Having a bucket-list can be a double-edged sword: there are things that you can easily achieve with minimal investment and there are things that require meticulous planning and budgeting to check it off the list. The first portion of my backpacking extravaganza from Chicago to Los Angeles was centered on the desire to see the Grand Canyon and anything else in between was considered a peripheral bonus. Although those “in-betweeners” like Albuquerque and Trinidad did leave a long-lasting impression on my journey, Grand Canyon National Park was supposed to be the big one. The one that will be the first place I’ll wow about when someone asked me about my travels or make me regret not buying the $10 replica paperweight as a showoff and turns out Grand Canyon was the surrealist experience I ever had with Mother Nature.

TEMPERATURE TRAP

The whole Grand Canyon voyage was slated as a 3 days 2 nights stay – we arrived at Flagstaff, AZ, the nearest town to the South Rim of the canyon, around 8:00 p.m. from Albuquerque, NM and our butts froze the moment we stepped out of the train. I guess nobody really researched the extremities of the desert highland temperature as it was 36 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celcisus) even in June. With a depleted food supply and hunger setting in, it was a miracle that all three of us walked about 2 miles (3.2 km) to the nearest supermarket to get eggs and pasta and walked back to the hostel to cook. Moral of the story: finger-freezing temperatures is no match for an empty stomach and a tight wallet.

The Extreme Desert Highland Temperature
Would be less funny if it was measure in centigrade.

PICTURE POSTCARD PERFECT

The next day, we joined the hostel-organized day tour to the Grand Canyon and the ride to the park entrance from Flagstaff took about one and a half hours, not including a stop at the local mart to get some munchies. After a pleasant drive across wide open fields and rolling hills, we arrived at the village waiting to soak in the scenery of the South Rim. We were dropped off at Bright Angel Lodge and proceeded to the Lookout Studio, a tiny stone-carved building on the edge of the world. As soon as I stepped on the observation deck, I zoned out into the realm of disbelief for the next hour or so. Start-off by zooming in over the deck where the trees and rocks look like ants and slowly pan out towards the horizon as far as the eye can see. The effect: the infinite peaks and troughs of rocks suddenly looks like a simple flat-out 2D painting.

It's like looking into a giant postcard.
It’s like looking into a giant postcard.

WE ARE BUT SMALL & PUNY BEINGS

Immense. That is one word that best describe the Grand Canyon. I was stricken by a sense of fear and awe by the vast expanse of the ancient rock formations upon setting myself on a ledge. The fear stemmed from the worst-case scenario of “What if I was stranded down there alone with darkness approaching?” while the awe is a result of feeling so tiny and small in the face of this overwhelming giant. The size of the “holes” were made conspicuous when our guide pointed out hikers descending onto the river down below; it takes about six hours to reach the bottom of the canyon while a day is needed to head back up. Of all the indescribable feelings I encountered, respect is the most important of it all. Humans can create countless wonders of engineering and technology but when nature has its way, we have no power to stop it.

Fear, awe and respect: three feelings I encountered on this ledge.
Fear, awe and respect: three feelings I encountered on this ledge.

THE SHEER FORCE OF NATURE

The Grand Canyon is basically a geologists’ wet dream. It was delicately shaped by the mighty Colorado River over millions of years and the remaining peaks with layers upon layers of different rocks have their own story to tell from the time of dinosaurs to the age of the selfie. I have been seeing the unstoppable power of flowing water in full force through the majestic waterfalls in Malaysia but the falls pale in comparison to what I witnessed on that day – steady sediments of stones being chipped away and shaped by where the river wants to go. It makes you think that if nature can push away boulders like pebbles, it can definitely turn against us humans who have been ungrateful for what it provided for us.

The mighty Colorado River forces it way through the rocks.
The mighty Colorado River forces it way through the rocks.

Being at the Grand Canyon has definitely helped finish-off my bucket list, especially when it comes to drinking a can of Arizona Iced Tea where else but in Arizona (more corny stuff along the way), but it also gave me much more than that. This place was only one of the two national parks I managed to visit while in the United States and what started off as an appreciation of the surreal turns into a deep introspective on the value of life, existence and everything else under the sun.


This post is part of The Great American Adventure backpacking trip in summer 2010 with two of my buddies. With Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass, we visited 11 cities, 4 college towns, 2 national parks and 1 town dubbed The Sex Change Capital of the US.

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