Marble Canyon, Arizona is not much to look at – but it is great to look from.
I arrived at the Chevron gas station and went inside to pay in advance – the permutations of paying for gas in the US are seemingly endless – and listened to John telling two young drivers that in this country you should fill up at any opportunity if you are less than half full. They grunted and left.
I didn’t understand the relevance of the overheard conversation fragment until I asked about paying – “No gas’ said John. But he immediately asked me where I was from and when I said England he said ‘You’ve just missed my Mrs Slocombe impression’ – which is a phrase you don’t expect to hear in Arizona even when the speaker acts a bit camp and keeps touching his earring.
‘Keeping up Appearances’ and ‘Are you being Served?’ are John’s two favourite English TV programmes. We had a good chat, I got the information I needed about accommodation, food and bird sightings, I bought an ice-cream and that was it.
I decided to give my custom to almost the only other business in Marble Canyon – the Marble Canyon Inn. The person in charge of the Motel, let’s call her Big Sally as that gives the right impression, was smoking outside the office when I rolled in. ‘Want a room?’ asked Big Sally, ‘Yes please’ I replied in my polite English way, ‘Good’ said Big Sally in her Arizona way. Big Sally has two eyes but they never point in the same direction so our conversation was a bit unnerving for at least one of us. But she had a room, and that’s what I wanted. Big Sally also told me about the third of five visible businesses in Marble Canyon – the restaurant (and gift shop) which stays open until 9pm (and opens for breakfast at 6 again).
Aside from the Gas Station, the Lodge/Motel and the Restaurant/Gift Shop there is a small airstrip across the road, a Post Office and a jewelry maker in Marble Canyon – that’s all I can see anyway.
So having failed to fill up with gas (no disaster – I have half a tank), got accommodation and found out how to eat I go down to the river which happens to be the Colorado River heading for the Grand Canyon down the road. And on the old bridge across the river, there just happen to be two California Condors roosting at 7pm – more or less as John had told me.
One of the Condors – there are fewer than 200 in the wild – was wing-tagged and sported #54 on his tags. I walked over the old Navajo bridge, built in 1929 which is now a foot bridge since the newer bridge opened in 1995.
I’ve never stood 12 feet above 1% of the world population of any bird species before and it was exciting but odd to be doing it now.
The Condor story is one of a species being brought to the brink of extinction, all 22 of its wild individuals being brought into captivity and then a slow release and growth of a wild population, including #54. It’s a great success but only achieved at great financial cost and quite a lot of bickering.
But #54 knew nothing of this. And most people on the bridge, about 40 came and went in the hour I stayed, knew nothing of Condors. They were photographing the view, the Colorado River below or themselves. A German couple looked at the birds when I pointed them out and two young American guys stopped to look when I pointed out to them an iconic bird of this region and their country. But most people were missing their Condor moment while I was enjoying mine.
I walked back to the Lodge Restaurant and had a Southwestern Green Chili Steak (which is chicken) with fries and a salad. It was good food and lots of it. There were others eating too and the place was busy.
But when I walked back down to the bridge after dark there was no-one else there. The sky was clear and I could see more stars than would be possible back in England. Tonight the worst source of light pollution was the Moon – which I forgave.
I looked down in the moonlight and saw #54 below me. An Englishmen on a bridge in Arizona over the Colorado River looking down on a California Condor – how romantic? how weird? For me, it was an experience that will always stay with me. The warm wind, the dark sky and stars and one of the world’s rarest birds. I saw four shooting stars and made four wishes on that bridge – one for #54, one for condors, one for American birds and one for me.
I’ll come back in the morning to see what time Condors get up.