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Tightrope Walking

July 30, 2014

I cannot overstate how anxious and terrified I was about Tuesday going horribly awry.

The plan was to visit Antelope Canyon in the morning and then meet back up with Route 66 in Flagstaff in the afternoon. Antelope Canyon, if you don’t know, is on just about every list of coolest/craziest/most beautiful places in the world. In fact it was just one of those lists that made me think of visiting Antelope Canyon in the first place, and I was thrilled to see it was basically on our route. In fact, we drove right past it on our way to Bryce Canyon a few days ago.

But Antelope Canyon is on Navajo Land, and the website is a little confusing, so I’ve been calling the Navajo office for days and days to get things sorted out but they never answer the phone and never call me back despite several messages. It doesn’t help that we have had extremely spotty cell service for the past several days as we’ve been in mountains, deserts, and National Parks, and our motel Sunday night had no wifi. Monday night when we checked into our motel I finally got online again in a bit of a panic and discovered that Antelope Canyon can only be visited with a guided tour. I frantically started looking up and calling tour companies but it was already late at night and only one place picked up the phone. She said she was completely booked for Tuesday. This was not good. This was definitely not good. I was expecting Antelope Canyon to be one of the highlights of our whole trip, and it looked like we might not be able to go at all.

Making things worse was that what I thought was a single canyon is actually two: Lower Antelope Canyon and Upper Antelope Canyon. They’re very close to each other and very similar but different tour companies visit each one and I couldn’t seem to find any useful information about which one is better. There are many more tours available for Upper Canyon than there are for Lower Canyon, and the Upper Canyon tours are more expensive, but I couldn’t find any real reason for the disparity, so I had to assume that Upper Canyon is the better one.

Also, I discovered that the best time to go is midday when the sun is highest, as the way the light bounces off the canyon walls is what gives it its beauty. But of course those tours sell out fastest.

What I decided to do was to wake up early and get to Antelope Canyon as early as possible. On the way there, I would call every tour company until I found one willing to take us, even if that meant going at off times and missing out on the fun stuff we had planned in Flagstaff.

Working in our favor was Arizona’s stupid refusal to observe Daylight Savings Time, which meant that it Arizona time is an hour earlier than Utah time. This gave us a chance to get to Antelope in time for the first peak-time tours if any still had room for us.

One by one, Sam dialed each tour company for me as I drove. We called the Upper Canyon places first. The first tour company didn’t answer. The second had room for us on the 12:30 tour! This meant we could see the canyon and see it at the ideal time of day. But it also meant that we would not get to Flagstaff until about 4 p.m. and would thus miss out on the awesome treetops ropes course we were planning to do there (the last entry to the ropes course is at 3). It was worth the trade-off, but it was a tough blow as we had both been excited for the ropes course. So I continued calling tour companies.

The third was sold out for the day. The fourth had room only on their 3 p.m. tour. The fifth didn’t answer. Then I lost cell service. When I got it back we were only about half an hour away from the Canyon and quickly running out of time. I was getting more anxious. Finally I started calling companies that tour the lower canyon. There are only two such companies. The first one I called said they don’t take reservations and that they run tours every 15 minutes. This sounded promising. Then he said that, while they’re already busy today, we would probably have to wait only about half an hour or so to get onto a tour. This was very good news. We were on schedule to arrive at around 9:30 a.m., which meant we’d be on a 10:00 tour, we’d see the canyon, and we’d even get to Flagstaff early. I started wondering if maybe we should forget Flagstaff and see both canyons–lower at 10 and upper at 12:30. Sam was very upset at this idea. He was adamant that he did not want to miss out on the ropes course. So it was settled–we’d see the lower canyon and then head to Flagstaff. It wasn’t ideal but it was good enough. I was relieved that it was going to work out but I was still tentative about seeing the “wrong” canyon.

When we arrived at the lower canyon we were once again greeted by unpaved dirt roads. I don’t know what the Navajo Nation has against asphalt and I can’t decide if this aversion is charming or infuriating. Also, the offices of the tour company, Ken’s Tours, were a little wood shack and some benches. My anxiety was sticking around a little longer.

We got there at around 9:40. We were told the next available tour was at 10:30. It was a bit more of a wait than I expected, but at least we were on a tour. While we waited I asked someone the difference between the two canyons. It turns out that the main reason the Upper Canyon is so much more popular is that it’s above ground versus below ground and it’s a little wider and flatter, so it’s easier to walk through. The Lower Canyon tour involves descending and ascending a few steep ladders. Honestly, this made the Lower Canyon a little more attractive to me. And I figured it could only be a good thing that our canyon was the less crowded one.

As soon as we stepped into the canyon, I knew things had worked out for the best. There are words to describe the beauty, the uniqueness, and the otherworldliness of Antelope Canyon, but I have spent all day trying to think of them and put them together into coherent sentences and I am still at a loss. Please be patient with me.

Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon, which means that it’s basically a ridiculously narrow canyon, like a slot has been carved into the earth. In fact, from above it looks like a big jagged crack in the desert, kind of like a cartoon earthquake.

[For reasons beyond my comprehension I am still unable to upload any new photos to this blog. This is especially frustrating today because the wifi connection is pretty strong and because the pictures from today’s activities are especially good and especially important to your appreciation of the day’s events. Alas.]

Inside, however, is a completely different story. The walls are not jagged but smooth and gently curved but in random directions, as if they were made of frosting that was spread by a giant, drunken pastry chef. The incredible shapes of the walls alone would make this place worth visiting. But that’s not all. The curvature of the walls and the tiny slivers of sunlight that sneak through the crack above combine for some of the coolest colors and light effects you’ll ever see.

Our tour guide showed each person individually how to change the light settings on their cameras to maximize the awesomeness. He even set up Sam’s iPhone so that it took some pretty extraordinary shots. But no matter which way we turned the view was so incredible as to be barely comprehensible. Every picture I took was the best picture I’ve ever taken. And a few second later, someone else took a picture in the exact same spot and get a completely different effect because the sun had moved ever so slightly. Sam and I were comparing pictures tonight and he and I have totally different pictures of the same canyon walls. Some of mine are better, some of his are better, and sometimes both are extremely cool but in different ways and with different colors.

[Many mind-blowing photos to come.]

When the tour was over Hamster and I didn’t even know what to say to each other, except to quote the kid in the video clip above at the very end of The Incredibles. I couldn’t believe that what we had just seen is on the very same planet that I’ve been living on all this time, and in the same country, no less.

And it was only noon. The sky was clear, the sun was out, and we headed to Flagstaff with the top down and huge grins that wouldn’t go away.

[Photo to come.]

We were so exited to get there and do the ropes course that instead of stopping to put together a real lunch we just ate peanut butter out of the jar while we drove. Our love of peanut butter, the fantastic weather, and our giddy moods led us to compose an entire song about the awesomeness of peanut butter. (I considered recording video of us singing this song but decided our peanut butter ballad is best left between the two of us.)

Lots and lots of construction on the highway slowed our progress toward Flagstaff considerably. I was planning to visit either Sunset Volcano or Walnut Creek, which are both National Monuments on the outskirts of Flagstaff, but we had to forget about that as time continued ticking away. In the end we made it on time for the ropes course, but the course takes 3-3.5 hours so it was going to be all we did in Flagstaff.

It was plenty. When we got there someone was screaming for an ambulance. Sam was immediately terrified and ready to call the whole thing off. It turned out that a kid was goofing around and climbing a tree that was not part of the course and when he slipped a branch stabbed him pretty badly in the leg. Sam was a little reassured that the injury was unrelated to the course but he was still nervous. I calmed him and convinced him to press on. A few minutes later we found out that we would be the only people in the last group of the day, meaning we had the whole course to ourselves. This turned out to be true in more ways than one, as the guides stay on the ground as insurance rather than leading you through the course, which means it was totally on us not just to get through each obstacle but to properly clip and unclip ourselves at all the right places and times. The autonomy made it both scarier and better, as every challenge passed was an accomplishment entirely our own.

The place has a kids course but Sam is old enough and tall enough to be allowed on the adult course, and I thought it would be much more fun if we went through the same course together, even if it meant we had to bail out if there was something Sam couldn’t do. I had no idea what I had signed us up for. Usually anything with “Extreme” in its name is considerably less extreme than it wants you to believe it is; Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course lives up to its billing. The course has five levels, each one higher in the trees and more physically demanding. There were twisting bridges, tightropes, zip lines, swinging log bridges designed with increasing creativity and sadism, and so much more.

[Photos to come.]

About halfway through we had to grab a big rope and swing across a long expanse, only to then have to grab onto a cargo net and climb the net to get to the next platform.

Sam rocked it. He kept up with me through every challenge, level after level. We had been chatting with the guide on the ground the whole time, and after we finished the second level he called up to us to say we were the first peaople from the east coast who weren’t out of breath at that point. I asked him if many people quit before finishing all five levels. He told us only 25% actually finish. Sam and I looked at each other: challenge accepted.

As it got continually higher and more difficult Sam handled it like a pro. By the end of level three we were getting tired but we pressed on. Level four was a killer. Everything swung. Everything twisted. It required upper body strength that we had when we arrived but had mostly used up by this point. But we did it.

[Photo to come.]

When we got to the platform to start the final level we had been climbing and balancing and pulling and zipping for almost two and a half hours. Everything ached. Our hands felt like leather. I couldn’t believe Sam had gotten even this far. I asked him if he wanted to continue. He debated, first internally and then aloud. He was spent, but he didn’t want to quit. But he had nothing left. But he wanted to finish. We looked ahead at what was included in the final level: an unreasonably long twisting bridge. A pirate crawl. Swinging pogo sticks. A shaky ladder. Olympc rings. And just when you have absolutely no upper body strength left, another cargo net.

[Photo to come.]

Sam decided that four levels was enough for the day. He was annoyed at himself for not finishing but the guide quickly reminded him that it was an adult course and most adults don’t even get as far as we did, let alone finish. I was so proud of Sam for his mental and physical strength that I let him spend much more in the gift shop than his usual budget. He settled on a red T-shirt, the color of the last level we completed. He earned it.

Exhausted but proud of ourselves, we checked into a surprisingly nice Quality Inn for the night, but it was only about 6 p.m. and the weather was absolutely perfect and I wanted to explore Flagstaff a little while we had the time. I asked one of the Flagstaff Extreme guys for a suggestion and he said we should just wander around downtown Flagstaff, which is centered around Route 66. (It’s actually called Route 66 here!) I asked the same question of the woman at the front desk of the Quality Inn and she said the same. That settled it. After a quick and well-deserved car wash we jumped back on Route 66 for the first time in almost a week and we headed downtown. Downtown Flagstaff is pretty tiny–just a few blocks in each direction–but it’s lively and quaint and hip and charming all at once. Historic bars and restaurants and shops mingle with new ones, and people of all ages were walking around, and there were even a handful of parking spots scattered around. The locals’ recommendations panned out perfectly.

Eventually the exhaustion and hunger were too much for us and we went back to the motel to have dinner and get ready for bed. As I write this Sam is asleep in bed, wearing his new red T-shirt.

I was so scared that this day would be a disaster but instead it was thrill after thrill. Every single thing worked out exactly perfectly, or even better. It wasn’t just one of the best days of this trip, it was one of the best days, period.

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