Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, it was easy to feel small. As my 15 year-old son remarked, “This is awesome — in the true sense of the word.” Millions of years of history stretched out below and in front of us. The blue sky unfolded above in a pure streak of blue, interrupted only occasionally by a wistful cloud or darting bird. Standing at the canyon’s edge, my 45 years of life seemed barely perceptible amidst the backdrop of geologic time. The scale was hard to reconcile as I attempted to appreciate and honor both the canyon’s immensity and my diminutiveness.
After glimpsing the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon, I began to regain balance — and my relevance. The river, visible as a blue-green serpentine gem, carved this grand canyon as it traveled through rock that had formed over the last 2 billion years. To view it from a distance, the river is a placid and serene bit of water slowly and persistently rubbing against the edges of the canyon walls. Even the rapids, though frothy and white, look calm from miles away. Over time, the earth along the river’s path weakened and collapsed, periodically calving like a glacier to create the canyon walls that we see today. The majesty of the Grand Canyon exists because of the consistent pressure of flowing life that slowly carved a path through the ancient rock layers. Here, perched at the rim of the canyon, I am another speck of lifeforce in that long history. Not insignificant, but simply another bit of dust and ray of light amidst the other manifestations of mineral, plant and animal in this amazing place.
When we descended the canyon, I re-oriented myself in time and space once again. The trail that we descended hugged the canyon wall down long, steep switchbacks. On the way down, I was kept busy struggling to keep my balance in the gusty wind and trying to take in this new perspective of the steep canyon walls. On the way back up the trail, I had a chance to appreciate its construction. The trail is a masterpiece of engineering, built by engineers, miners, and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) crews in the 1920s and 1930s. The trail was sturdy, well-defined and comfortable both descending and ascending. I have built trails with rock before, tasked with balancing protection of the natural resource with protection of human hikers in Kenai Fjords National Park and Tongass National Forest. Building with rock is both satisfying and endlessly deceiving. It hints at permanence but is no less malleable and fallible than any other element at our disposal. It is very hard to get it right and, even well placed, rocks will dislodge, break, wiggle and erode when water, temperature and gravity exert their influence. In this case, the trail was still in great condition and it welcomed us to terrain that would have otherwise been inaccessible without wings or sticky lizard pads on our hands and feet.
Knowing how much hard work had gone into making the route down the canyon accessible to humans, I reflected again on the forces that have been at work in the corner of the earth that we call the Grand Canyon. Undoubtedly, the crew was glad to have the paid employment in the midst of a recession, but they must have also felt that their work was futile at times. As they dangled on belay in the hot sun and hammered at unrelenting rock, I imagine they wondered who would ever come to walk their trail. I wonder if they ever paused to notice that, with their slow and patient work, they were leaving their mark on the walls of history. Their marks are now carved into the canyon as clearly as those of the water, wind and plants. If the trail crews were still here, I would offer my hearty thanks for their labor. They made it possible for me (and thousands of other people) to literally hike a mile towards the center of the earth one morning last week.
And they helped me recognize that, while I am small against the backdrop of the canyon, I am not insignificant. None of us are. We all have a role to play in the process of carving the path for human evolution. Our work matters. Like the river flowing towards the ocean, it is inevitable that we will move towards peace. As we do, we will be advocates for the earth and for humanity. We will persistently pursue compassion and justice. When we falter, we can look to Colorado River, the Grand Canyon and the CCC as evidence that it does matter. It all matters. Keep rubbing against the stubborn canyon walls. Speak out against injustice. Grow vegetables. Volunteer. Offer a kind word or a smile. It all matters. We may be small, but we are not insignificant. We have a vital place within the unfolding history of humanity and our beloved planet earth.