2017.09.20 Old: It was one grand canyon

Twenty years ago—back when I was allowed to take a vacation—we headed southwest to visit the Grand Canyon. Of course a grand time was has by all.


I never did adjust well to the change of time zones during our recent trip to Arizona. Waking early one morning at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I left my slumbering family behind and headed out to Bright Angel Point for sunrise.

We arrived at the canyon in late afternoon of the previous day and didn’t see much of the site until dusk was falling. Our first close encounter came after dark when we joined a ranger for the night walk to the point.

That was a foreboding trip. Walking a narrow path by moonlight, we could sense that the land fell off sharply to one side or the other, and sometimes both sides at once.

Now, with some morning light present and a full moon still shining brightly, I could see the awful depths that were hidden by the darkness.

I’m the first person to reach the point at 4:50 a.m. The silence is somehow deafening. There are a few sounds to hear—crickets hidden in crevices, birds somewhere down the canyon wall, a hushing sound of a waterfall far below—but there’s an enormous silence that comes out of the early morning canyon.

It doesn’t last long. Soon a trio of French tourists arrive and strike up a conversation. I retreat a few yards and sit on a ledge waiting for the sun to emerge.

It’s hard to relax there on the edge. I keep wanting to pull back. A raven calls from below just out of sight, close enough that the churning of wings can be heard. Then it suddenly rises into view and I can feel my stomach getting pulled out into the abyss.

The colors of the canyon walls begin to emerge. The reds are deepening. Greens are coming into play. Details are becoming more defined. The canyon takes on a pastel appearance, but a very rich one.

An early morning bee is hard at work on the bright red penstemon flowers, a lizard races among the rocks, then a chipmunk scampers onto the trail.

“How do you call that?” a French woman asks me as she pauses to watch.

The chipmunk scurries off and then reappears along a narrow ledge, seemingly oblivious to the chasm below. One false step and it’s airborne for at least a thousand feet.

But I know it can be done. I practiced the previous day at Glen Canyon when I walked a ledge with a drop of just one foot. I realized then that to walk the heights you have to pretend it’s just a 12-inch drop.

The tourist count must be more than 30 by now. The first video camera arrives. A Japanese couple makes me nervous as they climb the rocky tower at the point and pose for pictures.

It’s full daylight now but it’s a slow morning with the sun still hidden by low clouds. It’s also getting noisy. A toddler in a backpack is crying to get out so the father begins an explanation of how the canyon was formed. The youngster isn’t interested. The father begins to threaten.

“We have to be quiet. People like it quiet in the morning—except the Germans.”

Sure enough, Thirty seconds later three German kids appear on the trail and they’re louder than anyone yet.

The first jogger arrives and he looks miserable. The first tourist with a 6 a.m. can of Coke is here. Sunlight finally breaks through on the South Rim 10 miles away and the walls come alive. It seems impossible that those colors were hidden there all along.

The view keeps getting better but people are leaving, only to be replaced by another set. They say that for every person on the North Rim, there are 10 faces staring back across from the more popular and busier south side.

I’ve been sitting on this rocky ledge for more than an hour. Just when I think I’m getting used to it, a pair of swallows comes swooping out into the gap in front of me and the dizzying feeling returns. I’ll never adjust to these heights.

Finally, it’s my turn to leave, and as I look back over my shoulder I think of the great naturalist John Muir. He said the Grand Canyon is America’s capital city.

Forget Washington, D.C., I want to tell all the foreign tourists that seem to outnumber us natives today. This is it right here. This is the heart of America.