Grand+Canyon


Photo by Matthew Hunt
Reflection by William Stronghold

     There're a few things you should know when heading north out of Flagstaff toward Grand Canyon:

     It's called “Grand Canyon.” It is not called “the grand canyon,” which would be a geographical description. While it is a canyon, and a grand one at that, that description could fit a great many other canyons as well. But if you would like to call it by name, do.

     It's a much longer drive than it appears to be on the map. You will no doubt look at the map, calculate the mileage, and figure on 30 minutes or so outside of Flagstaff. You will be sorely sorry when the winding road takes you three times that.

     It takes you so much longer that you might make the mistake of falling for the trick of the various campsites along the way, figuring them to be close enough to stop. The one that will try and trick you the most is the Bedrock Campground--a Flintstone's themed camp ground that sits comfortably behind a wall with dino heads sticking up from the other side. Had we but stopped there, I'm sure that this book would be a bit more interesting, one way or the other.

     Whatever you think you know about how you will feel when you see Grand Canyon for the first time, throw it out. If you thought being born was a trip, this will blow your mind.

     This was my second time visiting the world's most spectacular place. This was also Charlie's second time. It had been a few years for either of us. And even the second time around, my mind was blown. You come up over a hill, or you turn a corner, or you stop your car next to a bunch of trees and run through to the clearing ahead, and it's like the whole world opens up to you.

     You, in fact, don't really have a good idea of what size the world is until you stand on the rim of Grand Canyon. You can sit on a boat in the middle of the ocean and see water in every direction. You could sit in some sort of escape pod in the middle of space and see the vastness of the universe. But neither of those sights would show you much the way of size; there's nothing to compare to endless ocean or space. But Grand Canyon gives you a view in all directions complete with references of scale.

     I recently read a pretty startling example of just how big Grand Canyon is. You could put the biggest city in the world down on the floor of the canyon and still be thousands of feet above the tallest buildings. You could look down on the ant-like city and not even hear a single noise, it would be so far away. I almost wish that someone very omnipotent would do something like that some day, just for a little while, so I could see it in action and have the thrill of a thousand lifetimes.

     It's big. Very big. The biggest thing that could possibly fit in the human imagination. And you might think, “So what, jackass, just because something is big doesn't mean that it's worth looking at for hours on end.” But, truly, it is. The greatest sculptures in the world cannot compare with the mastery of this canyon. The greatest paintings and songs can't touch it. I would go so far as to say, you could put all the great works of art together in one place at one time, complete with all of the artists and composers and performers and give me the choice between going there and going to Grand Canyon (and I can only do one of them one time in my life, you see) and I would pick Grand Canyon. I would rather see Grand Canyon than walk on Mars. The only sight that has ever compared is of my own kids being born. That said, Grand Canyon is the only sight that can sit in the company of seeing my kids be born.

     Enough of this. I cannot convince you any better than that. And yet you still sit there, reading this and not planning your trip. I will give you a moment now. Go talk to your loved ones about the prospect of going to Grand Canyon now. Then go there. I will wait for you before I start the story back up again.

     There. Now that you understand what I'm talking about, we can proceed as peers and I no longer have to talk down to you. I will, however, say this: I told you so.

     We had made reservations at the canyon a few weeks before. They were the only reservations that we had made for the trip aside from the hotel in Vermont where we would stay for my graduation. We were petrified of the idea that the camp sites would all be taken and we wouldn't get a thorough chance to commune with the canyon.

     At the small ranger station, I gave my name and told them that I would like to check in. Just in case they didn't make a proper not of it when I called in, I told them that we were on our honeymoon. “I've got that right here,” the doofy old guy said. “You're going to be in the honeymoon suite.”

     The site was not, as it turns out, the honeymoon suite. I was being made fun of. Mocked. It was a regular site. And the regular sites had a distinct lack of privacy and a distinct wealth of huge ravens hopping about waiting for you to go to sleep so they can eat your liver. The ravens were in on the joke, so far as I could tell, ready to pounce upon and eat our food, furthering our site's status even more from that of Honeymoon Suite.

     But the ravens, and half of the campground, got more than they bargained for that day. They got a little show called, “Newlyweds Set Up Their Tent.” It wasn't an especially complicated tent to set up, in all honesty. It was a simple enough tent, for sure. We didn't fumble too much with the support beams or the rainfly or any of that nonsense. But the ground was more or less a thin layer of silt above solid rock. The task of driving a tent stake into the ground was just about like driving a papier-mâché toothpick through the armor of a tank, except not as cool because you were nowhere near a tank.

     As mature adults, recently married and setting up where they were going to sleep on their honeymoon, you'd think we would have worked well together to solve the problem. Instead, however, we fought. Whatever I tried to do, it just wasn't right. Every place I dragged our tent, over the whole of the Honeymoon Suite, I couldn't find a place that would welcome the five sided thing with open arms and soft-yet-sturdy soil to drive a tent stake into. I thought about tying rope to the places in the tent for the stake and then stringing the stakes to the tent that way. The idea was readily abandoned when I realized that we had no rope and I had no patience.

     Charlotte explained, in great detail, just what kind of half-assed job I was doing. I snipped back at her for micromanaging me. The ravens gathered to watch us argue and by the time the tent was actually set-up, there was an audience of nearly 100,000 ravens, some holding little signs with my face on them and others holding little signs or wearing T-shirts with Charlie all over them. And settled and quite content in the front row was a team of well-dressed divorce lawyer ravens, papers drafted and waiting our signatures. Seeing the hubbub we had caused, and not being proud that we had disturbed nature in a National Park to the point of law practicing birds, we finally finished the tent project by anchoring it from the inside with a particularly heavy bag of luggage. We shooed the birds away and went on with our little lives.

     We spent the rest of the day admiring the canyon. Standing on the cliff, far above the floor, once feels a sense of grandeur that cannot be matched. It's been said before and it's very true, once you're at the edge of the canyon, you get quiet. Only a whisper seems appropriate in the presence of something so imposing. There are those, however, who are not self-aware enough to understand this, and they bellow into their cell phones and crack jokes and generally horse around. Luckily, the canyon is large enough that you can just slip away, further down the side and pay no attention to the sacrilegious. One guy sticks out in my mind. He was walking along when his phone rang and he brought it quickly to his ear. “Yeah,” he said as to confirm the suspicion of the caller that was indeed there. “We're at the Grand Canyon right now. Yeah, it's pretty sick.” We slinked away, disgusted at a genetic pool that could supply such an unremarkable understatement about a place so magnificent.

     To be fair to the above dude, he was merely expressing his own ignorance and inexpressiveness. Often times we forget that our feelings or descriptions about the great and wonderful things in the world reflect on ourselves and not the other way around. If you, for example, tell me that Bach was a terrible composer, you have done nothing to harm Bach or his reputation; you have simply exposed your own foolishness to everyone in earshot. It doesn't matter if you like Bach, he is great. His music is many times more immortal than your opinions of him and his abilities in music were beyond your own capacity to do anything in this life. You may as well have told oxygen to suck it. So if one describes Grand Canyon as pretty sick, they have shown their full capacity of thought, feeling, and expression, and Grand Canyon goes on and one being much more than pretty sick for those who get the message.

     Expressing your own shortcomings is one thing. But broadcasting a half-assed expression of knowledge is quite another. And I have come to find out that this is something that a great many people like to do in wonderful places where people gather to embrace the infinite. Charlie and I call these people “Microphones,” as they act as if they are holding one. Wherever you are, if there is someone who foolishly believes himself to be an expert on something his knows just a little about, you will find a Microphone. Such was the case on our first night at Grand Canyon, sitting on the edge, watching the moonrise.

     What could be more romantic than two newlyweds, arms surrounding each other, bathed in starlight and a full moon, watching the alien landscape of Grand Canyon at night? We sat in awe as the moon peaked over the edge, miles and miles off. This should have been a quiet moment, reserved in our minds for later reflection. But instead, a Microphone from behind us yelled for all to hear, “Exactly where I thought it would rise.”

     There were about a dozen of us in all who had decided to watch the full moon rise from one of the best lookout points along the southern rim. This Microphone of ours had a camera set up and pointing at the perfect spot. Really, there was no need to brag, no need to break the concentration of the heart upon the landscape. His picture snapped, he could have left our company in peace and quiet. But it was as if he thought himself deserving of a medal from our small congress for such a great achievement. He patted himself on the back a little more. “Last night it wasn't quite full, and it rose slightly to the right. I thought that it would have shifted over a few degrees and indeed it did!” I stifled the urge to hush him violently with a fist.

     In the ensuing minutes, as the moonlight touched new spires of rock, illuminated different avenues of the Earth below, I was rapt. Or at least I would have been if the Microphone had stopped his oratory on astronomy. “Ahh, there is Polaris, which many people mistakenly call the North Star. In a few thousand years, it won't even be the North Star anymore. It has a more proper name” and on and on.

     A child, peering over the edge, saw the faint glow of lights down in the canyon. I, and many of my fellow spectators, knew these lights to be Phantom Ranch. The little rustic resort is one of the most popular destinations in the National Parks system. Hikers, rafters, and mule riders can stay there over night as long as they book their reservation years in advance. I want to stay there very badly myself but have never had the forethought for such things. It looks like a splendid place to pass the time and see the canyon from the other side. As the boy pointed this sight out, the Microphone explained away these lights most foolishly. “That's simply the reflection of our flashlights on the river below.”

     Silence followed.

     “No,” I said. “No, it's not. The river is 4,600 feet below us at this point.”

     “So?” The Microphone would have said. “Light travels that many feet in a second or so.”

     “Okay, stop. Just stop, okay dude? Because you're off. You're way off. A few of us have flashlights, sure, but a river can't reflect such a small bulb at this distance. We don't carry laser flashlights, now do we? I didn't think so. The lights dissipates much more quickly than that. That's Phantom Ranch down there, and if you knew a damn thing about the ground you're standing on, you'd know it and you'd shut the hell up and let us all enjoy our moment with the canyon.”

     “No,” he'd say. “Watch while I flicker my flashlight down there and the light, in turn, flickers from below.” And as he reached for his flashlight, I--and a few other hearty travelers--grab the man, hoist him over the edge and give him the Eleven-Second Tour of the canyon, sending him hurtling to the bottom-floor. And just before his light is extinguished on the rough ground below, we hear him yell, “You were right! There is a ranch down here!”

     Atonement achieved, we rested well that night, feeling a small part of a much greater whole. At least in my dreams.

 William Stronghold is a writer, blogger, and gentleman living in Michigan. 

© William Stronghold, 2011