Sunday, May 2, 2010

Canyon Sweet

We're home.

And so far that's the only remotely comprehensible thing to say about our journey of the past week.

Pictures.. and video... and drawings, and paintings of the Grand Canyon are everywhere and, as the old saying goes, not one does it the least justice.

I've spent most of my life in the American west. Clear and open skies are a comforting quilt. Vast unpopulated spaces and dramatic vistas feel snug as a well-worn sweater. But the Grand Canyon felt different. Intangible, untouchable, and completely indifferent to my presence. I belong in the west, but I did not belong there.

Some of that feeling no doubt came from the National Park experience. It's all so... convenient, with shuttles and rim trails, restaurants and gift shops.

Well, it's convenient once you arrive, anyway. Our particular approach involves about 10 hours of driving, at least five of which trace a gray line across salmon-colored rock and blush-pink sand and sparse, sparse desert vegetation. It's a place where summer temperatures average 99 F and even tiny settlements are many miles apart. It is Hopi land. Navajo. Havasupai. It is stark country, not for the faint of spirit or for anyone afraid of loneliness.

To arrive at the Grand Canyon from the east, as we did, is to arrive at an oasis. From the desert floor we climb 2500 feet to the canyon rim, where we are embraced by pine, juniper, scrub oak. It is the landscape of home, and no surprise, since the rim of the canyon dances along the same 7000-foot altitude as Salida. Our campsite is replete with western bluebird and mountain chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch and juniper titmouse. We know these voices, recognize this activity.

But then there is That Canyon.

From rim to river? One mile straight down. But we, of course, can not go straight down. Mere mortals, we must wend and weave and pick and choose a less precipitous route.

Four days is, of course, never enough time to learn any landscape. We spent two days hiking, but I never got a feel for the place. Never felt that I actually touched it.

For me, one of the best ways to touch a landscape, to engage it in conversation, is to draw. But even this wasn't particularly satisfying. Each time I looked up from the page the canyon showed a different face. Clouds and light changed constantly, and the dominant landmark of one moment vanished in light or cloud the next. I swore I wouldn't try to fit something grand into 5x8 inches, but I couldn't help myself... and was perpetually disappointed.

I think it's right that such a place would be so stingy with its embrace. Many travelers go only to see the Grand Canyon. A smaller percentage go into it, and an even smaller percentage engage it. This is a place built by time. Why should it give up its secrets to those who scurry back and forth from bus to overlook to gift shop?

There are hints, though, that this canyon has compassion for the honest explorer. Our third day in the park, when the wind blew in 70mph gusts on the rim, we went over the edge into quieter air. As we descended, two California condors caught the rising thermal and soared around us, at one point passing at nearly eye level. I looked up and down the trail, and only the couple immediately behind us (who had to stop because we were blocking the path) seemed to share the moment.

With that encouraging gift we're already making plans to go back... to hike all the way down and all the way up... to take time and make time and maybe, just maybe, get to know a canyon (and ourselves) a little bit better.

More as we settle back to a home routine....


  1. You saw condors! Yay! And yup, you need to go back. The place is beyond awesome, and it takes a while to know how to, as you put it so well, engage it in conversation. But you've made a start--and welcome home...

  2. You're right Sherrie, no captured images can ever do it justice. I agree with Susan, it is beyond awesome. We had very little time when we visited the Grand Canyon, years ago, and were there only for one night. We tried to make the most of it but really, how could we?

    But there was a full moon that night so we took a walk and ended up at the edge of the canyon at the very edge one of the lookout points. A big black drop into nothingness at our feet. There was no one else around, it was very quiet and the canyon was singing: a sonorous rumbling echoing "haum" coming up from the depths.

    Sounds crazy but we felt the incredible power of the land all around us and it wasn't particularly welcoming. Maybe it was the full moon too, amplifying the eeriness but we felt as if we'd stepped into alien territory. No comfort there, that's for sure.

  3. this is one place I really want to visit. even in photos it feels like a very powerful place to be

  4. I am absolutely thrilled for you that you were so blessed as to see the Condors. What an amazing experience. I have been to the bottom and back up and I totally understand your sense of frustration at not being able to quite fit in. I do believe that is how it is meant to be. The Grand Canyon is there to remind we mere tiny little specks (humans) that in the end nature will rule.

    Sherrie, You worded your feelings about this experience so beautifully and so eloquently. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. I have to ditto Lindy. Your eloquence matches your art: how rare is that to have both qualities?
    Having never been, I can only equate your experience to mine in the Yukon.