A blooming prickly pear growing on a cactus paddle. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Mom took the whole family on a trip to canyon country all of last week and I’m just getting back up and running (family vacations really take it out of you). Flew into Vegas for one night, Donna and the kids had never been—and I still think the place is a vision of the end of the world, and 24 hours in Vegas is 21 hours too long (kids loved Cirque de Soleil Mystere, and I love the civilized oasis of Bouchon in the Venetian).

At our last stop, Sedona, AZ, they had a continual supply of crisp, cool beverages made from the prickly pear, and on our last day we took a Pink Jeep, bone-rattling, off-road tour and saw many of these. I’d never been to this part of the country and had virtually no experience with prickly pears. Happily Garrett McCord has an excellent post at Elise Bauer’s simplyrecipes.com on preparing and using this odd desert fruit, with several links to recipes.

But it was the travel we were after here, not the food. Sights like this:

The north rim of the Grand Canyon

The linchpin of the trip was the Grand Canyon. Long ago Mom had asked her grandkids if she could take them to Italy or some part of the world they wanted to see. My daughter said, “How about part of our own country? Why should we go to another country when we haven’t even seen our own. How about the Grand Canyon?”

Lucky it was her idea, because on our mile-and-a-half trek down Bright Angel trail, in midday heat, every time we passed a sweaty huffing person heading up, she’d shoot me knife-like glances, furious that this vacation required actual effort. Donna and I found it exhilarating. Unexpectedly, though, the Grand Canyon was the least impressive of the places we visited. It’s simply too big to take in. Yes, it takes your breath away, the sheer size of it, but it’s more powerful to think about and see on a map than to stand at a railing and look out.

The most stunning hike was at Zion National Park:

Zion Vista

We spent the morning hiking within the canyon, looking up at walls like this.

Zion Walls

Mom splurged on a way-cool resort, Amangiri. It’s the kind of place where everything is so chi-chi it forces me to admit that I’m a complete impostor. But damn were those beds comfy.

Amangiri resort in Canyon Point, UT, 34 rooms at the edge of big rocks; James relaxing in pool.

The biggest impression for me was the deep quiet of the place, especially nighttime in Canyon Point. It was so deeply peaceful that you could almost sense the hum of the earth, how old it truly is, how small and brief our lives are, the interconnectedness of all things. It made me understand better the deep respect for and connection with the earth Native Americans had—it’s so obvious there. Not when you’re sitting by the pool with a sage mojito in your hand, of course, but when you’re alone and look beyond the rock to the stars.

It was an irony of the trip that we drove from a very expensive resort to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, USA tourism central, via 89S, which is sided by the grimmest rural living conditions I’ve ever seen: “Indian” reservation land, a glimpse of the result of the irreparable tragedy caused by European Americans, and the many trails of tears my ancestors created.

Our final stop was Sedona, where the main strip of chintz is overshadowed by glorious mountains of red rock. Again the deep age of the earth. The concluding event of the trip was a tour of the sky and stars by a man named Dennis Young, whose decades-long passion for looking at stars verges on lunacy (the good kind). The sky was so clear the band of the Milky Way was visible; with his amazing homemade telescope (it required standing on a ladder), he showed us a galaxy 25,000 light years away and the clearest view of Saturn I’ve ever seen. Time in the rocks around us, and the deep time of space. It’s powerful and, if you’re the sort who thinks a lot about our mortality, definitively obviates a fear of death (it’s also the best antidote to the horror of Vegas I’ve encountered).

For we were Vegas-bound the next day (to the airport only, thank goodness), and had left enough time to stop by Seligman, AZ, for a glimpse of the old Route 66.

Thanks, Mom, you just get more awesome every year!

Sharing a moment with fans on the old Route 66, Seligman, Arizona.

If you liked this post on our trip to Arizona and New Mexico, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


22 Wonderful responses to “Canyon Adventures”

  • GG Mora

    ‘It was so deeply peaceful that you could almost sense the hum of the earth, how old it truly is, how small and brief our lives are, the interconnectedness of all things.’

    That’s exactly why I chose to live away from the mainstream here in Vermont. Not off the grid, not in nomadic isolation…just in proximity to the universal truth. So even when I have to scramble in the ‘real world’ of modern American life, every day I have the opportunity to turn away and reconnect with ‘the hum of the earth’.

  • A.S.

    I’ve travelled all over the world, from Pakistan to Patagonia, and Southern Utah is my favorite place, the place I return to time and again. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Kathy

    Ooh, what an awesome trip! Coming from the rolling green hills of east central Ohio and the particular hilliness of the Balcones Escarpment in central Texas, my first trip to Arizona blew me away. It looked like a giant had spilled rocks all over the ground. Gorgeous!

    We have lots of prickly pears here in the Austin area. People make jam out of the ripe “pears” and the paddles are awesome in all kinds of stuff from tacos to soup. Prickly pear syrup makes a mean cocktail, too!

  • Carly

    Jealous! My dad moved to Arizona when I was a kid, and we went to the Grand Canyon and Sedona many times, so looking at these pictures and reading your description was a nostalgia trip for me. As a kid, one of my favorites was Slide Rock State Park, which if memory serves, is near Sedona toward Flagstaff. Haven’t been back since middle school, but it was so much fun back then!

  • Laura @ SweetSavoryPlanet

    Zion is a special place. I hope you didn’t miss Bryce Canyon, also quite spectacular. AZ, UT, CO, NM and west Texas has so much to offer when it comes to majestic natural landscapes. Once you think you are driving nowhere and then you come along the most spectacular sight you have ever seen. One of my most amazing moments in the southwest was experiencing sunrise driving through the painted desert – incredible. Being on the east coast now, I do miss the area but not the heat!

    • Michael Ruhlman

      Many people suggested we visit Bryce. Couldn’t do all!

  • Dana

    Imposter and wannabe mannequin… Michael, you just get more impressive all the time. Glad you had a great trip.

  • Ben

    Where did you eat when visiting Sedona, Bryce/Zion, Grand Canyon?
    Why didn’t you attempt to drive your own jeep in Sedona.
    Did you hike the narrows?
    We are planning the same trip.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      We tried to get in to Elote Cafe, in sedona, but the wait was too long.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      highly recommend driving up the mountain, and immdiately when you come out of the tunnel, theres a parking area. Across the road a great trail begins.

  • allen

    The prickly pear cactus, featured in the book: Into A Desert Place, by Graham Mackintosh. And it makes a great margarita.

  • mbk

    🙂 Can’t believe it: been there at the same time, visited the same places (including Bouchon). You are right : The landscape is so awsome that I stood there humbled by the beauty of it. Oh.. It is time to thank you for “introducing” me to Thomas Keller via you book. After reading about your first tasting menu at the French Laundry I have dreamed about being there.. So I did not manage to do that, but the Bouchon was the first step 😉

  • twoshoes

    sedona while beautiful gets my goat. that main drag is shite. did you perchance get to eat at jeff smedstads “elote?” wow.

    I am gearing up for a three week raft down the colorado through the grand canyon and can think of little else lately. this is kinda timely.

    canyon country is indeed magical. and zion? simply spectacular.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      Agree, felt the irony of the gift stores with the majestic backdrop of red rock.

  • Nina

    I can’t help but love our country when you can live in a place where this beautiful, historic, awesome nature is and it’s so closely juxtaposed with the playground of Las Vegas. We live in a great country!

  • Ryan Silva

    I know it was just your daughter, but I’ve heard it from adults too: “Why should we go to another country when we haven’t even seen our own?” There are fantastic things to see in this country, but there are also many other reasons to go visit a foreign culture. Many Americans have never been out of the country and still have this attitude, so I think it’s very important to visit other countries to become more educated about what other cultures are like and to have a broader worldview. That said, I’m not criticizing domestic travel. Looks like your trip was a blast!

  • Susan

    We went to AZ last year originally to go to see our Giants at spring training. Well, tickets were hard to come by, so we went sight seeing mostly. Wow! AZ was nothing like I had envisioned. The altitude was a surprise! I had no idea it what “high desert” meant..I assumed that AZ looked down into the canyons from sea level..I supposed! We went to Sedona, Flagstaff and stopped to see the astroid crater along the way. (It was interesting, but, as usual, it had been turned into an imposing tourist stop, and not a very good one.) Then onto the Grand Canyon. The whole trip was mind boggling. The earth seemed so primal and enormous, it really does make humanity seem like some pesky annoyance, too big for it’s own britches! It sure humbled me!

  • tom

    The Grand Canyon is best viewed from the bottom. Two years back I hiked to Phantom Ranch, stayed 2 nights and then hiked back up. Nearly remote and spectacular in beauty and quiet. A day hike down Bright Angel gives you a taste of the GC, but not immersion.