One of the best places in the world to contemplate the nature of time and the time of nature is Arizona’s Grand Canyon. As Arizona celebrates its centennial year, staring Feb. 14, 2012, it’s a natural time to think about what 100 years means on several levels.
It took a river running through, and possibly an earthquake, to sculpt an image of what canyon time looks like. As for the Grand one, at least seven layers have been named by time’s progress—from remnants of the former mountain range that exists at the very bottom, up to the Hakatai Shale layer showing an ocean’s retreat, to the Cardenas Basalts proving an era of volcanic activity, up to the top layer of Kaibab Limestone that is estimated to be about 250 million years old.
Estimates vary widely on how old the Grand Canyon is—geological studies have placed it between six and 17 million years. As contrast to the canyon’s age, scientists believe that the Rocky Mountains came into being between six and seven million years ago.
Given that Earth is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old, the ratio between it and the canyon can be compared to the 125 years between when Delaware became the first state of the union (when it ratified the U.S. Constitution) in 1787 and Arizona’s admission into the union of states in 1912. The difference between 4.3 billion geographic years and 125 years of social history matches dinosaurs to oranges, but the comparison has the concept of time as its common denominator.
The largeness of the chasm can also be measured in terms of humanity. From the few humans who visited or lived near it in the past, 4.5 million people now visit the Grand Canyon each year.
The first human beings to see this vast and layered hole were Native Americans, perhaps some of the Anazasi, who did not leave any written or oral record. So this is where readers can plumb the depths of imagination—what thoughts would you have had if you had been the first person to step up to the rim?
In 1540, a Spaniard wrote about another man’s tale of the experience on seeing this place of time, distance, stone and water. Garcia Lopez de Cardenas was a conquistador who led a party of explorers sent on a mission to view the river at the bottom of this rumored canyon. The orders came from explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who then lived in the region of Arizona in a town known as Cibola. The explorers were curious about tales they’d heard from Hopi tribe members that the canyon was the place from where humans first emerged from the Earth. Cardenas brought Pedro de Sotomayor with him as a secretary, and after the trip, Sotomayor told the story to an historian named Castaneda, who wrote an account of the exploration:
As Don Pedro de Tovar was not commissioned to go farther, he returned from there and gave this information to the general, who dispatched Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas with about twelve companions to go to see this river. He was well received when he reached Tusayan and was entertained by the natives who gave him guides for his journey. They started from there laden with provisions, for they had to go through a desert country before reaching the inhabited region, which the Indians said was more than 20 days’ journey. After they had gone 20 days they came to the banks of the river. It seemed to be more than three or four leagues in an air line across to the other bank of the stream which flowed between them.
This country was elevated and full of low twisted pines, very cold, and lying open toward the north, so that, this being the warm season, no one could live there on account of the cold. They spent three days on this bank looking for a passage down to the river, which looked from above as if the water was six feet across, although the Indians said it was half a league wide. It was impossible to descend, for after these three days Captain Melgosa & one Juan Galeras and another companion, who were the three lightest and most agile men, made an attempt to go down at the least difficult place, and went down until those who were above were unable to keep sight of them. They returned about four o’clock in the afternoon, not having succeeded in reaching the bottom on account of the great difficulties which they found, because what seemed to be easy from above was not so, but instead very hard and difficult. They said that they had been down about a third of the way and that the river seemed very large from the place which they reached, and that from what they saw they thought the Indians had given the width correctly. Those who stayed above had estimated that some huge rocks on the sides of the cliffs seemed to be about as tall as a man, but those who went down swore that when they reached these rocks they were bigger than the great tower of Seville. They did not go farther up the river, because they could not get water.
Because the land was rugged and water was scarce, no further written record of exploration happened until 1776, when two Spanish priests who were exploring southern Utah happened upon the canyon’s North Rim in Utah.
In the 1860s, a Union soldier and geologist, Major John Wesley Powell, explored the Grand Canyon by boat and wrote about his observations of the place. His book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, is known as a classic.
It’s one thing to be an explorer, and quite another to be an inhabitant. Modern settlement along the South Rim of the canyon most notably began with John D. Lee, the man who established Lee’s Ferry in 1872. He lived at Lonely Dell Ranch on the South Rim while he ran the ferry operation. Unlike Lee, fortune seekers mining for precious metals put up temporary shelters before moving on in search of other promises.
A railroad line to the Grand Canyon was finished in 1882 opening the scenery to visitors, and by then people who made their living via tourist trade became permanent residents of the area. The El Tovar lodge was opened in 1905 as Fred Harvey’s company constructed several lodges and built a reputation for great hospitality.
There are several small villages near the canyon: Grand Canyon Village, Havasupai, Cameron, Bitter Springs. At present, the town of Tusayan, six miles from the rim, is the newest and smallest incorporated town in Arizona. To accommodate the residents who support the many ways tourists visit the canyon—by airplane, helicopter and bicycle, on foot and on rafting, mule-riding and guided tours—not to mention those who work in hospitality, curio shops and restaurants, Tusayan is experiencing some growing pains.
Tusayan’s Vice Mayor Cecily Maniaci spent summers in her girlhood in the canyon because her parents owned a gift shop. She said, “Arizona is young, as states are counted. In another 100 years we will be gone, but the canyon will hold a small memory of all who visit it and all who have lived here.”
An indicator of the social history of the Grand Canyon area is the school district. It is the only national park with a boundary that includes a K-12 school. The first school opened on July 10, 1911, just seven months before Arizona became a state. The present elementary school and high school were built in 1940, and nearly 300 students attend the schools today.
Perhaps the lure of the canyon helped Arizona get its seal of statehood in 1912. Of the many visitors to the Grand Canyon, President Theodore Roosevelt laid his eyes on this prize in 1903; in 1906 it became the Grand Canyon Game Preserve, and in 1908 it was named a national monument. It took an act of Congress under President Woodrow Wilson to become a national park on Feb. 26, 1919—seven years and 12 days after statehood was established.
Todd Berger, of Flagstaff, Ariz., is a historian as well as the director of publishing for the Grand Canyon Association. He was unaware of any celebration of statehood on the canyon’s South Rim, but Mike Anderson, another historian who Berger claims “has more knowledge in his head about the canyon’s history than probably anyone on the planet,” made a conjecture.
Anderson, of Strawberry, Ariz., said, “Grand Canyon Village was a small, close-knit community at the time, and I suspect they took notice that Arizona was gaining its statehood.” According to him, telephone service was in place in the Village as of 1903, so the news could have been transmitted on the same day. It would take a feat of time travel to learn how statehood was celebrated on the South Rim on Feb. 14, 1912.
Seeing the canyon, unless you live there, is brief, but remembering it can be done anytime through the aid of lens and brush. Within the last 100 years, the Grand Canyon has been the subject of billions of photographs. Emery Clifford Kolb’s name has gone down in history for being one of the Grand Canyon’s earliest photographers. He and his brother Ellsworth made the first motion pictures in the canyon during a river trip in 1911.
Artists have recreated the Grand Canyon on canvas for eons, but one contemporary painter, Bruce Aiken, now of Flagstaff, lived at the bottom of the canyon for 33 years with his wife, Mary. They raised three sons there, and one of them still lives in the canyon. Aiken’s paintings can be seen in his book, Bruce Aiken’s Grand Canyon – An Intimate Affair, or on his website, bruceaiken.com.
It often happens that people who live near a noted attraction never visit it, but the Grand Canyon should be seen and celebrated by travelers from near and far, as it has been for years. Travel in 2012 is easy; plan for it to take approximately four to 4.5 hours by automobile from Phoenix when you travel I-17 to Flagstaff and then take I-40 to State Highway 64 all the way to the South Rim. The cost to enter the national park is $25 unless you have the Golden Eagle annual pass. If you want to drive as far as Williams, Ariz., and take the Grand Canyon Railway along a 65-mile route to the South Rim, the adult round-trip ticket is $70. The cost for a day trip by air from Scottsdale to the South Rim is around $450 per adult and $400 per child.
You can plan a day trip to the Grand Canyon, but if you stay overnight, there are many lodging options within 75 miles of the South Rim, from camping (check with the National Park Service regarding a permit) to staying at a national park-run hotel, historic hotels or bed and breakfasts.
Finally, here’s what to do when you get there: Walk to the rim. Hold onto the rail and get your bearings. Be in awe! Witness the state of Arizona’s first 100 years as the top 1/100th of an inch layer of the canyon’s walls.
Arizona and the Grand Canyon. They are both just a matter of time.