Zora Hurston (“There Eyes Were Watching God”) is credited with coining the phrase, “You got to go there to know there.” While I have found her axiom to be generally true, it is paradoxically true and untrue regarding Grand Canyon. Although, in order to experience “The Canyon,” one must “go there,” it is humanly impossible to “know there.” It is simply too vast, too deep, too long, too old and too mysterious for the human brain to comprehend. In fact many hikers, who hike to the bottom and back up, emerge blissfully bewildered by their experience.
It is quite likely that the one person who experienced this dilemma the most acutely was John Wesley Powell. Powell belongs to an elite pantheon of explorers who accomplished something that had never been done. Even though he was missing one arm, he successfully led an expedition down a river that was considered unnavigable. Native Americans warned him that he and his crew would be swallowed into the center of the earth. After the three-month odyssey, Powell expressed the futility of trying to capture the spirit of Grand Canyon:
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
He arrived at this conclusion after what many seasoned explorers predicted would be a disastrous expedition ending in death and destruction. He and his crew faced odds and challenges that would have made lesser men quail in defeat. The untamed Colorado River meandered 224 miles through a 5000-foot-deep chasm that offered few or no pathways of escape. The combination of roaring water and huge granite boulders produced “standing waves,” some of which approached 35 feet tall. The only way to survive these waves was to tether their specially designed boats and laboriously “rope” them around the potentially lethal obstacles.
They were frequently cold and wet, much of their food had spoiled, there were several near-drownings and they lost one boat. Understandably, Powell’s men were stressed to the breaking point, prompting three of them to agree to abandon the expedition and take their chances of escaping back to civilization.
Powell handled the little mutiny with compassion and dignity. For all he knew they might be right which led to his musing:
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.”
In profound irony, the next day presented an easily navigable rapid, the last threat to the expedition. The three men were never seen or heard from again.
On a much smaller scale, I identified with the stress that Powell experienced. The Biodesign Class intentionally took high school students in into the uncharted educational wilderness and challenged them to explore their God-given-gifts of soul and spirit. Their discoveries ranged from miraculous, magnificent, even sublime, to stressful, painful and terrifying enough to cause about 3% of them to flee in fear.