It was days before my birthday and I had the bright idea of camping at the Grand Canyon and riding the rim by bicycle to celebrate. Birthdays have always been a funny beast. Mix in part nostalgia for younger, more carefree years, dread of what is to come mixed in with a dash of excitement and you get a lumpy, over thought cake.
After loading up our car, we drove four hours through the night, cutting past ghostly aspens near the base of the San Francisco Peaks and on to the flat as pancake plains outside Tusayan. The never-ending darkness had nearly lulled us into a stupor when an orange flashing light at the Grand Canyon visitor gate rocked us out of our cradles and back to life.
My boyfriend turned to me and said, “Happy birthday weekend!”
Uh, another year older.
We pitched our tent in the far loop of the Mather Campground, site 161, which sat just feet from the highway we learned when the first RV rumbled past. Our dream of sleeping under the stars with only distance elk calls was rudely ruined.
After a fitful slumber, the breakfast bell sounded — a posse of black crows tapping their toothpick peaks against our dog Kiwi’s stainless steel food bowl.
After feeding the crows and ourselves, we rode out to the rim, passing by the market plaza, train depot, odor-filled mule barn and Bright Angel Lodge.
My first glimpse of the canyon was quickly taken away not by the beauty, but after the mile-plus ride from camp.
After the shock of my unfitness wore off, I stumbled around, digging in my bag for my camera and shot my way through the growing crowd of foreign languages.
It was the first time in a long day that I would stop and glimpse at a geologic history stretching back millions of years.
My birthday was just another year to add to the thousands of lifetimes that have passed before the canyon.
The Grand Canyon is carved by periods of great seas, sand dunes, erosion, upheaval and solitary stillness. With all its faults and folds, the canyon is a great indictor of the Earth’s restlessness.
Always changing and evolving, the canyon lays open to inspection. Its layers, like a scrapbook, reveal everything. It is easy to stand at its lip and appreciate the beauty, but to understand the journey requires careful examination.
We saddled up our bicycles, mine an elderly mare with a few scratches and dings and set off down Hermit Road. The six-mile trip to Hermits Rest hugs the canyon at times and falls away into the scrubby juniper, pinyon and ponderosa pine forest at others.
The wonder of the canyon quickly wore off as the 6 percent grade to cross the Bright Angel Fault, a wall of black asphalt, rose up just beyond the shuttle bus pick-up. As jolly tourists zoomed past in the shuttle, like museum patrons behind glass, I smiled merrily. But for the next half mile, I spun my wheels, grimacing all the way to the top of Hopi Hill. I pledged that if I were going to make it anywhere, it would be here and pushed on.
The canyon is a place many have tested their luck and skill and I have put my chips in two times before, hiking in and out on the Bright Angel Trail and trail to Havasupai Falls.
After the steep section passed, I wish I could say it was downhill from there, but the road to Hermits Rest dips and rises many times. Never so much that only a Tour de France rider could finish, but enough to make your legs feel like Jell-O.
After several miles, I caught a rhythm — stopping at each overlook (there are eight shuttle stops along the way to Hermits Rest), snapping a photograph and reading the accompanying plaque of brief canyon history.
One sign outlined each layer of sediment, when it formed and what the area looked like at the time.
Geologists have traced the history of the 277-mile gorge and much of how the continent formed using puzzle pieces left behind in the canyon.
There are metamorphic rocks on the inner gorge and dark Precambrian rocks west of Grand Canyon Village dated as old as 1.84 billion years. However, much of time is missing from the canyon due to erosion. Known as unconformity, the rocks of the Grand Canyon Supergroup were deposited for some 400 million years, but were then uplifted and eroded, nearly erasing the layer from history.
There are a few areas in my life erased from memory, like a well-shaken etch-a-sketch.
A dozen other layers remain visible, detailing a great ocean in Muav Limestone, Tapeats Sandstone and Bright Angel Shale. On top of these, the Redwall Limestone formed in the warm waters of the Redwall Sea. One book calls this a time of great tranquility in North America.
Areas of the 500-foot Redwall cliff are dotted with long switchbacks and are the area most hikers remember on their way to reach the Colorado River.
Other layers include Hermit Shale of silt and mud and Coconino Sandstone. Coconino Sandstone cements in time sand dunes that once dusted the area.
Like a colorful birthday cake, each layer has an immense number of hues and textures, from iron-rich rust red to pink veins of granite and dusty yellow.
The gorge paints a mystical picture of time and change. The paintbrush carving it all is the Colorado River. According to its mood, it can power through layers, dragging debris with it in a great flood or wallow gracefully for a time, its power hidden.
I perched myself on top of a rock, well back from the edge at a seldom visited pull-off (an advantage to riding a bike is stopping where buses never do) and gazed wistfully.
As much as geologists know about the canyon, there is lots more they do not understand. As the author of “An Introduction to Grand Canyon Geology” pens, “The details of its age, history and configuration is long gone, carried downstream by the river itself, or lost to us as a result of ongoing erosional processes.”
There is a lot about myself that I do not yet understand. Some of it lost to denial while some yet discovered. Like a geologists, I plot away anyway, unearthing old ideas and creating new memories.
Every time I visit the canyon, I leave on solid footing, more aware and less discouraged what the investigation will yield.