Home. It may seem implausible to the more than four million of us who come each year to marvel at the Grand Canyon, but this stupendous and seemingly uninhabitable geology, exalted since 1919 as a national park, was indeed once a home. For at least 10,000 years people lived, loved, traded, even farmed in the canyon's depths. They marked it with names, wove its temple-like pinnacles and bluffs into their lore, and breathed their spirits into every spring, every marbled cliff and boulder. And then, a mere century ago, newcomers to the canyon, overcome by its beauty, decided that no human habitation was ever again to mar the canyon park (aside from the buildings the new people built). Landforms that carried a name, a spirit of the past, were named anew.
"That New Hance Trail—virtually all the trails in the Grand Canyon—were made by our ancestors, the Hisatsinom," a Hopi named Leigh Kuwanwisiwma told me as we sat at the South Rim before my descent. "Archaeologists call our ancestors the Anasazi, but that's a Navajo term that means 'old enemy.'"
as approaching 100°F; the little streamlet we'd been following shrank to a trickle and then dwindled into separate pools, where tadpoles swam uncertainly in circles. And there ahead of us, drawing us on, rushed the Colorado—a heaving tongue of jade green that lashed at the hard shale on the far shore and lapped more gently against our sandy beach.
To the Hopi this canyon was 'ongtupka, their ancestral home; to the Southern Paiute it was puaxant tuvip, holy land; to the Western Apache it was simply ge da'cho, edge of the big cliff. And for me . . . I only knew that I now stood in a place of nearly two-billion-year-old rocks. Such numbers are as humbling as the number of stars in the sky—and as hard to comprehend. But that I could reach down and touch a part of Earth that existed when life itself was a mere billion-plus years old made this big cliff land seem very holy indeed.
Above us castellated bluffs and terraces of rainbow-hued soils rose to the sky like a geological cathedral. We were dwarfs on a desert beach— but dwarfs with a princely flood of water at our feet. So we flung off our packs, dropped our trekking poles, and, surely like those first people to reach the river's edge, plunged into the cool waters that had carved this canyon, the grandest canyon on Earth.
One night we camped on the edge of a high red wall that bellied out into the river. On the opposite shore the Colorado swept past a broad swath of beach: the Unkar Delta, site of one of the largest Anasazi settlements. There among the gravel lay stony walls, the traceries of their homes, and, nearby, pillows of plumped-up earth—the beds of their gardens. I tried squinting, narrowing my eyes so that the willows on the far shore might resemble young corn, but nothing could make up for the dryness of a garden missing its farmer.