Hidden at 8,000 feet among Ponderosa pines and manzanita bushes, with rose-and-tan hoodoos rising up like giant Giacometti figures out of the canyon just a few hundred yards away, low-slung Bryce Canyon Lodge is southern Utah’s Shangri-La, the magic destination at the end of the journey through a surreally harsh and empty landscape.
I felt we were privileged just to get past the front door of the venerable 1923 lodge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. We were there only because of a cancellation; otherwise we would have had to stay just outside the Park entrance. Unlike the lobby at the North Rim, Bryce’s lobby is small and low-ceilinged, more like the living room of a private hunting lodge. The reception desk is antique, the atmosphere all dark beams and Indian weave, the staff extra-aware of their status as citizens of this tiny, rarefied kingdom.
Alas, the dining room, for all its atmosphere, is one of the more disappointing among the national park lodges we’ve visited (Glacier being another). The bread was stale and the Irish beef stew gristly. And the drinks menu was limited to a few mediocre wine selections, since Bryce, unlike Zion, doesn’t have a separate bar and therefore can’t serve cocktails, this being Shangri-La, Utah. Contributing to the feeling of dashed expectations was an unusual number — even for the parks — of elderly, rather frail guests. The one good surprise was the only African-American staff person I’ve seen at any national park, a woman from Chicago who waited on our table and kidded us about the Packers and how she just might give us a hard time (which, of course, she didn’t). On the other hand, the fact that our wait person was a surprise was itself cause for uncomfortable reflection. The next morning we saw a middle-aged African-American couple at breakfast, but that, too, was a surprise. Shelton Johnson, the eloquent Yosemite Park ranger in Ken Burns’ documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and himself African-American, has said he’d like to see African-American celebrities like Snoop Dogg or Oprah camping in Yosemite, where less than 1% of the visitors are African-American. As the entrance to Yellowstone at Gardiner, Montana says, the national parks are for the enjoyment of all the nation’s citizens, but it still often feels as if we’re traveling in an elite pack that moves from one park to the next, season after season.
So it was with small clumps of white Russians, Germans and mostly grizzled, Caucasian Americans that we hiked into the Canyon for a short afternoon hike after we arrived. We took the short but steeply descending Navajo Loop Trail, a bizarre tour in and out of the dark ochre shadows cast by giant hoodoos balancing boulders on their pointy heads. I couldn’t tell whether it was warm or cold. I started out wearing a down puffer jacket and wool cap but ended up tying the jacket around my waist. Partly it was the effort of hiking, but partly it was the high desert sun, strong even with snow on the ground and cool air temperatures. We fell into the rhythm of trail hiking, yo-yoing towards and away from various other groups of hikers. For some reason the Russians, a trio of two men and a woman in their thirties, grated on my nerves, possibly because they always seemed to be talking — loudly. I couldn’t believe that they were actually looking at anything, and I was always relieved to forge on ahead of them (or to fall behind).
The next morning Jim left early with his camera for Sunrise Point, a lookout famous for obvious reasons and only a few hundred yards from the two-story building where we were staying (there are no rooms in the Bryce Lodge itself). I, as usual, was a bit more slug-a-bed, but finally headed out. Or tried to, as a network of narrow paths all seemed to lead in the direction of the Canyon, and I couldn’t figure out the best one to take to Sunrise Point. After zig-zagging past the Park stables and mule deer camouflaged among the pines, I joined an already considerable crowd standing at the lookout, shoulders hunched and hands in pockets in the sub-twenty-degree early morning air, including British tourists in wheelchairs. No loud Russians at sunrise, just a justifiably awed and partly frozen bunch of gawkers facing the defiantly non-human spectacle: an ancient race of brilliantly colored rocks that will likely still be standing long after we have all turned to new earth.