Everybody talks about the Grand Canyon in the daylight, and sure, there’s something to that, but the B-side is much more memorable. At night, the moonlit lip of the canyon gives way to a deep enveloping blackness that seems to level all existence. It’s way better than passing out in a hotel room.
This doesn’t mean that the millions of people who only saw it during the day wasted their time; it just means they should go back and do it my way (kidding…sort of…).
When you stand in front of a black abyss sheltering a 5,000 foot drop, it feels like the mouth of God is about to swallow you, and your mind becomes clear, allowing you to focus on the important things in life, including what groceries you need and how comfortable your shoes are. At times your thoughts may resemble the narration in a Terrence Malick film: “Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” Then back to groceries.
If you were ever going to have some sort of mystical vision, this is the time. I didn’t because I’m clearly not the chosen, but you might. The vast open darkness lends a feeling of power and humility at the same time. On one hand, it seems like some demon claw will pull you down into the blackness, and on the other hand, you know you could probably pee on a bird if you wanted to, in revenge for all the times they’ve pooped on your car.
Hopefully you’ll have more life-changing ruminations than I did.
Seeing the Grand Canyon at night and then during the day is the greatest before and after shot you’ll encounter, because in the evening your imagination attempts to fill in everything that’s missing in the deep blackness, and then the next day, you’re proven right—or, if you’re like me, wrong. It’s like (if you’re male) when you’re urinating in the dark at night, hear yourself successfully hitting toilet water, and then realize the next morning that you actually peed into the fish tank. I’m bad at analogies.
When I saw the canyon for the first time during the day, I muttered, “Oh, that’s what it looks like.” The night viewing accentuates the daytime viewing, and lets you compare what you thought it was—the sand pit monster in Return of the Jedi—to the reality. What was once barely highlighted by the light of the moon is now fully clear, and so you have two images of the canyon, like the flipside of a Kandinsky painting.
Still, even though much of the canyon has a black curtain of darkness over it, the views are unparalleled at night. Remember that terribly cheesy scene in The English Patient when Naveen Andrews lifts Kristin Scott Thomas in an old church, and she uses a flare to look at murals? It’s similar to that, except replace the flare with the light of the moon, and the murals with the Grand Canyon. (I’ve just punched myself in the face for making this reference).
With crystalline stars lining the pristine night sky, and the moon highlighting different jagged ridges of the canyon (this sounds like Rick Steves narration, but it’s really hard to describe), you’ll find yourself in awe. And since I don’t know how to praise one thing without shitting on another, allow me to say while the view during the day has a fine clarity and expansiveness, it’s just too damn bright and obvious under that Arizona sun. I prefer a little mystery in my Grand Canyon.
Photo by John Moore/Getty
Not to sound too misanthropic, but when you first see the Grand Canyon, it’s best to do so without any strange tourists around you taking selfies. You don’t want to be next to a guy who’s like, “Here’s the Grand Canyon, which took millions of years to forge, and here’s me, which took a six-pack of Schlitz at a Red Roof Inn.” Imagine a stranger taking a selfie as you first see your newborn son.
When I arrived around midnight on a Saturday due to poor planning, I was surprised to find an empty parking lot, since I assumed all the cool kids hang out at the Grand Canyon on Saturday nights. All I could hear, however, were the sounds of my out-of-shape heavy breathing, and the only flash was the moon and the game of Bejeweled I had going on my phone (not true). It ensured a pure Grand Canyon experience, like when you and your friends are the only ones in the movie theater.
I frequently have dreams that I’m falling, and what better place to dream that you’re falling than at the lip of the Grand Canyon, where a roll in your sleep will send you off what amounts to a 5,000-foot bunk bed? After positioning myself in such a way that made a fall difficult, and finding a nice soft rock, I slipped into the deep sleep of kings.
Granted, I did wake up three hours later, uttered “Fuck this,” and went to sleep in my Civic instead, but it was peaceful while it lasted. And whether you last the night on the rocks or end up in your car, it’s a great way to wake up, much better than staring down at a Comfort Inn parking lot.
Ideally, you want to see the Grand Canyon at night, in the daytime, and perhaps from the top as well as the bottom. That way you can always one-up people who only saw it during the day, and idiotically tell them they really haven’t seen it yet. Or simply to see the beauty of it all. Either way.
Chason Gordon is a writer. whose work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Seattle Weekly, Ask Men and The Globe and Mail, among others.