THERE is only one Grand Canyon. It lies in northern Arizona, and the Colorado River, one of the greatest of American rivers, flows through its inner gorge. It must not be confused with the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, or with any of the grande canons which the Spaniards so named because they were big canyons.
The Grand Canyon is 217 miles long, 8 to 12 miles wide at the rim, and more than a mile deep. It is the Colossus of canyons, by far the hugest example of stream erosion in the world. It is gorgeously colored. It is by common consent the most stupendous spectacle in the world. It may be conceived as a mountain range reversed. Could its moulded image, similarly colored, stand upon the desert floor, it would be a spectacle second only to the vast mould itself.
More than a hundred thousand persons visit the Grand Canyon each year. In other lands it is our most celebrated scenic possession. It was made a national park in 1919.
The Grand Canyon is not of America but of the world. Like the Desert of Sahara and the monster group of the Himalayas, it is so entirely the greatest example of its kind that it refuses limits. This is true of it also as a spectacle; far truer, in fact, for, if it is possible to compare things so dissimilar, in this respect certainly it will lead all others. None see it without being deeply movedall to silence, some even to tears. It is charged to the rim with emotion; but the emotion of the first view varies. Some stand astounded at its vastness. Others are stupefied and search their souls in vain for definition. Some tremble. Some are up-lifted with a sense of appalling beauty. For a time the souls of all are naked in the presence.
This reaction is apparent in the writings of those who have visited it; no other spectacle in America has inspired so large a literature. Joaquin Miller found it fearful, full of glory, full of God. Charles Dudley Warner pronounced it by far the most sub-lime of earthly spectacles. William Winter saw it a pageant of ghastly desolation. Hamlin Garland found its lines chaotic and disturbing but its combinations of color and shadow beautiful. Upon John Muir it bestowed a new sense of earth’s beauty.
Marius R. Campbell, whose geological researches have familiarized him with Nature’s scenic gamut, told me that his first day on the rim left him emotionally cold; it was not until he had lived with the spectacle that realization slowly dawned. I think this is the experience of very many, a fact which renders still more tragic a prevailing public assumption that the Grand Canyon is a one-day stop in a transcontinental journey.
It is not surprising that wonder is deeply stirred by its vastness, its complexity, and the realization of Nature’s titanic labor in its making. It is far from strange that extreme elation sometimes follows upon a revelation so stupendous and different. That beauty so extraordinary should momentarily free emotion from control is natural enough. But why the expressions of repulsion not infrequently encountered upon the printed pages of the past? I have personally inquired of many of our own day without finding one, even among the most sensitive, whom it repelled. Perhaps a clew is discovered in the introductory paragraphs of an inspired word-picture which the late Clarence E. Dutton hid in a technical geological paper of 1880. “The lover of nature,” he wrote, “whose perceptions have been trained in the Alps, in Italy, Germany, or New England, in the Appalachians or Cordilleras, in Scotland or Colorado, would enter this strange region with a shock and dwell there with a sense of oppression, and perhaps with horror. Whatsoever things he had learned to regard as beautiful and noble he would seldom or never see, and whatsoever he might see would appear to him as anything but beautiful or noble. Whatsoever might be bold or striking would seem at first only grotesque. The colors would be the very ones he had learned to shun as tawdry or bizarre. The tones and shades, modest and tender, subdued yet rich, in which his fancy had always taken special delight, would be the ones which are conspicuously absent.”
I suspect that this repulsion, this horror, as several have called it, was born of the conventions of an earlier generation which bound conceptions of taste and beauty, as of art, dress, religion, and human relations generally, in shackles which do not exist in these days of individualism and broad horizons. To-day we see the Grand Canyon with profound astonishment but without prejudice. Its amazing size, its bewildering configuration, its unprecedented combinations of color affect the freed and elated consciousness of our times as another and perhaps an ultimate revelation in nature of law, order, and beauty.
In these pages I shall make no attempt to describe the Grand Canyon. Nature has written her own description, graving it with a pen of water in rocks which run the series of the eternal ages. Her story can be read only in the original; translations are futile. Here I shall try only to help a little in the reading.