One of our guides noted that countless writers have visited the Grand Canyon and have said that language is inadequate to describe the experience. As I reflect on my first experience in the Canyon, I can't help but feel the same way, and to be equally compelled to make my own attempt at the impossible.
At first sight from the rim, the Grand Canyon's vastness overwhelms. The magnitude of everything you are seeing requires a mental recalibration that can only be accomplished by spending prolonged time in the environment. At first sight, the Canyon presents itself as a familiar iconic image, not as a actual landscape. At first, the image of the Grand Canyon feels realer than the real thing.
As you enter the Canyon, the precariousness of the terrain near the top refocuses your attention, as the narrow paths steeply decline, and the layer of scree loosens your footing and threatens to toss you to your death in a rocky ravine. The strong scent of the scrubby sage and wild yellow roses, and other desert-dwelling plants perfume the dry air as you brush against them as you continue downward.
For the first day of a hike into the Canyon, the landscape remains something which you are outside of, looking into, framed by the sky and red walls. Then, the first steep ridges flatten out into a soft, red sandstone terrain carved by millennia of wind and water. The dry terracotta ground becomes covered in black cryptogamic soil (a type of primordial biological soil crust that is the foundation for all plant life in this arid environment). Small cacti and small desert flowers begin to pepper the ground, adding splashes of colour to the otherwise red landscape.
After a couple of days of hiking - methodically, carefully placing each step (because any misstep could be your last) - your mind begins to slow and only then can you begin to understand that you are literally walking through the layers of the earth, through tens of millions of years. You walk, climb, and slide through layers of limestone full of ocean-dwelling fossils, into foreign, ancient rocks that predate organisms, reflecting an prehistoric alien earth, devoid of any life.
And after another day, the Canyon narrows and the walls steepen. Your vision gets periphery blinders, and eventually the mighty Colorado River appears, rushing cold and blue, cutting the Canyon slowly deeper each year.
Contributed by Paul Longhurst
Paul is an educator and organic farmer who works to build healthy community and to promote food sovereignty. He lives in Lakefield, Ontario, and loves to travel the world and experience new cultures, landscapes, and cuisines. He can be reached at email@example.com or www.the14th.ca