Sunday, September 04, 2011

People Watching at the North Rim

The Visitor Centre at Grand Canyon's North Rim is a charming place. Perched on the very edge of the Canyon - its vast windows gaze out across the geological immensity of the scar which the Colorado River has scoured through the landscape. The North Rim is not as busy, commercialized or developed as its Southern counterpart, but it is large enough to have a good restaurant, and to attract people from all over the States - and indeed from all over the world. Above the shimmering canyon, the air is full of the sound of clanking cutlery, chinking glasses and voices animated in countless languages and dialects. Each voice raised, with accompanying gestures (arms wide, palms facing the hearer with fingers bent to face them) searches through the bank of adjectives with which their mother-tongue has provided them, for words that mean simply "big", but convey that with the force that the moment demands. Because the Grand Canyon is big, I mean really, really big. It's so big in fact that as you emerge through the trees and glimpse it for the first time, it seems to open up in front you with the desire to suck the whole world into its vast emptiness. The Canyon is the opposite of a mountain. To stand awestruck by a mountain is to be amazed by the beauty of a solid object. The Canyon is a hole in the ground, shaped like an inverted mountain, but is essentially a gap, a space where the earth once was, but now majestically ..isn't.

The waiting staff at the restaurant must get used to what happens every time they show people to their tables. The charming, friendly, androgynous and outrageously ebullient front-desk person shrilly confirms the reservation "Thank you so much - you guys are Aawwwesoome", and hands the guests over to a waiter who shows them to their table. Half way between the welcome desk and their table, the family glimpse the Canyon to their left (did I mention, -it's quite big) and just stop: dead in their tracks. The waiter continues, weaving his way towards the designated table, maybe even still talking to the family he assumes are still in his wake. Then after on average about seven seconds, recognition strikes both guests and waiter; the family starts peering around all corners of the restaurant wondering which waiter was 'theirs'. "No, that's not ours, don't follow him - ours had a moustache.." The waiter will then wander back over and 'collect' his guests, who then keep a close eye on him until they get to their table. If they are lucky, they will have a grand Canyon window seat, from which to place food into their open-mouthed gazes.

No window seat was required for the passionate Scandanavians on the table next to us. Young lovers, maybe honeymooners, whose eyes never unlocked from each other for the whole course of the meal - they pawed, lusted, scratched, and longed for each other, through three courses of foreplay. For them the great Canyon was not a destination, but merely a venue.

Further round, Grandad and grand-daughter are in animated conversation. He's been here before, he knows all the sites, knows the geology, the wildlife and has the brochure. She's ten, eager-eyed and delighted to be on a trip with Grandad. They are as thoroughly absorbed in enjoying each other as the lovers on the other table, yet in such different ways. My guess, is that all his grandchildren have been brought to see the Canyon on their tenth birthdays, and that each of them has waited for this day for a long time - and heard stories from older siblings and cousins about the North Rim, and the great big hole in the ground.

Orange juice and the children's menu gives way to the pop of Champagne corks on the next table. Two large circular tables have been pushed together, the whole wider family have gathered together for a big celebration. I watch to see who this show will be starring, and see that the eyes are not focused on the children or their parents, nor focussed on the very elderly great-grand-parent at the end - as even her matriarchal eyes are focussed on the pair at the centre of the table. A round of applause, a short speech from the Man with his champagne flute raised and then a kiss for his wife. A wedding anniversary at the edge of the Canyon; looking at their ages, I am guessing a thirtieth, maybe? Soon the little ones begin to tire, one gets cross, another one can no longer cope and starts to try and lie down across his chair. He's been dressed up in his very-smartest attire for the special event, but that clearly matters to his mother more than to him. She has cleaned that shirt, and ironed it, wanting to re-assure her celebrating in-laws that their son's wife is a competent mother. But the little toddler is delightfully insensitive to the niceties of family politics and sets about un-cleaning, and then un-ironing his clothes. A lovely moment, a re-assuring hand on the arm of the mother from the mother-in-law. I can't hear the words but I assume they say something like, "Don't worry - he's tired. He's just like ____ (fill in name of son/husband) was when he was two!" The party soon ends, little ones need baths and beds, and the anniversary couple wander outside to stare out across the Canyon; their whole life together but a blink in the geology of time laid out before them.

Our anniversary couple look 'right' together. They clearly 'work' and demonstrate what one writer calls, 'old shoe love' in that while they may not exhibit the new passion of our Scandinavian canoodlers; decades together have shaped them around each other like a long-loved pair of shoes around the feet. An altogether different atmosphere lingers above table sixteen however. The middle-aged couple are separated by a steak, a chicken paella, two glasses of wine and a towering wall of resentment, bitterness, and mistrust. I watch them, and notice their wedding rings. Is this the last chance, the holiday that could save the marriage? The body language is awkward, rigid, the conversation must be descending from the emotional to the functional. Her distance, his mid-life crisis, the pretty-young temptation, the inevitable affair, the recrimination, the regret, the re-think, the attempt to mend the wound. They sit by one of the Seven Natural Wonders of The World, and search for the inspiration to love again. If this can be re-kindled, it will be the Eight wonder of the world.

On my right: cancer. Although, it is not the cancer I can see, but the ravages of chemotherapy on a thin-pallid hairless body. His pink chubby hand holds her white wasted hand tightly. She looks so fragile that his grip makes her hand look like a small collection of fish-bones under exquisitely laid tissue-paper. They eat together, they are together. Who can tell for how long, but here, now, they are, completely together. The Grand Canyon at sunset, "A Hundred and One Things to Do Before You Die"; a moment at once as sublimely beautiful and devastatingly brutal; as the great Canyon itself, towering beneath us all.

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