Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Grand Canyon

Can you imagine a time span of two billion years? Or for that matter, can you imagine just five million years? I can’t. That is why, when I learnt that the place where we were going has rocks two billion years old, or that particular geological feature took five million years to form, those figures didn’t really seem as impressive as they should have. But when I lay my eyes on the thing itself, the one thing that I could not help noticing was its size. If you make a list of the places in the world that would be foremost in impressing by sheer size, the Grand Canyon would definitely take one of the top spots. And yet, that million-acre landscape was sculpted by one little river.

The Arizona plateau was an ocean two billion years ago. As the water deposited sandstone and limestone on the ocean floor, the earliest rock layers of Grand Canyon were formed. Then, due to the collision of two geological plates under the region the whole area was lifted straight up into the air, layers and all, and the 7000 feet high plateau took shape. Suddenly, along comes the Colorado River six million years ago and starts eating away at the rocks. Its tributaries did the same. As the gorges of the rivers became deeper and deeper, the side walls collapsed in many places, quickening the process of erosion. And soon (geologists say five million years is a very small time frame) we had one of the most impressive geological formations on the face of the planet – a gorge that is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide at its widest point and having a maximum depth of 6000 feet.

We started from Las Vegas on a rented van on the morning of the 28th. During the five hour drive through hilly roads, we made a brief stop at the Hoover Dam and then moved on. As we slowly climbed the plateau, the landscape changed dramatically from desert near Las Vegas to coniferous forests near the Grand Canyon south rim. The cloudless desert sky gave way to white fluffy clouds. We checked into our two accommodations – a room at the Yavapai Lodge and a campsite at the Mather Campground. Finding the room and setting up the tent both took longer than we had anticipated, and so when we reached the Yavapai point to see the canyon, the sun had just set. We spent the evening listening to a ranger speak about the history of the park rangers at the amphitheatre. After dinner in the hotel room, my cousin and I came and slept in the tent.

When I had visited the Niagara Falls exactly one year ago, I had been impressed with its beauty, but at the same time, a little irritated at the commercialization of a natural wonder. In other words, what do most people do when they go to the Niagara Falls? They take an elevator down under the Bridal Veil Falls for a fee and get wet; they take a boat ride and go closer to the Horseshoe Falls. They stay after dark and utter Oohs and Aahs when the American Falls are illuminated with colourful lights at night, then they see the fireworks over the Canadian side and come home satisfied. The Grand Canyon is a totally different cup of tea. The first thing that struck me when we reached the canyon rim after missing the sunset was the darkness of the abyss below. There was nothing to suggest that the landscape that I was seeing before me had changed a bit since the days of the last dinosaurs. Not a single speck of light could be seen below. The observation station was a crude cabin made of wood and stones, and there was a crude path coming out of it, but until you reached the big road, you would not see anything really modern. When you walk on these paths at night you need a flashlight – not only to see the path where you are walking but also to prevent your running into elks, mule deer, mountain lions and rattlesnakes (we met plenty of the first two, and thankfully none of the other two). Cars aren’t allowed everywhere within the park – you have to use the free bus service instead.

Turn heavenwards and you will see the most spectacular sight. Las Vegas had a crystal clear sky but no stars were visible because of light pollution. Here, the sky was literally cluttered with stars – there were just too many of them. At Grand Canyon, I saw the Milky Way after a very long time.

Next morning I left the tent while it was still dark and walked shivering to the Yavapai point again. People had already assembled to see the sunrise and I chose an outcrop of rock jutting out into the canyon and looked at the canyon in the faint light of dawn. I couldn’t really look away for the next one hour.

At moments like this I feel my shortcomings as a writer – blogging about daily incidents has not given me the ability to describe the most magnificent things – and the Grand Canyon may well have been the very best among them. The only analogy that comes to my mind is that of an ocean, but an ocean without a beach or water. Imagine yourself standing in front of a mile deep stretch of the ocean with underwater cliffs coming right up to the surface, and where the sides do not slope into the ocean as beaches but plunge straight down thousands of feet as cliffs. Now remove the water from this ocean of your imagination and you start to get some idea of what the thing looks like. I say “some idea” because you do not get a complete idea until you set eyes on it yourself. And people all around me were setting their eyes and cameras eagerly on the spectacle slowly unfolding before us. Nobody spoke. The feeling was somewhat similar to being in a church or a quiet temple – the scene was to be taken in alone and admired in silence. As the sun rose above the horizon behind us, the tips of the Shiva Temple, Isis Temple and Buddha Temple (these are the names of mountains in the Grand Canyon) caught the sunrays and turned from a dark red to a glowing golden. The gold reached down slowly until it touched Cheops’s Pyramid. Then there was no more change in light. However, even at this time the bottom of the canyon was submerged in deep jagged shadows. These places stayed this way through most of the day, and since the lowest rock layers are black schist, the effect is even more pronounced. We saw the same process in reverse again that evening at sunset, though from a different point on the rim. The rim itself is so undulating that the view changes dramatically from point to point. Sunrise the next day was also a completely different experience as this time I was facing east and saw the sun itself rise out of the horizon.

I could write in detail about every small experience, each sight and each sound of the Grand Canyon National Park. Everything was so new to me and so exciting that I remember every detail. However, I will not describe the twisted-trunk junipers, the charred-yet-standing forest, the bear-proof dustbins, the finger-biting squirrels and the huge jet black ravens here. Before I end this post I will just write about the most breathtaking (in more ways than one) experience that I had. I am talking about the hike down the South Kaibab Trail into the canyon and back.

At the head of the South Kaibab Trail, there is a large sign with a photo of a beautiful young girl. “Can you run the Boston Marathon?” it asked. “Margaret Bradley, a 23 year old medical student from Boston, ran the Boston Marathon and was a very good athlete. She died from dehydration and exhaustion on this trail two years ago.” It goes on to elaborate the circumstances of her death, leaving no doubt in the minds of hikers what could happen if they ran out of water or energy on the trail with temperatures running over 40 degrees Celsius. The serpentine trail runs steeply along the inner wall of the canyon and a six mile hike would have taken us down to the river. That hike, however, often takes more than a day to complete and we were not prepared for it. So I, my cousin and his nine-year old son Joheen started on the trail to see the “Ooh-Aah Point” and return which was a mere mile and a half. There was a striped cliff of layered rock on one side of the path and a sheer drop on the other. The scene changed every few yards but the hike drained more energy than we expected. We sat down once to chew on chocolate bars (rather lick them off as they had melted) and then proceeded on our way. Just before we reached our destination, Joheen said he could walk no more and so my cousin sat with him on the roadside while I walked down the final fifty yards or so.

As I said before, the path has cliff on one side and the gorge on the other. At the Ooh-Aah Point, the cliff suddenly disappears from both sides and you are left standing on a sharp hairpin bend in the path. For probably 300 degrees around you, there is nothing but the Grand Canyon, as far as you can see. The rest 60 degrees contains the path by which you came, and which continues downwards toward the river. However, we turned back at this point after we had filled our memories and memory cards. The hike up was way more difficult than the hike down and we had to rest several times now to catch our breath and drink the water that we were carrying. There is no drinking water on the hiking trail and hikers are instructed to carry a litre of water for every hour of hiking.

Our stay at the canyon rim was short; we arrived at sunset one day, spent the next day there and left for Las Vegas again the next morning. We all felt we could have spent a few more days at this serene place without running out of activities or sights to see. However, the truth is that the Grand Canyon is one of those places that never grow old and so even if we had stayed a month there, I’m sure we would have felt the same way. But we had the Manhattan skyscrapers beckoning us back and so had to bid adieu to the skyscrapers of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Buddha, Isis, Zoroaster and Cheops.

American explorer John Wesley Powell said, “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.” While I doubt that I can do the toiling from month to month part, I have no doubt whatsoever that I’ll go back to see the Grand Canyon again. One can see Las Vegas in a day, maybe New York too, but to see the Grand Canyon one needs to spend more time. A lot more.