My God, It’s Full of Clouds: The Grand Canyon

March 27, 2015 — You almost don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon, right? If you live in the U.S., you hear about it all the time. You’ve seen tons of television, movie, and Internet footage of it. You’ve listened to a thousand similes and metaphors using it. You’ve witnessed David Copperfield float across it, Cindy and Bobby Brady get lost in it, and Thelma and Louise drive into it.

But that’s going to happen when your country’s most impressive geological feature is also one of the tops on the entire planet and possibly solar system. And its seeming omnipresence in American media and conversation is why I guess I waited this long into my life before even trying it to see it with my own grapes. Still, I couldn’t make it the point of the trip. For us, the Grand Canyon was one stop on a more massive road trip that just happened to encircle it. I was fully prepared to treat it like Clark Griswold. “Great. Let’s go.”

Our route had us entering at the east entrance of the southern rim of the canyon. It was January, and the northern rim was closed for the winter. We pulled into the Desert View lookout point right before sunset.

And we saw it. And it was grand.

I immediately realized another reason why the Grand Canyon is easy to overlook (figuratively speaking): it’s im-im-poss-poss-ible-ible to fathom. I looked down, and the drop was vertiginous and terrifying and exhilarating, but like any other cliff in that way. But then I looked outward and saw the slopes and cliffs and buttes and mesas stretching off into the distance and it looked almost two-dimensional, like a matte painting or something hallucinated, something that couldn’t possibly be there. My brain couldn’t accept it. I can’t get it. Its age. Its scale. The inexorable forces that carved it. If I could, I wouldn’t be able to make such dismissive remarks like the ones that began this article. Instead, just the phrase “Grand Canyon” would send me into a grand mal. Possibly, I’d sacrifice sheep to it.

Finally, night began to fall, and we reluctantly pulled ourselves away from the gargantuan gorge to check into a hotel. The next morning we were up early enough to see a group of Rocky Mountain Elk dodging trees in the forest (although it wasn’t until later, sorting through the plush toys at the visitor center gift shop, that I was able to name the species). I at first thought that would be the highlight of the day, but when we got out at the first overlook we came to, the entire canyon had changed.

It was full of clouds.

Now, I don’t mean wisps of them tugged at buttes and boulders. I mean, it was a thick atmosphere tamped down like they were in the bowl of some deity’s pipe. Basically, and as cliché as the phrase is, it was a legitimate sea of cloud. It felt like I was on Jupiter, waiting for air-whales or something massive and tentacular to breach the surface. It was heady and dizzying.

We hurriedly took pictures, thinking it was morning fog that would quickly burn off. But it stayed, thick and stuck like it was spun cotton candy. The bright fog pushed against the sides of the canyons like it had its own tides. I checked the Internet right quick, and the breaking news for the canyon was that we’d inadvertently timed our once in a lifetime trip for a rare natural phenomenon: a total temperature inversion.

Under normal circumstances, the higher you go, the colder it gets. Every once in a great while though, the arrangement flips and the warmer air stays on top, trapping the colder air and fog within the canyon more secure than a Tupperware top. It happens every several years or so (although the day we were there was the second time that season).

Once we learned it was there for the day, we meandered from lookout to lookout, marveling at the phenomenon and the regular lack of guardrails. I’m surprised there aren’t more deaths at the canyon out of pure nature hypnosis. I mean, seasons don’t fear the Reaper. Nor do the wind nor the sun nor total temperature inversions.

If you look in the upper right corner, that's my wifejust for some scale

But we had a blast. Sure, because we were experiencing a rare natural phenomenon on top of a rare natural phenomenon. But also, honestly and mostly, because it was January. The weather was what we would call Fall-ish here in the Northeast. The crowds were fractional, so there were plenty of moments where we got a particular overlook to ourselves. And we had the freedom to drive the entire southern rim route. During the busy season you have to take a shuttle to do portions of it.

Once we hit Hermit’s Rest at the west end of the rim, we doubled back to exit out the east side. There, the fog had dispersed, if it had ever actually gathered at that end in the first place, and we could see the bottom again, so we got out and peered down like the Roadrunner watching Wile E. Coyote fall. And I don’t know which was more staggering, the open air or the sea of clouds.

All I do know is, man, you must go see the Grand Canyon.

My Griswolds.