Short Story – Mercury and a Big Hole in the Ground
This week, I’ve been visiting the National Parks of Utah as well as The Grand Canyon.*
Whenever anyone visits The Grand Canyon, they typically tell you that they have no words to describe it and I think I know why.
Simply put, someone already came up with the best way to describe The Grand Canyon and that description is “The Grand Canyon.”
“The” – it is the only one.
“Grand” – Can describe something that is both big (it most definitely is) and impressive (yep).
“Canyon” – describes a geological feature that directly corresponds with the geological feature one is viewing.
So “The Grand Canyon” is a name that implies you are looking at a canyon that is big, impressive, and unique. And so it is. The job has been done so perfectly as to pose an impossible challenge for everyone who tries to describe the place on their own. I, therefore, will not make any attempts to describe The Grand Canyon in deference to whoever managed to knock the ball out of the park before the ball game had even started.
Instead, I will tell you the story of a sunrise and a planet.
For reasons that defy logic, we opted to spend only one day at the Grand Canyon on this trip. One day is barely enough time to let your head get acclimated to the experience. Your brain is doing calisthenics as it tries to come up with new superlatives so you don’t sound like a complete blathering idiot. Most people simply start calling it “the big hole in the ground” as some sort of defense mechanism.
Given our short amount of time, I decided that I was going to watch a sunrise at the canyon. The experts will tell you the two best times to view the canyon are sunrise and sunset. Because of our questionable “one day at the canyon” decision, I had only one sunset from which to choose and the day was overcast.
Screwed out of sunset at the Grand Canyon, I had no choice but to watch sunrise.
I know what you are thinking and you are wrong. I had no choice. If I’m going to a place like The Grand Canyon, I’m not going to half ass the experience.
Choosing to sleep through the only sunrise I could possibly experience was definitely half assing the experience and that was out of the question.
So I woke at 5:00 AM in order to make the short drive to Mather point in advance of a 5:26 sunrise. The forecast called for mostly cloudy conditions. But fuck it. I was up.
Mather point is the launch pad to the Grand Canyon. Upon entering the park from the south, you drive past forest that gives no hint to the geological masterpiece (hmm…”geological masterpiece” isn’t bad…) that awaits. If you are lucky, you see a couple of Elk playfully darting in front of your car with a “you’ll kill me but your car will never start again” attitude.
Then you arrive at a parking lot. Human nature demands you stop at the parking lot because it wouldn’t be there if there was nothing interesting to see, right?
Actually, yes. That’s right.
So you get out of your car and walk to Mather point overlook and you look at The Grand Canyon. It is as if the National Park Service is slapping you in the face and saying “this it the big deal you cynical asshole!”
“Oh,” you say, properly cowed, “I get it. Thanks.”
At 5:15 AM, the view is a little less impressive simply because you can’t totally see it yet. Instead, you see about 200 people, most of them with cameras on tripods, waiting for the Earth to turn on it’s axis. The weather is unseasonably cold so a whole lot of people are terribly under dressed.
But the predicted cloud cover is not there. The sun will, indeed, rise and we will actually see it happen. We have not brought our tripods in vain!
Please note: I did not have a tripod.
Some campers wore their sleeping bags to keep warm and ensure they look like both hipsters and idiots who couldn’t figure out how to get out of their sleeping bag.
No less than seven distinct languages are being spoken as you all mull about waiting for the sun to do it’s job. Or, rather, the Earth. Every one of them is saying something like “I wish that asshole would get out of my way so I could get a picture that would make Ansel Adams give up photography if he was still alive.”
But they are saying it in their own language. So it sounds kind of exotic and interesting.
The sun rises and the murmur of 200 people wishing they had coffee to at least warm their hands suddenly stops and is replaced by 150 cameras clicking all at once. This would be less annoying if they weren’t all digital cameras and the clicks are just there because of nostalgia.
We all feel incredibly smart for having woken up stupid early because we saw sunrise at The Grand Canyon. Eye contact is made and we exchange hearty mental high fives. Because if we exchanged real high fives, our frozen fingers might break off.
And five minutes later, half of the crowd is gone. I stayed as the sun slowly crept down the canyon walls until it very nearly touched the Colorado river. By the time I left, I was one of only ten people who remained. Some of whom had arrived after the sun began to rise.
I felt I’d done my job and I’d done it well. I’d outlasted nearly everyone except the friendly elderly gentleman who had been taking what seemed to be the same picture for 45 minutes. Someone else could watch the light continue to fill the nooks and crannies of over 1900 square miles of big hole in the ground.
As I left, I saw a ranger setting up some scopes. I didn’t know why and I chose not to ask.
After breakfast, my family returned to the canyon and Mather point to say goodbye.
The scopes were still there. I learned they were focused on the sun because Mercury was passing in front of it.
So I stood in line to watch something that happens only 12 times every century after having watched sunrise reveal a gorge that is so uncomprehendingly big, everyone who sees it struggles with the words to describe it. And I saw a black dot against the sun that looked impossibly small and yet was far bigger than the canyon.
Later that day, Facebook told me that it was two years ago I’d met Neil Degrasse Tyson.
And I though that was appropriate. Because on this day, two years later, we had probably both looked at Mercury traversing the sun.
Only I’d done it at the Grand Canyon. Checkmate, Neil Degrasse Tyson!
*The Grand Canyon is not in Utah and so I needed to make sure I mentioned it special.