How Grand Was My Canyon

How does a mile-deep hole in the desert become a cultural icon, a mystic symbol and the world's biggest tourist attraction? That's what Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne set out to explain in his new book, How the Canyon Became Grand.

"The simple view is that here's this wonderful marvel," Pyne says, "and it's just waiting to be discovered, and as soon as someone staggers to the rim, all is revealed. And of course it's nothing like that.

"It took a tremendous effort and it took a convergence of all kinds of things to come together at a particular time and a particular culture. And so we value the canyon in ways that we don't value other places that may be equally as large, equally as strange. It's acquired a meaning and a history."

Pyne meant the book--his 10th--to be a history of ideas, an interpretative essay centered on a narrow organizing theme: that the Grand Canyon is a cultural invention. The hole in the ground was always there, but it took 19th-century sensibilities to turn it into something grand.

And precisely because of that cultural baggage, Pyne's essay turned into a trade hardcover that has irked or intrigued critics on both coasts--while being virtually ignored here in the Grand Canyon State.

The first whites to see the canyon were horrified. Spanish explorers in the 18th century peered over the edge, and like so many New Yorkers who wander the world and measure the quality of a place in the quality of its delis, found themselves at a loss for words outside of their frame of reference. The river at the bottom of the canyon was wider than the Tajo River back home, with boulders taller than the tower of Seville.

And it was in their way. They weren't looking for wonders, they were looking for native peoples to convert to Catholicism and fornicate into submission, so they traveled upstream to Havasu Canyon to pester the Native Americans there for a while and then moved on.

Similarly, the early Mormon settlers were looking for places to proselytize and populate. They pronounced the Colorado River "too thin to plow and too thick to drink," and moved on as well.

The Big Canyon, as it was once called, was a worthless wasteland and an obstacle to travel.

"We have a hard time believing that people could go to the Grand Canyon and not see it as we see it," Pyne says.

It took a new aesthetic to give it worth--to "valorize" it, as Pyne puts it. Then, paraphrasing Wallace Stegner, he adds, "The problem with a lot of places that are interesting scenes is that they didn't have a poet. The Grand Canyon did."

He was referring to John Wesley Powell and Clarence Dutton, who not only led the early expeditions through the canyon, but who theorized on its origins and summed it all up in reports that were both scientific and rhapsodic.

They figured into what Pyne calls the Second Age of Discovery (the first being all those Europeans sailing the ocean blue since 1492), artists and photographers and scientists posing as explorers, all caught up in the drama of the century. Powell, whose name, ironically, has been affixed to one of the Colorado River's larger impoundments, is the most famous of the bunch. In those days, geology was a newly minted discipline, landscapes were mirrors of the tortured soul, and art and science were not yet considered to be mutually exclusive domains. The first depictions of the canyon were made in the late 1850s by a German artist accompanying one expedition, and his representations spoke more to the era's romantic preoccupations than to what the canyon actually looked like.

Nonetheless, it was a beginning to the romancing of the canyon (and indeed, each summer season brings more Germans to the canyon environs, sunbathing topless at Wahweap, terrorizing tour guides at Monument Valley and videotaping the supermarket meat counters in Flagstaff). The Romantic painters installed storm clouds in their canyon landscapes just as the explorers installed Sturm und Drang in the accounts of their voyages, all of which fed into an emerging nation's inferiority complex. It was as if Americans were saying to Europe, you may have your fancy museums and old churches, but our Niagara is bigger than your waterfalls, our Mississippi is longer than your rivers, our Rockies are higher than your Alps, and this here big canyon, well, you've got nothing like this. In fact, it's so big that, as Pyne writes, it is "a place that could hold a score of Yosemite Valleys and in which Niagara Falls would vanish behind a butte. . . ."

So when President Teddy Roosevelt rode a train to the rim in 1903 and pronounced the view among the "great sights every American should see," the canyon had officially been pronounced grand.

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Michael Kiefer