Encounters with the Sublime in the Grand Canyon

grandcanyon3At dusk, in the rarefied, freezing-cold, mid-December air that settles over much of northern Arizona’s Colorado Plateau, the fading twilight skies over the Grand Canyon are shot through with soft hues of lilac, and for a brief moment, the canyonlands beneath acquire a stillness.

Nothing seems to move in this brief interlude between day and night: the huge, billowing winds that waft upwards against the canyon walls in the daytime cease, and the flocks of birds that normally wheel erratically over the ridges below- tracing invisible lines resembling a painters smearing brushstroke- lay up to roost in the pines.

For a brief moment, all in the canyon is still.

In this brief moment, I walk hurriedly through the lunar-looking grove of juniper trees near the South Rim of the Canyon as the last traces of exhausting sunlight race off to the west. It is so cold I can see my breath where it lays out against the slight breeze before me, and my hands have become red and cupid-fleshed in the thin air of the plateau, which runs between six and seven thousand feet above sea-level. Rushing up the paved-trail at a pace that had long left my father behind, I saw it first cresting over the trail, through the line of latticed tree foliage at the very edge, a panoramic vista of geologically flared colors that dropped away thousands of feet from the visible edge of terra firma.Grandcanyon1

The canyon was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was astonishing, overwhelming, a landmark whose viewing quite literally sucked the breath out of my lungs. It was a real life iteration of Theologian Rudolfo Otto’s Mysterium tremendum et fascinum, which means an entity that is as terrifying and overwhelming as it is seductively beautiful- that is, a manifestation of God on Earth.

The Canyon was the type of sight to induce a belief in God, or at least engender a brief questioning by the non-believer. Whatever one believes about the origins of the universe, it is clear that a questioning about that universe’s origin will nonetheless ensue following a sighting of this thirty-mile long gash which rents open the Earth.

I cursed the whole way as I followed the path up towards the edge where one could look down into the abyss. I cursed the fact that I’d gone my whole life without truly realizing- of course I’d known, but knowing and realizing are two very different concepts- that such a landmark existed within the lower 48. This was compounded by a sense of astonishing shamefulness over the fact that I had never thought of going to the Grand Canyon, amongst all national parks, as it seemed there were too many people that visited it and that an overabundance of tourists, using the analogy of the Disney Parks which I’d grown up next to all my life, usually indicated attractions of mediocre quality.

“Son of a bitch,” I whispered with an unconscious reflexiveness as I walked along the rim. “Jesus fucking Christ… Jesus… This is… Jesus.”

My father had caught up to me- my walking speed had lapsed into a slow hypnosis- and quietly reminded me that there were families around us. I took his advice, but said little more. We walked out to the Mather Point Overlook, a rocky peninsula stretching out some fifty feet into the empty ocean of air, and which acted as a central nexus for the visitor center we had come to, one of the few points in the park where humanity had made its encroachments.

From the precipitous overhang a Mathers’, under the burning lavender cant of the evening sky, the unimaginably vast immensity of the canyon all seemed condensed into a miraculous, razor-like acuity. All of it- the multilayered canyon, twenty miles across, a mile deep, hemmed in on all sides by savagely steep yet ornately painted cliff faces- came together astonishingly in immaculate visual clarity, like something viewed through a magnifier or a polished pane of glass.

The depth was the most amazing: at six thousand feet deep, it was deeper than most North American mountains are tall. Entire atmospheres and climates seemed ensconced within its limits of empty space. I looked out towards the cliff faces and imagined an object falling (or more nauseatingly, a hiker such as myself) and would picture in my minds eye the tantalizingly slow descent it would make on the way down, counting one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-one thousand, until my mental counting inevitably drifted off into an open mouthed silence and I realized that whatever fell off these cliff faces were not doing so slowly, that the depth of the air merely had a way of making it look so.

Depth had the power to make terminal velocity look like molasses.

The following morning we woke and, without any clear plans, drove to the rim of the canyon. We knew we wanted to descend into the abyss, but beyond that our plans were vague.

It was a freezing cold morning, strangely bright, with snarls of wind lashing uncertainly across the clean slate of the empty sky. Having heard about the South Kaibab trail from a hiker couple in our hotel the night before- their legs in the elevator up pasted over with a thin film of dust as they told us about it- we made a last second decision to trace the South Rim for several miles westwards towards its trailhead, which evidently was the starting point into a steep, winding plunge into the desert depths below.

Walking that morning, gusts of bluejays and other small birds came and went at wild abandon with a slight rustling amongst the gnarled lines of juniper and bristlecone pine set upon the high rim of the canyon and overlooking the thousands of feet of gaping air below.

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From around a mile away we could begin to see through the trees the downward arching slant of the trail where it was scraped white and bare into the orange dust of the mountainside like a thin and unsteadily drawn pencil line. Seen from above, it was a trail that sent your stomach rising into your throat, overwhelmed you with an incipient sense of disorientation, a nascent vertigo and lightness of the head, filling the void in your gut with a nauseating flutter of butterflies.

Beneath any given point picked along its perceived length, from a mile away, was a clear drop of at least three hundred feet, though in many places that drop would be amended to five hundred or a thousand, depending on the steepness (needless to say, it was a very steep trail). The very thought that we would have to walk it with the disorienting fear that washed over your body upon seeing it was enough to accentuate whatever fear you already felt.

Remarkably, looking back upon it now, I found that the fear was largely unfounded, provided that you walked the trail in the correct manner and refused to let any uncertainties take root from the start. Keep your eyes planted on your feet in front of you, one step at a time, no gazing over the landscapes when a wrong step could plunge you into the abyss. And besides, take a look at the crop of people currently ascending that which you descended, however sweaty and winded they may have seemed: seventy year olds, fat high schoolers in gym shorts, people that looked as if their grandkids could be parents- people, in other words, who did not seem fit to be doing such a hike but were nonetheless doing so anyways. If they could plausibly make their way back up after descending, there was no way I couldn’t.

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It was a good short but nonetheless satisfying hike, engrossing, the South Kaibab. We regrettably decided to turn ourselves around only two miles down the path, which still meant being around fifteen hundred feet beneath our starting point, though there would still be time tomorrow to get a truly long and difficult hike under our boots.

Stopping periodically on the slog back up the trail on the Kaibab, I found myself gazing out over the open flesh wound in that was the Canyon, contemplating the stillness of the Earth.

The following morning, slightly better planned than the previous day, we decided to hike on the Bright Angel Trail. We rose early that morning, and in the bitterly cold biting air outside the car thermometer registered 20 degrees Fahrenheit. We layered up with what few thin clothes we had and drove from the our hotel in Tusayan to the parks border. Driving out that morning, we were struck by the eerie emptiness of the roads leading in. The cold layer of atmosphere, which had ceased to dissipate even with the rising suns relative newfound warmth, had evidently kept most people confined to their hotel rooms and cabins.

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Early into the hike, we passed a series of pack trains: mules ambling the dusty trails with their heads bobbing disinterestedly, the fur beneath the tightly cinched straps of the pack saddles ruffled and slick with sweat. We leaned against the broken scree along the interior of the trail as the caravans pass us by, nodding cordially with the mustachioed riders as they kick themselves along.

The descent down the cliff faces, several thousand feet in height, took us down through an puzzle of switchbacks, winding, uncertain, rocky paths carved into the vertical shears of rock in places where all laws of physics or gravity should necessitated that nothing of the sort would’ve been allowed to exist.

The trail takes us through several climate zones as well, down from a freezing dry pine forest at the top to a rolling flat sea of orange dust and cacti at the bottom. And the whole day as I walk, my boots are ineluctably layered with a fine coating of that ubiquitous orange dust, stirred up with our passing of the rocky trails.

On the ascent back up the trail that evening where it lead into colder, higher altitudes, my eyes were soothed by the warm light of evening laid out against the distant faces of the canyon, some twenty miles away.

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Several evenings before, recording my daily notes in my journal, I wrote out a phrase about my experiences in the canyon that articulated itself without any rhyme or reason, a sentence inflected with the inevitable dramatization that comes when someone doesn’t expect their writing to be read, but which now in this moment, as I walked back up the trail, seemed to make perfect sense:

“I am drunk with the wine of this experience.”

 

 

The Colorado Plateau is, in its own way, little different from an island. It floats several thousand feet above the desert sea to its south and east, the thin green line of its forested rim running, when perceived by the naked eye across the vast distances of the canyon, with an razor-like flatness and continuity against the wide, domelike relief of the pale winter sky. The landscape almost feels lunar in comparison to the desert five thousand feet below, a spacious, high-altitude forest blanketed loosely with windblown junipers and bristlecone pine where smokecolored mule deer or of cow elk come and go with a sort of delicate silence and ponderousness that befits them to the cold, hushed landscape through which they walk.

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The third and last morning found us driving eastwards on along the canyon via the one road that could take us towards the Navajo Reservation, where we would then turn south towards Sedona, our next point of travel.

Seen flashing through the loose clusters of low trees along the rim to our left was the vast immensity of the canyon. We were in no rush that day and made good use of the copious number of roadside pull-offs on this side of the park to relish in the canyon in a manner other than viewing it through a passing car window, to smell the faint mineral trace that lingered in the freezing cold morning wind alongside the smell of the pines.

The sky that morning was vast, empty, pale, stirred only by the most undisturbing traces of cirrus: a sky befitting the canyon country. The gaping world above the Earth that morning looked like a breath of cold, fresh air.

The noon grew high. At one of the later stop-offs we saw from our vantage point the high island of the plateau taper off suddenly towards the desert basins far below: from high up here, the desert to our right stretched unremittingly flat and parched towards the razor thin horizon, where the rumpled blue ships of distant mountains floated hazy and hardly recognizable.

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Far below us, several hundred or perhaps a thousand feet down, we watched a white-and-brown mote of dust- a mote of dust that was in actuality a fully grown, adult bald eagle- trace drafts of unseen wind over a ridge, chasing several ravens in a hypnotically slow, circumambient airborne dance.

We read on a sign at the overlook: nearly five hundred years ago, in 1540, the Spanish Conquistadors, guided by unwitting Hopi cicerones and seeking out God, Gold, and Glory, became the first men of white blood to see this river, this canyon. They returned with an exploratory party, and for three days sought fruitlessly to descend the sheer cliff faces to attain a closer look at the Great River which had so drawn them in. But to no avail. They found no Gold, and even less Glory. But perhaps what they did find was some unyielding manifestation of God. No one knows for sure.

One can only imagine that they if they were human they were just as engrossed in the beauty of this place as we are now: that they were scribing letters to relate to those back home about how they “discovered” such a awful and terrifying and yet seductively beautiful wasteland in the New World.

If human nature is to be any guide, the Spaniards probably left the canyon exactly as we did, five hundred years later: that is to say, mystified.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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