I just took a Scenic Airlines flight over the Grand Canyon. A small passenger plane that went skimming high and low about the rims and gorges and buttes, the airy pinnacles and steeples of this granite wilderness—the afternoon partly misty, partly cerulean, perhaps not the right weather to show off the immense sight. Certainly I’ve gotten more buoyed up, I think, on the color photos or color films I’ve seen—or is that simply another indication that “reality” is possible for us only when glimpsed through the eye of a camera? Mooney Falls, majestically thundering over a cavernous precipice (at least in the old Living Nature series), looked like a dulcet, snowy stream from the air, and Havasu Falls, a mile or so away, was even more fragile, perfect for a diminutive Japanese garden.
The Havasupai Indian village—the tribe has been here for 800 years—appeared to be almost a series of ant hills, the white roofs of the government-built houses and the accompanying greenery caught in a sandy repose at the bottom of a daring crevasse. We did fly close to a remarkable configuration called Ship Rock and then almost as near to another called Window Rock, whose giant umber sports a hole large enough for a plane to pass through. As our guide noted: One loses all sense of perspective in the Canyon.
But this is clearly territory that one must explore—to the extent that it is possible—on foot, or journey through on horse or mule. Tours, I think, are out of place, much too effete or institutionalized a way of “getting to know” the rugged life. In his book The Man Who Walked Through Time, Colin Fletcher marvels at the Canyon’s sheer depth, says that if you put one Empire State Building on top of another, and then added two more, they still wouldn’t kiss the lip of the gorge. Notes, too, that now it’s no longer necessary to create great works of art—so he says—what’s necessary now is to preserve the great works of nature that we’ve got—a familiar theme, incidentally, throughout the Southwest.
The first American to navigate the Colorado and chart the canyon through which it flows was a one-armed Civil War veteran. Adler, not Freud, may be the psychologist for the adventurer. Major Powell, a geologist, went with a crew of ten men, three wooden boats, and then kept moving ever onward for eighty-four days, at the end of which he had left only seven men and one boat. At the Visitors Center in the Canyon musem, there’s a diorama depicting the expedition in temporary disarray, Powell and his men patching up one of the surviving crafts or shaping new oars out of piñon pine. The most poignant aspect of all this, though, is that these fellows had no idea where the river would lead—or leave them. The men made jests about the “Great Unknown,” which they …