Jan. 10, 2015. 7ish a.m. The southern rim of the Grand Canyon.
We store memories in snapshots. We live in movies.
We think in terms of moments, as if time were like words, separated by space, distinct and individual.
But the world comes to us in a flow — continual, connected, moving, ever-changing but never-changing in its constancy.
These thoughts formed as I watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. I had forgotten my camera. I would not be able to record this moment. Was it in the car? Had I left it in my motel room? Should I go look for it?
I stood on a narrow tooth that jutted out from a paved walkway, part of the Rim Trail that traces the canyon. I faced the east and watched the dawn unfold, at first in blushes of pink and blue, then more intensely in crimson and gold. A layer of clouds — cotton billows — moved in from the southwest; in the western sky the moon watched its dominion fade.
To my left was the canyon. Ahead, I could almost see the spot on the horizon where the sun would emerge. Almost. Just a few baby steps on this pitted slab of rock, freshly frosted by the night.
No guardrail protected me from the canyon’s immensity. I had never fully appreciated my fear of heights until this visit, actually until this morning, when the jagged vastness held a beautiful terror, like the siren’s song. “One step closer to the edge and you can see better,” the ravines and buttes whispered. Even the breeze pushed me in that direction.
I grappled with nagging questions. Should I move closer to the edge, improving the view but heightening my anxiety? Should I get my camera? Was I wuss? Was I a loser, forgetting the one way to save and share this moment?
That’s when I realized—this moment was not a moment. The sunrise was not a transition from night to day. It was not an entity unto itself. It existed within a continuum of eternal revelation. Even the saying, “Be in the moment” put brackets on this — on every — experience. Be in the flow, I thought.
The blue-gray vagueness of the ravines and crags below was gaining detail. I wanted to see it better. I also wanted to look directly at the spot the sun would emerge. I inched left and leaned so I could see past branches of the scrub pines that had compromised not only my view but also my desire to achieve some perfection of the “moment.” But the only thing between me and a perfect experience, I thought, was my concept of imperfection.
I recalled the many mornings living on Afton Mountain in Virginia when I would get up to watch the sun rise. There, I had a clear view of the spot where the sun would break the Earth’s plane. I savored the moment — yes, the moment — of first sight, when I could say, “Yes, there is the sun. The sun itself.” It was a magical experience, though fleeting, for it emerged quickly.
Today, I waited for the same magic. Initially, I thought it occurred when the point of my focus turned brilliant orange through a slit in the blanket of clouds. But scant minutes later, I knew I had been premature. That same point turned blood red, as if the sun had stabbed an opening to the day and dawn was oozing across the horizon.
The panorama was exquisite. From east to west, I followed the emerging clarity of line and hue. The jaws of rock became crisp; the strata gained definition; the ochre and butternut nuances evolved in subtlety.
I was glad I had stayed to witness the light wash over the Earth on this day, one of each in the five million years since the Colorado River and its tributaries began carving its identity. The river flows a mile below, still etching. Now I can see it, and it fits into the metaphor my mind projects onto the scene. The river flows.
I will never forget this moment.