Archive for Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bits and pieces

Nature shows its dominance in storms, Grand Canyon

March 23, 2006

There have been several events that have taken place since my last column.

A violent storm roared through this area a week ago Sunday creating chaos and damage. And for me, it was my third "near-death" experience. On the heels of that, a winter storm is expected to dump snow on us this week after an incredibly mild January and February. The Kansas University mens basketball team lost to Bradley (reminiscent of last year's loss to Bucknell), and as of this writing, Wichita State is still a hopeful in the NCAA tournament and is making Kansans proud. And I haven't yet bored you with any stories of my recent trip to the Grand Canyon, have I?

I was not prepared for the experience of my first glimpse into that vast colorful miracle of nature -- I felt I was looking at a still photo or a postcard. Arriving there on a cold blustery day that was spitting much-needed rain into an area that usually experiences 20 inches of snow and has only seen two inches this year, my friends were delighted to see us exclaiming that we brought the rain with us.

I am still trying to explain the wonder of such a natural phenomena as the canyon leaves my meager vocabulary bereft of enough words or phrases to describe its beauty.

I'll leave that to the poets -- one of whom, George Wharton James said in 1910, "I saw the Grand Canyon as one hears an exquisite poem, a soft strain of music -- it was poetry personified; the spirit of beauty revealed; the inner glory of an artistic mystery unveiled."

Enough said.

Staying on the South Rim (the North Rim is closed in the winter) our rooms were about 30 steps from the edge of the canyon and we were able to observe it each day as the sun crept overhead, lengthening shadows and changing the colors of the many different layers of the canyon's rock.

Fortunate to have two friends as guides (one a librarian volunteering there for the winter), we explored every aspect of the canyon from its geological composition to discovering tales of those who first sought to conquer its cliffs and depths and to run the rapids of the Colorado River that snakes its way through its length.

Some of those early adventurers came to mine treasure and others sought to mine its natural beauty by exposing its wonders to the hordes of tourists who come each year in numbers now averaging 3 million.

I was particularly fascinated to learn about Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, the woman from Leavenworth. The architect came to the canyon as part of the Fred Harvey Company and worked there for more than 46 years building six remarkable buildings. They remain today as testimony to her brilliance and that of the native American Indians whose architecture she copied to create structures that fit seamlessly into the canyon.

Our second day at the canyon, found us surrounded by people from all over the world -- bus loads of Oriental tourists equipped with every new technological gadget -- the men wearing black designer suits and tasseled loafers while most of the women wore jeans and carried Gucci bags. Various languages swirled around us as we identified German, Dutch and the clipped British accent as well as others we were not able to distinguish. All snapping photos and some brave souls venturing outside of the enclosed observation points to reach a cliff where the canyon yawned below them.

Not me, "Huh, uh." Behind the rail I stood.

The dangers of walking the canyon are posted throughout the park even on the walls inside gift shops and restaurants. A number of people die each year after not preparing sufficiently to walk the trails. The climb to the bottom and back is usually attempted in two days, with the night spent at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon and climbing out the next day.

One large poster told the story of Mary Bradley, a young athlete who ran the Boston Marathon in three hours. In July 2004, she and a companion walked into the canyon on a trail they believed to be 13 miles, which in reality was 27 miles. Not having sufficient water and food she and her companion became separated at some point. Her companion survived, but she died of dehydration.

My most intense and fond memory of the canyon was the encounter we had with a Navaho woman in her 80s who sat in front of a loom weaving a magnificent wall hanging. I watched her hands glide gently along the loom swiftly picking up strands of thread she never stopped to count (as I would) and yet the pattern emerged perfect in every way. She wore no glasses, but she did wear stunning turquoise jewelry in her hair, on her wrists and around her neck. The Navajo are famous as silversmiths and weavers.

Her daughter spoke quietly to us not wishing to disturb her mother and told us that each hanging measured about four by three feet and would be photographed and sent off to prospective buyers. The approximate cost of each hanging was between $3,000 and $4,000.

As we watched her weave, three young Indian girls in jeans approached her. I was amazed to hear these young women engage her in their native dialect.

As we prepared to leave, the old woman turned and look squarely into my eyes, and I was unable to look away. Knowing that it is considered rude by some Native Americans to look directly at you, she held my gaze for a long time and felt that I was looking beyond those wise, black eyes into another dimension and another time until tears began to fall from my own eyes. Eventually she smiled gently and turned away. For me, it was one of those transcendent moments that we experience only a few times in life and that we never forget. And with that, my experience of the canyon was complete

By the time you read this, we may or may not have had a snow storm, and we will know if Wichita State won again in the tournament, somewhat vindicating the Jayhawks' loss.

As for my near-death experience in our recent storm, "Yes," I was really caught in it, "Yes," I was buffeted and tossed all over the road. "Yes," I was saying my Hail Marys and "Yes," I thank God it was not my time. This one was truly a near-death experience unlike my "baby" near death experiences that I have jokingly referred to in the past.

Whether it's gazing into the magnificence of the Grand Canyon or being surrounded by the intensity of a violent storm, I find I am once again in awe of the natural forces that conspire to create such a magnificent wonder or such a force of destruction -- both of which remind us how very small and fragile we are.

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