The Grand Canyon… Finally

Leah LeMoineApril 30, 2020
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Travel Advisory

This trip was taken before coronavirus restrictions were enacted. At press time, parts of the Grand Canyon were closed. Check authorities’ current recommendations before planning a trip.

The writer’s mom, Anja DesJardins, gets her first view and photos of the Grand Canyon at Desert View Watchtower.
The writer’s mom, Anja DesJardins, gets her first view and photos of the Grand Canyon at Desert View Watchtower.

A bucket list, mother-daughter road trip to Arizona’s signature wonder – and then some.

Have you ever learned something that completely unraveled a story you’d been telling yourself (and others) for decades about your own life?

That’s how I felt when I told my mom I was planning a trip to see the Grand Canyon for the first time as part of my “20 for 2020” goal list, inspired by writer and podcaster Gretchen Rubin. “Oh, cool! I’ve never been, either,” she said. Wait. What?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed that my parents saw the Grand Canyon when they were kids, weren’t that impressed and thus decided not to take my sisters and me to view our state’s main attraction. What else could explain the conspicuous absence of a Grand Canyon trip in our family history? In the vein of our recent 2020 Bucket List! feature (March), I decided to tackle my own Arizona bucket list, telling friends on Facebook, “Yes, I am a 30-year-old Arizona native and have never been to the Grand Canyon. I blame my parents for the first two decades, but the third is on me.”

When I found out my 52-year-old Arizona native mother hadn’t been, either, I saw one solution: a girls’ trip – just before my 31st birthday.

Wupatki National Monument; Photo by Leah LeMoine
Wupatki National Monument; Photo by Leah LeMoine
Day 1

Since we were already driving so far north, I figured I’d add a few more of my Arizona bucket list items to our journey. Chief among them was visiting the Navajo Nation and staying at Shash Diné Eco-Retreat: A Glamping B&B (shashdine.com). I’d first connected with the retreat on Instagram years ago and had been wanting to visit ever since, entranced by owners Baya and Paul Meehan’s photos of their working ranch (they raise Navajo Churro sheep, Angora goats, horses, cows and chickens), inventive accommodations (hogan, anyone?) and breathtakingly expansive views (“I think they rival the Grand Canyon,” Baya said).

Shash Diné is about two hours away from each rim (north and south) of the Grand Canyon, 12 miles south of Page. I’d planned on trying to hit both and was thrilled to be centrally located, but the North Rim was still closed for winter during our early March visit. Next time!

To make it to Shash Diné in time for a Friday afternoon check-in, we left Phoenix around 10 a.m. and stopped for lunch at Proper Meats + Provisions (propermeats.com) in Flagstaff. I wrote a travel piece on Flag years ago and toured the original location of Proper before it opened, so it was great to see them thriving in an even bigger spot on Route 66, the city’s main drag. The banh mi was as delectable as I remember.

hammock fun at Shash Diné Eco-Retreat; Photo by Leah LeMoine
hammock fun at Shash Diné Eco-Retreat; Photo by Leah LeMoine

Driving through the Navajo Nation to get to Shash Diné was a trip. Beautiful rock formations, plateaus and valleys were punctuated by trading posts (some in operation, some relics of the past), gas stations and abandoned lodgings with quirky, decaying paint jobs and sad marks of vandalism.

After Baya Meehan welcomed us at her home, we followed her by car to the glampsite and a dirt parking area near a well-kept outhouse (there’s no running water on the Navajo Nation), an old-fashioned outdoor shower and a firepit. We loaded our bags onto a luggage wagon and wheeled it a few dozen yards to our accommodation. The Kyoob is the newest of the Meehans’ lodging options, a modern cabin that looks like an industrial cube on stilts. Inside, it is airy and bright thanks to huge windows that provide arrestingly immediate views of nature and plenty of natural light. There are no curtains and no electricity, so once night falls you must rely on solar lamps to see what you’re doing – or just go to sleep and let the sunrise be your alarm clock. The interior of the Kyoob is so cool it could be in Dwell or ELLE Décor, with Navajo flourishes like a tribal patterned bedspread, line drawings of traditional garb and Native American LEGO figurines popping against midcentury modern chairs, a low coffee table and a retro wood stove painted yellow. “That’s all my husband,” Meehan said, modestly deflecting our compliments.

We walked around the property, chilled in hammocks and hiked up a small ridgeline to see astonishing views of the valley below, with Marble Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs in the distance. After basking in the glorious light of “golden hour,” we made our way back to the Kyoob, where a local vendor who contracts with Shash Diné brought us Navajo tacos in Styrofoam clamshells. We ate dinner under the stars, which seemed infinitely closer and brighter than in the city, and understood viscerally why the Meehans call their retreat “a five-billion-star hotel.”

Arizona River Runners
Photo by Dean Knuth

Something else we want to try next time: Arizona River Runners’ 3-Day Escape, a three-day, two-night package that gives you the best of land, water and air with a stay at Bar 10 Ranch near the North Rim, whitewater rafting on the Colorado River and a helicopter tour. Bonus: cliff jumping, waterfalls and disconnection from technology. raftarizona.com

Day 2

Finally, the day had come: We were going to see the Grand Canyon! I had butterflies in my stomach as we ate a “hiker’s breakfast” provided by Meehan (fresh fruit, pastries, yogurt and hot coffee in a thermos) and started our long drive to Grand Canyon National Park.

Even the drive in was beautiful! The terrain changed rapidly from scrubby desert brush to stands of pines, firs, spruces and junipers nourished by recent snowmelt. As we wound along the road, I thought about all of the cars full of people who had driven it before ours, the millions of humans who have journeyed to see this magnificent monument of nature. We popped out at the first stop and ambled over to artist Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower and our first views of the canyon.

“Woooow,” my mom whispered, her weary eyes widened with childlike wonder. Mine filled with tears that were quickly lashed across my face by the sharp, cold wind. We were overwhelmed – not just by the beauty and the scope, but by how different it was than we’d imagined, in good ways. I couldn’t get over the dimensionality. I had expected a “huge hole in the ground,” as people joke, but I thought it would be steep canyon walls dropping straight down to the river below. The layers and textures throughout the chasm were astounding. I followed lines of ledges and jutting outcroppings of rock until they all started to meld together like the elements in an M.C. Escher drawing, with no beginning and no end.

a tourist moment at Horseshoe Bend; Photo by Leah LeMoine
a tourist moment at Horseshoe Bend; Photo by Leah LeMoine

We drove to several other viewpoints, each with its own splendid vistas, each causing us to pause and reflect on the magnitude of this place and its history. Then we thought of our history. How had we missed this for so long? Would its magic have been lost on us if we’d visited as squirrelly children or sullen teenagers brought by our parents? Was it better that we saw it later, of our own volition and with more perspective on how truly singular it is? We didn’t know. We just knew we wanted to come back, to see it in different seasons and from different vantage points. We started compiling lists of what to do “next time,” which was becoming a refrain. “I want to see it at sunset,” I said. “And I’d love to take a plane or helicopter through it. Can you imagine the views?” My mom wanted to hike an easy trail.

Fried chicken and sides at BirdHouse; Photo by Leah LeMoine
Fried chicken and sides at BirdHouse; Photo by Leah LeMoine

After hours of marveling, we wrenched ourselves away and headed to Page for dinner at BirdHouse (birdhouseaz.com), one of my mother’s Tripadvisor finds. She relies on a handful of personal saints to help her plan her life: TV news, the AZ 511 app, The Weather Channel, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Tripadvisor. It did not lead us astray. BirdHouse’s crunchy, juicy fried chicken with tasty sides (we had mac and cheese, broccoli salad and “chicken rice,” rice cooked in chicken broth with bits of poultry and peas) was the best meal of our trip, and I’d put its chicken up against the Valley’s beloved Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles. “I frickin’ love Tripadvisor!” my mom crowed as she ate a succulent chicken tender. I suppose I do now, too.

Day 3

The next morning, we bade Shash Diné farewell and headed back to Page for breakfast at Canyon Crepes Café (canyoncrepescafe.com), a new restaurant my mom found on – you guessed it – Tripadvisor. The crêpes were light and airy, each stuffed generously with sweet and savory fillings. We each had a savory crêpe and then split a sweet one for “breakfast dessert” because we’re fun gals who live life to the fullest – and who couldn’t resist the siren call of white chocolate cream cheese sauce.

interior and exterior of the Kyoob; Photos by Leah LeMoine
interior and exterior of the Kyoob; Photos by Leah LeMoine
https://www.phoenixmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/PHM0520EX12a.jpg

We hadn’t made plans in advance to see nearby Antelope Canyon, which requires a scheduled visit with a Navajo guide (“Next time!”), but Horseshoe Bend (horseshoebend.com) was on our way out of town, so we made a stop to see another Arizona icon. “The colors and all the different landscapes just amaze me,” Mom said. “Each type of rock structure and how it’s weathered and created and the colors – wow. The colors are a lot like Sedona, but different.”

Just outside of Flagstaff, we stopped at Wupatki National Monument (nps.gov/wupa), which Baya Meehan recommended for its “solemn beauty.” Exploring the ancient pueblos nestled in this seemingly inhabitable area of Northern Arizona was a fascinating portal to the past. The main ruins near the visitor center document a community hub, with areas for rituals, food, sports and politics. My favorite, though, was the Citadel Pueblo. I walked to the top and was gobsmacked by the sublime and forever-stretching views. I stood there for a long while, taking it all in and feeling like a very tiny, very new part of this huge, ancient world.

In Flagstaff, we stopped for lunch at Tourist Home All Day Café (touristhomecafe.com) and then headed home, chatting all the while. Apparently, my mom had thought many times about taking her daughters to the Grand Canyon. “Each time I was married, I was like, ‘Hey, we can do this for a vacation.’ But I never seemed to be in a relationship with someone who seemed to be as interested in it as me,” she said. “My whole life, I was like, ‘Hey, I gotta get there. One day I gotta get there.’ So it’s really cool to have done that and the other things with you.”

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