Friday, October 17, 2014

12 – AFTERMATH -- “Grand Canyon Rafting – A Dozen Little Stories”

 “When do you think I’ll stop thinking every day about the Canyon?” Eva asked me recently.

“Hopefully, never,” I said.
* * *
A trip through the Grand Canyon messes with your mind. How can anyone experience the Canyon and not have their perspective shocked regarding their place in the universe?

Right there in the rocks before your eyes is the earth’s record of much of the past two billion years. You touch the evidence with your hands – like worm burrows in layers of the glauconite-green Bright Angel Shale. Once this rock was mud and sand on the bottom of a shallow-water ocean in a time before there were fish, yet swarming with exotic creatures – trilobites, mollusks, snails, sponges, algae, and worms. Today, traces of their lives’ scurrying and burrowing are frozen in cliffs high and dry above the Colorado River. A lot can happen in 500 million years.
Since returning from our trip to my retired life in Oregon, I’ve tried to expand my meager understanding of the Grand Canyon’s rocks. I’ve slogged through the 432-page Grand Canyon Geology. I was amazed by how much detail scientists can explain about that two billion-year history. (And by how little I could completely understand, despite my college degree in geology.)

Knowing its past so well, geologists confidently predict the Grand Canyon’s future:

“The outcome is fairly well assured. The plateaus surrounding the Grand Canyon will continue to fragment by extensional faulting. Erosion will continue to wash the elevated rocks to the sea. The canyon will gradually disappear. Someday the seas will return and deposit new rocks here. Perhaps Ecclesiastes (1:9) said it best: ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.’” –Peter W. Huntoon (“Post-Precambrian Tectonism in the Grand Canyon Region,” in Grand Canyon Geology, 2003, Eds.: S.S. Beus & M. Morales)
There remain mysteries of the Grand Canyon yet to be solved. For me, here’s the biggest one of all:
Early in our trip after Boatman Art had painted for us the big picture of the Grand Canyon’s geologic history, I asked him, “Do you ever get Creationists on your trips, people who believe all this happened in seven days, 6,000 years ago?”

Art said that he did.

“How in the world do they reconcile what they see here with their beliefs?”
“People have all different points of view,” Art said, patiently, “and that’s all right.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being diplomatic or if he really believed that, but I blurted out: “No it’s not all right!”
We hiked one day up to see Indian pictographs – images long ago burnished into vertical cliff faces. Who were the people who made them? What visions inspired them? Did the locally-abundant Datura, a dangerous psychotropic plant, have anything to do with those visions?

Maybe the images were left on the cliffs, as some believe, by aliens from other worlds. Not likely, of course, but more plausible to me than an entire cosmic creation laid down in less time than we took to float through the Grand Canyon. To believe, literally, the Biblical tale, then you also must believe that all the evidence of geology, paleontology, and just plain common sense is an elaborate hoax of the Creator, a practical joke, an omnipotent trick, God’s shenanigans.
The night sky over the Grand Canyon is filled with its own mysteries. The Milky Way is right there, a glittering swath of stars and worlds we’ll never know. Just as most of us can’t easily read the stories in the Canyon’s rocks, we can’t fathom what is out there. But while geologists probe the rocks’ stories with hammers and microscopes, astronomers use complex instruments to see light and hear signals from near the very beginning of the universe.

If you could peer into that night sky far enough, it would be like going back in time – before the Grand Canyon’s Zoroaster Granite was molten rock 1.7 billion years ago, before the 4.5 billion-year-old earth existed, back to the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, and before that… Bazinga!

It’s nonsense, of course, since time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, as the world’s greatest minds explain. And as if that’s not maddening enough, astrophysicists tell us of mysterious black holes, dark energy, and multiple dimensions beyond space and time. Do we live, not in a universe, but in a multiverse? Are there infinite universes? Is everything we think we understand about reality as far from truth as a seven-day creation story?
* * *
The government recently announced that in America we’re living longer than ever before. At my age, that's good news. According to the new data, I should have another fifteen “years of life left,” as the newspaper bluntly put it.

My dentist had seen the same story. We were talking about how long my gold crowns might last and he told me he has a dozen or so patients in their nineties and more, and they still have good teeth and aren’t treating them like they only have to last a little bit longer. He said my gold crowns could last forever.
How long is forever? I suppose for all practical purposes, for me it’s fifteen years, plus or minus. Hopefully, plus. My dentist and I agreed that both of us were going to beat the averages, but still…

How on earth can we reckon our personal time scale with the Grand Canyon’s billions of years or with the cosmology of a forever multiverse? I can see how it might be comforting to invent a god (or gods) to try and make some kind of sense of all this unknowable mystery.
The geologic history of the Grand Canyon, however, no longer falls into that “unknowable mystery” category. Actually, that’s been the case for nearly 150 years, but I guess some people are slow to change. I just don’t understand, though, why anyone would need to believe in a god who goes to such lengths to fool scientists into thinking the universe, including the Grand Canyon, wasn’t created in the last 6,000 years?

On the other hand, for millennia people all over the world have believed in trickster gods. So what do I know?
* * *
Some might argue about how the Grand Canyon got made, but anyone who has been there probably can agree that it is, as John Wesley Powell put it, “the most sublime spectacle on earth.” No landscape can surpass its grandeur – both great and small. It’s so big and breathtaking that it is hard to hold in your head, especially after you leave. Small memories of spectacle linger more easily: snake tracks in dry sand, a bighorn ram ambling riverside and ignoring rafters' excited chatter, a posse of ravens harassing a golden eagle, a chorus line of black-necked stilts strutting in the shallows like tuxedo-clad dancers.

During our recent excursion, thirty-two of us shared far more than a scenic boat ride with heart-stopping white-water rapids. In the forced intimacy of rafting and camping together, old friendships were deepened and new ones forged, and how often can you say that?

* * *
There’s a lot about the Grand Canyon that’s no longer “natural.” Dams, climate change, invasive plants, and visitors have changed things. After all, millions of people come to the Grand Canyon every year and peer down from its rims; 27,000 float the river each season. Developers still hustle absurd plans, the latest on Indian land with some Native Americans backing a proposed desecration that would exploit the Canyon’s world-famous allure.

Yet the Grand Canyon endures. Those who love it most – the river guides and their companies, scientists, park rangers, artists, and natives – have found a good balance. The Canyon, despite demands to love it to death, is well-managed. If, heaven forbid, I never get back there again, I’m confident that the Grand Canyon that so touched my soul will be there as I remember it for my grandchildren.
Our rafting trip ended on the eighth day, just the right length of time. That surprised me; at the beginning of the trip I could barely stand the thought that our adventure would too soon be over. It turned out that after a week of playing hard, I was exhausted. Used up. Content to have our perfect moment end.

As the days of our lives rush by, we can only hope they end in so gracious a manner – just enough time and not too much. Meanwhile, I’ve still got another fifteen years (plus or minus), which should give Eva and me plenty of time for at least one more ride down that river through the Grand Canyon. Maybe I’ll see you there. 

"Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it." --Norman Maclean

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