Watching the Watchtower 2081

September 23, 2016 Posted by: George Jacobi
Sepia toned image of Desert View Watchtower on the far right, looking out over Grand Canyon cliffs beyond.

The demonstration starts with fervor, but the monsoon sky gives notice that it might wind up short-lived. Although the afternoon sun still bears down on Desert View, dark clouds to the southwest hold hanging veils of rain, and rumbling is a backdrop to the human drama. Lightning flashes. A woman costumed as Mary Colter angrily waves a cigarette as a prop. She stands on a square chunk of limestone addressing the sprawling crowd, the Canyon behind her. Media types hover on the edges with cameras poised for trouble. Clearly, this is not a standard Grand Canyon National Park interpretation talk.

It's the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Desert View Watchtower. Mary Colter's 1931 architectural masterpiece, one of her last building projects for the canyon, in which she poured all her imagination, skill, and a lifetime love of southwest Indian art and culture, is under siege. Visitation is at an all-time high in the Grand Canyon and the Park's major concession partner wants to disassemble the frequently repaired tower, and reconstruct it as part of a new expansive hotel and restaurant complex here at the east end of the Park. Several of the four Arizona Senators are behind the idea, their faces broadcast alongside those of the concessioners.

Grand Canyon Village has been jammed with visitors for decades, and is continually undergoing reconstruction. Hotels have had to add stories and no longer rest gently in the landscape. Campgrounds have long exceeded their capacity. The Park is doing all it can do. It isn't enough to stem the tide, though, and consideration must now be given to every idea.

On the other side of this debate is a cadre of history buffs. Not just powerless cheerleaders, this group has the backing of the International Alliance of Women, a sophisticated and wealthy political action steamroller, determined to promote every contribution of women to history. Attracting widespread support, they insist that the Watchtower be rebuilt once again, exactly the way it was originally designed and constructed, despite the engineering difficulties that have surfaced through the years. It's been a war of words.

The thunder moves closer. The woman on the rock appeals to tourists, asking them to appreciate what a marvel the Watchtower was, and should be again, a lighthouse overlooking the colorful ocean of sandstone and limestone below. For years now, though, the tall round edifice has remained closed, dangerous to visitors.

While this political stalemate goes on, time has continued to work on the Tower. Rain and snow, wind and visitors, all have damaged Mary Colter's iconic tower, and relentlessly continue to do so. Holes where stones have fallen let in the weather and the ravens, and except for the crowds each day, would attract the coyotes.

It would make a good den now, thinks the old man with a chuckle. Sandy Tsotepe is a Hopi elder. He has seen the Watchtower crumble for eighty five hard years, and he watches now from near the rim –not too near the rim, for despite everything he is still a Hopi. Time passes, he muses, just let it go. What's good enough for Hovenweep, and Mesa Verde, and Wupatki, is good enough for Desert View. Mary Colter would appreciate it. Wind picks up ahead of the storm. I hope it rains. To the east, across the Painted Desert toward the Mesas, time appears to stand still. But, of course, it never does.

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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource. These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2016

Last updated: September 23, 2016

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