Friday, October 18, 2013

Anger at the Edge of the Grand Canyon (In the Category of Mean What You Say.) #52Weeks

On November 16, 1995 I sat in an airport waiting to catch a flight to Arizona for a vacation. I and the three friends with whom I traveled were eager to return to the state for a longer stay – we had visited Phoenix for a weekend together a year earlier and fell in love with the desert. With a lengthier trip planned, we looked forward to revisiting the Tonto National Forest to navigate the Apache Trail, which winds through the Superstition Mountains, this time in a four-wheel drive. (The Lincoln Continental we used on the first trip handled the dirt roads just fine, but we wanted to do some proper four-wheeling, so we rented something with more ground clearance for the second trip.) We also planned to visit a few National Parks while we were there: Montezuma’s Castle National Park and Grand Canyon National Park in particular. I had been to the Grand Canyon with my family as a child, but I looked forward to seeing it with the eyes of an adult.

The flight out itself was an adventure. The hop from Roanoke, Virginia to the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina went smoothly, but the 747 we boarded to fly to Arizona broke as we ascended after takeoff – disconcerting thumping from beneath the plane and the cabin’s inability to pressurize led the captain to turn us around and request an emergency landing back at the Charlotte airport. One of my companions was a seasoned business traveler, so rather than wait for further instructions from the flight’s crew, she beat feet to the ticket counter and was first in line by the time they cancelled our original flight. The airline rerouted us with the assurance that we would be in Phoenix at some point that day, but we had to fly to Los Angeles, California and then board a plane heading east in order to reach the Valley of the Sun.

We landed in Phoenix in time to hear the local TV news announce that Congress had failed to reach an agreement, and the government was closed for business. Federal workers were furloughed, government agencies shut down, and most disturbing, they closed the National Parks, all of them, including Grand Canyon National Park. I was livid. How could they presume to close the Grand Canyon? The natural wonder, at its heart, is nothing more than a miles-long by mile-deep hole in the ground. It would take one hell of a tarp to cover that up.

Resolved to having fun in spite of Congress’s sabotage, we reworked our itinerary to visit state parks instead of national parks (Arizona is blessed with a number of them). The Apache Trail, also known as State Route 88, was still accessible, and loads more fun now that the option to go off road was open to us. We revisited the sleepy Best Western near Camp Verde and Montezuma’s Castle National park (which was closed) only to discover that it had become a noisy Native American run casino. I quickly fed twenty dollars into a voracious slot machine.
The Apache Trail snakes through the Superstition Mountains in Tonto National Forest, November 17, 1995.
We wound our way down (up?...around?)  the Yankee Doodle trail to Crown King and through the Prescott National Forest to the city of Prescott. From there, the drive to Sedona and on Schnebly Hill Road, which follows and the Mogollon (pronounced mon’-gee-yon) Rim was breathtaking – and with a four-wheel drive, no Pink Jeep Tour was needed to see the views. In Sedona, two nights before we were scheduled to fly home, we heard the news: the Grand Canyon would reopen the next day. The state of Arizona planned to foot the bill to avoid losing the millions of tourist dollars that the canyon brings in. We packed the Toyota 4Runner and immediately headed north to Flagstaff.

We were among the first cars to arrive at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on the day it reopened, November 20, 1995. The worker at the entrance thanked us profusely for coming. His relief at being back on the job was palpable. We motored our way from one incredible vista to the next and stopped at every souvenir shop we encountered. In one shop, I struck up a conversation with the woman operating the cash register who appeared to be close to me in age. As she rang up the silver flake and turquoise jewelry I had selected she, like the man at the entrance, thanked me for being there.

“Thanks for re-opening,” I replied, and I explained I was from Virginia. “We were horrified when the park closed right after our arrival,” I told her.

“So were we,” she said in earnest. Then she told me her story as she wrapped my purchases. She was a single mother with three school-aged children. They lived on a reservation not far from the Grand Canyon, and her job at the souvenir shop in Grand Canyon Village (which I assume paid at or close to the minimum wage) was their sole means of income. They lived paycheck to paycheck, she had no savings, and the four days she had been off the job were already having an impact on her ability to pay upcoming bills. Unlike salaried federal workers, she would not be getting any “back pay.” For her, the hours lost were simply that – lost – money that she had not been allowed to earn while Congress chose the politics of obstruction over anything that resembled leadership.
The close of a beautiful day at Grand Canyon National Park Nov. 20, 1995
I was angry with my government on her behalf for the rest of the vacation. We finally made it to Montezuma’s Castle National Park, also newly reopened, first thing in the morning on our last day. (We had hours before we had to get to the airport to catch an evening flight home.) Everything about the ruins, Native American cliff dwellings, felt ancient. I easily imagined ghosts, long dead, whispering among the rocks, in the rustling leaves of sycamore trees, and the babbling flow of Beaver Creek. The ruins provided evidence of people who lived in North America hundreds of years before European settlers invaded and eventually imposed a form of government that, while admirable in its defined self-evident truths, did nothing to protect the native peoples then, and to this day, does nothing to protect any of its citizens from paying the price for its own self-created crises.
Beaver Creek carved the canyon that houses Montezuma's Castle, Camp Verde, AZ, Nov. 21, 1995
I penned the angry letter in my head as we flew east. I committed it to paper as soon as I got home, and I sent a copy to all of my elected officials: my congressman, both of my senators, and my president. I told them about the lady cashier, about the man at the entrance to the Grand Canyon, their visible relief at being allowed to return to jobs that probably barely sustained them financially. I berated my leaders for their stubbornness, their partisanship, and their myopic, self-interested vision where the only people that mattered were the ones in Washington D.C., people like themselves rather than the people that had hired them to lead. Because this was 1995, I addressed envelopes and licked stamps, dropped my letters in the mail, and waited. I heard back from everyone except my Congressman, but none of the platitude-filled letters mollified me.

Time passed; the world continued to spin. The shutdown ended, and the country returned to its version of normal. Yet here I am, nearly eighteen years later, and the nice cashier has been on my mind since October 1, when Congress once again failed to lead and caused the Grand Canyon to “close.” I have counted the days for her and wondered how badly ten days without pay hurt? Is she even still a cashier at the Grand Canyon Village souvenir shop? Perhaps one or two of her children now work for the park. There’s not much else there, in the high desert near the Grand Canyon -- just a big hole in the ground that brings millions of people and millions of dollars to the state. While the jobs might pay minimum wage or a dollar or two more, they are, by and large, the only jobs around. Yet once again, our leadership put their own agenda ahead of America, shut down the government and shrugged at the notion that it could actually hurt this country.

I’m angrier this time than last, but I didn’t write any letters. (Or, maybe I daily Tweets to that idiot House Speaker, John Boehner, count?) My youthful exuberance has been replaced by cynicism, and I now know better than to believe anything would come of the effort. (Besides, who can afford the stamps these days?) I’ve heard more than one person say the shut down is no big deal, “they’ll get back pay,” but that isn’t true of everyone that the closure affected. In these ideological fights, it’s the poorest, the hardest working Americans that get shafted. Ted Cruz didn’t miss a nickel of his pay, so to him it means nothing – a political stunt; I am sure he enjoyed the attention. As far as he and his supporters are concerned, no one really got hurt. But I know better. I met them once, and the next generation works there now: the cashier at the souvenir shop and the man that takes the money at the gate to the really big hole in the ground. I know what it looks like, the relief in their eyes when they are finally allowed to return to work. There is no anger at the edge of the Grand Canyon, just gratitude that a way past the impasse has been found and the tourists have returned. Once again, earrings need to be rung up, wrapped, and bagged. The clock gets punched, wages are earned, and a single mother has money to feed her children.


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