How Grand Was My Canyon

Glendale scribe dishes the dirt on world's biggest hole

"It's a long interpretive essay. It has an odd organizing conceit that allows me to get in, make my case and get out. But it leaves a hell of a lot of other questions unanswered."

He speaks in canyon metaphors as he describes the book's style--pools and rapids, rocks in the trail--but the book came out of academe. He first set upon the idea 25 years ago when he wrote a report in lieu of a master's thesis at the University of Texas. Years later, an archaeologist for the National Park Service asked to reprint it as a monograph, so Pyne diligently reworked it. Two years ago, an academic colleague asked to reprint it as a book, and Pyne again chose to rewrite it. When he finished, he felt he should offer it to his publisher, University of Washington Press, and it politely accepted it after more than a year's consideration. But Pyne wasn't sure it fit the publisher's catalogue, so he sent the manuscript to his agent.

He was astounded when his agent wrangled him a $50,000 advance from Viking Penguin; he'd gotten thousand-dollar advances for his earlier books.

And he was astounded at the national critical reaction, mixed as it was: The New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, L.A. Times and other papers on either coast spun long-winded reviews. Some reviewers loved it, others picked at the professorial prose; several wondered why Pyne hadn't included Indians.

"It isn't an Indian story," he protests. "Not every story in the West has to be an Indian story."

Which is not to say that there are no Native American myths surrounding the canyon. Pyne's point is that the Eurocentric intellectuals who shaped the impression of the Grand Canyon didn't borrow them, adapt them, perhaps even consider them. The current mystique is a European creation.

Here in Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, one of the local dailies published a short and polite review. How the Canyon Became Grand, a book about Arizona written by a native Arizonan, was not on the Arizona bookshelf at Borders Books & Music; an employee had to go fetch it, one presumes from the store's hoity-toity intellectual section.

The canyon's current mystery is the fight over Tusayan, the tiny gateway community to the park's main gate.

Adirondack resorts were nestled into the trees, because that's what the tourists were coming to see. Tusayan motels, on the other hand, open onto other motels, as Pyne calls it, "a strip mall with helicopters." You have to get in your car and drive to get to a tree. And consequently, you might as well be in a motel in Forest Park, Illinois, or Traverse City, Michigan, as on the rim of a natural wonder. Yet the entire state is in a tizzy about a planned resort that would actually be aesthetically pleasing but would be owned by outsiders.

Steve Pyne recently wrote an op-ed article about that debate, not for any local paper, but for the New York Times. The Arizona Republic later reprinted it, but the sequence of publication only seems to reconfirm his thesis: that our opinions of the Grand Canyon don't come from the place itself, but from the cultural impressions forced on it from outside.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:

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