Grand Canyon – The Rim

THE unexpected happens at the Canyon. Surprise, wonder, amazement are looked for, but one hardly counts upon fear. In common with the average visitor, upon arrival you hurry up the steps from the station, pass along the front of the hotel, and go out at once to the Rim for a first view. You are impatient of delay in seeing this marvel of the world. Almost before you know it you are at the edge. The great abyss, without hint or warning, opens before your feet. For the moment the earth seems cleft in twain and you are left standing at the brink. As you pause there momentarily the rock platforms down below seem to heave, the buttes sway; even the opposite Rim of the Canyon undulates slightly. The depth yawns to engulf you. Instinctively you shrink back. If it were not for the presence of companions you might cry out.

Ah ! the terror of it !

And, worse than that, the mad attraction of it, the dread temptation that lies within it 1 The chasm repels and yet draws. What does it mean ? Why before this most prodigious beauty of the world does one feel tempted to leap over the edge?

It is true you do not, but your heart pounds uncomfortably and perhaps you grow a little whey-faced. For a moment you doubt your sanity and question if you are not on the knife-blade edge between the rational and the irrational. You hold tightly to a tree or the back of a bench and try to appear indifferent. But the mere suggestion is disturbing. Why should one think such mad thoughts here at the Canyon ?

After a few minutes perhaps you draw a step nearer and take a more cautious peep into the depth. A cliff-swallow cuts by your head with a quick flirt of wing and goes out over the edge. You watch him with a strange, apprehensive feeling. He will almost surely fall or be drawn down into that gulf. But no. He speeds on serenely, chases his fellows down into the depth, comes up again into the blue like a shaft shot from a bow. He is at home here, over or under the walls. He knows no fear or lure or temptation.

An Indian dog from the Hopi house near at hand trots along the edge looking for his master. Apparently he cares nothing about the precipice beside him. Instinctively he places his feet just right, whether travelling along the rocky Rim or along a trail in the forest. If one should take him by the collar and try to drag him or push him over the edge, a struggle and a fight would develop at once. He knows the cliff and has no notion of going over it either voluntarily or involuntarily. But he has no fear of it.

Presently you discover the dog’s master out on a point of projecting rock—out on a pinnacle that seems almost as though it were tottering. He is wigwagging with a white flag to some party across the Canyon on the North Rim, ten miles or more away. He stands on the very verge of the pinnacle. A single misstep, a momentary dizziness, and he is over. But he stands perfectly still; he does not reel. He, too, is at home here at the Rim. He has no feeling of fear and not the slightest thought about suicide or insanity.

None of the Children of the Sun understand such a thing as attraction by repulsion. To fear the abyss and yet be possessed by a mad desire to plunge within it does not come into their heads. Nor do they know that subtler charm that draws stronger than dread—the delight of swaying out and down through that blue-violet air, swaying into eternity without a pause or interruption and with not a particle of doubt about the instant attainment of Nirvana ! Did not the followers of the Emir Musa east themselves down from the high walls of the City of Brass, crying to the houris be-low: “By Allah ! Thou art fair” ? Death does not always appear as a fleshless skull. It sometimes comes disguised as beauty and with the lure of the siren.

But does not that way lie madness? Is it the fear of the gulf so much as the fear of self—the fear that you may yield to an irrational impulse? You shrink back from the thought even more than from the fact and cling to your sanity with a more nervous grip than you have upon the back of the bench. Then gradually you return somewhat to yourself. The terror of the abyss is not in the Canyon but in your over-sensitive nerves. Civilization has keyed you up to the snapping-point, and here in the presence of a great sensation you feel the strain.

There is company for your misery just here, for almost every one at the Canyon for the first time knows this impulse. After a few days a normal poise is regained and perhaps you forget yourself in the greatness of your surroundings. Nature is always making repairs on the human as upon her other creations. She helps him back to sanity and sound nerves as soon as he leaves the house for the open. Still, even after you have arrived at self-composure you have an uneasy feeling about others.

You cannot bear to see any one standing too close to the edge. You look the other way. And any one doing stunts from a point of overhanging rock makes you angry. And rightly enough. The most expert climbers here at the Canyon crawl along ledges on their hands and knees where, if it were not for that sheer descent, they would walk upright and steadily. One takes precautions. Eventually he becomes like the swallow and the Indian—that is, fearless but not foolish.

The Canyon is perhaps what might be called a natural rather than an artificial hazard. There is a difference. It is not probable that the city dweller (or for that matter the dog or the Indian) will ever conquer a disagreeable feeling in looking over the edge of a thirty-story sky-scraper into a canyon street. That may be because there is possibly some madness in both the building and the street that spurs on his own incipient mania. But there is no madness in Nature and no terror in her precipices once we have the fumes of civilization out of our brain and have returned to the normal life.

That is not to say that Nature at the Canyon or elsewhere does not occasionally indulge in extravagances. The view from El Tovar (Plates 1, 2, 3) is, at the very start, anything but normal. The English visitor gasps over it and perhaps takes the next train out. Landscape to him means much foliage, a sunlit lawn, flat water for reflection, distant hills, some bowling white clouds against a blue sky. That is usually considered a livable landscape. And so it is. But there is nothing livable, nothing intimate about the Canyon. It is not a park or countryside scene, but a spectacle, a panorama- Nature in her most dramatic mood using her pageant properties with a prodigality of splendor almost unthinkable. It is a tremendous show, and to carry it off effects are employed that may be thought little short of theatrical. To illustrate:

The rock forms, are florid, fantastic, flamboyant, and yet planned on so vast a scale that they are impressive and commanding through sheer mass. The colors are hectic, sky-flushed, fire-fused, perhaps leached and bleached by rain or flung off in vivid tones by blazing sunlight. Sometimes a vermilion-red glows beside a fire-green, while at other times, so subtle is the blend that you cannot draw a line between gold and orange or purple and mauve. The lights shift almost like the footlights in a ballet, showing a silver, a saffron, a pink, a heliotrope. The mornings are perhaps all blue and gold; the evenings all rose and violet. As for the atmospheres, the Canyon depths will reveal aerial blues at almost any time, but at dawn and sunset the envelope may thicken to a haze of pale gold or lilac or purple, and with dusk it sinks into a strange night blue.

The Colorado ! Why, yes; this is the valley it has cut, and the River itself is down there, but you cannot see it ! When later, from some projecting point, you gain a first glimpse of it there is some disappointment. It looks like a thread of golden metal inlaid at the bottom of a purple bed. Its surface appears smooth, but if you continue to look at it steadfastly you will notice tiny moving flecks of light upon it. These flecks and quivers are the foam-crests of waves. And as the wind shifts and eddies in toward you there comes up a faint and far roar—a sinking and rising roar. The swift-rushing river is dashing and flashing its way to the sea, but it is so far off that you grasp neither its form nor its fury.

In addition to these Canyon peculiarities the varying meteorological appearances are startling. The sunrises and the sunsets, especially in summer, are preternatural in their brilliancy and almost raving in their color splendor. Frequently on hot afternoons dark clouds drift across the Canyon, letting down great fringed sheets of rain that melt into silvery mists. Blue-violet lightning flashes down into the depth and runs in rivulets among the buttes. Rainbows not only arch the passing showers from Rim to Rim, but the spectrum hues sometimes appear at noonday, straight overhead in the ice-clouds of the feathery cirrus, with no rain whatever falling and with no arching bow. The scene is sometimes varied still further by clouds that form within the Canyon and slowly rise toward the Rim, breaking and dissipating as they rise, or by fogs that bank the Canyon full to the lip; and far down to the east, where the river turns coming out of the Marble Canyon, is the Painted Desert, and out of that at sunset occasionally come clouds of sand, purple-hued, lightning-riven, reaching up to the clouds of heaven, marching with a roaring wind across the desert, across the Little Colorado, and spilling down into the Canyon from the height of Comanche Point.

The unusual and the spectacular are everywhere, for, all told, the Canyon is Nature’s most colossal piece of stage-setting. The Great Goddess has here put carmines on her cheeks, jewels at her throat, and robed herself in her most astounding livery. Day after day she stands in the great spot-light of the sun, revealing her majestic beauty and her incomparable splendor. Around her are golden and garnet hued walls, below her are purple depths, above her is the azure immensity. A rose-and-lilac atmosphere makes of them all a wondrous harmony. Serene she stands, as young, as radiant, and as beautiful as at the earliest day. Never for a moment does she lose her serenity. For all her gay display her repose is not ruffled. In the final analysis that repose is, here as elsewhere, her most dominant and impressive quality.

Naturally, after so much that is amazing and some that is harrowing, one at first is more or less bewildered. You cannot step out of the monotony of a railway-car and, walking a few steps, enter upon something that is the last word in grandeur and sublimity without catching your breath and gasping a bit. Some people stand and stare with their mouths ajar, some whistle or talk unconsciously to themselves, some sit down and softly swear. But all are bewildered. They cannot grasp it. Nature seems out of joint. The walls are all precipices, the buttes are all carved and isolated peaks, the colors are madly mixed, and as for that weird River, it is so deep-sunk in fire-rock that it cannot be seen, and, though it never ceases from roaring, it cannot be heard. Destruction, desolation, and silence are on every hand.

And so, bewildered and dazzled, you go in to breakfast.

But give yourself a little time and you will gain a different point of view. The scene will apparently readjust itself. You will understand that it is abnormal, dramatic, spectacular, and judge it accordingly. Then you will see that everything at the Canyon, and in this Great Plateau country out of which it is carved, is all of a piece and goes together quite perfectly. It is a different geological surface and period from what you have been accustomed to, but it is thoroughly harmonious within itself. Eventually you will see that the great cleft valley has majesty, the buttes and walls dignity, the strata waving grace, the colors both charm and sublimity. The Canyon comes together after its kind, making a harmonious, self-sustaining picture, ideally panoramic, and all the more impressive for its size, its brilliancy of light, and its burning color splendor.