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The Grand Canyon: Early Impressions

The Grand Canyon: Early Impressions was first published in 1981, then in a second trade paperback edition in 1989. A century ago, Saturday Evening Post writer Irvin Cobb famously said "It is generally conceded that the Grand Canyon beggars description." But that has not stopped generations of writers from trying to evoke the wonder of this place, and if they have failed they have failed magnificently. For here, Paul Schullery has gathered impressions of the Grand Canyon from the pens of such notable literary figures, adventurers, and distinguished citizens as John Wesley Powell, Theodore Roosevelt, Zane Grey, John Burroughs, Owen Wister, John Muir, and many others. It is a rich and diverse collection of impressions of one of the planet's great natural wonders. And these early visitors mirror our own responses to the Grand Canyon, and by their accounts they connect us to more than a century of shared experience along the abrupt rims and deep corners of this wondrous national park.

Excerpt from The Grand Canyon: Early Impressions, from Owen Wister's description of the Colorado River a century ago:

Perhaps this planet does somewhere else contain a thing like the Colorado River—but that is no matter; we at any rate in our continent possess one of nature's very vastest works. After The River and its tributaries have done will all sight of the upper world, have left behind the bordering plains and streamed through the various gashes which their floods have sliced in the mountains, that once stopped their way, then the culminating wonder begins. The River has been flowing through the loneliest part which remains to us of that large space once denominated "The Great American Desert" by the vague maps in our old geographies. It has passed through regions of emptiness still as wild as they were before Columbus came; where not only no man lives now nor any mark is found of those forgotten men of the cliffs, but the very surface of the earth itself looks monstrous and extinct. Through such a country as this, scarcely belonging to our era any more than the mammoth and the pterodactyl, scarcely belonging to time at all, does the Colorado approach and enter its culminating marvel. Then, for 283 miles it inhabits a nether world of its own. The few that have ventured through these places and lived are a handful to those who went in and were never seen again. The white bones of some have been found on the shores; but most were drowned; and in this water no bodies ever rise, because the thick sand that its torrent churns along clogs and sinks them.

This place exerts a magic spell. The sky is there above it, but not of it. Its being is apart; its climate; its light; its own. The beams of the sun come into it like visitors. The River streams down its mysterious reaches, hurrying ceaselessly; sometimes a smooth sliding lap, sometimes a falling, broken wilderness of billows and whirlpools. Above stand its walls, rising through space upon space of silence. They glow, they gloom, they shine. Bend after bend they reveal themselves, endlessly new in endlessly changing veils of colour. A swimming and jewelled blue predominates, as of sapphires being melted and spun into skeins of shifting cobweb. Bend after bend this trance of beauty of awe goes on, terrible as the Day of Judgment, sublime as the Psalms of David. Five thousand feet below the opens and barrens of Arizona, this canyon seems like an avenue conducting to the secret of the universe and the presence of the gods.