A Stone’s Throw
The View from Point Sublime
We entered Grand Canyon National Park before sunrise that July morning and turned onto the primitive road to Point Sublime, in those ancient days when a Cadillac could negotiate the unpaved 17 miles relatively unbattered. My father had driven through the Kaibab Plateau forest from Jacob Lake, momma up front with him. I sat in the back seat with my 18-year-old cousin, Cissie, snapping shots through the rear windows with a Kodak Instamatic. For two hours or more in the cool, brightening dawn we passed through aspen-edged meadows and stands of Ponderosa pine. Up resistant limestone knolls, down around sinks and ravines we drove, then—through small breaks in the trees—we briefly glimpsed a distant level horizon backlit by the low morning Sun. I didn’t know what to expect at road’s end, and I’ve never forgotten what was found.
What is it about memory that can hold you and never stale—like this place-moment from childhood—as if it’s still formative decades later? More than 40 years have passed since that morning we first stood at the canyon’s North Rim. I was just seven years old, yet the memory remains as new as yesterday, indelible. And the need to return to Point Sublime still pulls.
Three-part “Panorama from Point Sublime” by William Henry Holmes,
The point was named by Clarence Edward Dutton and other members of a geological field team he led from 1875 to 1881, initially as part of John Wesley Powell’s Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, then under the new U. S. Geological Survey. It tips a long promontory that juts southward like a pointing finger from the forested Kaibab knuckle into the widest part of the Grand Canyon. For Dutton the view from the point was “the most sublime and awe-inspiring spectacle in the world.”
When the Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, three years after the creation of the National Park Service, North Rim “roads” were the ends of old, rutted wagon tracks used by ranchers and early “tourism entrepreneurs” to Cape Royal and Point Sublime, along with a Forest Service road to Bright Angel Point. In 1924, a rough road replaced the old track to Point Sublime to help crews fight forest fires.
More than 44,000 people visited the Grand Canyon in its first year as a national park, most of them by railroad. But auto travel quickly became the norm and after 1925, when visiting motorists first outnumbered rail passengers, park administrators began to build real auto roads and campgrounds on both rims to meet demand. Even though the road to Point Sublime was still a narrow, twisting, poorly graded path, it was taken so often by tourists that the park decided to maintain it as a primitive but not main road.
Now nearly five million people visit the park each year. The Point Sublime road is sometimes impassable, and today sane drivers wouldn’t dream of risking a two-wheel-drive or low-clearance vehicle on it. Still, the slow, bumpy way draws those who wish to see the canyon far from crowds and pavement—as my father wanted us to do four decades ago.
With no prior perceptual experience of the canyon’s immense scale, we were not prepared for the view. Neither were the men of the Spanish Entrada more than 400 years earlier. In 1540 Francisco Vasquez de Coronado ordered García López de Cárdenas and a few soldiers to find the great (and possibly navigable) river described by Hopi people. These first Europeans to march up to the South Rim and look into the Grand Canyon could not see or measure its physical scale in their minds. According to Pedro de Castañeda, a chronicler of the expedition:
The Spaniards were accustomed to other lands, having no familiarity with a place of such proportion. Writing 300 years later, Clarence Dutton understood how easily one could be tricked at the first views from the canyon rim: “As we contemplate these objects we find it quite impossible to realize their magnitude. Not only are we deceived, but we are conscious that we are deceived, and yet cannot conquer the deception . . . Dimensions mean nothing to the senses, and all that we are conscious of in this respect is a troubled sense of immensity.”
Point Sublime has a prominent place in Dutton’s Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District, the first monograph published by the young U. S. Geological Survey (in 1882). This master synthesis is one of the primary documents to outline a geologic understanding of the canyon and plateau country’s origin. Lavishly illustrated with topographic line drawings by William Henry Holmes, Thomas Moran’s paintings and drawings, and heliotypes of Jack Hillers’s photographs, Tertiary History is a literary, evocative, and still vital work that was done before scientific specialization placed constraints on written and visual language. In it Dutton looked out from Point Sublime and described the grand geologic ensemble: the immense physical depth and breadth exposing a great slice of Earth history in canyon walls; and the more recent work of uplift and erosion over perhaps a still unimaginable span of time to create the canyon itself. Clarence Dutton also brought the reader to the edge of Point Sublime to behold the layered order and beauty of this eroding land at a time when those long accustomed to humid eastern landscapes might have spurned southwestern canyons and deserts for their apparent harshness. His words helped change the terms of perception.
For historian Stephen Pyne, Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District “created the view from the rim” and, along with John Wesley Powell’s river-centered Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons, “made the Canyon truly Grand.” Writing earlier, Wallace Stegner referred to Clarence Dutton as “almost as much the genius loci of the Grand Canyon as Muir is of Yosemite.” For, although visiting tourists may not be aware of the debt owed, “it is with Dutton’s eyes, as often as not, that they see.”
And what of that long-ago morning when my family reached the canyon rim? What did we bring to that view and how did we see? There was little hint or warning where the Kaibab forest ended at the sharp limestone edge, and the suddenness of reaching a point where land fell away at our feet to inconceivable depths did stun. For me, though, coming to Point Sublime was a journey of and to perception, to another measure of the world at a susceptible age.
That world began in coastal California for me, the only child of older parents who had migrated westward, my father searching for opportunity, my mother following without question. They first lived in San Francisco, then moved after my birth to Los Angeles, a continent away from their families. High rugged mountains and the Pacific Ocean rimmed my known world, and they were the landscapes in which my perceptual habits and self-knowledge formed in the early and mid 1960s. Freeways and buildings had little part of it. As a four- or five-year-old I even believed that sky-light’s brilliant depth made my body, just as it illuminated the land and water’s edge. When we visited my parents’ families, the East I saw was a humid decaying world covered by a faded sky.
As my father neared the age of 50, he decided to move us to his familial home of Washington, D.C., hoping to secure more dignified work and a respectable life for his family. And because I had no choice but to journey east with them; because he decided we’d drive across country in a leased 1966 Coupe de Ville, roomy and comfortable enough for four; because he with my mother chose to visit the Grand Canyon’s North Rim on the way—because of all these things I stood, as a little girl with camera in hand, at the edge of immensity.
In hindsight I know that the moments at Point Sublime helped define the terms and frame of my identity, of who I’d become. Geologist. Photographer. Writer. Dreamer. Is a seven-year-old too young to understand what she sees or feels? Still, the raw perceptions were deeply embedded early in my life, and then guided how I understood the world. It was as if that place, so undisguised, asked some untested circuitry to respond to it, and to myself, with all my senses.
I’ve also long wondered if the frame within which a child begins to make his or her own world is constructed, by chance or on purpose, through the lives of each generation of parents. If so then even a single event or decision can make inevitable a series of others—as if I’ve arrived at who I am by either random or semi-directed accidents. The transcontinental trip redefined my child-sense and experience of place, and at Point Sublime I understood the land’s beyond-human scale as another form of home. With photographs and postcards of coastal California and every light-touched canyon, desert, and mountain that we passed until we reached the plains, and with gathered stones, I thought I could bring my home with me.
Four decades have passed since The Move. My parents were in their mid- and late forties then, and I am now my father’s age, having lived most of my life in the East for reasons that, at moments of decision, seemed right. Yet, that child’s sense of home and perception is my baseline—and I’ve returned all the way to Point Sublime fewer times than I’ve attempted or felt the need to. Early this summer, though, I camped there with my partner. The sign post remains, but for many years without the carved, wooden viewpoint marker that I stood next to as a child. Pt. Sublime Elev 7464. We shared those days with ravens and white-throated swifts.
The North Rim is a sharp physical edge. There, this summer, I understood how many other edges my family had crossed, too. West to east. Before to after. Leaving my child home for my father’s childhood home. We traveled together to stand at a remote canyon viewpoint, but arrived for different reasons at different ages, with different points of view and needs through which our experiences, and their meanings, were then filtered. The move for me was from a self-defined world to an unwanted unknown, for my father it was a return to a place of origins and hope.
What did that early morning at the Grand Canyon mean to my father, when he took a detour from his homeward journey of near desperation? Or to my mother? I can’t make 1966 or 1967 or any year return. I can’t step into that place in those bright moments when my parents were alive. I can’t conjure an intact family full of hope. What I can know or tell of them—or even myself—is fragmented and incomplete. Too few words remain about who we were to each other or to any place.
I am witness from a later time, sorting through pieces. To moments that didn’t break the heart. To what always felt elemental to who I am and where I belong on the American land. This sorting may be hindsight and, perhaps, I cannot be completely true to that time and child because I know our future. But Point Sublime remains a gift, and to look out from it even once is to imagine a new kind of possibility.
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