Against my life-long New Year’s tradition of staying home, a cocktail of whimsy and persuasion pushed me to begin 2018 by road tripping across country with my partner. Over the course of about eleven days, riddled with countless to-go burgers and GPS frustrations, we decided to make the most of the American Southwest by traveling to Grand Canyon National Park.
And I can say, unexpectedly, that I left Tusayan, Arizona a changed person.
The phrase road trip to Grand Canyon oozes the quintessential American family experience. That specific National Park is more or less a staple in American’s minds for road-side attractions– or it was for me, at least, up until the time I arrived. Grand Canyon was, to me, about as Americana as apple pie, Mount Rushmore and coastal beach vacations; all of which I regarded as accessible and not particularly extraordinary. Grand Canyon was the type of pull-off location you could applaud momentarily– marvel, even– but ultimately put in your back pocket on the way back home.
My perspective changed immediately upon parking at the Visitor’s Center.
“Where the hell is this thing,” my fiancé grumbled, the two of us maneuvering around crowds of international tourists. The area surrounding the Visitor’s Center was paved into wide walkways, all surprisingly surrounded by considerably thick forestation. The posted maps were no help to two impatient idiots; we had been naivagating back highways through New Mexico and Arizona for eight hours, anything without an obvious arrow was just a nuisance.
“I guess just take a left up here,” I offered. At this point, the air between us was pregnant with anticipation– jitters comparable to arriving a few miles outside of your favorite amusement park. But as the walkways narrowed into trail and the trees thinned into an obvious clearing, excitement flattened into the most raw sense of awe I had ever experienced.
The sun was setting on Mather Point, illuminating the canyon in brilliant shades of blue and orange. As I watched groups of families and tourists congregate for perfect photos, I found myself speechless– breathless, even.
How does one even begin to describe the vastness of Grand Canyon? Moments ago, I was in the comfort of a Ford passenger seat. Now I stand at the mouth of the world’s largest inverted mountain, quite literally on the brink of death. It’s the kind of view that makes you want to drop to your knees and praise the entity responsible for carving out such an intricate masterpiece.
Over a weekend of exploring the better part of the South Rim, my disbelief continued. Each turn and lookout more beautiful than the next; its depth and breadth never ceasing my fascination. Several brochures at the Visitor’s Center promised how inspiring the Canyon would be, but I never expected to feel so compelled.
Mind you, this is coming from a girl with more outdoor allergies than fingers and toes. I am by no means an outdoorswoman– not by a long shot. Hiking and way-finding have never been my calling; adventure is not in my nature. These things considered, my trip to Grand Canyon instilled an immense appreciation for our natural world.
How was it that I was living my life in Southwest Virginia completely oblivious to this magnificent piece of geography? Why is it that I, and everyone else I know, are not discussing Grand Canyon’s immensity every single day? Entering Grand Canyon National Park was like coming face-to-face with legend. Surely everyone in America is aware of the Canyon, but it takes ones attendance to actually believe in it. I experienced an appreciation that redefined my very understanding of the word: a gratitude that was soaked in peace, shock and blessing.
A fourth element to this appreciation was fear. While a smile hardly left my face last weekend, I had unprecedented chest pain peering hundreds of feet below the rim. The feeling of standing foot-lengths from certain death was unshakeable. Though my trip was full of wonderment and fun, I never felt totally safe.
Yet the more I thought about it, why would I?
Safety is one of my most valued conditions in life. We as people count mindlessly on human constructions of safety: locks, seat-belts, fences and guard rails. Even beyond simple precautions, I am able to rest my head at night assuming my house won’t slide off its foundation or spontaneously combust. In the world I have created for myself, I am safe. The same cannot be said at Grand Canyon.
My proclivity for cheerful morbidity led me to a book in the Bright Angel Lodge gift shop, Over the Edge: Death at Grand Canyon. The piece is about as delightfully obvious as its title, chronicling every recorded death at the Canyon, including drownings in the Colorado River, dehydration during hiking and– most likely its big-ticket item– stumbles from the rim. The authors, Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, posed a question in their text that summed up my realization:
“Are such seemingly foolish deaths truly due to having grown up in a culture so paranoiacally obsessed with paving the natural world that we can no longer cope with any terrain that has not been laser-leveled?”
This rhetorical question hit me with a sobering reality. Never before had I considered the absolute strength of nature– capable of taking my life with one misstep. When I looked around, I saw tourists performing Jackass-grade stunts; climbing over guard rails for photos and perching on unstable boulders for a better look. The more I grappled with it, the more I understood my very being there was a test against this natural wonder. That was the first time I considered, completely, that there are some places humans are not entitled to enjoy.
During our last evening at the Park, we took a load off at a bar in Grand Canyon Village. Not ready to admit it, I was trembling from anxiety and needed a break from the elevation– and I was ready for a snack. We ordered a meal and settled into the better half of the NFL game on TV. In brief, we let time get away from us, meaning the sun had long set before we decided to leave for the evening.
We waited and waited in the pitch dark for the last of the shuttle buses to retrieve us. Those 20 minutes were infuriating, as I feared we would have to walk however many miles to our vehicle. After some unhelpful whining on my part, the bus finally came and returned us to the Visitor’s Center. Thank God. I sighed in relief. We made it.
Not quite. The roads and parking lots at Grand Canyon National Park have no street lighting, thus we used iPhone flashlights to navigate the truck three empty parking lots away. Yes, I was the last person out of Grand Canyon on Saturday, how was your weekend?
I had to laugh when we finally seated ourselves in the vehicle. “That has to be the dumbest thing we’ve ever done,” I said, shaking my head. Even though I checked over my shoulder repeatedly in that short walk, I was pleased to find that the National Park Service stays true to keeping establishment to a minimum. What I expected to be hammed up stop with road signs and commercialization was a barren, 50 mile one-way drive into a respectful preservation of something truly incredible.
Perhaps it was that very quiet esteem that stuck with me in leaving Grand Canyon. People arrive from all over the globe to simply behold this perplexing, mystifying formation. We do not control it and we certainly cannot predict it. The danger of tripping, slipping or falling victim to its boundary-less terrain is a caveat of enjoying that which belongs to no one.
Wrapping my mind around that idea has almost taken me the full journey home. The beauty of Grand Canyon is indescribable with words and unattainable with snapshot photography. I left Grand Canyon feeling like I had just discovered a blissful secret; giddy with the notion I was let in on this hidden reality. This simple road trip quickly flipped into a spiritual, introspective experience; one that made me question how often I had overlooked similar treasures. What else could I be missing in plain view?
Not too bad of questions to pose, all coming from one big hole in the ground.