01 December, 2010

A souvenir shop at the end of the universe

backdate: 29 November

Hiking up out of the canyon is an odd juxtaposition of present and future. Still quite unlike descending from a mountain - since it's not a coming down to everyday life, it's a struggle upward. And it's odd knowing that at the top, toilets and coffee await. It puts the "park" in national park. At Santa Maria spring, there is an inch of ice atop the water trough. Here we meet the only other hiker we see (it's Monday), a sun-weathered woman who has hiked all the park's marked trails at least once.

 Cathedral Stairs, one of the steepest bits of Hermit Trail

At the juncture with Dripping Springs trail, the terrain changes abruptly. In a small saddle, juniper becomes the dominant plant species. The last 1.6 miles are the most turtuous; ending three days of hiking with seven ascending miles, steepest near the end, works the legs in completely new ways. And as the distance to the rim shrinks, each meter feels longer. As you begin to hear the whoosh of wind through the needles of pinyon pine, you forget the stillness below; the canyon - a state of being - evaporates. Where, halfway up, it seemed so immediate, as though you could just reach out (and never quite touch it), in afternoon shadows the canyon's "garden of the gods" retreats, some matte painting in the hazy backdrop of a sci-fi film.

Hermit Creek canyon seen from ~4400 ft

Snickers bars were buy 3-get 3 free at Safeway, and luckily we bought a dozen for the hike. When Kara has a major blood sugar drop a few hundred feet below the rim, we find the last Snickers stashed in my pack. Finally at the top after six hours, we notice the sign that said "eat twice as many calories as usual". Good rule.

Packs off, we relax by the hearth in Hermit's Rest. One of several structures in the park designed by architect Mary Eliabeth Jane Coulter to meet rising demands for tourist infrastructure in the 1920s, the building houses a souvenir shop and snack bar, late on a Monday afternoon there are few visitors. We sit beneath a domed ceiling of rough rocks, gazing out the windowed front. It's a unique architectural perspective, and Joe finds explanation in one of the shop's souvenir books: Coulter tried to design the building "as if it were constructed by an untrained mountain man." Outside, we note the deliberately off-kilter chimney - "An untrained mountain man who was really good at constructing inner domes," Marcus quips. Ah, early 20th-century pretensions.


A handful of elk cross in front of the truck. Three thousand feet below we can see Monument Creek canyon, and purple shades of dusk color the rock.

One feeling that stuck with me far beyond the last gaze, and was echoed by others i talked to, was how seeing the canyon from its rim had little impact. We'd seen the same view hundreds of times in books and magazines, and perhaps it is just too big to feel. Yet to see the canyon with your feet, to feel its enormity by descent - that's when it sinks in. Three tortuous hours to get halfway down, and the river winds for miles. I'll leave the last words to someone who speaks with authority on that matter: John Wesley Powell.

You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.

If you don't have months, at least give it a few days.