Fearsome Grand Canyon

The shape of the land changes slowly as you drive from the Pacific Ocean into the American West. In coastal California you have to go east to be in the West. And I drove inland from San Diego past the snowy San Gabriel Mountains in the eastern reaches of the LA megalopolis to the Mojave Desert with its low, jagged peaks and scrub-covered mesas dotted with swirling dust devils. After that, I reached the high-country of the Colorado Plateau.

Piñon trees grew on a landscape of red soil until we entered a pine forest where coyotes, lions and elk lived at an elevation of about 7,000 feet. I’d been here before, so I knew that soon the ground would open up and become the Grand Canyon, with its shades of red and grey and its constantly changing shadows. Pictures and poetry are nice, but you have to be in the awesome presence of the thing to really understand it.

The Grand Canyon Village is on the south rim, and it’s a series of lodges and restaurants with a small power plant and a post office. There, you hear tourists speaking German, Japanese or with British accents and you see lots of people carrying heavy backpacks who are sunburned from hiking.

I’d never been here with my children before, and walking along the rim of the canyon makes you imagine them disappearing into it. I saw a man with two kids who yelled at them as they walked down the heavily used Bright Angel Path, “If you fall off this path you will die! I mean it… you WILL DIE!!”

A minute later his kids started running down the trail and the guy lost it. This was followed by an ugly scene of him dragging his son back up the trail as the boy screamed. I thought this dad was a jerk, but maybe heights and cliffs do that to you.

I thought about those Roadrunner cartoons when the Wiley Coyote would fail to catch his prey and accidentally fall over a cliff. We’d then see him get smaller and smaller as he approached the ground accompanied by a descending glissando that ended with the thud of his body finally hitting the desert floor.

When you approach the rim of the Grand Canyon and peer into the abyss your imagination overpowers you. You feel yourself falling in, and the reality that you’re not really in much danger doesn’t seem to matter. I’d rather walk into the canyon than linger at the top.

During my last trip to the Grand Canyon I heard some folklore that said the majority of people who fell to their deaths at the canyon did it while they were pissing off the edge of the rim. I doubt that’s true, but the story’s message is clear: The person who falls off the edge is typically an idiot. It’s the guy who walks up to a terrifying precipice, unzips his pants and shouts to his friends, “Hey guys… watch me piss off the edge!” It’s satisfying to think that people who died at the Grand Canyon somehow deserved it.

And then there’s the story of the incautious hiker. A sign near one of the paths tells of the woman who was a marathon runner, who decided to go all the way to the bottom of the canyon, carrying just two bottles of water and an energy bar. She died of dehydration.

The film version of the actor Spalding Gray’s one-man show has Spalding telling the story of a crusty British mariner who once said to him, “Spalding! Never play with the ocean! If you play IN the ocean, she can be a lady. But if you play WITH the ocean, she is a bitch!!”

People do play with the rugged, unforgiving landscape of the American West. They try to jog down the Grand Canyon in summer and they try to climb Half Dome at Yosemite without knowing what they’re doing, thinking somebody is bound to rescue me if I get stuck. They do perform rescues at the Grand Canyon. But if they rescue you, you get a bill for services rendered.

One of these days I will hike the bottom (with plenty of water I hope) but this time I stayed near the rim and the lodge, where my son and daughter liked the gift shop better than the view. My wife liked the rooms connected to the Bright Angel Lodge because they were historic and… well, just nice. Double-hung windows with sash cords, right on the south rim, and only $82 a night for a double bed, a sink and a toilet. The National Park Service concession held by Xanterra must force them to charge less than market rates.

See you at the Grand Canyon one of these days.

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