On the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, across gravel roads 39 miles from Jacob Lake, I arrive at Parissawampitts Point, a vista point just west of the National Park. The forecast calls for rain over several days. The rim cools down, devoid of people in its early October mien near the NPS closing point of the 15th, where it will slumber beneath a blanket of snow until March.
It rains that first sunset. The sun drops down behind clouds and a rain that falls in a blue net over the western sky, filtering the sharp disk of the sun. Behind this semi-translucent double-wall of mist and cloud, I watch the sun directly, as if in eclipse.
Purple storms to the south. Rain clouds capture and reflect back the hues of the drowned sun in bands of violet and brandy, rust and crimson, blue and gray. I watch the face of the sun dip below the Uinkaret Mountains.
The clouds darken to dirtier reds, the soft saddles of the western Canyon turn gray and ill-defined. A still serviceberry dotted by cool rains grows out of a cleft along the rim. Ponderosa stand in trackless rim forests behind me.
The Rainbow Rim Trail wanders east from Parrisawampitts Point, the westernmost rim outlook accessed by the Forest Service roads which service the trail. The trail, made for bicycles as well as bipeds, is mainly a forest path, at least as far east as the 8 ½ miles to Locust Point. The flat stretches of the trail shrouded in mixed pine/aspen forest reminded me of the North Woods of Wisconsin. Groves of towering ponderosa, blackened by fire, dispel that impression. The dead trees have been cut down, giving the remaining forests the airy feel of a redwood grove.
At other points, the trail traverses the cuts and drainages that funnel down from the Kaibab Plateau, and the rim lends itself to a mountain landscape. When brush oak grows into the size of trees and fiery autumn aspen carpet a particularly deep ravine, the rim seems like an Eastern broadleaf forest, or like something out of a fairy tale. At these points, the North Rim is an arboreal wetland with water-hogging species like maidenhair ferns, mountain mahogany, and apple red maples hugging the deep, forested swales and drainages.
I’m tempted to cut across the ravines that parallel the side canyons, but I’m reminded that no one ever gets lost staying on the path. The path knows best.
Sunlight wound through the branches of the forest along with a breeze that carried the sweet smell of duff. Beyond the tangle of limbs that represented the front echelon of the rim forests, the sky cleared of bark. That meant no more trees. It meant no more land. It meant that I’d reached the shore of a great ocean, one of air instead of water.
I decided to take in a wide view at a shady spot under a juniper. Its wandering limbs twisted in diminishing corkscrews from limb to branch to twig, repeating in fractal patterns, swirling like long hair underwater.
Out in the canyon, monolithic formations – chain mesas – floated in midair, cloaked in deep forest. The ghost-like silhouettes of the San Francisco Peaks barely made themselves known southeast, and the Uinkaret Mountains, low and soft, loomed west. These far apart mountain ranges remind me that surrounding this center of the Earth called Grand Canyon, a not-so-distant volcanic past intrudes, portending a possible future.
Eventually, I reach Locust Point. Locusts, camouflaged in their limestone patina, kick-start themselves down the trail to avoid my giant footfalls. It’s their Point, afte rall. This lookout probably has the most panoramic view of all the panoramicest points in the canyon, North or South. I can see the White Cliffs far northwest in Utah, spy over to the lava fields way north of Mount Trumbull, and pan all the way to Mount Humphrey near Flagstaff.
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The next day, strong southern winds bring together two converging thunderheads with tops wiped like swabs at the height of the jet stream. Farther down toward their bases, the storms collide head-on with the North Rim. I slip on my rain jacket. Three storm clouds with the same edge mushroom before my eyes as they barrel my way. I rush on my rain pants. The storm complex, a mirror of the Canyon complex, descends like a landing ship, washing out the central peaks of the Uinkaret Range.
Hard rains in the distance obscure the South Rim in sections, occasional cloudbursts for an unslaked land towed by autumn into winter. I find a section of rim trail denuded of trees except for the shelter of a sprawling juniper. It’s marked by a double-trunk stump, and so I name it Double Trunk Stump Overlook. I wait out the storm. You’re not supposed to stand underneath trees, but it’s better than standing underneath lightning.
I’ve a confession: I’ve been reading questionable things again, things destined to pollute my mind and send me off on middle-aged angst: Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism, a heady tome which does not compromise. Worse for me than porn. I come out here and I read this junk, and it calls one to self-abnegation and self-mortification in lieu of self-gratification, dirty words all. I feel I can never measure up to its mores.
I read a few paragraphs, highlight a few lines in yellow, maybe write a few lines of landscape description in my soon-to-be soggy notebook about the Uinkarets, which I’ve spelt as many different ways in my notebook as I’ve had occasion to write the name.
Several air miles below, the Inner Gorge trends due west in a zigzag of dramatic cuts as the schist scarp meanders along the rim of the Esplanade. The wrinkled relief of the inner canyon is most striking at sunrise or sunset, when shadows crawl out of their keeps within the crevices. The benches above the Inner Gorge stretch wide and form the undulating plains of the Tonto Platform below the South Rim and the Esplanade below the North Rim. Those flats make a wide arc southwest, paralleled by escarpments skirted in talus which all snake toward the Vulcan forms at Toroweap. Lightning flashes from the storm’s underside. Faint booms mark its distance.
From the Rainbow Rim Trail, I can see the inner canyon on its straight course the same way you can see the Colorado for a long, unbending stretch from Toroweap farther west. Lightning spits out into the defile. Painted dark now by the storm, the Gorge is marked by jagged teeth that mesh on either side of the unseen river. It seems as if a massive fault opens up before my eyes to swallow all made things.
To escape the rain, I go back to my camper and indulge in some unmystical vice: sugary treats of great evil, casting a small dark night over the soul. Then the clouds clear, and I return to my double trunk stump for some healing, and some digestion.
In the western Canyon, dirty sunbreaks that reflect my dishwater soul wander north and south in pyramidal shapes over the benches and platforms, alternating with deluges of distant cobalt rain that wash out the vision of Mount Trumbull, highest of the Uinkarets. Sun shafts crisscross rain sheets at 20 degree angles like swords glancing in battle. One rain sheet slant-drills the horizon at a deeper inflection.
The Inner Gorge fills with mist and light. Far off kettles saturate with silvering rain, and storm water baths the gleaming bare stone of the canyon. The sun drops below the belly of the storm and laps in a pewter cast all the parallel ridges and hogbacks and headlands of the side canyons, which stack to the horizon. Sunset and the rain brush every formation with soft edges. Shafts spear through the mists. A golden, windless song. The Canyon itself dissolves into the light, as the world melts into soul.
I glance back east over my shoulder. Back-framed by a storm-darkened sky, a rainbow in its wholeness arcs from horizon to horizon above the rim forests. In moments, as the sun sinks behind yet more storm clouds edging up over the rim, the blued Inner Gorge clarifies from silver fog as the sun showers fly off in molten sparks. The Rainbow Rim Trail lives up to its name.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just