The Grand (eww, how Imperialistic) Canyon

The problem with getting tired of academese is that one continues to get tired of it--there's no plateau stage at which one has heard as much academic cant as possible and simply stops registering it.

I was reading about the Grand Canyon last night in one of my course tomes. The middle part of the article wasn't bad, but the author spent the first part of the article making academic noises about imperialism and nationalism. Apparently, the Spaniards saw the Grand Canyon as just a big hole in the ground; it wasn't until us Westernized, romantic, nationalistic Anglos came along that the Grand Canyon gained any special significance: the reason (white) people visit the Grand Canyon is to convince themselves that nationalistic conquest was a justifiable endeavor and to sustain for themselves an image of superior nation-building against the world writ large.

This perspective is fairly typical of the kind of stuff I read—personally, I find it odd that an entire generation of academics continually uses Westernized, white, European, (usually) dead people's theories (Marx, Freud) and language to explain modern American issues. I kind of figure if you want to know why people go to the Grand Canyon, you should ask them . . . but then I don't have the kind of serious, profound mind that comprises academic navel-gazing.

The first and only time I saw the Grand Canyon was on one of our family vacations. Once every two to three years, we would drive from upstate New York to California to visit relatives, including my paternal grandmother. I don't remember to this day whether we were on the incoming or outgoing leg of our trip; we were headed somewhere through the Southwest. My father—the scientist—had determined that we should see every canyon between California and the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon was the last of our stops that day.

We got there late in the afternoon. My brothers—teenagers at the time—were complaining about having to see "ANOTHER canyon." ("Once you've seen one, Dad, you've seen them all.") I was somewhere between eight and ten so my principle consideration was whether or not the gift shop would sell polished stones (it did) and whether or not I would be able to buy some (I don't remember). I was also concerned about whether or not the motel we would stay in that night would have a pool (since it was probably a Motel 6, then answer is probably, "Yes.")

It was overcast with a kind of golden/bluish haze that I don't believe we get in the East. The lookout we'd come to was devoid of tourists or guides or even plaques. The gift shop was a wooden structure built on a small knoll. It seemed about to topple over. You could walk out onto large, separate rocks and throw pebbles down into the canyon, which my brothers did until my mother told them to stop.

"You might hit campers," she said.

I was a fairly paranoid child and became convinced that the "happy campers"—as my brothers began to call them—were collapsing from head injuries as we spoke. I was also worried about the lack of guard rails and felt sure my brothers would tumble to their deaths at any moment.

We were there about ten minutes; then we got into the car and drove off. The rain started to splatter on the windshield, and we hit a speedbump.

"What was that?" someone said, and I said, "Maybe it was the happy camper," which amused my brothers, although I don't think it amused my parents terribly.

Oddly enough, I took away from that ten minute excursion an eidetic memory of the Grand Canyon. Most memories are narratives, stories we tell ourselves about events in our past (much like this post), but the memory I have of the sky and the (rail-less) rocks is imprinted in my neural pathways as an image. I could not detail it adequately. I could, if I had the skill, draw it. I won't pretend that the result wouldn't have some conflabulation. People who insist on pure memory are kidding themselves. Yet the image is there, something that I rarely think of and has certainly not inspired me to go live in the Southwest or, for that matter, go see the Grand Canyon again. And yet, the image is fairly stunning: tremendous boulders and spires of rock and a long reach of sky.

I suppose you could blame my glorified memory on the weather or the lack of guard rails or the happy campers or my age at the time (anything but the canyon itself). But it's hard to claim that an imperialistic, romantic training is responsible for my reaction. The people who claim such things would claim that I was trained subconsciously simply by being white, middle-class and owning a T.V. . . . except, oops, we didn't own a T.V. Must have been all those coffee table books. Of course, the people who claim such things are fools. It's far more likely that I remember the trip because of the perishing happy campers, which just proves that children are basically morbid at heart and that tourists prefer death to just about any other kind of sensation.


1 comment:

Joe said...

Ultimately, I think people go to the Grand Canyon to be awed. I never liked the Grand Canyon though I was maximumally awed by Masada and the Dead Sea.

(One problem with the Grand Canyon is that unless you go to the right place, you don't get an immediacy of it's depth and hugeness. It's like being in a place where the tall, jagged, windswept mountains are blocked by boring little rounded foothills. For some reason I just thought of Tom Hanks on the raft looking at the huge Moon. Still love that scene.)