“Okay, follow me.”
I took my tour guide’s hand and shuffled along after him sightlessly. Behind me was a long chain of blindfolded backpackers clinging to each other like a care home conga line. We edged our way along the path, which we knew would take us to the rim of the Grand Canyon. After a minute of feeling our way down the path, a sudden quiet implied we had reached the edge. Our guide, and my friend, a perpetually upbeat Puerto Rican named Nando, carefully positioned us in a line, and semi-joking warned us not to step forward. He gave the word, and we took off our blindfolds.
There are not many sights in the world that have left me speechless. Even fewer have made me actually gasp. The Grand Canyon is humbling, awe inspiring, and staggeringly, incomprehensively big. I could use a word like ‘gargantuan’ or ‘colossal’ in the place of ‘big’, but the size of the Canyon is such that it doesn’t make a difference which word I pick to describe it; it won’t do it justice. It has to be seen to be believed.
A girl further down the line was crying quietly in disbelief. A few metres ahead of us the ground dropped away into a red stone chasm a mile below. At the very bottom you can see patches of grass which, when gazed on through binoculars, turns out to be whole woods of trees. A snaking, sparkling river runs through the centre, the same river that over millions of years has eaten its way a mile down into the earth, yet from the rim looks no more than a trickle.
Thirty, fourty miles away, the valley rises again, becoming the opposite canyon wall. Wherever you are now, take a minute to look out at the horizon. Imagine that between you and as far as your eyes can see, there is nothing but shimmering air, and a ragged chasm thousands of metres below. Now imagine it twice the size. I threw a stone in, and watched it fall forever.
We wandered the rim and, after quickly checking around for park rangers, Nando leapt off the edge and died.
Okay fine. He didn’t spontaneously take his own life, although for a split second I thought he did. He called up to us from a ledge a few metres down, in his thick, Scarface accent.
“Hey guys come on down! It’s great!”
We twelve backpackers looked at each other and one by one climbed down after him. A couple of metres below the rim, we found a perch we could all fit on and took in the view under the searing sun. Then Nando flung himself off the edge again.
This time, the way down was steep and dusty. Nobody else thought it was worth the risk, but I followed, along with a happy German guy called Freddy. Unfortunately for Freddy I accidentally brushed past a branch which whipped back in his eye, and his climb was over. If you’re reading this Freddy, er, sorry.
I followed Nando further and further down into the Grand Canyon. About 20 metres below the others, and the rim out of sight, we stopped. The conversations of idling tourists were washed away on the breeze, and that calming, total silence of nature greeted us. A couple of birds circled. Then Nando clambered down further like a tattooed, bearded mountain goat. I started after him, and stopped.
“Er, Nando? I don’t think I can make it down there.”
Nando had just monkeyed his way down a smooth rock face, about ten metres down, that dropped away into open air. One slip on that, and I’d be dead. Very, very dead. I explained my slight concern. He scrambled back up the rock face without a pause and sat next to me.
“I really wanna go down but I’m scared I might die”, I told him.
“That’s okay man. We’re good here.”
“You’re not scared you might die?”
“Yeah, I’ve lived a good life. I’m 37 years old. I’ve done a lot. Hey, I’ll die right now, it doesn’t bother me. If I fall, I fall.”
I gazed out into the silent heat. I could see tourists wandering like termites way back up on the rim. I threw another rock and watched it fall, spinning silently. Somewhere a mile below, it found a new home.
“I reckon I’ve got a few years left in me,” I concluded.