Exclamation Point, on the North Rim of Black Canyon, is truly stirring. Sitting at the canyon’s edge, the sun’s rays just piercing the dawn, means I have the canyon to myself.
It’s only me, the blue above, the jagged crags and the gaping space that lies above the crashing river at the bottom. I search for climbers who might be climbing the noteworthy crack systems on North Chasm Wall. I scan the river to see if any kayakers are challenging the rapids of the Gunnison below.
There are none to be found. Nobody has placed themselves within the void that is the chasm. There is no one to feel a surge that comes from the physical test of nature surrounded by the expanse of air.
There are no railings to restrain me; only small shrubs in the cracks. The quiet of daybreak accentuates the chasm. This great gap of canyon, the nothingness of the void, seems inconsequential on one hand. But on the other, the wilderness of this space, the great space that is the canyon, is crucial to feel the drama and humility at the edge of Black Canyon.
It’s hard to get out to the North Rim, but the hike is short. The “point” is a three-mile round trip. To revel in the idea of sheer cliffs, that the rock is so vertical, that I am reduced to simple mortality, is to strengthen my relationship to this place; to be completely unpretentious.
And I think, although it’s a short journey to the canyon’s brink (physically), how we got here has been an historical trip of long standing. How did we get to this moment of protecting special places, and seeing the landscape in a different way?
National policies to protect and manage the land began in the late 1800s at the same time that the industrial revolution was building jobs and our country. Industry drove people into cities, and automation dehumanized people. In fact, the urban-industrial world built our large cities by the end of World War II.
The stress and tension of urban life developed a hunger to return to nature – to nothingness, to the wild that is nature. Today this is compounded by the cities, which had grown large in the 20th Century, but have now gobbled up huge swaths of land. It seems that the more we build, the less we have.
And the industrial revolution has given way to the technological revolution, which now drives people to computer screens, some as small as the phone in your hand. The human world is now far away from the nothingness of nature; that nature which has the power to heal and restore our humility and humanity.
To say that people (young or old) need nature now more than ever is not groundbreaking. Consider this; Outside Magazine reported two months ago that doctors and health insurance companies are now prescribing nature encounters to help heal patients from a host of ailments.
“Some of the most promising innovations in health care seem to be things we’ve recently discarded. Maybe we need food that wasn’t developed in a lab. Maybe we need to talk face to face. Maybe we need time outside,” wrote author Aaron Reuben.
Really? The industrial-media complex has discovered what our ancestors knew to be true. Kaiser Permanente appears to be leading the charge for cost savings.
Further, proponents across Colorado and the West exclaim that recreation brings billions of dollars to our economy. We need to save the land because money is to be made from people coming to recreate. We care about the land because it’s primarily about the money?
If we see each other, and if we see nature only as a means to build our bank account, then the power of that landscape and the power of our lives is reduced to nothing more than numbers on an Excel spreadsheet. The land and our lives are not just about profit.
I’m back at the canyon’s threshold where I can witness this exclamatory space, made vast by the gigantic cliffs. Here I can find humility; here I can find humanity. There are many places surrounded by space like this: mountain tops, desert promontories, quiet rivers.
Exclamation Point becomes a symbol of the space that we need in our lives. So you need to get out there for summer will begin to ebb away soon. Get out to a place where it’s only you and the nothingness of nature. Go early, go often; because here in the great space of nature, we can begin to rebuild our relationship to the land and each other.
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.