Grand Canyon Love Story chapter thirty-eight

Time Marches On

As we come over from California to Arizona toward the end of April each year, preparatory to our May 1 wedding anniversary hike into Grand Canyon, we experience the annual confusion of TIME. On the last Sunday of April, the nation’s clocks are turned back. Daylight Saving Time officially begins.

Everywhere, that is, except Arizona. This is a state of individualists — old-fashioned western, cowboy-type diehards. Why should they kowtow (no pun intended) to the national whim? Why should they be concerned with saving daylight? This clear-skied, open-horizoned state — so they reason — has daylight to spare. Daylight Saving? Forget it. So Arizona keeps on Mountain Standard the year round.

All of Arizona, that is, except the Indian reservations. These native Americans — and who can blame them — are becoming as independent as the native Arizonans. Why should the red brothers (and sisters) stick to Mountain Standard Time just because the white brothers do? On the last Sunday of each April, the Indians turn their clocks ahead to Mountain Daylight Saving.

Some of the Indians, that is. The state of Arizona has nearly two dozen different, independent reservations, each more or less a nation unto itself. The Hopis are at odds, these days, in many ways, with the Navajos. Why should they go to Daylight Saving just because their Indian neighbors do? The Apaches to the south, the Pimas to the west, may have other independent ideas. The Yumans are close to their kin in California. Rather than switching to Mountain Daylight Saving Time on this last Sunday in April it may suit their whim to continue on Mountain Standard, which is the same as Pacific Daylight Time just across the Colorado River.

Then, on the first of May, we started (on Mountain Standard Time leaving the Rim) our annual hike down into the Canyon.

Here, the real shock came. The Grand Canyon is the one place in the world whose existence — whose very creation — is built and dependent on TIME. But man-made time? Perish the thought. In the Canyon one begins to understand what time is all about. That long hike from the South Rim, down Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch, is a journey, not through space, but through time.

The hiking distance is nothing. As the raven glides, it is only a few miles. But timewise — now you are talking. At least the rocks which surround you are talking. Here, instead of red man’s and white man’s time, the Canyon records its time by the color of its rocks.

The upper layer — the sedimentary deposits through which our hike started — wasn’t even worth mentioning on nature’s cosmic clock. It was only a couple of hundred million years old. But soon we descended to a point where the clock had really been ticking — to the great Redwall Formation. This 500-foot layer of limestone, tinted red by iron deposits from untold millennial drippings from the Supai layers above, has been 330 million years in the making — give or take a few millions. To grasp the breathtaking scope of all this, one needs to focus on that word “millennial.” A millennium is a thousand years. In one million years there are one thousand millenniums. If our computer is correct (and this Grand Canyon is a locale that can drive the best of computers crazy), 330 million years represent three hundred and thirty thousand millenniums. It becomes apparent that one needs to expand the English language for use in this Canyon.

The next major layer we encounter is the Muav limestone, 500 million years old. But we’ve only commenced. To avoid brain fatigue (although every visitor to the Canyon depths gets it if he seriously ponders the age of his surroundings) — to avoid mental collapse, let’s come to grips with the time-clock below the Devil’s Corkscrew as we approach the Colorado River itself. We’re marching downward through the layer of the Vishnu schist.

Speak that name with veneration. Hold it to your heart. Memorize it. Repeat it reverently. You are standing in the presence of the Eternal. You are walking (or riding muleback) through some of the older rocks on earth. The Grand Canyon is one of the few spots on earth where man (or woman, or child, for they come here too) can conveniently get down to a depth where ancient rocks such as this are visible. Here is what seems like the very beginning of TIME.

Two billion years is too much for us to grasp. It might help to explain that this area is thought to have once been as high as the Himalayas of India — from which the name Vishnu derives. Time, aided by the river and air and ice and all the elements, has worn it down to a present elevation of 2500 feet.

Standing here below the Corkscrew, looking at all the twists, and strains, and sprains and contortions of the exposed rock surface that represent the marks of two billion years, we began to realize that it didn’t really matter whether our watches were on Mountain Standard Time, or Daylight Saving. The Grand Canyon goes on Geological Time. It throbs to a clock rhythm all its own. Its dial is Eternity itself.

The park service has endeavored to represent this graphically in an exhibit at the South Rim’s Yavapai Museum. On an enormous “three minute” wall clock, each tick represents 11 million years. The Vishnu schist in the Canyon’s floor was deposited at the first tick of the clock, two billion years ago. In the final second of this three minute program, the Colorado River began its work, and human beings appeared on earth.

One of humankind’s latest gadgets, the digital quartz watch, might very well have been dreamed up right here in Grand Canyon. The time-keeping element in the new watches is a tiny sliver of quartz rock, which pulsates or vibrates at a constant rate of thousands of impulses per second. Did some pecuniary genius one day stand on the Rim of this Canyon and exclaim, “Egad, think of all the watches that could be made form the granite in that gorge below.”

But did he also think: “If each tiny sliver of quartz is pulsating thousands of times per second, how many pulsations would that be in two billion years? It would take the figure 1, followed by a complete book of zeros, even to approximate the figure.

If Grand Canyon is to be compared with any timepiece made by humans, it would have to be called the great-great-great grandfather clock of the ages.

In one of the annual contests of the Liar’s Club in Wisconsin, the year’s winning lie was of a grandfather clock so old that the shadow of its swinging pendulum had worn a hole through the back of the clock.

In the grandfather clock of the Grand Canyon that bit of fabricated fancy strikes very close to the truth. The shadowed places in the Canyon’s depths — concealed nooks where sunlight never penetrates — shelter frost and ice which linger long after winter’s storms have passed. The ice melts a bit by day, and refreezes at night. Its action breaks up the rocks, literally shaping the Canyon. In this greatest of all grandfather timepieces, the shadows have helped wear a bigger hole in the clock.

Time — as humans count it — is completely meaningless in Grand Canyon. Einstein must have wrestled with concepts such as one experiences here.

In the Canyon, for the first time perhaps, one can begin to get a tenuous handle on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It can be the oddest — almost most insulting — description of the Grand Canyon that has ever been written, but this Time Clock of Eternity might be described in Einstein’s four symbol equation E = MC2. To the average lay person — and that definitely includes us — Einstein’s theory, and the time factors involved in the Canyon’s formation, are equally incapable of being comprehended.

Einstein’s equation led eventually to the development of atomic power. Down here in the Canyon one is subtly conscious of a power far greater, far deeper, than the atom. One sees and feels, here, the power which is ultimate.