Mind Shadows

5/7/04

Grand Canyon




In the years before its fame, the Canyon surprised the unsuspecting. They had no warning of it until they got near. There is a story of a cowboy early in the last century, riding in unfamiliar country on the Kaibab plateau. Loping along, he came to the Canyon's edge, then reined-in his horse, stopping suddenly, backing the mare away from the rim. He approached once again, cautiously, and just sat in the saddle, looking at what lay below. The sun appeared from behind a cloud and lit the immense canyons and distances in shades of color he had never seen. Finally, he patted his horse's mane and whispered to her, "Something happened here."

Below your feet lies an abyss. First the earth falls away from you by several thousand feet to reveal the Tonto Plateau. Beyond that there is another sheer drop to somewhere you can't see. You imagine that there has to be a bottom.

Looking down on the Canyon for the first time is not unlike hearing of a loved one's passing. It's hard to register, to take in. There it is in front of you but where are your bearings with it? You can't relate it to anything you've known.

It is two hundred seventy seven miles long. It could swallow fleet upon fleet of trucks or battleships into its depths. It existed long before apes began walking upright on African plains and savannahs. With such immensity, you would think it had always been there, but the Canyon and its river were slow realities. The soil of the rims came from somewhere else by wind and water. The earth was covered by shallow coastal waters with active volcanoes. For millions of years sediments and lava accumulated thousands of feet thick. About 1.7 billion years ago tremendous deep, internal forces caused the layers to buckle. The earth rose up to meet a coursing stream, imperceptibly and relentlessly and the Canyon slowly was born. Mountains five or six miles high arose and were worn down long before any human saw them.

Vishnu, the Hindu god of creation had played his terrible force. Igneous rock was transformed from heat and pressure and out of ordinary soil. Geologists call it Vishnu schist.

Wind and water then began to carry off the mountains grain by grain over long centuries and millennia. The Colorado runs swift and fierce, tumbling through the gorges and indifferent to the unhappy animal who falls into it, swirling the creature along and plunging him through rapids to his death. The strata on the cliffsides eroded and revealed millions of years of life, trilobites, reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals, all layered over as the earth of centuries covered them inch by inch, clod by clod, until very near the top human beings come upon the geologic scene, dressed in a little brief authority.

The geological formations can be classified. The periods are Pre-Cambrian, Devonian-Cambrian, Paleozoic with Mississippian and Pennsylvanian, and the Permian. The strata are Dark Gray, Vishnu schist, Tapeats Sandstone, Grand Canyon super group, Bright Angel Shale, Muav Limestone, Temple Butte Limestone, Redwall Limestone, Supai Formation, Hermit Shale, Coconino Sandstone, Toroweap Limestone, Kaibab Limestone. The count of periods and sub-periods is six. The count of strata is thirteen.

Having identified these categories and counted them, I have said nothing. Should I say 800 million years of advancing and regressing oceans, of marshes and mountains, I still have said nothing. If I stand on the rim and look in silence a glimmer of understanding comes to me.

In 1540 the Spaniard Cardenas was the first European to cast eyes on the Canyon. He was a member of Coronado's expedition and had been dispatched to scout the region. For his queen he was seeking gold in the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. He was in no mood to enjoy the scenery or to look up in awe at the Canyon walls. He did not find gold nor get to the Canyon bottom. After five or six days trying to find his way down he turned back in defeat. He had been led on in the hope that there would be a place, an end, where his difficulties would be over.

In 1857 Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives conducted an extensive reconnaissance of its western end for the US Government. The Arizona Territory was desolate and uninhabited and his report was confident--Ours has been the first and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed. He would never know that a little over a hundred years later a thousand visitors a day would see the Canyon.

In 1869 the next white man came from five hundred miles away in Green River, Wyoming, up the boulder-strewn rapids in twenty foot wooden boats. He was Major John Wesley Powell, a rugged man with one arm lost in the Civil War, a man with a proper Methodist name bestowed by his minister father. Before he started his journey the best maps showed blank space where he explored. Had they been charted in Medieval times they would have carried the warning, Here Be Dragons.

For months back East, rumor was that the Powell party had been lost. The Major and his mountain men knew nothing of this rumor and felt adventurous rather than lost and so pressed forward. Some of the rapids were so turbulent and treacherous that they planned to portage their boats whenever safety indicated. A few of the men would never have gone on had they known that ahead canyon walls were so sheer at water edge that there was no choice but to shoot the rapids.

In his journal Powell wrote The walls now are more than a mile in height . . . A thousand feet of this is up through granite crags, then steep slopes and perpendicular cliffs rise, one above another, to the summit. Earlier he had written that the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above . . . We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel we know not; what walls rise above the river, we know not.

When I first looked upon the Grand Canyon I held a camera to my eye and couldn't get the shot I wanted. The lens just couldn't encompass all that was there, couldn't bring it any nearer.

Eventually it occurred to me that the only way to get close to the Canyon was to establish a relationship with it, and that took time. After a lifetime, I would be a little closer to it, but not much.

We are such things as dreams are made upon, and our little lives are rounded with a sleep, said Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. The words returned to me in the Canyon. Wherever I looked I saw the dreaming centuries. The hikers seemed sleepwalkers marvelling at the brightness of the dreamscape. We were all passing through, light moving on shadow, mind upon silence, comforted by the noise that the wind and the river offered back to us to assure ourselves that we were real. Real in the solid, abiding sense. Deep down, on the other side of the Colorado, I came upon rocks with words scratched in them, B. Andrews was here, 6/9/1963. I looked at the muddy, fast current, and thought about the hike back to the rim, unaware that one day I would write this blog article that would not last as long as the man's scratchings.

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