Grand Canyon in winter -- silent, lonely

You stop and listen. There is faint howl of wind. A crow, performing some aerobatics in the updrafts, issues a muffled caw. High over head, a jet drones, bearly audible. Mostly, there is nothing for the ear. The eye is overwhelmed.

"The solitude is great, isn't it?" asks Anne MacLean. She and her husband, Paul, are finishing roast beef sandwiches halfway up the Kaibab Trail from the Colorado River.

"Once you've dropped over the rim for the first time, you're hooked," says Mrs. MacLean, who used to travel frequently from Montana to visit but now lives in Prescott, Ariz. "I've been here probably 25 times, always in the fall or spring, but this is the best."

It is February. The Grand Canyon has become the silent canyon.

"It is just super quiet here in the winter," says Rogers Giddings, a management specialist for the National Park Service.

"Sometimes in the summer, it is just like a city driving around here with all the cars, but not now," he adds. "You just don't get the congestion."

In January this year, 60,339 people visited the canyon, according to Park Service estimates. Last August, prime time, there were 378,000.

The price of gas is taking its toll. Overall, park visitation was down 24 percent in 1979. But the peak season, according to regulars, is still one of crowds.

Winter is different. Only 10 cars are in the visitor's center parking lot, with the usual smattering of license plates -- Virginia, New Hampshire, Oregon, Manitoba.

At the general store, with a parking lot big enough for any typical suburban supermarket, there are even fewer cars. Inside, a checkout clerk leans on her register, waiting for business.

At the park's information desk, two rangers are talking together. Questions from tourists are answered in full, patiently.

On Mather Point, the outlook which offers visitors to the South Rim their first gasp of beauty, a few tour buses arrive, but most are only half full. There are a few motor homes and cars, but so few people stand on the edge that it is possible to feel isolated, even at noon on a Saturday.

Down the Kaibab Trail, only two mules trudge up the narrow path -- one guide, one tourist. It is a short mule train.The trail, say those who have hiked during peak season, is much cleaner as a result.

Only a few people pick their way down through the ice-caked and slippery switchbacks near the top, decending into the increasingly warm inner canyon.

A ski parka needed at the top gradually becomes unneeded, except for the pocket that carries the water which didn't seem necessary at the top. It is. The temperature climbs 30 degrees, but there are few people with whom to compare notes.

One who welcomes commiseration about the heat and the hill is Milan Lazarevic , who sits down on a handy rock to catch his breath. Two cameras swing from his neck. His backpack looks loaded with bricks. His Grand Canyon hike is near the end of a 12,000-mile driving trip that has covered every corner of the United States, from Los Angeles to the Pacific Northwest, Chicago, Niagara Falls, and the Deep South.

"But this is the high point," he says without hesitation. "It's everything I expected it to be and a lot more -- the best." He is from New Zealand. The sharp peaks, he says, remind him of the Grampian Mountains in Australia. He likes being alone. "See you at the top," he says, and continues the ascent.

There is nobody else for an hour. The quiet makes the canyon loom even larger. A mile below Cedar Ridge, the Colorado River is finally visable, still thousands of feet down.

The return to the rim is equally deserted, except for a painter from Sacramento, Calif., who welcomes the company. "This can get lonely," she says.

The sun crosses the sky, changing the canyon, like Claude Monet's haystacks and churches, from serene to dramatic and, finally, just before dusk, powerful.

In 1895, Maj. John Wesley Powell, one of the first white men to explore the canyon, called it "the most sublime spectacle on the earth." Perhaps, these days , even more so in winter.

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