Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Grand Canyon

We leave the canyon Zion through a tunnel in the very stone, bored through the body of the mountain. We emerge from this worm hole in the earth into wide vistas, bare desert, mesas eroding to tumbles of rock. Wind in the low brush at the roadside, movement in the corner of the eye.

Isolated storm clouds stand upon pillars of rain. We drive through them, the droplets darkening the roadway, drunk up by the thirsty sand.

Long descent from a mesa toward Lake Powell in the afternoon. Boats are mere chalk-mark wakes on the vast mirror of the water. We cross the canyon on an impossible bridge, suspended above the abyss. Upstream, the dam is a massive block of constructed stone choking the throat of the canyon. Downstream the walls drop below seeing, as if descending into the guts of the earth.

On the lands of Diné, Hopi, and Paiute people. Single-wide trailer outposts, empty paddocks, a few trees stationed around, or none. Still pickups. Crumbling mesas like theater scrim.

In failing light we turn toward the rim. Out of rolling sagebrush hills into scrub pines, low and dense. An elk waves his wide rack in the headlights as he rips grass from the roadside.

The immensity of the canyon shows briefly through the trees under a fiery sunset. We make camp in the dark. Pinyon pines gray scrawls in the shadows. Thunder again, close by.


In the morning the kids are edgy and easily upset. Nothing seems right to them. At last we leave camp by bicycle, take the paved pathways through the woods. We are immediately breathless with the altitude. Scent of last night’s rain in the pine needle beds, the only sign that it was here. The sky perfectly empty, the sun unsheathed.

We pause for water and the obligatory map at the visitors’ center. The kids are happier here where they can clamber over the rocks, arranged in a semi-natural state. All the staff are masked against contagion. The banality of tourism is a thin scum laid over the surface here, something more intense and serious beneath. The children feel it in their bodies, don’t have our adult ways of suppressing this disturbance to their senses. We load them back in the bike trailer and blithely ride toward the edge of oblivion.

Because that is what it is, this canyon, this great cleft in the earth, this yawning chasm that all these people have come to peer into. We are not prepared for its power. We ride away from the crowds, along a paved trail that lopes over hillocks and around Utah juniper. The trail makes a sudden turn as if veering to save itself, and here is the drop-off, protected by ragged chain-link fence. We are arrested, breath stolen by more than the thin air. The cliff is sheer and goes down thousands of feet – it might as well have no floor, one would fall forever.

The children are restless when we pause, straining against their straps and the sides of the bike trailer like the feral animals they are. We keep moving, riding along the edge of the precipice, not too fast, no sudden movements, a hush in our nerves. To the side, the chasm stretches wide, mile upon mile, its distant edges mountains and mesas unto themselves, built of layer upon layer of ancient history compressed into stone.

At last we find a wide place in the trail to pause, release the children from their confinement. They run pell-mell to crash into the flimsy fence and to try to climb its short leaning height. They are afraid in other moments of barking dogs and men who are new to the room – of this they seem unperturbed, this promise of certain death right at their feet. We, their parents, can hardly take in this massive sight for the anxiety that clutches our chests. This is parenthood condensed to a moment, all our fears for our children distilled to the now, this sudden drop, the vast emptiness where vultures wheel a thousand feet below us.

Finally we fight the children back into the trailer, take them to a more-peopled point, with firmer fences. The risk of disease feels less threatening than the drop. The kids hop about on the rocks like goats; we never let them out of arm’s reach. The spit of rock we stand on extends out into open space. The tourists take selfies and walk around as though a gap to the earth’s heart did not yawn beneath them, as though this outcrop could hang here forever. They try to feed the chipmunks who skitter under our feet.


We sleep another night in the pine scrub. I wake early to the ravens’ quarks. Ash and the kids sleeping soundly, I head out on my bike alone, take the cracked trail empty of tourists at this hour. In a few minutes I am alone beside the abyss. The air is still and silent. The canyon is a silent scream in the morning haze.

Deep in the belly of the canyon is the silver thread of the great river that has carved this groove in the hide of the planet. Overhanging it is a slate-gray band, the foundation stones of an ancient mountain range that rose up and was eroded away to nothing. Above that rises stratum after stratum of red silt, laid down and compressed under forgotten seas. Exposed by the receding tides, uplifted to this high desert plateau, this stone was riven by water year on year, cut to the heart, to the gut, to the bone, dead mountains revealed, rock steadily sheared down to spear-point peaks rising from within the land. It feels like something to be this stone, and when we admit that we see what it has endured for all this time, its steady destruction for millions of years, an ancient and ongoing ceremony, face up and teeth bared under the sun.

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