The Colorado Plateau is a symphonic composition in time and space. But it is time beyond comprehension, space bereft of any common referent; it is a mutable stage suited to the exposition of our insignificance; our capacity for damage; our variegated pathos, noble poignancy, contemptible folly.
We ricocheted around the plateau, acquiring discrete images threaded like beads on long conduits of transit. We caromed from edge of precipice to heart of town to dimensionless loci lost in the crossing of the great wide magnitudes as anonymous as unmarked graves windscoured to the precise level of the surrounding terrain. The sky performed for us: a ponderous kaleidoscope of sculpted light and shadow sinuous over the burnished hills and pediments. Rain slanted across mesas fifty miles distant, and crests of buttes glowed like biblical portents behind nearer darker ridges.
On the North Rim a visitor stood with his cohorts between us and the astonishing architecture of the Grand Canyon in late afternoon and declaimed with authority: “The South Rim’s better.” Thus was the North Rim assigned its proper place in the hierarchy of things to see. Others, less worldly, would be heard to say, “It doesn’t even look real.”
Unreal. Like a painting—an artifact of some unimaginable imagination. But what could be more real than eons of rock—leaves in the book of the planet’s genealogy—etched by thousands of millennia of a muscled river’s ceaseless endeavor? And yet¼it doesn’t look real. It defies the coordinates of our accustomed perceptions, because we are not hardwired to witness such dimensions in such direction: not down. Nor into the past in such graphic display. The implications of our transience, our brevity, might be too much to assimilate.
Juxtaposed with austere beauty, the desert intimates mysteries and exposes truths. In the bloodwarm dusk we had crossed Hoover dam and had to stop. That was before the Grand Canyon, which was still miles upstream and days ahead—but the same phenomenon of scale and direction obtained. And it too was—is—the artifact of some unimaginable imagination. I flounder in dichotomy: the dam is a masterwork; a triumph of human will and conception; stunning in its execution, its utility, its artistry. It is a gesture of such innocent hubris that I cannot keep myself from admiring it, while understanding too that I must revile it as an abomination against the natural processes I hold sacred, and that are imperiled by the same worldview that erected this monument to human supremacy. Traffic queued across it—SUVs and semis and little cars like ours—and visitors strolled, and a hot wind blew up along the dam’s face from the river released, churning, far below, and the lights of a tourboat glimmered in tranquil streaks along the surface of the lake where the river lies confined. We ate cheese and bagels as night deepened. Then left, went back into the desert, its contradictions veiled in the night.
We arrowed along the edge of the plateau and stopped at a ruined pueblo some centuries vacant. It stands skeletal and melancholy on a rise of jutting stone above a dry wash, commanding a view of implausible extent. This is another leaf in the land’s genealogy, though at the top of the massive tome: a frontispiece, so to speak. Yet still, in our slivered perceptions, astonishingly ancient: the weathered leavings of a world altogether disparate from our own. What lives did they lead, these builders on butte and mesa, and what displaced them? before, that is, the acts of displacement committed by our own progenitors. We have made of them idols; perhaps it is an innate trait, that we cherish what we have destroyed.
Later, upstream of the Canyon (but still before the actual North Rim: for all the lines of sight evident in the wide spaces, this geography continues to remind us, if we pay attention, of the folly of our linear conception of existence), we descend through layers of time—seafloors stacked like linoleum in an old house—to cross the river short miles below the Glen Canyon Dam. The highway slants through the past, roadcuts knifing through epochs once again beyond the scope of our comprehension. We can, of course, recite (if we have such knowledge at our disposal) the numbers of years, the names of ages, that these mute strata represent—but it is a common mistake to confuse possession of data with understanding.
We weave between summer storms stalking the horizon on titans’ legs. In the evening, when we have camped, toads come out in multitudes; in multitudes they are slaughtered on the roadways. We walk along little-traveled pavement, herding toads from the shoulders, but they insist on coming back. We have to wonder if the asphalt draws them, or if they are in fact everywhere this abundant, and that we are only aware of them here because it is here we walk and because, while they have evolved to disappear into the natural substrate, they become pathetically evident on the one that humans lay across the landscape. In the end we cannot answer our question. A scientifically conducted survey might provide data, but we are constrained by our own perceptions: flawed implements at best.
On the homeward leg we come off the plateau and into the Great Basin. Nevada is a fugue of wide flat crossings between parallel ranges. Outside Ely’s single grocery store where we stop to replenish our supply of cold drinks and ice, the pavement of the highway, which is also Main Street, is laid open by a trenching crew. The color-coded python-corpses of fiber-optic cable stretch recumbent along gutter and sidewalk awaiting interment. Ely, Nevada will boast ultimate connectivity to this Colorado River of a data stream—assuming that local access is designed into the project. I wonder, as we step over the inert serpents (transmitters of the knowledge of good and evil? or do I overextend my metaphors?) and into the store: how much information can a one-store town absorb before it finally ruptures?
In the dusk pronghorn antelope emerge from the low sagebrush, as if the late light causes them to materialize. They stand in small clusters and watch us pass. The world is never so vast as here. Maps diminish it. But wherever human habitations appear, and sometimes where they don’t, heaps of waste and wreckage defile the land: old leavings, less picturesque and less benign than the ruined pueblos of our predecessors. Into what will the huge dams devolve? And of course, there are the barricaded facilities where waste is stored. USA Ecology, Inc. High fences and barbed wire around it. Waste disposal. In Nevada. The insinuations are blatant.
The land still gives the impression of limitless expanse. So one can, with a modicum of effort, forgive our ancestors their illusions that resources would never disappear, the world never collapse into critical condition under the tiny incursions of mere primates. Now, of course, we know better. But we have, without changing fundamentally, become something we were not. We are still hardwired along certain perceptual coordinates. We still fail to bridge the abyss between possession of data and understanding.
You go out and skirt the rim of revelation. You might even glimpse it. Then you come back—because it was, after all, only a brief vacation—to reality. You check your messages. You boot up, log on, read your email, get to work—and let the desert places recede, safely assigned to their proper station within the hierarchy of things to see, and things already seen.
4 July 2001