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The Canyon In Snow

by Linda Thomas

The first time I heard of the Grand Canyon, I was a child in a classroom where three young nuns, Sisters of St. Joseph, told of an early morning vigil they kept once at the south rim of the canyon. The three had heard stories telling of vivid colors that shifted dramatically throughout the day, starting at dawn; and eager to see this phenomenon, they had wrapped themselves in shawls, sat on rocks in the pre-dawn dark at the edge of the immense canyon, and waited. But the light did not change as they had imagined. Instead, they said, black lightened to gray, then to pearl, in a slow dispelling illumination that was hardly discernible. Instead of being disappointed by the absence of true technicolor theatrics, the nuns found the whole slow image of luminescence a perfect metaphor for grace. "See?" they instructed our group of children. "This is how goodness comes to us--we hardly realize its approach."

So began my fascination with the place that lies within the perimeters Grand Canyon National Park. I have visited the canyon many times in my life, sometimes as my destination, more often as an irresistible detour on my way elsewhere. My favorite approach is from Williams across the Cococino Plateau along Hwy.180 because I love the gradual entry across barren plain to the Kaibab National Forest, and the climb to seven thousand feet at the south rim. In summer when the ponderosa and pinyon pines are still and dusty, the distances of ten miles between rims and one mile to the canyon floor can seem crossable by only the waves of heat that shimmer along the red and ochre faces of the cliffs and buttes of the Grand Canyon.

The immensity of the canyon has held my thoughts for hours as I sat in the wicker chairs on the porch of the El Tovar listening for the hoarse call of the ravens that can cross the canyon in minutes. The seeds of plants cross the canyon in the bodies of these birds. Even spiders, clinging to the sticky filaments of web, can float on wind currents all the way across the canyon. Yet the squirrels, so plentiful here in their scramble of red-brown fur and plumed tails, are isolated by the great 227-mile long erosion scar that breaks the great plateaus of northern Arizona. Indeed, the squirrels on the north rim and the squirrels on the south rim are but distant cousins, bound by their dependency on the ponderosa forests to stay put.

I have never crossed the Grand Canyon myself, but I entered its deep clefts and valleys once, in 1975, by mule along the Bright Angel Trail, and made it all the way to the Colorado River. The trek was thrilling, my trusty mule sure-footed along the narrow trails beat into the sheer rock cliffs. I rested in the grove of cottonwood trees at the waystation at Bright Angel Creek, and when I arrived at the river, I was astonished to find it wide, deep, green, and moving slowly through a channel cut even more deeply into the earth's rock.

I have admired the wind-twisted limbs of a juniper perched on the last edge of the south rim, and after a wet winter, I have marveled at the pink and red fields of skyrockets. On cool fall evenings, I have warmed my hands over the fire that blazes inside the Bright Angel Lodge. In August, my eye has traced the shimmer of sun that outlines a needle butte jutting up from the canyon floor, so distant that it might have been a red clay mirage.

But my best visit came one year when, as we crossed the Cococino from Williams, unexpectedly, snow began to fall. First, splashes of slushy rain, then a steady drift of wet snow that covered the road. That year, we camped at Grand Canyon Village, a group of us in trailers, and for two days, the snow fell. The water pumps froze. The heating coils froze. We cheered one another, huddled over games of poker, wrapped in parkas, blowing steam off cups of hot tea. At night, our breath condensed and formed icicles over our beds.

Finally, on the third day, the storm broke, and we pushed open the doors of the trailers against the snowy windrifts to find the campground a white vision. The branches of the pines were layered in snow; all markers had disappeared beneath the deep, cold, white mantle. We dressed and set out at once, across the Village Road, for the Visitors' Center and a rim trail that would take us to the canyon. I remember the laughter of Californians, unused to snow, the provocative sense of being the first to step here or there, to leave prints in the new snow. And when finally we rounded the last bend in the trail, the sky opened up in a heartbreaking, after-storm blue. The trees released a perfume like a secret held back of winters that, unwitnessed, always are. The last of the clouds flew across the canyon and let fall beneath them their own shadows across the mesas and meadows on the canyon floor. And when I could not decide which was better--the canyon in spring, the canyon in summer, the canyon now cloaked in white--I simply decided to return.

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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

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