Lower falls, Yellowstone
Places | Sacred Wonderland

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

You are like no other canyon in color, charm, in your picturesque calendar-ready beauty, wild and frightening. Your unsurpassed splendor and the terror you prompt standing at your edge, or especially peering over the sudden plunge at the brink of your falls, defy the limits of sublime. We have called you “Grand,” perhaps the grandest of all canyons. Not in terms of your size or depth, but in terms of the feelings you elicit in those who find their way to your rim to stand breathless, wordless, in utter awe and terror at your presence. Our delusional selves diminish as we draw from you the breath of aliveness.

Your moods have entranced me. Exuberant brightness and gloomy gray have both greeted me. I have reveled in the palette of your steep walls highlighted with a white dusting of snow, just as I have fallen gobsmacked to my knees in reverence of your misted rainbows on a sun-drenched afternoon.

Canyon walls, Yellowstone National Park
Canyon walls, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

You stretch along an expanse of silence tempered by your river’s distant roar perceptible at the edges of quiet. I sit on your rim, close my eyes to your sharp lines, and sink into the harmonies of your immensity. Your breadth and textures subdue the river’s constant thunder a thousand feet below. An insistent whisper of wind rushing among the pines along your steep edge adds a countermelody. Your music surrounds me.

My eyes open to an osprey gliding below your far rim. I watch as she maneuvers along your cliffs to her nest. An occasional scattering of dark conifers punctuate the splashes of crimson and shadings of browns, the yellows and beige of your rough surfaces slanting precipitously downward to the frothing blue-green waters of the river.

Yellowstone River
Yellowstone River (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

You have been a teacher to me, a repository of wisdom to be respected and cherished. Your empty spaces tell a history, a tale of millennia. Carved of water and ice, wind and sun, of tree roots clinging in determined resistance to the constancy of gravity, your chasm has grown on the energies of a dynamic earth spinning its way through space. Your equanimity never rests in total stillness. Your quiet never falls to complete silence. The river, a raven’s call, pines singing to wind harmonize into the symphony of your being.

What do you care, or even acknowledge, of the passing of years, even a millennium of them? When your stone walls reach well beyond ancient, when your river has been cutting away at your cleft for longer than humans have been wandering the earth, then a year or a decade or a century or a millennium means nothing to you. Temporal meanings have little value in the choreographies of your geology.

Upper falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Upper Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

The meanings we have made of our own little lives are of no consequence to you. Your waters continue to spill dramatically over ancient stones. The ospreys glide effortlessly on forceful updrafts pushed along the length of your rim. A pine cone nestles in the loose gravel of your steeply sloping side, planting the hope of a new arboreal life to sprout on your wall. The sun plays an ever-changing kaleidoscope of highlights and shadows up and down your walls. The day waits a long twilight for nightfall.

I pause short of your edge, overwhelmed by the vertiginous terror of your height and power. My body shudders suddenly in the awareness of your immensity and my own insignificance. Love and hate and fear and hope all wash over me as I stand transfixed by your awesome presence. I become both less and more of my own self beside you.

Once I ventured down to Red Rock Point with a friend to stand in wonderment before your falls. Our voices were lost in the roaring of your river some hundred feet or so below us. We knew in that moment of reverence what it meant to be young and free and filled with the creative energies of the universe, at least in our youthful imaginations.

Tonight these decades later I am far from you. I imagine now in the depths of winter you are buried in snow and ice. Do human eyes devour your magnificence on frozen nights such as this?

Across the millennia it took for the river to carve you, no eyes witnessed the geological miracle. Humans found their way to your rim only in the final thousand years or so of your creation, a momentary blip in the lifespan of a river and its canyon. Perhaps this realization is what elicits our terror in your presence, that we are a late and fleeting arrival. We have at best a tenuous and largely spurious claim on you. You were here more than a century of millennia before I or any other human stumbled upon you, and you likely will remain long after human life has vanished from this earth.

Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park
Lower falls from Artists Point, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2015)

But how can I have any regrets? For I have perched upon your rim to hear the voice of your river while watching osprey acrobatics along your colorful walls. All the wisdom of life comes to this.

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