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Into the Grand Canyon with Paul Theroux


Paul Theroux with his wife, Sheila Donnelly, in the Grand Canyon. © Ron Butler We were a group of travel-writer friends from all over the country getting together, like off-duty bus drivers, for a little R&R in the Sedona and Grand Canyon areas of Northern Arizona.

 

Arizona is wall-to-wall picture-postcard pretty, but in that part of the state the postcards are bigger and bolder and gloriously more colorful. Still, getting almost as much attention as the scenery was writer Paul Theroux who, with his new wife Sheila Donnelly, joined us for the trip.

There’s nothing quite like having a writer of Paul Theroux’s stature along to humble a group of travel writers, often an opinionated, outspoken bunch from whose lips magazine and newspaper credits fall like confetti.

Paul Theroux doesn’t drop credits. He doesn’t have to. His big best sellers include The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster, The Mosquito Coast, My Secret History and a score of others. His most recent book is Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, about his failed friendship with his long-time mentor and fellow author V.S. Naipaul.

So there was little grandstanding among those of us who found ourselves in his company.

At an altitude of 4300 feet, well above the desert heat and below the mountain snow, Sedona is the place where Gauguin, Revlon and Technicolor all seem to have come together to put brilliant red hues on massive buttes, mesas and towering monoliths.

Courtesy Of Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Chamber of CommerceSpring-fed Oak Creek glistens through a canyon of cottonwoods.

It wasn’t until the second morning that I actually met our famous counterpart. That’s when Theroux, who wasn’t with us the first night because he was giving a talk in San Francisco -- he interrupted a book tour to be on the Sedona trip -- showed up at breakfast, dressed in a Mao jacket and cap, no doubt left over from his China days. He was seated across from me at a small table in the hotel dining room.

I’m not my best at early morning chatter, nor is he apparently, and I just looked at him somewhat awestruck. Anyone familiar with his work knows he not only dissects people he meets along the way but often performs autopsies as well. I was afraid to say anything for fear I’d sound like a boob and he’d just get up and ask to be seated somewhere else.

But as the week went on he loosened up considerably. I can’t say we bonded particularly, but at one point he had his arm around my shoulders as we sang an impromptu duet of "Feelings" for the group. We were drinking champagne out of plastic cups, a tailgate party more or less celebrating the fact that we had helicoptered in and out of the Grand Canyon unscathed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First on our Sedona itinerary was a Pink Jeep tour to explore some of the ancient Indian cliff dwellings around Sedona. I’m not sure why the jeeps are painted pink. Probably to frighten off evil spirits.

 

The area actually feels "sacred." The early Indians believed that the towering spires of rock were pillars that held up the sky. They believed that the small holes eroded into the sides of the cliffs were footprints made by the wind. Our guide, who looked like an Indian -- long hair tied into a braid, lots of polished silver and faded denim -- but who was actually from Detroit, told us to be quiet for a moment. He told us to listen to the music of silence.

Theroux, 58, tall and athletic-looking, handsome behind his trademark platter-framed glasses, took surprisingly few notes. I suspect the more important the writer, the more conspicuous the note taking process becomes and like most of the sensitive ones, he’s intrinsically shy. The next day he got a bicycle from the hotel and went back on his own to study the cliff dwellings in more detail.

For his travel-writing assignments, Theroux generally travels alone. "I had always avoided reading about the journey in which Mr. and Mrs. First Class Traveler were embarked on a satisfying adventure ("My wife found an exquisite carving. . .")," he has written.

Theroux’s work is as clean and as crisp as the spring-fed water that flows through Oak Creek Canyon. I particularly like this lead paragraph from a recent New Yorker story: "The shortcut through Boston that night was a mistake. I could not drive fast enough to escape my feeling of failure. Winter tramps and homeless veterans lurking in those narrow back streets looked like Arctic explorers in old engravings -- overdressed, shrouded in lumpy clothes, frostbitten and doomed. It was face-freezing weather, and the plowed streets were lined by barriers of dumped snow. The sidewalks glistened with crystals of black frost."

If he could write with such clarity about a place as depressing as Boston in winter, what would he say about Sedona where spirits and canyon walls soar like the upswept wings of eagles?

Celebrities have long been attracted to Sedona. Ann Miller, Jane Russell and Sean Young have homes there. The prestigious Cowboy Artists of America group was founded in 1965 in Sedona’s Oak Creek Tavern, as a plaque outside attests.

Oak Creek Canyon - Copyright Bob Clemenz, Courtesy of Sedona - Oak Creek Canyon Chamber of CommerceOf late, dozens of psychics, astrologers, tarot card readers, healers, spiritual advisers, channelers and palm readers have set up shop in Sedona, enhancing their own powers through the natural energy centers known as "vortexes" that abound in and around the town of 9,000. If you go into a restaurant and order soup, the pretty waitress who stares at you isn’t necessarily coming on to you. She’s probably reading your aura.

From Sedona, you drive through Flagstaff (on the old legendary Route 66) to get to the Grand Canyon. Our intrepid group was up bright and early. We would helicopter into the Grand Canyon to spend a day with the Havasupai Indians who live down there at the bottom. I thought Paul Theroux would have an anxiety attack when he and his wife (still virtual honeymooners) were assigned to different helicopters.

I’m a nervous flyer to begin with. Helicopters terrify me, a phobia that began several years ago when I took a helicopter tour of Kauai, the lushest and most mountainous of the Hawaiian Islands. I was with a madman photographer who persuaded the pilot to fly close enough to a waterfall to let the helicopter blades slice through the water. He wanted to photograph the spray.

With the door open, his foot jammed against the open door frame for support, the photographer clicked away while I all but cowered under the seats.

So now there we were, like something out of the opening scenes of "M*A*S*H," a group of helicopters hovering over the northern terrain of Arizona until the earth literally opened up before us revealing the colossal splendor of the Grand Canyon.

The Havasupai Indians, now about 500 in number, have lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, actually a side canyon off the national park’s central portion, since before the arrival of the white man. Before the helicopters came clattering into the village of Supai, the only access to the area was by foot, horse or muleback down an 8-mile trail that descends 2,000 feet from the top of the canyon. Getting down was relatively easy. Going back up was a killer.

 

The helicopters seem such an intrusion into this pastoral setting one wonders why they’re permitted at all. Economics, of course. Stiff landing fees and individual entry permits are a new-found source of income for the Havasupai who are basically farmers and herders. (Tribal board members all fly free.)

Along with the small, dirt landing field, the village of Supai consists of a tribal headquarters building, a post office (the only "mule delivery" postal service in the U.S. reads a sign out front), a rustic grocery store, a restaurant offering light meals and fast food fare, and a modest hotel.

Only a handful of village children seemed interested as our helicopters dropped out of the sky one by one, kicking up clouds of dust.

After registering at the headquarters building, we took off on the trail through Havasu Canyon where a series of waterfalls plunge over red limestone cliffs in a space of just two-and-a-half miles -- 75-foot Navajo Falls, 100-foot Havasu Falls and 200-foot Mooney Falls -- each with rocky pools of mountain-clear water at their base for wading and swimming. Our backpacks filled with sandwiches, water and fruit, we wanted to get moving before the sun got too high in the sky. And so we walked from the 20th century back into the Biblical land of Eden.

In the village later that afternoon, waiting for the helicopters to come and pick us up again, we relaxed on the wide shaded porch of the village restaurant.

Theroux mixed easily with the Havasupai Indians, chatting and joking with the groups of children who all but followed us about. He began his career as a teacher with the Peace Corps in Africa. Old habits die hard.

There’s a little tourist train, the Verde Valley Railroad, that leaves its station in Clarksdale, 22 miles west of Sedona, for a four-hour trip through the high desert’s nearby cottonwoods and canyons. I briefly entertained the thought of inviting Theroux to ride the train with me for an interview. After all, he wrote all those books about great rail journeys around the world. It would be a lark, chugging around on that little train. Nah, maybe not.

IF YOU GO:

Where to Stay

Enchantment Resort (525 Boynton Canyon Road, Sedona 86336; tel. 520/282-2900; fax 520/282-9249) After several owners and a few shaky starts, Enchantment now hits its stride as Sedona’s leading full-service luxury hotel resort. With Boynton Canyon as its stunning backdrop -- arriving, our car had to stop to let a coyote cross the road -- Enchantment offers 162 guest rooms, studios and suites, all with Western furnishing and decor, 12 tennis courts, four pools, spa, fitness center and a 6-hole, par 3 golf course. Sunday jazz brunch in the gourmet dining room is a must, even for Sedona locals. Rates, single or double, begin at $195.

Los Abrigados Resort & Spa (160 Portal Lane, Sedona 86336; tel. 520/282-1777) is a 187-room all-suite resort adjacent to the popular Tlaquepaque shopping complex. It boasts four popular restaurants -- Joey’s Bistro, Steaks and Sticks, the Celebrity Room, and On the Rocks Bar and Grill. Rates from $210 to $395.

Poco Diablo Resort (1752 South Highway 179, Sedona 86336; tel.520/282-7333) has 137 rooms built around a 9-hole, par 3 golf course. It has a large pool, fitness center and four tennis courts (two lighted). Doubles $95 to $360.

For additional information, contact the Sedona Chamber of Commerce at
1-800-288-7336.

First on our Sedona itinerary was a Pink Jeep tour to explore some of the ancient Indian cliff dwellings around Sedona. I’m not sure why the jeeps are painted pink. Probably to frighten off evil spirits.

The area actually feels "sacred." The early Indians believed that the towering spires of rock were pillars that held up the sky. They believed that the small holes eroded into the sides of the cliffs were footprints made by the wind. Our guide, who looked like an Indian -- long hair tied into a braid, lots of polished silver and faded denim -- but who was actually from Detroit, told us to be quiet for a moment. He told us to listen to the music of silence.

Theroux, 58, tall and athletic-looking, handsome behind his trademark platter-framed glasses, took surprisingly few notes. I suspect the more important the writer, the more conspicuous the note taking process becomes and like most of the sensitive ones, he’s intrinsically shy. The next day he got a bicycle from the hotel and went back on his own to study the cliff dwellings in more detail.

For his travel-writing assignments, Theroux generally travels alone. "I had always avoided reading about the journey in which Mr. and Mrs. First Class Traveler were embarked on a satisfying adventure ("My wife found an exquisite carving. . .")," he has written.

Theroux’s work is as clean and as crisp as the spring-fed water that flows through Oak Creek Canyon. I particularly like this lead paragraph from a recent New Yorker story: "The shortcut through Boston that night was a mistake. I could not drive fast enough to escape my feeling of failure. Winter tramps and homeless veterans lurking in those narrow back streets looked like Arctic explorers in old engravings -- overdressed, shrouded in lumpy clothes, frostbitten and doomed. It was face-freezing weather, and the plowed streets were lined by barriers of dumped snow. The sidewalks glistened with crystals of black frost."

If he could write with such clarity about a place as depressing as Boston in winter, what would he say about Sedona where spirits and canyon walls soar like the upswept wings of eagles?

Celebrities have long been attracted to Sedona. Ann Miller, Jane Russell and Sean Young have homes there. The prestigious Cowboy Artists of America group was founded in 1965 in Sedona’s Oak Creek Tavern, as a plaque outside attests.

Oak Creek Canyon - Copyright Bob Clemenz, Courtesy of Sedona - Oak Creek Canyon Chamber of CommerceOf late, dozens of psychics, astrologers, tarot card readers, healers, spiritual advisers, channelers and palm readers have set up shop in Sedona, enhancing their own powers through the natural energy centers known as "vortexes" that abound in and around the town of 9,000. If you go into a restaurant and order soup, the pretty waitress who stares at you isn’t necessarily coming on to you. She’s probably reading your aura.

From Sedona, you drive through Flagstaff (on the old legendary Route 66) to get to the Grand Canyon. Our intrepid group was up bright and early. We would helicopter into the Grand Canyon to spend a day with the Havasupai Indians who live down there at the bottom. I thought Paul Theroux would have an anxiety attack when he and his wife (still virtual honeymooners) were assigned to different helicopters.

I’m a nervous flyer to begin with. Helicopters terrify me, a phobia that began several years ago when I took a helicopter tour of Kauai, the lushest and most mountainous of the Hawaiian Islands. I was with a madman photographer who persuaded the pilot to fly close enough to a waterfall to let the helicopter blades slice through the water. He wanted to photograph the spray.

With the door open, his foot jammed against the open door frame for support, the photographer clicked away while I all but cowered under the seats.

So now there we were, like something out of the opening scenes of "M*A*S*H," a group of helicopters hovering over the northern terrain of Arizona until the earth literally opened up before us revealing the colossal splendor of the Grand Canyon.

The Havasupai Indians, now about 500 in number, have lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, actually a side canyon off the national park’s central portion, since before the arrival of the white man. Before the helicopters came clattering into the village of Supai, the only access to the area was by foot, horse or muleback down an 8-mile trail that descends 2,000 feet from the top of the canyon. Getting down was relatively easy. Going back up was a killer.

The helicopters seem such an intrusion into this pastoral setting one wonders why they’re permitted at all. Economics, of course. Stiff landing fees and individual entry permits are a new-found source of income for the Havasupai who are basically farmers and herders. (Tribal board members all fly free.)

Along with the small, dirt landing field, the village of Supai consists of a tribal headquarters building, a post office (the only "mule delivery" postal service in the U.S. reads a sign out front), a rustic grocery store, a restaurant offering light meals and fast food fare, and a modest hotel.

Only a handful of village children seemed interested as our helicopters dropped out of the sky one by one, kicking up clouds of dust.

After registering at the headquarters building, we took off on the trail through Havasu Canyon where a series of waterfalls plunge over red limestone cliffs in a space of just two-and-a-half miles -- 75-foot Navajo Falls, 100-foot Havasu Falls and 200-foot Mooney Falls -- each with rocky pools of mountain-clear water at their base for wading and swimming. Our backpacks filled with sandwiches, water and fruit, we wanted to get moving before the sun got too high in the sky. And so we walked from the 20th century back into the Biblical land of Eden.

In the village later that afternoon, waiting for the helicopters to come and pick us up again, we relaxed on the wide shaded porch of the village restaurant.

Theroux mixed easily with the Havasupai Indians, chatting and joking with the groups of children who all but followed us about. He began his career as a teacher with the Peace Corps in Africa. Old habits die hard.

There’s a little tourist train, the Verde Valley Railroad, that leaves its station in Clarksdale, 22 miles west of Sedona, for a four-hour trip through the high desert’s nearby cottonwoods and canyons. I briefly entertained the thought of inviting Theroux to ride the train with me for an interview. After all, he wrote all those books about great rail journeys around the world. It would be a lark, chugging around on that little train. Nah, maybe not.

IF YOU GO:

Where to Stay

Enchantment Resort (525 Boynton Canyon Road, Sedona 86336; tel. 520/282-2900; fax 520/282-9249) After several owners and a few shaky starts, Enchantment now hits its stride as Sedona’s leading full-service luxury hotel resort. With Boynton Canyon as its stunning backdrop -- arriving, our car had to stop to let a coyote cross the road -- Enchantment offers 162 guest rooms, studios and suites, all with Western furnishing and decor, 12 tennis courts, four pools, spa, fitness center and a 6-hole, par 3 golf course. Sunday jazz brunch in the gourmet dining room is a must, even for Sedona locals. Rates, single or double, begin at $195.

Los Abrigados Resort & Spa (160 Portal Lane, Sedona 86336; tel. 520/282-1777) is a 187-room all-suite resort adjacent to the popular Tlaquepaque shopping complex. It boasts four popular restaurants -- Joey’s Bistro, Steaks and Sticks, the Celebrity Room, and On the Rocks Bar and Grill. Rates from $210 to $395.

Poco Diablo Resort (1752 South Highway 179, Sedona 86336; tel.520/282-7333) has 137 rooms built around a 9-hole, par 3 golf course. It has a large pool, fitness center and four tennis courts (two lighted). Doubles $95 to $360.

For additional information, contact the Sedona Chamber of Commerce at
1-800-288-7336.