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Archive for the ‘Grand Cayon’ Category

You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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One of the many things I learned on this trip was that if you are really in the know, you leave out the “the” – which makes sense, you know, since it’s called “Grand” not because it’s big, but because the Colorado River used to be called the Grand River.  And you don’t say “The Bryce Canyon” or “The Cloudland Canyon.”

So we’re all cool now, because we say “Yes, we went to Grand Canyon.”

(Not really)

As I think I said before, it really is Grand, no matter why it’s named.  All of my anticipatory cynicism was blown away by the real thing.  But because this series has gone on just too ridiculously long, I’m going to finish up the Grand Canyon portion – Sunday, May 24 to the morning of Tuesday, May 26 – as succinctly as I can.

Bullet points!

  • Our Sunday route, as I explained before, was a rather convoluted one from our AirBnB near Fredonia, Arizona, back up to Kanab, Utah for Mass, and then back down to the Grand Canyon. We stopped at the Jacob Lake Inn, which has a famous bakery, bought some baked goods, saw snow (the North Rim Lodge had opened on the 15th..in the midst of snowfall)  and at that point, it was still a little early.  As I recall, it was before noon, and we couldn’t count on getting in our rooms until four, and we would have a full day tomorrow and as much time as we wanted on Tuesday for the Canyon, I decided to take a little detour – to the Vermillion Cliffs.
  • All we did was drive (I had bought the boys sandwiched at the Jacob Lake Bakery, so they had sustenance..after having risen at, um, 6:30 AM or whatever it was. But it was a stunning drive.  There’s a point at which you pull around a curve on 89A, having just driven through woods – you see an overlook, and beyond you, to the north, you see them. 
  • We drove down and around a bit, but there was really nothing to “do” in the area in which we drove except be amazed, and I’m the only one who can sustain that for longer periods of time, so early afternoon, we turned around and headed back.
  • Remember, we were at the North Rim. The entrance to the park is about 12 miles or so from the Lodge. You drive and drive – hoping to see the famed bison and deer in the meadows (we didn’t – they are probably active at night) – and finally you’re there.
  • We checked in, got into our room even though it was a little early, took in that first amazing view from the lounge in the Lodge, and then got into our cabin, which I liked a lot. (See this entry for more on the accomodations a lot )
  • Then our first “hike” – the ritual Bright Angel Trail hike. This begins at the Lodge, is paved, and follows a short portion of the rim out to Bright Angel Point, which juts into the Canyon.  Along the way are various other jutting points, unguarded, on which people like to stand and do daring things.  I was nervous just watching people I didn’t know pull these stunts.

  • After a dinner of pretty good pizza from the café, we settled in for the night. I went to do laundry at the campsite, the boys took a screen break.
  • The next day, we drove and walked. You can see a lot of the North Rim via driving to various points, and considering the North Rim is less visited, and it was quite early in the season, it was very easy to do – efficient!
  • We first drove down the Cape Royal Road – this is a great outline of the drive, giving you all the stopping points. When we stopped at the Cape Final parking lot, I’d thought we might do that hike, which is pretty long – but then my 14-year old said, “Why don’t we just walk up that hill over there?”

So we did:

They spent a lot of time searching the rocks.  The older boy found a geode early on, so the competition was on….

This was also the parking lot where I backed into a small pine tree that jump behind my car. I took a bit of paint off and left some tar.  I worked hard to get that tar off before I dropped car off and waited for several weeks for some demand for restitution, but apparently either there were enough other scratches on the bumper or those car rental agencies in Las Vegas are used to cars being returned in much, much worse shape than with a quarter-sized patch of paint missing….

  • It’s a great drive, and the odd thing is that even though you think, “Why do I want to stop and see the Grand Canyon from different viewpoints? I mean…is it really that different every time?” Answer: yes.
  • As I recall, after all of that, we returned to the Lodge for lunch. Sandwiches, which were good and not outrageously priced.  After that, a bit of a rest, then back on the road.  We drove to the parking lot for the North Kaibab Trailhead – this is one of the trails that goes into the canyon and by gosh, we were going to do it!  We wouldn’t, of course, go all the way to the canyon bottom, but I wanted to attempt to get to the Supai Tunnel (are you laughing yet?) – four mile round trip.  It would be our only activity for the rest of the day…..
  • I’ll add at this point that I was annoyed that the visitor information in the Ranger station didn’t tell us much about this trail. The information was certainly there for the asking, but it wasn’t being suggested – but why? Why were they holding back? What did they think we were? Wimps from East of the Mississippi?
  • It didn’t take long for me to figure out why, in fact, this trail wasn’t pushed on the casual hiker. It’s hard for a couple of reasons. First, and most importantly, it’s really hard coming back up. Because, of course, you’re coming up the canyon walls. As it turned out, we got to Coconino Overlook (.7 mile down) and that was enough. We all agreed that the hike back up was going to be challenging enough at that point, and we had no need to triple the distance. We couldn’t even.
  • The second reason is that this trail is also used by the mules. You also share trails with mules and horses at Bryce, but there’s a difference:  Bryce is dry and deserty, and the trails are wider, sandy and gravel-y.  The North Kaibab trail is narrow, is in forest and is mostly dirt, which means in the spring it is muddy and also that the animals have no room to do their business (which they do frequently on the trail rides) except on the trail.  It was kind of a mess. It was a pretty gross mess at times, with no way to avoid it all except by stepping into Grand Canyon.
  • Despite the relative difficulty and the mess, I’m glad we did what we did – I would hate to have gone without hiked even just a bit down into the canyon.
  • Finally, we headed up to Imperial point. You could see so much of the canyon, plus so much of what lay to the north, including the Vermillion Cliffs.

And that was it….you can see that even if you’re not a big hiker, you can easily see what the North Rim has to offer in a (long) day.  I suppose it’s a copout for the backcountry folks, but that’s not us, and I although I harbor thoughts of someday, if I stay healthy and in shape, attempting a Rim-to-Rim, I was very satisfied with what we experienced in a day and a half.

Next up: Ranger Jake!

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