“A man on foot, on horseback or on bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.”
Edward Abbey — Desert Solitaire
I wanted to love Grand Canyon National Park but true confession, I did not. To write these words feels blasphemous. I believe in the canyon itself — the roiling Colorado River and vertical red rock walls, and shadows that get trapped in the canyon’s deep folds. I believe in the canyon’s clear blue skies with puffy white clouds, and prickly pear cactus flowers mixed with the scent of ponderosa pine. I believe in canyon wrens whose songs sound as though they are tumbling all they way down to the canyon floor. I believe that these things have a right to exist without impairment; that it is our obligation to preserve these sights, sounds and scents for their intrinsic worth and for our own sanity.
While I experienced these natural sights and sounds in Grand Canyon, they were nearly drowned in shuttle buses, restaurants, gift shops and visitors who jostled for space along the rail overlooking the rim. Don’t get me wrong. I visited Grand Canyon in my rented Chrysler. I drove in circles looking for a parking spot. I shopped for groceries in Tusayan just outside the park’s south entrance. I ate at the restaurants. I used their flush toilets and filled my water bottles with their conveniently located water fountains. I even took a self-guided tour of El Tovar Hotel and wished I could stay there so that the canyon would be the first thing I’d see when I awoke in the morning. But I could have easily done without these amenities and so could nearly everyone else. I, and they, would have experienced Grand Canyon as it was meant to be experienced – in silence and relative solitude.
The hum of human existence envelops us, so much so that we hardly notice it is there. Once in while we’ll lose power where I live. My little neighborhood is usually quiet save for the occasional barking dog (sometimes my own) and light traffic of my neighbors on their way to and from work. Still, when power goes out I notice how quiet my home becomes. There is no refrigerator humming. No faint buzz of electric lamps. No beeping microwaves or coffee pots. There is no noise at all except for natural sounds. I may not be consciously aware of artificial buzzing and humming, but when absent, the tension that builds in my shoulders and face throughout the day subsides, and I become consciously aware of this absence.
By the end of my first day at Grand Canyon I was exhausted. I had walked from the visitor center to the Village — a distance of only two miles, but crowds along the rim and shuttle buses roaring down the road made it difficult to appreciate the canyon’s wildness. I thought I might escape the craziness of the rim by hiking to Indian Garden about halfway down to the Colorado River. I wanted to go all the way down to the river and peer at its green, frothing water from the suspension bridge leading to Phantom Ranch, but last August my knees began to betray me and ever since I haven’t managed more than four miles without severe pain in my left knee. If I press on beyond four miles, pain spreads to my right knee. When this happens I resemble a character from The Walking Dead. Unable to bend my knees, I swing my legs wide to make forward progress, which sends my torso into an awkward side to side motion. My face contorts into a grimace and I bare my teeth. I might even growl a bit. But I did not come all the way to Grand Canyon to stare into its abyss from the rim with five million other visitors. I wanted to crawl inside it, and I knew I might have to crawl. Knees be damned!
The following morning I hiked to Indian Garden – a trail of never-ending switchbacks. I knew it might be a mistake my knees would make me pay for, but I didn’t care. Hiking into wilderness is my escape from human noise and contraptions. I only truly appreciate a place after it kicks my ass — when I’m dog tired at the end of the day and don’t feel my hip pressing into the hard ground beneath my woefully inadequate sleeping pad, because I’ve been out there, sweating, cursing the sun, praising the birds, grateful for a tiny creek with a pool of water just deep enough to dip my shirt in for the hike back up, even though I know it will dry before the first mile is behind me.
At Indian Creek I found a secluded spot underneath several large cottonwoods. I ate ibuprofen like candy along with cheese and crackers. My knees ached, but I didn’t care because I was alone. I couldn’t imagine where everyone had gone. The trail had been full of hikers. We squeezed passed each other on the switchbacks. A whole army of hikers was out there, but I sat under a family of cottonwoods alone watching a ladder-backed woodpecker fly from trunk to trunk. I scanned the skies for condors but only found turkey vultures. No matter. I knew they were there and that was enough for me. After a time I headed back up the trail because what goes down must come up — this is the Law of Physics in Grand Canyon National Park.
When I reached the rim the humming of Grand Canyon hit me like a tornado. I weaved in and out of the crowds, hobbling only a little. My knees held up surprisingly well. I popped more ibuprofen and headed to my campsite to read in solitude. I’m glad I went, but I probably won’t go back. National parks are meant to meet the needs of the spirit, not every passing desire for trinkets and five-star steaks. There are other, quieter places to explore where nothing can be bought.
Last weekend John and I went camping in a remote area of Montana with friends of ours. It is accessible via a 50-mile dirt road that becomes impassible in even in a light rain. It was quiet. A moose shared our campsite. We didn’t mind and neither did he as long as we stayed out of his willow patch. I heard the buzzing of insects rather than power lines. I read a book in the morning and hiked off trail in the afternoon. There were other campers, but we couldn’t see them. There was space enough to breathe and enough solitude to let the tension go. On the second afternoon my friend turned to me and said “I hope no one blogs about this place.” I can take a hint so I won’t tell you where we were. Instead, find your own place of solitude and don’t tell anyone about it.