Ravens seemed to be flying in slow motion everywhere I looked into the canyon’s red rock. To my eyes they were dancing with air, oblivious to shuttle buses, cigarette butts, old women holding ice cream cones while wearing fanny packs. Native American tradition calls Ravens the guardians of the Void, that space where Great Spirit gives the formless form. They are the carriers of magic.
I wanted to be oblivious and magic-filled too, instead I was annoyed, barely tolerating the Grand Canyon’s modest late September crowds that were still too much for an introvert like me. I found a crook of a rock, leaned against it, and listened to the intermittent moments of quiet between chatter and bus engine groans. I looked at the beauty right in front of my face letting my eyes land on as much of it as I could.
I noticed the redness of the rock first; then how the rock jutted out from every place; then the space in between, above, and around the rock. Massive clouds made shadows on the rock. A canyon is essentially empty and full of nothing. It is rock carved by water and erosion over millions of years to be open and wide. Now that’s what I call patience.
I drove North from Flagstaff, Arizona on a one-lane highway intersecting the Coconino National Forest. I was the only car on the road for most of the hourlong drive. When I arrived at the Canyon I waited in Lane 3 to pay the $25 vehicle entrance fee.
“I like your earrings,” the ranger said of the big blue circles my Aunt gave me. I parked in Yavapai Observation Station parking lot and scurried to see the big hole that draws 5 million people each year to this national park.
There were tourists with cameras spread out along the perimeter trails. They talked about how “unbelievable” the image before them was as they snapped family photos on digital cameras, talked on cell phones, and leaned into hiking sticks while staring at maps.
Beandrea’s journal of awe…
I felt cramped by the people everywhere with their cameras. Then I see this quote from nineteenth-century national park enthusiast Enos Mills. It is stenciled in white letters on glass just inside the entrance to Yavapai Station. “Given enough time, nothing is more changeable than rock.”
I walked to the shuttle stop to take me further into the park. I took out my brown bag lunch, a Tandoori chicken sandwich made from last night’s leftovers.
“I wish I had one of those,” said a balding White man with a pout to his lips as I bite into my sandwich. We met eyes for a moment. I didn’t say anything. He kept trudging forward in his white sneakers.
I heard a young couple speaking French next to me. When I the tall thin guy said the word grandeuse I smiled. They were from Chartres, home of the great French gothic cathedral, on a tour of the Great American West that started in Los Angeles. I sorta was too except I started in Oakland, and this was my one tourist site during three days of slow driving to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
On Bright Angel Trail, the most popular trail in the park, there was nowhere quiet enough to hear only the birds and the wind. I stepped off my high horse and joined the crowd, asking someone to take my picture. I looked and looked and looked until I could take nothing more in. Nothing is more changeable than rock. I had the feeling I was on holy ground. I walked lightly with quiet awe and reverence.
National Parks attempt to manage the wild and therefore contain a certain irony. These treasures of the natural world are thankfully preserved and protected from development. Yet when tourists populate them they attempt to consume The Wilderness while riding shuttle buses, talking on cell phones, and snapping pictures. We feel separate from nature, from things that are wild and unwieldy. I felt the sadness of that separateness: separate from Mother Nature and from our true nature as human beings, which is to be present, to be here with what is.
At the Grand Canyon I interacted directly with what was: craters in rock, clouds that felt close enough to touch, pine trees, vintage train cars from a long abandoned train line, people from South Carolina, India, and U.S. Indian reservations. I saw the restaurant workers smoking in back, the park rangers in green and tan uniforms, the couple from Kentucky drinking from Coke cans.
I walked flat perimeter paths, and steep inclines leading to the Colorado River, drank from water fountains, saw a grocery store with a sign that said “fried chicken,” and passed shops selling 16-ounce bottles of water for $1.50.
I was taught to fear the Earth and the uncontrollable forces of Nature. Walking around the Grand Canyon, I realized right now I really want to stay close to the ground, to touch dirt with my hands and feet, and let my senses be kissed by earth, air, water, and ether. I want to live close to the Earth, to become wild again.
Nothing is more changeable than rock. It may be that everything changes, the pouty face of the hungry man, the tourists taking pictures perched from rocks that look down thousands of feet into the canyon floor, me being agitated, aimless, and awestruck in the few hours I spent at this wildly beautiful place.
Copyright 2009. Beandrea Terese Davis. Please check with author before re-printing.