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Pondering time as the frames click away

From 4,800 feet above, the Bright Angel Trail looks like the gossamer stroke of a cosmic graver. A whisker on Shakespeare’s beard. A lash on the Eye of Providence. 


It is so faint, in fact, that when I don’t squint, I lose sight of it in the late-afternoon shadows that yawn miles across the Grand Canyon’s floor. Straining my gaze, I trace the trail backward, past the Indian Garden Campground, then the Three Mile Rest House, then into the shadows again.


My eyes are retracing the path traveled today by the two sun-beaten hikers sitting exhausted on the rock wall in front of me. Their journey began here on the South Rim this morning, dropped them a mile deep down a rock face, pushed them several miles more across the canyon floor, then spun them around to do it all again in reverse order. In all, they traveled 17-plus miles across rugged terrain, under a scorching July sun, in less than a day. 


Debi was impressed.

My wife stepped away from me and my tripod to join a handful of other tourists gathered on the pathway around the hikers. This paved section is part of the Bright Angel Trail, which eventually narrows into single-track as it wends between crags, twists in endless switchbacks on the cliff face, then makes a straight run across the canyon floor. It's exotic terrain, but at this particular spot atop the rim, just in front of our cabin, the “trail” is literally a wide pedestrian sidewalk that would look just as well placed in the Canyon of Champions. The gravest danger here is stepping on a crack and breaking momma's back.

Well, that or the jolt of an oblivious passerby. I remain next to my camera, to fend away anyone who might bump my rig and ruin the entire evening’s enterprise. Debi and I will have only one sunset here, and I want to capture it with a time-lapse. So I guard my camera as it automatically snaps a new frame every 10 seconds.


This clicking will go on for another hour.


So my feet remain planted, but my ears wander along with Debi, over to the hikers. The people around them snap off questions with the metronomic regularity of my shutter’s release. Are you tired? Click. How did you get water? Click. Was it harder going up or down? Click.


Would you do it again?


“I don’t have any choice,” one of them explained with a chuckle. “We’re going to hike another trail tomorrow at Zion National Park, and another at Bryce Canyon the day after that.”


I guess that these men are in their late 20s — probably athletes back in their high school days, fighting now to harden the dough that accumulates around their bellies.


“You guys must be pretty experienced hikers,” Debi supposes.


“Actually, this is my first time doing anything like this,” the doughier of the two replies as he flashes a weak but triumphant smile. “I can’t believe I made it.”


A few minutes later, the men are joined by a lanky, older gentleman — apparently, the group’s sherpa — and a woman closer to their age. She appears to be the most fit among them but complains the loudest about being tired and sore. After a group hug and several selfies with the canyon as a backdrop, the four hikers discuss the best place to find a thick steak, then take off for the Bright Angel Lodge just up the trail. 


As they depart, the crowd disperses.


But still the camera clicks away — another 24 minutes to go — so I leave my post for a seat on the wall. Dangling my feet over the edge, I inhale deeply and try to etch into memory this view that was months in the planning. 


I turned 50 just two weeks earlier, and Debi and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary on New Year’s Day. This is a big year, worthy of an epic trip. So we booked a flight to Phoenix, rented a car and plotted a 3,500-mile trek through parts of the country neither of us knew well. We planned to fly my drone, search for birds and soak in alien landscapes all the way home. 


There would be unplanned moments, as well. In fact, at this point, just three days into our trip, we had already witnessed death once and cheated it once, too. 


As Debi and I watch the final rays dissolve over the canyon floor, we agree this was the right place to mark these milestones. There is no finer place to sit and ponder the passage of time, for the Grand Canyon is not a monument to the permanence of rock, but to the persistence of the elements. Time graves its imperceptible whiskers and lashes, frame by frame, millennium by millennium, until the fine crease is a laugh line and the gully a canyon. Like my visage in the mirror, the expanse below the Bright Angel Trail will look the same to me in the morning as it does tonight. But in fact, when we awaken, we will both be a little different than we were at nightfall. 


I rise, put my arm around Debi and kiss her cheek. Then, my camera stops clicking. “Triumph!,” I thought. I had managed to keep the onlookers and goose-neckers along this busy sidewalk from bumping into my tripod. Our lone sunset on the South Rim would be preserved!


Only while processing the photos a few days later did I realize my grave error. When I sat on that wall, I wandered into the camera’s range. Captured along with the shifting shadows and fleeting sunlight was my big bald head, thinking all those big thoughts. 


I should have guarded against my own haplessness, I guess. Fifty years of experience tells me that typically causes more ruin than the people around us. 


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