The North Rim left me literally and figuratively breathless. The Lodge is at almost 8,000 feet – 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim. On a quarter-mile hike to Bright Angel Point we climbed an additional 148, breathing in short, rapid sucks of cold air.
Actually, our entire road trip had us traveling at high altitudes — Zion Canyon, at 4,000-odd feet, was about the lowest elevation we encountered, and we usually hovered anywhere between 5,000 and over 10,000 feet.
I’m not given to vertigo, but Bright Angel Point might easily induce it if I were. The short Bright Angel Trail passes beyond scrub trees to bare rocks and ends at a narrow spit jutting out into the void, with the Grand Canyon on the left and a tributary canyon, the Roaring Springs Canyon, on the left. We reached the Point with a few other bundled-up tourists. A German paterfamilias loaded down with fancy cameras was braving his fear of heights (as he confided in English to some other tourists) to gaze on the sublime and, more to the point, get his shot.
The conditions weren’t ideal: massed slate-colored clouds overhead and a gray-blue haze in the Canyon. If anything, the haze made the Canyon seem even vaster and more imponderable, especially to a geological illiterate like myself. If you know, for example, that the oldest layers at the bottom of the Canyon are called “basement rocks” and date back some 1.8 billion years to the Pre-Cambrian Era, you have at least something to hold onto, something definite around which thoughts can crystallize. But in the absence of any such knowledge you are left with the stupefying spectacle. One reaction, which I heard from an older Australian tourist at the South Rim, is strictly self-defensive: “Why the fuss over a big hole in the ground?”
But knowledge can produce its own vertigo and elicit self-defensive maneuvers in its turn. Later in the afternoon, given the inhospitable weather, we decided to attend a ranger’s talk on the geology of the Canyon. We claimed our seats in a side hall of the Lodge early. A middle-aged man was already engaged in rather intense conversation with the woman ranger. I came in at her polite response, repeated several times, that she was “only going to be dealing with the science,” but that many peoples and religions had their own stories about the Canyon. The ranger then told one such story, about a tight-fisted lady in nearby Fredonia who lost a nickel and spent so much time and effort digging for it that she dug out the Canyon. The man wasn’t terribly amused. Another guest, a middle-aged blonde, said to no one in particular but loudly enough to be heard, “Do you think it was created by the Flood?” In fact, that appeared to be what the man did think.
We’d have another occasion to witness this particular form of self-protection from the dizzying fact that is the Grand Canyon. On the South Rim we found ourselves hiking behind a wholesome-looking family on the “Trail of Time,” a relatively new feature installed by the Park Service that allows you to trace in yards the billion-year life of the Canyon. At intervals there are stone markers with explanatory plaques and an example of the kind of rock from the particular geologic era you’ve “reached” (“Touch the rock!” the markers urge). The father said to his wife, “I just can’t believe all that was done by a river.” I wasn’t sure whether or not he was joking. But his wife replied that she thought God might work in mysterious ways, that maybe the creation wasn’t less divine for having taken a little longer than six days. At least that’s how I’ve remembered her reply, though it might be a little more my own.
The Park Service likely installed “Trail of Time” at least in part to counter just such stubborn resistance to scientific knowledge. But it’s difficult for lay people, including me, to think in terms of hundreds of millions of years. A Park Service brochure on Bright Angel Point asks rhetorically whether there will be yet other rock layers in the Canyon and then provides the appropriately humble answer. “They will certainly come, but on a time scale that verifies our tenuous place in geologic time.” As an infinitely tiny speck on what seems an infinitely long trail, the urge to cover one’s eyes is as understandable as it is pathetic.
After dark, with temperatures in the 30’s, there wasn’t much to do if we didn’t want to huddle over books and brochures on the double bed in our tiny, but fortunately very warm, cabin, so we headed to the Roughrider Saloon, the Lodge’s small bar, where they serve bourbon on the rocks in plastic cups and play Golden Oldies — more or less appropriate to the average age of the customers. There was a group of middle-aged guys intent on hiking down into the Canyon the following day, a group of middle-aged women a little less enthusiastic about hiking, a table of elegant Filipino ladies comparing souvenirs and suburban geezers like ourselves, dutifully tricked out in fleece and hiking boots.
The Roughrider was as much atmosphere as we got that evening, since the dining room, where we’d neglected to make a reservation prior to arriving, was booked until nine. We opted for ready-made pizza at the convenience store/deli and tucked in early. All night long a strong wind rained acorns and branches over our heads, and in the morning we woke up to a few inches of icy snow. The Canyon itself was gone — lost in fog, although Jim managed to catch a momentary window of sun and blue sky. The Lodge’s dramatic window, situated right at the Canyon rim, looked out onto a soft void. We ate breakfast in the high-ceilinged dining room, packed up and headed carefully out of the Park: Park roads on the North Rim aren’t plowed. The aspens’ fall colors looked still brighter against the thin white blanket. Eventually the sun came out, the pavement dried, and we were on our way to Bryce Canyon.