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Scratching the Surface of America
Hiking in the Grand Canyon, you can leave the political realities of the US behind – and they're easier to navigate on your return
From Plateau Point, seven miles hard walk from the top of the Grand Canyon, there's a sheer drop, thousands of feet, to the muddy brown Colorado River below. Craggy cliffs on the other side of the river soar upwards, in layers, like a demonic wedding cake, a hallucination, a dream. Behind Plateau Point, the path snakes back through a flatlands of prickly-pear cactus, into the Indian Gardens oasis, and then up, in switchbacks, the ascending cliffs, the path getting ever-steeper, in early April ever-more snow-covered, as it rises. High, high above, invisible from Plateau Point, the fierce path ends and the cacophony of Grand Canyon Village begins.
Only 5% of visitors, according to park rangers, venture anywhere down the canyon trails; iconic paths like Bright Angel and Kaibab. A far smaller percentage go down to Plateau Point, or, beyond that, to the river itself, its frigid waters fed by snow melt.
the top of the canyon, it's all noise and chaos; bus-loads of tourists
pulling up to the rim just long enough to snap a few photos and move
on. It's easy to get contemptuous of the tourism culture up at the
Village. It's overly commercial, everything's handed to visitors on a
plate, it's superficial and so on and so forth. There are an awful lot
of people at the top who seem to view the majesty of nature as
something to be absorbed at speed, in between visits to snack stands
and trinket stalls, for subsequent conversion into a screen saver. They
are, I snootily imagine, doing their utmost to make John Muir, founder of modern American naturalism, and Teddy Roosevelt, the president who kick-started America's National Park system, turn in their graves.
But in the canyon itself, it's quiet; you can still hear birds chirping, you can put your backpack down and luxuriate in the silence, the emptiness, the vastness.
There's something utterly exhilarating about the difficulty of the canyon walk – the descent from icy winter (I wore cleats on my shoes to stop me sliding over the edge at the top) into desert warmth, and the peeling off of layers; the vast amounts of water you need to carry and drink, the pains in your legs as you hike miles down and then slog miles back up, the ascent getting ever more difficult, the air getting ever thinner, just as you get almost entirely depleted of energy reserves. No matter how many times you hike the canyon, there's always a risk factor, always a test of wills between walker and nature.
Down in the canyon, several climate zones removed from the frigid rim, it seemed to me that in some ways this could serve as a metaphor for America itself. It's too easy to ridicule the US, as many Cif commenters love to do, for being all surface, all about image and ease. But, truth be told, there's an extraordinary, incredibly diverse, frequently hard-scrabble country and culture lurking just below the surface. You just have to go looking for it, you have to put in that extra effort to get beyond the identikit strip malls and the endlessly reproduced fast food outlets and big box stores. Once you do that, it's a truly wondrous, albeit at times intimidating, place.
I go to the Grand Canyon every few years to hike; do it too often, and you lose the sense of awe that's such an essential part of the experience. Do it too infrequently and one loses sight of the grandeur, one short-changes oneself on a truly awesome spectacle. It replenishes me, gives me a sense of perspective. When things seem to be going to hell in a hand basket politically or economically, there's nothing like an all-day trek into the canyon to help get the soul back into a sort of equilibrium. Life's the richer for making the effort. It helps me focus on the long-term, and contextualise current problems.
I'm not religious, but in America's south-west, the landscape unfolding before me during the day, the endless starry skies above me at night, I feel like my soul can absorb some of the mysteries and magnitude of the cosmos. It's a calming sensation.
Of course, back at the top, on America's surface, there's still a whole bunch of craziness. There are still Tea Parties and overcrowded McDonalds', brash born-again religious ads by the side of the road and awful rant-radio shows dominating the airwaves. But, somehow, they're easier to navigate after hiking down into the canyon and back again.