The Grand Canyon, temperature inversion and the worst parenting ever


I have two daughters, ages 12 and 14. They’ve lived in the Southwest for most of those years, and they’ve never seen the Grand Canyon. This, in my wife’s eyes at least, is a sin. My sin.

“Why don’t you take them if it’s so important?”

“Hey, you’re Mister Southwest guy. I took them to see the Mona Lisa. It’s your responsibility to show them the Grand Canyon.”

I have my own long list of Western places I have taken my kids, and I have my own high-minded, maybe even snobby reasons for leaving the crowded overlooks at the Grand Canyon off that list for 14 years. But I won’t bore you with that. It’s all just cheap justification anyway. I have deprived my children from seeing one of the wonders of the natural world, and I’m the worst parent ever.

Snapshots from a family vacation: Flying saucer, portal to another dimension, Jerky, Agave. By Jonathan Thompson.

For Thanksgiving this year, we headed south and west to California to visit my family-in-law and get a little bit of ocean time before winter’s harshness hit. The first night we made it to Flagstaff, and when we awoke in our hotel, three inches of snow covered the ground. As I choked down the watery coffee at the hotel breakfast, I heard one of the hotel staff telling another family about the different driving options to get to the Grand Canyon. There was a blinding flash of light and in it I saw redemption.

“On the way back home,” I announced, tracing our route on my tattered AAA Indian Country map, “we’re going to the Grand Canyon!” And thus, combined with my pledge to eat at as many frozen yogurt places as possible on this trip, I would regain the parental high road.

But first, we continued westward through a climatic menagerie. Just a few hours after seeing crunched and flipped cars along a slushy I-40 outside of Flagstaff, we saw big trucks towing jet skis down by Lake Havasu. As we sped through a stretch of vast desert under a moody sky south of Needles, my 14-year-old demanded we stop. She is a photographer, and the social media sites Tumblr and Instagram have a thing for open desert, especially if they are adorned by a ribbon of road stretching into infinity. Photographers on these sites are paid in “notes” or “likes” or “follows,” and measured in this currency, my daughter is about 600 times wealthier than I am, though I once had some success with a shot of a highway underpass.

Walking around amongst the ocotillo, their long fingers reaching into the cloudy sky, we found all kinds of surprising detritus to photograph: A door from a cabinet, an RC Cola can that my kids found fascinating (it had the 70s era flip top of my youth). We saw a flying saucer and found a shiny hubcap that, when launched into the wind, hovered in the strangely humid air for what seemed like forever. We saw a fence covered in old shoes. In Palm Desert it was 80 degrees, the morning’s snow a faded memory, and bougainvillea hung lasciviously from the stuccoed walls of gated communities.

To me, the sheer scale of California is both baffling and spectacular, whether it’s the freeways that fill up canyons and flow over hills as though they weren’t even there, or the avocado orchards clinging to hillsides; the vast beaten-down terrain of Pendleton Marine base, or the long line at the In-N-Out Burger somewhere on the northern edge of Los Angeles sprawl where I ate my first fast food burger in years, all smothered in American cheese, onions and some mystery sauce, not more than 15 feet from the I-405 off ramp. When traveling, one must adhere to local tradition.

In six lanes of traffic, traveling at ungodly speeds (my wife drove, of course) we passed through a bustling oilfield right in LA’s urban heart. We gazed upon a 340-ton boulder suspended over a concrete trench. We hiked through the Devil’s Punchbowl. We saw hundreds of wind turbines, a giant kinetic sculpture, glowing white on the Tehachapi Mountains, and inadvertently stumbled into Barstow and its outlet stores on Black Friday, only to see a consumer frenzy in the desert.

Finally, after a week on the road, we were back in Arizona. We awoke to clear skies, our Grand Canyon goal in reach. Anticipation filled the car as we headed north toward the gorge on Highway 64. But as I drove, I noticed an odd bank of clouds sitting on the landscape. At the ticket booths, each of which had a long line of cars waiting, a sign read: Visibility at the Canyon is limited. No refunds for weather.

By the time we reached Mather Point and the Visitors Center, visibility was, indeed, limited. Fog hung over everything like a blanket. We walked to canyon’s edge, still hoping for some sort of view. Instead, we saw what looked like mashed potatoes. Hundreds of people from all over the world — we counted at least six different languages — peered off the viewpoint into nothingness. Back in the visitors center we overheard a couple’s frustrated exchange with the ranger: “Where is the Canyon?” they asked. He showed them on a map. “We went there,” the woman replied. “We looked and looked, and we couldn’t find it.”

This is what we, and hundreds of others, saw when we went to the Grand Canyon during a rare weather event. Photograph by Jonathan Thompson.

I tried to convince my family to wait for a while. Surely it would burn off, and the canyon would reveal itself in spectacular fashion. But they wanted to get home, and I couldn’t blame them. We inched our way along the road that follows the rim through a fog thick as soup. My children still hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon. I remained a bad parent.

It wasn’t until the next day, when photos of the event went “viral” on various social media, that we realized we had witnessed a once-in-a-decade phenomenon. The storm we had encountered a week earlier had deposited a lot of moisture on the ground, followed by a clear, cold trend. Tom Yulsman, University of Colorado environmental journalism professor, has a good description of what happened next (as well as a lot of great imagery of the phenomenon that you may not have already seen) at his ImaGeo blog:

Under these conditions, the ground cooled significantly during the long nights. Since colder air holds less moisture, water condensed. But that on its own wouldn’t have been enough to result in extensive fog. One other ingredient was needed: Something to keep the condensed moisture — clouds, essentially — from dissipating. In other words, some kind of cap to keep it all down by the ground.

That capping was provided by a temperature inversion — a common occurrence in winter under high pressure conditions.

The inversion was of the same breed that traps smog in places like Utah’s Wasatch Front: The air up high was warmer than the air next to the ground. When we were there, it just happened to be a little higher up than when all the cool-looking photos were shot.

Had we arrived a bit earlier, this is what we would have seen. National Park Service photograph by Erin Whittaker.

As we drove home that day, it became clear that this particular fog event extended far beyond the Canyon. In fact, it appears to have roughly followed a good portion of the Colorado River drainage, smothering Lake Powell in marshmallow fluff, creeping up the San Juan River and into Colorado. My kids still hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon, but they had, I’m sure, felt the void underneath all that fog. Nevertheless, I kicked myself when I realized how special the event was: Had I known, I could have “live-tweeted” the whole thing, surely surpassing my daughter in social media wealth once and for all.

But all was not lost. On the way home, we did stop and take a picture at the Little Colorado Gorge, which was not shrouded in fog. More importantly, we had lunch in Tuba City, where we ate Tuuvi Tacos — a Hopi version of a Navajo taco. My kids insist they had never had one of those before, either. Now they have. Maybe I’m not such a bad parent after all.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

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