Perspective Online

Natural Grandeur and Human Hubris

Dean Randy Hendricks will visit the College of Arts and Humanities newest Study-Abroad program in Spoleto, Italy, in May, where he will meet with students and faculty in a course on travel writing. Below is one of the essays he’ll bring to the class.

by Randy Hendricks, Ph.D.

I recently crossed the Grand Canyon off my bucket list. I wasn’t aware that I had a bucket list until I made the trip. I don’t use the word awesome much because overuse has made it pretty useless. A peanut butter sandwich can be awesome. But as I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon the word was redeemed for me. The Canyon’s size, its pictorial record of geological history, its many colors changing over the course of a day, the stars at night, and even the history of human activity in the Canyon—ancient and modern—are awe inspiring.

Natural Grandeur and Human Hubris Ancient peoples left wooden records of their hunting rituals which do not decay because of the Canyon climate, the Kolb brothers left a photographic record of their adventurous and entrepreneurial work to open the Canyon for tourists in the early years of the twentieth century, and we made our own photographic record of contemporary tourists from all over the world treating the wilderness like Disney World. On one occasion we saw a group surround an elk for photos, with no consciousness of the danger of making a wild animal panic.

Signs featuring a squirrel and a severely wounded human hand are posted throughout the park warning against feeding squirrels because squirrels bite. As Bill Engvall says of the warning on a Preparation-H box against taking the suppositories orally: “That’s sad, because you know they got a letter.” People still die every year in the Canyon in one way or another. In fact one of the popular books sold in the Canyon’s bookstores is titled Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon. “Gripping accounts of all known fatal mishaps in the most famous of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders.” Updated editions are issued periodically.

The Canyon should make us aware of our littleness, even of how brief a time we as the dominant species have actually been on earth, but it seems nothing will knock a foolish self-importance out of us. We didn’t have time for a trip deep in or to ride the mules to the Canyon floor, but we did hike down a couple of trails. Down is slippery, but nothing really. A mile and a half back up felt like an accomplishment, though. After a morning hike on the Bright Angel Trail, we treated ourselves to a cold beer in the El Tovar Hotel (Teddy Roosevelt stayed there. It’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like you’re part of history. Beer was good too.)

Our table afforded us a good view of the hotel lawn and the Canyon beyond. Folding chairs had been set up on the lawn for the local high school graduation that evening, apparently a very small high school. At one point we watched a crew bring in bark mulch for a bed on the lawn, though our view of the bed was blocked by the gallery outside the window where other chairs were set up for the graduates. It appeared to us that after unloading the mulch the crew just loaded it back up again and took it away. We were puzzled until our waitress told us that one of the park officials had a son in the graduating class. He’d come by earlier and ordered the bigger mulch be hauled away and replaced with smaller mulch. It would look nicer. Really? I would have doubted that graduation on the rim of the Grand Canyon could be improved by petite bark mulch, but I was not a native and did not cast judgment. I guess familiarity really does breed contempt.

Back to my own self-centeredness, this was also my first time in Arizona. And in Flagstaff I was briefly on Route 66, which before had existed for me only as a 1960s TV show and a brief mention in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’m discovering that my bucket list keeps growing. I don’t think it’s supposed to work that way. But anyway, that’s two more to cross off.


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