this with their snack-thirsty instincts and begin scaling the canyon to find their way back to us.

As we hike, we end up behind a mother and daughter. One of the squirrels lands in front of the little girl and she screams as he goes for her legs. Am I really seeing this? A squirrel just potentially tried to eat that child. He then turns his attention towards me and I replicate her strategy by screaming and hopping around it. David eats the rest of his bar and we dodge aggressive rodents for the rest of the hike.

At the top of the canyon, we have service again and out of curiosity David begins googling the most common injuries at the Grand Canyon. Want to know what made the list?

Squirrel bites.

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