My goal has always been to avoid Page, Arizona, a town that would not exist if Glen Canyon Dam did not exist and that is (at least in my mind) the premier location for annoying water-based motor sports. But now I have a reason to come here – I’d like a little more information on visiting Antelope Canyon before we head out to the tribal park. Surely there is a visitor information center in town that can help me.
Information on visiting Antelope Canyon has been difficult to find in my guidebooks, so I am surprised to realize what a major tourist attraction this must be: Every business in town seems to sport a big sign proclaiming “Buy Your Antelope Canyon Tour Here.” There are also plenty of “visitor information” centers, but they actually seem to be tour operaters. I finally give up on locating a visitors’ center and choose a place that looks respectable, bears the appropriate name of Antelope Canyon Tours, and doesn’t advertise motorized activities. (We later learn there is a Visitors Center hidden around the corner on the back side of a strip mall.)
Inside, my request for information on seeing Antelope Canyon without booking a tour in town is met with a pretty snotty response, but the background information provided (the survivors of 11 people killed in another part of the canyon sued the tribe and won because the canyon represented an attractive nuisance) explain why the tribe is so touchy about controlling canyon access. Ok, so we’ll book a tour. When does the next one leave?
Back in the tour office after a quick lunch, we find the spacious office packed with people. Uh oh. They load us into the back of a converted land rover (visions of Africa) and soon we are racing off through Page’s sprawling edge and out into the desolate landscape beyond.
Inside the tribal park, we bump along a dusty, rutted wash along with quite a collection of similar tour vehicles. It feels frenzied and chaotic.
And then we shudder to a stop.
We are there, although I’m not quite sure where “there” is. A low hill runs along beside us and off into the distance. Is this it?
Our guide gathers us together, introduces herself as Irene, and lays out the rules.
The entrance to the canyon that runs through this petrified sand dune is crowded and dusty, the swirling orange wall only hinting at what lies within.
Inside it is cool and dark, orange light streaming through the slots in the canyon’s ceiling and bouncing against the contorted walls high above.
Inside we are told to stay together until we get all the way through the canyon. We are told we will walk through the canyon as a group and then walk back on our own. So I mount my camera on my tripod and prepare to take as many pictures as possible while traipsing along behind the group. Irene is a good guide with a long connection to this place. She tells us this was where her grandfather would go to be alone until a little girl with a big mouth lost her livestock here. Along with brief lessons in history and geology, she also points out interesting angles for photography – grabbing a visitor’s camera at a particularly photogenic location and taking a picture. (By the end of the tour she will have taken at least one picture on every camera except mine, trying to ensure that each visitor will have at least one good picture.)
We move too quickly for me to understand this amazing canyon. I’d like time to be still, to sit and listen to the cool dark walls have to say – but that isn’t possible. And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. I capture a fleeting sense is a living creature, but one that is cold and somehow malevolent. I can almost imagine the fury as a flash flood races through, the relentless waters gouging new shapes into the soft stone. Somehow the force of its creation lingers within the hushed canyon. Despite Irene’s recommendation that photographers brace themselves against the twisted walls, I have no desire to touch them. I would never want to spend the night here. Irene says this place was never used by her people and was not a sacred space. . . maybe her ancestors also felt unwelcome in this otherworldly canyon.
But as we wind through the narrow passageways, my camera aimed at the ceiling high above, I am in awe.
When we reach the end of the canyon, Irene points out that the walls form the outline of a coyote. She takes her final picture on Lane’s camera.
And then I am free to walk back through the canyon taking pictures at my own pace – for ½ hour. Lane teases me about being the last one out and Irene carefully stays behind to keep an eye on me, but I am not actually the last person out. Close though. I am not ready to leave.