For whatever reason, I was not awed or overcome by the scale and natural beauty of the Grand Canyon upon first seeing it. Maybe I was too saturated by all the other wonders we’d encountered so quickly during the 3,000 mile journey that brought us to what is considered one of the preeminent wonders of the natural world. It could certainly have had something to do with the fact that Carly Rae had slept well at the hooghan the night before, and was joined by Lady Gaga during the drive to the South Rim. The pair even heckled us, or rather me, at intervals down the canyon footpath, and my hopes that the both had died on the journey back up were dashed after we recovered at the top. Alas, the power pop duo had only been conserving their breath.
I like pop music as much as anyone – alright that’s not true, but I’ve been known to sing along to Lady Gaga, Aqua, even Cascada at somewhat more appropriate times. Pardon my harsh critical judgment, but I hardly think any of today’s pop music is a fitting sound track for a backcountry hike into a place like the Grand Canyon, where to one willing to listen and look the power and beauty of nature is on display in nearly unparalleled scale in every direction. Mike and Johnny could have at least chosen a hard rock anthem. Death metal screaming would have been preferable.
But anyway, the quiet moments were great, particularly late at night when we made camp and early the next morning. The Grand Canyon is not something that can be grasped from a photo, or even from looking out at it in person. You don’t get it until you go in. We walked about four and a half miles to Indian Garden campground, a little less than two miles from Phantom Ranch beside the river at the very bottom. Even had we made it to the bottom, we would have traversed only a very narrow cross section of the winding 277 mile course cut through the Arizona highlands over millions of years chiefly by the Colorado River, among other forces.
The vertical one mile elevation change from rim to bottom combined with the presence and absence of water in so extreme an environment produces several distinct ecosystems throughout the canyon, each with their own average temperatures, flora and fauna. Even the rock layers distinctly change color and substance as a traveler winds his way down to the river. Ninety-seven percent of this massive park is managed as wilderness, preserving a rugged and lethal beauty that few ever really experience.
I slept under the stars on my inflatable sleeping pad, having swiftly abandoned my attempt to sleep directly on the hardpack at the campsite in a bid to have some kind of idiomatic empathy with the natives and cowboys who once farmed and watered at the aptly named Indian Garden oasis. It took a long time for darkness to fully fall, as the canyon walls block the setting sun’s direct light long before the invisible horizon obscures the last refracted rays reaching the canyon floor. Every so often in the evening a strong gust of wind would blow through the canyon for only a few seconds, kicking up clouds of fast-moving dust and bending tree limbs before receding as quickly as it arrived, leaving silence and stillness in its wake. The wind also left dried salt, dust and blood from an earlier nosebleed – a welcoming gift from the arid Southwestern climate – on my chest while my back sweated a small pond onto the perfectly unbreathable air mattress.
As the temperature gradually cooled to just below eighty degrees, I watched the stars slowly appear. The big dipper was perfectly framed between the eastern canyon wall and the gently rustling cottonwood tree reaching over my head before I drifted off to sleep. Awakening in the middle of the night, perhaps to another gust of wind, I found the big dipper had been swallowed up by armies of stars billowing across the night sky as though part of a mass of intergalactic clouds. I remember thinking I had no idea what this place was like. I had only scratched the surface of the substance of the vast cradle of life which for a single night was content to suffer my presence, and even to tease me in my drowsy delirium with a small taste of its secrets on display in the night sky.