The South Kaibab Trail makes a steep descent from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the Colorado River. The difference in elevation between the top of the trail and its bottom is nearly a mile. On its way down to the interior of the canyon, the trail frequently cuts a thin, serrated line along the edge of the canyon’s steep walls. At a few places, the trail stands hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. A freak gust of wind, a misstep, or a tumble along those precarious segments of the trail could easily send a hiker over the precipice to his/her death on the rocks below.
Along other sections of the trail, the ground has turned to a fine, reddish powder, a testament to the heavy, consistent foot traffic that daily passes over the trail and to the drought conditions now gripping this corner of Arizona. The dust clings to the bottom of pantaloons and the leather uppers of boots. It’s readily apparent who has hiked the South Kaibab, one only has to look at a hiker’s pink boots to know he/she has been on the trail.
Hands down, the Grand Canyon is the most impressive landscape in the United States. It is more rugged than Yellowstone; its eroded depths are more impressive than the sheer, tall mounds of rock at Yosemite; and its landforms, waterscape, and vegetation mosaic is more beautiful than the beautiful Glacier National Park. It is impossible for a first-time visitor to the canyon not to be in a constant state of awe from the rim to the river. But the landscape will do more than awe. It will also overpower.
I felt confounded when I looked down into the canyon’s deep, hidden arroyos, or stared at the gray gashes in the otherwise red cliffs where millions of years of weather and water had blown out massive chunks of hard stone. I tried to contemplate geologic time and the age of the place but drew a blank. I walked a sinewy trail at death-defying heights while the wind pushed me toward its deadly edge. So physically close to death, I felt nothing but stomach-churning fear. I saw the thrashing, milky-brown Colorado thousands of feet below me. Rather than feel peaceful or enlightened at the sight of the river, I felt a tinge of revulsion while viewing yet one more violent entity in an overwhelmingly violent land. On the walk down the South Kaibab Trail, the grandness of the Grand Canyon made me feel subsumed. After two days in that landscape, I thought of myself as utterly irrelevant to the canyon and its own story. In this grand place, I did not matter at all.
I never did bridge the gap between the canyon’s size and ancient history and my own presence within its walls. That chasm is so large, so insurmountable, I know I will never cross it. I will never make it to the other side. The realization that I will remain ignorant, small, and vulnerable at the cusp of the canyon does not sit well with me. I like to know things. But I don’t know this canyon. I’ll never comprehend it. After hiking back up from the river to the South Rim on Day 2, I realized that the Grand Canyon had left me feeling unsettled and out of control. I believe knowledge is power. But the veil of human ignorance which conceals the Grand Canyon’s great age, tremendous size, and long history of geological violence had rendered me powerless.