At the rim there’s a full silence. A silence that grabs words and whisks them into forgotten crevices. Syllables can’t enclose a place where time and force are masters. We see the canyon and its maker—the muddy ribbon of flow in its shadows—as they are now, as they have been during the paltry span of human recording. To us it’s static, a spectacular maw in the earth where the crust has unzipped to reveal inner layers. But to describe the canyon accurately, or to relate my experience in the canyon, I must speak of movement, for it is the sometimes incremental, sometimes catastrophic movements that shape both of us—canyon and witness.
We arrive to the Grand Canyon from the north down the Toroweap Valley on the same track as the snow squalls. We pass over the white splashed volcanic flanks of Mt. Trumbull. Beginning seven million years ago, cinder cones twenty miles south of this mountain on the edge of the Canyon spewed lava that flowed north up the valley and capped the Uinkaret Mountains. Today the lava would be flowing uphill, but then, there was a much smaller canyon here and the volcanoes were higher than the land around them. It reminds us that two movements have been present in the Canyon through geologic time—the inexorable cutting of the river and the gradual rising of the land around it.
When you reach the rim and shuffle as close as your stomach will let you to the edge of the three thousand-foot chasm below, you expect to see a roaring torrent not a muddy ribbon, a river that doesn’t look like it could carve a hundred feet. You imagine that all the dams and straws in the Colorado must have brought the level down. But the first Europeans to see the river from the southern rim in 1540 thought it was a stream no more than eight feet wide. In fact, throughout much of its geologic time the Colorado has been a smaller river than we know it as. Our “allocation” of the Colorado, our movement and erection of great structures to hold and transport water over hundreds of miles have come during a relatively wet time. 1922, the year the river was split up to grow the crops and cities of the southwest was one of the wettest in four hundred years and has lead to the current problem: too many people trying to live off of too little water.
It’s one of those wicked problems to fix. Who do you cut off the water to first? It’s already been cut off to Mexico, to what was once one of the largest desert estuaries in the world at the Gulf of California, covering nearly two million acres. Most years not a drop of water reaches the Gulf. Today, 36 million people and 6 million acres of farmland depend on this river in its passage from the Colorado snows to the sea. The story of the abundant life created off this narrow band of water is one of immense movement on a large enough scale to shape the landscape, creating cities of steel, plugs of concrete, and green ovals of grass in the middle red sand and dry washes.
We can’t see this record of human movement from the rim at Toroweap. We see the remnants of upheaval. John Wesley Powell wrote ecstatically about this part of the Canyon,
“…what a conflict of water and fire there must have been [in the western Grand Canyon]! Just imagine a river of molten rock running down over a river of melted snow.”
Within the last 518,000 years the cinder cones here were erupting, flowing lava into the canyon where it cooled and created a dam. The largest of these stretched hundreds of miles to Moab, Utah. When the water undercut the dam and broke it open, it created catastrophic change downstream, the movement of centuries or millennia within a few hours.
While standing at the rim, the snow squalls and the falling sun have treated us to a light show in the canyon. The sun slides in at angles, splashing a bright band across the cliffs below us as if highlighting a geologic feature on a map. This is the limestone and its relative hardness has resisted erosion, creating the vertical surfaces we see. We stand on the Esplanade, a broader shale platform that’s been eroded down to create a shelf below the high rim of the Kanab Plateau.
It’s wintry today, a wind carries nothing but chill down the Canyon. It’s a dry slicing cold not a wet, burrowing one. It’s this desiccating element, the incremental rate of decomposition in this area that is responsible for a canyon here instead of a valley. We’ve been in hundreds of river valleys but fewer river canyons, and there’s just a few in the world to the depth and scale of this one. To put it one way, the Canyon evolved: the right conditions were present—rapid downcut, a mixture of hard and soft rock, and a dry climate—to form the spectacle we see today.
Nan Sheperd, a lifelong observer of the forces that shape and define mountains, remarks that a journey to the sources of rivers,
“…is not to be undertaken lightly. One walks among elementals and elementals are not governable.”
Elementals shape this canyon in ways that are slow and powerful. If we stood on the rim for a hundred years we would see the river surge every spring, we would hear the washout of debris down a side canyon during a flash flood and the echo of an occasional boulder slipping from a cliff. Instead, in our brief hours on the edge we must imagine the movement splayed out over centuries. We trace the cut of the rim with our eyes and pull the dry snarl of air in with our noses. And when everyone’s left, I swallow the deafness of the expanse below me, and the distant riffle, rising like a lilting flute, working its way deeper towards the core.