A Paean to Our National Wilderness

Fellow residents of Planet Earth …

Have you ever seen an incredible sunset and felt time stop while feelings of awe washed over you? Joseph Campbell, the late authority on the world’s mythologies, would say this is an example of “aesthetic arrest caused by divinely superfluous beauty.” The eminent psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term “peak experience” to capture this phenomenon. Both gentlemen were referring to a rare experience when we momentarily drop the distractions of compulsive thought and receive an unexpected glimpse of what is real about us.

Hopi Point Sunset – Grand Canyon NP, AZ

If these sudden revelations are rare, then it begs the question of why we are choosing to live in an unreal state most of the time. It also makes us wonder what burying “the Real” across the arc of human existence has meant. The answer shouldn’t be too surprising: feelings of isolation, anxiety, and loneliness that have manifested as much of the insanity we see in the world today.

We know peak experiences are vital simply because of the thunderclap of clarity they bring when they appear. We feel the truth for that rare moment, but then we forget. There are several ways to encourage these encounters, including meditation and yoga, but there is something a bit more tangible that we can also use: nature. In particular, our national parks. These often under-appreciated treasures confront us with awe and mystery, and can offer us powerful reminders about what is true. The Grand Canyon has stolen my heart recently, so I will be delivering a paean to this incredible place while I make my larger points about the inseparability of our real selves from the uncompromising authenticity of wilderness.

Representation of a Peak Experience
Source: paranormal.lovetoknow.com

During the summers of 2018 and 2019, I rafted through the bottom of the Grand Canyon on trips of 188 miles over 7 days, first with my son Alex, and then again with my wife Janet. We also enjoyed several epic hikes down into the canyon and up to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. In between, my son Jeremy and I canoed through the mangrove swamps among the alligators in another magnificent national park, the Everglades.

Mile 10 on the Colorado River on the first day of our Grand Canyon rafting trip
Mile 10 on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
Approaching the Sub Dome and Cables during our Half Dome hike
The approach to Half Dome in Yosemite
The mangroves in the Everglades canoeing through Buttonwood Canal
Canoeing through the Buttonwood Canal in the Everglades

Until 2018, my vacations consisted mainly of cruises and beaches, which all produced wonderful memories. But then Alex convinced me to experience the Western wilderness with him. I soon found myself sleeping under the stars, hiking long distances through the wilderness, and bathing in the frigid Colorado River. Now, my upcoming vacation plans involve experiencing as many Western national parks as I can in the coming years.

Hiking on North Kaibab Trail into Roaring Springs Canyon on the north side of Grand Canyon
North Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon

Although all the parks are stunning, to me Grand Canyon is sacred. Its unique combination of dangerous extremes, primordial geology, remote vastness, staggering beauty, and profound silence has literally been 2 billion years in the making. This cathedral of the earth has created a sense of spiritual awe that still resonates as I go through my workaday life. I’ve heard long-time canyon guides say that it makes them understand how insignificant they are. Perhaps. But more than anything, it makes me remember how divine I really am.

View of from the Nankoweap Granaries 700 feet above the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
View from 700 feet above the Colorado River at the Nankoweap Graneries in the Grand Canyon

Tragically, these national treasures are under relentless assault by the darker impulses of our society. There have always been persistent threats to monetize our natural wonders by mining their lands, logging their ancient forests, damming them for hydroelectric power, and neutering the wilderness so that it can be overrun by millions for profit.

Nowhere have these threats been more evident than in the Grand Canyon.

  • Beginning in the 20th century, uranium was mined in and around the canyon. There are warning signs at Horn Creek, one of the Colorado River’s tributaries, to not drink the water due to unsafe levels of radiation.

  • In 1963, the Glen Canyon Dam was built 15 miles upriver from Grand Canyon National Park, creating a reservoir 186 miles long (Lake Powell) that delivers hydroelectric power to several Southwestern states. It has completely changed the nature of the Colorado river and its riparian ecosystem as it travels through the canyon. John Wesley Powell, who first ran the river through the entire canyon in 1869, famously said that the Colorado was “too thin to plow and too thick to drink.” Today, the river is often a shimmering emerald green. Because the river emerges from the bottom of Glen Canyon Dam, 700 feet below the surface of Lake Powell, it sluices through the canyon at an icy 47 to 50 degrees.
Glan Canyon Dam in Page, AZ 15 miles upstream from the Grand Canyon
The Glen Canyon Dam in Page, AZ – 15 miles upstream from the Grand Canyon
  • Several poor Indian tribes live on reservations along the south side of the river. In the western end of the canyon, the Hualapai tribe built the Skywalk overlook in 2003, and have allowed helicopter tours from Las Vegas onto their land. They are now profiting handsomely from these operations but the character of the canyon has completely changed in what is now called Helicopter Alley. In 2017, photographer Pete McBride documented 318 tourist flights in a single day. This area is now the busiest helicopter corridor in the world.

Skywalk on the western rim of the Grand Canyon
Skywalk on the western rim of Grand Canyon (source: Travel Republic)
Helicopter Alley on Hualapai Indian land in western Grand Canyon
Time-lapse of Helicopter Alley in western Grand Canyon (source: Pete McBride Photography)

  • Perhaps most pernicious of all is the proposed Tramway development project at the confluence of the Colorado and its largest tributary in the canyon, the Little Colorado. 25,000 people per year have been allowed to run the river through the canyon, a number strictly regulated by the National Park Service. The river has been the primary way to directly access the undisturbed beauty of this place. However, the Tramway project would create a massive entertainment complex on Navajo land 3,000 feet above the Little Colorado and shuttle 10,000 people per day from the rim down to the confluence. Thankfully, the Navajo voted the project down in 2017, in spite of the monetary opportunity, because of the sacredness of this area to them. But the developers will not give up.
Little Colorado tributary in Grand Canyon – river mile 61 (source: Rob Dahm fellow river runner in June, 2018)

There are cases to be made on both sides of the pro-conservation and pro-development divide. Regarding projects like the Tramway, the developers have two main arguments. First: Why shouldn’t the Indian tribes be able to profit from these endeavors? And second: Why shouldn’t anyone have opportunity to experience being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Isn’t it elitist to restrict this thrill to the entitled few? Sure, we’ll profit, but we’re leveling the playing field and the Navajo will have jobs.

In defense of wilderness conservation, I rebut these arguments with three points, informed by my experiences and by those far more knowledgeable than me.

  1. Not every human being deserves to have every earthly experience. Should we provide the artificial means for anyone to scale El Capitan or kayak across the Pacific Ocean? If the physical or monetary investments for a direct experience are beyond reach, watch documentaries or use virtual reality.

El Capitan in Yosemite
El Capitan in Yosemite
  1. It bears asking why generations of Native Americans have had to live in abject poverty in the first place, and why the remedy should now be for developers to defile one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Let’s simply pay our Native Americans what they need to live comfortably while they help to preserve a treasure that belongs to all of us.

Mather Point on Grand Canyon South Rim
Mather Point – Grand Canyon South Rim
  1. And most fundamentally: The wilderness is a reflection of what is Real about us and can help us remember our birthright. Tramways, entertainment complexes, and modern technology will never give us a peak experience.

Therefore, developing the wilderness so that thousands per day can have a wilderness-like encounter, means that the wilderness would no longer be the wilderness. Like the Romans’ bread and circuses, we are close to entertaining ourselves into oblivion. Can’t we acknowledge that being in the wilderness should not be reduced to an amusement park experience?

The wilderness is wild and must be encountered on its own terms. This is what elicits the reverence and humility that leads us to peak experiences and the apprehension of the truth. In a larger sense, honoring the wilderness serves as an exemplar of how we need to honor the entire planet, and evolve from domination of our environment to cooperation with it.

Flora and fauna of the Grand Canyon
Creatures of the Grand Canyon
Planet Earth
Source: National Geographic

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