Saturday, September 24, 2011

Laura, me, a canyon, and Mary

When you are an Arizona resident, one of the greatest things to do is show someone Grand Canyon for their first time. It's ours. We're proud of it. Despite it being called at times "Arizona's little erosion problem," it always either tops the list, or is in at least the top two, of Earth's natural wonders. And it's here, and we like showing it off.

Over the years, I have encouraged friends and family to visit our state and see Grand Canyon. Some have obliged. Others will follow I'm sure. A month or so ago, I received an e-mail from Laura, my college roommate over 25 years ago. She is an integral part of my close, loving, and dear college friends with whom I have remained in touch after lo these many years. She had some work stuff to do in Las Vegas, had a free weekend in between job obligations, and wondered if she could visit me in Arizona and see Grand Canyon. A dream come true for us Arizonans.

Right around that same time, Bruce and I received this promotional free outdoor travel-related magazine called "Unboundaries" or some such thing, a USA Today publication. What do you know, there was an article about Mary Colter and her architectural designs, focusing on what she accomplished in Grand Canyon. Now, I had been to the canyon several times by now, and had seen some of her designs, but I hadn't really focused on her as a person and as an architect. Mary was truly a fascinating person.

Born in the mid-1800's, she became a professional architect by the late 1880's or so, itself an amazing feat for women in the late 19th century. Studying along with Frank Lloyd Wright, or at least peripherally involved in Frank's "aura," She was hired by the Fred Harvey Company, the company Fred Harvey started that did whatever was needed to attract and lure easterners to our western National Parks via our railroads. Mary is THE conceptual brain behind what's now called "National Park Rustic." Really outstanding for their time and place, Mary's designs were intended to use local materials and fit into the natural landscape, being as unobtrusive as possible, yet still maintaining a unique character all their own. Her designs at Grand Canyon and elsewhere continue to fascinate. Today, we intuitively see the aesthetic value in buildings that are integrated into their surrounding landscape, but this was a new concept for most, and Mary was one of the visionaries.

So Laura and I, and my dog Carly, met up in Williams Friday night. Encamped in our room at the Best Western, I lamented the fact I forgot to bring along that article about Mary Colter. No problem, Laura pulls out her Ipad and proceeds to study up on Mary. We both decide she would have been a great addition to our college girlfriend network, as she seemed strong, competent, creative, and all-around brilliant, just like us. We also decided that we wanted to see as much of Mary's designs as possible the next day.

September in northern Arizona is incredible, and we woke to a sparkling, cool day that promised to maybe hit a high of 78 degrees. Perfect. After dropping Carly off at a "pet resort" (much to Carly's absolute and utter despair), we made it to the Canyon by 8:00 a.m. The first thing we had to do is simply find the edge of the Canyon to view it, which in itself is something that surprises most first-time visitors. Really, there's no big, imposing thing you see as you get close. It's just high desert, then some pine trees, a National Park entrance gate (still no Canyon), parking lots, buildings, walkways (still no Canyon), and then finally, there it is, dropping below your feet, its immensity mind-boggling. Once you get over the initial awe, you start thinking things like "What was Evil Knevil thinking?" or "I can almost see how people can fall off..." The camera comes out, and the first-time vistor's initial reaction after taking a bunch of shots is: "there's no way I can capture this." Yes. We know. There's no way. And yet we continue to try.

After our initial view, we made our day's plans. First, go east to the Desert Watchtower, a Mary Colter fan favorite. Seen in lots of photographs, this tower looks much older than it really is. Yes, it's old, but it's made to look more like pre-historic ruins, and indeed, Mary even constructed the thing with deliberate cracks and crevices to make it look old. It is a totally amazing piece of work. 
We spend quite a bit of time there. The tower itself has this inner circular staircase that winds up the inside of the tower, with three levels you can get off the staircase and move around. The walkways on these levels are also circular, only about 8-10 feet wide, so you can peek over the side and look down. There is something to look at on every square foot of this building. The walls are decorated in Hopi and Anasazi petroglyph-type designs. The ceiling is painted with such designs as well. Mary hired Hopi and other Native Americans to create this artwork. The windows are lined in wood and come in several shapes, placed strategically to provide views of the surrounding landscape. It was a great introduction to the way Mary worked.
Laura and part of the ceiling
The floors of the Watchtower

Rawhide-coated bannisters;
how old is this rawhide?

Designs on the Watchtower walls
After the Watchtower, we made a few scenic-view stops, including one where we ate our lunch overlooking the Canyon, and eventually ended up in South Village, the place with more of Mary's designs--and LOTS and LOTS of people. Peeps, as I call them. One of the peeps took our picture at our lunch stop:

One of our first stops in South Village was Mary's "Hopi House," a squat, square building constructed to mimic homes found on the Hopi reservation to the north. The Hopi House was designed to be a gift store, which it remains today. At the time of its construction, however, Hopi artisans actually lived in the building and created their wares for tourists right there. Jewelry, rugs, pottery--all are still for sale at the Hopi House, and the goods are truly native-made. Even Albert Einstein visited the Hopi House, and I can prove it.
The Hopi House
Einstein at the Hopi House in a headdress

Rugs and pottery for sale at Hopi House; each rug
has a photo of its weaver as well as the price ($1,950.00
for this one)
The ceiling at Hopi House; logs with matted
sticks and brush. These pieces are the originals; circa 1900
After the Hopi House, it was time to visit El Tovar, one of the guest lodges at the Canyon. This building was not designed by Mary; rather by an architect that decided to borrow styles from Swiss chalets and Norwegian villas. So, alas, it is lovely, but stands out as much as Mary's designs do not. But it had cocktail lounge, and we felt it was time for a prickly-pear margarita on its covered deck. We relaxed, feet up, enjoying the scenery. Did a bit of people-watching, mostly noticing people's shoes. Who would come to the Canyon in 6" spiky heels? Someone did. Flip-flops (on the trail???). Check. Native American dancing? Check.
Laura on the right

A little wobbly after our margs, we visited Bright Angel Lodge, checking off another Mary design on our list. This lodge was designed to provide moderately-priced accommodations for visitors. One of the standout structures in the entire park is here in the History Room of Bright Angel Lodge. It is, simply, a fireplace. But Mary went all out. Designed to mimic the geology of Grand Canyon, the fireplace is layered from bottom to top with rocks found at the Canyon's different strata. Rocks were brought up from all levels by the fireplace's builders, and Mary was extremely focused on not only getting the proportions correct, she selected one side canyon to copy, including that canyon's fault lines; the fireplace's rocks, then, are tilted at the same angle as these fault lines. It's nuts. As the guy who was manning that room said, "I'd hate to be the schmucks who worked for her," meaning that her "attention to detail" most likely would drive anyone crazy. That room also gave visitors a history of Fred Harvey and the Fred Harvey Company. It appears that Fred and Mary never met; he died in 1901, Mary was hired by the Company in 1902. However, I think they would've agreed on many things: excellence in your work, everything to perfection.
Fireplace with geologic copy of the Canyon

Fault lines represented

One of the lodge's decorations;
history described below:
We also visited Lookout Studio, a Mary design, and marveled at how this stone house (Kaibab Formation limestone) seemingly teeters on the edge of the Canyon and has multi-level porches showing off the view. One can sometimes find the endangered California condor soaring around here (we did see a condor at some point in this area, but the margarita affected my memory as to where and when).

By 3:00, there were two of Mary's designs we had not yet seen. One was Phantom Canyon Ranch, at the bottom of the Canyon. We'd have to come back for that. The other is called "Hermit's Rest," again, a stone building that was intended to look like a place a hermit would build; a cozy, simple design. However, there was no "hermit," it was a ruse. It was always meant to be a guest-stop, with gifts and a snack/drink area. The fireplace at Hermit's Rest, too, was amazing; the fireplace itself was big, but what makes it spectacular is the stone continues all around it, making it almost like an enormous stone cave. To add even more awe to this design, Mary added the black "soot" on purpose.

Late afternoon views of the Canyon graced us as we walked around Hermit's Rest and rode back on the tram to South Village. What a day.
We drove back to Williams, munching on my canned dilly beans. Carly was beside herself to see us again; apparently she didn't eat anything all day at the "pet resort," no treats, no kibble, nothing; she was the vision of doom and gloom. Poor babe; her first kennel experience.
What a marvelous day. I am still reliving it. As many times as I visit, I learn something new every time. And to spend the day with Mary, but especially with Laura, well, that made it a day to remember for all time.


  1. Great job on the photographs and a wonderful story. We haven't been to the south rim in years (1998?) Took the train in from Williams. Really enjoyed the ride. We've been going to the north rim when we get the chance.

    Mike & Ann

  2. Sue - Don't bad mouth flip-flops. They're great and go anywhere. I know, just ask any Samoan.