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An Interview with a Bindlestiff Tour Guide

Phil Murray, who recently joined a three-day Winter National Parks Tour operated by Bindlestiff Tours, interviews his tour guide, Joel Clark.

My name is Joel Clark, 41, from Southern California, and I guess you could call me an adventure guide based primarily in the American Southwest.

Talk us through the Bindlestiff Tours 3-day National Parks Winter Tour from Las Vegas that we’re on at the moment, Joel, and how it’s different from the Summer Tour.

Coming out of Las Vegas we drive to the Grand Canyon with a photo stop at Historic Route 66, arriving for sunset. The next morning, day two, we get up and watch sunrise at the Grand Canyon, from the East Rim. And then we drive out to Monument Valley on the Navajo reservation, where we have included a jeep tour of the valley with a Navajo guide, who speaks Navajo and tells you about the history and the geology (in English). After the tour we enjoy some home-made famous 'Navajo Tacos' – made with traditional fried bread - for lunch and then make a couple more scenic stops after that, including Mile Marker 13 and Highway 163, made famous by Forest Gump.

Then we drive to Page, Arizona, on the banks of the beautiful Lake Powell, backed up behind the Glen Canyon Dam. On day three of this tour, we visit Antelope Canyon in the morning and, immediately after that, hike to Horseshoe Bend and overlook the dam and lake. We then spend the afternoon in Zion National Park before returning to Las Vegas.

The summer version of the tour runs in the opposite direction and also throws in Bryce National Park, because with the longer daylight hours we can fit more in. We also enjoy sunset in Monument Valley and our campsite overlooks the three most famous buttes – the two 'mittens' and Merrick butte. When we wake up in the morning: Boom! Sunrise is right there in Monument Valley. It’s wonderful.  

They are busy, action-packed tours, but you see a lot in three days.

Tell us about the style of the tours, Joel. There’s five of us on this tour, what’s the largest group size?

We use 15-passenger vans, so we never have more than 14 people at a time; they are nice, intimate tours. We’re not in a big bus that can’t get to all the places. We’re agile, we’re small and you have the opportunity to get to know each other easier because you’re not immediately presented with a group of 50 people. We eat together, we hike together and have a good time. And a lot of friends are made, fast friends, who end up hanging out in Vegas together afterwards, going out to dinner and remaining life-long friends because you’re out here seeing places that are on a lot of people’s bucket lists, like the Grand Canyon, with a new group of people and those are bonding experiences to say the least.

Talk about Bindlestiff Tours. You’ve been regaling us with history and geology, so tell us about the Bindlestiff approach to touring.   

I think the funny thing is you might get different answers depending on which tour guide you have because all of us bring our own personality and passions and areas of expertise to the table. My passion for much of my life has been the history of the Southwest, its people, places, animals, geology and I love it. I love the desert, I love the Southwest and, hopefully, I think that comes out when I’m telling people the history that they’re here to see and I’m not a pedantic tour guide just reiterating the same things over and over again. I’m constantly reading and my passengers can tell you that. My bag is full of books that I’m working on, adding to my knowledge.

We’re a small company, which means we move quickly, we answer emails quickly, and tour guides themselves are just an interesting breed! We love adventure, we love travel and we bring that passion on the road with us. So you get to go an adventure tour with people who want to be there with you. They love their jobs and, in the off season, they’re doing the same exact thing as when they’re working – hiking, exploring and trying to see new places. I think that one thing that typifies Bindlestiff Tours is the passion that you get from the tour guides. Though we’re a young company, everyone who came to start the company had been tour guides for other companies, leading tours from Mexico to Alaska and everywhere in between. So you get tour guides with tonnes of experience but you still get that small company intimate touch.

I think everyone on our tour has appreciated that passion. We’ve loved your commentary, but also the special touches like when you read the passage to us when we were experiencing the sunrise at the east rim of the Grand Canyon. Tell us about that.

That’s fun for me, I’m always trying to fill in my knowledge with the poets and the writers who have written about the specific areas we go. So, this morning, I read a passage by John Wesley Powell, who, along with his crew of nine outdoorsmen were the first people to float down the Grand Canyon in 1869. I also quoted a passage from William Fox’s book “The Void of the Grid and the Sign”, which is all about the desert, specifically the Great Basin Desert, and quoted from John C Van Dyke, a passage about the structure, the architecture of the desert and its effect on us physiologically, observing these vast open spaces, and that’s from a book called “The Desert”, copyrighted in 1901 and now out of print, so no one knows about it anymore except for weirdos like me who search out this kind of stuff!

So, what qualifies you be a guide, Joel?

What qualifies me to come on board as a guide with Bindlestiff Tours? Our company only hires guides with past tour leader experience, because – I don’t know, I hope I make it look easy – but there’s a lot that goes into tour guiding in terms of logistics, time management, accounts, as well as area information and making sure that all your clients are happy and you’re catering to their individual personalities, dietary restrictions and what it is that they want to see specifically. I had worked for two years with another tour company and I also worked on a dude ranch in Southern Utah for four years, living there year-round and taking people on horse rides. So even though I wasn’t on the road as a guide, we were getting adventure tours to our ranch and for those years I was a horse guide, a wrangler, taking people into the beautiful Canyonlands of Utah and making sure they had a great time. So I guess I’ve had a good amount of experience.

And what do you love about your job?

What I love about my job is that it meets my passions. You know what they say: “Find something that you love to do, and find someone to pay you to do it!” And early on in life I realised I love to travel, number one, and number two I love the Southwest. I was bitten by the desert bug, the desert spirit in my twenties when I started doing weekend trips out to Joshua Tree National Park by myself exploring. So our company, at the moment is mostly focused upon the southwest. So it keeps me in my area of expertise, it keeps me in my passion, which is the great American Southwest and that’s why I love my job.

It’s not a 9-5 job. Some people want the security of knowing exactly where they’ll be in the morning, exactly when they’ll get off. They have their weekends off and they know that. Rather than having to deal with a flat tyre on the road, like we did today, and anything that the weather throws at you. It’s a good mental challenge and it keeps you on your toes and that’s what’s fun about my job.

You fixed that tyre pretty quickly, Joel, in fairness! Tell us about the style of accommodation on the tour – whether you choose lodging or camping.

That’s the great thing about our tours. If you look online and decide that you want to do our three-day Summer Time tour you can either choose the camping option or you can choose the lodging option. So most of the time, when I have a group of people on the three-day tour, I will actually have a mix of campers and lodgers. So I personally will be camping with my people overnight, but at the end of our busy days I drop off our hotel people at their hotels and then I go with our campers. And we do our thing, we have a camp fire, we have a good time and then in the morning we pick up the lodging folk and we head on down the road.

Camping is not for everybody. You’re still able to see all the same beautiful places as the campers, but at the end of the day you have a soft, warm pillow to lay your head on.

You love the Southwest. What’s your favourite part of the tour?

My favourite part of the three-day tour that we’re on is Monument Valley, because as I was explaining when we were there today, not only is it a beautiful place visually, there’s a feeling there. And I’m not one of those hippy, new-age people, but there is something in the air there that touches my soul. So every time I go to Monument Valley, I’m getting re-energised on a cellular level.

Joel guided Phil on the three-day Winter National Parks Tour operated by Bindlestiff Tours. In the winter, the tour departs Las Vegas on Monday from November to March. A summer version of the tour departs on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays from April to October, with an additional camping option as well as lodging. Ask your Travel Consultant about adding one of these tours to any West Coast USA Journey, one of many adventures you can enjoy with Bindlestiff Tours across the US Southwest, Western Canada and Alaska.

Written by Phil Murray

With parents in the travel industry, I was pretty much born with one of those take-off sweets in my mouth. I’m very fortunate to be close to clocking up my 50th country - not that I’ll slow down after that. No matter how many places I visit, I don’t think the excitement that comes with boarding a plane will ever wear off. Flying, for me, is one of the most extraordinary things we get to do as human beings and I’ll always be first in line for that window seat!

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