Excerpt from the Journal of the 1907-1908 Von Bingham Expedition:
Early this month our exploration of the American southwest was halted by a heavy snowfall. Thus the very day that the Grand Canyon was conserved by President Roosevelt was a bitter one for this explorer, despite being present at that exact location.
The signing was January 11th, 1908, but the news of the Executive Order designating the cañón a National Monument would take days to arrive at this outpost by telegraph, due to several stately Ponderosa Pines falling across the railroad spur line and bringing down the adjacent wires. All the ramshackle hotels were filled. We huddled in our tents alongside this small village, kept the fires burning, and reread the stirring words that the President had spoken in 1903 when he too visited here. “Keep it for your children’s children”, Theodore Roosevelt had exclaimed five years before, “You cannot improve upon it”.
The air outside smelled of mules and horses whenever a gust of wind blew the wood smoke away across the vast and magnificent space to my north. I tucked my head deeper into my overcoat as the words of my sponsor, Archduke Raddatz, came to me. Raising his eyebrows, he had suggested the expedition begin in South America instead of North. Alas, immediately upon the words of the President reaching Europe, I had been driven to see this arid and magnificent landscape for myself.
Restless, I walked across the empty tracks and up the hill past the newest hotel, built by the Santa Fe Railroad, and went out toward the rim. Crashing bottles and upraised voices inside the lobby told a story of drink-induced rowdiness begun far too early in the day. Below the precipice before me, a blanket of new snow covered any surface less than vertical, rendering those orange, red, and cream cliffs an even more vivid contrast with winter’s precipitation.
I faced the great gulf alone. Whoever the other current visitors to this geological wonder were, they remained safely out of the elements. Though little in number on any given day, they kept coming, more and more each season. Thus the railroad, and the new extravagant hotel, and the photograph developer’s small office, and the $1 charge for simply hiking down the trail. Without the trail, any descent within the confines of the local side cañón toward the distant river would have been next to impossible.
I stared into the mile deep Grand Canyon. A vast arena waiting to be explored and appreciated by America and the world, it was full of geological, archaeological, and paleontological treasures. The switch-backed trail would one day be full of enthusiastic travelers, I mused. The hotels would be full of guests, transfixed by the same natural colors and forms that tantalized me. Would this ancient wonder eventually become a fully protected National Park, overrun with avid beauty seekers, or would it remain inaccessible to all but the most courageous pilgrims? Time alone would tell. The fierce wind blew any further thoughts of mine off into the unknowable future.
Alexander Von Bingham *
January 17, 1908
“Ahh, everybody cheats”, said the guy from Connecticut vehemently. A mile down the Bright Angel Trail, we had both stopped for a drink of water, he going down and me on my way back up to the faraway rim. We stood in the rapidly disappearing shade at a switchback where the sun was devouring the last remaining coolness. I could have watched it happen if I had the courage to look at the shadow’s edge on the stone wall.
He said he owned a medium-sized construction company in wealthy, busy Fairfield County. As I also grew up in that small green state far from here, an ill-advised political conversation had begun. As he apparently saw it, there wasn’t much idealism left, and honor was a naïve and impractical philosophy. I had to admit that he seemed right about that aspect of human nature. There was no doubt that if he’d been here a hundred years ago, he’d have given the Santa Fe Railroad a run for its money developing the South Rim. Yet he was back again after forty years or so, enjoying this carefully conserved locale. Why? Maybe to recapture some of his adventurous youth, with its built-in backpack of freedom and idealism. I looked away, stared down at the rock layers descending into the distant past toward the Colorado River, and wondered if he would find some down there.
We too were return visitors, bringing back our own decades-old memories. I went down from the North Rim in 1976. Near the same time, Kris had done a day hike from the South Rim with other friends, innocent of proper footwear and the necessity to bring lots and lots of water. She remembers, upon finally making it back up, that the bar at Bright Angel Lodge served the best beer she’s ever had in her life. No surprise there.
I was thinking of Von Bingham’s well-known historical treatise as we encountered the Grand Canyon for the first time in forty years. Our first impression, in midsummer, came not from the incredible beauty of the deep and richly hued chasm, but from the multitude of humans who had flocked to this corner of northern Arizona for the same reason as us. The world of people, in all our myriad cultural and physical manifestations, crowded the rim, the hotels and buses, the shops and visitor centers.
Indeed, given that 6 million of us would visit this National Park during the year, and that the Earth’s population is now approximately 7 ½ billion – do the math with me. Can I be right that about one out of every 1250 of us would make their way to this crack in the earth? Almost one of every thousand humans. Every year. This is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Seen from the Moon or the Space Station, it’s the most visible geographic feature on the whole planet. But that number seems extraordinary, and testifies to the drawing power of this ancient tableau of stone and sand.
Like the clichéd tide of humanity they come, a morning wave that fills the overlooks. From all corners of this beleaguered planet they appear, their faces reflecting the many-hued heritage of our deep genealogy. Akin to Christmas shoppers or football fans, they adopt similar habits and become parts of the same temporary tribe. They take the same photographs, smile the same smiles. Make the same exclamations, though in many languages. Some of us are permanent members of this band, consumers of nature wherever and whenever we are; most of these tourists are on a brief vacation, but something unconscious deep within draws them here from their cities and suburbs to where wildness and wonder still abound.
“Oh, my God!” This is the most repeated comment heard from visitors stepping up to the rim. No surprise there either.
Kris and I eat lunch in the open-air McKee Amphitheatre, just behind Park Headquarters, and then walk out to the Rim Trail almost every day. Making sure the canyon is still there? Something like that, I guess. Can you think of a better lunchtime stroll? We have been here long enough to become jaded if we wished. It would be easy to sit in the courtyard for lunch, check email, look at a magazine from the Library. Watch lizards. Shoot the bull with whichever Rangers are around. Check email again.
Walking is a better idea. The lightly traveled HQ trail winds gradually upward through a combination of Ponderosa and Pinyon/Juniper for a third of a mile, and if you’re alert, you can spy a Mule Deer or two. Though open sky spreads out as you get close, the Rim is not truly visible until one is a couple of steps away. The few tourists that begin their exploration here are lucky. This is the appropriate way to first experience the Grand Canyon – take a hike just long enough to feel the climate and its effects, then have the earth abruptly fall away below your tired feet. It beats looking out the window of a bus. Beats looking through the back door of the hotel as you check in. Beats peeking between thousands of other folks chattering and taking photos.
Beyond the T where the paved paths meet, the ground gradually slopes down for a few yards and then just disappears. It’s an awesome sensation not unlike that of standing at the top of a ski jump. Because we have legs, we mistakenly call this water world Earth, but a look down here suggests it might best be called Stone. Awesome. “Wonderful” is an adjective Kris and I are lucky to be able to apply to our lunchtime.
What exactly is the capacity for wonder, and why do we have it? Goethe said “A man should…see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul”. I think wonder tricks us out of our human minds, those organs that separate us from each other and everything else, so that briefly we experience being part of the glory of it all. In fact, it unites us with a deeper part of ourselves, too.
A glimmer of insight comes – we are made of million year old stuff, as are the water and air we depend on, as is the rotating rock we tread upon. “Oh, my God.” Watching this happen to folks over and over, a burst of unconscious earthly spirituality, is itself a blessing.
* In 2016, my wife and I were volunteers at Grand Canyon National Park for a 3 ½ month season. My job was to write this blog: “Inspiration Point” for Park social media. Since then I’ve been grateful to continue occasionally posting my thoughts on the canyon and the experience. Those readers who are historians will understand that as in some previous posts, I used fiction to illustrate a scene. Thus Alexander Von Bingham and his Journal exist only in my imagination.
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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource.
These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2018