John Colson: Seen Grand Canyon, known it, but not like this before
Hit & Run
The Grand Canyon, arguably the United States’ most recognizably iconic desert landscape, has loomed large at the edges of my life since I moved to Colorado more than 40 years ago.
I’ve visited an old railroad lodge on the North Rim and looked down on spectacular vistas from a perspective not typically seen by most tourists visiting the Canyon by car.
I’ve walked down into the Canyon from the industrial tourism facilities of the South Rim, camping overnight in a drizzling rain near the Phantom Ranch property and awakening feeling uncomfortably damp for the next day’s hike back up to the South Rim and the drive back to Colorado.
I’ve worried about the degradation of the Canyon’s magnificent vistas and stunning silences, starting with the advent of helicopter tours back in the late 20th century at the western end, and ending with a recently scuttled plan to build a tourist tram at the eastern end of the Grand Canyon National Park.
The Grand Canyon Escalade project, which was shot down by the Navajo Nation Council in 2017, would have been designed to take people from the East Rim to a boardwalk of some sort near the Canyon floor (and the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado), accompanied by an array of new buildings and facilities meant to serve the expected flood of tourists.
The developers, a group of white guys from the Phoenix area, have been reported to be waiting in the wings for a new tribal government to be elected so they can try again.
But until last weekend (other than the hike to the canyon floor), my interaction with the Grand Canyon has been anything but intimate; more cerebral, you might say.
Then I went to the 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale and watched the movie, “Into The Canyon,” by Roaring Fork Valley native Pete McBride and a partnership of fellow hikers, production buddies, supportive Canyon experts and others.
McBride, who also has written a book and produced a film about his search for the long-vanished Colorado River delta in Mexico, is pretty damned passionate about the river and its 276-mile cradle known as the Grand Canyon.
You can check online for bits and pieces of his long affair with the river and the canyon, including YouTube videos, links to National Geographic articles, and a few other oddities.
But, back to “Into The Canyon.”
This film, which played Saturday afternoon to a packed house at the Carbondale Community and Recreation Center, told the 2016 story of McBride and his partner for this adventure, writer Kevin Fedarko, as they took a 750-mile hike along the middle-elevation ledges, gulches and harrowing heights of the Canyon’s walls.
I should point out that, while the river along the bottom of the Canyon measures only about 277 miles by the river’s course, a hiker faces a trip covering roughly three times that distance, walking along the canyon’s lower walls, scrambling up narrow gorges and over the lower reaches of abutments of rock that can loom a mile or more into the air above the river, but mostly out of sight of the river itself.
The conditions include hauling yourself and your gear up 45-degree slopes to get from one stretch of the walk to the next, trusting that unstable rock surfaces will hold you in place while you gulp air and rest from your exertions, and enduring wild temperature fluctuation that bring everything from scorching hot days to nighttime snowstorms.
Although McBride and Fedarko initially meant to take the Canyon on in one go, walking from end to end without a break, they quickly learned that it was not to be. Their first effort ran headlong into their lack of preparedness for the rigors of the trip, both in terms of the volume and weight of their gear and of their own degree of fitness for the effort. They opted, instead, to take it in three stages, over more than 70 days of madcap scrambling up and down and around.
It’s a stirring documentary, complete with nicknames such as Eeyore (the constantly complaining donkey in the “Winnie the Pooh” stories by A.A. Milne), which attached to Fedarko as acknowledgement both of his frequent complaints and whininess while on the difficult trail, as well as to his endurance and commitment to going all the way to the end of the trek (like a donkey on a dusty, desert trail).
But the film also is a remarkable record for the future, as the Canyon sits at the bullseye of plans by profiteers, developers and mineral exploiters, all of whom hope to scrape huge sums of money from the Canyon and its surroundings in a multitude of ways.
And, finally, the movie is a testament to McBride’s own mix of fixated intensity, wild curiosity, and relatively unaccountable confidence in his ability to surmount any obstacle in pursuit of his conservationist goals.
Because that is what he is, besides being an excellent photographer — he is a conservationist, determined to do what he can to preserve what limited wildness we have left in this country, for the benefit of future generations.
I salute this mission, and I’m awfully glad I got to see the film in the company of like-minded enthusiasts and wilderness advocates, which is just one of the benefits of living here.
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