Grand Canyon – Where Theatre Is The Drama (1999, 2010)

Grand Canyon –  Where Theatre Is The Drama (1999, 2010)

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In a planet shrunk by satellite and cable television, one in which armchair travel has excised the excitement out of journeys and rendered redundant, superlatives used to describe exotic destinations, there are still places that awe the visitor with their beauty and grandeur.  Grand Canyon in Arizona in the United States is one such. The canyon richly deserves its apt appellation. Chiselled by the Colorado river that courses through the desert State of Arizona, Grand Canyon is one of nature’s marvels.

On a recent trip, I had the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of this spectacular rocky range from the window of my airplane which was supplemented by a worm’s eye view from the ground subsequently.  The view from the top gave a glimpse of the folds and creases of shale and rock that stretched endlessly across the desert while the view from the ground offered a collage of nuanced striations wrought by the Colorado river over millions of years to create nature’s most spectacular cleave a mile deep and ten miles across.

The national park can be visited from both the north and south rims, each offering its own unique experience.  While the southern rim is easily accessed and has the most spectacular and panoramic views, the northern rim is at a higher elevation and supports a variety of wildlife; , but it is relatively more difficult to access.  On an earlier visit a decade ago, I had visited the south rim and would have liked to have hiked to the north rim this time around.  However, being neither young nor fit enough, I have had to be content with a visit to the South Rim with a short trek down to the valley to get a better glimpse of the vertical rock formations that rise like some giant cathedral from the entrails of the earth.

Five million tourists visit the Grand Canyon National Park every year and most of them head straight to the southern rim.  There are hardy trekkers who hike from one rim to the other over four or five days. The Park offers several adventure options for those in search of adrenaline rush. You could raft in inflatable dinghies through the tortuous bends of the river, trek from rim to rim, para-sail over the cliffs to get a bird’s eye view or simply hover over the rock formation in a helicopter. The sedentary need not despair. You can still get the feel of all these and more if you watch the IMAX movie at the theatre where the camera zooms through the choppy Colorado river in a raft and flies dangerously in a mini-plane in stomach-churning loops and dives.  For those venturing to the western canyon after 2007, there is a controversial skywalk wherein you walk on transparent fibreglass pathway across the canyon to get a glimpse of the canyon floor 4000 feet below and observe the environs from a cantilevered observation deck.

Where the theatre is the drama

Grand Canyon is indeed nature’s theatre, but one in which the theatre itself is the drama!  The design of the theatre is the handiwork of primeval upheavals, the colour scheme has been wrought by the geological composition, the brilliant light effects have been specially put up by Arizona’s desert sun while the echo of caverns and the whistling wind provide the sound effects. The Grand Canyon is nature’s own virtuoso performance, unrivalled and unsurpassed by any of her other rock formations on planet earth.

Grand Canyon can be accessed easily from Los Angeles or Las Vegas from the west coast of the United States or from Phoenix through the towns of Williams and Flagstaff.  As is the case almost everywhere in the US, there are few public transport options if you can’t drive. Fortunately for us, Bhabani and Milu, our friends in Phoenix graciously offer to drive us to the park nearly 400 kilometers away, a distance that is covered in just under four hours.  The road splices through rolling hills sparsely covered with vegetation. Brown is the predominant shade. Cacti line the highway on both sides against the backdrop of distant mounds. There is little inkling of what to expect when you reach the site.

Until it bursts upon you in all its grandeur. A seemingly endless gorge sporting the entire spectrum of colours from smoky blue-grey to various shades of brown, red, russet, interspersed with the dark green vegetation, craggy rock faces that rise up to a height of one mile, the bright desert light casting chiaroscuro patterns on the surface of the rocks.  I had been warned that the national park has notoriously unpredictable weather and that even in summer it could suddenly turn chilly and windy, so I had come well-prepared with layers of clothing and good trekking shoes. But the weather turns out to be excellent and the light, just right for all those brilliant photographs.  The park is not too crowded, giving us an opportunity to explore its many splendours at leisure.  Falcons glide languorously over the cliffs while the Colorado river, visible only from some angles, seems like a supine little serpent sensuously wending its way through the cracks in the rocks.

Lunar Landscapes

The vertical cliffs might seem like lunar landscape or Martian surface to the untrained eye, but to the animals and the many tribes of native Indians who had settled here four thousand years ago, the canyon is a cornucopia.  It is home to a host of flora and fauna including big-horn sheep, mule-deer, mountain lions, bobcats, coyote, squirrels, racoons, beavers, gophers, etc.  Radiocarbon dating of artefacts found in the caves is said to have established the existence of humans inhabiting its numerous caves, crags and crevices while some had settled on the sandy banks of the river, building tiny mud dwellings. The Anasazi Indians who made their settlements on the banks of the Colorado river managed to coax the rocks to yield cotton, corn, beans and squash which they grew on its terraces. The canyon was almost continuously inhabited for several thousand years testifying to its ability to support life not just of the hunter-gatherers, but also of settlers and cultivators.

Periodically, cataclysmic events of nature, possibly climate change, forced the tribes to move on. The Anasazi relocated to Rio Grande and the Little Colorado river drainages where the Hopi and the Pueblos of New Mexico now live. For about a hundred years, the canyon is believed to have been uninhabited by humans. Subsequently the Paiutes from the east and the Cerbat from the west re-established their settlements in the early 19th century. John Wesley Powell, a soldier-geologist and the first Caucasian to raft down the Colorado river in 1869 found the Paiute and two other tribes in the canyon. The Navajo Indians arrived later. The native Indian cultures were leading their idyllic existence in the canyon until the US Army moved them to the infamous Indian reservations 1882 as part of the removal efforts.

Native people are, in fact, still farming in the Grand Canyon, if not in the park itself. In Havasu Canyon, a narrow side spur, the Havasupai, or Havasu ‘Baaja—”people of the blue-green water”—tend fields where they’ve lived for at least 700 years. In the village of Supai inhabited by around 450 villagers, there are no roads or cars, so almost everyone takes the eight-mile trail in on foot, horse, or mule. Mercifully, it is this very inaccessibility which has kept them away from prying eyes and prevented them from being turned into exhibits for tourist benefit.

Cliff Hangers

As we pick our way through rocky ledges we spy many tourists posing for photographs literally on the edge of the cliffs.  The risk of fall over the cliff is real, but the risks of dying of a heat stroke are greater. For, in the canyon, the temperatures could touch 80 degrees Celsius in the Inner Gorge. Anyone hiking in the canyon even for a short duration is advised to carry enough drinking water. We rest frequently on rocky ledges, admire the vistas and move slowly so as not to tire ourselves. But even after hiking for a couple of hours, the river is nowhere in sight and we reluctantly turn back since it might soon get dark and we could lose our way. There are, of course, guards of the national park on duty at every few yards to lend a helping hand to stranded or weary hikers. As we make our way back, a setting sun has streaked a riot of red on the horizon, a perfect end to a glorious day.

The next day, our friends drive us to the picturesque town of Sedona with its striking red rock monoliths named Coffeepot, Cathedral and Thunder Mountain. We make our way to the Oak Creek Canyon where natural rock formations offer a wonderful bathing and lounging. The place is choc-a-bloc with visitors, many who have come for a swim while some lounge around sunning themselves on the rocks.

Sedona is a seductive spot where many Hollywood films have been shot. The red rock buttes and the desert landscape provided a striking setting for films like Broken Arrow (1950) starring James Stewart, Midnight Run, Robert de Niro and Stay Away Joe by Elvis Presley. A wilderness until fifty years ago, Sedona is now a holiday destination for all those who seek refuge from the tumult of towns all over the world.

We wrap up our visit to the magnificent State of Arizona humbled by the overwhelming manifestations of Mother Nature’s raw power.

(Published in Frontline dated Jan 29, 2011)

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