“God said Time
Time belongs to me
Time’s my secret weapon
My final advantage”
Dan Bern, “God Said No”
December 12, 2007—2:45 a.m. – Indian Gardens campsite, Grand Canyon National Park — The night is perfectly still. Forced from my warm down sleeping bag by a bathroom call, I was initially disappointed that the earlier starry sky had been replaced by a cloud bank; but now I stand still and just enjoy the rare perfect silence.
Suddenly, a loud sound, like a tarp flapping in the wind, crescendos loudly through the canyon. It takes me a few seconds to recognize the sound and settle my nerves, once I am sure the rock fall is nowhere near our camp. But the slide was loud enough to wake my deep sleeping hiking partner, Mark.
“What was that?” comes a slightly concerned inquiry from Mark’s tent.
“That?” I contemplated. “That was the canyon at work.”
At work indeed. One grain of sand rushing down the Colorado river at a time; one sliver of rock exfoliated by a frozen, expanding water droplet; one rock fall at a time. Geologists tell us that at one time most of the western portion of the North American continent was at or below sea level, and the ancestral Colorado River meandered over a large plain. About 70 million years ago, a 130,000-square mile area of the southwestern United States called the Colorado Plateau was gradually squeezed up thousands of feet high as the Pacific continental plate crashed against and pushed under the North American plate, close to the modern day California coastline, sending powerful geologic reverberations eastward that thrust up the Rockies. The Grand Canyon began to appear as the sediment-laden Colorado and its tributaries, aided by rain, ice and gravity, worked to deepen and widen the canyon to it’s present depth and width. One grain of sand, one rock fall at a time; repeat as necessary over 5 or 6 million years, until you have a grand canyon.
But I cannot comprehend this. Not now; not after having descended to the bottom; not after exploring only one of the countless box canyons; not after watching the sunset and sunrise from the Tonto Plateau, where the beauty and immenseness of the canyon is on full display.
Maybe when I peered into the canyon for the first time four days ago, it made sense on some logical basis. The strata of rock, each a different color, each representing a different chapter in Earth’s history, conformed to the textbook geological theories. I snapped a picture and said that’s nice.
No, the canyon did not stop me in my tracks or take my breath away upon first inspection; certainly not like the first glimpse of the Yosemite Valley through the Wawona tunnel did. Perhaps my mind was still in the textbooks at that time and I saw only the explained; or perhaps I had seen enough pictures of this overphotographed but never fully captured place that the suspense was gone.
On first visiting the Grand Canyon, few visitors are immediately able to grasp and appreciate the scene spread before them. The forms are unfamiliar and the scale too outrageous. In some sense the spectacle simply does not register in the brain; the eye records but the mind look away. The geologist Clarence Dutton, writing in the late nineteenth century, called the Grand Canyon “a great innovation in modern ideas of scenery” and said that “its full appreciation is a special culture, requiring time, patience and long familiarity for its consummation.” I was glad not to be simply snapping a picture from the rim and moving on; I was hoping to soak in as much of this special culture as I could over the next few days, and perhaps come to a deeper appreciation.
Earlier today, standing at Plateau Point, in the middle of the Canyon, with the river 1,400 feet below me and the rim 3,800 feet above me, only then did I began to grasp what is so obvious but so misunderstood from the top— scale. No photograph can ever truly capture the Grand Canyon. A 288 mile long canyon, up to 18 miles across, in some places over a mile deep. A living, breathing wilderness and an intact ecosystem. A crash coarse in Earth history offering up evidence that is almost 2 billion years old. A testament to the timelessness of creation.
I struggle to comprehend the scale of time on display here, despite my first person glimpse into canyon carving tonight. How do you contemplate the significance of the patience that created this place? How do you contemplate the briefness of our time here? How do you contemplate a million years, let alone the almost 2 billion years of rock exposed at the bottom of this Earth history window? Timelessness, the secret weapon of the creator, indeed.
Time seemed to escape me in 2007. I took a promotion to a very demanding position, and most of my time was devoted to work. I almost lost sight of my vow to every year visit a spectacular place, to reclaim at least a little piece of my soul lost to duty. By October I had resigned that I would skip 2007.
Then the president of my company, a healthy, vibrant man of only 57 years, suddenly died. At his memorial service I realized how little time I might have, and remembered my vow. The next day I made permit requests to backpack the Grand Canyon, a place I have always wanted to experience.
I originally planned to visit solo; not my first choice, but better than not visiting at all. Then I found airfare at a steal, and decided to bring the whole family out after my backpack. And then Mark was able to wrangle a week away from his job duties to join me on the trip. Everything seemed to fall into place.
I didn’t realize at the time what a blessing it would be to visit the Grand in December. True, I knew the crowds at the most popular US national park would be absent. But it certainly didn’t seem like a blessing when traffic on I-17 outside Flagstaff slowed to a crawl in a snowstorm. I worried about what the weather would do to our trip.