When you look out over the Grand Canyon you are grappling with the inconceivable. Some look for a few minutes and move on. Some stay for days and encounter it from different places and viewpoints. Some return many times, experience it many ways, hike in the canyon or ride rafts down the Colorado River. Some take jobs there and experience it every day. Some dedicate their lives to it.
But no matter how long you spend there or how many views you take in, you can never fully comprehend it. The scale of space and time are too far beyond the human dimension. You can’t do more than stare in awe, and recognize that there are things much larger than we are. It makes the difference between me and the ants at my feet relatively insignificant.
You can be broadened by it. But to understand as we usually understand things is not possible. The forces that have shaped it are millions of years old, and that is hard to grasp because it is so far beyond the scale of our own experience. It is so much longer than our lives, even than he history of civilization. How can we possibly understand that?
I knew the Grand Canyon had to be very special and defy description because no one ever attempted to describe it to me. Everyone who had seen it recommended it, but they all seemed to recognize that any attempt to describe it was futile. You just have to see it for yourself, they said. And now that I have seen it, I will join in that recommendation.
Once you have been initiated into that elite group of people who have seen it, then you will better understand things that have been said about it. But without seeing it yourself, it remains a mystery.
Numbers cannot convey the experience of the Grand Canyon, but they can help you appreciate what you are seeing. Some of the numbers are so mind-blowing they must be stated.
Scientists believe our planet has been in existence for 4.5 billion years. Human beings came on the scene relatively recently. Fossils show human beings like us today from 130,000 years ago.
My tour director on my visit to the Grand Canyon illustrated some numbers by saying that if you condense the lifetime of the earth down to one year, then human life would come into existence at 6:59 p.m., December 31. That helped to put time into a perspective I could grasp, vaguely.
Geologists say the Colorado River established its present-day path 20 million years ago. That’s when the cutting began that led to the canyon that is now an average of 10 miles from rim to rim, as much as 18 miles wide in some places, and a mile deep.
The river cut the path, then wind and water erosion continued carving into the canyon walls, making it wider and wider, and sculpting a huge, complex landscape, with innumerable elaborately-shaped rock formations that seem to crop up out of the earth, but actually were left standing when the ground around them eroded. The size and complexity of this landscape cannot be described.
Geologists can observe eons of geological time in the layers in the canyon walls. The earliest layers at the bottom of the canyon are nearly 2 billion years old.
Two Billion Years
How am I to understand the concept of a billion, or even a million years? My whole lifetime will be contained within a century. My country has existed for 244 years. Western Civilization goes back 2,000 years. The oldest histories of civilizations in Egypt or Mesopotamia go back five thousand years. One million is a thousand thousand. One billion is a thousand thousand thousand. That’s nine zeros.
These numbers are inconceivable. The closest you will ever come to grasping them may well be when looking at the Grand Canyon. You will see them modeled in the landscape.
Photographs also cannot capture it. It is not just a visual experience. You feel the vastness of it around you. You are not just looking at it, you are in it, one tiny iota of the vast landscape. Those who have not seen the real thing will not know what they are seeing in pictures.
Leave it Alone
Also incalculable is how fortunate we are to have the Grand Canyon preserved. President Theodore Roosevelt first visited it in 1903. He called it, “The most impressive piece of scenery I have ever looked at… the one great sight which every American should see.”
He told the people there, “I want to ask you to do one thing, in connection with your own interest and the interest of the country. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is keep it for your children and your children’s children and all who come after.”
Some people had already been trying to protect the Grand Canyon for years.
Senator Benjamin Harrison introduced bills in 1882, 1883 and 1886 to make the Canyon the country’s second national park. All failed because of opposition from ranchers, miners and other settlers who didn’t want the government to restrict them from taking what they wanted.
In 1893, then-President Harrison used his executive powers to establish the Grand Canyon as a forest reserve. In 1908, Roosevelt declared it a National Monument based on the Antiquities Act that had been passed in 1906 to authorize the president to protect landmarks and objects of historic or scientific interest.
Local opposition was so fierce that it wasn’t until 1919 under President Woodrow Wilson that an act of Congress made the Grand Canyon a national park. Today you can’t find anyone who regrets preserving it.
The Greatest Temple
The sight of the Grand Canyon is a humbling experience that few are immune to. In the presence of the canyon there is a kind of reverence. It changes people. It quiets them. I am reminded of the phrase “Be still and know that I am God.” No matter how you conceive of religion, the sight of the canyon puts you in touch with the divine.
The people I encountered there seemed to share an unspoken understanding that they were in the presence of something that dwarfs almost everything else in their worlds. The Canyon seemed to elevate people to their next higher level of existence.
My group stayed at the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, where only 10 percent of visitors go. There were many special viewing points within short drives from the lodge, including Angels Window, Cape Royal Point and Point Imperial, the highest vista.
Bright Angel Point, one of the best viewing places, was only a half-mile walk from the lodge. There’s an observation deck on top of one of the colossal stone structures that stand over the depths of the canyon, spared from erosion.
From there you can see almost all the way around, and the sight was transfixing. I stayed for more than an hour as the sun was setting. The light was changing the scene moment by moment as the sun gave way to shadows, then disappeared below the horizon. The sky began to darken and the first planets appeared in the sky. The layers of rock glistened, changing moment by moment, reflecting a changing range of colors, from orange, to purple and blue.
That sight will change you. It will widen your world. Like a massive thunderclap so huge that its wavelength is below the audible level, you may not realize it immediately. But you will be expanded. Your horizons will be opened to a greater capacity for understanding. The image will be with you for the rest of your life. You may never fully understand the meaning of “2 billion years” but you will have seen the physical model of it in the sides of the Grand Canyon.
No words can do that.
Your humble reporter
A. Colin Treadwell