Johnnie Discovers the Canyon
by Francis and Helen
1965, and later.
First impressions are vital.
A psychiatrist, Leonard Zunin, M. D., has written a book titled CONTACT: THE FIRST FOUR MINUTES. The title explains itself. When persons meet for the first time, says the doctor, it takes only a few minutes — usually about four — for them to decide whether or not they are interested in one another.
What applies to persons can also be true for relationships with things — cars, cities, razors, or chewing gum. If, on your first visit to a restaurant, you are served a bowl of soup with a fly in it, you may loathe the place forever. If the soup is flavorful, delicious, you are apt to return.
With this concept of the importance of first impressions in mind, when we took our young grandchildren on their initial visit to Grand Canyon we did not plan it like a visit to Disneyland —packed parking lots, popcorn, free balloons, and roar of bands and traffic. We drove them through the pines approaching South Rim, detoured far off to a special solitary viewpoint we knew of, walked through the silent forests together and stepped out to the Rim.
Our six-year-old grandson looked out, looked back and up at us and uttered one word: “Wow!” That may possibly stand as the shortest yet most emotion-packed description of the Canyon which has ever been given.
This quiet approach is in some degree the manner in which Francis and his brother had had their first impressions of the Canyon, in the simple days of the early 1920s.
In contrast, on one of our recent visits, we followed an Indiana couple and their young children as they came to Grand Canyon for the first time, approaching it from Cameron and stopping at Desert View for their initial exploration. This is the point at which a great many of the visitors obtain their first Canyon vista.
Just to get a parking space, even before the exploration began, was a fender-bending experience. The toilets came next — waiting in line, flush and swirl, drying the hands to the whir of an electric motor and a jet of hot air.
Then the grocery store, gift and souvenir shop, and a cafe and quick snack place.
“Double-dips, look daddy, they’ve got double-dips.”
“Not now,” answered daddy. “Come look at this statue.” He was examining two wooden, gaudily painted statues, out in front of the store, lining the sidewalk leading toward the Rim. One statue was of a mountain man, the other of a western gambler.
But the child’s teasing persisted and both he and his sister soon had chocolate ripple double-dips.
“You can’t take those into the gift shop,” their mother warned. “Don’t you see the sign? You stay outside. I want to buy a little present for Alice.”
The asphalt sidewalk from parking lot to Rim led past a gauntlet of Pepsi and Coke machines, an ice dispenser, snack bar, and a neatly-constructed trash receptacle where, hopefully, some of the remainders of the snacks could find a resting place.
The Rim at last? No, not quite. At Desert View, this first stopping place for all those millions who approach from the east, by way of Cameron, the Canyon is most often viewed, not from the actual Rim itself, but from the great view windows or the observation roof of the Watchtower, which dominates the landscape. This tower — of Hopi Indian design — is a work of art, with educational displays as one climbs to the top. We salute it. But anyone entering the tower for his initial view of Grand Canyon first has to salute something else. Many something elses. The whole ground floor — the room which the hopeful viewer must enter — is a colossal souvenir shop. The Indiana mother needn’t have been in such haste to purchase her present for Alice; she would have a far greater assortment to choose from, here.
“Look, we can use our Mastercharge,” called out her husband, reading a sign on the window beside the entrance door.
Just inside, to the left, the visitors from Indiana were greeted with the music of cash register bells, ringing up sales from the drink and snackfood displays flanking the way around the tower’s leftside interior – dispensers of churning red punch and swirling yellow lemonade, two stands of chewing gum, displays of candy bars, Crackerjacks, lemondrops, and boxes of cheese nips, cheese tidbits, and Barnum’s animal crackers.
That was the cash register for the snacks. The dominant bell-music came from the register mounted in the center of the great circular room which formed this view tower’s ground floor. A seven-sided septagon of glass display cases was the centerpiece — seven cases of flashing jewelry, knickknacks, and trinkets.
Beyond this great central display, on the perimeters, were the view windows. But not quite yet time for the view.
Each great window had, in front of it, counters and stools of goods for sale. The choicest view windows (where many see the Canyon for the first time) were flanked and fronted with a five-shelf display of hand carved onyx from old Mexico (including dozens of identical pieces), — oxyx clocks, pots, figuerines, dolls. Squeezed amongst these were replicas of Navajo weaving and baskets, all price marked for sale. On ledges directly in front of each of the view windows, commanding part of your view as you looked, were boxes of pieces and bits of polished rocks (each piece with a large square price tag), piles of Gallup throw rugs, hunks of small flat rocks with paintings on each, and three-tiered displays of books and tiny souvenir drums. Nearly everything was in dozen or half-gross quantities.
“Look, mama, look at all these dolls,” called out the little girl from Indiana, above the clatter of the register bells. “Golly, I didn’t know the Grand Canyon would be like this.”
The girl was in ecstacies over the dolls — cloth dolls, plaster of Paris dolls, wax dolls. She hadn’t seen the Canyon yet. “Oh, look,” called her brother, “there it is.”
Little Johnnie from Indiana had discovered Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell had had to run treacherous rapids to have his first view of the Canyon. The early Spaniards had had to undergo hardships of mountains and deserts. Johnnie from Indiana had had to run a gauntlet almost as severe, and only came upon the view of the Canyon by chance — through a welter of Barnum’s animal crackers, onyx clocks, and Gallup throw rugs.
Initial views are important. By the time Johnnie’s first casual, almost accidental — most certainly incidental — view of the Canyon was mixed with the lather of Coke machines, swirling red punch, gewgaws and fribbles and baubles — his concept of the Canyon was in all likelihood more circuslike than Grand.
“What’s the Grand Canyon like?” his friends and schoolmates back home will ask him next autumn. If he had ever heard of that line from Gilbert and Sullivan he could, with some truth, use it in a reply:
“The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things, of chewing gum and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. “
Chewing gum and sealing wax may well have been his lasting impression.