|Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hook. All others by the author.|
For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon – each one makes his own Canyon before he comes, each one brings and carries away his own Canyon. Carl Sandburg
Route 64 north from Williams was the only boring road we’d driven in Arizona. Instead of the massed saguaros and dry arroyos of the Sonoran desert or the towering red rocks of Sedona, this part of the state stretched flat, scrubby, and featureless on either side for 60 miles. It was as undramatic a landscape as the human mind could imagine. There wasn’t the slightest indication that this flatland would terminate abruptly in the most incredible declivity on earth.
The Grand Canyon. It’s a visual cliché, an over-used metaphor, one of those too-obvious tourist destinations that everybody means to go to one day but it’s not at the top of their list. I’ll admit I was one of those people too. But afterwards, after you’ve been there yourself, when you’ve stood at the very rim of that mind-blowing drop and looked across at those cliffs and mesas and towering rock formations as far as the eye can see, at the reds, yellows, greys, browns, oranges, and purples, at the shadows passing over the landscape like a caressing hand, you get it. You get why Teddy Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon “the one great wonder that every American should see.” When you mention the canyon to those who have been there too, there’s a look that passes between you – the look of the initiated. Your eyes have been opened.
No two-dimensional image can possibly do it justice, not just because of its enormity or because it changes all the time but also because no artist or photographer can replicate the feeling of terror and awe when you stand at the edge of a sheer 5,000 ft drop. That’s three Empire State buildings deep. One false step and you’d plunge into the abyss. Imagine falling through all that space. Several people do it every year – some by accident, some by design. It’s a hell of a symbolic way to go.
The canyon is so much more than a geographical marvel. It is a spiritual experience. Like a night sky full of stars, it’s a body blow of a reminder of your insignificance. It cannot help but enforce your faith in whatever you believe in – God, the Universe, Mother Nature – they’re all here.
I'd hoped for a transcendent experience at the Grand Canyon, and God, the Universe, and Mother Nature worked together to make it happen. After a windy squally morning spent going from lookout point to lookout point along the rim to the west, my husband and I drove east for 25 miles to the Desert View Watchtower. This 70-foot building, designed in 1932 by the architect Mary Colter to resemble an ancient Pueblo watchtower, perches right on the teetering edge of a sheer cliff. The top of the tower is the highest point on the South Rim and affords a hundred mile views west to the San Francisco Peaks and east to the Painted Desert.
It was late afternoon and the sky was darkening as we pulled into the parking lot. There was a deep rumble of thunder as we stepped out of the car. We ran down the path in the wet wind towards the tower, stark against the stormy sky, climbed the four flights of stairs to the top of the tower and, safe and dry behind Mary Colter’s glass, watched Armageddon descend on the canyon.
Like a theatrical impresario, Nature laid on the works for us. Hail flung itself against the windows, thunder crashed, and torrential rain dragged itself across the panoramic view like a black lace curtain. All the vibrant colors of the canyon’s sedimentary layers – limestone, granite, sandstone, dolomite, shale, quartzite, basalt, and schist – were muted and stifled in the absence of light.
The storm slowly moved away eastwards towards Navajo country. As we watched it go, one solitary sunbeam pierced the blanket of cloud, shot across that stupendous view and spot lit a single bluff above the Colorado River – and I had my unforgettable Grand Canyon moment to carry away with me. Back home – to death (my mother-in-law’s), life, and everything in between.