A trip to the Grand Canyon, where time is etched on rocks

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A trip to the Grand Canyon, where time is etched on rocks

A travel essay by Arun Bhatia.

On earth’s surface, one of the deepest clefts can be seen in Arizona in the western United States. The fury of the Colorado River over the millennia has created the well known spectacular natural phenomenon of the Grand Canyon, a Unesco World Heritage Site that showcases two billion years of geology. The 446 km long river gets to be 29 km wide and cuts a vertical mile of rock.

I was at 7000 ft elevation, at El Tovar, the south rim, where a native American village of the Puebla tribe Hopi Indians is located. Mules for tourists are taken down and back up in packs of twelve going single file. I had chosen to hire one, as I had learned horseback riding in Calcutta. And besides, I had been told that it is an easy ride from the rim of the canyon to the very bottom.

Over the millennia, what the Colorado River had cut could be seen from my mule back perch: a unique combination of geological colours and erosional forms. They were in red, brown, yellow, layer upon layer. Light plays tricks so you see pink in early light and will swear you saw blue rock when you peer in shadowed distances. All around, it is dry country so one sees low scrub here and there and an occasional juniper tree. In the awesome starkness, cliffs and the hard and soft rock strata are clearly seen all the way as far as your eyes can see.

As my guide explained, most are sandstone and limestone that formed the bottom of the shallow seas that covered this part of North America. “Look at the layers closely,” said the guide, “there are breaks in the succession of the rock strata, and they represent time: land had risen, seas had drained away, then the sea bed became dry and eroded away. Thereafter the land sank again, seas flooded back and deposition began again.”

The Canyon’s highest sequence can be recognized by the face of the mountain nearby, and they continue the records for 30 million years. The first rocks we passed in the mule ride were already 200 million years old. The guide pointed to a sandstone boulder by a side of the trail. There was a line of tracks. Upon that sandstone boulder, there were traces of prehistoric reptiles, a small four footed creature – an ancestor of our lizard- that must have run across what was then a beach.

Fossils of ferns and wings of insects were in view as my mule moved downwards in a sure-footed stride. It was varying the pace to suit the sharpness of the curve at the precipice, and slowed when the gradient got steep. I had rigorously been schooled in the riding ring in Calcutta and so, while astride, as reflex action, I would loosen and tighten the reins, move the animal’s head, give off constant control signals, tightening my grip on the saddle, working my stirrups to urge him on and even giving out oral orders saying “ssssteady”. It had had enough of all that. It had done the trip dozens of times, knew every curve and narrow passage and didn’t want the human to show control. It turned its neck, made eye contact with me and snorted, as if saying: “Cut it, fella, I know what I am doing”. Sheepishly, from then on, I loosened the reins, relaxed in the saddle and let him be boss. Man and beast were at peace.

Half way down the canyon, we came to a 400 million year old limestone that had bones of strange armoured fish. An hour later, we were at a hundred million years. And by late afternoon, we came at last to the lower gorge with the Colorado River running green, on its way to Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border.

The river flows amid rock walls high on both sides – a vertical mile below our starting point at the rim. The bottom rocks are estimated to be 2000 million years old.

Back at El Tovar, the south rim, the proud Hopi Indians preserve their heritage at a village. Resplendent in their native dress, they are eager to tell their spiritual tales, the most striking of which is that of Kachina, their deity. Masked men dressed as Kachinas, danced as part of their religious ceremony. Hollywood has, in the past portrayed ‘rain dances of Indians’ in the Western movies genre – the cowboys-and-Indians kind. But this was the real thing.

At the last count, Hopis numbered 22000 in their reservations in the United States. Like dozens of other tribes, each having its unique culture, they struggle to preserve their ceremonies, mores, art, crafts, spirituality and legends.

Some of this is on view at the Hopi gift store showcasing native art, rugs, pottery, jewellery, paintings, and especially Kachina masks and dolls.

On the face masks, the striking series of black strokes forming a bold triangle and adorned with feathers at the crest was a feature. There were dolls of various sizes and I understood that hobbyists all over the U.S.A. are collectors of these hand carved wood craft. The price tag was U.S.$100 but some can cost $25000. As a souvenir, I bought a tobacco pipe for $10 – that’s all I could afford! – and used it for about 25 years after which I had given up smoking.

My indignant mule’s snort is etched in my mind equally as the immense age of the rocks. And of course, those wood carved Kachina dolls.

***

Arun Bhatia  is a resident of Bengaluru and an avid reader, writer, and photographer. He has also modeled in TV commercials.

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