Experiencing Beauty

Almost 40 years ago (it’s difficult to think it has been that long), my brother, uncle and a few friends spent the night on the rim of the Grand Canyon, then headed out at 7 a.m. on the Kaibab Trail for Phantom Ranch. We had one goal in mind: get to the bottom of the canyon and back out as fast as we could. It started out as somewhat of a team adventure, but by the time we came out it was clearly a race to the top. The first of us did the hike in under 10 hours, and we ran the last mile. I remember very little about that day except that, at the top, we were exhausted, sweaty and dirty, but there was a feeling of accomplishment. We conquered the canyon trails in under 10 hours! What we did not do is get a sense of the grandeur of the space we had just traversed.

When you are young, time is not a meaningful concept. It feels like you will live forever, so there is little need to stop and carefully consider the world around you. On our sabbatical, Ruth and I decided to revisit some spaces we certainly had experienced before. On our schedule were two distinct natural places: the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Each is different in its own right, but both are geological formations that have taken ages to form. This time our emphasis was on the experience rather than simply checking a box on an “achievement” laundry list.

I grew up in the mountains of Arizona, and the Grand Canyon was less than an hour’s drive from my home. Our town was surrounded by Ponderosa pines, and forest trails were less than 20 minutes in any direction. I have never been a city person, or for that matter a beach person. The mountains draw me. There is nothing quite like a long run on a forest trail after a rain with the fresh smell of the pines in the air! If it is a choice between the mountains and a city experience, I choose the mountains every time.

As we prepared for various experiences on our sabbatical, I knew we would have to book our time at the Grand Canyon early. Millions of people visit this national park every year, and the hotels sell out early. Fortunately, I was able to get a reservation at the beautiful and historic El Tovar Inn, which sits less than 30 meters from of the edge of the south rim. Northern Arizona can get some difficult weather, so I booked our time for the last week in February knowing that most of the storms are gone by that time.

We attended a presidential conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, just prior to heading north to the Grand Canyon. When we arrived, it became clear traveling was going to be a challenge. The desert around Phoenix was experiencing record rain, and Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon had a once-in-a-lifetime snowstorm. The South Rim had more than two feet of snow, and the state closed the interstate leading to the Grand Canyon. It looked to me like, in spite of our planning, the weather was going to prevent us from getting there. Our reservations were for Saturday through Monday, so with more roads closing by the hour I called the El Tovar on Friday afternoon to see what I could do. I will never forget the phone conversation. A young person answered the phone, and I asked him if the roads were open. He said yes, they had just opened them. Then I asked, “Are they safe?” He answered, “I would not drive on them, but I can’t give you your money back if you can’t get here.”

In the face of his warning, I went back to the airport and got a legitimate four-wheel drive vehicle (if I only had my Raptor with me!) and we headed north. The roads were a little challenging, and though we slid and faced some difficulties as we got close to the canyon we made it. We were rewarded with spectacular sites. Even though I have been to the Grand Canyon many times, never had I seen it with this much snow! The beauty was beyond measure. Each morning I got up before sunrise and walked a few steps out of the hotel to view the canyon walls. The air was cold and crisp, and the silence that the snow seems to bring to any place made it feel like you were inside a great painting that was still being crafted by its maker. I still remember just standing on the edge of the rim, the wind blowing lightly across my face, the cool air (8 degrees) turning my nose red. My eyes beheld beauty as I had never quite experienced it before. Although the weather almost prevented us from reaching our destination, in the end it enhanced our experience and made it all the more meaningful.

Almost a month later, Ruth and I found ourselves in Northern Ireland getting ready to go to the Giant’s Causeway. I had the opportunity to visit the site a year ago with my Juniors Abroad group. On Juniors Abroad we had approached the visit again as something we “should” do but were unsure of what we would find. In the end, I think most of us would say that the Giant’s Causeway became one of our favorite places of the entire trip.

Much like the Grand Canyon, “bad” weather seemed to follow us most of the spring. Northern Ireland was experiencing a record storm, with high winds and cold temperatures. We were only there a day, so we made the decision to go anyway. Interestingly enough, our Irish guide noted, “You have to be happy with the weather today – tomorrow it could be worse!” With that encouraging thought we went. When we got to the Causeway the winds were high, but it was not raining. We waited for the bus and rode down to the base of the mountain. When we got out it started to rain but, like the Grand Canyon, the weather seemed to enhance our experience rather than detract from it. The waves were crashing onto the rocks, the sky was almost black at times, but rainbows broke in on occasion. The stones were unique and wonderful.

As our experience drew to a close, it started to hail. Ruth and our guide took cover behind some rocks, but I still wanted to get a few pictures. I thought, “How bad can hail hurt anyway!” So, I ran the half-mile back up the road, got my pictures but had a few painful sores for the effort! (I saw one woman who had her dog with her, and in the midst of the hail he broke off the leash and headed for the rocks.) I had to wait a while for Ruth and Paul to come back up the mountain, but it gave me a chance to warm my hands up and answer questions from others about my sanity!

Perhaps like you, I am often absorbed in the constant worries of everyday life. As Ruth and I visited the Grand Canyon and the Giant’s Causeway, it was clearly evident that God’s hand has been ever present in our world. He has provided constant reminders of the beauty he has created if we only stop and recognize it.

“I will praise you every day; yes, I will praise you forever. Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! No one can measure His greatness.”

– Psalm 145: 2-3

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