A canyon full of silence
For all I’d been told about this place – the heart-stopping size, the kaleidoscope of color, the eerie window into ancient time – no one had ever mentioned the quiet.
That first evening, arriving at Grand Canyon National Park from a three-day trek west on I-40, we’d parked the van and race-walked the pathways at Mather Point, hurrying for that first look – as if the canyon might snap shut and disappear if we took too long to get there.
It was dusk, and early April, and cold. There were plenty of visitors, but not what you’d call crowds. For some reason I can’t explain, I wanted all of us to get that first glimpse at the same time, together. But each of us caught the fever, trotting faster and faster. The kids began to run. In any case, suddenly we came out of pines and – there it was.
I’d deliberately stayed away from photographs of the canyon before this trip, not shown the kids scenes of its grandeur, all to preserve what surprise is still possible in a digital age. Probably I hadn’t needed to worry about over-exposure, because nothing prepares you for that moment – the entire earth opening up before you into one vast rainbowed space. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" we all breathed together.
Eyes drinking in the pre-sunset haze, the bands of deep red and pale gold, the green-topped outcroppings. Shuffling around for vantage points with the other visitors. Checking back with each other in head-shaking glances that said “Can you believe it? Can you believe this?”
We gazed and gaped and took our pictures. And after the sun sank and we wended our way back to the parking lot to head into the lodge for the night, we spoke in subdued voices, pointing out a few stars, but mostly saying little. And the next morning, when my son and I woke before sunrise to return to the rim, we moved in quiet purpose, zipping winter parkas against the stiff breeze, gathering his camera equipment. At the overlook, we were alone. He set up his time-lapse camera and we stood, awaiting full light. And in the waiting, the utter stillness rose up out of the curling canyon, spread across stone and wrapped itself around us.
No birds, no planes, no rustle in the pines. The Colorado River like a painted swirl of blue-green, too far away to be heard. We were alone in the cold, and with all the otherworldly beauty around us, what I most marveled at was the silence.
If we unraveled the ribbon of time 1.8 billion years ago as the canyon's Vishnu schist rocks formed, what might we hear? The first burst of breathing from a newborn Earth, the stones still singing with the far-gone big bang of Creation?
Here, now, in the pause before morning, the Grand Canyon’s gift to us was utter stillness, the open fathoms of silent air between us and all the history captured in the rock walls below.
We have more than a hundred photographs of the canyon, in varied light, from points along the southern rim. My son captured with a time-lapse the ripple of shadow receding across the carved cliffs. The memory of the quiet I encountered is stronger to me than any of these.