Off the Map: Week One - Grand Canyon by moonlight

Sunset. Time to head into the canyon. At the Grandview Overlook, shrill, overprotective Texan parents were grabbing at their children, yanking them away from the ledges as acrophobia overcame their gentler natures. But most of the tourists were starting to trickle away, returning to their comfortable lodges and motels on the south rim of the Grand Canyon after a long day of sightseeing. My own adventures, however, were only just beginning. It felt counterintuitive to set out on a hike this late in the evening, but nevertheless I took my first steps down the Grandview Trail and descended into a mile-deep chasm that would soon be enveloped in twilight and shadow.

So begins another season of high country escapades, told to you by Bryan Snyder, a Chenango County expatriate and architect of many misguided explorations into the Great American Wilderness. Last summer I took a sabbatical from writing in order to restore some Montana houses to habitable condition, and now Iím back to chronicle the serene, surreal and scenic elements of our sprawling nation. In the next few months, Iíll be reporting from the Colorado alpine tundra, the forests of New England, the deserts of Nevada, and from amongst the cathedral spires of the Sierras. But first, Iíll need to climb in and out of one of the deepest ditches on the planetÖ after sundown.

Hiking in darkness was a suggestion made earlier that day by a grizzled ranger who had stressed that venturing out to Horseshoe Mesa in summertime was a sure recipe for sunstroke. His advice seemed sound, but as the skies grew darker, the temperature actually increased. I was descending into warmer layers of air, and I hadnít expected to sweat so much on the way down. Dehydration might become an issue later in the evening if trends continued.

The Grandview Trail was once used by miners in the 1890s to access copper mines on Horseshoe Mesa, and soon afterwards, Grand Canyonís first paying tourists took mules down the same precipitous trail. I negotiated the path as best I could in the diminishing light while my faculty of depth perception faded away. Visions of the open canyon fought for my attention, which was an unhealthy condition in a place where stumbling could prove fatal. To the west, against a backdrop of the sunsetís muted afterglow, the silhouettes of pinnacles gazed silently over my progress, while to the east, rocky knobs had absorbed the last light of evening and now seemed to exude an intimidating, otherworldly presence. That which seemed inanimate by day now pulsed with malevolent energy. I felt a strong urge to escape from this alien intelligence, which perhaps resented me for trespassing at a time when natural forces should hold dominion.

I was greatly relieved when the trail left the shadow of these geologic monstrosities and broke out into the open moonlight. Horseshoe Mesa jutted out from the south rim of the Grand Canyon and provided a balcony from which I could survey the majesty of the eroded landscape from the midpoint of the gorge Ė halfway down, and halfway across. Lit up by the light of the full moon was a fairytale landscape of washes and canyons, all separated by ridgelines that were dotted with the shapes of storybook castles and temples. Somewhere even further below, the Colorado River tumbled along its confined course - the creator of this vast rift in the continent, but too deep to be able to witness the spectacle its coursings have created.

I wandered about this open platform for a while, investigating the ruins of copper mines and disturbing the rest of several birds who would fly out of the junipers in a twittering flurry. In this warm, windless environment, far from anywhere, I felt deeply alone, but safe, and I was loathe to begin the climb, since it meant placing myself under the influence of the mountainous sentinels that guarded the south rim.

But midnight had come and gone and my water was running low, so I reluctantly left the mesa and began an ascent of two and a half thousand feet. The Grandview Trail hugged the south rim so tightly that moonlight could not touch it. I had to make do with the meager light that reflected off the north rim, and I paid for it dearly in stubbed toes.

The brooding monoliths grew closer, and I wondered if one would drop a boulder on my head this time for my impertinence. But surprisingly, I looked up at one point and saw that they were silent and asleep. To my imagination, they seemed to have settled down under the reassuring watch of rising Jupiter. I continued through pockets of moonshadow into the cool air of the upper canyon, concluding my journey successfully but with an overwhelming weariness. I was eager to find a campsite and submit to sleep myself. And so I did, with the eye of Jupiter looking on.

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