The Grand Canyon complex, seen in its entirety from the North Rim, looks as
though a roving band of gods poured a molten mountain range into a mold, and let the batholith cool. When they extracted the mountains and set them farther east, they left the empty mold upside-down. Litterbugs. Over the centuries, dust and water gathered in pockets inside, and life took hold.
That ancient mold sprawls before me. But behind me, the North Rim right around
the Fourth of July is a tight squeeze. There’s even a parade that for some reason erupts into running battles with water rifles between hospitality staff and children. It’s like being in a museum the day after Christmas: parents and the kids who own them descend from all over the world. And sometimes the tourists don’t meet my perfectly meetable standards of courtesy. It’s hard when the rules are different wherever you come from. Americans and Brits speak the same language, but can’t even manage to agree on the same word for a ‘line,’ which they call a ‘queue,’ much less on how or whether to form one. And kids will be kids. They don’t travel in straight lines, and they’re not exactly little Buddhas when they’re six or seven.
A six-year-old soaks me in the crotch with a high-pressure squirt gun. I feel called to show him the Eight Fold Path, over the cliff at Point Imperial. This carnival doesn’t present the essential conditions for solitude. Shame on me for going to one of the busiest tourist attractions on Gaia during the height of the summer festival. I stumble off into the peace of the Ponderosa in search of a solemn silence.
Canyons take a long time to make and they take a long time to carry out many of their ideas. Like God, geology is old and slow. People, on the other hand, can teach me one hell of a lesson in a hurry. I believe that’s in part because they are more exact mirrors of me than are natural settings, at least at first glance. And who teaches me most? Maybe it’s the people who get underneath my serenity. You know, the loud, obnoxious picture takers who whittle down my viewing angle of eternity here at the rim; the guy with the California plates who tailgates me like he’s still on an L.A. freeway even though he’s on two-lane blacktop surrounded by pristine national forest; the tourist who graces a Lower Granite Gorge trail with hundreds of bits of Styrofoam packing material (which never degrades).
I have the most opportunity to learn from these people because they actually remind me of someone I’d really not care to remember—namely, myself. And learning of this sort, the insightful kind that involves me getting in touch with my emotional bumps and bruises and my spiritual blindness, isn’t as much learning new lessons as it is being reminded of things I already know somewhere inside. I’ve heard it said that we more frequently need to be reminded than we need to be taught.
Far removed from the water wars back at North Rim Lodge, I cover some ground in sun-spotted ravines carpeted with duff below the wide-spaces of the Ponderosa groves. Without letting me know ahead of time, Widforss Point sneaks up on me at the end of Widforss Forest Trail. I find a capstone jammed at the head of a chimney crack and settle in for a breezy morning of contemplation.
I make it back to the lodge in time for lunch. Dozens, hundreds of people sit on the terraces in chairs or stand in front of the giant picture window inside the lodge, the biggest one I’ve ever seen, squeegeed so squeaky clean sometimes I wonder whether there’s glass there at all. Tourists from all over the world snap pictures while others gawk from their tables in the restaurant next door. All we do is gaze at this glorious, abyssal monstrosity. The same story repeats across the wider South Rim access at a dozen overlooks. It’s a spectacle of a spectacle. We are old, young, mothers and their daughters’ daughters, Japanese, German, mystic and atheist. The Grand Canyon doesn’t belong to America. It really belongs to the world, which we hold in trust for the millions of pilgrims.
All we want is to snatch a little snapshot of infinity. So we fly in planes, and when we’re done flying we drive all this way down two-lane roads and go through all that planning and damn cash. It’s amazing what a big old hole in the ground can do for people’s insides. In a way, we’re all worshipping. John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer of these lands, aptly christened many of the natural towers standing in the Canyon ‘temples’ and ‘thrones.’ But these bipeds leaning against the railings, so tiny against the endlessness of the gorge, wouldn’t be able to sample its awe unless awe was within them also. They couldn’t recognize that which was outside of them unless it was inside somewhere felt. And in my tiny life, that goes as much for the crabbiness in the roadside waitress as it does for the majesty of the deepest gorge. If only we knew that all we were doing was staring at the lining of our souls, turned inside-out. I wonder if I’ll be able to remember that the next time that man I assume is from L.A. steals my space in the parking lot at Desert View?
© 2014 by Michael C. Just