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Reflections In the eye of the condor

Mark Crimmins


Mark Crimmins (he/him) published his first book, travel memoir Sydneyside Reflections, in 2020. His place-based writings have been published in many magaziunes, including Chicago Quarterly Review, Columbia Journal, Tampa Review, Kyoto Journal, Queen's Quarterly, Apalachee Review, Fiction Southeast, Del Sol Review, Confrontation, and Flash.

The Grand Canyon must be the most photographed thing in America, and yet, oddly enough,

its immensity is impossible to fit into a picture. One thing is for sure, the condors riding the

thermals at Bright Angel Point are having more fun than anyone else. They don’t seem to

need to flap their wings. Plus, they are bigger than albatrosses, these birds. Stronger. Fiercer. I

resolve that when I myself am a condor, I will fly here to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and

glide around like these birds, catching a free ride on the thermals and gliding with effortless

ease over the fathomless abyss.

Sitting on the rim wall, I dangle my legs into the vast gulf of space. The Canyon

Paddler, I would title myself if I were a Norman Rockwell painting. A squirrel with a little

lizard in its mouth rushes across the rocks near my feet, chased by another squirrel.

I wish the thunder would return.

There was a storm over on the North Rim earlier in the day. Experiencing a

thunderstorm in the Grand Canyon was new to me. I was amazed by what the thunder said:

the phenomenal booms and endless echoes, the reverberations and distortions were like

nothing else I had ever heard. A million Zeuses on monumental Harleys revving their engines.

Thor sparking the ignition of a Corvette a thousand miles long. But paradoxically, the storms

themselves seemed small due to the vertiginous, mind-shattering scale of the canyon within

which they transpire. A thunderstorm takes up a tiny portion of the vast space, sitting out there

like the little puff of smoke from a cap gun because of the circumambient vastness.

Closer at hand, I spy two more tiny squirrels fighting over a nut. The spatial irony is

cosmic. In the gargantuan theater of the Grand Canyon, where even Godzilla and The Beast

from 20,000 Fathoms would seem like microscopic, nanotechnology-engineered toys, the two

warring squirrels are the ultimate parody of primeval conflict. Nevertheless, the contest

between the two tiny creatures reminds me of one of my favorite books, Konrad Lorenz’s

masterful On Aggression. I loved that book so much that for many years, I kept a picture of

the author on my desk, the author photo I detached from my first edition’s dust jacket when it

started to fall apart. The benign image of Lorenz’s smiling face comes back to me now while I

am surrounded by all this natural grandeur. It is an appropriate place for the great naturalist to

make a cameo appearance in my imagination.

I relocate to a new promontory and balance on such a precipitous rocky outcrop that

my girlfriend makes me give her the camera so that, if I tumble into the canyon to my death, at

least our pics won’t be lost. I sit on the ledge, savoring the wind and watching the strange

clouds that are flat on the bottom and fluffy on top. It is best to stare at the Grand Canyon for

an extended period, to patiently await the subtle changes of light and shadow. If you are lucky,

a magnificently gliding California Condor may swoop out over the canyon rim’s edge and

soar over the precipices on wings as big as surfboards. A huge condor was gliding near me

earlier. It got so close that my girlfriend—who deems my sitting on this overhang the

manifestation of a death wish—shouted over to me from the safety of her spot on solid

ground: “Watch out! That bird could almost pick you up!” A tantalizing idea: I could have

become the American Sinbad, the obverse of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the man draped

around the nape of this Rocky Mountain albatross. Alerted, I looked up from the open

notebook on my thighs. The great bird flew so close to me that I could read the number six

printed on a tag affixed to its wing. The majestic creature’s head rotated like a turret as it

surveyed the cliff edge for prey: a tasty squirrel, perhaps.

Or a distracted writer.

After penning these words, I hear and feel a ripple in the air. A subtle aerodynamic

whoosh. My girlfriend calls to me in amazement: “Look at those guys!” I turn my head and

see a magnificent sight: a squadron of four condors, like a formation of Spitfires, bearing

down the canyon’s edge directly towards me. Surfing on an ocean of air a mile deep, the birds

pass within yards of me. The great creatures—brilliantly revived by Park authorities in recent

years—survey the rocks below them with icy disdain, tilt their massive wings in sync, and

bank into the huge arc of a turn. Like a team captain, a fifth condor, ahead of the group, soars

boldly up towards the clouds, its form brilliantly silhouetted against the transcendent white of

the sun’s glare.

I almost fall over the precipice in awe.

This is easily the best bird-watching I have ever done.

Or ever will do.

As I sit here, transported, I engrave my reflections on this tiny page.

The Grand Canyon is, above all else, an immense theater of light, which modulates

with effects seen nowhere else. When the panoramic illuminations shift, it seems that no

single light source, not even the sun itself, should be able to change such enormous vistas.

The phenomenon of shifting light also has a hallucinatory quality. Vision itself is strained.

Optical illusions abound. The very machinery of the eye is baffled by bewildering

conundrums of scale. The doors of perception tremble on their hinges. Your eyes discern a

tiny speck of movement, a mosquito not too far from your face, moving across the immensity

of the far canyon wall. But no—the mosquito is a helicopter that seems to crawl through that

vaulted grandeur at a snail’s pace, and in its belly are twenty gawking tourists. When you

stand on the canyon rim and watch a storm riding over that great chasm of enclosed

emptiness, the rain hangs in diaphanous nets like veils of illusion, and then reality

itself—along with all certitudes—shimmers and shifts and shakes.

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