Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Through - And Upon - The Looking Glass

These are my feet in funny footies. That's 4,000 feet of Grand Canyon beneath me, a thin but sturdy sheet of glass separating us. That window-in-the-floor at the Palms' ghostbar has nothing on this. And this is a photo you won't be able to get of yourself on the newly opened $30 million Grand Canyon SkyWalk because they won't let you bring your own camera or much of anything out there. So rip this off and tell everyone it's you if you like. I won't tell. They may have allowed these people to have cameras today, I can't recall, but that's because the place was thick with journalists, too, so maybe they were more lenient.

I am exhausted. Today's trip out for the Christian Science Monitor was long and arduous, and if it doesn't get shorter and less arduous, it's destined for failure. I woke at 5 a.m., left at 5:30, got there finally at about 8:30ish. As it stands right now, the West Rim is only about 120 miles from Vegas, but it's a treacherous drive that requires you to pass over the parking lot that is the Hoover Dam and then drive about 30 miles of extremely difficult, bumpy, unpaved terrain that my '98 Chrysler Sebring was not pleased with.

And that only gets you to the depot where you have to take a shuttle bus to Eagle Point, where the $30 million horseshoe-shaped glass walkway juts out from the rock. It's better to go with a tour operator and, if possible, by helicopter, but that's expensive. So there are some kinks.

Also, it was snowing, at least when we arrived. But that's not their fault. I was the dunderhead who has started listening to podcasts so much that I don't even ever listen to the local weather report on the radio. And that cost me, since when I arrived in a dress shirt and jeans I was so frigid I bought that hideous brown hoodie for $36. Oh, and the credit card thing wasn't working when I tried to buy it, so I had to pay cash. Which left me with about $1.27 in my pocket.

The deal with the SkyWalk is that it was financed by a group of Vegas businessmen on Hualapai reservation land in a deal that is supposed to generate all kinds of riches for the impoverished Native Americans who live, largely, in a desolate Route 66 outpost called Peach Springs about 50 miles from the site. The Hualapais are said to be very poor, although it really depends on whom you ask. But I'll get to that in a moment.

The SkyWalk itself was, undeniably, cool. You're forced to wear these hospital-ICU-style glass-walkway-scratch-preventing footies that you can see in the glass reflection on the picture of me here (Fun fact: they considered making them purple but went with the earth tone to "fit in with the environs") and it does feel weird for about a split second to walk out on it but that goes away quickly. The development is in its infancy -- a major visitors center is planned, plus an array of educational Native American exhibits including such things as tipis with people like this poor schlub acting all native and all. That bit of it, I must admit, seemed a little exploitative. I asked some manager if his attire is how he normally dresses and she snapped at me as if such a comment was ignorant or racist. But hey, what should I think when he's on display like this?

There are a few controversies surrounding this project - questions about whether building this way is appropriate, whether it will bring hoards of rude, dirty, polluting tourists to a pristine natural landmark, whether it will generate revenue for the Hualapai tribe, whether they can really compete with other, more visually eye-popping sections of the canyon at the South Rim. I'll deal with all of this in my story, whenever it's out.

For now, though, it's attracting tons of media attention. I was particularly amused that this fellow, reporter Tom Hawley from Miles' station, started out his day as a normal journalist (at left)
doing a stand-up bit but later morphed into the least likely part of a Chinese tour group (right). Ask Miles what "Ni hao, xiang mao" means, Tom!

Anyhow, I've got to write my piece on this whole thing but wanted to offer up some pictures. I left by noon after interviewing many impressed -- and one or two less impressed -- t
ourists and the muckety-mucks involved, then took the 2-hour, 49-mile, death-defying, unpaved, frightfully hilly drive to Peach Springs to see just how poor the Hualapai folks really are. Yes, it was a sad town in some ways -- very reminiscent of the depressed Route 66 town in the movie "Cars" -- but many people there bristle at the notion that they're as poor as the SkyWalk folks are saying.

That said, I interviewed this fellow for my piece and he wanted to get a job at the SkyWalk. He was rejected because he failed the drug test. And I imagine that's a pretty common situation out