Vertigo The Grand Canyon under glass
By Dev Das
(page 2 of 2)
TO GET TO THE SKYWALK, you start at Grand Canyon West Airport. By the time we arrive, dust coats my face, clothes, and the inside of my car. We pick up our tickets and join the herd of tourists now crossing through a gauntlet of helicopters about to ferry them into the canyon on aerial tours. Nearby, big buses roll up to shuttle the lines of visitors to Eagle Point, and we fall in.
The bus driver gets on the mike and shares some tidbits about the area, not forgetting to mention all the ways one can spend money at Grand Canyon West, where differently priced packages offer options: pay less and view the Skywalk from a distance, pay more and get a helicopter tour and complimentary champagne. Travelers can trot along the trails on horseback, troll the Colorado River in motor rafts, bump over the gravel in Hummers, or find some shade in a tepee at the Indian Village attraction.
When we get off the bus, we see Whatoname standing there, dressed in denim, sporting sunglasses and those feathers and abalone shells. He doesn't waste time. We shake hands, and we're off on a walk.
"This is a very spiritual and powerful place for us; we don't keep it for ourselves." He points out the towering rock formation from which Eagle Point gets its name. It looks like an eagle with its wings outstretched, flying up. "In our culture it's the eagle who carries prayers to heaven--Eagle Point is one of the reasons this area of the canyon is so sacred."
Before we head to the Skywalk, Whatoname walks us toward the edge of the canyon's rim, an area off-limits to most visitors. "Over at the national park, there's guardrails everywhere, and they're always having accidents. Over here, people don't fall because they know not to try anything funny. There's no rails anywhere; they would ruin the natural beauty."
As we approach the precipice, my friend Karaca looks calm, at least for a man crippled by a fear of heights. On the inside he's surely dry-heaving, but, no matter, something keeps us moving forward, like a couple of doomed gnats dying to know what lurks inside a yawning mouth. Whatoname can't hide his smirk as I try not to let on that I'm on the wrong side of a freak-out. I scan the list of my body's warning mechanisms: palms damp, heart galloping, feeling dizzy, fierce urge to pee--OK, it's just a big hole, just stay cool.
And there it is, the great mouth agape, her warm, sweet-smelling breath drawing me in from all directions. My toes breach the edge, pushing innocent pebbles into oblivion. No guardrail. Maybe a thousand feet down, the wind carries a couple of clouds across the canyon. Winged specks catch thermals and lift in a slow, vertical spiral, looking for a bite. I force my neck to stretch over the edge. Now I can see over the rock, straight down to the canyon floor. I can hear the abyss's challenge. Come closer ... I dare you.
Snap out of it, man.
I admit it--maybe I sized up the Grand Canyon prematurely. I now understand the grandeur of the Skywalk's purpose: to allow us to stare down the gullet of an unfathomable descent and stroll over it like it's just another walk in the park, an act of metaphysical rebellion without any risk of physical harm.
We hop over to the Skywalk terminal and unload our gear into lockers. Absolutely no guns, no cameras. We're moving through the concourse.
"You're almost there," one sign says.
"Are you ready?" asks another.
I put on my complimentary cotton booties so that my shoes don't scratch the glass. A big curtain opens. One step forward and I can see inside the earth. A bird glides under my feet. I drop to my hands and knees and lower my body until my face presses against the glass. Far below and all around, the labyrinth of geologic incisions jags and winds, as if some giant hand had dragged a hot-blooded finger through the rock and carved its signature onto the curvature of the earth, an unreadable name taking credit for the completion of the world.
The adrenaline forces me to laugh out loud. My outburst earns me a look from one of the employees.
"Just try not to spook the other Skywalkers."
He glances at a woman inching her way forward while hyperventilating. By the sound of her panic noises, she might be from Scandinavia. Whatoname doesn't say a word. He puts her hand on his arm and holds it there as both of them shuffle away from the abyss.
I'm ready to whisper my own hopes to the sky and watch them get sucked into whirlwinds, off with the rest of them on the prayer conveyor belt run by the eagles. I'm ready to pat Whatoname on the back and say kudos to the Hualapai for tapping the American dream. Then I hear a distant buzz. In the middle of the canyon, a helicopter full of tourists makes its way to the pretty spots.
"It's all about balance," says Whatoname. "When the idea for the Skywalk was proposed, I rejected it at first because I was concerned for the land. But look at the potential this has for our community. We need to embrace changes while still keeping the land beautiful."
I hope Whatoname is right--that it's possible for Grand Canyon West to keep things pretty while maximizing profits. But the changes Whatoname's talking about could spoil things. In the works is an airport expansion to increase air tourism, meaning more small planes and helicopters flying through the vistas. An IMAX theater and a restaurant may be built atop the Skywalk terminal. As it stands now, all the water used at the complex gets trucked in, but the tribal council is talking about tapping the Colorado and piping water 4,000 feet up to the resort to meet tourists' needs.
Whatoname doesn't look worried. "This is the dream of our people," he says. "We want to share our community with the world, bring back our sense of pride."
I ask if there wasn't a sense of pride before.
Whatoname takes a moment. Through his sunglasses I can see he's looking me in the eye. "We've got problems. There's poverty, there's addiction--these are still real issues for us, and in some way we're going to have to figure out those problems on our own, as a people. But now we have a reason to restore our community, because the whole world is watching us, coming to see us. We have to be ready to meet them."
When I first met Whatoname, I thought I was shaking hands with a walking brochure, but somehow he pulls off his style without looking like a phony. He knows that no dream is perfect, that a sense of pride doesn't come cheap in the grandest nation on the planet, but he's got a gut feeling that everything's going to work out just fine, that all the fear and doubt were worth it to have the Skywalk here at Eagle Point. I don't know yet if I believe him, but I know I want to.
Dev Das, a 2007 graduate of Occidental College, is a freelance writer and activist currently living in Detroit.