The Canyon Grand
Although I’m now just outside teeny-tiny Mormon Lake Village, AZ, I wanted to show you my last full day in Tusayan. This post represents the first part of it. Possibly due to controlled burning in the park, there was a haze in the air. And I’m told that sunrise and sunset are when the colors really jump out. These are mid-day snaps, with haze. But that’s okay, because there’s just nothing that can capture the sense of space and scale of even this one little part of the Grand Canyon anyway.
These shots are from two roadside stops along the highway that goes along the South Rim. I found it to be an amazing thing to simply pull over, get out, walk a hundred feet, and be at a ledge. Here, there are no railings, no warning signs, and no cautionary tape on the ground. I’ve heard the assertion that we fear such ledges because there is something in us that wants to fling ourselves out there. My response to that claim calls for a shovel and a wheelbarrow. What I see, at least at this location, is the effect of experiencing something so unfathomable, and of being able to stand as close to the edge of it as one dares – and look a mile downward. At its core, it is the effect of being overwhelmed by perceiving something greater than ourselves and, for a moment, of becoming fully aware that life really is not just finite, but is a fleeting mortality.
We each filter and interpret the world around us in order to make sense of it in a way that we can each deal with. It gives us some semblance of control over today, and of what will probably come tomorrow. There is certainly merit and reward from exploring and expanding one’s personal limitations, yet even the people who crave spontaneity and unpredictability do so within their own filter set and understanding of the boundaries of reality. What even they can envision has limits. Just as the timid can be sprung upon and devoured by the lion of reality, so the adventurous can be strangled and devoured by the python of it. We tend to filter out what we cannot deal with, what upsets our sense of order, or what we fear most. We let in what we consider to be safe and controllable for us, even if that means wrestling bears.
The Grand Canyon challenges one’s filters, so to speak. I saw the effect of this on a young man, one of three others with him who appeared to be visitors from the Middle East. They were all standing fairly near the canyon’s rim as I pulled up to park, and one turned away from the edge and stepped with that aura of having had one’s clock reset. He had had to step down to get there, and had now forgotten that. Nikon DSLR camera in hand, he stumbled and fell forward clumsily, as if in slow motion, his arm impacting a rock. It took him a few moments even to collect himself and check for a scrape on his skin and then potential damage to the camera.
Another man at my second stop was standing next to me on a sidewalk, and had been gazing at the vista from over a low rock wall. His wife called to him, and he wheeled awkwardly around, his hanging Nikon dragging slowly over the rough top of the wall. These two similar episodes, each occurring within minutes of each other, impressed upon me two significant things. The first thing was that I should never buy a used Nikon DSLR. The second was that a sufficiently powerful exposure to a reality that evades our prearranged filters can affect us in several ways, one of which is to momentarily rob us of normal physical care while we try to process what we are experiencing. It can make us clumsy, which is why pressing close to the cliff can become hazardous. The ones who sense this direct injection of what normally would be filtered out, also sense the possible physical impact, and fearfully shrink away from the edge as a precaution. It’s a mind-bender, alright.
Can one become so used to such things that the fear of losing one’s footing and falling is lost? Sure! Just look at the 1930’s photos of construction workers who built New York’s towering skyscrapers. Legs hanging off of narrow girders, they open their lunch boxes to dine as if on a Sunday picnic. Other daredevils of that era stand on the tops of flagpoles, or balance on chairs perched along their horizontal shafts. And witness today the images of intrepid hikers who post photos of themselves bravely standing on craggy edges of rock, on which one slip would mean a long plunge downward. The latter’s vision of “look at me, I’m living life to its fullest” is the intended interpretation, but it’s just another view of what gives life its meaning, and represents another set of filters, none of which are overridden by the immediate surroundings. The scene below him/her does not punch through anything, and there is no disabling of competency. Any fall will be just an accidental misstep or imbalance, free of any induced, stunned clumsiness. That doesn’t seem to me to be much of a consolation on the way down, given the same end result.
At this second viewing stop I was at was a young girl, perhaps 8 or 9, and her parents. The stone wall was about 2-1/2 feet thick, and she stepped up on it to prance about, not bothering to take in her surroundings at all. Fortunately, the wall was built 20 feet or more from the rim edge, so a fall to the far side would have meant little more than a waist-high drop and a roll or two down a slight slope. I took a breath at turning my head and discovering her so unconcerned about her own safety, and her parents got her back down. A few minutes later though, she was back up and wheeling around, her parents next to her. It impressed me that she was simply trying to alleviate her boredom. As far as she was concerned, there was nothing notable for her here. It was just another tourist stop to endure, and she was biding her time until it could be over and they could get on to the next stop, maybe with something more interesting.
I consider that it’s pretty early in the game for children to have filters that help them make sense of the world, at least those children who have been successfully protected from dire hardship. With little autonomy, little responsibility or commitment, and no need to engage the world any deeper than the sub-universe of sometimes-annoying playmates and school with its demands, not much really registers from the “adult world” and its foreign mysteries. Not that growing up is easy – far from it. Heck, I didn’t realize I was going to need to seriously put a framework of understanding up until after my first product design career job interview, when the owner simply asked, “So, tell me, why should I hire you for this position? What makes you stand out over all the others coming in here today?” I adeptly realized then that the entire operating mindset of what it took to succeed in the corridors of education had practically no correlation to how the “real world” (at least within our culture) operates. Completing assignments, however competently, does not mean that you will be eating on a regular basis from that point forward. Education matters, and developing the sense of responsibility to complete it matters, but it is only the scholastic world that cares about GPAs and credentials, no one else. All they want is for you to convince them of what you can do for them, in return for the expense of wages.
But, back to the Grand Canyon, I can hardly expect the vista just feet away to impress mortality and meaning upon that self-absorbed young child. I suspect that, given the chance, she could dance perilously close to the rim’s edge. And yet, another child might be apprehensive if even placed on the wall. My amateur philosopher’s cap pretty much falls off at this point. All I know is what I saw.
Speaking of the realization of mortality (or lack of it), this day’s tour would not be complete without a joyful romp through the Pioneer Cemetery, one of the very few cemeteries in the National Park system. But, that waits for another post.
Thanks for another great post Doug! You’ve convinced me to definitely stop by the Grand Canyon once my van travels are underway.
Thank you, Ross. Although I hear the Summer lines at the entrance gates can get long, once you’re in, both the Market Plaza and Visitor Center provide access to the South Rim, as does the highway going through the park. It’s just a pleasant place even without the spectacular vista, and at least in May, the ordeal factor is practically zero. Well worth a stop!
I’m new to reading our blog this week, but had to leave a comment on today’s post if for no other reason than your line about never buying a used camera. Enjoyed the observations, photos and philosophy yet among all that your zinger had me truly laughing out loud.
Last year, I got in more than 6 months of vandwelling, mostly in Montana. This year family situations are delaying my travels, but I will once again visit the Canyon (it has been years since my last visit). Thanks for your excellent blog.
Carla, I’m humbled, and appreciate your taking the time to flatter/comment! I hope to tour or explore in Montana someday, since it is quite unique. There’s something almost magical in its allure, but I’m not sure why. It’s as if there’s something there waiting for discovery. I need to stop driving through a chunk of it, and experience it.
Several “older” campgrounds in MT now receive no services so they are free. They still have tables and firerings — just no trash pickup or water. Usually not too bad of a drive to get into. And some cities have free camping in their parks, like Columbus has Itch-Ka-Peh (spelling?) that asks for donations only. It has 2 sections right on the Yellowstone River. If I had my druthers, I’d be up there in June myself. If you have an area you’d like free camping info on, let me know. I lived in MT for the 90s and it is still my favorite state.
Thanks very much, Carla. Once I get in a position to tour Montana slowly, I’ll try to email you and pester you for recommendations.
That will be fine, Doug! I’m going to be going through my notes for specifics anyway, because Bob Wells is looking for suggestions on Montana for his summer route, too. Bob’s blog and book got me into van-dwelling so I’m excited to have some suggestions for both of you.
I had a really hard time going back to my meaningless in the scheme of things paper-pushing job after seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Realizing that I had just come on the scene in what seemed like “seconds” ago compared to the time distance to the bottom of the canyon and in a few more “seconds” I would be gone and shortly after that nobody would even know I had been pushing those papers. Kind of puts a life in perspective.
Good point, JudyMae. For me, such vistas or even just the views around my trailer today make life more significant and appreciated, even through they underscore its limited span. They are humbling, and point out what a privilege life is. They also point out to me the difference between spending that fleeting time feeling like a cog in a wheel, and getting a chance to use one’s innate strengths or abilities to do something which ultimately benefits people or their worlds in some way. If, as we “go the way of all the earth” as Scripture puts it, our departure creates a small hole or vacuum of beneficial effect that cannot be quickly filled by those that follow, that’s a life well-lived. Quite distinctly different from success or influence, that can be done equally well by an infant as well as the aged. I guess our consequence is not so much what we accomplish or do (like pushing papers), as who we are – what we leave in our wake.