Go Big or Go Home

January 24, 2011

Like most American’s I grew up with an affinity for big things. As a child, I used “big” to describe all things that I really liked. I lovingly named by maternal grandfather “Big Grandpa” who only weighed maybe 150 lbs. When it came time to choose a profession, I chose civil engineering because of the potential to work on big projects.

After college I moved to the big city of Chicago. Unfortunately, while growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t develop an appreciation for big nature. Sure, we had huge fields, but there’s something different between unobstructed horizons and soaring mountain peaks. Over the last few years, I’ve now had several chances to experience the awesomeness of big sky country. My trips to several of the western states and National Parks have shown me man cannot compete with nature for size or beauty.

With those feelings on my mind, I was extremely anxious for my first (I’m assuming there will be many more) visit to the Grand Canyon. From witness accounts, I had surmised that the Grand Canyon is the “can’t miss” sight of the North American Continent.

We arrived on a cold and rainy October day. I wore multiple layers and still a biting wind made it too uncomfortable to stay outside for long. Denying our instinct to run straight to the edge of the canyon, we decided to get lunch and hope that the weather passed. From one of the outer visitor parking lots, we boarded the convenient park bus system and rode into “town.”

Over a big bowl of chili, my wife and I read the park bulletin and planed out our lone day at the Grand Canyon, should the weather begin to cooperate. After lunch, it was still raining, but we pressed on toward the rim nonetheless.

My first view of the canyon came from Yavapai Point. Despite the low storm clouds, we could tell that the canyon stretched for miles. It was almost too much to comprehend. The scene was so expansive that it felt like looking at a large canvas painting.

We retreated into the Yavapai Geology Museum to learn a little more about the formation of the canyon and warm up. Heat and pressure generated by colliding tectonic plates that caused the Colorado Plateau to rise more than 10,000 feet about 70 million years ago. However, the oldest rocks observed by geologists within the park date to 1,840 million years old. Over the millennia, the Colorado River cut through the plateau. Weak strata were eventually undermined and the width of the canyon grew.

Armed with more information about the canyon, I was determined to explore the park. While I planned to hike into the canyon, my wife decided to explore more of the rim vistas accessible by bus. Following the recommendations for carrying water and food, we split our snacks and went on separate adventures.

I set off down the South Kaibab Trail which was advertised as steep with expansive views. Just past the trailhead, I encountered dozens of steep switchbacks cut into the canyon walls. Although the hikers heading back up the trail looked exhausted, I could help but run gleefully into the unknown. About 30 minutes into the trip I arrived at a rock outcropping named the “Ooh Aah Point.” The view was incredible, but I feared that the strong winds would blow me off the bluff.

Continuing down the steep paths, I began to wonder if I’d make it back up in time to rendez-vous with my wife. After three miles descending, I arrived at Cedar Ridge. At this point, I was still a half-day’s hike away from the river. The weather was much improved at this rest stop, about 1,140 feet below the rim. I stopped to snack, take in the sights, and watch the clouds move slowly across the sky.

Unfortunately, I did not have time to continue my hike into the canyon. I tried to maintain an aggressive pace hiking back up the trail. Very soon my calves started to burn and I was out of breath. I focused just on taking deep steady breaths. Gradually, I began removing layers as the workout intensified. In the end, however, I hiked back up the trail much faster than the posted trail times. It was thrilling to stand back at the rim and trace my path.

Whether described as big or grand, words cannot fully describe the Grand Canyon. The visitors’ guide attempts to explain why we consider the canyon so grand.

“Often described as Earth’s greatest geological showcase, the ensemble of stunning dimensions – the melding of depth, width, and length – sets the Grand Canyon apart. Nowhere else features such a dazzling variety of colorful rock layers, impressive buttes, and shadowed side canyons. Grand Canyon is the canyon against which all other canyons are compared.”

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