Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Grand Canyon sure is grand

It really does defy language. There's no way to describe it. There are no words.

Here's what we did: We drove there on yesterday by way of breakfast at Denny's at 6:30 am, and then Montezuma's Castle, poorly-named ancient ruins between Phoenix and Flagstaff built by Sinaqua Indians. Dave and DeeAnn were comparing them to Mesa Verde, since they'd been there when they were kids (and could climb the ladders and walk around inside). They liked these too but they are smaller, and you can't see past the outer walls. We talked to a very friendly volunteer named Sam who knew a lot about these things. When I asked if he'd ever been up there himself, he said, "that's payday!" Dave said, "How do you do it?" And he said, "With a big grin!"

This trip had another reason for being: My first cousin Maureen, whom for various reasons I have never met, was meeting us at the hotel and we were going to check out the Big Ditch together. And so it was that we drove into Tusayan, where our hotel was, about 12:30, and as I walked into the hotel I saw a woman going in too, along with a young man and woman. It was Maureen and her son and daughter. The 11 of us (counting DeeAnn's family) went to lunch across the street and then we headed into the park.

I remember when I first went, in June 1980, when I was driving across country with a friend. We got there early one morning, 8am maybe, and we just drove up to Mather Point, parked, got out of the car, and walked to the edge. And I, who had been so cynical about this country and figured the Grand Canyon was just hype, was blown away. I couldn't believe how incredibly beautiful it was, and awesome, and majestic, and vast--endless. It was a spiritual moment, a moment when I found it possible to believe in God.

It wasn't as big a shock this time, but I still felt in awe, and inspired, and small. We walked around and went down the famous Bright Angel Trail for a couple hundred yards -- and it drops straight down, right next to the trail -- and ate ice cream (not me) and shopped a bit and took lots and lots of pictures. It seems all you do is dodge cameras, wait your turn to stand at a vista, and take pictures for other people. It seems like no matter how many pictures you take, even knowing how inadequate they will appear in retrospect, you want to take more.

Maureen and I gabbed and gabbed and told stories and got to know each other. She bought all the kids presents, and later gave some to me and Dave too, and I kicked myself because I hadn't thought to bring anything for her. They left early the next morning but as Dave said, it's never to late to gain a relative. She feels like family; she feels familiar; she looks a lot like my aunt Judy and many of her gestures seemed like Judy's too. What a gift! It's wonderful to have a new cousin.

I got caught up in one gift shop reading a book about people who've died in the Grand Canyon called "Over the Edge." Chapter headings cover people who fell off the rim, who died in the river, who committed suicide, who were murdered. It's actually funny in a Darwin Awards kinda way. Aside from the drunks who decide to go for a hike, or walk along the railing, there were lots of testotersone stories, guys showing off. A guy teased his young daughter by jumping on the railing, windmilling his arms and pretending to lose his balance, and then jumping off into the abyss. The daughter said, oh Dad! and walked on. Later they realized that he was trying to jump down to a five-foot ledge and he slipped and fell 300 feet.

There's lots of stories about people going past the railing to get a little closer to the Canyon, often for a photo, and losing their balance, or the rock crumbling beneath them. One guy climbed beyond the railing, turned around to take a picture of the lodge, and, putting the camera up to his face, stepped backward to get a better shot. The hiking stories are mostly about heat stroke and dehydration. Survivors say, I didn't realize it could get so hot, or, I didn't realize it could get so cold. Park rangers speak firmly, telling hikers to turn back because of the weather, or the trail they're attempting is too difficult, or they aren't prepared well enough, or they don't have enough water, and they continue anyway and then one or all of their group dies.

It's very sad, and it makes you wonder how people could be so stupid. But more than that, I secretly fear, could I be so stupid? Could I ever think, oh, it's okay if I go beyond that railing just for a minute, to have my photo taken. I worry, am I vigilant enough? Am I alert and aware and present? Or should I lighten up? Can I be too careful?

And as we talked about it -- poor Steve; I read anecdotes aloud to him from the book on the drive home, three hours, but hey, he bought me the book -- I came to the conclusion that the Grand Canyon is so vast and majestic that it's overwhelming and unreal. The cliffs along the North Rim are so colorful and so far away that they look like a painted backdrop from a movie.

The rangers say, This isn't a theme park. Disney didn't make it. It's rough and unforgiving. And most of us just don't have any idea how to be in the wilderness, never mind a surreal environment like the Grand Canyon. I feel far safer walking a Brooklyn street than strolling the South Rim. As the book points out, many people are unfamiliar with walking on a smooth, even, surface. Bumps and cracks and ridges and hills surprise us.

This manifests itself when I walk in my woods. I don't know whether to prepare or not. Should I tell someone where I'm going and when I'll be back? Pack a daypack with water and a snack, a map and compass? Part of me feels silly, like I should lighten up, get a life, have fun, don't take this hike thing so seriously. But another part of me, and this book is pushing me further in this direction, says, what, it's going to kill you to get a pack and stock it? It's going to kill you to let someone know where you'll be for a couple of hours?

Just do the right thing and admit this nature thing is bigger than you. Get down off that railing and stay on the path. A couple more feet closer to the actual Canyon won't make that photo that much better. Carrying a pack in my backyard won't make me look like a wuss.

What a glorious thing the Grand Canyon is! I don't know if I've ever seen such vastness in such detail, all spread out before me. I see deep into time and I don't even know what I'm looking at. I sense my utter insignificance in the world, never mind the universe. I feel alone, but I feel together in the presence of my family--including my new (but not unknown) dear cousin--my friends, my community, and my god, whatever that is.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.