The Canyon Grande

One place we've been meaning to visit for several years is the Grand Canyon. We'd make plans, then something unexpected would come up: a paternity hearing. Bankruptcy court. Electroshock therapy. Reverse vascetomy. Life always found a way to interfere with the most well-intentioned of plans. Last week, we finally were able to stand at the south rim, and for the first time, look down into the biggest hole on earth. Like the Louvre in France or the I-94 tire in Allen Park, the Grand Canyon is one of those places everyone should see at some point in their life. Mash your greasy finger here and witness the RR panoramic view, filmed in full technicolor.

Viewing the layers of strata takes us down into the basement of time, when the earth was in primordial infancy. While the canyon is estimated at being 6 million years old (a geological blink of the eye), the strains of Zoroaster granite at the edge of the Colorado River date back 1.8 billion years. Like the rings in a crosscut section of a tree, the layers of shist, shale, and sandstone correlate to notable eras in the history of the universe: when Shinumo Quartzite (1.2 billion years ago) was the crust, your great-grandparents were miserable little flukes floating in a murky inland ocean. When the Temple Butte Dolamite (360 million years ago) was the top layer, your kinfolk were slimy snakeheads with jointless legs that ate little bugs and slithered around in their own excrement. The existing top layer of Kaibab Limestone has been there some 245 million years. Your ancestors were just beginning to grow fuzz on their nape back then. It was sometime around 5 million years ago the Colorado River began to carve into the Kaibab plateau, about the same time your grandpappy became a bipedal primate, swinging on jungle vines and beginning to walk upright.

One giant mis-perception is the canyon was created by years of gentle pitter-patter rain and grain-by-grain erosion. Not true. The process, like many in the natural world, was violent and brutal. Pacific ocean winds, warm and moist like a bran muffin from Tim Hortons, release their wet load when they collide into high cold air from above the plateau. The storms are short but powerful: the rain falls hard and fast and hits the soft sandstone and shale with bullet-like velocity. Side canyons and small arroyos flood with sudden immediacy. A fast-moving slurry of water, mud, and rock explodes downward and further deepens the canyon before dumping into the Colorado River.

Looky here. See that ribbon of green and white in the lower right corner of the pic? That's one of the major rapids on the Colorado River, as seen from a mile (or thereabouts) above. That's the closest we'll get to western whitewater this year. Sucks, too. Could be worse though, especially after last year's ride down the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, where we almost became a permanent resident of the river. We made it out alive (obviously), but three flips and three long gnarly swims on a swollen mountain river is too close to the edge. Speaking of close to the edge, there is a fascinating book about the 600 people who have died in the last 100 hundred years at the Grand Canyon. Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon maticulously chronicles every fatality; some were leathered old prospectors who fell into mine pits. Many were ill-prepared hikers who succumbed to heat stroke or dehydration or had a heart attack on the hike back up. Other deaths were more bizarre: like the guy who was trying to impress his friends by jumping from rock outcrop to rock outcrop but slipped and and fell 400 feet to his death, as his buddy had the camcorder going. Or the dude who was taking a photograph of the El Tovar Hotel and keep backing up and backing up until... Ooops! BAH BYE! Or the hikers who figured they'd take a short cut up a sandy-bottom side canyon, unaware a thunderstorm had earlier dumped an inch of rain up top, and suddenly they're riding down a death-slide on roiling, boulder-chocked torrent towards the Colorado River. Or the many suicides: the Grand Canyon must be second only to the San Francisco Bridge in this regard. Every year, people walk to the rim edge, give white-eyed onlookers their suicide note, and then take 600 foot Nestle Tea plunges into the abyss. And, so far, ten people have done a "Thelma & Louise" (named after the final scene in the movie where the two despondant women drive their car over the cliff into the canyon). No shit- people actually do this in real life. According to the book, one driver ran atop some rocks on the very edge of the rim and high-centered his car, stopping all forward motion. So he hopped out of the car, smiled and waved at the shocked bystanders, and jumped anyway.

Further down the rim trail, we stumbled across the Orphan Mine. Running into old mines in national parks is rather unusual, especially in parks as well known as the Grand Canyon. Hmmm. Let's look into this a bit: the mine was patented in 1906 after hardscrabble prospectors found some copper deposits. For years, the operation was one of the thousands of small scale mining operations that dotted the western landscape. Until 1951, when geologists found one of the largest known uranium deposits in North America at the site. Uranium, huh? Well, we're kinda in an arms race with the USSR right now. Guess we'll dig the shit up. No reason to let it sit in the dirt. We need more bombs. Fifty-five years later, the site is a debris-strewn eyesore with radioactive waste that will be there 500,000 years from now.

So, we'd advise you bring bottled water if you visit the Grand Canyon, unless you worry not about your bell-end glowing like ET's finger after drinking radioisotopic water. And you might want to avoid the many tourist traps on Highway 64. Unless you're into "authentic Indian crafts" made in the Republic of China.

Go see the Big Hole. Someday.

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