A major perk that comes along with living in Arizona is the fact that the Grand Canyon, one of the great natural wonders of the known universe, is, like, right there, practically in your back yard. All you have to do is take a little drive, three hours or so from Phoenix, and there it is! That iconic view from the South Rim, a mile-deep gorge, eighteen miles across, filled with palaces of multi-colored stone, layers upon layers carved by wind and water, over millions of years, into fantastic, all but impossible towers and buttresses rippling off to the horizon. When the light is right, it’s utterly magical, and if you’re a photographer, and you manage to snag one of those perfect moments? You know it, when it happens, and you feel like the king of the world!
When you’re standing there at one of those famous lookout points, whatever the time of day, whatever the time of year, you also know, in your head, at least, that you’re only seeing a small slice of it. You know that there’s much, much more, to the east and the west and the north, but if you’re like most people, you’re satisfied nevertheless, because you’re really there, staring into the gaping maw of THE Grand Canyon, and it really is the ultimate landscape, like nothing else that’s ever been created by man or by nature.
There are trails leading down into the depths, but hiking those trails isn't for everyone. People aren't in shape, or they’re just not inclined, or they’re on a schedule, rushing off to the next overlook, the next meal stop, the next wondrous destination on their dream vacation. That doesn't mean they have no interest in a closer look, so the Park Service has these antique binoculars on swiveling pedestals, strategically placed at all the viewpoints in and around the South Rim complex. You drop in a quarter or two, and for the next five minutes you can zoom in on the highlights with the exotic names—Vishnu’s Temple, Bright Angel Creek, Toroweap, and there, almost like an afterthought, is that sinuous dark ribbon at the very bottom—the Colorado River, which is the primary force responsible for all this grandeur. A river, flowing water born of melted snow in the Rocky Mountains, relentlessly carving its way through sandstone and granite and schist, carrying it away, over the eons, into the Pacific Ocean, like so many grains of sand.
If your timing is really right, you might even get a little thrill—a glimpse, however fleeting, of people riding that river in rubber rafts. Their numbers are strictly limited by a permit system, so the rafts don't come by in a continuous parade. Like rare birds, they never fail to arouse a murmur of excitement among the tourists at the crowded lookout points. Little specks, that’s all the rafters appear to be, but you know they must be brave souls, because that land down there is rugged as hell, broiling hot in the summer, freezing cold in winter, as remote and unforgiving as the wildest place on the earth. And what’s worse, there be rapids on that river, monstrous potboiler rapids that are famous throughout the world for smashing boats and men against the sharp rocks and sheer walls of the inner gorge of the Grandest Canyon of them all. Who in their right mind would willingly pit themselves against such forces? Who, indeed.
I'm a native of the Grand Canyon State, a born and bred aficionado of the desert southwest, so I HAVE done a bit of hiking down there. Mostly day trips, and never all the way to the bottom--because of the simple fact that the farther down you go, the tougher the climb back up, and I’ve always been more interested in having fun than in proving myself. All of that said, I've always felt a special bond with the Grand Canyon. I’m more than just another body in the billowing herd of tourists—I’m an insider, someone who KNOWS the canyon, knows it from more than one perspective. I've hiked down to the beautiful blue-green waterfalls on Havasu Creek, I've seen the somewhat more exclusive views from the less-traveled North Rim, and I've experienced Canyon Country in winter, when clean white snow crowns the multi-hued rocks and cloaks the pines, and the only sound you hear is the keening of the wind.
What I came to discover, a couple of years ago, is that none of that stuff means spit when it comes to knowing the Grand Canyon. To really know the canyon, you have to get intimate with it, up close, in the depths, on that river. Only on the river can you really see, hear, feel, and taste the canyon. The colors and hues that shift through the day, the ebbing and flowing of the blue-black shadows, the impossibly bright sky, the lapping of the waves eating away the rocks, the crescendo of the rapids, the wind whistling through the labyrinthine corridors of stone, the heat, the cold, the wet, the dry, the fine sand that invades every crease and crevice until it permeates your very soul.
To travel the whole length of the canyon, all 280 miles of it, takes a significant amount of planning. This is not an undertaking for the unprepared, certainly not for the timid or the faint of heart, and it’s not something that you could ever do on a whim. Matter of fact, if you're not already an experienced river-runner, or a totally fearless idiot savant, you have no business even contemplating the trip without first engaging the services of a river guide. The people who drive those boats down that river, be they oar boats, kayaks, dories, or motorized pontoon rafts, those people are a special breed. This is not a profession in the usual sense—it’s a calling, a passion, almost a religion. The good ones are all but omniscient in their knowledge of the canyon and its many joys and perils. They know what lies around every spectacular bend, and they can read the currents and eddies the way a stock trader reads minute fluctuations in the market, the ebb and the flow. They know where and when to pull in, where to go and where not to go, the history, the geology, and the location of the hidden treasures. Most important of all: they know those rapids like the backs of their hands.
There are 100 or more named rapids on this stretch of the Colorado, ranging from riffles that might or might not splash you on the knee to the roiling Class 10 monsters like Lava Falls and Crystal. Those big guys? You hear them before you see them. A low rumbling in the distance that builds to a roar. Then come the whitecaps on the water ahead, a visible stair-step drop in the level of the river, and then a quickening of the pace when the boatman commits at the point of no return.
“Two-hander!” comes the call from the stern, and that’s all the preparation you're gonna get. You find a rope, any rope, and you grab on with both hands for all you're worth. The river boils like the North Sea in a gale, great, rolling green waves and troughs. The raft plummets sideways into a hole fifteen feet deep, the outboard motor shrieks, a monster wave towering ten feet above your head comes crashing down across the deck, pummeling the passengers like a gigantic liquid fist that takes your breath away, leaving you suspended, time stopped, frozen in mid-scream. The instant you're clear, and gasping for breath, a second wave slaps you in the teeth, then comes a third, while the big raft kicks and bucks like a rodeo bull. Your companions hoot and holler from a rare combination of terror and exhilaration, because you simply can't run the Hermit with your mouth closed, even though having it open means swallowing a gallon of river water and a half a pound of sand. One rapid follows another in an endless continuum, until the experience becomes—almost—routine.
After a few days on the river you fall into a rhythm. The outside world fades in the distance, and you're living in the here and now, intensely aware of everything that’s going on around you. You're not comfortable. This is not a pleasure cruise. You're hot, you're wet, you're thirsty, you're filthy, you're sunburned, you're tired—and at the same time, you're more completely alive than you've been in years, surrounded by beauty on every side.
There comes a point when you've had enough, and you can hardly wait for it to end, so that you can get back to the familiar world of air conditioning and showers, flush toilets, and ice cold beer. And yet, at the same time, there’s a part of you that wishes it would never end, that your life could simply become this journey through magical landscapes of billion year old stone, where every day is unique, and every experience is new.
The Grand Canyon will challenge you, the river will change you, in ways that are both subtle and profound. As for me, I felt reborn, and renewed. When I returned home afterward, drained and exhausted, I hit my bed, my own comfortable bed, and I laid there awake, eyes wide, for the longest time, with every cell in my body quivering. I imagined the limitless field of stars overhead, the magnificence of the Milky Way spanning the horizon like a river of light, and I imagined the Colorado, endlessly rumbling its way toward the sea, eating away at the ancient rocks, making a cosmic mockery of the works of man, washing away our most durable worries and cares--like so many grains of sand.
If you'd like to see a gallery of my best photos from inside the Grand canyon, click here to start a slide show. If you'd like to read a little more about what it's really like to take a rafting trip down the Colorado River, click here to access links to a day-by-day chronicle of my own adventure beginning with Grand Canyon Rafting Expedition: Day one.