Road Trips and Government Shutdowns

Anticipating being bored as winter break dragged on, a couple of friends and I planned a road trip for the last week of break. The plan was to drive from Phoenix, Arizona, where my East Coast friends flew in, then to Sedona, the Grand Canyon, then a quick stop in Yuma, Arizona (my hometown on the Mexican border), and then back to CMC with a stop in Slab City.

As the trip neared, we realized that the government shutdown didn’t show any signs of stopping and we started to fret about how it might affect our trip. Although in the end it didn’t drastically alter any of our plans, it was interesting to see the shutdown’s effects firsthand as we traveled through state and national parks and crossed the border into Mexico.

Our first encounter with the shutdown came as we drove to Sedona. We stopped at the visitor’s center, only to see a note scrawled on the door that the hours of operation were cut to only a few hours in the middle of the day because the only employees on-site were volunteers. All of the federal national park workers were furloughed during the government shutdown; if they worked, it was without pay. We managed to find the trails and sights on our own though, so the effects in Sedona for visitors weren’t too drastic.

Sedona is beautiful and the red rocks are stunning. There are multiple vortexes in Sedona, which some residents claim contain special energy for healing, yoga, and other spiritual practices. We visited a Buddhist Stupa and enjoyed talking to the quirky residents of Sedona. Each person we talked to offered us a variation of spiritual guidance, which is kind of novelty in conservative Arizona.

The most remarkable stop affected by the shutdown was the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon normally has a $35 entrance fee, which was waived because there were no employees to work in the Grand Canyon Village. There are normally 382 people employed by the federal government alone, which does not include those employed by private outfitters in the Village, who were also affected. January isn’t the peak season to visit the park, but the parking lots were packed. It’s disconcerting to think that the already underfunded National Parks forfeited the fees from 35 days worth of visitors. Additionally, the normally bustling Grand Canyon Village was a ghost town. It had snowed and none of the walking paths had been shoveled. There was not a single person to explain the Grand Canyon’s plethora of hiking trails or their shuttle systems. Although not a huge disappointment to my friends and me, as we are familiar with the area, the effects of the shutdown were also felt by the many people who traveled to visit the Grand Canyon.

From the Grand Canyon we drove to Yuma. Since Yuma is on the border of Los Algodones, the most northern city in Mexico, it is normal for Yumans to park in the parking lot on the U.S. side and walk across. I brought my friends to show them around the little town and eat lunch. Since it’s something I’ve been doing for years, I didn’t even think about how the shutdown would affect the border crossing that controls the vehicle and foot traffic back in. The line to get back into the U.S. was longer than I had ever seen because the border patrol agents were understaffed and working without pay; it took us an hour and a half  to get back into the U.S. when it normally takes ten minutes.

Our last stop was in Slab City, or what most call Salvation Mountain: the colorfully painted mountains featured in many, many Instagram posts. In contrast to our other stops affected by the Government Shutdown, Slab City is known as the ‘Last Free Place in America,’ free from government control and filled with a conglomeration of people: snowbirds, the homeless, free spirits, anarchists, and artists. Though a lot of visitors only go as far as Salvation Mountain, which is located at the “entrance” of Slab City, if you continue on you will see an interesting assortment of life and art.

We visited East Jesus, an interactive art garden, which is the creation of some of the residents. All the attractions are free, but donations are welcomed to a fund and support the artists’ costs.

Visiting Slab City— a place that boasts its lack of government— was a noteworthy way to end the trip on, and was definitely a bit eerie when juxtaposed to our shutdown government. As we drove out of Slab City we noticed the upsetting amount of trash lining the roads and empty lots as a result of their unmonitored lives. This disarray was reminiscent of the unkemptness we saw at the unstaffed Grand Canyon. In some places, like Joshua Tree, the lack of staff caused damage that will take many years to repair.

The trip was a exciting end to break, but it also offered us a stark reminder: if our government can’t reliably protect our national parks, they may not be there for us to enjoy much longer.