Jan/Feb 2008 Travel

Acrophobia at Home in Arizona

by Anna Sidak

Photo by Steve Wing

It's almost unpatriotic not to want to see Arizona's Grand Canyon. But acrophobes like you, fearing the hydra of its depths, don't want to be in the same county. Naturally, one fine day there you are in Tusayan, less than ten miles south of the rim.

Acrophobia, as defined by Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary is "abnormal dread of being at a great height," but there is more to it since no one fears falling out of mile-high Denver. This affliction is dependant upon visual perceptions of depth, of falling from any of vertical's myriad forms—real, imaginary, or merely depicted. Up or down. If you notice how deep the sky, and find its still-water reflection doubly troubling, you probably have it. If ordinary road maps create a modest flurry of electrical activity and real depths lead to tremors and shutdown, you definitely have acrophobia.

A burned-out circuit in the eye-brain path, you tell yourself, and familiarity soon breeds contempt. The ideal location for overload is close at hand. But please, not cold turkey.

Tusayan's IMAX theatre is a good place to practice. To zoom upriver at terrifying speed, six-track rapids roaring below. As all is lost and the seven-story screen turns black, forty-foot natives appear. They leap recklessly about, then fade into John Wesley Powell's nine-man, ninety-nine-day expedition down the Green and Red River, to paraphrase the Wyoming headwaters and the Colorado, in the summer of 1869. A saga of courage you hope is contagious. "[. . .] to me the cheer is somber and the jests ghastly," Major Powell wrote of fears prior to that first run, although the jesters were his own crew and he had sent his wife Emma to stay with relatives and embarked on the dangerous and under-funded journey of his own free will.

Wallace Stegner, in his introduction to a 1987 edition of Powell's The Expedition of the Colorado River and its Canyons, defines the fuel as intellectual curiosity: "They went down the river for the same reason a bear went over the mountain."

Perhaps that reason compensated for Powell's physical impairment as well, for the thirty-five year old Union Major had lost his right arm at Shiloh. Repeatedly scaling perilous cliffs despite this misfortune, he was rescued once by underwear—that of a companion on a higher ledge, for neither carried rope; and on another occasion by oar, brought up from the river for the urgent purpose of pinning the Major against a cliff as he moved along a narrow ledge to safety.

In A Canyon Voyage, the recollections of Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, the 17-year-old geological artist-aide of Powell's 1871-72 reconnaissance, present an alternate, although scarcely less courageous, vision: Powell, seated in the armchair bolted to the deck of his small boat, floats downriver while reading Tennyson aloud. You could do that.

And how lovely it would be, in a broad-rimmed hat to block the view of the canyon walls which shade the river and hide the sun. Yet here you are, reading the anti-poetry of the terrors IMAX confirmed, otherwise known as Grand Canyon statistics, and comparing them with the man-made icons of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Great Pyramid, and Sears Tower of 220, 450, and 1353 feet, respectively.

As for natural highs, can those who prefer postcards of Yosemite's El Capitan to the reality of its 3,600 vertical feet appreciate an average depth of 40 feet, with pits as deep as 100, for the river in the bottom of the Canyon? It is impossible, of course, to know this, or even the width of the stream by merely gazing from the rim. Spanish explorers, the first Europeans to see the area, judged the 150 to 300-yard width of the river at the bottom of the Canyon at less then thirty feet.

The south rim's Coconino Plateau (you are here) is at 7,000 feet; 4,600 feet above the Canyon floor, which is 2,400 feet above sea level. Since the Kalibab Plateau of the north rim rises to 8,400 feet, the Canyon's riverbed depths average a mile.

And exceed 6,000 feet along the 277 miles of the Canyon with an average width of 10 miles—some portions 18 miles rim to rim—which lie within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park.

At the park entrance ranger's station you notice nothing to cause alarm. The horizon seems comfortingly close, timber sparse, sun warming the delicate ocher and umber of the high desert. Just ahead there could be a lake, with worn docks and no sand, a bait shed. It has that feel, that air, but dryer, undiluted. Air a little different from that which has been mixing with the various respirations of soil, trees, meadows, ponds breathing out their gases.

Great. Let's go. The blue morning sky is soft as bunting. Cloudless and still. Between the roadway and the rim trail grow sparse pine and juniper, and a stunted, twisted cedar. The ground, pock-marked by the hooves of elk, is a freeze-dried crunch beneath your feet. Beyond the shrubbery rise distant misty cliffs.

Pause, gasp and shudder: there's nothing in between.

The edge may crumble. Yet you move forward, recognize the view, and find the exact word for the Grand Canyon: immediately. No preliminary front-line ditch. No angle of repose, no terrace. Perhaps a negative slope beneath your feet, yet you imagine broad skirts below the rim.

In search of talus—but shattered slopes don't last long here—you encounter the Canyon landforms in the broad serration of butte and mesa between the north and south rims, where the Colorado, near and roughly parallel to the south rim doesn't run. The trough of this great frayed rent runs east to west defiantly across the slope of the northerly incline, anchored by bold incomprehensible below-the-horizon mountains. The contours of these sunken ranges, the slope of wall typical of each geological layer's response to erosion, reflect the on-going work of six million years.

Major Powell's astute explanation was that as the plateaus slowly rose, the powerfully abrasive Colorado evacuated the rising riverbed, maintaining its approximate initial elevation above sea level. Doubts you had about wind-and-water driven sand died upon exposure to a Georgia Review essay by Reg Saner, "The Ideal Particle and the Great Unconformity." Sand, both tool and technique, wet or dry, cut through the strata of the Colorado Plateau and exposed this serape-stripped past.

The variegated layers and stacks of the Canyon's walls and landforms, twisted and torn, eroded away in one place, yet exposed in another—the Great Conformity identifies 1.2 billion years absent in this fashion—reveal geological history to a depth of 2 billion years, nearly halfway to the birth of planet Earth 4.5 billion years ago. Your family has been around about 0.0005 billion years.

"No writer of worth has ever seriously attempted to describe the Grand Canyon . . ." So Frank Waters wrote in The Colorado, his overview of the river's environs, but few have escaped the impulse to playfully try. Perhaps the key to the attractions of the Grand Canyon is scale, both the immensity of the view and the immensity of the structures within it.

Perhaps it is the extravagant response of this immensity and diversity to light.

Or perhaps it is just another of those many instances in which the absolute unity of being seeks to conceal itself in the manifold and paradoxical phenomena of repetition and variety. In a word, Maya, as the unduly modest Waters observed, following his writer-of-worth disclaimer with some twenty illuminating pages on the Canyon's emotional appeal.

Whatever the source of that appeal, perhaps no more mysterious than curiosity about the nature of the self-knowledge which Reg Saner suggests often lies just beyond the threshold of fear, as in the implicit damage to human ego in recognizing the extremes of geological age, you stare the Canyon down—not quite the same as staring down the Canyon, but close—diverting impact with fantasy and speculation.

From your vantage point on a projection shared with a dozen other tourists, all of you rocking out over Nirvana, you can see yesterday and the day before, and it dawns on you once again that the strata here have sorted themselves out—across the ravines and side canyons in mostly horizontal beds of cream and tan and in reddish shades of iron oxide washing over the gray and buff of limestone and shales—as traceable and identifiable by selvage and fringe as a stack of Persian carpets. With narrow dark bands on either side of camel, and below, great black walls of basalt and Vishnu schist.

A mere detail in this frozen panorama of ancient ocean floors, ash, and lava captures your imagination: the base of the outcropping is of softer rock than its limestone cap composed of the compressed minutiae of an infinity of armored sea life now dry and stained with ore. How do you know this? The cap has been severely undercut, that's how you know.

Pipe posts and railing installed around the cap's perimeter lean—you want to say precariously. Pennies gleam on a ledge below this barrier, below this cantilevered thrust of stone, picking up sinister tones of rust.

Here, thousands of feet above, and south of, the rushing waters of the Colorado you think again of the Ideal Particle when stones, loosened by the leap of a mountain goat, rattle down the side canyon. You see a plume of dust, new-born Ideal Particles capable of moving mountains, and then discern the animal's narrow brown back as it leaps again, slides and brakes on the edge of the precipice. Far below.

You think you know what brought John Wesley Powell to the Grand Canyon, but why do the rest of us come here? It's a dangerous place, even for mountain goats. And is itself endangered. In particular, why do people with fear-of-falling come to the Grand Canyon? Maybe they don't know they have it until properly inspired. Or perhaps only writers have it, or pay attention to it.

Here's self-confessed acrophobe, Thomas Keneally, in The Place Where Souls Are Born, on those afraid to get out of the car: "We go to the Grand Canyon and don't know we've been."

But that's not you, is it? No. You're still out on that scenic point, that rocky ledge over oblivion or something similar, when what happens? Of all the rotten luck—and you were so proud of yourself, and more than a little amazed—someone turns to face you, his back to the abyss.

And you're out of there.

How much actual practice did you have? First IMAX, then an hour in a small (4-passenger) plane over the Canyon—past Wotan's Throne, past the mingling of the Little Colorado's teal waters with the café-au-lait of the main stream, low over the north rims snowed-in pines—protected from the view by noise and dirty glass and your viewfinder, scarcely there at all.

Followed by the rim and your in-person confrontation with somebody's, maybe your, worst nightmare. Followed by a long, carefree hike along the edge of the chasm. Obviously, the synapses of your brain weren't firing in their usual timely fashion.

Wasn't that what you wanted?

Yes. And you were fine.

Until the primordial aspect of a stranger on the edge hot-wired you brain, and—zap, out for the count.

You have a couple of thoughts about this. One, how was this fear acquired? It appears, at least in this second-party form, to be an experience from which, at some cost to strangers, you could reliably pass the acquired wisdom on to your children. And two, why do you still dream of flying?

Is this terror of falling related to dreams of flying? Does it suggest you, once, before Icarus, seriously tried to fly? It didn't work, yet you're branded with the memory and fear? Or you can look at it this way: you had four good hours free from fear—at least two in the air, counting IMAX as above it all, and two on location—before acrophobia caught up with you.

But, probably, it's always going to be for you as it was for Major Powell who wrote of his own phobia:

[. . .] it has taken several years of mountain climbing to cool down my nerves so that I can sit with my feet over the edge and calmly look down a precipice 2,000 feet. And yet I cannot look on and see another do the same. I must either bid him come away or turn my head.

Italics yours.


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