The Westfjords and the Grand Canyon

The Westfjords and the Grand Canyon

In the Westfjords, vegetation is sparse, so it is easy to see the bones of the earth. These bones tell a story of fire and ice. Although the story began with volcanoes, more recent chapters involve the tremendous erosive power of glaciers. All around me are the signs of a land carved by ice: horns, cirques, moraines, headwalls, ribbed escarpments, sharpened aretes, and soaring buttresses.

It is classically glacial architecture. The smaller watersheds, ones without significant tributary streams, consist of a single, U-shaped glacial valley. These valleys are broad and open at the bottom, sweeping up to steep cliffs near the plateau rim. They seem like an imprint left by a giant finger. At the head of each valley is a cirque, steepest at the top, where grim black-ribbed escarpments of fairly shattered basalt form imposing headwalls.

Because there are no trees, to be at the creek in one of these valleys conveys, simultaneously, the feeling of expansiveness and enclosure. You feel held by the landscape, yet completely free in it. You are in the Great Wide Open, and, at the same time, cradled by giant arms of stone. Some of these valleys are uninhabited; others hold one or two small farms, which are invariably situated low in the valley, not quite at the seashore where bitter winds might blow, but right where the land is flat enough to grow hay and pasture sheep. In the palm, so to speak, of the valley’s hand.

The Westfjords of Iceland speak to me. The mountains have a particular sculptural elegance, a combination of starkness and gentleness. They are modest in altitude, but to my mind take a form as dignified and aesthetic as any mountains, anywhere. Their flat tops testify to the erosive power of ice sheets that during the last ice age sheared off their summits, leaving them with a fairly uniform brush-cut. The topography is uniquely beautiful. It is unlike any other place I’ve seen, but it also creates in me a peculiar nostalgia. Why does this landscape seem familiar, in my bones? Why does it put me at ease? It’s not my home, but I feel like I’ve come home.

The land is curiously similar, in some respects, to the plateaus and mesas of my childhood home in the American Southwest. Of course, the geology, climate, flora and fauna are vastly different from the high desert of Arizona, the major difference being the abundance of water in one place, and the scarcity of it in the other. Despite this difference, both environments affect me in a similar way. 

When I stand on a promontory in the Westfjords and look down the long fetch of a fjord at the dusky gray interplay of shadow and light, the row of buttresses lined up one after the other, I realize that I am reminded of the Grand Canyon—which, to many an Arizonan boy or girl qualifies as the first, most enduring, and most blessed of sanctuaries. In both places, the angularity of stone combines with broad, sweeping curves. My gaze can stretch to a far horizon.

How shall I describe the feeling this engenders? I’ll start with the word exposure, and then I’ll add, perhaps paradoxically, the word shelter. This paradox reveals a kindred spirit between the two landscapes. Although the geological forces that shaped the Westfjords and the Grand Canyon are not at all the same, there is a repeated pattern in the topography: promontories jut, proudly and abruptly, into the ocean of air. These are delightfully exposed. In between these peninsulas of stone, a series of bays are scalloped into the rim of a high plateau.

Although Sanctuary does not include any essays about the Grand Canyon, this place holds many treasured memories for me. It is, without a doubt, one of my sacred places. I’m far from alone in this regard; my river-runner friends revere this canyon above all others, and one friend has hiked solo from end-to-end: an off-trail journey exceeding 600 miles. And he’ll be back for more. My father’s last expressed wish, at the end of his life, was for a final trip to the Canyon. I couldn’t take him there in fact, but I took him there in words as he faded from this life. 

And that is one reason among many that this place is a sanctuary. This is Tanner Rapids, a place of much significance to me. I’ve spent blessed nights here by myself, as well as with treasured friends and family. I sent the best man I’ll ever know down the river. And on this beach, I saw a giant California Condor take flight. I don’t expect to see that again. 

The late Harvey Buttchart, a diminutive Mathematics professor who knew the Grand Canyon probably better than anyone living or dead, penned a series of no-nonsense guidebooks for hikers. These guidebooks are often passed over in favor of books with glossy photography and florid prose. Buttchart was not given to effusive language. In one passage, he recounts his reaction to a particularly sketchy and vertiginous descent through the sheer Redwall Limestone cliffs: “This place startled me,” he wrote. Countless words have been written about the canyon, by both eloquent and less eloquent authors, but my favorite words remain those four.

In nature, everything is connected. In the Canyon, there are thousands of distinct bays and amphitheaters, but each of them is part of a watershed. People are connected, too. Although I met Harvey Buttchart on more than one occasion, I was too young to hold on to the memory. I didn’t really know him, but I’m grateful to him for a very specific reason: In 1963, he recruited my father to teach in the Math Department at Northern Arizona University. 

So, without Harvey, I might never have made my own acquaintance with the Grand Canyon—or, for that matter, SP Crater, West Clear Creek, Fossil Springs, the San Francisco Peaks, and the rest of the Northern Arizona landscape that I called home for the first two decades of my life. He affected my life for the better. I wonder if in some way I have affected (for the better) the life of someone I will never come to know. I hope so.