As a kid, he'd come regularly to visit, and he recalls the country as harsh and bountiful. "My grandfather told me it got so hot down here that the ravens left contrails because their feathers were smoking," McCourt says, a storyteller's glint in his eye. "The soil was so rich we couldn't grow watermelons, because the vines would grow so fast they'd drag the melons across the garden and wear them out before they could ripen."
On this early spring day, visitors representing three generations of two families with ties to White Canyon gather and bear witness to its unveiling. The water hasn't dropped enough to reveal the old landing strip or the site of McCourt's grandparents' house, but it's fallen more than enough to stir personal and collective memories.
McCourt's entourage includes his cousin Janis York, who lived here with her parents until she was five. York shyly approaches, moved to tears by swirling childhood memories. She used to sit on a hill behind her grandparents' house and pretend she was queen of the land. "There were rocks that sparkled," she recalls—bits of glittering fool's gold. "I used to call them my little jewels." After her family left and the waters rose, she says, "I was brokenhearted."
York gazes out over the canyon and the years. "This is the heart of the whole world," she says. "I remember telling my jewels I'd be back some day."
After Glen Canyon Dam closed its gates on the Colorado River near Page, Arizona, in 1963, the river's cargo of snowmelt and spring rain, gathered from much of the mountain West, hit the dam's concrete stopper and began to back up. The rising waters slowly transformed the lower reaches of the intricate, thousand-hued Glen Canyon into a monolithic blue-green reservoir, the country's second largest after Lake Mead, farther down the Colorado.
Aided by Lake Powell's aqueous bounty, Little League fields sprouted in Las Vegas, subdivisions multiplied in Los Angeles, golf courses carpeted Phoenix. As the reservoir waters rose, Glen Canyon drowned. This remote heart of the Colorado Plateau, dubbed "the place no one knew" in photographer Eliot Porter's ode to this lost landscape, gurgled underwater.
In unknown Glen Canyon's stead emerged the enormously popular Glen Canyon National Recreation Area—which quickly became a mecca for millions of houseboaters, water-skiers, and striped bass fishermen taking advantage of this watery miracle in the desert.