“I think I like rocks too much,” I told Katelyn the other day. My beloved traveling companion immediately assured me that such a thing was impossible. However, I still am unsure.
Our lives have revolved around rocks recently. From Carlsbad Caverns to the Grand Canyon and “Falling Rock” advisory signs on highways in between, we have been immersed in the earth- figuratively and literally. The same day that we visited the caverns, we drove to Tucson, Arizona as a halfway point en route to the Grand Canyon. Tucson is a trendy college town (home to the University of Arizona), which is especially evident in the downtown area. There are more specialty coffee shops than I could keep a tally of, stylish restaurants on every corner, and cacti in every other yard. I liked Tucson, and could almost imagine myself living there or in a similar place, were it not for the temperature which stayed contentedly around 100 degrees Fahrenheit from the moment we arrived in town to the moment we left. For this reason, it was not difficult to bid Tucson adieu.
The journey to Grand Canyon National Park seemed like an adaptation of the nursery rhyme “Over the River and Through the Woods,” taking us through desert, mountain, and forest paths until we finally closed in on the canyon. We reached our destination just as the sun was setting, and raced over to the Bright Angel Trailhead area to get a glimpse of the canyon before the day’s light disappeared completely.
The next morning, we readied ourselves for a full day of hiking with caps on our heads, snacks in our packs, and a thick coating of sunscreen from head to toe. We got started at 9 AM Pacific Time- an early start for us, but not for the canyon, where the sun rises at about 5:15 during the summer.
We joined a ranger-led “Fossil Walk,” during which we learned about ancient life in the Grand Canyon and how it relates to the different layers of rock in the canyon walls. For the final part of the walk, we had the opportunity to search for fossils ourselves! Now qualified to work as amateur paleontologists (hire me!), we found and identified fossils of several kinds of ancient sea animals such as sea sponges and brachiopods, which are similar to the scallops and oysters alive on Earth today.
After the Fossil Walk, Katelyn and I hiked part of the South Kaibab trail to an outlook called Ooh Aah Point, which is not an inaccurate nomenclature. The trail, which is fairly steep, brought us to an elevation point 750 feet lower than the trailhead (note: the deepest point of Carlsbad Caverns that we explored was 750 feet underground). Despite this seemingly gargantuan change in elevation, sheer cliff faces in all directions were constant reminders of the thousands of feet of rock, rubble, and rugged terrain that lay between my soiled sneakers and the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. Grand Canyon’s seemingly ceaseless slopes, arrayed with cacti, split by crevasses, and speckled with stones ranging from miniscule to colossal, would mean certain peril for any hiker who unwittingly placed a foot outside the confines of the path.
I told Katelyn that when I am hiking trails with such a thrill factor, I make every effort to look outward rather than downward. The north side of the canyon is always in the distance, tinted slightly blue as if a sheer piece of sky has melted across it. This is due to the many miles of air between the northern and southern rims of the canyon. From the south, the north side of the canyon stoically serves its duty as both a natural wonder and a very valid excuse to take a short break. However, the physical exertion of hiking was not the only reason I needed to catch my breath while in the canyon. Grand Canyon’s landscape of rock formations, valleys, and plateaus is astonishing, and its vastness is difficult to fully comprehend. Its walls reflect immeasurable spans of time in layers of sediment, creating a color palette emblazoned with eons of Earth’s history.
During one pause in our hike into the canyon, Katelyn commented on the stillness of the canyon, nullifying the sentence that I had been preparing to say about my own observation of the same fact. A state of peace doesn’t make a lot of sense when you actually think about the many animals that Grand Canyon is home to, or the Colorado River at its core, or the undeniable danger that never leaves such an environment. It is not that these things are not present, but that the canyon swallows them up. Everything is absorbed by the canyon. Everything you do melts into the rock, the cacti, the river, and becomes part of the canyon. No matter whether the most recent sign of life other than yourself was a train of mules led by a cowboy or birdsong two minutes prior, it is completely possible to feel like the only human in the entire Grand Canyon. It’s yours. And that is something grand.