Ranger Jim's Fireside Chat
Interested in the geology and the formation of the Grand Canyon, we gathered in the reception area of El Tovar to listen to the Forest Service's daily Fireside Chat, where, the sign said, this topic would be addressed. As you can see by clicking the link, El Tovar is a hotel in the style of a hunting lodge, built in the European grand tradition in 1905 by the Fred Harvey Company. It is named after the Don Pedro de Tovar, an explorer first credited with discovering the Grand Canyon, and is located right on the south rim of the canyon, in the heart of Grand Canyon Village.
So far, our experience at the canyon had been close to perfect, from the cooperation of the weather to the hospitality of the hotel, not to mention the breathtaking panorama of the canyon itself. Earlier, we had hiked along the south rim, heading east. It had been amazing to view the Canyon from different vantage points, each view looking different, yet all of them awe-inspiring and emotionally charged. We walked along, stopping to take photographs, peer over the edge, humbled to be there yet somehow at peace with the experience.
Arriving from a brisk walk around the south rim at about 3:30, the small lobby of El Tovar was already filled with visitors. We managed to find a comfortable spot on the floor and waited for the lecture.
The Forest Service ranger named Jim arrived. He was wearing the deep pine green tailored uniform that identified him as a park official. He was wiry and lean and by his body movements rather nervous and hyperactive by nature. He reminded me of a slightly subdued Jim Carrey caricature, with over emphatic gestures and facial expressions.
Holding up two video tapes, Ranger Jim first asked the question, "Who has seen these videos?" The videos were "Princess Caraboo" and a 1970 Peckinpaw film called "The Ballad of Cable Hogue." No one in the small audience of 20 or so guests responded in the affirmative. Somehow this seemed to delight Ranger Jim.
"Who," Ranger Jim defiantly asked, "Can challenge me when I say these are the two best films ever made? You haven't seen either of them and you can't dispute me unless you have!" Ranger Jim couldn't just make this a simple statement, adding motions and gestures like an overemphatic motivational speaker. I couldn't imagine where this was all leading the discussion, perhaps the Grand Canyon may have been featured in the films. But it hadn't, Ranger Jim was only trying to make a case for how subjective an opinion is. Too bad he needed to attempt to accomplish this in an obtuse and painful manner.
"Now," Jim continued, "can you imagine being one of the first people to see the Canyon and having to name it? What word could possibly be more descriptive than 'grand?'" Ranger Jim rambled into a treatise on synonyms for "grand" pointing out their lesser value. I couldn't resist raising my hand to ask a question.
When acknowledged I asked, "What did the people indigenous to this area refer to the canyon as?"
"That's different," responded Ranger Jim. "It's different, because this was their home. It was nothing unusual or different. They lived here. It would be like be being from Irondiquoit, NY, where I was born. To me it's very significant, because I grew up there. But to others, it's just a name. When you live there it really isn't so unusual or special. It's just where you come from, that's all." It was clear from the response I was supposed to accept this and not question further.
The Ranger spoke with the emphatic gestures of what I imagined a Bible thumper at a religious revival must look like, as though loud and fast talk might perhaps buy credulity. But I couldn't help thinking that the first peoples in this area could not have been any less taken with the grandeur and the natural beauty of the canyon. I suspected their interaction with the Canyon was far more serious and much more spiritual than the ranger had implied.
Turning my head, I looked at Llewellyn, feeling a little foolish for having asked the question. "Irondiquoit: A very descriptive Cayuga Indian term meaning 'Most Holy Birthplace'," he whispered to me. Smiling in response, I had forgotten Llewellyn was also from same area as Ranger Jim, I felt better.
Ranger Jim went on to ask if anyone knew which two famous musical compositions had been inspired by the Grand Canyon. "No one ever gets them," Jim added.
Llewellyn's hand shot up, as if, annoyingly, he had already inferred the teacher's question in a 2nd grade classroom. "Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé," he answered.
"Right!," answered Jim, "But no one ever gets the other answer."
When it was obvious no one else planned to respond, Jim smugly told us it was "Happy Trails" by Dale Evans. Ranger Jim explained how Evans came to be inspired to write this song, but I since have my doubts about the accuracy of this statement.
From here, Jim launched into a challenge -- to name the seven natural wonders of the world, with much philosophical musing on what constitutes a "wonder." Again another critical discourse on what subjectivity constitutes a "wonder." Most people managed to think of at least two or three of the seven natural wonders, but eventually gave up, especially when it came to naming Paricutin, the most obscure and questionable wonder.
Later, Llewellyn admitted to me he had successfully resisted the urge to blurt out 'The New York City Subway Rat' as the seventh natural wonder of the world.
Ranger Jim told us how, in the 1940s when the seven natural wonders were named, it had been decided there should be one representative wonder from each continent. Having nothing to respresent Antarctica in this category, a second wonder from North America was deemed acceptable. As the volcano Paricutin had been erupting and receiving considerable attention, it was nominated as the seventh natural wonder. Of course, it hasn't been active since, having permanently died in 1952. Ranger Jim pointed this out to us disdainfully, reminding us that Arizona's own nearby Sunset Crater could have been a candidate based on similar criteria.
Suddenly the hour was up. This was, Jim told us, the last Fireside Chat of the season. I felt somehow saddened by this whole interaction. Llewellyn was waiting to speak to the Ranger, still determined to glean some information about the Canyon's geological origins. I noticed an apparent fan of the Ranger, extending forth a scrap of paper and a pencil. "An autograph?" I wondered to myself, but later realized she must have wanted a written version of Jim's parting quotation to us ("Yesterday is history, tomorrow's a mystery, today is a gift, that's why we call it the present.")
I kept my distance from Llewellyn and the Ranger, fearful of what I might hear next regarding canyon origins. Assuming the awe and the mystery and perhaps even embracing the ignorance of scientific fact rather than chancing the possibility of another simplistic and demeaning explanation. I imagined Ranger Jim telling Llewellyn that the Grand Canyon was created by Paul Bunyan, tired, dragging his ax on the ground behind him.
Instead, I went to look around the gift shop for a souvenir, a reminder of the Grand Canyon experience. As I looked around at the countless tee-shirts, postcards, books, Native American jewelry and other memorabilia I realized that no possession would prompt my memory or evoke emotion.
I bought an obligatory tee-shirt for Ryan but there was nothing I wanted to take home for myself. What I would take home with me, the experience, I realized, was within me -- no memorabilia would evoke it. The melange of colors within the Canyon, viewing the miniscule dots I knew to be mules slowly descending into the depth of the Canyon, the big-horned sheep basking in the sun on a distant cliff, feeling the vertigo from standing a little too close to a particularly sheer drop. Feeling, essentially, humbled by nature, the beauty, the timelessness, the danger. The postcard of experience in the scrapbook of your soul. Some things are best left a memory.
Photo by Llewellyn Lafford