Tidewater Traveler - August 2008

Grand Canyon Skywalk


George Sellers

    “We believe that help will be along in less than an hour or so. You are welcome to get off the bus, but if you do be aware that the outside temperature is 107 and we have three species of rattlesnakes known to be in this area. We apologize for this inconvenience.”
     Inconvenience ! ! ! ? ? ? ! ! ! My readers may or may not be aware that on occasion tour operators use guinea pig groups of travel agents to try out new tour destinations. That is why I am on the back seat of this stalled, ‘80s-era motor coach in the Mojave Desert, sweating profusely – not perspiring, not glistening – this is a full-fledged, clothes-drenching sweat! That saying about the dry heat of the Southwest USA not being as uncomfortable as the humid heat of DelMarVa is not working for me at the moment. I feel like I am breathing from the exhaust of a hair dryer. Paved road (let’s say civilization for now) is about 15 crooked, hilly, bumpy, dusty, gravelly miles behind us. Our destination is said to be about six miles ahead.
     Curiosity leads me to pull out my cell phone. Bars? None! And the mousy little service tech with the horn-rimmed glasses so proud to ask “Can you hear me now?” Where is he when you need him? I have half a bottle of warm water left and as I take a swig it occurs to me that this situation really could get serious and I should conserve my water. A second epiphany and I begin to think of the closed-up coach as an oven; I wonder which is worse, being roasted or being lunch for a rattlesnake.
     The sky is beautiful – big, open, only thin wispy clouds. There is a smidgen of color in the sparse vegetation and an occasional tiny blossom. Joshua trees abound. They are those thorny-looking cactus-like (though not really in the cactus family) trees. At the end of each crooked branch is a brownish green spiny cluster and from many of the clusters pokes a fruit shaped like a yellow squash. Earlier, during our highway ride, the guide had said that water can be extracted from the fruit of the Joshua tree. I wonder if she knows how to do that.
     The exterior of the coach is attractively and professionally decorated with a full-color depiction of the attraction we are (were) headed to see. It is very impressive (the picture on the bus). I am questioning whether it might have been wiser to have invested in better equipment rather than decorating the older coaches so nicely. Perhaps this overheated engine could have been avoided.
     Eventually, another similarly decorated bus arrives on the scene and our party transfers through the sand and rattlesnake country (didn’t see any) to our new wheels. More bumps, more dust, more hills and curves, and we reach our destination.
     We are on the reservation of the Hualapai Nation (pronounced wal’-a-pie), where construction of the Grand Canyon Skywalk Glass Bridge has been completed. For several years my travel clients have been asking me about the Skywalk, and until very recently it was not open to the public. I’m not sure it should be open to the public even now, though it is.
     The glass bridge is complete. It is probably safe and it is an interesting experience to step out onto it. But none of the logistical support is ready to accommodate the numbers of visitors that are traveling to see Skywalk. Roads and transportation to the attraction are woefully inadequate. I consider it near-torture to get there. The access walkways and buildings that lead to and from the glass deck are pieced together with two-by-fours, plywood and orange plastic barricade material. On the whole the project reminds me of the proverbial dog chasing a car, not considering what it might do if it actually catches the car.
     From Las Vegas, a two-and-a-half-hour drive is required to reach the West Rim location of the depot, the depot from which an older fleet of buses departs to venture about 21 miles across terrible roads to the site of Skywalk. There are some fabulous vistas of the Grand Canyon from various points throughout the Hualapai land. But these don’t need a Skywalk to be appreciated.
     The glass bridge is smaller than I had envisioned it from pictures and artist renderings, yet it is an engineering accomplishment. It is a U-shaped framework extending out in cantilever fashion from the edge of a sheer cliff. Seemingly unsupported steel girders provide the base of the structure, and the decking is fashioned of thick, multilayered glass; glass sidewalls about four and a half feet high bound both sides of the walkway.
     The first few steps onto the glass floor produce an eerie feeling. Some folks hug the railing, staying near the outer edge because there is a one-foot band on each side of the floor that is not transparent glass. Some lie on the transparent floor, imagining they are sky-diving. Some pose for the Hualapai photographer (no personal cameras are allowed). Everyone wears paper-fabric footies over their shoes. Peering straight down through the floor one sees a rock ledge about 1,000 feet below. Beyond the first ledge it drops off to a depth of about 2,000 feet. In the distance are seen the brown waters of the Colorado River. At this point in the western Grand Canyon, the river level is about 4,000 feet below the rim of the plateau from which it is being viewed. This is neither the deepest nor the widest section of the Grand Canyon, yet it is very impressive.
     The glass bridge could be a great prop for a Windex commercial. The combination of occasional condensation and desert dust has left large water spots on the bottom of the glass deck. I can just imagine a Hualapai warrior hanging from a harness under the bridge with a bottle of Windex in one hand and a wad of paper towels in the other, ready to fight grime and corruption.
     The Hualapais (or their promoters) have not missed the opportunity to capitalize on typical touristy stuff. I came home with an “I did it ! ! !” wristband (actually it was my admission ticket) and an “I did it ! ! !” crushed penny for my grandson. I passed on the “I did it ! ! !” t-shirts, caps, scarves, pens, statues, snow globes, pennants, patches, pins, spoons, thimbles, cups and dozens of other touristy goodies.
     Am I glad I made the trip? Yes. Would I do it again? No. Would I recommend it to my clients? Maybe. It depends. Many folks would not tolerate the touring conditions very well. I would need to know more about the traveler before deciding whether or not to suggest visiting this attraction.
     The Grand Canyon Skywalk Glass Bridge must be considered a work in progress. Conversations with some of the Hualapai staffers at the site reveal that they are aware of the shortcomings and ill-prepared conditions. I expect the logistics of this attraction to improve within the next year or so, making a visit more tolerable.
     May all of your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.