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Looking At the Canyon

Bringing our feeble minds to the altar of nature's greatness.



Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, I felt disappointment.

The problem wasn't any lack on the canyon's part. Far from it. There is certainly no more stupendous view in the natural world. Nor was the problem that the view was what I expected, for who could expect such a thing?

The experience of looking at the canyon might be anticipated -- you might know ahead of time that your mind will go numb upon first sight, as it might when walking into the Vatican or seeing the Grand Tetons -- but the sight itself can't be prepared for, because it can't be compared to. There is nothing on this planet that someone could point you to and rightfully say, "This looks like the Grand Canyon."

Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is simply too much for the human brain to deal with. Our brain wants to quantify and categorize; it wants to say, "Okay, what we have here is one of these, and it's as large as one of those." But when the eyes take in the canyon and send data to the brain, the brain says, "Well, that can't be."

Standing on the rim, you see features which fit under "canyon" -- river, rocks, cliffs, towers -- but the scale fits under "mountain range" and the amount of land under "great plains." The Colorado River, which in some places you can hear from the rim, is 5,000 feet below and two miles away. You're standing in a mountain pine forest looking at a low-elevation desert. The other side of the canyon is, in some cases, 18 miles away. The colors are as if a rainbow had become rock.

Eventually, the mind can deal with this a little better. What it needs is time, information, and more viewing angles. The first time you get to the rim you stand there like all the other inadequately brained idiots and say things like, "Damn." To even begin to grasp the view, you have to at least move along the rim, look at things from different directions. You have to see, for example, that while it looks like the far wall is one continuous face, in some places you're looking at towers in the canyon which blend into the view -- towers which are, in fact, several miles this side of the far wall. You have to constantly remind the brain that this "other side" of the canyon, which it wants to think of as simply the other side of a canyon, the same size as this side, actually stretches away from you and the river the same distance from downtown Memphis, say, to Cordova.

It's pointless to describe all this, just as it's pointless to show people pictures of it. If there were a list of things that do not look like their pictures, the Grand Canyon would have to start it off. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, pity them. They either didn't stick around the canyon long enough or didn't give enough mind-expansion effort to grasp anything other than that first idiotic view. When they speak, think of Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Vacation, bobbing up and down on the rim and saying, "Okay, let's go."

So how, you might be wondering, could a person experience disappointment upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time? It's pretty simple, actually. I had spent my first 35 years hearing and dreaming about the canyon -- so long, in fact, that seeing it was my only resolution for 2001. I had put it at the top of that unfortunate list we all keep, the List of Things to See or Do. And further, I had foolishly thought that once I had walked up to the rim and gazed upon the greatness, I could check "See the Grand Canyon" off my list and move on.

Well, no. Not for me, anyway. For one thing, the South Rim is no place to have any kind of proper spiritual experience. It's just so National Park: Hotel rooms which ought to go for $19 cost $95. Meals which should be in soup kitchens run $15 a person. RVs and kids crowd the roads. And even when you're looking at the canyon, you have to be on constant guard that you're not in somebody else's picture.

But what really got me down, so to speak, was a realization I came to while touring the South Rim: Having now seen the Grand Canyon, I am going to have to get into the Grand Canyon. And I mean that literally. I'm going to have to hike into it, jump into the river, look at the canyon from down there, and hike out. I'm going to have to float the Colorado River all 200 and some miles through the canyon. In other words, having now seen the Grand Canyon, having now crossed one item off my List of Things to See or Do, I have added another in its place:

I need to bond with the Grand Canyon.

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