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Peter Turchi

Canyon View


Cárdenas’s men spent three days looking for a passage down
to the river. Captain Melgosa and one Juan Galeras and another
companion attempted to go down at the least difficult place, and
went until those who stayed above were unable to keep sight of
them. They returned in the late afternoon, not having succeeded
in reaching the bottom. What seemed easy from above was not
so, but instead very hard and difficult.
--from accounts of the journey of Francisco Vásquez de Coronadois
            “What is it about that place?” my wife asks.
            She means the Grand Canyon; she wants to know why I need to keep going back. Though if anyone knows, it would be her: we saw it together—my first time—nearly 35 years ago, in August. I had driven across country with a kidney stone, the tiniest sliver of calcium compounds, a miniscule collection of crystals, an implausible cause of blinding pain. The next night she’d have to call an ambulance to get me from our hotel to the hospital in Flagstaff. But that afternoon, far above the turbid Colorado River—I would have been envious, if I had known how effortlessly its flow moves house-sized boulders—I walked along, both hands pressed against my abdomen, focused narrowly on my feet until she—my girlfriend, then—called out. I had wandered off the path. My right foot stopped inches from the rim.

            Although we were driving west to settle me into an apartment in Tucson, somehow, lamentably, over the four years I lived there, I never got back to the Canyon. I did, however, become enamored of a landscape no one I knew had seen: the lush part of the Sonoran Desert surrounding the city. My first guides were Richard Shelton, Joseph Wood Krutch, John C. Van Dyke, John Wesley Powell, Wallace Stegner, Mary Austin, and Edward Abbey. I spent as much time as I could surrounded by ocotillo and creosote, prickly pear and palo verde, mesquite and ironwood, and those imposing, improbable saguaros--themselves home to Harris’s hawks, elf owls, Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, cactus wrens, and anyone else who could find a room.

                 The first going-down into the desert is always something
of a surprise. The fancy has pictured one thing; the reality
shows quite another. Where and how did we gain the idea
that the desert was merely a sea of sand?
--John C. Van Dyke


       Sixteen years after a kidney stone nearly sent me over the South Rim, I finally got back to it, on a chilly day in December, with our then-8-year-old son. A light snow hung in the air, buffeted by breezes, rising in updrafts.

            “I want to go down there,” I told him, surprising myself. I was no hiker. But while my wife was captive in a hotel’s conference rooms in Phoenix, he and I had driven the Apache Trail, been the lone visitors at Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well, circled Hovenweep, and explored unmarked ruins on private land. The combination of landscape and history tantalized: no matter how ardently we reached out, it eluded our grasp.

          “Let’s go,” my son said, and a few minutes later we were, like countless tourists before us, winding down the switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail, completely unprepared. Even below the rim, gusts were strong enough to feel threatening; it didn’t take any imagination to picture being swept away. I doubt we went half a mile before turning back for the surprisingly steep climb. (The source of one of the park rangers’ biggest headaches: What seems easy from above is not so, but instead very hard and difficult.)

          Back at the rim, he got his Junior Ranger badge, and we vowed to return.


I have come once more to look at, to listen to, and, this
time if possible, to be more intimately a part of, something
whose meaning I have sensed but not yet understood.
--Joseph Wood Krutch


            It took 12 years. For my 50th birthday, in October, the three of us ventured down the first two miles of the Kaibab Trail and, the next day, the first two miles of the Bright Angel. Gloomy clouds sent intermittent rain; the wood and stone steps were covered with some combination of mud and the deposits of the Canyon’s famous mules. Even so, descending into what felt increasingly immense had us in awe, in that word’s true sense: reverence, combined with fear and wonder.

            We had moved back to Arizona, closer to temptation. The next year I managed to entice my wife to hike all the way down to the river (and back).  Coronado’s men could only have dreamed of the wide, well-maintained trail leading to a shaded cabin with a queen-sized bed. A mule deer pressed its nose against our window.


After entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality...these dismal abysses.
--Joseph Ives, a lieutenant with the army's Corps of Topographical Engineers, in 1853, after exploring the South Rim


            Not everyone is captivated. One friend, after he and his brother hiked down and back: “It was nice.” Without enthusiasm. Another, a screenwriter from Los Angeles who rafted the Colorado as part of a film project: “After an hour I said ok, I get it. Can I leave now?” More recently, as we stood in line for the shuttle in Zion Canyon (yes: in line for the shuttle), the fellow behind us told a friend, “The Grand Canyon is nothing compared to this. I mean, at the Grand Canyon, you drive up, you walk to the rim, and you’ve seen it.”

Last year, just over five and a half million people visited Grand Canyon National Park. At Phantom Ranch, the rangers tell you that only 1% of all visitors spend a night below the rim. Two percent of that group say they never want to do it again.

          Which is just as well.


Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman
spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a
ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I
want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire
scene intimately, deeply, totally.
--Edward Abbey

          One year. That’s how long I was able to wait before hiking rim to rim. This time my wife (eagerly) volunteered to stay at the North Rim—walking through pine forests, stargazing—while I hiked north to south with our son and two of his friends. We made the trip in August, despite the Park Service’s warnings, but started just before dawn, and spent an indulgent hour taking turns on top of a tall, moss-covered cone of rock being drenched by Ribbon Falls.

          While I was by far the slowest of the group—I am, nearly always, the slowest of the group—when the young men collapsed on their bunks, I headed to the river to walk the mile long loop that allows one to stand on both suspension bridges: the black (mule friendly) and silver (pedestrian only, with the South Rim’s entire water supply running through a vulnerable-seeming pipe just beneath your feet). I got back to the ranch, shamed them into joining me, and walked it again.

          When we finished, I suggested we walk back north to Clear Creek Trail. I was making a nuisance of myself. My son agreed, mostly to keep an eye on his old man, and we picked our way over a rockslide to get as far as the overlook, peering down at Phantom Ranch, the remarkably small hub of canyon traffic—hikers, mule riders, river runners.

          I imagined staying longer, going beyond the corridor trails, getting not so much deeper into the canyon but wider. The impulse is not only to get away from fellow travelers—though there’s that—but to somehow be more fully immersed in a place that seems to have something to say about the earth and time and what we might find out about ourselves in a place that inspires such profound wonder. I am about as badly equipped—near-sighted, flat-footed, un-survival- skilled—as a person could be for such a trip.

          “Let’s do it,” my son said.


“What is it that draws us to the boundless and the
fathomless? Why should the lovely things of earth—
the grasses, the trees, the lakes, the little hills—appear
trivial and insignificant when we come face to face with
the sea or the desert or the vastness of the midnight sky?
Is it that one is the tale of things known and the other
merely a hint, a suggestion of the unknown? Or have
immensity, space, magnitude a particular beauty of their
own?...We do not see, we hardly know if their boundaries
are limited; we only feel their immensity, their mystery,
their beauty.”
--John C. Van Dyke


          Last February, taking advantage of a day between obligations, I drove hours out of my way to walk a few miles down into the Canyon wearing dress shoes and an overcoat. I spent the night in Powell Lodge, all of a hundred feet from the rim--and woke to find myself magically, wondrously, snowed in. At times the Canyon itself was nearly erased, the combined snow and fog making a joke of the sign that read “How’s the View?” But then the temperature would drop, and the trees and rock came into sharp focus.

          That morning I walked the rim trail—or the nine inches of snow on top of it—without seeing another footprint. Elk grazed beneath the pines, breathing steam. A wish had been granted: through dumb luck and providential precipitation, I had the place to myself.

          Now that you’ve got it, I wondered, what do you want to do with it?


“The Grand Canyon was not so much revealed as
created…It has meaning, and that meaning depends
less on the scene’s physical geography than on the
ideas through which it can be viewed and imagined.”
--Stephen J. Pyne

            The first images of the Canyon I knew were Thomas Moran’s wood engravings accompanying Powell’s record of his journeys. Those were followed by who knows how many paintings, drawings, and photographs—including my own—all insisting Look. Look. Look. Mark Klett’s photographs are the most recent to make me look at and to see what I’m tempted to say I know, in a new way.

          One night last summer, long after dark, my wife and I lay back on Moran Point watching distant bits of dust and rock flare across the sky. Some stars assembled constellations; countless others hovered, tempting us to shape them.


Nature’s way here, her process and her moods,
correspond to some mood which I find in myself.
--Joseph Wood Krutch

          What is it about that place?

          I live in Texas, but I see the Canyon more often now. I hike it, on average, once a week. I’ve hiked it eating breakfast, and I’ve hiked it while reading a less than engrossing book. I’ve hiked it sitting, having my hair cut, and lying face down in the chiropractor’s office. I imagine turns in trails I’ve only read about; I imagine two weeks of sand in my boots, sun exposure, and damp shorts on a dory trip down the Colorado. I imagine being flung overboard, and choking down a pint of muddy river water. I’ve stood, head craned, as a California condor dove low enough for me to read its tag; I imagine confronting a bighorn sheep, a mountain lion, a red canyon rattler. But it isn’t a desire for drama that draws me back; it’s that contemplation from the ledge, the sense of imminence—followed by the confrontation with something both bounded and fathomless, fully illuminated yet mysterious.

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Peter Turchi is the author of six books, including A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic and Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he teaches at the University of Houston

All Responses:

Respond to a Prompt:

Submit your response to our current prompt(s). See our Submissions Guidelines page for details.

Peter Turchi is the author of six books, including A Muse and A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic and Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he teaches at the University of Houston