There are thousands of maps of the Grand Canyon. But Flagstaff-based writer Scott Thybony was only interested in one of them when he sat down to write this month's Canyon Commentary. He wanted to see for himself the earliest known printed map of the Canyon. When he did, he inadvertently found something else; the perfect word to describe its magnitude and beauty.
An archivist at the University of Arizona places a large folder on the table in front of me. She handles it gently, and I find myself opening it with equal care. Inside lies an old map, so rare only two copies are known to exist. It covers the northern reaches of New Spain before it became the American Southwest. And it may be the earliest printed map to show the Grand Canyon.
My first glimpse of the 1777 map comes as a surprise, being about the size of a paperback novel. But I can still make out a trail of faint dots, appearing much like a set of tracks in the dust. They indicate the journey taken by an early Franciscan explorer, the same route I followed on foot years ago during a 120-mile trek along the South Rim.
From his base of operations at San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, Father Francisco Garces covered on horseback and mule an immense region from Sonora into distant parts of California. His role as missionary to the Indians intertwined with his wide-ranging explorations. The intrepid Franciscan preferred to travel alone without the usual military escort, and a companion said, "He appears to be but an Indian himself."
The map lying before me depicts the land when it was still a mystery to the wider world. Only a scatter of Indian villages and a few missions fill an immense expanse of deserts and mountains, veined by a handful of rivers. While the map is more accurate than expected, I notice how one of the rivers takes a speculative turn before disappearing into a landscape of the imagination.
In the fall of 1775 Father Garces accompanied an overland expedition to California led by Juan Bautiste de Anza. When they headed west across the Mojave Desert, Garces went his own way. In the following months he pioneered a route across California and then reversed course. He made the first recorded visit to the Havasupai Indians in Cataract Canyon, and on reaching the rim of Grand Canyon became the first European in 236 years to view the great gorge of the Colorado River. The Franciscan continued his journey to the Hopi mesas only to encounter for his chilly reception. Garces turned back, and a few years later died a martyr during an Indian revolt at the Yuma Crossing.
The map before me shows a chain of mountains breached by a river where the Colorado cuts through the Kaibab Plateau. And for the first time a map gives Grand Canyon a name, the one used by Garces. He called it the Puerto de Bucareli in honor of the viceroy of New Spain.
In his diary Garces uses the Spanish word, profundisimos, to describe the most profound canyons opening before him. Earlier, when I paged through his handwritten diary, my eye fastened on this single word. I said it to myself, and the sound evoked a sense of extraordinary depth. Profundisimo. Next time I find myself standing on the edge of this profound canyon, I'll have the word to match it.
Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.