True Quest

Like fishermen, writers and scholars are highly susceptible to the belief that something really huge -- call it a meta-fish -- is lurking out there among the eddies; a catch that, if only one is patient enough to snag it, will make sense of the whole operation -- transcendent views, aching arms, purple-feathered fake mayflies and all. With the Grand Canyon, Mark Neumann, a lovingly persistent explorer of American tourism’s favorite trench, has seemingly hooked an idea huge enough to encompass that outsize and gristly Jonah, the experience of modernity itself.

Neumann, like many Americans, first discovered the canyon as a child on a family vacation, and had a chance to renew the acquaintance as a graduate student at the University of Utah (where his dissertation topic was ”Tourism and American Culture“). Still obsessed, he kept returning to the rim, tape recorder and camera in hand, interviewing the happy and the disgruntled alike, and escaping the heat in the Museum of the Grand Canyon and other archives across the West. The resulting book, a far livelier read than one might assume from its scholarly antecedents and citation-heavy introduction, might have more accurately been subtitled Thinking About the Grand Canyon.

In the chasm‘s dizzying depths and flamboyant displacement of solid ground, as well as in the perceptions of those drawn there -- explorers and day-trippers, employees and outlaws, artists and fast-buck artists -- Neumann discovers a context in which to examine cultural and experiential fissures that separate leisure and work, home and away, religion and science, art and life. Acting as both a reporter and a theorist, he documents the rituals of visitation -- the home videos, the patient attendance at lectures, the feats of physical endurance, the suicides -- that we, like modern-day pilgrims, use to reconcile ”the divisions between who we are and how it all might be.“

On the Rim, in other words, is not a travel book. (In pop-cultural terms, it bears something of the same relation to that genre as Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces does to rock & roll discographies.) Still, a prospective visitor might be well advised to read the chapter on the canyon‘s historical development, ”The Nostalgic Theater of the West.“ The lively and sometimes excruciating discontinuity between authentic and prepackaged experience that we tend to consider a contemporary ill -- bred out of fast food, IMAX theaters and moccasins beaded in China -- has in fact been a hallmark of canyon viewing for more than a century. Indeed, it may be weirdly comforting to realize that the practice of photographing a tourist unaware in a moment of giddy participation, then selling him a ”memory“ of his altered state, did not originate at Disneyland with cameras positioned over the scariest parts of Splash Mountain. By 1906, the enterprising Kolb brothers had fitted out a studio at the head of Bright Angel Trail from whose window they photographed tourists bouncing downhill on muleback, and had the snaps developed and waiting for the dusty riders as they plodded back up.

As for the cultural crosscurrents that routinely whirl the rafts and upset the expectations of travelers in search of the true West, one of Neumann’s more enlightening park souvenirs is a 1931 photo of Albert Einstein. Wearing a grin and a Great Plains Indian headdress, the father of relativity is posing with his wife in front of a supposed re-creation of a Hopi kiva -- built by canyon concessionaire supreme Fred Harvey, as a gift shop -- surrounded by Southwest Indians in velvet shirts and silver necklaces (traditional 19th-century garb influenced by trade with the Spanish and Anglos), and a tweed-coated Santa Fe Railway agent. The railway had arranged for the Hopis to make Einstein an honorary chief, but according to news reports Neumann cites, some confusion remained. Hoping to devise an appropriate tribal title for the man, the Indians asked about his business. On being told, they dubbed him ”Great Relative.“ The physicist‘s is the only happy face in the picture.

The text of On the Rim features cameo appearances by a panoply of 19th- and 20th-century theorists, including populist educator John Dewey, socialist art critic John Berger and Brahman landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. (A bibliography would be a welcome addition to the copious footnotes.) But despite the advent of helicopters and the issues of handicapped access, Neumann finds that the canyon is largely a ”scene that remains lodged in a 19th-century frame.“ European notions of high culture as the province of the elite -- to which the masses might aspire through the good instruction of their betters and a humble willingness to improve themselves -- have been grafted onto natural ”masterpieces“ of erosion and given names like Vishnu Creek or Castor Temple, evocative of the timeworn ruins of some ancient (though nonhuman) ”civilization.“

Neumann resists the temptation to take sides with either the rangers who day in and day out attempt to lead visitors to a greater appreciation of the canyon, or with those impatient with narrowly scripted views and regimented perceptions. He records the stories of New Age ghost seekers, rebel bikers, bored cafeteria workers, restless fiances, irritable nieces and supercilious foreigners with an equally fascinated ear. In fact, one of the surprises of On the Rim is that it avoids the tendency of many cultural studies to mark an ironic distance between a scene’s appreciators (including the author, of course) and its unthinking consumers.

Instead, he casts a coolly appraising eye on his own consumption, seeing his habit of driving through the desert to the strains of Neil Young‘s ”Cortez the Killer“ as both ”a framing device for an otherwise insurmountable landscape . . . enhancing and individualizing a view“ and as revealing ”a nostalgia for TV and motion-picture Westerns, and a revisionist historical tableau of Spanish conquest translated through the sentimental musings of a Canadian rock icon from the buckskin-jacket hippie days.“ As a Neil Young fan myself, I both wince at the description and admire his honesty.

Ultimately, Neumann identifies the tourist as Everyman and the Grand Canyon as a place that, in its gigantic unconformity, reminds us of those discontinuities of desire and actuality we are usually content to gloss over. As he watches successive carloads of visitors ”walk into the canyon’s depths, make their campsites and adjust themselves for photographs,“ he sees these private quests as ”a contemporary cycle of modern mystery plays“ (not, he notes, completely dissimilar to the ceremonies of the neighboring Hopi), ”a story of brief emergences of lives from an underworld, one beneath the orders of daily life.“

Improbably enough -- or maybe not, in that grand setting -- the story becomes almost heroic in his telling. Going away, we remember home; facing geologic proof of human insignificance, we group the family closer together and insist everybody smile; suspecting that ”We live in exile from the best part of ourselves“ (Neumann is quoting Paul Zweig), we mind the gap, then enter it, water bottle in hand.#


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >