From the desk of Michael J. Dax #FindYourPark
This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary and as the National Park Foundation said, “the Centennial is more than a birthday. We want people everywhere to embrace the opportunities to explore, learn, be inspired or simply have fun in their 407 national parks….” UNP asked its authors to write about their favorite National Park to contribute to the #FindYourPark campaign on social media.
The following contribution is from Michael J. Dax, author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West (August, 2015).
My father was seventeen the first time he stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and stared into the seemingly endless expanse. It was spring break 1971, and he and a friend had driven west from Ohio. When they reached the Canyon and laid eyes on its vastness for the first time, they felt an unshakable need to leave the rim and explore the secrets of its inner canyons.
From the South Rim, they hiked down the Bright Angel Trail and despite not having food, proper gear or much water, they camped that night beside Phantom Ranch. It rained, and with a picnic table as their only shelter, they didn’t get much sleep. The next morning, the clouds cleared and the temperatures soared. With little sleep and no food, they were exhausted. Other hikers were forced to step over my father’s head as his body lay traipsed across the trail. Upon reaching the rim, they each had three hot dogs and three milk shakes then drove back to Ohio.
Realizing he hadn’t done the place justice, my father returned the following year while hitch-hiking cross-country. This time he was prepared. He caught a ride to the South Rim, hiked to the North Rim and kept on going. He returned a number of times after that, including on his honeymoon with my mother, and by the time I was born, the Grand Canyon had solidified itself in my father’s mind, and throughout my childhood, it held a mythical place in family lore.
From the rolling green hills of upstate New York, this place seemed completely foreign to me, and in the pre-internet days, before any image was simply a Google search away, I couldn’t even imagine its red rocks and sheer cliffs, cut by a river that extended for hundreds of miles. It seemed otherworldly, and in my adolescent mind, I was comfortable letting it remain shrouded in the possibilities of the unknown.
But when I was fourteen, I finally had an opportunity to visit the place that until then had only existed in my imagination. Our destination was Clear Creek—nine miles upstream from Phantom Ranch and we would be under the rim for five days.
It was a long flight from New York, and after a delay and some lost luggage, we finally made the four-hour drive north from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. By the time we reached the South Rim, night had fallen and complete darkness had consumed the Canyon’s abyss. From our cabin adjacent to the Bright Angel Lodge, the Canyon appeared completely featureless, just one big black hole. Nothing about the blackness indicated what that the Canyon could be hiding, and I was forced to wait a few hours longer for this great mystery to reveal itself.
When I emerged from the cabin the next morning, the low sun was illuminating a small square of the canyon wall just beyond the rim. As I walked towards the canyon’s edge the cliff face which had seemed impressive, gave way to an expanse that dwarfed it and made it look like a grain of sand on the beach.
To say that it was more magnificent than I imagined would be disingenuous. Considering I had little idea of what to expect, I hadn’t been able to dream-up something with which to compare it. My reaction was almost as if I had stumbled upon this marvel without expecting it or having any idea of its existence. Instantly, I was in love.
Our trip was as amazing as any first trip to the Grand Canyon would be. Over the course of the five days, we saw thousand-year-old Indian artifacts, bighorn sheep, and most memorably, deep into Clear Creek, a tall, green cedar tree standing proudly and defiantly in a land of red rock and brown sand that burned itself into my memory. Two years later, we returned for another trip—this time on the New Hance and Grandview Trails and away from the heavily traveled corridors. We camped by the river, found hidden springs, explored off-trail and discovered old mining debris. On our final night, atop Horseshoe Mesa, a full moon casted eerie shadows from the junipers that dotted the plateau transforming the the mesa into a moonscape. It was a final, beautiful reminder that as soon as you think you have it figured out, the Canyon has another side to display.
A few years after that and a week after graduating college, I drove cross-country from Boston to make the Grand Canyon my new home. My previous trips hadn’t been enough, and the Northeast was too far away. I wanted to immerse myself in this place and feel as connected to it as possible. For six months, I hiked nearly every trail from the South Rim, becoming intimately familiar with the canyon and its many shades, faces and personalities. I spoke with my father frequently and we compared notes on trails we had both hiked, and on occasion, I was able tell him about some new, hidden gem.
Seven years later, I’ve lived in five western states and visited a countless number of national parks, including Yellowstone, which was the foundational inspiration for my book, Grizzly West. But the Grand Canyon still retains a distinct hold over me. My last trip to the Grand Canyon was in 2013 and was with my father—this time for five days on the north rim hiking between Thunder River and Deer Creek.
Our pace was slower than it had been on our first trip twelve years earlier, but we took our time enjoying new corners of this place we shared a love of together.
-Michael J. Dax