It snowed furiously the night before I stepped over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was mid-May, so the snow was wet and slushy, not dry enough to stick. But the moisture stained the soft soil at the trailhead a dove gray and spiced the air with the scent of ponderosa pine. The trail I was following, the New Hance, didn't dawdle but marched directly to the canyon's edge, took a sharp turn,then plunged straight downhill, a no-nonsense approach to reaching its destination: the bottom of the canyon and the banks of the Colorado River nearly a vertical mile below.
Someone in a hurry had made this trail, I thought, as I braced each jarring step with my trekking poles; someone eager to get past the red-orange terraces rising in tiers above the river, to get down to the sandy beaches at the water's edge. Someone eager to reach home.
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.'"
Kuwanwisiwma lives hours to the east on Arizona's Third Mesa, where he's a farmer and director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. But the Grand Canyon feels like home too.
"All this canyon land is covered with our footprints. It's where we had our genesis; where some of our clans farmed and lived until we were called to the mesas. It is where we make our sacred salt trek. It is where our spirits go when we die. It is where we learned the Hopi way of life, and the lessons that guide us. And the key lesson is the lesson of humility."
With that word Kuwanwisiwma had set me on the right path, and I leaned into the dust and the angle of the trail. All traces of the snowstorm had vanished. Powdery sandstone curled over my boots, and pebbles rolled like ball bearings underfoot. "We're in the desert now," said my guide, David Hogan, who's been clambering up and down the canyon for nine years. "There's no real water between here and the river, and that's eight miles away. People can die—they do die— from thirst down here."
The climate was only slightly wetter 1,300 years ago when the Hisatsinom (the Anasazi) moved into the canyon's depths to grow cotton, corn, beans, and squash along the terraces and sandy beaches of the Colorado. Farming in the Grand Canyon seems as unlikely as farming on Mars, but the Anasazi were spectacularly successful at it. From about a.d. 700 to 1200—a span of 500 years, more than twice as long as the United States has existed—they knew this place "like the back of their hands," said Hogan. "They knew every side canyon, every water hole, every place to hide, and every route in and out."
They filled the canyon with what Kuwanwisiwma calls their "insignia"—ruins, bits of pottery, these trails, things they made and left behind. Hogan showed me one: a human stick figure and three stair steps carefully pecked into a pink boulder. The pictograph's meaning was so clear that anyone could read it: "This way to the top."
Probably they also had trail runners who carried messages from one community to another, as did the Southern Paiute who were living here in 1869 when John Wesley Powell boated down the Colorado. And maybe, like the Southern Paiute, they had a repertoire of songs to help them remember their web of canyon trails.
Of course there were others in the Grand Canyon for thousands of years before the Anasazi: Paleo-Indians who hunted megafauna like the giant ground sloth, and later peoples who painted colorful figures on the canyon's rock canvases. And after the Anasazi slowly migrated out of the canyon on the heels of a long drought, there were others still: Hopi, Zuni, Southern Paiute, Hualapai, Havasupai, and Navajo. "Never was there a time—until the coming of the park—when some of our brothers and sisters weren't living in the canyon," Kuwanwisiwma said.
There's no way to know what the earliest canyon dwellers thought when they first saw the Grand Canyon or looked up from its depths, where Hogan and I now finally stood, two days after starting out. Unlike those who had forged our trail, we had felt no urgency to reach home. We had lingered, picking our way up and down dusty side canyons, over limestone rocks studded with fossils, and across iron red mudflats that broke apart in flaky chunks. But as soon as we'd heard the river, our steps quickened.
The temperature was 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.
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