Celebrating the Grand Canyon

A new anthology helps a visitor appreciate the vast complexities of one of Earth's most spectacular sights.


Don George
August 4, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

After our heart-stopping, soul-soaring ascent of Yosemite's Half Dome a few weeks ago, my family vacation moved on to another, much more staggering national treasure: the Grand Canyon. My wife and I had made a quick stop at the Grand Canyon on a cross-country drive two decades before, but we had seen it only from the South Rim. I wanted to get closer to it, and I was anxious to see the look on our children's faces when they first saw that almost incomprehensible chasmic expanse.

We flew to Phoenix, overnighted at an airport hotel, then drove through cacti and brush scrub country toward the canyon. The map showed a seductive trail of names that resonated with Old West history and lore -- Tombstone, Yuma, Jerome, Apache and Navajo and Hopi reservations -- but we had only a day and a couple of nights, so we headed straight for the Oldest West.

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After Flagstaff we turned onto Route 180 and the landscape began to change. Before long we were traveling through high thick pine forests and then dazzling stretches of white aspen. Far to our right a massive red-rock mountain towered into the sky, but nothing gave any indication whatsoever that we were approaching one of the world's most spectacular depths.

We reached the canyon village just before sunset and hurried through check-in, then parked our car at the hotel and raced to the rim. When we got there, about half the canyon was already in shadow and showed a somber palette of olive and amber. The other half, still spotlit in the sun's slanting rays, showed rust and moss and leather, infinite gradations of red and green and brown.

This is the thing about the Grand Canyon -- it defies not just description; it actually defies perception, apprehension. It's so vast, so overwhelming, that you tend to go into brain-lock when you see it.

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My kids' eyes grew wide at their first view, and they were speechless for a few moments, but your understanding of the Grand Canyon is only as vast as the life-mirror you bring to it. Jeremy, our 8-year-old, was done with the sight pretty quickly; before long he was asking if we could go eat now.

Jenny, four years older, took much more of the canyon into her -- she seemed right on the delicate edge of wanting to ask if we could go eat now and wanting to linger longer and longer and longer, trying to absorb the undulations of color and earth and air before her.

Kuniko and I could have stood for hours, watching the subtle changes of tint and light and shade, the occasional birds swoop through the sky, the first stars prick the chasm of night.

We lingered awhile, then retired to the hotel cafeteria for spaghetti, hot chocolate and wine.

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That night I lay awake, thinking about the canyon, how it renders our brains and our imaginations so puny, so futile. At best we can understand only a tiny corner, a patch, of the place; in terms of geologic time, in terms of human history, in terms of width and depth -- whatever scale you choose, the canyon runs off the chart.

That is when I wish I'd had a book that just came out last week, the Travelers' Tales guide to the Grand Canyon, subtitled "True Stories of Life Below the Rim."

Given the overwhelming nature of the subject, this is an especially impressive anthology that does an amazing job capturing the multiple facets of the canyon's history and special allure. Within these pages you can explore mysterious side canyons and shamans' galleries, bounce and bump over death-defying rapids and teeter on heart-straining cliff-edge trails. You'll meet the wildlife of the canyon -- ravens and hawks and crows, scorpions and mountain lions and snakes, tamarisk and monkey flower and maidenhair fern -- and the spirits that live there, too. You'll also get a sense of the misguided mortal encroachments that can threaten even so extraordinary a planetary treasure.

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As with most Travelers' Tales collections, there are hits and misses in this book. But the misses are few and some of the hits are literature of the highest quality -- such as Edward Abbey's unforgettable tale of 35 days of madness and magic on a solo stay in the depths of Havasu Canyon; or Colin Fletcher's subtle evocation of his own spiritual awakenings as he walked through the canyon; or Barry Lopez's spine-tingling, mind-thrilling description of a rafting odyssey through the canyon, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a long, long time.

As this book amply shows, you can't really appreciate the Grand Canyon from the rim. You have to get into it, as we did the following morning.

From the rim, the canyon looks impenetrable. You stare out and see infinite layerings of sediment and gradations of color. You see shadows the height of skyscrapers and a shining sliver of water incomprehensibly far below.

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But then you descend into the canyon. You peer down into the unimaginable depths and you begin to walk. You step around fist-sized rocks and you feel your day-pack on your shoulders; your boots kick up streaks of red earth and you taste the dust in your mouth. The sun beats on your head and you stop to take a swig of water; you touch the golden-red-orange rock wall beside you and think how many hundreds -- no thousands; no, tens of thousands -- of sunrises have warmed the rocks you now touch. Suddenly the canyon takes on an intimacy and an immediacy; a physical connection is forged.

And this connection breeds other connections. You follow the winging trails of crows and hawks, brush past hardy trees and around shin-scraping boulders, watch as the trail you're walking on switchbacks and switchbacks and switchbacks far below you into the canyon, where it becomes a minute scratch on the surface of the earth. Then it disappears over a cliff, and you realize that somewhere far below are the roiling waters of the Colorado River and the green, serene surroundings of Phantom Ranch, where hardy souls can spend a night on the floor of the canyon, among rocks billions of years older than the rock on which you tread.

Billions of years. How can you possibly comprehend such a fact?

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We walked for an hour and a half, Jenny and Jeremy again impatiently leading the way, and on our way down we met teenagers carrying huge backpacks puffing up the trail; they had left Phantom Ranch early that morning.

A night at Phantom Ranch was tempting -- what would it be like on the canyon floor? -- but for this trip it was enough to walk down for an hour and a half. That gave us a taste of the canyon -- the dry dusty feeling that develops in your mouth, the incessant sun beating on your head and shoulders and legs, reflecting off the hard-baked rock, the endlessly shifting vistas of the canyon's walls, the eye-relieving patches of green trees and scrub brush, the camera-defying distances and shades of color and shadow.

Even this was so humbling, so stirring, that when we finally scrambled back onto the rim and surveyed the all-embracing, all-encompassing earth-womb from which we had emerged, my wife and I both had tears in our eyes.

The Grand Canyon reveals secrets -- and poses questions -- that are best conveyed without words. It is one of the planet's rare places that bless you, that leave you somehow smaller and bigger than you were before you came, aware of the myriad insignificances that make up our lives -- and of the vital significance of every one. All we can do with such places is celebrate them -- as the new Travelers' Tales book so beautifully does.

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Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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