Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.
Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backward down my throat, forever unuttered. I was 7 years old and I'm told it was the only occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television.
The Grand Canyon was the one vivid experience from my childhood that I could hope to recapture, and I had been looking forward to it for many days.
I had spent the night at Winslow, Ariz., 50 miles short of Flagstaff, because the roads were becoming almost impassable. In the evening the snow had eased to a scattering of flakes and by morning it had stopped altogether, though the skies still looked dark and pregnant. I drove through a snow-whitened landscape toward the Grand Canyon. It was hard to believe that this was the last week of April. Mists and fog swirled about the road. I could see nothing at the sides and ahead of me except the occasional white smear of oncoming headlights. By the time I reached the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, and paid the $5 admission, snow was dropping heavily again, thick white flakes so big that their undersides carried shadows.
The road through the park followed the southern lip of the canyon for 30 miles. Two or three times I stopped in turnouts and went to the edge to peer hopefully into the silent murk, knowing that the canyon was out there, just beyond my nose, but I couldn't see anything. The fog was everywhere -- threaded among the trees, adrift on the roadsides, rising steamily off the pavement. It was so thick I could kick holes in it.
Glumly I drove on to the Grand Canyon village, where there was a visitors' center and a rustic hotel and a scattering of administrative buildings. There were lots of tour buses and recreational vehicles in the parking lots and people hanging around in entranceways or picking their way through the slushy snow, going from one building to another. I went and had an overpriced cup of coffee in the hotel cafeteria and felt damp and dispirited. I had really been looking forward to the Grand Canyon. I sat by the window and bleakly watched the snow pile up.
Afterwards, I trudged toward the visitors' center, perhaps 200 yards away, but before I got there I came across a snow-spattered sign announcing a lookout point half a mile away along a trail through the woods, and impulsively I went down it, mostly just to get some air.
The path was slippery and took a long time to traverse, but on the way the snow stopped falling and the air felt clean and refreshing. Eventually I came to a platform of rocks, marking the edge of the canyon. There was no fence to keep you back from the edge, so I shuffled cautiously over and looked down, but could see nothing but gray soup.
A middle-aged couple came along and as we stook chatting about what a dispiriting experience this was, a miraculous thing happened. The fog parted. It just silently drew back, like a set of theater curtains being opened, and suddenly we saw that we were on the edge of a sheer, giddying drop of at least a thousand feet. "Jesus!" we said and jumped back, and all along the canyon edge you could hear people saying, "Jesus!" like a message being passed down a long line. And then for many moments all was silence, except for the tiny fretful shiftings of the snow, because out there in front of us was the most awesome, most silencing sight that exists on earth.
The scale of the Grand Canyon is almost beyond comprehension. It is 10 miles across, a mile deep, 180 miles long. You could set the Empire State Building down in it and still be thousands of feet above it. Indeed you could set the whole of Manhattan down inside it and you would still be so high above it that buses would be like ants and people would be invisible, and not a sound would reach you.
The thing that gets you -- that gets everyone -- is the silence. The Grand Canyon just swallows sound. The sense of space and emptiness is overwhelming. Nothing happens out there. Down below you on the canyon floor, far, far away, is the thing that carved it: the Colorado River. It is 300 feet wide, but from the canyon's lip it looks thin and insignificant. It looks like an old shoelace. Everything is dwarfed by this mighty hole.
And then, just as swiftly, just as silently as the fog had parted, it closed again and the Grand Canyon was a secret once more. I had seen it for no more than 20 or 30 seconds -- but I had seen it.
From the book "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America," by Bill Bryson;
1989, by Bill Bryson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. Bryson is an American writer living in Yorkshire, England. His most recent book is "The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way" (William Morrow).