“The Great Unknown”
We have endeavored to explore Grand Canyon, not alone physically, but intellectually, aesthetically, and spiritually as well.
Searching out, in our reading, rare descriptive or otherwise revealing passages about the Canyon has made us the recipients of rich treasure.
What exclamation leaped from the lips of the first Spanish explorer who looked down into what would one day be named “Grand Canyon” we shall never know, although one member of the Spanish expedition is reported to have said that some of the Canyon rocks were bigger than the great tower of Seville in Spain.1 But succeeding explorers, adventurers, VIP visitors, and ordinary lay persons have painted Grand Canyon word pictures — both brief and long — which rival the oil canvases of master artists.
“We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown.”2 That was the 13-word diary entry of Major John Wesley Powell as he and his fellow explorers prepared to enter
Well over a century later, parts of the Canyon are still unknown. Joseph Wood Krutch, in a couple of dozen words, conveys its paradoxical qualities of present-day availability, yet eternal wildness. “There must be few other equally accessible places on earth where it is possible to look into areas never actually explored by man.”
John Burroughs said of the Canyon, “To rave over it, or to pour into it a torrent of superlatives, is of little avail.”3
But, Burroughs notwithstanding, superlatives crept into nearly every Grand Canyon description, whether penned by professional prose writers, explorers, engineers, soldiers, or poets.
“The most splendid exposure of stratified rock that there is in the world.” Those weren’t the words of some visionary bard, but of a scientist who did studies in the Canyon — the geologist Dr. John Strong Newberry, back in 1857. He was with the party of Joseph Christmas Ives, an army lieutenant sent out by the War Department to find out to what extent the Colorado River was navigable by steamboat. The Canyon descriptions by Ives, the military man, were as colorful as the scientists:
“The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below. “4
Ives’ reputation for visionary acumen would have fared far better if he had been satisfied with those descriptive remarks. Referring to the lower Colorado — the land below the Canyon —he wrote in his report:
“The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and 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. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed. “5
Another army lieutenant, George M. Wheeler, who made geographical surveys in the lower Grand Canyon in 1871, envisioned its grandeur in much the way as had Lieutenant Ives. But Wheeler’s vision extended into the future in a way far different. He wrote:
“These stupendous specimens of extended rock-carving . . . stand without a rival upon the face of the globe . . . and will, as circumstances of transportation permit, attract the denizens of all quarters of the world … “6
From all quarters of the globe they have come, tourists from Germany and Japan, hikers from Norway and Switzerland and the Tyrol, youth groups from Canada and Australia, writers from England, poets from France, just plain people from everywhere. The Canyon is a mighty magnet, drawing devotees from across the world.
They come for all reasons. W. E. Garrett of the National Geographic Magazine described one such reason. He called the Canyon the place “Where you can take your soul for a long walk — slowly. “7
Joaquin Miller injected a colorful — at least a rose-tinted —twist to his description: “It is old, old, this Grand Canyon, and yet so new it seems almost to smell of paint — red paint, pink, scarlet . . . every shade and hue of red, as far as the eye can compass. It is a scene of death-like silence, a dead land of red, a burning world. “8
In attempting to write about the Canyon, humorist Irvin S. Cobb declared: “Nearly everybody, on taking a first look at the Grand Canyon, comes right out and admits its wonders are absolutely indescribable, and then proceeds to write anywhere from two thousand to fifty thousand words giving the full details. “9
John McCutcheon was not primarily a writer, but a pen and ink artist, who portrayed Grand Canyon in cartoons. He did, however, come up with an article which contained some advice to Canyon-bound writers which is worth pondering. He said: “In describing the Grand Canyon, one should go into a course of literary training and gradually work up to it. He should start off on the Bay of Naples, do that until he has perfected it, then tackle the sunset on the domes and minarets of Stamboul and work on that until he can do it in bogie. Then sunrise on Mount Rigi, the Vale of Kashmir, and other star attractions of nature . . . When a writer has tackled everything in the line of fancy descriptive writing, he crowns his life work with a pen picture of the Grand Canyon — called by some: ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ For descriptions of the Canyon, see other writers.”10
We are going to do just that. Other writers — dozens, scores, hundreds of them — have come up with such varied descriptions of this greatest show on earth that it is profitable to pursue these further. The Canyon, we have concluded, is like the elephant described by the blind men. One blind man felt its trunk, another an ear, another its tail, and experienced only miniscule fractions of the elephant’s totality. We are all partially blind when viewing the Canyon, or at least our vision is incapable of encompassing its elephantine totality. It is literally, figuratively, aesthetically, and geographically impossible ever to experience it all. En masse, however, we all try, as we shall see further in the following chapter.