Magazine article Sunset

Of Time and the Canyon

Magazine article Sunset

Of Time and the Canyon

Article excerpt

HIGHWAY 64 is a two-lane stretch of blacktop that qualifies as one of the most remarkable roads anywhere. Follow it west from the trading post of Cameron, on the far edge of the Navajo Reservation, and toward the Grand Canyon, and you move forward while hurtling backward through centuries and eons.

The first time I drove this path, I was behind the wheel of my pickup truck, two days out of Santa Fe and pushing hard for Lee's Ferry, a breach in the cliffs to the north where the road descends to the Colorado River, and where I was to join my first trip as a whitewater guide. Dazed from the road, I failed to register--until the moment I arrived--that I was following the route traced by Spanish soldiers who, nearly 5OO years earlier, had stumbled into one of the most important discoveries in the history of American exploration.

They came out of the Painted Desert late in the summer of 1540, drawn north by the legend of Cibola, seven cities whose treasures--gold and silver, emeralds and turquoise--were said to defy belief. A dozen horsemen, they were led by a young captain named Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who had been ordered to chase down rumors of a "great river" in the heart of the desert. As September spilled into October, they made their way across a flat, pirion-dotted landscape until, without warning, the ground gave way and they gazed into one of the defining features of the New World: the greatest testament on Earth to the power of water, the beauty of bare rock, and the fearsome magnificence of deep time.

That seminal point of contact--said to be the first of America's natural wonders discovered by Europeans--is believed to have taken place along Highway 64 somewhere near a place known as Desert View.

Today, Desert View lies just inside the eastern gateway to Grand Canyon National Park. And even now, it affords a sense of just how dizzy and disorienting the moment must have been when Cardenas and his companions halted their march and gazed across one of the longest and deepest gorges on the planet. The official chronicles of their expedition offer not a single detail on what those men might have said or done as they stared into the abyss. If they were anything like me, it's a reasonable guess that they halted in silence and stared. …

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