The Grand Canyon

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While I was a freshman in high school, my family traveled across the country to visit relatives in the south. These years were a time of great journeys for me. I flew with friends throughout the Yucatan in a small plane (landing in airfields protected by people carrying submachine guns), a trip to Kawaii, myriad small trips, and this trip to the south. We left in a Winnebago Indian motorhome that my parents had recently bought and headed for Route 66.

I look back on my parents during this period and realize that this was a time of great optimism for them. To them, The Winnebago was freedom, both literally and symbolically, a sign that they had entered (or perhaps that they were merely trying on the clothes of) the leisure class. It had been used for weekend trips to the coast, longer trips to California’s Blue Lakes, and occasional sojourns in between. Some trips were a few days, while others lasted a week. On all of those trips, they made new friends, which seemed to be their real goal. The traveling was a necessity. Meeting someone new was where the true fun of life lie.

So in December, the Winnebago packed with clothes, food, homework (the trip was so long that I would miss a few weeks of school), we headed East, my parents sitting in the great Captain’s Chairs in front, and I sitting in back as far as possible away from them (I was a freshman, after all), reading, listening to Grand Funk Railroad, and looking out the window. One of the first stops that I recall was the Grand Canyon. 

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I owned one camera back then - a Yashica 44. It was an unusual camera, tannish grey in color, taking square pictures, and using 127 film, which I typically had to special order. The Yashica was what was called a “Twin-Lens Reflex”, meaning that the lens you focused with sat above the lens that exposed the film. It was sold to me by a friend in eighth grade and was my first real camera, a step up from the Kodak Handle (Polaroid later sued Kodak for patent infringement, and the Handle was taken off the market), because of its glass lenses, as opposed to the Handle’s plastic one, and the Handle’s poor prints. The lens on the Yashica was slightly wide, making distant landscapes difficult to shoot, but it fit my needs. 

It was stormy that year, requiring that chains be put on and taken off the motorhome. As we made our way through Reno, one of the chains broke on the passenger rear tire, splintering a hole in the Winnebago’s body that allowed the ambient air and water to enter, and the back interior of the motorhome would accumulate ice for the remainder of the trip, and I would remain rolled up in a comforter.

When we arrived at the Grand Canyon, which I recall being our first important stop, it was snowing and mystical. One thinks that pictures do justice, but they don’t. Pictures never give you the scent, the tufts of wind, the feeling of smallness as one looks down at the immensity of the canyon. All of these are lost in photographs, yet I photographed when I arrived there anyway, image after image. If photographs are a poor imitation of an experience, at least they are some sort of an imitation of the experience to help one remember. It is impossible not to make art as a response to being there. 

I still have the photographs in a photo album, preserved all these years, along with pictures of my cousins at Eagle Lake, Iris that my mother grew, and myriad other subjects, things I might have forgotten had I not taken my snapshots. I believe that I even have a picture of the Winnebago somewhere… 

Last week I made my second journey to the Grand Canyon. I’d done some volunteer work in Southern California, slipped into Arizona to see friends, and chose a path home specifically to see the Canyon. There was no snow, no promise of a higher adventure afterward, just a stop on my way home. I’d been wanting to visit for a while, asking a friend who’s a river guide for tips, and this proved to be my perfect opportunity. Nothing had changed. The Canyon was guest to many visitors from other nations. Some stood in front of the gaping trench with selfie-sticks, and I often heard visitors offer to photograph other visitors. The beauty of the place had brought people together, made them accommodating of each other, in contrast to most of America right now.

The sun was bright, and there were no clouds.

I walked up and down the rim taking pictures, just as I’m sure I did on my previous visit so many years ago. The sun was low on the horizon, and I often used shadows as central elements in my compositions. The experience was magical.

Next time I’ll go down to the bottom.