I’ve been gone again, dear readers, this time on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. It was gloriously refreshing to be unplugged, I must say, but I was thinking of you often, and about how we would have to discuss Walker Percy’s classic essay “The Loss of the Creature,” which so precisely encapsulates the necessity of looking awry, of shifting perspective, if you are to see something as it is.
The Grand Canyon is Percy’s prime example of something that is almost impossible to see as it is because the thing “Grand Canyon” has already been formed in our minds by the countless photographs we’ve seen. Think about what happens when you hear the words “Grand Canyon”; doesn’t a specific image pop into your head? Something very much like this, I’ll bet.
As a result, the pleasure you seek when you visit it is not the pleasure of actually seeing it for yourself and experiencing its infinite variety; instead, you measure your satisfaction “by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex” in your mind. Did you see “The Grand Canyon”?
Your only hope of actually seeing it as itself is to break away from the prefabricated experience. And so we did. Our first view of the Grand Canyon was not from above but from below; and sure enough, as we were putting in the raft in an appropriately calm spot on the river, my initial (and unspoken) response was disappointment: this is it? This muddy brown stream? I’m roasting hot! And thirsty! Where’s the sublimity?
You see the canyon differently down on the river—and I mean down on the river, in a raft that, with a substitution of logs for PVC, Huck and Jim would be at home in. At some point each day we would be passed by a motorized raft full of daytrippers. Sitting 5-6 feet above the water, sipping beverages from a cooler, snapping photographs. They looked showered and well-hydrated but also sadly passive, distanced from the moment-to-moment life of the river.
We were too busy paddling to photograph. Gulping from communal water jugs, legs and hands in the river feeling the subtle changes in current strength and temperature, we were too busy experiencing—riding rapids, paddling furiously so as not to be knocked over by those swiftly approaching lateral waves, then basking in the exhilaration afterward as we floated, hearts beating, eyes dreamily taking in the massive rock walls surrounding us.
A couple days into the trip, on a quiet stretch, I was encouraged to lie down across the boat and hang my head off the side, so that when I looked out the brown river became the “sky,” the blue sky the ground. The rocks moved in and out of formation in front of me, gliding in front and back of one another like ballet dancers; they, rather than I, were moving, it seemed. My niece Bess, her head off the other side of the boat, instructed me: you had to lie there for a little while first and let the perspective change. And then let it change you as you sat up again and saw the canyon anew.
In sharp contrast was our subsequent visit to the South Rim. After emerging from the depths we returned to civilization, showered off five days of sand, sweat, and riverness, and made our pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon in the prescribed way: that is, driving through the admission gates, parking at the visitors’ center, walking on the paved path out to the guardrailed lookout point. Like everyone else, we oohed and aahed and took photographs of one another in front of the satisfying familiar scenes that signaled we were here. We then swiftly set about finding some space that was not already occupied by the hordes, where we might gaze upon the canyon quietly for ourselves and take it in as a whole.
With Percy’s thoughts in the back of my mind, I shouldn’t have found it surprising that this was the place the kids got bored. After some initial picture-taking, they expressed, in so many words, that they’d “seen it” and would give it just twenty more minutes. My sister and I had driven two hours from the rental house in Sedona to the canyon and we were determined to get our time and money’s worth and enjoy a nice walk along the rim. Only the promise of ice cream at the snack bar at the end of the designated trail kept the kids walking more or less patiently with us.
Of course it was beautiful. But the moment we enjoyed most was seeing glimpses of the Colorado River below—and at one point seeing, we thought, the very rapids we had paddled through, that the kids had swum through, and sharing the remembered ecstasy.