Through a fortunate set of circumstances, I recently spent 10 days living at the south rim of Grand Canyon hiking, making art, writing and then, on the last two days, sitting on the jury panel for the park’s Artist in Residence program.
Though I feel I barely know the canyon, I am enthralled. Also, intimidated, curious and profoundly impressed. Each dawn, through my second-story bedroom window, the clouds, light and atmospheric conditions put on a different show at the rim. I could barely take my eyes off the place.
I discovered that I needed to walk. I walked down the Kaibab and Bright Angel trails. I walked to the store for groceries, and along the rim trail from Mather Point to Hermit’s Rest, stopping at Kolb studio every chance I got. On the last day, I walked to the river and back, an arduous 12-hour day hike.
At trailheads, the park service warns people not to do this. They rescue too many rubes who attempt it without preparation. But the weather that day was nearly perfect. We had plenty of water, nice snacks and good shoes. At the end of the day I was dead-tired, but felt like I’d accomplished something big.
In my 20s and 30s I didn’t do much adventuring. For kicks, I rode roller coasters at Disneyland. I dreamt of skydiving and epic, cross-country bike journeys, but I didn’t have that kind of courage.
Ten years ago I started running half-marathon races to raise money for cancer research.
And shortly thereafter, in a small way, I took up with river rafting. First, there was a ducky trip on the San Juan. Then we paddled through Desolation and Gray Canyons on the Green. Two years ago, I spent 21 days on the Colorado through Grand Canyon. On the San Juan trip, I fractured the top of my tibia, and since then have suffered numerous other humiliations. But I’m not dead yet.
The 21-day trip was grueling. Wikipedia defines gruel as “any watery or liquidy food—of unknown character—often eaten by peasantry.” I’ll admit that I was food captain on that trip, but in my defense, I didn’t get the assignment until two weeks before we launched. No one died of malnutrition, but they were overjoyed to see Derrick take over cooking duties after he joined the trip at Phantom.
If I caught tiny glimpses of the canyon’s magic on that trip, there were also too many missed opportunities, lost from slow starts and bad calls. I plan to someday redeem another ticket for the beauty cruise.
For years now, I’ve been trying to understand why so many of my friends express such fondness for a place that, at its core, extorts so much from living beings.
The answer came to me in this way: I put my watercolor set and notebook in my day pack, thinking that I would stop along the path and paint a bit. Foolish me. As I carried those paints around, their psychic weight grew to be like a hunk of schist. I began to develop a deep fear of trying to draw this enormous, complex, overwhelming place.
And then I understood why I couldn’t do it. It’s impossible for a mere mortal to see the whole of this place.
So with my paints and my pencil and a blank page in front of me, I concentrated on the micro view instead, realizing that Anne Lamott’s advice to begin with a one-inch picture frame would help narrow and simplify, and eventually, allow me to see the whole. I still failed miserably, but I could see how with practice this approach might work.
People who are intimate with the canyon have a sweet way of speaking about the plants and animals that grow there, and about the beauty and spectacle of the place. And I see now that’s how canyon aficionados manage to fall in love. Grand Canyon is so utterly, well, grand, that to grasp its meaning and breadth we have to break it down into its component parts: springs, plants, trees, birds, river, lizards, smells, mammals, air, limestone, schist, granite, insects, fossils, history, future, politics, ownership, sound. Then maybe we can begin to understand.