Grand Canyon – Night In The Canyon

THE traveller who delights in the panorama, the long-distance view, may be disappointed in the Canyon depths. Descending any one of the trails is very like going down into a narrow Alpine valley, say at the Maloja, or Lauterbrunnen. The field of vision at once begins to lose in breadth, width, and height. The distance across is from cliff to cliff, the Rim becomes the horizon circle, and the great vault of the sky shrinks to a blue roof upheld by walls. More astonishing than anything else is this apparent sinking of the sky. It seems to drop into the flutings of the Kaibab and stretch across from north to south. The blue is, of course, merely the coloring of a deep bank of air, but perhaps we fail to reckon with the air following us down into the Canyon.

All this is apparent from the Tonto slopes, but it becomes more emphasized as you descend into the Inner Canyon or Granite Gorge. You are then hedged in by dark walls on the sides, with a reddish-yellow strip of river below and a corresponding blue strip of sky above. You are in a box—a box canyon. The light there is not wanting in illumination, but its effect is perhaps lessened by much shadow from the high walls. “The gloom of the gorge,” however, is a rather exaggerated phrase. With certain portions of the inner walls there may be the darkening that one sees in the narrow canyon street but no “gloom”—at least not in the daytime.

At dusk it is different. The gorge banks full of purple and violet shadow as soon as the sun has gone down, and when night has set in it becomes densely dark, fathomless, formless. The only light comes from the sky overhead—the ribbon of sky that now takes on a night blue and is spangled with stars. The stars seem near, and the illusion of their nearness is helped on, perhaps, by their being seen at dusk from the gorge just a little before they are seen at the Rim. Stars from the bottom of a well and from the bottom of the Inner Canyon have a similar appearance. They are not visible from either place at noonday, but at dusk the well and the wall cut off the side-lights and thus make visibility greater overhead.

The Inner Canyon is hardly the place for full-light effects. The Tonto slopes that offer some little perspective are better, and Hermit Camp on the Tonto is a comfortable quarter from which to study the play of light at any and all hours. The study calls for an almost continuous looking up. The walls are the places where sun and shadow fall, where twilight fades and moonlight gathers. And walls are all around you at the camp. They are continually responding to different phases of light, but the western light at sunset is about the only one that catches the average visitor’s eye.

At this hour the high buttes across the River from Hermit (Plate 21) often appear with almost iridescent surfaces. The westering sun throws down and along the Canyon its reddened beams, striking the tops of the buttes and turning them into hues of gold, of rose, of lilac, of violet. The most unbelievable tones and shades are then registered on these barren rocks. The Red Wall and the Supai are the first to kindle, and frequently they are aglow with intense reds before six o’clock. Naturally they are the first to lose the light and settle into gloom, while above them the Coconino and the Kaibab are still flushed with rose and pink. After the sun has gone down the hot twilight sky illumines these upper strata with golden or reddish or some-times violet light. They are then at their height in quality of hue.

But the lower bases in the dusk are very impressive even when indefinite. And they are seen on our side of the River as well as elsewhere. The Lookout directly back of Hermit Camp shows them to advantage. At first the contours and outlines of the high point, seen against the bright upper sky, are clean-cut. The prow rides into the blue with every niche along its edge, every pinyon and maguey growing on its top, every field of lichens on its upper walls, showing distinctly. Gradually the dusk drifts in and around the bottom platforms, it creeps up the huge western wall, the light slowly recedes before it. The base begins to fade, the top begins to loom, and presently the whole structure shifts into a color mystery half lost in shadow. The dramatic and the spectacular mingle with the picturesque to make an astonishing picture.

The same effect shows upon the great walls underlying Pima Point (Plate 16). The bases become muffled in pinkish purple and the tops seem to drift against the blue as surfaces of reddish orange. Even the near Red Wall begins to develop some unrealities. The lighter portions sink back from the surface; they are the places where rock has recently fallen away. The darker and older parts of the surface come forward with their field of lichens and look like torn fragments of velvet tapestry. The Tonto platforms beneath, still holding their light and their Nile-green color, offer support, contrast, and harmony to the Red Wall. But presently everything begins to lose edge and accent.

And yet you do not doubt the still tremendous strength and lift of the Red Wall. It stands there like the underpinning of Creation. Lights and colors shift and atmospheres change as skies lighten and darken but the Red Wall holds firm.

” Ten thousand years have come and gone It has not split or crumbled yet It still turns rose-red in the dawn Turns gold-red when the sun has set Ten thousand more may find it there Still standing in the purple air.”

Ten thousand years 1 A mere group of ciphers in geological time ! Yet how strange the isolated thought that during all those years that have crept in and crept out the Red Wall has stood there reflecting the flush of morning as the glow of evening, stood there in silence, without noticeable change, immutable as the globe itself ! And high above it, like a signal-tower of the sky, Pima Point flashing in with sunrise gold and flashing out with sunset orange ! A mere beam of light coming with no sound and going with no stain for ten thousand years! How strange the thought that, superficially considered, these wondrous walls should play no other part than reflecting the sun’s splendor ! Again the feeling of the theatre comes back. These changes of light and color are the mere shiftings of Nature’s footlights. Ah I but the play is staged for eternity ! And it was from the beginning.

As the dusk comes on all the walls lose their form and structure; the fissures, pinnacles, and amphitheatres blur out; the surfaces flatten and merge into one dull face that lifts in a fluted edge against the still-lighted sky. Distance goes out, too. In a short time the walls to the west of Hermit Camp are two miles away or two hundred yards; they are a thousand or a hundred feet high. You cannot say. The dusk makes mere blurs of them—indefinite masses of dark in the half-dark. They bulk or recede or change in tone with the shifting light of the upper sky. A purple air veils everything, and through it one sees, on the high points, spots or bosses of color that still glow as though some latent fire were beneath them.

The same fading away in drifts of colored air goes on among the buttes across the River. The little canyons lying in between fill with gloom, the Tonto slopes shift into golden grays, the Red Wall bases become uncertain in form, the Coconino cap-stones look like spots of old ivory. Then the whole panorama flattens and becomes merely a purple blur with perhaps some porcelain-like glow from a high point of rock that still records the vanishing light. Mystery—a blue-and-purple mystery—spreads and enwraps the scene.

Night comes down upon the slopes and platforms and one by one the stars shine forth and dot the roof overhead. Fleecy clouds of the cirrus, thou-sands of feet in the sky, glow with the light shot up from below the western verge. Bats flutter across the stars, a poor-will far up the creek-bed begins calling, a coyote whines from a distant slope, crickets chirp in the grass of the garden near the camp. Otherwise there is silence—a silence that the low hum of the distant River emphasizes rather than destroys.

Usually at this hour there is some sigh or moan of the winds along the walls. At sundown, with the decrease of radiation, the heat in the Canyon rises up and out, while the cold air from the upper plateaus draws down the lateral canyons to take its place. An evening wind is thus set in motion that moves around the walls and amphitheatres with a sigh and, in times of storm, with a moan or shriek. You do not hear these sounds at such places as Hermit Camp, but up under the Red Wall they are often very pronounced. At times they are a bit uncanny and suggestive of the ghostly.

Moonlight in the great depth is perhaps something of a disappointment. The Canyon is a huge rack of form, a welter of color; and moonlight simply softens and subdues it, blurring its splendor and weakening its force. Especially is this true when the moon is full and its rise takes place before the light has entirely gone out of the sunset west. The two lights then blend to produce a tonal effect —an effect that destroys accent, contour, and bulk by flooding everything with a warm silver glow. This is very noticeable looking down upon the Tonto platforms. As intimated some pages back, they appear cloud-like, almost phosphorescent, as though some internal light were shining from them. This peculiar luminosity of the Tonto, with the uncertain shadows of the walls, make even a familiar locality look strange. You grope for well-known points and get only mysterious lights, odd protrusions or recessions of form, unfathomable depths of gloom.

As the light in the west dies out the moonlight grows in intensity, becomes more luminous, produces better-defined forms. The eastern and southern walls under the Rim cast great fields of shadow into the Canyon, and where the shadow meets the full light shining on the lower slopes the edge is clearcut—cut sharp. Colors are very pale and look bleached out. The greens of the pinyons are dull olive green, the reds of the Supai are pale pink, the yellows of the Kaibab are white.

When the moon is high in the heavens and the shadows have receded to a great extent, the walls take on a silvery or violet tone warmed by underlying pinks and reds. Certain points or knobs of smooth rock become spots of high light and great fields of half-light glow with a dull opalescence. The fire-rocks in the Inner Gorge occasionally throw back shadowy glintings from mica ledges—as shadowy as the lights seen in a dark mirror—but usually these walls remain neutral and forbidding.

The River running between the walls is quite as unresponsive. Sometimes there is the flicker of wave foam, but usually the surface is lightless. An angel’s pathway and its broken reflection, flashing like a golden goblet sinking into the sea, are things that do not appear. The water is too turbid for bright reflection, too turbulent for pathways of light, too tossing for angel footfalls.

These dark walls and this whipsaw River with its metallic surge of sound seem to have little affinity with moonlight—moonlight that should be seen beside still waters with summer-night silences. Again we fling back to a former conclusion that romance and poetry are not fitted for the Canyon. It is too big, too vast a background, for song or fiction. The tradition here is of the rocks, not of the race—of the earliest stages of creation, not of the sentiment of a later life.

On moonless nights the Canyon depth is only a gloom. There may be a purple sky with stars over-head, but it can be seen quite as well from El Tovar as from Hermit Camp. Mere night in the Canyon is not especially interesting. In fact, one might say without extravagance that the glory of the Canyon sets with the sun. It needs full light and clear vision rather than half-light and mystery.