… and into the Canyon
One week ago I returned from an eight days backpacking trip with the Grand Canyon Field Institute for which Christa is a founding instructor some fifteen years ago.
I cannot fully describe the intense learning experience coupled with the phenomenal beauty of the north rim of the Grand Canyon where we carried heavy packs through more than 12,000 feet elevation loss and gain. It is the sharp contrasts from rim to river, the rich, exposed geologic and dynamic human histories that create such a compelling, raw story.
An Open Book
Nowhere else on this planet can one witness such an open book to so many years of history, from the ruins of mining expeditions just decades past to the bedrock formations 1.7 billion years old. In this place Christa wove a story eight days and at the same time 4.6 billions years long as we hiked from the rim down through limestone, sandstone, shale, and confusing mixtures of all three that tell an incomplete story of mountains rising and falling, rivers flowing east and then west only to be temporarily blocked by volcanic eruptions. Ultimately, the Grand Canyon was formed, yet even today the full story remains elusive.
I grasp what I saw through the magnifying lens, the shapes of ancient trilobite tracks, crinoids, worms, and brachiopods, but even after three years of exploring the Southwest with Christa, whose profession it is to teach geology, archeology, and paleontology, my brain struggles to fathom the one variable that makes all things possible—time. I am overwhelmed by consideration for the quantity of creatures that must have lived and died in the ancient oceans to build a thousand feet or more of the standing limestone cliffs, now painted red in flood by the overlying, frozen sand dunes and river floodplains.
To Thunder River, Tapeats, and Deer Creek
Out of the limestone comes rivers. Not just seeps, trickles or flows, but rivers that pour from slits and mouths and gaping caves of limestone walls, rain water filtered through overlying layers reaches an impasse and moves instead horizontally. These rivers gain volume, momentum and pressure, and—with time—emerge from underground caverns and caves to refract the rays of the high noon desert sun. At the base of the falls are cottonwoods, juniper, maidenhair ferns, grasses, and pools of water that have not for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years run dry.
We found refuge there, as did the Native Americans in decades and centuries past, for our needs have not changed so much in the intervening generations that we cannot appreciate something so incredible, authentic, and rare. It is good that our inventions have not replaced in us the basic appreciation of pure water and cool air.
We hiked beneath Thunder Falls and up Tapeats Creek where we found a living cave rich with stalagmites, stalactites, and an underground river thirty feet wide and a few deep; to the muddy brown Colorado River and to Deer Creek where the Piute dead pass back into the underworld through the narrow, winding water way. We came back up more than six thousand feet by way of Surprise Valley and a sandstone plateau where driving rains drove those of us without a tent to the shelter of the sandstone ledges.
Each evening Christa read to us—stories from the river, the Hopi, the Mormon settlers, and those not of books but of the rocks and stones themselves for they have recorded the coming and going of entire continents afloat on a semi-molten goo. If only I could learn the Latin names of plants, the age of the rocks, and the lineage of the peoples who have made this place their home as easily as I memorize the speed of a new processor or interconnect fabric, I could tell you a more complete story. For now, my photos will have to do.
Sadly, only for a few days each year do I go without cell phone or internet connection. But these days I cherish most, for my mind is no longer concerned with the timing of things, the overlapping conference calls, nor the financial health of my company. It seems then, during these brief, true vacations, that if every microwave oven, cell phone and TV, if every embedded CPU and laptop on the planet would spontaneously disappear, the world would be a slightly better place.
Thank you Hank, Midge, Steve, David, and Christa for a most educational, light hearted, and enjoyable time.