‘Everyone makes fun of me when I speak Spanish, but I’m like, ‘Cheerleaders have a strong accent!’’
It was at that point I realised it was going to be a long day.
At 6am on a bright winter morning in Nevada, I was sitting in a minibus/SUV type thing with Joe, Hannah, Dan and an assortment of random tourists. A lone Belgian, a Californian cheerleader, a quiet girl from Chile, a couple from Washington DC, and our tour guide, GI Joe. He was tanned, cheerful, and looked like he was poised ready to leap into action.
The Grand Canyon was enthusiastically declared a ‘must-see’ from my friends who’ve been to the Las Vegas area before. It was only later that I remembered that they hadn’t been in December, and that all their pictures were of them in shorts, t-shirts and sunglasses in precarious-looking (but safe) positions hanging off rocks.
After carefully monitoring the weather forecast, I picked a day that was like the Valley of Fire day – blue skies and warmish temperatures, and booked us on a long photographic sunset tour.
It wasn’t until the night before that I realised, like an idiot, I’d been looking at the forecast for Nevada and not Arizona. Turned out the weather forecast for the Grand Canyon was clouds. And snow.
‘It’s the desert!’ I thought optimistically. ‘How bad can it be?’
Five hours later, we arrived to this:
You know when you get to a tourist spot and people have said, ‘You can’t miss it’? We were kind of wondering…’is that it? Or maybe it’s…over there?’ It was honestly hard to tell. I didn’t realise how ridiculous it was that Joe said, seriously, ‘I think that’s it!’ about the Grand Canyon until later.
I was dressed for Britain in autumn, i.e. jeans, study trainers that were practically walking shoes, a t-shirt, cardigan, and hoodie. I was not dressed for a sub-zero snowstorm and (what was, in some places) three feet of snow. Hell, I’ve never even seen three feet of snow.
We were supposed to be doing a walking tour, but after GI Joe told us that he ‘heard about this happening from other guides’ and ‘it would have been cancelled if we’d known it would be this bad’, he muttered something about going to park the van somewhere and disappeared. We wandered around the visitor centre for about forty years, and I bought more hoodies and took this super ironic photo:
When GI Joe picked us up, he said something about them needing to clear the snow because he couldn’t get through in places. There were people shovelling, but the snow was coming down really fast. We drove to various stops around the canyon and got out to get photos and wander around. GI Joe had become very subdued by this point, and instead of jumping around like Johnny Bravo, had mumbled something about not liking cold weather (come on, it wasn’t THAT cold…yet) and stayed in the van for the most part.
This annoyed me quite a bit, because he’d been telling us lots of information on the way to the park, and then shut up abruptly once we got there. He became more of a driver than a tour guide from that point on, which wasn’t what I signed up for, but maybe he was scared of dying or something.
Have you ever been near a pothole in the snow? Imagine that pothole is the Grand Canyon, and you’ll realise that it’s pretty scary. You can’t see steps, you don’t know where snow will hold and where it won’t, and you’re totally unfamiliar with what it’s ‘supposed’ to look like. Or where the edges are.
I would have been seriously pissed off by this point, but the skies started to clear:
We were basically the only people in the whole park. That’s how it felt, anyway. We saw maybe five people outside the whole time we were there. We saw more animals than we did people. It was a weird combination of simultaneously feeling privileged and freezing cold misery.
The biggest layer of irony under all this was that when I told people I was going to the Grand Canyon, I said, ‘We’re going in December! There could be a SNOWSTORM, how amazing would that be?!’ and people were suitably impressed. Turns out, it’s not that impressive. Especially when you’re soaked through to the very core. There’s nothing more depressing than wet feet, especially when they become blocks of ice. Even looking at the photos reminds me how cold and wet I was for hours afterwards (even with the very welcome spare emergency socks I take everywhere, ‘just in case’).
A cactus. In the snow.
GI Joe asked us if we wanted to stay for sunset, but warned that we probably wouldn’t be able to see it because the clouds were coming down again, and so was the snow. We hung around until almost sunset, then the cold and clouds beat us and we decided to head back.
As we drove through the park I realised we’d missed the sunset entirely because of the clouds, and it was actually turning dark much quicker than I thought. The snow was getting deeper and we suddenly halted on a train track with a ‘Detour’ sign visible up ahead.
After managing to get the van off the tracks and plough on towards the sign, we encountered a car coming the other way. The driver informed us that it was actually a dead end and he didn’t know why a sign had been placed there. ‘It’s okay, we’ll keep going and turn around and come back,’ GI Joe proclaimed confidently. We drove into what was probably a small glade and GI Joe started to turn the vehicle.
Except…it got stuck.
The tyres kept spinning out, and to be honest I was so cold I didn’t really register anything was wrong until people started offering to get out and push. GI Joe said that it would at least help make the car lighter, so I put my shoes back on (yes they were off – they were soaked through) and we all stood outside in the freezing cold dark snow. In the middle of the woods. With no one else around.
It was the stuff of B list horror movies right there. I just wasn’t sure whether to expect a house of Transylvanian cross-dressers or axe murderers targeting drunken teenagers.
When nothing happened, people started to try and push the car. I’d given up taking photos by that point, and normally I’m not even conscious of anything outside my lens, so this was a big deal. ‘We’re all gonna die!’ I said helpfully. I’d said it before on the trip, but this time no one even raised a smile. That was when I really started to get worried. It didn’t take long to write these paragraphs, so it’s hard to get across just how long we were stuck there. It was a long time, and it felt like hours.
Strangely enough, in all the death scenarios I’ve ever gone through in my head, none of them has ever involved dying in the Grand Canyon with GI Joe and a cheerleader. Call me boring. That’s what I was thinking as people were pushing (I was freaking out too much to be of any help, and there wasn’t any pushing space left anyway).
Suddenly Mr Washington DC exclaimed, ‘Wait! I know what to do! I’ve seen it on Buzzfeed!’ He ran over to a neraby tree, broke off a branch (if anyone from the Grand National Park is reading this, I’m SORRY. Also, it wasn’t me), and put it in front of the back tyres. Another ten minutes or so of pushing and engine revving, and we were free. Thank god for Buzzfeed. It just goes to show, with technology you really can solve anything.
We managed to get back to the visitor centre without any further incidents. At no point did GI Joe apologise for his unpreparedness and having nothing of use in the car, despite knowing there would be at least some snow. Mr Washington DC asked him, ‘So…what would you have done if we couldn’t get free?’ and he replied, ‘Oh, I would have called the visitor centre and they would have come and rescued us.’ ‘But what if you had no cellphone reception?’ ‘I have cellphone reception,’ Here you do. But what about back there?
My theory is we’d still be out there. Well, our skeletons would be. And the three hoodies that I bought. What a waste.
Anyway, long story short: check the weather forecast for the place you’re visiting before you go there. Never trust a tour guide who looks like GI Joe. And always read Buzzfeed, because you never know when it might just save your life.
See all the photos of the South rim here: Grand Canyon, Arizona