We’d gotten in at midnight the night before, and seen the black sky smeared with a blizzard of stars. That alone told us all we needed to know—this was a different kind of place. One that can surround a person with pure blackness. And it did, but for the sparse pools of yellow light shed by just enough lamps to get us from check-in to our lodge without falling into an abyss. With nothing to see—yet—we were able to sleep.
When I woke up, my roommate, Chris, was heading out to find coffee. Dressing quickly, I left our little room at the end of a narrow hallway. Turning toward the light that peeked through a pane of glass in a door at the far end, I shivered a bit. This was it. I was here. What was I going to see?
Pushing open the door I walked 15 feet, dodged a small tree, took four strides across a paved walkway, and stood before a low wall—all that was left between me and the Grand Canyon.
My breath stayed in my chest for a moment, then another, and then—unexpectedly and all at once—tears sprang to my eyes.
It is unclear how long I was there, but it was long enough that when I looked around again, I was lost. I had no memory of getting to this place. Had I moved? I must have, though I remembered nothing. I was not where I was when I first came out from the shadows of the trees into the morning light and saw the deep and layered, sloping and sheer, sun-drenched and shadowed, speckled and smooth, lined and creased, orange-red, mossy-green, white-brown, brown-white, brown-red, rusty-pink crevasse that splits the earth’s crust.
Eventually, after a few false starts, I found my friends in the dining room. I walked up to their table and the tears came again. “I’m so overwhelmed,” I blubbered.
How does anyone take a picture of a geological masterpiece and do it justice? She doesn’t. How does a person write about that moment when all the tiny, silly details of daily life melt in the face of deep planetary history? She doesn’t. Forgive this blog, my small attempt at photos and words.
Not that I really understood what I was seeing. I went to a geology lecture that helped. I loved the young man who spoke with such passion and poetry about the billions of years made evident in one mind-boggling natural formation that opened up behind him as a clump of us sat, dazzled, on stone benches in a rough-hewn amphitheater.
I won’t describe everything we did or saw, asked, learned, felt, or experienced. But I want to try to understand what the overwhelm was really about. Yeah, yeah, it’s big. A walk around the rim would be equivalent to a walk from New York to California—so it’s really big. Yeah, it’s old, and even though (as we were reminded repeatedly) the scale of time is a bit much for the human mind to comprehend, I visualized the period at the end of Remembrance of Things Past and reminded myself that punctuation mark represents human history on this planet that does not need us. The Grand Canyon at its lowest levels is over a billion years old, but still does not enter Proust’s masterpiece until several volumes in.
I think, really, it’s the beauty that flattened me. And the beauty is part of the size. And the size is part of the age. All pieces, inextricable.
The beauty is the kind that does not exist in my world. It is not a tree covered beauty. It is not a skyline beauty. It is not a rolling hills beauty. It is not a pasture beauty. Not an estuary beauty. Not a watershed beauty. Not a rolling wave beauty—or crashing wave beauty for that matter.
The exquisite subtlety was unexpected. For something that monumentally vast, old, and renowned to convey its magic so gently is astonishing and wondrous.
The delicate pastels, and how they changed as the sun moved across the sky. The glittering ribbon of the distant Colorado, glimpsed, from certain vantage points. The speckling of junipers clinging to the slopes. Rock formations, windows eroded into limestone, the temples, plateaus, outcroppings, and drop-aways—breathtaking yes, but quiet. The wind blew, creating a silence in my head, and as my eye wandered, the overwhelm was perhaps about an unfathomable accumulation of so many hundreds and thousands of individual, subtle, self-possessed pieces of flawless beauty.
I was within sight of the Canyon’s rim for a mere 34 hours. My visit taught me that, wow, I wish I could have more—a few additional days, longer hikes, slower walks, a few more sunrises and sunsets, expanding time to just sit, more chances to learn. But there was no hole in me from wanting more. Because the Grand Canyon filled me up and left me sated, grateful, humbled, happy.