THE GREATEST DITCH IN THE WORLD
THE GRAND CANYON OF THE COLORADO, IN ARIZONA, IS ONE OF THE WORLD'S MOST WONDERFUL SPECTACLES
TRUE to his promise, Mr. Jefferson, who had business in Los Angeles, met the party there on its way to the Grand Canyon. It was a noisy reunion. For once Jack was excelled in his particular specialty. Margaret clung to her father so persistently that the rest of the family had to beg for a chance; and that night when, after repeated reminders from her mother, Margaret reluctantly went to bed, Mr. Jefferson assured her that he was now fully prepared to score a hundred on any examination paper upon national parks that she could prepare for him.
The next afternoon, as their automobiles were returning from a long neighborhood drive, Margaret rapturously exclaimed:
"And to-night we start for the Grand Canyon!"
"Why wait till to-night?" asked Doctor McKinley, who still accompanied them, "when we have it right here?"
"Where?" cried astonished Margaret.
They were skirting the edge of an arroyo which in early spring carried a roaring torrent of flood water from the mountains to the ocean, but which now was nearly dry. Its banks were many feet deep, and its broad bed was covered with rocks.
"You are not going to tell me that this is the Grand Canyon," said Margaret disdainfully.
"No," said Doctor McKinley, "but let us stop the car at the next bend and see what we shall see."
They stopped the car and walked across the plain to a broad, deep ditch, through whose channel trickled a small stream.
"There!" said Doctor McKinley.
"Oh!" Margaret exclaimed. "Of course I knew all the time the Grand Canyon could not be here. You're joking us, Doctor McKinley."
"Some joke," muttered Jack. "We've walked a precious long way to see just a big old ditch. I've seen a million like that back home."
"Yes, you've seen several," Doctor McKinley replied. "But this is the Grand Canyon just the same; and so are your ditches at homein miniature."
"Oh, I see what you mean," said Jack. But Margaret was still mystified.
"Now let us see what has happened here to account for so tiny a stream having so big a ditch," said Doctor McKinley. "You will notice that this broad, flat, sandy plain seems level, but that, nevertheless, it slopes ever so gently westward from those foot-hills several miles back near the mountains. Those hills and this plain become saturated with the early spring rains, and this is the stream which drains them. To-day, in the dry autumn, it is so small you can scarcely see its current, but in the late winter and spring a great deal of water flows through it. During its turbulent months it has been burrowing deeper and deeper into the soil, until now, after many years, it lies far below its original level.
"Now just above here, you see, still a smaller stream runs in from the side, draining the plain from the north. Many of these small streams enter it from both sides. They are all dry now, but from the depth of their ditches you will see that in the wet months they are fairly good-sized tributaries.
"Now let us look attentively at the big ditch. Here the current swirled around a deposit of stiff clay, leaving a pyramid rising from the bottom. Over here it swirled around those sandstone slabs, several of which stand up like spires. Now on one side, now on the other, it has left mimic plateaus abutting the deeper central channel. Where this little tributary stream enters, we see a high cliff, probably of stiff conglomerate rock, rising almost to the original level. The tributary was not strong or constant enough to wear it away, and so it worked around it, digging its channel out of the softer earth and sand.
"In this way, during many, many years of succeeding flood times, this stream and its tributaries have succeeded in scooping out an astonishingly big ditch from the bottom of which rise many cliffs and spires and plateaus which the current was not strong enough to wash away."
"Gee," said Jack. "That is interesting. It is the first interesting ditch I ever saw."
"No," said Doctor McKinley, "that is not quite true. You mean that it is the first ditch of any kind you ever really looked at. It is interesting only because you understand it. All ditches are interesting when you understand them. And all ditches are alike, even the Grand Canyon."
"Is the Grand-Canyon a ditch?" asked Margaret, big-eyed in surprise.
"Yes," said Doctor McKinley, "the Grand Canyon is nothing but a ditch. The State of Arizona is a great plainlike this. It slopes seaward from great mountainslike this. Its waters drain into a streamlike this. The stream has worn a ditch through the plainlike this. That is why, before you went there, I wanted to show you this miniature Grand Canyon, which I ran across one day a few years ago while on a walking tour."
"But the real Grand Canyon is a lot bigger than this ditch, isn't it?" asked Margaret anxiously.
"Well, rather," laughed Doctor McKinley. "This ditch may be ten feet deep; the Grand Canyon is six thousand feet deep. This ditch may be a hundred feet wide; the Grand Canyon is twenty miles wide. This ditch is carved out of brown, sandy loam; the Grand Canyon is carved out of marvellously colored sandstone rock. The mimic mud and sandy cliffs and domes you see here are gigantic carved and minareted stone towers there.
"But, though so different, really they are precisely the same. Both are identical works of erosion. This tiny stream drains perhaps six or eight square miles. The Colorado River drains three hundred thousand square miles. Now let us get back to dinner."
It was a silent, awestricken party that stood upon the rim of the Grand Canyon the following day. Even Jack had nothing to say, and, when Doctor McKinley began to explain its wonders, Aunt Jane stopped him with a gesture.
"Later on," she whispered. "This is the time to just feel."
She and Mrs. Jefferson sank upon a rock and said nothing for nearly an hour. The others grouped near them. Margaret and Jack walked some distance away with Uncle Tom, but they quickly returned.
"It's lonesome out there," said Margaret shivering. She nestled close to her mother.
The morning sun cast the shadows of the near rim darkly upon the depths, while it bathed with glowing light the red and green strata of the opposite side. From far below arose a gigantic city of monster painted cathedrals. An eagle soared slowly below them. The men pointed to different features in the marvellous spectacle and nodded silently to each other.
"Its like church, isn't it, Mother?" Margaret whispered softly.
The sun rose higher; the sunshine in the depths gradually devoured the shadows. After a while Jack said:
"Somehow II feel kind o'good."
All laughed. Aunt Jane clapped her hands. The two uncles moved about and lighted cigarettes.
"We had better come out here to live," said Mr. Jefferson.
Mrs. Jefferson laughed with a little catch in her voice. The men began to talk in loud tones. A strain of emotion, which all had felt but not realized, seemed to lift.
They spent all that day upon the canyon's rim. They watched the trail travellers below through the telescope. They chatted with the Indians. They examined the Powell Monument. They walked miles and gazed into the amazing gulf from many points of view. All day Mrs. Jefferson was strangely silent; and brilliant rosy spots glowed in Aunt Jane's cheeks. Neither wanted to leave the rim even long enough for luncheon.
Late in the afternoon Doctor McKinley drew Aunt Jane to one side and talked earnestly.
"Do you see that?" asked Margaret.
"See what?" Jack rejoined.
"Aunt Jane doesn't want to go with him."
"Well, what does she go for, then?" asked Jack, watching them. "Like fun she doesn't want to go! Look at her smile at him. How funny she looks back at Mother!"
"She's awfully nervous," observed Margaret. "I think she wants Mother to go, too. But Mother doesn't even see her. She's just absorbed in that canyon."
"You think you know an awful lot," said Jack sarcastically.
"I do," said Margaret with a wise nod. "At least I know a lot more than you do. You can't even see."
"But I can beat you running," said Jack.
"Come, children, take a walk with us," called Uncle Tom gayly, as he and Uncle Billy swung by.
"No, I don't want them," said Uncle Billy shortly. "I want a real walk."
"Gee, isn't he the savage one!" cried Jack resentfully as the two passed on. "Now what have we ever done to him? Why shouldn't we go if we want to? I can walk as fast as he can. What's the matter with him, anyway?"
"To think of your not even knowing that!" exclaimed Margaret.
"Say," said Jack critically, "I never saw a girl so stuck on herself as you are."
The next morning they breakfasted early in preparation for an overnight trip into the canyon. The guide was waiting. Mr. Jefferson had picked out the mules the night before.
"Are we going all the way down?" asked Margaret over her oatmeal. "All the way to that teenty bit of a river that we saw yesterday from the Point with the funny Indian name?"
"Straight to the river," said Mr. Jefferson "But it isn't such a tiny river as it looks from up here. In fact it is one of the great rivers of America. From the source of its largest confluent, the Green River, to its mouth in the Gulf of California, it is two thousand miles long."
Doctor McKinley came down late, the only one not in riding clothes.
"Have you forgotten," asked Mrs. Jefferson in surprise, "that we are going to the river this morning?"
"I am suddenly called East," he explained. "It is a disappointment, of course; I had expected to see this delightful party to its finish. But now it is impossible."
Doctor McKinley's tone was one which forbade questions. But they all recalled that at lunch the day before he spoke of remaining with the party, even of accompanying them as far as Chicago on the way East.
Nothing more was said. Doctor McKinley ate a hasty breakfast and saw them mount their mules. Then he said good-by. Uncle Billy, under Margaret's watchful eye, looked keenly into Doctor McKinley's face as he shook hands with a cordiality he had never shown before. Then, with a loud whoop, he spurred his mule to the head of the line, shouting gayly:
"Forward! March! We are going to have a wonderful, wonderful day!"
Margaret drew alongside of Jack.
"I know," she said in a low tone, "why Doctor McKinley left so suddenly, and it wasn't business at all."
"What was it, then?" Jack demanded.
"Something happened on that walk he took with Aunt Jane before dinner, yesterday. He asked her to marry him, and she wouldn't. That's the reason he went away so suddenly this morning."
"How do you know?" Jack demanded. "Did Aunt Jane tell you?"
"No, goose. That's the last thing in the world Aunt Jane would ever tell."
"How do you know, then?"
"Because I watched Aunt Jane this morning, and she wasn't even surprised when Doctor McKinley told us he was going away; but she blushed a lot."
"Well, you're too much for me, the way you guess things," said Jack thoughtfully. Presently he added: "Well, I don't care. He tells good stories, and I'd like to have had him for an uncle. But he wouldn't do, anyway. Why, he's an old man. I heard Mother say he must be every day of thirty"
It proved a wonderful day, indeed. The safe trail descended the precipitous wall in short zigzags, and wound its long, sinuous way across broad plateaus and around the bases of enormous cathedral-like rocks.
"It is like dropping into a paint-pot," said Mrs. Jefferson. "I am fairly intoxicated with color."
"And these astonishingly fantastic shapes!" said Aunt Jane, smiling happily. "Seen from above they were amazing, but, looked up at from below, they are unreal. I'm dreaming them, not seeing them."
"We are living in the Arabian Nights," said Margaret. "These aren't rocks at all, they're giants' palaces."
"Sure thing," said Uncle Billy sportively. "Pretty soon a giaour will pop out of one of them and gather us all up for dinner. We'll make a fine juicy stew for him."
"Don't you feel the relief of a broken sky-line?" asked Mr. Jefferson. "Yesterday, looking into the canyon from above, we never could get away from that deadly level horizon. The picture everywhere was framed in straight rims. But to-day, looking up from below, we lose sight of the rim and see the sky-line broken by the spires and minarets of these Aladdin palaces."
"It is some relief," Mrs. Jefferson admitted. "But I shall not let you belittle the view from the rim. That, after all, is the great view. But one must see this, too. Each is perfect of its kind, and both are necessary to any real comprehension and appreciation."
It was Uncle Billy's great day, sure enough. He devoted himself to the children, joked constantly with Margaret and ran mule-races with Jack over some of the level stretches. He found the best echoes for them and shouted louder than Jack.
"He's trying to make up for being mean to us yesterday about that walk," Jack whispered to Margaret.
"It's no such thing," Margaret retorted. "He didn't even know he was mean to us. No, that isn't why he's so jolly. It's something altogether different."
Jack looked at Margaret sharply, but said nothing. He wanted to know what she meant, but would not confess his ignorance. He was beginning to feel a little more respect for girls.
Having their own separate party and, as Mr. Jefferson put it, "all the time there is in the world," they frequently dismounted to rest and enjoy the varying views.
"This everlasting going down is just a little trying," said Mrs. Jefferson. "If only we could climb up a bit now and then for a change it would help."
"But it is perfectly safe," said Uncle Tom.
"Oh, absolutely," said Mrs. Jefferson. "The trails are so broad. I only want a little change."
"There was an old Scotchman went down with me last year who had never been on horseback," said the guide. "He was eighty-two years old and a good sport. He didn't mind the steep trails, but he was terribly nervous about the mule.
"'How must I sit?' he asked me anxiously.
"'Right straight up,' I said. 'Just rest easy and leave it all to the mule. No, don't bend over. Hold your body at right angles to the mule. That way.'
"Well, that was up on the rim before we started down, and the ground, of course, was level. But he obeyed me literally about sitting at right angles to the mule, and the first sharp grade we struck, of course he fell clear over the mule's head into the trail."
"Goodness!" cried Mrs. Jefferson, "and was he awfully hurt?"
"He never admitted it," said the guide. "But he was Scotch, you know, and wouldn't. The old chap rolled off the trail and sprawled face down the edge of a rock about two hundred feet steep. I shouted to him: 'Lie still and I'll get you. Shut your eyes so you won't get dizzy.' But he was on his feet in a minute.
"'Oh, I've climbed hills all my life,' he said. 'It ain't them that bothers me; it's the durn mule.'"
They ate lunch by the trail side, near a stream. The final descent to the river's edge was inspiring. Every turn of the corkscrew trail disclosed new beauties and, when at last they dismounted beside the broad, swelling, surging river, the children shouted with excitement.
They were in the bottom of a gorge whose cliffs rose steeply several thousand feet on either side. Above these cliffs, and of course invisible to them, stretched the broad levels of the greater canyon floor, across which they had passed; but they could see some of the huge painted rock formations built upon it, and, here and there, beyond and above these, the dimmer outlines of the distant rim.
"Gee," said Jack, "this sure is some place. But, Uncle Tom, what makes the water so muddy? It looks like thin brown paint."
"The river, Jack, is still engaged in the work of cutting the Grand Canyon deeper and broader, and______"
"But, Uncle Tom," Jack interrupted, "how can soft water cut into hard rock? I never really did understand that."
"The same way that the soft hands of workmen cut into hard rock," said Uncle Tom, smiling. "With tools, of course."
"Tools?" cried Margaret. "What tools has the river?"
"Rocks and sand," said Uncle Tom. "Sand is the river's principal cutting tool. The hard, angular little grains of sand are swept rapidly down-stream by the fast current, each grain scratching the rock on the bottom as they all roll and tumble along. Billions of billions of sand grains keep scratching the rocks day and night, century after century. The river is like a strip of sandpaper two thousand miles long, perpetually wearing down the bottom. Then, too, the stones and loose rocks help by bumping along with the current, denting the river's bottom and sides, and breaking off pieces here and there. These loose rocks are continually making more sand, too. Don't you remember those pot-holes in the rocks that we saw in Glacier and Yosemite? See, there's a big one here in this rock."
"Oh, yes," Jack exclaimed. "I remember you told me that loose rocks cut those big holes that looked like giants' bathtubs."
"Now, Jack, I was the one who said they looked like giants' bathtubs," protested Margaret.
"Well, I didn't say you weren't, did I?" Jack snapped.
"This pot-hole," said Uncle Tom, "was made by the current pushing a loose rock around and around inside that hole, making it deeper and wider year after year."
"But however did the river make this dreadful big canyon?" asked Margaret.
"Oh, yes," said Uncle Tom. "Now, listen. A million tiny streams in Colorado and Idaho and Utah and Arizona are grinding down and scooping out their valleys, and carrying each its little burden of muddy sediment into the Grand and Green Rivers, which unite to form the Colorado River. All this sediment the river industriously sweeps down into the sea. Then, right here in the Grand Canyon, are many streams, like Bright Angel Creek, which we saw from the hotel, which continually work their way deeper into the rocks, and also empty their sediment into the river. In the spring, when the snows melt on the river, all these streams swell into torrents, and cut deeper and still deeper into the rocks.
"The frost is busy, too. Every winter it chisels little pieces off all these great rocks; the spring rains wash them into the little streams; the little streams wash them into the river, and the river washes them into the sea."
"Oh," said Margaret, "then it was really the river that, with the help of these millions of little streams, cut out the whole of the Grand Canyon? But, Uncle Tom, what became of all the stuff that it cut out? Did the river really carry it all into the Gulf of California?"
"Every atom of it" said Uncle Tom. "It took millions and millions of years to do it, of course; but it is still at work. That is why the water is so muddy."
They had climbed out upon a rocky point past which the river surged in swift cascades.
"Nobody ever could keep a boat floating on this river, could he, Uncle Tom?" asked Jack. "No boat ever could run down those rapids."
"Yes," said Uncle Tom, "boats have done it. Haven't you heard how the Grand Canyon was first explored?"
Jack shook his head.
"Do you mean to say that Doctor McKinley missed telling you the story of Major Powell's great adventure?"
"Oh, tell us." Both children spoke at once, and the rest of the party gathered around.
"Well" said Uncle Tom slowly, "that was one of the greatest of American adventures. For many years the Grand Canyon remained unexplored. Even the windings of the river's course were not defined. No Indian had ever entered the canyon. The Indians feared it, believing that it was guarded by spirits.
"The Indian legend is picturesque. There was a chief who mourned the death of his wife. No one could comfort him. One day the god Ta-vworts appeared to him and assured him that his wife was happy in Paradise. The chief replied that, if only he could be certain of her happiness, he would be satisfied. So Ta-vworts made a trail through the mountains which guarded Paradise, and through this he conducted the chief, who, seeing his wife happy, returned and mourned no more. The trail was the Grand Canyon.
"But Ta-vworts, fearing that the chief would show others the trail to Paradise, caused a turbulent river to flow through it, which would destroy those who should try to travel it. He also stationed spirits to guard it. That river is the Colorado.
"The Indians believed this legend, and told the white men that, deep in the great gorge were enormous waterfalls. They said that the river ran through dark underground passages. No man who entered passed through alive.
"But there was one man who dared. His name was John Wesley Powell, and he was a school-teacher who afterward became a celebrated geologist. He had lost his right arm in the Civil War, but even that could not stop him.
"These great canyons interested him, and he determined to explore them. He got four open boats and filled their compartments with provisions for a long journey. He persuaded nine adventurous men to accompany him, and, early in 1869, started far up on the Green River and floated down. Frequently he stopped to study the rocks, for this was a scientific expedition.
"In late August, when he came to the head of the Grand Canyon, there were very few provisions left; half had been lost in an upset. But they went boldly in, nevertheless. They knew nothing of what would befall them. Perhaps they would rush over waterfalls as high as Niagara; they did not know. Perhaps they would drop into the underground passage which the Indians had described; they did not know that, either. All they knew was that the walls were impassably steep, and that the river rushed so swiftly into the great canyon that, once started, they never could return. They must go through to the end or die in the going. They were brave men, and they went on.
"What made the passage all the more dangerous was that their food was nearly exhausted. Most of the flour they had left was wet; even their matches were wet.
"But on they went. Often they embarked in their boats at the head of some long swift rapid whose end was hidden by a curved wall. Was there a waterfall at the end of the rapid? Or were there rocks upon which their boats would be dashed to pieces? They did not know. It was too late to turn back.
"Sometimes these rapids were so swift and rocky that they had to lower their boats, one by one, with ropes. Often they were thrown out by the tossing of the boats, and had to swim. Often the boats were upset; indeed they lost all their scientific instruments, and part of their little remaining food in this way. One of the boats was broken to pieces, but the men in it were saved.
"They never clearly knew where they were, for there were no landmarks. Sometimes a full day's labor only carried them a mile or two, so dangerous was the going. How long the canyon was they did not know. All they knew was that they were weary and cold and wet, that they could light no fires to warm themselves, and that they were hungry, and almost without food. No wonder that some of them were discouraged. The time came when none, even the intrepid Powell, really had much hope left of living to the end. But Powell's precious notes were safe in his pocket. That was his comfort. His body perhaps would be found, and the scientific notes saved.
"There came a day when food was reduced to a little wet flour. That night four of the men went off by themselves to talk, and then returned and reported to Powell that they were going to desert. They explained that they thought the gorge at that point could be climbed, and that they preferred to take the chances of finding a way up over the rim rather than to go on with the others to certain destruction.
"Powell made no objections. He believed their chances of escape over the rim were very small, and told them so. There were no villages on the deserted plain above the rim where food could be had; and there were hostile Indians. But the deserters, now fairly terror-stricken, were not to be deterred. Powell offered them half of his handful of wet flour, but they declined it. The next morning they started on their perilous attempt, and Powell and his faithful five climbed into their boats and went on.
"Hope was now almost abandoned. That day the last of the food was eaten, and the desperate party, with perhaps many days of danger and hardship before them, toiled manfully on. But the very next morning their boats emerged at the foot of the canyon, where they found food and safety."
"And what became of the four deserters?" asked Jack.
"They were never seen again. In his book, 'The Explorations of the Colorado River of the West,' Powell stated they were killed by Indians. He published the Indians' confessions."
"Is that a true story?" asked Margaret.
"It is history," said Uncle Tom. "Powell afterward became Director of the United States Geological Survey, and a very famous man. We saw yesterday the rock shrine erected by the Department of the Interior to his memory."
The night the Jeffersons spent in camp in the depths of the Grand Canyon was in some respects the most memorable of their summer's experience. Sunset over the rim, the wonderfully deepening shadows, the glow of the camp-fire against the painted rockthese lingered long in memory.
Soon after supper, Uncle Billy and Aunt Jane dropped out of the camp-fire gathering, and disappeared in the gloom. They were gone so long that Mrs. Jefferson became nervous.
"I'm afraid they've lost their way," She said.
The children were still up when they wandered unobtrusively back into camp. Uncle Billy swaggered nonchalantly to the fire and warmed his hands. He wore a broad and happy grin. Margaret looked at him attentively. Then she turned to Aunt Jane, who lingered in the background, her face lighted by the blaze. Margaret approached her slowly, studying her rosy face and soft, happy eyes. Then she crept up, threw her arms around her neck, and whispered:
"Oh, dear Aunt Jane, I am so, so, so awful glad."
Aunt Jane, with a quick surprised movement, loosened the enfolding arms, and looked keenly into the child's face. Margaret nodded mysteriously. Aunt Jane gave a glad little cry and hugged her.
"You little witch," she whispered, "I believe you know."
"I do." Margaret nodded happily.
Aunt Jane kissed her rapturously, and whispered:
"But you must keep my secret."
"Oh, I will," said Margaret.
"I promise solemn," said Margaret. "See, I cross my heart."
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009