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  • Thursday, October 2, 2008

    The Grand Staircase, Part Two
    - Numbers 27, 47, 93, 111, 130, and 131 on my life list.

    Saturday
    Click Here for Part One

    We rushed through the morning on almost no sleep, but got on the road feeling excited and fully conscious. Randy grabbed his MP3 player with tangled cables out of the console and began to hook it up to his car stereo.

    The scenery was never dull on the drive south through Utah. I’m from Northern Indiana. I rarely see mountains. Even a decent sized hill or abandoned rock quarry passes as a good view back home. One way I convince myself living in Indiana is ok, is that when I visit other states I can enjoy them that much more, like how winter makes me appreciate spring. I know this because bored-faced people were on their repetitive commute without cameras hanging out their windows, as mine always seemed to be.

    It felt good to be on the highway, heading toward our long-anticipated adventure, at 70 miles per hour. I was glad Randy didn’t mind driving. Not having to watch the road ahead gave me plenty of time to admire the constantly changing view.

    “Man, I have not looked at the road in a while,” Randy said, finally getting the MP3 player untangled and playing, after who knows how long.

    “Let’s pull over so I can get a picture.” I said probably too often. We also stopped a few times for food and things we realized we should have packed. We had lunch somewhere near Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, both worthy of the trip themselves. As we neared our destination, small canyons with reddish hued cliff walls and dry desert fauna, emblematic of photos I’ve seen of the southwest, came into view.

    As we got closer, signs began to display the mileage between us and the Grand Canyon. “Is that it?” There was a comical giddiness to Randy’s voice as he pointed towards a canyon beginning to open up the otherwise flat ground. It wasn’t it, but on any other day, it would be worthy of a photo op. We were too close to make another stop.

    At last, our gate approached. We pulled into the first overlook, the Watch Tower, parked the car, and grabbed our cameras. Suspense built in the minute long hike to the canyon. When we neared the edge, we spoke at first in only Ws and vowels. “Aww, wow.” “Woah.” We stood there for a few minutes, then split up, took photos, sat on the ground, but rarely said a word.

    “I love this silence,” Randy noted. There were several people nearby but the canyon seemed to absorb the sound. It was a silence of reverence. Any noise would have been an insult, like a loud boisterous laugh at a funeral.

    I’ve seen dozens of photos, but everyone says pictures don’t do it justice, so I didn’t know what to expect. They are right. I've heard countless times that there are no adjectives in the English language to describe it, but we've been using the only appropriate one all along, Grand.

    On the drive down, Randy and I talked about something we learned in a recent Phil Plait article. When you see the Earth from space, it looks like a sphere as smooth as a blue cue ball, but if you shrunk it down to the size of a cue ball, it would actually be smoother. I couldn’t help but think of this when standing at the edge. I felt insignificant (which I maintain is a good feeling). It’s a massive canyon, eons deep, but only a scratch in the cue ball’s surface, and us, only amoebas standing at the edge looking down.

    A passing ranger gathered people together to tell stories about early expeditions to the canyon. We joined the group, hiked a bit to a secluded spot under a tree, and scattered on the shaded ground. The ranger stood between the canyon and us. They were interesting stories of survival, frustrating expeditions and the American expansion into the West, but I found it hard to sit there and pay attention. I wanted to be hiking.

    After lots of gazing and photographing at the canyon’s edge, we found a place to setup camp in the Grand Canyon’s primitive campground. We each picked clear flat spots and assembled our tents. We went back to the south rim to hike a couple miles and witness the sun setting over the canyon.

    Two billion years for the Grand Canyon had passed. It began its formation around the time complex cells began to form. Every single event, in that incredibly long planetary history, had come together and settled on this exceedingly complicated, yet deceptively simple moment. Those complex cells had at last caught up to finally appreciate and admire a most spectacular event. If the only meaning to life’s four billion year history is that, then in my opinion, it’s all been worth it.

    For me personally, it meant number 27, “See the Grand Canyon”, was off my list.

    The air was taking on an evening chill. We hiked back to the campsite and started a fire. I couldn’t wait for the following days and wondered how they would measure up to the first. Once the fire was steady, Randy opened hot dogs and we searched the area for sticks to use as skewers. We found nothing, not a single stick. We resorted to using tent stakes instead. We learned something else of great significance that night that I’d like to pass on to you: Tent stakes short, fire hot.