Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Grand Canyon: Replenishing the American Soul

If Las Vegas is mirror to the immense void that sits at the core of the American soul, the Grand Canyon a few hours due East replenishes and revitalizes the spirit. When Paul announced that we were going to the Grand Canyon on our trip, and this was non-negotiable, I protested that it was a tourist trap. How wrong could I be?

It's difficult to find words that might begin to do justice to this extraordinary landscape, because it is unfathomable. To imagine that the Colorado River carved layer upon layer into the rockface as it flowed over two billion years through ravines is just the beginning. Visually, there is nowhere to stand where it is possible to see the canyon in its entirety. Similarly, no photograph can capture how stunning it is, how multifarious its colours, how resplendent its formations as they change with the movement of the sun across the earth. 

The Grand Canyon is, ultimately, a natural formation that becomes as much about the world around it, as it is about the still, silent grandeur of the landscape itself. Not only does it change its glorious colours with the shifting light of day, but the peace and silence as we look down at the mile deep layers of the canyon are an illusion. The canyon is dynamic, in a constant state of erosion because of the wind, the snow, the rain, the plant and animal life, and of course the millions of people that come to visit it every year. Today, visiting at the end of September following a monsoon-like July, the canyon is covered in green, harmonized with the reds and the browns. At the end of the winter, it will begin from different colours, its surface all rock and dirt and the debris carried by the snow as it melts and drifts. 

As we look down, we sense the mystery and unknowability of this enormous land formation, and to be sure, there are secrets that it will never tell. The layers carved by the flow of the river are, apparently, sequential. The oldest are on the bottom, deep in the bed of the canyon, while the youngest layers of rock are on the top. The length, depth, patterns of wear and tear, tell the geological history of the canyon. This has kept scientists busy for decades, as they search to know it, to understand the incomprehensible. And because there are layers missing, there are thousands, even the odd million years that cannot be accounted for in the history of the canyon. These layers are missing and will never be retrieved: they hold the secrets that the canyon keeps to itself. We think we know so much about such wonders, but we haven't even begun to learn what they are, what they mean to themselves, to the world around them.

Finally, I have to say, the Grand Canyon is anything but a commercial tourist attraction. The government run national park is a haven, like the canyon below. The compelling power of the landscape keeps the international crowd with whom we shared its paths, relatively silent, well-behaved, respectful that they are in the environs of one of the seven wonders of the world.

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