The first time I saw Grand Canyon was August 1990. I came west with my mother and brother for vacation before 9th grade began. Though taking the mule ride to the bottom I would’ve enjoyed, at 13 I was 210 pounds. The weight limit was 200. Not being able to ride diminished my Canyon appreciation, as did my older brother’s constant reminding me of being a lard ass in the first place.
Additionally, the enormous vistas I did see didn’t blow me away. Grand Canyon was incomprehensible to my young mind. I didn’t know the distances I was looking at. It bored me. I was far more excited about going to Disneyland for the second half of our great western vacation.
But a seed was planted.
Twenty-five years later, in August of 2015, I drove to Arizona from a lovely place called Cotulla, Texas, which is about 90 miles south of San Antonio in the Eagle Ford oil patch. This time Grand Canyon did blow me away, and it’s hard to put that feeling to words. People have been literally trying to this for centuries. Old words like “awe” and “sublime” are certainly pertinent.
So is “joy.” Truly, pure joy flowed through my body while walking towards Mather Point on a sunny Monday the 17th almost seven years ago. My eyes were fixated on the Canyon’s east wall twenty miles away. To see something so vast and different than any other landscape you’ve ever seen before fires the body with good emotions because the whole scene is sensory overload. Your mind can’t interpret all the shapes and colors your eyes see. It’s a form of beauty all the world comes to see.
Later that day I was looking west from Powell Point. Most of the sky was blue with some monsoonal clouds. Shadows drifted across the pastel-colored walls. Looking westward the meandering canyon become an indeterminable haze of rock and shadow. The white, tan, orange, red and chocolate colors of its stratified walls faded to gray. Rising above that distant rim was Mt. Trumbull, though, at the time it was just some silhouette in the middle of a landscape that seemed unknowable and endless. My heart swelled again with the prospect of abandoning the conventional state of life embodied in the American East for the free spirit of the unconventional West. (Sedona was doing this too.)
A week later I drove back to Cotulla knowing it was only a matter of time before I moved to Arizona to become a guide. I figured that would be in a couple of years. It was only a couple of months. The allure made the muddy, rusting, sulfur-smelling metal of an oil pad intolerable. By the beginning of January 2016 I was done. Towards the end of that same month I was staying at a freezing campsite just outside Sedona looking for work and a place to live. Three days later both came my way. It felt meant to be.
I chose Sedona because it just felt right. Yet, my mind always raced north to where the pines meet the abyss. Without going too much into too many details, by summer of 2017, I started doing tours to Grand Canyon from Sedona. That summer was thrilling. So far away I was from South Texas. So different my life had become. So wonderful was my office.
The excitement felt by my guests as I approached Grand Canyon was often my excitement. Guiding was an opportunity to share knowledge and passion over one of the most stupendous places on earth, and get paid for it. Frankly, the money was often just as good as the oil fields. Life felt deeply rewarding.
For the moment, I’m no longer doing those tours (though I’m quite grateful to have done them, and think often of doing them again). Regardless, even though I’ve been to Grand Canyon’s South Rim hundreds of times, it still excites me. It still can blow me away. And, after thinking about why it does (perhaps too much), I’d say, overwhelming, it’s the Canyon’s enormity or vastness.
Grand Canyon is literally the biggest canyon on earth. Some canyons are longer. Some are wider. Some are deeper. But NONE are wider, deeper and longer. In mathematical terms, the volume of the space below the rim – its width x depth x height – is greater than any canyon on Earth. The “Grandest” Canyon may be its most appropriate name, but that sounds cheesy.
Standing at the edge of a precipice whose elevation is 7,500′, and looking down into an abyss whose bottom is 5000′ below you, and seeing the other side 8 miles away, and seeing these parameters continue eastward and westward for undiscernable distances into far horizons is just cool. Inside the canyon are enormous rock formations that would command attention on their own were they distributed amid the less grand landscapes of the bewildering Colorado Plateau. Buttes, mesas, amphitheaters, spires, precipices and surreal formations that can’t be categorized add a pleasant and colorful contortion to the Canyon’s innards which help the eye discern its enormity, which, on its own, still can’t.
When the first white-skinned men saw the Grand Canyon – Spaniards who were a part of the Francisco Coronado expedition of 1540 – they thought the river at the bottom was a 1/10 its actual width. They thought a lone spire, somewhere below them, was a mere ten feet high. However, after climbing down for a whole day, and getting only 1/3 down, they realized that spire was taller than the great tower at Seville. They realized the mistake of their senses, and turned back to the Hopi lands.
The Canyon’s enormity is always deceptive to newcomers.
Recently I was sitting at the very lowest point you can access below the Desert View Tower. I was waiting for sunset light to peek between cumulus clouds so golden-hues could jump out from between the shadows on chocolate walls towards the bottom. I thought about those Spaniards’ perceptions. Yes, a novice makes their mistakes because they’re imposing the scale of previously seen landscapes onto this one.
A trained eye can see fully-grown junipers at the Rim turn into dots that look like mere splotches of dirt at the bottom. A trained eye can follow the path of the Redwall Limestone or Coconino Sandstone from far way, where they look like 60′ vertical walls, to right below where you stand, and see those vertical walls are 600′ high. A trained eye picks of up on many details before him and compares them to their versions far away.
However, the above descriptions are of what’s inside the Canyon. There’s also what’s beyond its walls, and I say there’s no better place to add to its enormity than at Desert View. Here, beyond the Canyon’s east wall, one can see the Echo and Vermillion Cliffs inching their way through the vast Painted Desert with Navajo Mountain rising in the far horizon 115 miles away. Point Imperial on the North Rim also affords such a dazzling view, but from a ledge 1500′ higher than Desert View! You can almost see Lake Powell from Imperial!
Then add storms of summer, with cumulus clouds billowing to altitudes of 50,000 feet, and dark gray walls of fierce rain below them, and light of far-away rocks where it’s not raining shimmering through that dark gray, and, wow.
You never know what you’re going to get at Grand Canyon from one day to the next. That’s why I still loving coming here, in spite of already having spent thousands of hours along the South Rim. Its personality changes all the time. From sunset to sunrise – from minute to minute even – every varying path of the sun, especially with clouds, changes the light and shadows of the rocks because of their contours. In one minute, five miles of wall is in colorless shadow. The next it’s a bright, bright rainbow. Then a real rainbow floats ethereally above.
Granted, on cloudless days this dynamic range of vision is diminished. All Creation is bright colors and dark shadows that are highly contrasting. However, the opposite is why I’m so excited to see the Canyon during monsoon season. The light is softer. Shadows and light blend easier. The variability of composition is wondrous. Frankly, these storms make summer the best time to see the Canyon.
That’s why I’m here now. Merely to gaze at it now is worthwhile. However, to pace back and forth for hours, taking scores of photos as the shadows move, and feeling a rush of good emotion as a photo’s composition seems perfect, well, that buzz is why I love photography. I wouldn’t love it if it didn’t feel good.
Then add the cooler temperatures at 7000′ and 8000′ top escape summer heat in Arizona, and Grand Canyon is one of the more perfect places on planet earth in July and August.
Perfect… except for the fact that the villainous federals have imposed mask wearing inside buildings now because the CDC says Coconino County’s Covid cases are high, even though no place outside the national park is forcing masking…
Well, the Navajo Nation is still too… but that’s for another time…
Anyways… here are some photos from only my Samsung because putting Nikon photos on the internet from a campsite is cumbersome…