The Unimaginably Grand Canyon

Getting to the Grand Canyon was mostly a miserable time. I left Sedona late in the morning, turned onto the main road out of town and saw an ambulance and fire truck, lights and sirens blazing, cut just in front of me. Not thinking, I followed behind them, only to be stuck behind a line of cars a few feet ahead.

I waited and waited. People in front and behind me got out of their cars and paced up and down the single-lane road. I started re-reading the Grand Canyon section of my guidebook, sweaty and frustrated and wondering at what point I was better off simply postponing my trip.

A full hour later, traffic started to move. Traffic crawled through Sedona, sped up the switchbacks of the Oak Creek Canyon cliffs, and I had the highway all to myself on the way to Flagstaff. I drove past the towering San Francisco peaks, through alpine forests and wide open plains until I finally drove through the gates of Grand Canyon National Park. I was excited but apprehensive: as I was driving in, the partly cloudy sky turned a faint gray and overcast. The sun was faint, the colors dull and morose. It was also windy which was likely to make the canyon dusty and hazy. This would be a far from ideal day to take pictures, I thought.

The main part of the park is set up along roughly 5 miles of the South Rim of the Canyon. The primary viewing points are within this stretch with a few more scattered along a stretch on both the west and east sides. I drove around and to the left, catching a glimpse of the canyon in through the pines to my right. I was excited, nervous, wondering how exactly I should best plan my few hours there, where to get my first official look at it. I couldn’t decide, and I was starving, so I found a café on Market Plaza and a parking spot close by and walked in with my map, the free newspaper, and my guide. I pored through them, trying to understand the three free shuttle routes, the various viewpoints, where exactly I actually was. I decided to walk to the rim, walk west along the rim, take the shuttle as far west as it could go, coming back and driving further east to catch the viewpoints out of shuttle range.

I returned my tray, threw away my Saran-wrap. I walked to my car, changed into my shoes and grabbed my backpack and my camera and started walking towards the rim. Or so I thought. I actually ended up walking nearly a mile in the wrong direction, finally figuring it out and retracing my steps, finally reaching the rim nearly an hour later.

I was excited, even a bit anxious. I wondered whether it would meet my expectations, whether it would be as impressive as the pictures I’d seen. I hoped not to be disappointed, I started hedging my expectations.

And then the path led past the trees and towards a bench. And over the bench was the Grand Canyon.

It was gigantic, expansive, unending, so deep, so broad, so inconsistent. I just stood there as people walked around me. I tried to take pictures but they fell flat relative to what stood before me.

The Canyon grips you. It brings your heart to your throat as you shuffle closer to the edge and see the deepest cliff you’ve ever seen, no waves crashing below. The colors are stupefying, even on a hazy day. The deep reds of the sandstone walls near the top, the darker browns and blacks of the Inner Gorge, the muddy brown of the Colorado River with frosty white fluff showing rapids. The horizon and the distant stretches of the Canyon take on a blueish tinge while the scruffy pines perched precipitously along the sides and some plants along the outer canyons are a dark green. The jagged pyramid-like outcroppings throughout the canyon give it a sense of unpredictability, strength. Their varying shapes and sizes give the canyon a visual depth and definition that changes from angle to angle and from time to time. Shadows grow and deepen, rocks darken and redden.

The Canyon moves despite being static. Even the coursing Colorado is barely visible from the Rim. How many other places have as few moving parts yet change so much within a single day?

I decided immediately it was like nothing I’d ever seen but couldn’t get much beyond that. I couldn’t comprehend it. To say I felt small is a joke; I was irrelevant.

I kept on walking.

The Bright Angel Trailhead came up and people were excitedly returning from their trips down the trail. It hugged the cliffside in a series of switchbacks, visitors hugging the walls as they walked up or down. A group of older women cheered on a friend, almost back to the top after two recent hip replacements.

I got on the shuttle west to Hermit’s Crest. I got off at a couple of stops with Hopi Point by far the most spectacular, protruding into the Canyon with open views to the northwest, north, and northeast. The Colorado River formed an ‘S’ shape as it flowed, intersecting with a smaller stream at a point 6,000 feet below and a few miles in front of me and forming a frothy series of rapids.

By now it was cold and very windy. A tourist lost his hat. I had some apple cider at the Hermit’s Crest snack shop.

I took the shuttle back to Market Plaza and my car, racing the sunset. I thought I’d want to catch a picture of the east side of the park under the western fading sunlight but when I got to a viewing point, the clouds obscured too much of the sun. But I saw some vivid colors as the sun lit up the clouds in front of it so I raced back to Yavapai Point overlooking the western side of the canyon, arriving just in time to catch a beautiful sunset over the canyon.

The sun fell below the western walls of the canyon, lighting up the clouds before it in surreal yellows, pinks, oranges. The skies above the canyon held darker magentas and purples. To the east, a deep blue served as a background with an occasional maroon-purple cloud interrupting it.

People around me excitedly pointed, yelped, thrilled at the sight. Some sat on the rocks just above the canyon. I took a few pictures, I just stared silently at the extraordinary sight before me.

The sky melted into a series of deep blues and purples as the sun slipped away. The canyon finally stood still.

View my pictures here.

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