“If life becomes hard to bear we think of a change in our circumstances. But the most important and effective change, a change in our own attitude, hardly even occurs to us, and the resolution to take such a step is very difficult for us.”
I’ve always heard that the Grand Canyon really delivers, experientially speaking. While other famous attractions, like Mount Rushmore or the Eiffel Tower, often underwhelm, Arizona’s big hole does not fail to live up to its superlative adjective. A professor of mine in college used the Canyon as an example while explaining Kant’s description of the sublime, as an object or event so grand as to confound our powers of imagination and sensibility in their attempt to measure up to its enormity. With Vegas in the rearview, we’re headed for that.
As we get closer, the landscape really starts to look the part. There isn’t much in the way of vegetation beyond scrub brush, and the land is flat but for its gradual upward tilt. It’s the sort of country where a giant hole in the fundament might yawn out before you at any moment. But it’s also coy like that, and we drive on for many miles expecting to see the thing just over this here rise.
Like any mass-scale tourist attraction worth its salt, the Grand Canyon is surrounded by its attendant municipality of gas stations, visitor centers, overpriced grocery stores, and souvenir shops. This is what we encounter first and last in our stay at the Canyon. It’s sort of a portal from the relatively uncommercial national park just up the road into and out of the more generally consumer-oriented aspects of American life. It’s a last-chance type thing for those going in, and a welcome-back type thing for those coming out. My guess is that some people find it reassuring on some level. Again, I suspect that I may be one of these people.
Inside the park I’m firstly impressed by how big the premises are, how long we’re driving from the gate to the camp site, which is itself still quite a way from the rim of the Canyon itself. A group of female elk graze on some low-hanging trees just off the road and I find myself fretting over their safety and really hoping they don’t run out into the road. They seem so peaceful, and the passing velocity of these heavy, steel automobiles really grates against the rhythm of the place. Though, really these animals are probably far more savvy than I when it comes to surviving here.
Our second encounter with the local fauna is less serene than the first. I’m sitting on a bench in the paved park visitor plaza, waiting for my wife to get out of the restroom. A woman walking close by starts to scream and point at a mulched plot along the side of the walkway. A crowd gathers with much haste. People are nudging and trying to get a look. She tells them all it’s a snake, a snake in that brush, and it’s really big. I’m no fan of snakes, at least not in any experiential way, but I decide to check it out. And it’s really a huge snake, with yellow and black armor-like skin, circumference of a fifty-cent piece, and at least three feet long. And the crowd sort of has the thing boxed in, and I’m thinking some form of violent remonstration on the part of the snake would not be unjustified, here. Luckily for everyone involved, the snake finds a hole in the ground and makes good its escape. The crowd disperses in ten to twelve seconds.
Which brings me to one of the salient facts raised by this visit: that of the sheer volume and persistence of the tourism in the park. It is everywhere, and it is loud. It’s not that I’m surprised, because I’m not really. It’s just the juxtaposition of the tourist thing, a gruesome spectacle anywhere, against the backdrop of this beautiful and unique natural formation.
Because the Canyon is just such a formation. It is magnificent, and it is overwhelming, and I see why it’s considered such a big deal. And why, by extension, all these people are here. A ranger gives us a handy acronym for remembering the four main geological and elemental processes that have produced this massive, and globally inimitable schism: D.U.D.E. As in, that’s one crazy canyon, dude. The breakdown: deposition, or when the layers on display up and down the canyon’s walls were deposited; uplift, when the highlands that the canyon cuts into pushed up from the earth’s mantle in the wake of colossal tectonic repositioning; downcutting, when the Colorado River, swooping down out of the Rocky Mountains, began to slice down through millennia’s layers of deposits; and erosion, when the resultant slopes are worn away over the years by the elements, widening the Canyon’s span. I am not by any means well-educated in earth science. But I do have a healthy respect for time, especially in large, intellectually unfathomable portions. And the age of the Canyon, the time over which this set of processes has yielded the thing before my eyes, is estimated to be maybe seventeen million years.
That’s the history of the thing, and when it’s combined with the immediate experience of it, I find myself thanking my professor for such a perfect example of the sublime. I could almost believe that Kant worked out his definition here, looking out over the gorge ten miles across, nearly three hundred from end to end, and more than a mile deep, if I hadn’t once been told that Kant never travelled more than a handful of miles from his hometown. He had an aversion to travel. Maybe he couldn’t abide the tourists.
And so for the second portion of the aforementioned juxtaposition, enter the tourists. When I speak of tourism, I don’t just mean people going places to see things. As we’re sitting on the rim, waiting for the sunset, we see at least eight different cars pull up, unload one passenger who gets out, gives the view a cursory once-over, seems to check something off a mental checklist, gets back in the car and drives away. We’re on the shuttle bus on the way to a trail on the western edge of the south rim, we see a couple of graceful mule deer bounding off along the side of the road, and the gentleman behind us informs everyone that he sure wishes he’d brought his gun, because he loves killing those suckers, and then continues on recounting all the things he loves to kill. A family is on a ranger-led tour with us, all wearing matching Grand Canyon tee-shirts, leaving me wondering a.) when did they buy these?, b.) when did they change into them?, c.) did they each happen to really like that specific shirt or was there some sort of decision, autocratic or democratic, made about which one it was going to be?, d.) am I somehow remiss, having no ability or desire to presently don any apparel with the name of the attraction I’m currently visiting graphically designed across its surfaces?
These sorts of lists run the danger of devolving into rants or screeds. That is not what I wish, here, mostly because the whole point of bringing the tourism up is as counterpoint to the Canyon itself, the thing everyone here, including myself, is here to see. And as I stand here, right up near the rim, I am distracted by the people. I am thinking about the people, and listening to the people. I am annoyed by some of the people and amused by others. But here I am, me, the subject of my thoughts, starkly demarcated from these objects, these others, thinking in chains of words that lead all over the place except…to the Canyon here, ancient, intractable, uncompromising, and ultimately more-than-human. A German teenager throws a wad of paper over the edge and I wince, but don’t say anything.
Not for the first time on this trip, I find myself recalling David Foster Wallace’s discussion of American intranational tourism in the title piece from his essay collection, Consider the Lobster. I quote, at length:
“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way–hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to soil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you.”
(Hat tip to Will for doing the typing on that; my copy of the book is packed away somewhere in New York at the moment.)
And I guess that’s my point, that the Grand Canyon offers some seriously and ontologically soiled experience. And I am part of that, no matter how much I might tell myself that I am set apart, that I am here to witness the natural spectacle itself, and that all this spectacular hoopla is just a nuisance getting in my way. Because I am so inextricably a part of that nuisance. And that’s probably what irritates me about the situation, that hoary quip about being most annoyed with others for things that we fear most in ourselves.
I am here before millions of years of geological progress, and I am distracted by the human element. And I’m wondering if this is always the case after all, if my place is in the world is just that realm of right angles and shortest distances, and words and sentences, and subjects and objects. But our stay at the Canyon ends, we strike camp and head out eastward, pleasantly fulfilled in some ways and grimly disappointed in others. It’s all part of this great American experience, we say, as we drive toward our next destination.