The first inkling that throngs of people would also be heading to the south rim of the Grand Canyon to witness its wonder came the evening before. Williams, Arizona – a town lost somewhere on Route 66 and nostalgic for its heyday – was packed with people speaking a cacophony of foreign languages as well as American. During a lifetime of imagining the feeling of beholding the greatest gorge on earth (we don’t realize we have spent a lifetime imagining the moment until it is imminent) I had yet to visualize dozens of strangers nearby, leaning toward the cliff, hungry for the same experience. But of course they were always there, in their own childhoods and adulthoods, visualizing the same instant in the future when they, like me, all solitary souls in a vast universe, would be awed by nature. I ate my dinner salad and wondered whether the hordes of tourists would spoil my first view of the canyon.
The reality-check comes whether one is glimpsing a wonder of nature, or of man-made significance such as the pyramids at Giza. There, on the outskirts of Cairo, those ancient triangular feats of engineering are in modern times juxtaposed against suburban apartment buildings and commercial plazas. When I first saw them in 1980, I had to work hard to get to just the right place to almost duplicate the image I had held in my memory of the future: me, the pyramids against a barren landscape, a camel, blue sky.
Similarly, atop Mount Sinai at sunrise in 1979, all the reasons the monotheistic religions arose in that part of the world were abundantly clear: the silence, the space, the beauty, the mystery of something that exists so far beyond us. But on a second visit five years later, having climbed the same mountain by moonlight, a different reality intruded. As mauve and orange hues rose over the vast rock mountain desert, they did so to a soundtrack of camera shutters clicking. The dawn revealed dozens and dozens of tourists squeezed onto the summit of Jebel Moussa, sitting up on their sleeping bags whispering, mostly in German. And years later, in 2008 in Patagonia, it occurred to me again, in a different form, when tour buses lined up on the ice so dozens of us could clamor with our crampons onto the Perito Moreno glacier.
My trip to Patagonia seemed to be the very moment when that remote wilderness at the tip of South America crossed from blissfully obscure to on-the-beaten-track, newly accessible to the mildly intrepid western tourist (as opposed to the hard core adventure traveler). I remember pondering how we environmentally-conscious travelers bemoan the spoiling of so many of the earth’s wonders, yet at the same time are determined to see them. We even think of ourselves as ‘travelers’ instead of ‘tourists’ because we presume to appreciate the natural wilderness more than those who prefer Las Vegas or Disney World as their vacation destinations. And yet we know a critical mass of people can destroy, if not the habitat of wilderness havens then at least the experience of being at one with nature. We know, deep down, that we are part of the problem. What of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands? The Annapurna circuit in Nepal? Your wildlife safari in Kenya? I got to Mongolia a few years ago when only 15 percent of the country had any paved roads. How long, I wonder, will that last, now that we travelers have fallen in love with Mongolia?
So now, at the gates of the Grand Canyon, as our car sorted itself into one of six lanes, I saw the grand numbers of people who were waiting an average of 10 minutes to get into one of three enormous parking lots and walk, en masse to the rim. We parked and we followed the crowd. The languages, the T-shirts, the cameras and the kids were all there. (And to Goon Dog’s delight, quite a few doggies). Then, as I tugged on the leash, I glanced up and saw it – and actually gasped in amazement. The overwhelming height and space and silence and vastness of the vista before me. The vertical depth of the cuts that rushing water had sliced through rock plains, and how long it had taken. Stunning sedimentary strata of reds and greens and golds against the sky. It was all contained in the first glance.
People? What people? Oh, sure they were there. But the experience of being at one with nature and history and life and the cosmos prevailed. The splendor of this natural phenomenon transcended the contemporary, sunglass-wearing scene. The temporal seemed to disintegrate in its aura. Neither camera-clickers nor metal railings and fences could diminish the wonder of seeing the Grand Canyon with my own eyes. No photograph or movie can replicate the three-dimensional experience. Like a Niagara Falls of the desert, its sheer size renders the human contact with it almost insignificant. Thinking of my conflicted feelings in Patagonia and Mongolia, I was reminded just how important this experience is to humans. Can we really expect ourselves to refrain from witnessing an icon of nature in order to preserve a perfect image of it that resides only in our imaginations? “It’s one of the wonders of the world,” I heard someone say. But the voice seemed to come from somewhere else, audible in a different channel in the mind, as if there were nobody at the southern rim but me.
GOON DOG’S VIEW: Wow, I’ve never seen so many people all walking in one direction. Yet I’m a bit agitated, sensing nothing firm out there beyond where they are all heading. Feeling a bit anxious about all of this. Got to explore. Got to keep moving. Wait, there’s a plant I’ve never smelled in California. Sniff, sniff. No stop. A ground squirrel. And another. Which one to chase? Darn, this leash. I’ve been on a leash more in the past two days than the past two months. How interesting that the American kids all want to pat me but the Asian kids start crying and running to their parents as soon as they see me. Whoa, a chain link fence. Nothing but air when I stick my nose through it. I think I’ll just spread out on this rock and take in the view. Meditative. Chill-axing amid the human chaos. Anyone have a treat or anything?