“For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon, each one makes his own Canyon before he comes, each one brings and carries away his own Canyon.” – Carl Sandburg
There are so many articles, movies, and various stories about the Grand Canyon that it seems almost moot to write another one. After all, it’s one of the most iconic tourist sites in the world. Yet, I feel compelled to write about my experience, because, to be perfectly honest, I wanted to visit the Grand Canyon about as much as I wanted to see the largest ball of twine.
You may wonder how could that be. Well, the answer is simple, really. When I was young, my parents took me and my siblings on a hike in the Grand Canyon. As a child, it was hard to appreciate its grandeur, let alone enduring a long, hot hike to experience it. Unfortunately, the child only remembers that, leaving forever a sour memory.
My husband, on the other hand, had it at the top of his bucket list. So, I agreed to go on the trip and revisit the last place I least wanted to see. I love him dearly, and, of course, every good marriage has give and take.
We decided to stay in Flagstaff, Arizona, for a few days, as it’s only 90 minutes away from the Grand Canyon. To be as prepared as possible for our excursion, we decided to invest a few minutes at the Visitor Center, in Flagstaff. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea. It was packed with what appeared to be hundreds of people asking the poor volunteers the same questions over and over again. My head was spinning from listening to all the different conversations going on around me. When it was finally my turn, I was actually at a loss for words. I stood there with a blank look on my face, not sure what to do next. The woman behind the desk never looked up at me, but rather whipped out a “map” and rattled off instructions while circling points of interest with her yellow highlighter.
I walked away dazed and confused, with key words “limited parking,” “heavy crowds,” “no bottled water,” and “limited access” swirling in my head. These only triggered a feeling of dread. I glanced at my husband, excitement filled his eyes, and I mustered a smile while waving the map in the air like a pom pom. My dear, sweet husband, so eager to see as many American monuments as possible. How could I ever disappoint him?
That night in our cute, little Airbnb house, we planned the following day. That’s when my husband began asking me about my memories of the first time I had visited the Grand Canyon as a child. I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t remember much and hid my lack of real knowledge. I answered his questions with a lot of “uh-huhs,” or “oh yeah,” just adding a hint of enthusiasm to make it seem more real. “Is it as beautiful as they say?” he asked. “Uh-huh,” I replied. “Aren’t you super excited about going back again?” I smiled, with wide eyes and replied “oh, yeah,” all the while hoping he would suddenly change his mind and opt for a day at the spa instead.
We got up early the next morning to make our way to the famous Canyon, heeding the advise we received at the Visitor Center: “get there too late, and you might not get a parking spot.” We were also told that it would be faster to buy our visitors pass in advance, so that we could take advantage of the fast lane to enter the national park. Unfortunately, it was closed (lovely). In the end, we waited in a regular, slow lane until an incredibly friendly ranger pointed out the best place to park and gave a very brief explanation of places of interests, which basically went in one ear and out the other for me.
This is the point I’m going to give my one and only piece of advice: do some research before you go, be informed about what you want to see, and how to see those sites. It seems everyone you come across assumes you already have some sort of understanding about what you’re going to visit.
We arrived at the first parking area, with panic in our hearts, and took the first right turn into the lot expecting gridlock. Before our eyes, however, what do we discover? Hundreds of open parking spots as far as the eye could see. My nostrils flared in frustration. We drove on a bit until it dawned on us that we were essentially in the nosebleed section of a parking lot. You know the place, where only oversized vehicles and those too late for the good parking spots end up. With a heavy sigh, we parked across a large group having a tailgate party at the back of their ginormous RV, which coincidentally had a picture of the Grand Canyon on the side. At 9:00 a.m., with the smell of bratwursts cooking on the grill and sounds of county music blaring from speakers, we began our day of exploring the awe and stillness of Mother Nature?
We took a path, well the only path, unaware of where it would lead us or grant us with a site of the Grand Canyon. When we came to a fork, I tapped my cheek, pondering the famous “road less traveled” vision in my head. When suddenly a family of at least fifty members descended upon us from behind, shoving us as they passed by, and headed left. Obviously, we went to the right. It was a surprisingly great choice because within a few moments we were face to face with the Canyon. I cannot say how long we stood there gazing at it, and nothing I can say will ever do that moment justice. I can say, however, with all confidence, that it seemed as if we were standing at the edge of the earth, and it made our entire trip worthwhile.
At that early morning hour, the haze from the night before sat heavy in the air, casting a shadow over the expanse of the Canyon that turned the rocks into an ominous dark red. I felt like I was in a dream, a dream in which I stood in front of the most beautiful painting ever created. It was at that moment I finally understood what all the excitement is all about. Of course, all good things must come to an end. The sounds of my small children, unattended in their strollers ever so briefly, managed to pull, kick, hit, or spit on each other until I had to give in and move on. Their smiles of their triumph beamed in my direction, knowing they had managed to pull me away from my moment of experiencing absolute serenity.
That was the only highlight of my day. The rest of it was filled with blurs of people taking pictures of every knotted tree branch, rock, or bird they spied through their camera lens. Sheer canyon edges left me full of anxiety, with visions of my children falling to their deaths during that one moment I took my eyes off them.
After a 3-mile walk to the “Village,” which turned out to not be a village, we decided to leave. If you don’t know what you’re looking for or what you are supposed to do, a couple hours is plenty.
To our shock on the free shuttle back to our car proved we didn’t see or experience much. Oh, well, I guess this means we’ll have to go back someday to experience it all over again. Next time, however, I’m coming prepared. As my grandmother always said: “Knowledge is a good thing.”