Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Epic Trip Out West, Day Fifty-One: The Grand Canyons

 May 26th
I woke up that day at six ‘o clock with the sun in my eyes and the joy of anticipation in my heart. However, it was a couple hours before we ate breakfast and the road, and then it took well over an hour to reach Grand Canyon National Park, then look around the visitors center as Amanda walked Jack. So it was that by the time we strode up the tan-stone pathway that promised to take us to the South Rim, I was nearly bursting with anticipation. A warm morning sun shown down on us (it was about 10:00), with brushstrokes of clouds— which didn’t seem unusual until I realize that I hadn’t seen clouds since the glimpse of sunrise in New Mexico six days earlier. A bright wind whipped around us as we walked, trailing the path of a few dozen other canyon-seekers from all over the world. It was a perfect day and my heart was ready to see something I knew would blow my mind.
At last, the topmost ridge of the Canyon peered over my view of the horizon. It was blue, I remember, the clearest twilight blue I had ever seen that can only be caused by seeing something at a huge distance. I quickened my pace, and in rapid degrees, an alien world swept into my vision.
They call it the Grand Canyon, but this always gave me the idea that one huge rift (with a couple dozen impressive offshoots) cutting through the earth like a river and its tributaries. This was the case with Zion Canyon, and of course it was breathtaking. The Grand Canyon, however, was nothing like this. It laughed at all my conventions of what defined a “canyon” and showed off its true nature.
I saw an impossibly wide, impossibly sprawling, impossibly massive maze of inverse mountains. The earth fell away to an unfathomable distance, reached a plateau, and then dove again in chasms reaching to the floor of the river that helped form this wonder. As far as the eye could see (which was about 90 miles), the canyons wound through the rock, forcing it apart to reveal its stripes and colors, now soaring up, now plowing down, now gathering in pinnacles, now stretching out stony roots that gathered around the buttes and mesas and peaks in patterns that looked as if they were carved by some giant’s hand. Never had I seen such a mind-blowing combination of colors: at once the deepest evening blue and the rustiest stone red, each color distinct yet in perfect harmony with the others, each layer of sediment a slightly different hue, speckled with juniper and soft morning shadows. Limestone in the foreground contrasted with sandstone in the distance, shaded blue with atmosphere. Each formation was an impressionistic showcase of lines, each jagged stroke a story of unimaginable violence: erupting volcanos, ocean storms, unrelenting winds, the terrifying march of time, and finally one tenacious river. 
I wish I had a vivid memory of the exact moment when the panorama of millions of years of geology spread its stony arms for me to see. All I remember, though, is that my frail human eyes tried for a whole second to take it in. Then my mind simply broke, and I wept.
From the beginning, I knew that photos would never be able to capture the Grand Canyon, not even a little bit. Still, I persisted in taking several of that first lookout, Mather Point, hoping that I could look back on them and, someday, be able to fathom what I had seen.
Over the course of the day, I hiked about ten miles of the South Rim Trail, a paved walkway that meanders along the edge of the Canyon, offering rugged Field & Stream photo opportunities from the comfort of an easy strolling path. Amanda and I hiked the first bit together, then split off to meet up later, and I walked the last eight miles alone, with only the occasional bunches of tourists at lookout points to interrupt my exploration of the rock with more intricacy and facets than a diamond.
Soon, with the help of some information signs, I became acquainted with the names that people had given the formations to try to cut them down to size for human comprehension. My two favorites were the Isis Temple and the Bright Angel Canyon.
The first was a white pinnacle that swept downward in a rough pyramid shape, resting on vast roots laid out in a pattern of five around it, so symmetrical that it seemed impossible that nature alone could have carved it— if anything has ever been “hewn from the living stone,” as fantasy novels often claim, this was it. I never got tired of seeing it, from every angle I could as I hiked, watching the way the sun climbed over it and cast shadows in different nooks at each hour, until the light fell straight down upon it, lighting it up in the subtlest shades of white and rust I had ever seen.
I think I liked Bright Angel Canyon because it actually fulfilled my image of what a “canyon” was: it burrowed its way through the rock, an impressive depth and size all by itself, but dwarfed into a sub-category by the inverse mountain range of which it was the snowy peak. Dark gray with volcanic rock, streaked with crevices rent by water, it was my ever-present companion as I walked, daring me to explore its depths if ever I came back. 
The sun continued to press against the world in intense light, and a stiff wind picked up, rushing through the scrub pines with the sound of waves crashing on a shore. The wind seemed jealous that water gets all the credit for the Canyons— it nearly blew my hat off several times, and once it ceased for an instant when I was leaning into it, almost making me fall off a cliff. It all seemed fitting: how could a milky sun and a gentle breeze exist in a place filled with such harsh beauty?
When Amanda and I met back up at the RV, we decided to go driving in search of a good sunset point. Thus began a meandering drive along the eastern part of the South Rim, stopping at lookouts, taking yet more pictures, and finally ending up at Desert View Point. We missed the watchtower’s open hours by five minutes, but were content to sit on the stony ledges by the canyons’ edge and watch the huge golden orb sinking through the thin clouds toward the horizon.
Sunsets are hard enough to describe— how can a writer capture the intricate play of light and color, the deepening of golden red sun rays that penetrate the landscape, fierce as fire and delicate as a kiss? Over the Canyons, the sunlight took on countless layers of beauty, sliding down across the landscape in a never-changing canvass of exquisite shadow and strokes of subtle color. The lines of geology faded and consolidated as the sun sank, showing off the shapes of the cliffs, soft-focus in the haze of distance, silhouette after jagged silhouette. A deep blue shadow overtook the bottoms of the canyons, seeping upward in the form of a chill wind. The ghosts of darkness and the hush of the night stirred down in the riffs, eager for the sun to depart and give them permission to rise up from their silent graves. 
At last, the sun gave up and melted into the horizon, leaving behind a yellow-orange glow that somehow, when it touched the clouds, turned them pink. It didn’t matter that the sky was still light, caught up with the nostalgia of the last few seconds— an intense cobalt darkness settled over the entire Canyon, making my human instincts sharp and nervous at the overwhelming presence that I felt permeating every ridge and nook of the ancient stone. We hurried back to the RV, cranked up the music, and headed back to the campsite. At the Grand Canyon, night had begun its reign.
~Lisa Shafter
Money spent on 5/26: $25.02 (gas for the RV)
Deficit: $28.34

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