“I have heard rumors of visitors who were disappointed,” J.B. Priestley once said of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. “The same people will be disappointed at the Day of Judgment.”
I have to confess I was disappointed on my first visit to the canyon more than a decade ago. One July, on our way to Los Angeles, my family and I swung off the highway and made the 100-kilometer detour to the South Rim, and found ourselves caught in a long traffic jam. When we eventually managed to park, and walked to the rim, the scale of the sight off the edge was so great it was hard to muster a response. It was so vast, and so familiar from innumerable pictures, it might just as well have been a picture. What impressed me most was the Babel of languages audible among the files of visitors pouring off the tour buses, with every continent represented in the hubbub.
At this magnitude, scale is deceptive. Pedro de Castaneda, a Spaniard on the Coronado expedition of 1540, whose members were among the first Europeans ever to see the canyon, reported that a group of them scrambled some way down, and found that boulders they’d seen from the rim were not as they’d thought, the height of a man, but “taller than the great tower in Seville” (presumably the Giralda Tower, more than 90 meters high).
We only stayed an hour or two. But before we left, from the rim I saw a trail, pale as chalk, winding down a huge slope beneath a cliff. There wasn’t time to follow it, and I left with a nagging sense of opportunity lost, and that pale thread of a path still pulling at me.
It wasn’t until last winter that I got to answer that pull. And the first thing I learned is that for the Grand Canyon, winter is the time to go. As the chief district ranger John Evans told me, “You’ll more or less have the place to yourself.” Although the canyon is a desert, it’s a kind of oasis in winter — a place of peace, sequestered from the rest of the world.
Winter is cool, and cool is good for hiking. To sweat actually uses energy. It’s true there’s snow on the trails, and long-molded tongues of ice pounded into enamel-like smoothness by the mules that go up and down with supplies, but that’s only on the highest reaches. Drop 600 meters from the rim and you’ll most likely be free of it. Sunlight becomes a blessing instead of an overheating curse, when you step out of chill shade into some welcome warmth.
To experience the canyon, you have to leave the rim. The frustration aroused by the bigness, the grandness, on a rim-only visit becomes a liberation once you drop down. The modern world falls away. It’s not just a trip out of the human realm, but into the deep geology of the earth. Layer upon layer of the planet’s crust is revealed, stratum by stratum: the Toroweap limestone, the Coconino sandstone, the Redwall limestone, the Tonto Group; the Vishnu schist deep down, close to 2 billion years old, nearly half the total age of the planet — the stuff that is under our very feet as we go about our lives is laid bare here. And in the silence and stillness, in the solitude of the canyon in winter, it’s all the more impressive.
But the canyon is 1,600 meters deep, and the trail itself about 16 kilometers long, and that translates to a very arduous walk, especially for an 8-year-old. By some arcane family algebra, it was Saul, our younger son, who was due a trip with me.
Saul is strong, fit as an Olympic athlete, indomitable as a Gaul, but still only 8. Was it crazy and cruel to ask him to walk down then up a whole mile of elevation? What if having got him down he hurt himself, or his feisty spirit gave out? And then there was my own bipedal apparatus. What if my own legs failed me?
The fear only amplified over the first spectacular mile of trail, where we had to pick our way precariously over ice. But then we were out on the spine of a ridge, the aptly nicknamed Ooh-Aah Point, that dropped precipitately to either side, and the ice was all melted away. Here, it wasn’t so much about looking at a view as being in the midst of one.
As we were gazing around us, two condors came gliding right over, so close we could hear the wind ruffling their feathers.
“Keep in the middle,” I implored Saul, as he took to scampering along the parapet of rocks. Kids apparently can’t resist a parapet, no matter the drop beyond it.
I wouldn’t want a creationist to misinterpret this, but I always find geology more or less unbelievable. Were these hundreds of square kilometers of limestone hundreds of meters deep truly made by trillions of marine creatures dying? Could a river really carve out a gash this deep? But before the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, in a single day the Colorado River used to carry away 345,000 metric tons or more of silt, enough to fill a train 40 kilometers long. Each day. A river this size is indeed an efficient grinding tool.
Below us, sweeping brown plateaus bulge as if they were soft upholstery. There are cliffs of blue, pink, orange, mauve, and deep purple bands of rock — the banners of God, as an early explorer said.
After the cliffs of pale Coconino limestone, we descend the Redwall limestone, into a deep tub of crimson stone. Finally at Skeleton Point we catch the first glimpse of the river, thousands of meters below us, announced by a distant roar. A vast sweep of shadow is coming off the rim above, spreading over the Tonto plateau. We plunge in and out of the shade on the switchbacks. So far, we have seen just four people.
Then just after Tipoff Point, the path brings us to another dizzying corner, overlooking an ancient rusty amphitheater of Tonto Group rock one way, while to the other, the air drops away to another sight of the Colorado River far, far below, clay-red, rippling, bloated. One of the two suspension bridges down there is visible, too. It all looks like a telephoto shot, the unfamiliar vertical distance baffling the eye.
Endless new levels, new shears, shelves and tables to descend. Then all of a sudden, there the bridge is again. This time, we can see its individual railings, and as we approach, through a tunnel hewn straight through the rock, the thick, deep air beside the rushing river is like a balm. Whether it’s the late afternoon light, the fatigue, the pain in my knee, or the relief of getting down, I find myself wallowing in a wonderful endorphin bath. The world goes glassy. The canyon cliffs and trapezoids and pinnacles of rock all become resonant. I watch myself walk, as if the real me were a deep witness to my life, rather than the one who apparently lives it.
Down here, with the enormous Colorado River beside us, encased in the immense walls of the inner gorge, we pass the old settlement of Anasazi Indians who lived here 1,000 years ago. They planted corn and squash, and used nothing that didn’t come from their immediate surroundings. It occurs to me that today it takes a whole afternoon on vertiginous trails to accomplish the reverse: to enter an environment without human imports.
By the time we reach Phantom Ranch, its own side canyon, Bright Angel Creek, is deep in chilly shade. To reach the quiet huddle of stone and timber cabins under their grove of silvery cottonwoods, the trees tattered with old dry leaves, with a bunk waiting, and hot showers in the bathhouse, and the creek plashing by — relief floods in. But even though we’ve descended to 610 meters above sea level, it’s still freezing.
When the ranch bell rings for dinner, some two dozen guests troop from the cabins through the frigid dusk to the main lodge, where we quietly feast on stew, corn bread and salad. We’re from all over, all walks of life: a student from Quebec, a trucker from Kentucky; a fisherman from Alaska; a college student from New York; a woman in insurance, from Pennsylvania. All these trappings of people’s lives seem to fade in the context of this deep retreat from the world. We’re just people, making the pilgrimage from cradle to grave.
The truth is, when I pulled briefly into the Grand Canyon years before, I didn’t even truly comprehend that it was a canyon. It was such a vast landscape it seemed it might go on in pinnacles and gulfs for hundreds of miles. But once you’ve been down into it, you know what it is. You understand. At least a little. And the mere thought of being disappointed by it? I’m positively looking forward to Judgment Day.