Barren Valley Sunset

The Grand Canyon was misnamed.  Then again, there's no words that can do it justice.

I've been to the Grand Canyon more than once.  Each time, gazing upon what is surely a miracle of nature, I've found myself at a loss for words when trying to describe what I'm seeing.

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long. It's four miles wide at its narrowest point and at its widest, it is 18 miles across.  Its maximum depth is nearly a mile.  These dimensions, although impressive, mean very little until you're standing at the edge and seeing it.  When you are, you can't help but wonder....

How did this place happen?

How could this place happen?

The formation of the Grand Canyon began almost two billion years ago with the formation of the igneous and metamorphic rocks of the inner gorge.  Above these oldest rocks lie layer upon layer of sedimentary rock, each telling a unique part of the environmental history of the region.  They comprise one of the most complete geologic columns on the planet.   

Between 70 and 30 million years ago, through the account of plate tectonics, the entire region was uplifted. The result is the high, and relatively flat, Colorado Plateau, covering an area of 130,000 square miles (336,700 square kilometers).  Despite originally forming at the bottom of the ocean, the uppermost layer of rock at the Grand Canyon, Kaibab limestone, is found at elevations up to 9000 feet.

The plateau is largely made up of high desert and is a place of stunning beauty.  Domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, river narrows, natural bridges, and slot canyons are only some of the features typical of the area.  About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River and its main tributaries:  the Green, San Juan, and Little Colorado.

Beginning "just" five to six million years ago, the Colorado River started to carve its way downward, a process geologists call "downcutting."  This downcutting happens during flooding.  When large amounts of water are moved through a river channel, large rocks and boulders are carried along with the water.  These rocks act like chisels, chipping off pieces of the riverbed as they bounce along.  It just so happens that the Colorado River has a steep slope, a large volume of water, and flows through an arid climate; all factors that increase the amount of downcutting.

All of these forces are still at work today, constantly deepening and widening the Grand Canyon.

That's a brief (and simplified) summary of the formation of the Grand Canyon as geologists understand it.  On the other hand, it's amazing to think that the combination of plate tectonics and flowing water carved, and continues to carve, this canyon inch by inch and chip by chip.

On the other hand, it's a fairly dry and, for lack of a better work, sterile description.  It is a scientific description, after all.  So, not surprisingly, that explanation doesn't do justice to the feeling I get while in absolute awe of what I'm looking at.

So, I find myself standing there and feel as if I'm drifting back to a time when people stood at the edge of the canyon, seeing what I'm seeing, feeling what I'm feeling, and wondering.....

How could this happen?

For thousands of years, the area around the Grand Canyon has been continuously inhabited by Native Americans.

The first people known to live in the Grand Canyon area are the ancient Anasazi who lived in the area long before the arrival of other tribes.  They were the ones living there when Spanish explorers arrived searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola.  The Spanish gave the tribe the name Pueblo, meaning "The People" in Spanish.  Modern Puebloan people actually prefer that name to Anasazi, as this is a Navajo word for "Ancient Ones," or "Ancient Enemy."

Today, four tribes of Native Americans live near the Grand Canyon:  the Hopi, the Hualapai, the Navajo, and the Havasupai.  All four of these tribes tell legends about the Grand Canyon.  Three of them offer an explanation about the canyon's formation.

The Hualapai legend tells of a great flood that occurred in the area.  After this flood, a brave and famous Hualapai hero, alone, used a large knife and club to dig a channel.  He dug into the earth until the Sea of Sunset led all the water back to the ocean.  After the water had all drained, the hot sun baked the ground, giving the land its current look.

The Navajo legend also begins with a flood so great that it almost drowned all of their ancestors.  The ancestors managed to save themselves, however, by transforming into fishes.  As fishes, they lived in the water for a long time.  Eventually, the water drained, leaving the land in the shape of the great canyon.  The Navajo ancestors then transformed themselves back into human form and inhabited the resulting land. 

The Havasupai legend differs slightly.  In their version, there are two ruling gods of the universe, Hokotama and Tochopa.  Eventually, the gods went to war for control of the world.  Hokotama decided to drown the whole world by raising the rivers, oceans, and waterfalls.  However, Tochopa managed to hide his daughter, Pukeheh, inside a hollow tree.  After the flood had passed, she had survived to repopulate the world.  This flood is what created the Grand Canyon.

These stories, one of a great warrior, one of magic that allowed the survival of the people, and one of a war among gods, seem to do this majestic place far more justice.