A night in the park

"Welcome to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon," the pudgy park ranger said in a heavy Alabama drawl.

From behind thick glasses, his eyes looked over our car and he added, "The charge is $20 per vehicle."

After contemplating a U-turn and the 50-mile drive back to the highway, I grudgingly coughed up the cash. After all, we were on vacation, and while this wasn't the destination, my wife, Rachael, had desperately wanted to see the big ditch for nearly a decade. Also, my road bike was stashed in the back of the car, and I was hungry for 30 miles of buff, National Park Service asphalt.

The ranger snatched the 20, gave us a four-piece pamphlet in return, and in his best Boss Hog remarked: "The first overlook is a quarter mile on the right. We apologize in advance about the road construction."

My stomach twisted, and my road bike wilted as we pulled around the bend to see a potholed, dirt road stretching into oblivion. From the looks of things, I would have to be a typical South Rim tourist. Getting in the spirit, I stopped the car at that first overlook and took in fairly standard Grand Canyon fare gawkers with video cameras, young kids climbing on the perimeter fence, shops selling Indian trinkets and "picnic supplies," and of course the West's most recognizable landmark in all of its grandeur. Twenty minutes later, we were back in the car and bouncing through potholes eagerly awaiting the next pull-out. Luckily, the asphalt returned four miles later, and I decided to chance it. As promised, I pulled over at the next overlook. Instead of burning juice on the digital camera, I put my bike together, got naked in the parking lot, changed into my bike clothes and started pedaling.

The ride rolled superbly through the ponderosa abutting the rim. Solid ups and downs were punctuated by frequent contact with the canyon and views of the abyss over my right shoulder. Though I was passed three times by the same mini van with its door wide open and the whole family sitting stadium style, I never saw another cyclist on that fine piece of road. And after getting naked in another parking lot, changing back into road trip wear and getting back on the road to California, I reflected on a great ride and a great start to the vacation.

Still as invaluable as the experience had been, my $20 bill flying into the NPS cash register nagged at me. Paying a Disneyland-sized fee along with a load of federal taxes for use of my public lands just wasn't sitting right. Little did I know that it was just the beginning.

When we sat down and started planning our recent pilgrimage to the Pacific, one of the planned highlights was driving up the coast with the surfboard and staying at state parks along the way. Months ago, we'd struggled to make reservations at beach parks with names like Morro Bay and El Capitan. They were booked solid. After serious legwork, Rachael finally found a vacancy at the San Simeon Park just south of Big Sur and in the vicinity of the castle of fellow publishing great, William Randolph Hearst.

According to the Park Service, the San Simeon campground was extremely primitive in nature, boasted views of the Pacific from atop sea cliffs, was near an elephant seal rookery and abutted a marine sanctuary. This in mind, we happily sent in our $10-per night fee along with the $7.50 per night reservation fee (reservations were mandatory). We also braved the Mojave Desert, ran the gauntlet of the L.A. freeway, paid $2 a gallon at the pump in Barstow, waited in a traffic jam outside the not-so Magic Mountain, traversed the gentrified regions of Santa Barbara and Ventura, and eventually found our way up the Pacific Coast Highway to the entrance of San Simeon Park.

At the gatehouse, we were greeted by a relatively slender park ranger with a Southern California accent. Seeing that we'd prepaid, conversation was brief. "You guys are all set," she said. "Just go down this road a mile, hang a left and drive about 4 more miles."

Images of sea cliffs in her head, Rachael then asked, "Is it a pretty easy walk to the beach?"

The ranger chuckled in return. "Only if you're into distance running."

After 15 minutes on dusty washboard, we arrived at the "primitive" campground, a 10-acre, wind-blown, dirt lot devoid of vegetation. Our "sea cliff" tent site was actually miles out of view of the Pacific, and our two-person backpacking tent looked distinctly out-of-place pitched next to the coil of an RVs waste hose on one side and a Coleman super-tent on the other (This particular rig was set up 2001 style with a large nylon mother pod holding mom and dad while a connected smaller vessel held their beloved 8-year-old son, Michael).

Rachael, our beloved 1-year-old, Skyler, and I decided to hoof it around the campground to get an overall feel for our situation. As we stepped outside our "primitive" site, replete with picnic table, fire pit, grill and cement slab, a dozen generators seemed to fire up simultaneously. One family sat quietly inside their mobile home watching satellite TV. Next door, a couple had plugged an automatic pump into their cigarette lighter and was happily inflating a king-sized air mattress. Two spots down, another proud owner of a Coleman super-fortress was perfecting a new hobby, swinging a lariat overhead trying to rope a phony steer. Across the access road, a large family sat beside two empty Tequila bottles and drowned out the sounds of their dueling generators with a festival of expletives. Satisfied that we hadn't been deceived, and that the experience was indeed primitive, we headed back to our temporary home. There we stumbled upon a very large man trying to coax a bowel movement out of his black lab a few feet in front of our bright yellow tent. The situation was hopeless.

Trying to accelerate time, we crawled into the tent well before sundown, wrote off our $17.50 and passed out. Three hours later, I awoke to screaming right outside our tent. During the dark of night, the pods had drifted. "It's only a bad dream Michael. It's mama, baby. You just go back to sleep."

The following morning we put our bad dream behind us, got back on the road and somehow managed to do a little California dreamin' before we pointed the car back through the Mojave and toward home. Eventually, we rolled through Flagstaff and back into familiar territory. As the baby grew restless and the day neared an end, I suggested we make a stop at the Sunset Crater in the Sacred Mountains. My folks had taken me there as a kid, and I had some strong memories of that dead volcano to revisit.

Unfortunately, things changed a little in the last 25 years. As we pulled close to the park, I noticed the all-too-familiar gatehouse awaiting us. Feeling sly, I banged a quick left into a campground and pointed the car toward the facilities. However, as my daughter ran around and played in the cinders and we took a load off, I missed the sound of the golf cart marked "camp host" approaching.

"Howdy folks, welcome to Sunset Crater National Monument. I hate to bear bad news, but we charge a $5 picnic fee for use of the facilities."

Will Sands




News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index