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Seventeen years ago, as an idealistic teenager, a friend of mine rafted down the frothing mocha waters of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, that unearthly gorge once described by 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell as "these grand, gloomy depths." My friend saw something, a place, she has never forgotten, but she no longer trusted her memory, and in the years since she had never talked to anyone else who had floated the Grand. Now I had done it.
"I remember a spot," she told me, "that was so beautiful that I think now it must have been a dream. We had hiked up a side canyon. There was a waterfall coming out of the rocks, and a series of turquoise pools below it that tumbled into one another, making smaller waterfalls, and you could swim from one pool to the next. And along the edge of the water there were delicate ferns."
"Maidenhair ferns," I guessed.
"Perhaps. And watercress that you could eat, growing right there in the desert. In one of the pools there was a frog that croaked like a sheep. We kept looking for him. He was tiny. I remember flowers growing on the canyon walls, little hanging gardens, and big leafy trees where you could sit in the shade. And hummingbirds. It all sounds so unreal. Did you see anything like that? Or was I dreaming?"
The frog, I knew, was a canyon tree frog, which baas like a lamb. As for the place, she may have been talking about Havasu Creek, which had changed dramatically since her trip. A flash flood ripped through Havasu Canyon last fall, uprooting cottonwood trees and rerouting the creek; many of those turquoise pools she swam through are now dry. When I thought about it, though, she also might have been describing Elves Chasm, or Deer Creek Falls, or Saddle Canyon, or Matkatamiba Canyon, where we dove from the rocks, or even the waterfall at Stone Creek. Having returned from the Grand Canyon only 14 days earlier, I hardly trusted my own memory of such places. But whichever desert paradise my friend had remembered, I was sure of one thing: She hadn't dreamed it.
That is the magic of the Grand Canyon. Even when you have been there, a part of you cannot believe it. Nor can you forget it. It is a canyon of grand contrasts: peaceful and terrifying; silent and deafening; timeless and everchanging; icy and scalding; parched, then flooded; calm, then howling. With each day you spend there, the canyon draws you deeper into its heart, as it does the river. The canyon: Nearly two billion years of the earth's past, visible in ever-descending, endlessly fascinating strata, an open book of fantastically sculpted pages written by long-departed oceans, by mountain ranges that have crumbled into pebbles, by volcanic eruptions, lava dams, inland seas, scorching heat, wind, chemical reactions and erosion.
"Barren desolation is stretched before me," Powell wrote of his first voyage down the Colorado River, through the Grand, "and yet there is a beauty in the scene.... Dark shadows are settling in the valleys and gulches, and the heights are made higher and the depths deeper by the glamour and witchery of light and shade."
So it was on April 30 at Lees Ferry, Ariz., as seven yellow rafts and 24 people, rain suits zippered against the chill, pushed off into the emerald waters of the Colorado, the spirit of Powell whispering above the rippling of the river: "Down in these grand gloomy depths we glide, ever listening...."
Emerald? The mighty Colorado, which in Spanish means "red colored," runs emerald? ¿Qué pasa?