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The Chasm Between Grand and Great

Next to Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground.

August 17, 2004|Shawn Macomber

I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time on my recent honeymoon. I didn't feel particularly small, or smaller than usual anyway. I had no sudden epiphanies. There was no reinterpreting my life's joys and sorrows as mere specks of dust in a vast universe. I also failed to come face to face with God, a feat many of my fellow travelers on the discount bus tour assured me they had easily accomplished. I suppose I must have wandered to the wrong viewing station, which is just my luck. A few weeks ago I spent five solid days at the Democratic convention and never once caught sight of Ben Affleck.

Is the Grand Canyon impressive? Well, yeah. Biggest hole I ever saw. But let's be reasonable here: It's nature's job to be impressive, isn't it? The Colorado River (conspiring with wind, rain and gravity) has been working on that hole for more than 5 million years. It's all hypothetical, of course, but give me 5 million years and a garden trough and I'll carve you a Grand Canyon in New England. I'll make Vermont an island with relief sculptures of Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders looking out into the world and a drawbridge that goes up when those evil fast-food company execs come knocking.

Later, listening to the endless New Age meditations and ecstatic gushing of the bus driver and other tourists as we hurtled through hours of desert wasteland, I couldn't help but see myself as a bit of a killjoy. "When we're dead and gone, that canyon will still be there," one woman across the aisle said reverentially. I resisted the urge to add, "Yeah, and so will your Gatorade bottle, but I'm not going to start worshiping that." My disconnect from the others was as complete as if I had just shown up at the Indy 500 in a Prince T-shirt.

My mental self-mortification over my confessed bad attitude began to dissipate, however, as we pulled up to Hoover Dam for a quick "photo op," a stop that lasted a total of five minutes. Most people stayed on the bus, presumably to continue watching the Sandra Bullock witch flick, "Practical Magic," on the overhead television.

So I stood looking out at this massive feat of human ingenuity and wondered exactly how our priorities got so screwed up. I was facing more than 6 million tons of concrete restraining the Colorado River (something the Grand Canyon clearly cannot do) and creating Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. The Hoover Dam project was one of the only projects undertaken by the federal government to ever come in under budget and ahead of schedule. In addition to supplying water to cities up to 300 miles away, 17 4-million-pound generators in the dam capture 2.8 million kilowatts of electricity and send it along 2,700 miles of transmission lines to Los Angeles and other distant locales. The Hoover Dam project was a truly American effort: Every state provided supplies to the project. Ninety-six of the more than 15,000 workers involved lost their lives during the construction.

Yet all it takes is Sandra Bullock casting a computer animated spell to reduce the attention to zero.

Perhaps in 5 million years, when whatever life forms destined to follow us are studying the ruins of our culture, they will find value in Hoover Dam that many of us fail to ascribe to it today. When it comes down to it, the construction in the 1930s of a dam that continues to benefit millions of people to this day is without a doubt more impressive than a river wearing a channel in rock over millions of years. Hoover Dam makes a measurable, positive impact on the people in the Southwest. The Grand Canyon sells T-shirts and postcards and gives mules something to climb in and out of. I'm sure the mules would like to see us get our priorities straight as well.

Look, God isn't in the Grand Canyon -- a river is. If people are searching for God or for an escape from their problems, I'd wager it's more likely to be found in the complexities and possibilities of the human mind than inside a geological structure. Now if the Grand Canyon had been a public works project, that might be another story.

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Shawn Macomber is a staff writer at the American Spectator and operates the website ReturnofthePrimitive.com.

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