Grand Canyons as Holy Sites, Promised Lands

I had wanted to see it for years. I was willing to put up with tourists in long R.V.’s and visitor’s-center postcards that glow in the dark. I was willing to mill and peer with my fellow Americans in a national park that would, I knew, force my once-proud bohemian feet onto guided paths, which provide only the regulation glimpse that a Joanna-come-lately 20th-century woman is allowed. I knew that when I was actually there I would feel less like a soaring eagle than a chicken in a crate. Nevertheless, I wanted to see the Grand Canyon, with a desire so intense I thought perhaps I had confused the wonders of geology with the promises of religion. What could this be?

Why, when the only bison the West can boast of live in zoos or on ranches, when the only Native Americans sell trinkets made in Hong Kong, when cactus is for sale in little pots at the airport, did I I had wanted to see it for years. I was willing to put up with tourists in long R.V.’s and visitor’s-center postcards that glow in the dark. I was willing to mill and peer with my fellow Americans in a national park that would, I knew, force my once-proud bohemian feet onto guided paths, which provide only the regulation glimpse that a Joanna-come-lately 20th-century woman is allowed. I knew that when I was actually there I would feel less like a soaring eagle than a chicken in a crate. Nevertheless, I wanted to see the Grand Canyon, with a desire so intense I thought perhaps I had confused the wonders of geology with the promises of religion. What could this be?

Why, when the only bison the West can boast of live in zoos or on ranches, when the only Native Americans sell trinkets made in Hong Kong, when cactus is for sale in little pots at the airport, did I feel the need to see the canyon? If it’s canyons I’m after, for $1.50 I could ride the subway to Wall Street, or I could stick my head out the window of my friend’s 32nd-floor apartment and, as long as I pleased, let my stomach drop to my toes. If it’s rocks or rivers I searched for, I could look at the Palisades and think big.

But I needed something you can’t find in New York. Something that would dwarf my petty soul, plagued by its worry over once-found, now-lost pieces of paper for the tax accountant, and overwhelm my dreary self-consciousness with a heavy dose of eternity. I thought the crashing of the Pacific tectonic plate into the Continental plate, and the uprising of lava and the erosion of sandstone and lime through the silent passage of millions of years along a 278-mile route in the middle of nowhere, the confrontation with the late, middle and early Proterozoic era with the Triassic, Cambrian and Paleozoic eras, would place certain questions about whether or not to trust my dentist, and implant my life savings into my mouth, into perspective.

After all, a geologic event spanning most of the last 2 billion years, nearly half of the life span of this planet, is nothing to sneeze at. Two great packages of sedimentary and volcanic rocks make up most of the canyon’s walls. I know this because I bought a geology text outside the park, despite my mate’s complaint that it was too expensive and vastly over my untutored head. We had driven north from Tempe, where I had been on the talk circuit. We drove hours through Phoenix and Flagstaff, and Sedonia, with its great, red, rocky eruptions that looked like melting castles, abandoned shrines, holy remnants of someone’s grandeur, all whetting my appetite for the Hole-in-the-Ground itself.

We had driven in a fog on endless winding roads, past saguaro cactus the size of Michael Jordan and ponderosa pines standing guard at the road’s edge. As we climbed upward, it began to snow. We drove carefully and slowly for hours and hours, without snow tires or chains. It was cold outside and my light summer jacket did not serve. My thin sneakers became soaking wet when we stopped to stretch. But what kind of pilgrimage would it be without trial? What kind of pilgrim would not feel that the spirit should be tested along the route? It was dark when we arrived at the lodge where we had reservations. Tomorrow we would see the canyon. The bed was narrow, the light bulb was dim. I read for as long as I could, memorizing the names of the rocks. I learned about John Wesley Powell, who in 1869 had led a party of 10 men, of whom six survived, on a boat trip a thousand miles through rapids along the Colorado River to the mouth of the Virgin River at today’s Lake Mead.

In the foggy morning, snow was falling. The sky was gray. We couldn’t see six feet ahead. We couldn’t see three feet ahead. The roads around the canyon’s rim were closed because of dangerous conditions. Directly outside the lodge was a vista. Leaning over the edge of the drop, I saw a single rock an arm’s length away. All else was mist. All else was lost. They told us the weather conditions would remain the same for days, a week or more.

We had to return to New York. We had plane tickets, we had obligations. I never saw the Grand Canyon. But before I returned, I did see the Imax film about it that runs every hour at the theater right outside the park. The film was a fine piece of work except for a few silly actors pretending to be aboriginals hunting each other in the cliffs. But I could have seen the film at the Sony on West 68th Street. I could have ordered the video from the National Geographic . I could have stayed home. An authentic experience I did not have. Billboards all along the Arizona Highway call out in giant letters, “Impeach Clinton.” Are they lobbying a God in need of glasses?

I returned to La Guardia Airport just as I had left it, no larger of soul, no nearer my God to Thee, no clearer on my place in the grand scheme of things, no more peaceful of heart, no better able to understand the erosion of time and why it will one day take my body and make of my bones mere fossils, markers on the geologic line.

So I am rethinking my urge to see the canyon. Perhaps I would have been disappointed. I might have ridden on a mule down from the rim and up again and still have missed the vibrations of the earth and space and time. After all, I’m a city girl. Man-made is my medium. I do believe that the human mind is far more impressive than any pile of rocks, no matter how eaten away they may be by running water.

This may be sour grapes, but what could be more beautiful than the smile of the Pakistani who sells me my newspaper on 101st Street and Broadway? What’s more glorious than a flock of strollers parked in front of Starbucks, and what do I admire more than my EZ Pass that whisks me through the Triborough Bridge or my Metrocard that flings me onto the No. 3 train? I’ve decided that no more wonderful park exists than Central Park. There are ducks in the reservoir. There are dangerous perverts in the bushes (our urban rattlesnakes). There are souvenir vendors everywhere. Underneath the streets, underneath the subways, there must be geologic layers of note, and I can imagine them just fine.

In my mind, I had overprepared for the event, and that leads to inevitable disappointment. On the way home from the airport, I told my bumptious heart to calm itself. Nature, the call of the wild, is only one form of revelation. The inner journey, too, provides plenty of excitement-swamps, pitfalls, dreams, buried history and all.

I should know by now that no one ever really gets to the promised land. If we did, we’d find out that the brochures have vastly exaggerated, that the mosquitoes rule and holy sites are found as often by yellow taxi as by donkey.

feel the need to see the canyon? If it’s canyons I’m after, for $1.50 I could ride the subway to Wall Street, or I could stick my head out the window of my friend’s 32nd-floor apartment and, as long as I pleased, let my stomach drop to my toes. If it’s rocks or rivers I searched for, I could look at the Palisades and think big.

But I needed something you can’t find in New York. Something that would dwarf my petty soul, plagued by its worry over once-found, now-lost pieces of paper for the tax accountant, and overwhelm my dreary self-consciousness with a heavy dose of eternity. I thought the crashing of the Pacific tectonic plate into the Continental plate, and the uprising of lava and the erosion of sandstone and lime through the silent passage of millions of years along a 278-mile route in the middle of nowhere, the confrontation with the late, middle and early Proterozoic era with the Triassic, Cambrian and Paleozoic eras, would place certain questions about whether or not to trust my dentist, and implant my life savings into my mouth, into perspective.

After all, a geologic event spanning most of the last 2 billion years, nearly half of the life span of this planet, is nothing to sneeze at. Two great packages of sedimentary and volcanic rocks make up most of the canyon’s walls. I know this because I bought a geology text outside the park, despite my mate’s complaint that it was too expensive and vastly over my untutored head. We had driven north from Tempe, where I had been on the talk circuit. We drove hours through Phoenix and Flagstaff, and Sedonia, with its great, red, rocky eruptions that looked like melting castles, abandoned shrines, holy remnants of someone’s grandeur, all whetting my appetite for the Hole-in-the-Ground itself.

We had driven in a fog on endless winding roads, past saguaro cactus the size of Michael Jordan and ponderosa pines standing guard at the road’s edge. As we climbed upward, it began to snow. We drove carefully and slowly for hours and hours, without snow tires or chains. It was cold outside and my light summer jacket did not serve. My thin sneakers became soaking wet when we stopped to stretch. But what kind of pilgrimage would it be without trial? What kind of pilgrim would not feel that the spirit should be tested along the route? It was dark when we arrived at the lodge where we had reservations. Tomorrow we would see the canyon. The bed was narrow, the light bulb was dim. I read for as long as I could, memorizing the names of the rocks. I learned about John Wesley Powell, who in 1869 had led a party of 10 men, of whom six survived, on a boat trip a thousand miles through rapids along the Colorado River to the mouth of the Virgin River at today’s Lake Mead.

In the foggy morning, snow was falling. The sky was gray. We couldn’t see six feet ahead. We couldn’t see three feet ahead. The roads around the canyon’s rim were closed because of dangerous conditions. Directly outside the lodge was a vista. Leaning over the edge of the drop, I saw a single rock an arm’s length away. All else was mist. All else was lost. They told us the weather conditions would remain the same for days, a week or more.

We had to return to New York. We had plane tickets, we had obligations. I never saw the Grand Canyon. But before I returned, I did see the Imax film about it that runs every hour at the theater right outside the park. The film was a fine piece of work except for a few silly actors pretending to be aboriginals hunting each other in the cliffs. But I could have seen the film at the Sony on West 68th Street. I could have ordered the video from the National Geographic . I could have stayed home. An authentic experience I did not have. Billboards all along the Arizona Highway call out in giant letters, “Impeach Clinton.” Are they lobbying a God in need of glasses?

I returned to La Guardia Airport just as I had left it, no larger of soul, no nearer my God to Thee, no clearer on my place in the grand scheme of things, no more peaceful of heart, no better able to understand the erosion of time and why it will one day take my body and make of my bones mere fossils, markers on the geologic line.

So I am rethinking my urge to see the canyon. Perhaps I would have been disappointed. I might have ridden on a mule down from the rim and up again and still have missed the vibrations of the earth and space and time. After all, I’m a city girl. Man-made is my medium. I do believe that the human mind is far more impressive than any pile of rocks, no matter how eaten away they may be by running water.

This may be sour grapes, but what could be more beautiful than the smile of the Pakistani who sells me my newspaper on 101st Street and Broadway? What’s more glorious than a flock of strollers parked in front of Starbucks, and what do I admire more than my EZ Pass that whisks me through the Triborough Bridge or my Metrocard that flings me onto the No. 3 train? I’ve decided that no more wonderful park exists than Central Park. There are ducks in the reservoir. There are dangerous perverts in the bushes (our urban rattlesnakes). There are souvenir vendors everywhere. Underneath the streets, underneath the subways, there must be geologic layers of note, and I can imagine them just fine.

In my mind, I had overprepared for the event, and that leads to inevitable disappointment. On the way home from the airport, I told my bumptious heart to calm itself. Nature, the call of the wild, is only one form of revelation. The inner journey, too, provides plenty of excitement-swamps, pitfalls, dreams, buried history and all.

I should know by now that no one ever really gets to the promised land. If we did, we’d find out that the brochures have vastly exaggerated, that the mosquitoes rule and holy sites are found as often by yellow taxi as by donkey.

Grand Canyons as Holy Sites, Promised Lands