HAVE heard rumors of visitors who were disappointed, J. B.
Priestley once said of the Grand Canyon. The same people will
be disappointed at the Day of Judgment.
have to confess I was disappointed on my first visit to the canyon
more than a decade ago. One July, on our way to Los Angeles, my
family and I swung off the highway and made the 60-mile detour to
the South Rim, and found ourselves caught in a long traffic jam.
When we eventually managed to park, and walked to the rim, the scale
of the sight off the edge was so great it was hard to muster a response.
It was so vast, and so familiar from innumerable pictures, it might
just as well have been a picture. What impressed me most was the
Babel of languages audible among the files of visitors pouring off
the tour buses. It sounded like Times Square on a Saturday night,
with every continent represented in the hubbub.
this magnitude, scale is deceptive. Pedro de Castañeda, a
Spaniard on the Coronado expedition of 1540, whose members were
among the first Europeans ever to see the canyon, reported that
a group of them scrambled some way down, and found that boulders
theyd seen from the rim were not as theyd thought, the
height of a man, but taller than the great tower in Seville
(presumably the Giralda Tower, more than 300 feet high).
only stayed an hour or two. But before we left, from the rim I saw
a trail, pale as chalk, winding down a huge slope beneath a cliff.
Theres something about a trail seen from far away. That thread
snaking over the landscape where does it go, who uses it,
why does it seem so intimate with the land? And why does it arouse
such an intense longing to follow it? An unknown path seems almost
necessarily a metaphor. We like to conceive of life as a thread,
after all, a path crossing unexpected terrain on its journey to
another element. When the trail winds across empty desert, up and
down huge hillsides as in the Grand Canyon its
all the more insistently allegorical.
wasnt time to follow it, and I left with a nagging sense of
opportunity lost, and that pale thread of a path still pulling at
wasnt until last winter that I got to answer that pull. And
the first thing I learned is that for the Grand Canyon, winter is
the time to go. As the chief district ranger John Evans told me,
Youll more or less have the place to yourself.
Although the canyon is a desert, its a kind of oasis in winter
a place of peace, sequestered from the rest of the world.
In three days of hiking I saw only two or three mule trains, each
carrying baggage not riders, and maybe two dozen hikers in all.
is cool, and cool is good for hiking. To sweat actually uses energy.
Its true theres snow on the trails, and long-molded
tongues of ice pounded into enamel-like smoothness by the mules
that go up and down with supplies, but thats only on the highest
reaches. Drop 2,000 feet from the rim and youll most likely
be free of it. Sunlight becomes a blessing instead of a 120-degree
curse, when you step out of chill shade into some welcome warmth.
experience the canyon, you have to leave the rim. The frustration
aroused by the bigness, the grandness, on a rim-only visit becomes
a liberation once you drop down. The modern world falls away. Its
not just a trip out of the human realm, but into the deep geology
of the earth. Layer upon layer of the planets crust is revealed,
stratum by stratum: the Toroweap limestone, the Coconino sandstone,
the Redwall limestone, the Tonto Group; the Vishnu schist deep down,
close to two billion years old, nearly half the total age of the
planet the stuff that is under our very feet as we go about
our lives is laid bare here. And in the silence and stillness, in
the solitude of the canyon in winter, its all the more impressive.
Roosevelt said that all Americans should try to see it. He also
declared, We have gotten past the stage, my fellow-citizens,
when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as
something to be skinned. Alas, he had no idea what was coming.
But the Grand Canyon has not yet been skinned. Though not for want
I prepared to go, and talked to friends about the coming trip, I
was amazed how many people knew the inner canyon well. One acquaintance
told me that he had spent 300 nights below the rim, falling just
short of a lifetimes ambition of a full year. In a grocery
store in Santa Fe, where I live, I got talking with a Grand Canyon-crazy
runner who hikes from rim to rim in a single day several times a
year. A woman in a coffee shop line told me about the time a 10-pound
falling rock nearly knocked her off a trail. I began to get the
feeling the Grand Canyon is truly a national monument, analogous
to the Lake District in England in its centrality to the nations
psyche. Each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon, Carl
Sandburg said. Its something all Americans share, and can
take pride in.
was all very well, but the canyon is one mile deep, and the trail
itself about 10 miles long, and that translates to a very arduous
walk, especially for an 8-year-old. By some arcane family algebra,
it was Saul, our younger son, who was due a trip with me.
an impossibly smooth two-hour ride in the vintage coaches of the
Grand Canyon Railway from the town of Williams, Ariz., the nearest
major settlement south of the canyon, we checked in at Bright Angel
Lodge near the canyon rim, to reconfirm our bookings for Phantom
Ranch, down in the bottom. The woman behind the desk glanced at
my young son and said: I hope youre planning to leave
immediately, if not sooner.
was already 1 oclock, and most hikers set off in the morning.
heart dropped. Saul is strong, fit as an Olympic athlete, indomitable
as a Gaul, but still only 8. Was it crazy and cruel to ask him to
walk down then up a whole mile of elevation? What if having got
him down he hurt himself, or his feisty spirit gave out? And then
there was my own bipedal apparatus. What if my own legs failed me?
fear only amplified over the first spectacular mile of trail, where
we had to pick our way precariously over ice. But then we were out
on the spine of a ridge, the aptly nicknamed Ooh-Aah Point, that
dropped precipitately to either side, and the ice was all melted
away. Here, it wasnt so much about looking at a view as being
in the midst of one.
we were gazing around us, two condors came gliding right over, so
close we could hear the wind ruffling their feathers.
in the middle, I implored Saul, as he took to scampering along
the parapet of rocks. Kids apparently cant resist a parapet,
no matter the drop beyond it.
wouldnt want a creationist to misinterpret this, but I always
find geology more or less unbelievable. Were these hundreds of square
miles of limestone hundreds of feet deep truly made by trillions
of marine creatures dying? Could a river really carve out a gash
this deep? But before the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, in
a single day the Colorado River used to carry away 380,000 tons
or more of silt, enough to fill a train 25 miles long. Each day.
A river this size is indeed an efficient grinding tool.
us, sweeping brown plateaus bulge as if they were soft upholstery.
There are cliffs of blue, pink, orange, mauve, and deep purple bands
of rock the banners of God, as an early explorer said. True
enough, the stark minerality of the desert always seems to rouse
the inner mystic.
scientist John Strong Newberry, part of an 1857 expedition into
the canyon, said that nowhere on the earths surface,
so far as we know, are the secrets of its structure revealed as
here. After the cliffs of pale Coconino limestone, we descend
the Redwall limestone, into a deep tub of crimson stone. Finally
at Skeleton Point we catch the first glimpse of the river, thousands
of feet below us, announced by a distant roar. A vast sweep of shadow
is coming off the rim above, spreading over the Tonto plateau. We
plunge in and out of the shade on the switchbacks. So far, we have
seen just four people.
just after Tipoff Point, the path brings us to another dizzying
corner, overlooking an ancient rusty amphitheater of Tonto Group
rock one way, while to the other, the air drops away to another
sight of the Colorado River far, far below, clay-red, rippling,
bloated. One of the two suspension bridges down there is visible
too. It all looks like a telephoto shot, the unfamiliar vertical
distance baffling the eye.
4 p.m., when weve descended some 4,000 feet, deep in the echoing
inner canyon, amid runnels and gullies of deep shadow, beneath shoulders
of shale and scree, Saul gets a kind of oxygen narcosis, skipping
around, giggling, singing Blue-blue-blue-blue from Austin
Powers, while my left knee goes supersonic, screeching at
me to just please take one pace up instead of down. Enough with
the down. Then Saul discovers the echo deep in the billion-year-old
rock. Go away, echo! he shouts vainly, again and again.
new levels, new shears, shelves and tables to descend. Then all
of a sudden, there the bridge is again. This time, we can see its
individual railings, and as we approach, through a tunnel hewn straight
through the rock, the thick, deep air beside the rushing river is
like a balm. Whether its the late afternoon light, the fatigue,
the pain in my knee, or the relief of getting down, I find myself
wallowing in a wonderful endorphin bath. The world goes glassy.
The canyon cliffs and trapezoids and pinnacles of rock all become
resonant. I watch myself walk, as if the real me were a deep witness
to my life, rather than the one who apparently lives it.
here, with the enormous Colorado River beside us, encased in the
immense walls of the inner gorge, we pass the old settlement of
Anasazi Indians who lived here 1,000 years ago. They planted corn
and squash, and used nothing that didnt come from their immediate
surroundings. It occurs to me that today it takes a whole afternoon
on vertiginous trails to accomplish the reverse: to enter an environment
without human imports. This is surely the kind of immersion a hiker
seeks; this is why it feels like a pilgrimage to come here. Its
good to reflect that if America has a heart, this just might be
the time we reach Phantom Ranch, its own side canyon, Bright Angel
Creek, is deep in chilly shade. To reach the quiet huddle of stone
and timber cabins under their grove of silvery cottonwoods, the
trees tattered with old dry leaves, with a bunk waiting, and hot
showers in the bathhouse, and the creek plashing by relief
floods in. But even though weve descended to 2,000 feet above
sea level, its still freezing.
the ranch bell rings for dinner, some two dozen guests troop from
the cabins through the frigid dusk to the main lodge, where we quietly
feast on stew, corn bread and salad. Were from all over, all
walks of life: a student from Quebec, a trucker from Kentucky, a
fisherman from Alaska, a college student from New York, a woman
in insurance, from Pennsylvania. All these trappings of peoples
lives seem to fade in the context of this deep retreat from the
world. Were just people, making the pilgrimage from cradle
8 p.m. the dining room turns into a kind of mess hall. People sit
around playing cards, or Trivial Pursuit, drinking wine or beer,
and the counter opens for the sale of odds and ends. On a shelf
sits the box for river mail, where letters wait for rafters coming
is 2 a.m. when a cry pierces the peace in our cabin: I feel
sick, Daddy. No sooner have I sprung from my bunk to fetch
the trash bin than Saul is hunched over it, retching. By 6 he is
hot with fever. It has happened: stuck at the apex of a mile-high
inverse mountain in winter, with a sick child.
first light Bright Angel Creek is chalky, vague. Then distant bluffs
of red stone get picked out by the sun, and more and more bright
geometries emerge. While Im wondering what to do, rows of
Easter Islandesque monoliths along the top of a cliff turn bright,
and when the early sun strikes the high outcrops, I can see how
they got their Egyptian and Hindi names. They do indeed look like
sphinxes and Oriental temples.
8 a.m. I go to the lodge and ask if they have a thermometer. They
radio down to the nearby ranger station, and 10 minutes later Eston
Littleboy Jones, a tall ranger equipped with a holstered automatic
pistol and a Taser gun, tends to my son.
eyes light up at the sight of the guns. A quick checkup, and hes
bouncing back. By 10 hes once again climbing from bunk to
bunk, urging me to join in, and by 11 hes insisting we walk
the Overlook Trail mentioned by Eston, one and a half miles up to
an outcrop overhanging the creek, then the River Loop Trail. Apparently,
it was a swift-moving stomach bug.
legs are stiff as stilts. Its as if never having been near
a Stairmaster, I decided to spend all of yesterday on one. But homeopathically,
hiking seems to ease them.
one of the two suspension bridges we stare down at the river. It
looks like theyre fighting a war, Saul says of the white
waves. Fighting to get up the river. The frothing eddies
do seem to be struggling with the current. Two plumes of ripples
curve into one central stream like trails of smoke sucked into a
flue. The canyon walls create a constantly changing concertina effect
with volume. Theres a great bow of a pebble beach, except
the pebbles are the size of cars. Its a landscape from Lord
of the Rings, with a perilous cliff path to match. Any minute
our way will be blocked by an orc.
next day we make the climb back up the Bright Angel Trail. Like
the Kaibab Trail, this was also built for mules, having first been
a Native American trail to the creek at Indian Gardens, halfway
up. Mule trails are good for hikers. The beasts wont put up
with anything too steep. The trail makes its way up cliffs in endless
of flying buttresses, a soaring ships prow throwing a huge
flag of shadow across a cliff, a forbidding wall of masonry half
a mile above us: the views never stop coming. Way above, on the
whitish cliffs just under the rim, something is winking. Could it
be the windows of El Tovar, the old hotel where well be spending
the night? Along the climb at Devils Corkscrew, a chain of
little waterfalls has carved out smooth dark basins in the rock.
Again and again it strikes me how perfect the temperature is for
hiking. Through a grove of willow the brilliant stream flashes by,
that day we pass five hikers in all. Once again, its just
us and the canyon. And the circling condors high overhead.
the last two miles, stalactites of milky ice hang beside the trail.
Then solid gray snow is underfoot, like lacquer, impregnated with
dust, slowing us right down. As we stand still waiting to see if
we can catch the sound of wind in the feathers of a condor gliding
by, we hear from up above the deep gurgle of the first motorbike.
Three days away from carbon culture, the modern world seems like
we slump into El Tovar, the oldest Grand Canyon hotel, with its
fireplaces of stone blocks and masses of dark timber, a perfect
truth is, when I pulled briefly into the Grand Canyon years before,
I didnt even truly comprehend that it was a canyon. It was
such a vast landscape it seemed it might go on in pinnacles and
gulfs for hundreds of miles. But once youve been down into
it, you know what it is. You understand. At least a little. And
the mere thought of being disappointed by it? Im positively
looking forward to Judgment Day.
THE VIEWS NEVER STOP COMING
drove along Interstate 40 to Williams, Ariz., spent a night in the
Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, left the car there and then took the
Grand Canyon Railway (www.thetrain.com)
to the canyon in the morning. The train leaves Williams once a day
at 9:30 a.m.; the return train leaves at 3:30 p.m. daily. If that
schedule doesnt work for you, you can hire a taxi for the
return trip, at around $120. A round-trip ticket on the train begins
at $70 for an adult, $40 for a child.
National Park Services Web site (www.nps.gov/grca)
is very helpful in planning a visit, as is www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Tovar (888-297-2757; www.grandcanyonlodges.com)
is the most atmospheric hotel around. Built right on the rim out
of timber and stone and open since 1905, it shouldnt be missed,
provided the budget can stretch to it. A standard double room is
Ranch (888-297-2757; www.grandcanyonlodges.com)
is a magical collection of stone cabins and lodges built in the
bottom of the canyon, by Mary Colter. Dorm beds are about $42.
Grand Canyon Railway Hotel (233 North Grand Canyon Boulevard, Williams,
Ariz.; 800-843-8724; www.thetrain.com)
is not quite the atmospheric old railway edifice Id imagined,
but this is a comfortable, modern hotel. Doubles start at $169.
Angel Lodge (888-297-2757; www.grandcanyonlodges.com)
is another old timber warren, built in 1935 and still full of charm.
A standard room with bath is $90; a cabin on the canyon rim is $142.