Peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time can be a sublime experience. The awe-inspiring beauty can overwhelm and take over your senses. But, as commentator Scott Thybony says, not all first-timers are able to go "into the view" of the Grand Canyon. Instead, they remain on the outside looking in.
First-timers to the Grand Canyon, already saturated by a lifetime of images, approach the rim with the belief they've seen it all before. Then the first view hits, and they stand there speechless, or breathless, or start laughing at the unexpectedness of it all. A woman walked up to the overlook by the Bright Angel trailhead. "Oh, oh, ooooh - my goodness!" she told her friend. "It keeps going down...wow!" And after the visual impact softens, an idea often takes hold. One out of every ten visitors will decide to head into the Canyon.
Bright Angel Trail is where they leave the rim and step into the view. One moment they're spectators, and the next they've become part of the scene, submerged among cliffs and a growing sense of immensity. The first trail they take into the Canyon becomes their passage into another, stranger world. And a few will end their hiking days on it.
Several years ago I walked with George Steck on his final Grand Canyon hike. He knew it might be his last chance to go below the rim, so ranger Bill Vandergraff arranged for him to spend several days at Indian Garden. At 78-years old, the former statistician showed the same passion for the Canyon he conveyed in his popular hiking guides. He savored the 6 hours it took to go 4.5 miles, slow but not a record. That goes to a family who started down at 7:00 a.m. and didn't reach Indian Garden campground until 6:00 in the evening.
Each landscape has a particular character, what Lawrence Durrell called the "code of place". With the Grand Canyon it may take a lifetime to break the code, and few have worked at is a persistently as George. He logged more than 6,000 miles crisscrossing the inner canyon, and many of those were done in the heat of the summer under a 60-pound pack. So I asked him what he had learned from his treks. He thought a moment before coming up with a list, which he laid out in an orderly fashion.
"Number 1," he said, "is be careful who you choose as a partner.
"Number 2, treat your feet kindly.
"Number 3, going up hill is generally easier than going down.
"Number 4, fill up your water bottles before a creek flash floods."
Then he paused to think before continuing. "Number 5, you can take too long at a rest stop.
"Number 6, accidents are more apt to occur on the first day of a hike than later."
And with a smile George added a final lesson. "All's well that ends," he said and left it at that.
Next day, I hiked out, and at the trailhead I overheard a man asking his wife if she had brought the map. "I wanted to see," he said, "what we're supposed to be looking at." Many choose to go into the view, but some still remain on the outside looking in.