The Storm at Desert View


The first time I saw the Grand Canyon was from the rim at Desert View four years earlier, when I was there with my friend Joe. This time my southwest sojourn was a solo adventure. Once I got there I parked my car in the giant lot, grabbed my camera and water bottle, and headed for the rim. I stopped along the way at the historic watchtower gift shop. Not to shop, but to utilize the view from the highest point on the south rim. The building itself is a work of art. The structure was built in 1932, to resemble an ancient Anasazi tower. It may only be 80 years old, but it looks a few thousand years old. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

I dodged fellow tourists in the gift shop as I headed to the watchtower. I started up a circular staircase that hugged the interior tower wall. There were murals and paintings on the walls by native Hopi artists. I ascended 85 winding steps to the top of the watchtower. By the time I reached the top level, my legs rudely reminded me that I just finished climbing 1,100 feet up the South Kaibab Trail. The view was worth it. There were small windows in the uppermost room as well as a larger balcony atop the first floor gift shop. I could see for miles. To the east was Navajo Indian land and the edge of the Painted Desert. And directly in front of me was a panoramic view of the Grand Canyon.

The upper portion of the inner canyon was mostly red while the lower reaches were brown. The mesas, towers, and temples within the canyon all matched in color. And for the first time on my trip, I watched as the Colorado River curved its way through the middle of the mammoth gorge before me. The river flowed through much of my view. It first appeared in the upper right part of the canyon from behind a wall, then it curved and bent diagonally to my lower left and out of view beneath the rim. The Colorado was olive green that day. I find it interesting how the color changes depending on the day and weather conditions. I suppose it turns darker and brown after rain, when the dirt mixes with the water. The interior of the canyon gradually sloped up from the river like the sides of a bowl and then became much steeper closer to the rim.

I left the tower and headed down to the rim for a closer view of the majestic canyon. I joined a mob of tourists at the rim before realizing there were about a dozen people farther out. There was a large rocky ledge protruding down and out from the rim. It was long and got progressively narrow the farther out it went. There were no railings or steps down there, but there were also no signs prohibiting entry, so I obviously had to go down and explore.

The gravelly outcropping was steep at points as it continued to descend lower into the canyon. The terrain was rough and uneven and there were constantly steep drop-offs to avoid. There was minimal vegetation on the ledge. There was some sage brush, bushes, and a few tiny trees to hang onto and squeeze around in thin spaces. Things got a little dicey at times, but I took my time heading out to the edge. I am scared of heights so I had to pay extra attention to each step when I was dangerously close to the cliff.

I finally got to the end of the little peninsula in the sky and was able to relax for a minute. I looked back the way I came and saw the watchtower standing tall above the rim in the distance. I had to be at least 100 feet below the rim and another 200 feet out from it. I felt like I had made it to a much more intimate spot than directly on the rim. There were at least 100 people up there behind me, maybe more. It was far quieter where I was. And I felt like I was out in the middle of the canyon, since I had part of it on three sides of me. I watched the river far below casually meander through the surrounding rock.

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While I was out on the edge admiring the interior canyon, I noticed threatening clouds spread across the horizon. I couldn’t be sure if a storm would come my way at first, but there was a very dark sky hovering over the north rim several miles away. I went back to taking some pictures of the river when I suddenly noticed that all the colors of the canyon were quickly fading beneath dark shadows. I looked up and saw that the tempest had turned the sky into a black ceiling above the canyon. The entire area grew dark. An ominous cool breeze swept across the canyon, noticeably dropping the temperature. Colossal black fists reached down from the dark clouds and into the depths of the canyon as bursts of severe thunderstorms. I watched flashes of lightning illuminate dark corners of the inner gorge and felt deafening thunderclaps shake the rim.

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I was engrossed in the show before me. It was like I was in the middle of an IMAX theater. Nature was putting on an amazing display of pure destruction. Then I awoke from my trance and realized I had to get the heck out of there. The powerful storm was about to hit right where I was and it was going to hit hard. I zipped my camera up in its waterproof case and scrambled back up the outcropping. I was so cautious on the way down, but now I was forced to hurry back as fast as possible. By the time I hit pavement I was practically running.

I got into my car and slammed the door shut behind me. Seconds later, the sky opened up. There was no crescendo of rain; it was like a lake was in the sky and it all poured down at once. The heavy rain pounded my car like hail. I couldn’t even hear my radio inside the car. Lightning exploded around me and thunder followed close behind.

I left Desert View with hopes of outrunning the storm. I was heading west along Desert View Drive back to Grand Canyon Village. The plan sounded good in theory. However, the rain was falling so hard that I could barely see out the windshield. It reminded me of driving in a whiteout back home in Western New York, but this wasn’t snow it was rain. It’s not supposed to be impossible to drive in the rain. I had to pull off the main road and into a scenic overlook. I parked there with some other cars and waited out the rain. Despite the ferocity of the storm, it passed within a few minutes. In that short time the rain fell hard enough to drench the entire canyon. There were large puddles everywhere. I left my car and checked out the scenic vista, since I was already there. But I didn’t stay long as it was still quite chilly from the fast moving cold front. So I got back in my car and drove on to Grand Canyon Village to check the damage at my campsite.

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