07/01/16 South Rim

July 01, 2016 Posted by: George Jacobi

Believe me, the Grand Canyon is far more intimidating to write about than it is to stare into, or even to hike into. Every prominent nature writer from Abbey to Zwinger has been down this trail already –and oh, man, it's a steep one. You name it, it's already been written, exquisitely. A writer does this for himself alone;as an attempt to set it down firmly in the mind, to recall clearly later on.

I tell myself I'm just participating here in a conversation that's been going on since 1869. Old Major Powell probably still gets the last word. What will happen to my mind and spirit, and hence my words, during this summer and fall is unknown. No sense in rushing ahead. All I'm sure of is that I'm enthusiastic and I start out VERY naive. So I'll begin right on the rim and go easy.

The Rim is the border between two worlds. One, of course, is the reason we're here, an impossibly large, impossibly old sandwich of sandstone, limestone, and schist, a vivid geology lesson and a rare, complex ecosystem. The other world is a busy bus stop, a noisy multinational queue of human abilities and interests;this brief tour is all most people will experience of the Canyon. They will stand on the edge of the jaw-dropping plunge and take photos, most with THEMSELVES as the center of interest. Yeah, we're quite an astonishing species. With amusement, I notice that the heat rising from below always makes each snapshot (and indeed even the actual view through sunglasses), appear in desperate need of a polarizing filter.

Behind their smiling faces looms the hole in the earth, its stunning reality tamed, disguised as a prop. Seldom does enough of it show in the photos to suggest that something powerful and terrible happened here. It did, just at an impossibly slow pace. And it's still happening. But you'll probably never see it though, unless you're alone, and you'll surely never FEEL it.

Two women at scenic Grand Canyon overlook with railings. One woman is standing on a rock and striking a pose. The second woman is on the far right and is taking a photo with her phone of the first woman.

So pick the longest trail between overlooks, ditch the phone, and walk. The cacophony of bus chatter disappears;the silence comes on slowly, like a fog, until there is only the crunch of your own footsteps. You stride through a universe of pinyon pines and juniper, between a huge empty sky and the precipice itself. The greens and tans here are subdued in comparison to the deep blue above and the kaleidoscope of red hues below. Everything that grows, hell, everything that lives here that is smaller than a mouse, has spikes on it. Including the seeds. Not a place for the fainthearted or the unprotected, whether flora or fauna. Tall stalks of Banana Yucca attract big black bees. Cliff swallows dance effortlessly above the edge.

The deep striations of the juniper bark imitate vertically what the strata beneath the rim do horizontally. Violently twisted by wind, their determined growth reveals a time span easier to conceptualize than the geology below. Nevertheless, it's far longer than us. Does a thousand years sound easier to relate to?

Cumulus cloud shadows creep along the far Canyon walls like ever-changing Robert Motherwell paintings, dark splotches on a pink background. Abstract - and deep. Their infinitesimal movement is undetectable to the eye, unless you drastically slow down the pace of your attention, as well as your feet. Good luck with that.

Truth is, we search in vain for the 'lovely' in this view, albeit unaware. Oh, It's beautiful, a spectacular profusion of color and shape. But the sensation of being overwhelmed is prominent. Just too much to grasp. One feels soothed at dusk, when the deepening hues disguise the distances. There is something unsettling here, not just the looming chasm, but the relentless horizontal line of the faraway rim. It breaks the conventional experience of visual attractiveness in two, into the sky and the stunning patterns of rock. Instead, the vista is unconsciously interpreted as glorious, magnificent –GRAND. Yeah, I know. But it's not an easy place to feel comfortable in, visually or otherwise. It's even possible to step back and see it as an unreal two-dimensional screen behind the people on the rim. Pinch yourself;it IS there.

For emotionally understood beauty, the kind you relate to and remember with affection, try Arches or Bryce. Words do fail. Maybe that's why the bad photos suffice for most. Maybe that's why it is safer to make it about us than to surrender to the acres of dramatic, uncompromising stone below. We just don't come equipped with the polarizing filter to fully discern what we are seeing.

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Last updated: July 19, 2016

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