"In the past the Grand Canyon invited reflection on human insignificance, but today much of the public sees it though a cultural lens shaped by advanced technology. The characteristic questions about the canyon reported by National Parks Service employees assume that human beings dug the Canyon or that they could improve it so that it might be viewed quickly and easily.

Rangers reported repeated queries for directions to the road, the elevator, the train, the bus or the trolley to the bottom. Other visitors request that the Canyon be lighted at night. Many assume that the canyon was produced either by one of the New Deal dam building programs or by the Indians.

"What tools did they use?" is a common question.

Source: Visions of Technology (NY : Simon & Schuster, 1999) p357.

The movie is described on the box at Blockbuster as "Big Chill for the 90's," but I rented it despite that hokey comparison. In some ways it's true. While the successful white urban middle class adults sat around during most of The Big Chill reflecting on their pasts with variable safety, the people in Grand Canyon mired in the violence and fear of their present, but the effect was the same. We all stand to learn a lot from just paying attention to the things going on right around us.

Helicopters. They pass over in a lot of scenes throughout the movie, letting us know as well as the characters that while we may be able to improve the quality of our lives in spaces, we are never fully safe from the world's woes and threats to our happiness, and while that fact may be disconcerting, it is almost just as comforting.

Loving people means being very, very vulnerable. There are costs. The mother hovering over her little girl on the floor of her home during a drive by shooting cries with an open gaping mouth. It's not supposed to be a pretty scene, her mouth wide, framed with tears. The secretary who's in love with her married boss, driving around the city, crying at her unrequited love only to be victim to some runaway nut who breaks her car window at a stoplight. Her hair is frizzy and her face unwashed, for a reason. The wife who finds an abandoned child and dresses it in her teenage son's old baby clothes, sunning the infant by the pool of her upscale home: she was meant to have nightmares about losing that baby, about losing the right to love it when no one would. I realized, in all these scenes, how alone I think I want to be just so I could avoid being this vulnerable. But I'm not. I never was.

Yes, the world is fucked up. And we don't make contact like this enough. We seldom reach past the point of common kindness and really get mixed up in each other's lives. We so easily trade being human for human comfort. I do it. So do you. Sometimes, we need to be reminded, and so we are, in ways as trite as these.

The movie takes advantage of my TV's poor color quality. It washes out the outdated clothing, hairstyles, and cars. It reminds me that Los Angeles in 1991 was not that long ago. We'd like to think we're moving forward because we are in some ways. But in others, we're centuries old. We're a breath on the face of a timeless attraction site. And yet, we mean the world.

Located in the Northwest corner of Arizona, USA, the Grand Canyon is a really big canyon. It was formed over the last 17 million years, as the Colorado River flowed across the Colorado Plateau; it currently averages 4,000 feet (1220 m) deep, with a maximum depth of 6,000 feet (1830 m), and is about fifteen miles (24 km) across at its widest point. It is 277 miles (446 km) long, following the river.

The Grand Canyon begins at Lees Ferry and ends at Grand Wash Cliffs, although this present course is relatively new, only about five million years old*. It is contained almost completely in Grand Canyon National Park, although the Hualapai Reservation borders a long stretch of the South-West Rim.

Over four million people visit the Grand Canyon every year; 90% of these visit the South Rim of the canyon. Needless to say, it is often overcrowded, particularly in the summer months. The North Rim is both less crowded and less touristy, although it is also harder to get to (it is the 'other side' from both Flaggstaff and Grand Canyon Airport). The South Rim is also preferred because it is only 7,000 ft. in elevation, while the North Rim is about 8,000, and often has heavy snowfall in the winter months.

Humans have lived in and around the Grand Canyon for about 3,000 to 4,000 years. The earliest settlers we know of were the Desert Archaic people. We don't know a lot about them, but they did leave their pictographs and small twig representations of animals. Around 1,000 BCE the Desert Archaic people were replaced by (or became) the Anasazi, who gave up the hunter-gatherer way of life for a society based on agriculture. This trend was continued through the Pueblo Indians, who built larger and more permanent villages. Their adobe houses can still be found in some areas of the Grand Canyon. **

In 1540, Spaniards from Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's expedition headed into the North American Southwest, searching for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola; the expedition discovered the Grand Canyon, but no riches, and returned to Mexico City a complete failure.

The next expedition to explore the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas was the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776, in which the Spanish Franciscan missionaries Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Father Francisco Dominguez set out from Santa Fe in hopes of finding their way to California. They didn't reach California, but they did cross over the Grand Canyon, mapping the area and giving their names to a number of the surrounding locations.

In 1869 Major John Wesley Powell led the first successful expedition down the length of the Grand Canyon by boating down the Colorado River. Aside from his army career, he was interested in botany, zoology, geology, and cultural anthropology. Powell had theorized that the river had existed before the canyon, and had formed the canyon as the Colorado Plateau slowly rose up; testing this theory was a large part of his motivation for this expedition. Three months later, he finally completed his trip, convinced that his theory was correct (it almost certainly was).

By the 1880s, areas near the Grand Canyon were being developed by livestock companies. In 1893 the Grand Canyon was set aside as a forest reserve. In 1901 the first Santa Fe passenger train arrived at the South Rim. The tourism trade slowly started to take off. The Grand Canyon became a national monument in 1908, and on February 26, 1919, it was designated as the seventeenth national park. (To put this in perspective, Arizona became a state in 1912).

There are a couple of dams near the canyon, although none actually in it. Glen Canyon Dam (1963) is 15 miles (24 km) upstream of Lees Ferry, creating Lake Powell. At the other end of the canyon is Hoover Dam (1936), forming Lake Mead; Lake Mead will sometimes flood part of the lower regions of the canyon. In 1969 President Lyndon B. Johnson created Marble Canyon National Monument, blocking further attempts to place dams in the Grand Canyon.

My old 1992 guide book reports that the entrance fee to Grand Canyon National Park is $10.00 per vehicle, regardless of the number of passengers; $4.00 if you come by public transportation (bus, taxi, or train). If you plan on staying in the park (or anywhere nearby, I suppose), you should make reservations as far in advance as you can; during the summer months, the Grand Canyon hotels may be booked solid six months in advance.

This information may be out of date.

* There is some debate over what exactly its older course was, and why it changed. All theories I have seen agree that the Western part of the canyon is either new, or spent a few million years dry, while the Eastern part has seen constant use for the entire life span of the canyon.

** I'd like to give more detail, but I don't have any information on the specific groups that lived in the Grand Canyon. The cultures named here (Desert Archaic, Anasazi, Pueblo), are general names for cultural trends that covered large areas (multiple states). You can read more about them in the appropriate nodes.

We drove the old familiar road and my wife said, "When we were kids we used to ride our bikes to that ice cream stand. I used to love those vanilla cones dipped in chocolate."

"You still do," I said. "And when I was a kid I rode my bike to that hardware store for nails to build forts. I remember we built a two story deal out of scraps in the back wood where they tossed all the construction cast offs."

"Two stories? You were lucky you didn't kill yourselves."

"Not only for that," I said.

From the padded plastic car seat in the back my 2-year old daughter said, "When I was a lion I used to eat birds and mice."

"Were they tasty?" I said. A quick glance in the rear view mirror. She was straining to see past the sides of the car seat and out the side window. A small group of crows ascended from the bank's front lawn.

"But I don't eat them now," she said.

"How about mice?"

"But maybe I can have a mouse."

"For dinner?"

"No, silly. To live in the mouse house."

My wife said, "When I was a tiger I used to eat chickens."

Tiny mental wheels calculated. The child said, "Mommy, you not a tiger. You're mommy."

I said, "Daddy's a lion."

"No, Daddy. You a bird."

"But don't the lions eat the birds?"

"But you don't need scared, Daddy. Yesterday I a lion. Today I Michelle."

And then twenty two years went by.

Last week I stood with my toes on the edge of the Bright Angel limestone, looking down past the Redwall to the Vishnu Schist. From the south rim tourist area there's only one place you can get a glimpse of the mighty Colorado that carved the Grand Canyon and I was not at that place. But if I could get some height, fly out over the abyss, perhaps then I could see it.

"I first saw this twenty five years ago," I said, trying to remember how it felt to fall through miles of open air and then catch myself as if my toes touched the rug at my bedside.


"It was like I'd never been born. I felt so small."

The blond haired girl joined me at the edge of the precipice.

She said, "And then what?"

I thought about flying. Adding the gyrations of up and down to my usual two dimensional motation, and how this version me of doesn't well tolerate amusement park spins and drops. When I was younger, I craved it.

"Am I remembering a dream?"

"Are you?"

"I'd lived in the suburbs of big cities my whole life. So many different places that are all the same. The farthest you can see at any one time was either to the next stop light or upward to the moon. When I got here, I thought I'd reached heaven. It's an epiphany in rock. One of those indescribable visions you have in a dream that dissolves to nothing when you turn on the bedroom light. I remember standing here thinking angels were speaking to me. I think they are."

She searched me with her eyes and I wondered if my emotions were visible. Maybe she could decode them. Explain them to me the way a doctor tells you which pains are benign, and which require chemotherapy.

But she said, "Ok. So you saw the great outdoors for the first time and it opened your eyes to something new."

"Maybe that's all it was." A lump of something firm and sad rose in my throat and I swallowed it down. Keep it down.

"What's wrong?"

In my mind I repeated, "It was something else," but none of the words made it to my lips.

Instead, my eyes welled with tears and I took her hand and led her from the brink of the most beautiful descent on earth, back to the rental car.

The canyon is different every second of every day. As the hour hand arcs, sunlight swings through crevasses and over wide plains simultaneously revealing what had been in shadow and hiding what had been baked under the oppressive heat of full day. Rocks turn from golden, to orange, to red, to brown.

Distances are deceptive. A small head-sized chunk of granite a few feet away turns out to be a house-sized boulder a mile distant. The green thread of river seen from the rim becomes a seething monster at the shore, replete with man eating standing waves and rapids that pulverize human contrivances with an ease that borders on thermonuclear. This is the water that ate through the earth. This is the power of Shiva, there to remind you that the dispassionate destruction of solid rock yields a silent gargantuan beauty.

Every death is a birth.

Twenty two years ago I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a few other engineer friends from RCA in New Jersey. We took the South Kaibab trail to the Phantom Ranch. It's a steeper yet shorter route than the Bright Angel. As the trailhead is not close to the tourist centers, it's less traveled. Though unlike the Bright Angel trail where running water is available every 1.5 miles, there is no available water on the Kaibab. So one must carry his own - enough to assure safe arrival at the bottom. This quantity amounts to about a gallon for the downward journey, provided one leaves before daybreak and walks in the colder part of the day.

We took our trip on July 4th weekend. Temperatures at the rim were in the 90's Fahrenheit, and at the bottom they would be closer to 120F.

I had been anticipating the trip for the year it took to plan. After my first look at the canyon some two years prior I had been yearning to get back the way Roy Neery needed to meet the aliens at devil's tower. I dreamed of the canyon. I read books. I reviewed the photos I had taken over and over.

And then I was there at the banks of the Colorado at the Phantom Ranch. It was 118F in the shade.

That didn't stop me from filling up my canteens and walking up the North Kaibab trail so I could say to myself I'd been closer to the North Rim than anyone else on our trek.

I remember sleeping fitfully in a bunkhouse with 7 other hikers. Being roused at 4AM by the rangers, fed a pancake breakfast at 5, and being shooed off on our way back up to the south rim before the July temperatures turned us into a death statistic in the Park's Department register.

My friend Mel and I made it from the Phantom Ranch to the south rim tourist centers by 10AM. We were young and full of energy. We pulled away from the rest of our team early on, and walked most of the journey with only each other as company.

The whole time I was certain there was someone walking with us. I could hear footsteps behind me.

Later in life I read the story of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance, and how when crossing South Georgia island he felt there was a fourth member of the team hiking along side them.

With perfect historical hindsight we can develop the explanation that by the time Shackleton and his men reached South Georgia he was starved, sleep deprived, dehydrated, and probably close to death, and that in that state a man can hardly be blamed for hallucination.

But I was none of those things.

And I am not now. And the companion is with me, next to me as I write.

We are born and we die many times in one life. Each death teases us, lures us into the complacency of stasis. It's far easier just simply not to try than to endure the trials. Each death suggests silence. Calm. Remain and all is well.

Each birth, an elevator door opening on a room we've never seen, home nowhere in sight.

At each juncture, the opportunity to speak.

At each of those times the angels pause, listening, awaiting our guidance. They can't live down here. They can't even breathe. They watch us they way we absorb television pixels.

-What made you decide?

-What will you do next?

-We can't believe you got this far. Look at what happened.

-How does it feel?

The Grand Canyon is sacred ground to the Yavapai, Havasupai, and the Hopi.

Far from the tourist trails there is a cave. In the cave is a Kiva. At the center of the Kiva is the Sipapu, a hole in the ground that descends beyond the center of the world to the beginning of all creation. It is the channel life took to Earth's surface. It is the origin of all of us, all time, all things.

I know it is here. Standing on the white shale at the rim it vibrates the stones under my feet and sends a pure note through on the wind. The camera laden tourists push past and every now and then one will pause and ask another, "What was that? Did you hear that?"

I was like that, once.

"Are you okay?" said the blonde haired girl.

And I could hear her the way someone lost hears the the rescuer's calls echo off the stone.

It's been a lifetime since my last descent of the Grand Canyon. My lifetime. Now in climbing it steals my breath. It tears at my heart and legs. The thought crossed my mind on the ascent once, maybe twice - I won't make it.

Now at the rim after seven hours climb she asks, "Are you okay? What's wrong?"

The Canyon is immutable. Though it changes constantly, I would recognize its brink through the darkest night and deepest snows. But I am no longer the young man who ascended from the Ranch in five hours. That one is dead and this scarred and imperfect replica has risen in his place.

I can put my feet in the same places I did those years ago and stare out over the gulf to the shattered rock knowing that the Canyon is measured in millions of lifetimes since the first being emerged from its depths. But likely, only one lifetime from now I shall not stand again in this holy place.

"What's hurting?"

And because we live poetic lives, an osprey swooped down from behind us and soared into the abyss. We watched as it became a silhouette became a dot became nothing against Shiva's temple.

I said, "When I was a bird I killed small animals and taunted the lions."

But no one needs fear me now.

Today I am just a man.

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