Canyons – Part I: Bryce Canyon

Michael row the raft ashore – Hallelujah
Michael row the raft ashore – Hallelujah
Sister help to guide the raft – Hallelujah
Sister help to guide the raft – Hallelujah
Colorado River’s chilly and cold – Hallelujah
Colorado River’s chilly and cold – Hallelujah
Chills the body but warms the soul – Hallelujah
Canyon is deep and canyon is wide – Hallelujah
Milk and honey on the other side – Hallelujah.
As I stood on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, this is the version of the folksong, “The River is Deep” that kept going through my head. The canyon is deep – one mile down from the rim. The canyon is wide – ten miles across on average. The Grand Canyon is one of the most spectacular geographical formations that one can see and visit on this wondrous planet of ours. It had been a lifetime dream of mine to visit and after 81 years I was finally here.

It had taken two days to arrive from Salt Lake City after hearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Sunday morning at their weekly Music & the Spoken Word concert. Some of those songs sung that morning also echoed in my mind, particularly the Gaelic tune, “Morning Has Broken” and Lionel Bart’s lyrics “Who Will Buy” from the musical, “Oliver.” I no longer remembered the hymns – I think they were hymns – that were sung.

That’s not quite true. I do not remember the titles or the verses, but I do recall a few of the sentiments expressed in the final hymn – or was it a folksong that I had not heard before? I remember taking umbrage at the depiction of all the skies as empty when on our travels we had found some of our greatest thrills watching the clouds – stretched out and fluffy, layered levels of black and white, ominous rolling dark skies filling the skies before us. The skies were never empty. On the prairies and on the high flats of the Western plateau they had been dramatic and beautiful. The sky was anything but empty, even when there was not a cloud in the midst of a vast azure vault.

For there were the birds. “See the crow.” “Did you see that turkey vulture?” “There’s a hawk. There’s a hawk.” Nancy’s eyes needed to be on the road but they never stopped perusing the sky before us and spotting birds that it always took me a minute of two to locate, often missing sight of them by the time I became oriented.

I remember a sentence in that final hymn sung by the Mormon Choir, obviously to heaven and the next life rather than to the sky and to the joys of this life: “There is nothing here that deserves my joy.” I googled the sentence, but could not identify the song, so I possibly remembered the line incorrectly. But not the sentiment. The hymn put down this life in comparison to the one that would follow. What nonsense! This world, the sights of this world are absolutely glorious. The skies are not empty, and there is joy to be had in everything you see in nature around you in Utah and in Arizona and in Colorado. The sites are awesome. The light of the sun is not feeble but variable and warm and uplifting. My God would not want me to deprecate nature like that hymn did.

We had traveled south from the flat plateau up through the Pahvant Range and drove by Big Black Candy Mountain, though I could not identify it as we whizzed past.
But, the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

We drove through the Tushar Mountains and up onto the Markagunt Plateau turning off Highway 15 before the highway reached Cedar City in Utah. We then headed towards our destination, Ruby’s Inn in the Bryce Canyon where my youngest son had booked us as a convenient, and perhaps interesting stopping point between Salt Lake City and the Grand Canyon.

What luck! The Pink Cliffs of that canyon on the Paunsaugunt Plateau are spectacular. We had been impressed by Rattlesnake Pass and Hot Springs, Glenns Ferry and the Snake River several days before. But they shrunk into irrelevance when we saw Bryce Canyon. It was at the end of a road. We had to backtrack about 20 miles the next day to get back on Highway 89 heading south to the Grand Canyon. But it was worth every minute, every second. If you are ever in or near southwestern Utah, do not miss Bryce Canyon.

I had never heard the word “hoodoo” before; these were the “Legend People” for the Paiutes who lived in the canyon when the Europeans arrived only about one hundred and fifty years ago. They were products of the voodoo magic of the earth’s formation – red rock bagels on top of pink monumental rocks in the natural amphitheatre that had been carved out of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, weirdly, the “home of the beavers.” There were no trees to gnaw through, no place to build dams or to build beaver houses like we find under our dock in Georgian Bay. Spires rise from the rock formation and the rock sides of the canyon look like a series of wide fins piled row on row.

Earth and water. Water and rock. There is virtually no soil to absorb the water. The porous rocks permitted rivulets to gather into streams and then gushing flash floods as the water eventually collected in rivers to first form gullies and eventually canyons. You can imagine the water collecting and massing and forming columns of water, shot out of the rock like water from a firehose, but carrying rocks and debris to wear away the dolomite and limestone and provide its weathered appearance. Given the different density of the different types of rock and the stones made from silt and mud, differential erosion results in red rock textured as you have never seen it before or anywhere else.

Perhaps even the winds rushing down the cavernous gaps also pocketed the rocks to give them their texture. However, I am sure that water was the prime artist, water that flows, water that freezes and cracks the rock, and water that melts and rushes to find its way to the sea. I daresay in all my travels around the world, I have never seen rock pinnacles like the ones in Bryce Canyon, including the spectacular vistas of The Grand Canyon. They were like an unorganized array of solid red wine glasses sitting on top of the plateau.

When we arrived in Bryce Canyon, we were hit with what was called a monsoon, but the rain was light and fine rather than heavy and pouring. Evidently, the storms can be fierce with high winds and even hail that further pockmarks the rocks. But we never experienced that even though we were there in the right season.

Bryce Canyon, unlike the Grand Canyon, does not overwhelm you with its size. It is, of course, enormous. But it is also intimate. In late afternoon when we first saw the canyon, the light reflected off the red rock provided shadows and shading. It stirred the blood and excited the soul.

Later that evening after dinner, we went back to the canyon to see the night sky. Contrary to the promotional material, I do not think we saw as many stars as we were used to seeing on a dark night in Georgian Bay. But there was a sliver of a new moon and perhaps we did not allow enough time for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. We had a long day and were tired.
However, never had we seen the big dipper loom so large and so close and so bright. The Georgian Bay skies are full of stars, but the milky way keeps its distance. In Bryce Canyon, the sky approaches and embraces you.

With that embrace, we went to bed in Ruby’s Inn to head to the Grand Canyon the next day.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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