After reading Stacy Murison’s Letter from Home in which she left for New York for a short while, I was inspired to do something similar. But where to go?
Sometimes the world works in mysterious ways, and shortly after reading her column a friend called me up to ask if I would go on a rafting trip down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. I agreed without hesitation, quickly covered my shifts and scavenged for all the things that would protect me from the wild, or, as John Wesley Powell called it in his journals, “The Great Unknown.”
February marked the centennial celebration for the Grand Canyon. The beginning of summer typically marks family road trip season, which often leads to an increase in visitation for this park. In 2018, visitation saw an increase of more than 100,000 compared to 2017, according to the National Park Service, with 6,380,495 people coming to gaze upon the canyon’s grandeur last year. What draws people from all over the world to this park?
In the fourth grade in Arizona, you’re taught a brief history of the state and if you’re lucky, you get to visit the canyon. As a child, I was obsessed. This hole in the ground had secrets, and I wanted to know how they got there. It had been a while since nature had moved me. Much like how people weep for Van Gogh, I wanted to weep for the wild. When my friend called, I felt that little fourth grader inside of me resurrect.
The Grand Canyon is a geologic masterpiece. It is a sculpture itself formed through the magic of the earth. Beginning nearly two billion years ago with the formation of igneous and metamorphic rocks in the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon, the piling up of sedimentary rock on top of these layers led to nearly 40 different colors and textures visible from the South Rim. Each layer contains a vast history of what the world looked like at different points in history, but this is something you can see at the top. This is the beauty that most people get to view. As beautiful as it is from the top, one can only imagine what it looks like from the bottom.
As we entered the park at Lee’s Ferry, the canyon’s walls surrounded me from the moment I opened my eyes to the moment I closed them. The river was clear enough in parts to see the rocks below—it felt like I glimpsed an entire new world just underneath. Fish jumped up out of the Little Colorado River, which was a bright aqua blue from calcium deposits, and wildlife such as beavers, lizards and the occasional snake surrounded the beaches on which we camped. At night, the sky was so dark I watched constellations I had only read about reveal themselves. In the morning, we woke to a coral haze and the sun slowly rising over the canyon. Inside the canyon, I’d never felt so exposed. However, the geologic sequencing of rocks made me feel something, connected me to a larger picture of the earth as it was. Artists all over the world have learned to create art from nature, just as Ben Craigie and Josh Meyer do with blacksmithing so does Shonto Begay when he paints landscapes. We look to nature for art, nature itself an artist.
The canyon took millions of years to form, much of it due to the action of plate tectonics. According to the National Park Service, during the uplifting process, the canyon did something irregular. The Kaibab Limestone, the uppermost layer of the canyon, was actually formed at the bottom of the ocean. For some reason, most things remained flat as the layers lifted during the action of plate tectonics, resulting in the rock visitors stand on every year to take in the magnitude of the canyon. This made it easy for the canyon to become carved by tributaries and the Colorado River. One can see the different strata on display in Heritage Square if you’re interested in taking a detailed look at rock layers close to home.
Taking a closer look at the rock layers at the bottom of the canyon made me feel incredibly small. The river guides I had the opportunity to assist were helpful in explaining the geologic layers we passed and how they were created. It was an incredible feeling to be among so much of Earth’s history, this beautifully carved canyon that came together and apart by the mechanisms that continue to keep this earth shifting.