It was a Saturday in early May, on one of those perfect spring days that give you a taste of what’s to come: Winter is mostly over, but it might still snow for a few more weeks. Not this weekend, though. It was windy, but the skies were clear and the sun was lending some much-needed warmth.
This was the day I was finally going to see the Grand Canyon.
I had attempted to make the same journey a year earlier—and failed spectacularly. But this time I was determined to succeed.
President Theodore Roosevelt once called the Grand Canyon “a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”
Visiting it is a bucket-list item for many—but for me, it was more than that.
I grew up in northern Europe, where I spent my childhood romanticizing the dramatic U.S. scenery I had only seen in pictures and on television. I was surrounded by pine forest and snow-capped mountains, but I longed for deserts, red rocks, and canyons—and the Grand Canyon represented all of that. In my mind, it was the ultimate metaphor for America: Oversized, unapologetic, aspirational, and truly, mind-blowingly epic.
I vowed to see the Grand Canyon before I turned 30. And I was going to do it on a motorcycle.
The year of my 30th birthday, I had already lived in California for almost a decade—and I had yet to make it to the Grand Canyon. Things—life—kept getting in the way. I started to think that maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
And perhaps I was right. Because when I was finally able to plan the trip with a friend, a mere six months before my birthday, we made it all the way to Flagstaff—just an hour and a half from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim—before it started snowing. It didn’t let up until the next morning, and walking out to our snow-covered motorcycles in the hotel parking lot, we made the heartbreaking decision to not continue north. Instead, we headed south on icy, snow-covered roads until we hit Sedona, where temperatures were a lot more palatable.
I want to say I learned my lesson—perhaps riding a motorcycle to an area notorious for its fickle weather systems at the tail-end of winter wasn’t the best idea—but I would be lying if I did. Almost exactly a year later, we tried it again.
And this time, on that Saturday in early May, everything aligned perfectly.
I’ve had some memorable experiences over the years. I’ve stood at the top of Colca Canyon in Peru and watched Andean condors take flight. I’ve bungee-jumped over the Costa Rican rainforest right after a thunderstorm. I’ve witnessed two of my best friends get engaged atop an ancient Mayan pyramid in Guatemala.
But nothing could’ve fully prepared me for the experience of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Because here’s the thing: It’s magical.
It’s also completely overwhelming.
My friend and I entered Grand Canyon National Park through its east entrance, after being told by several people there would be less traffic on that side. As we parked our bikes and started walking toward the Desert View Watchtower, my heart was beating noticeably faster. I had been waiting for this moment for so many years, and suddenly, there it was: the Grand Canyon.
If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know how difficult it is to describe. Standing at the edge and looking out over the 277-mile long and 18-mile wide canyon is a surreal experience, one your brain cannot fully capture at once.
The tiered cliffs are seemingly endless, the canyon looks without a bottom. Everywhere the colors are shifting from red to purple to green, and the Colorado River is slithering its way through the core like a bright blue snake.
But that’s the thing about the Grand Canyon. It’s not one place that can be grasped by standing at the top and looking down into it.
The Grand Canyon National Park is turning 100 today, but the actual canyon is much, much older—some say as old as 70 million years. It’s home to several Native American tribes. It holds some spectacular scenery, including the Havasupai waterfalls. It’s an excellent spot for mule trips, river rafting, stargazing, and hiking. And to some, I assume, it’s just a big hole in the ground.
I didn’t get to see it before I turned 30, but that’s okay. I’d like to think that I, too, keep getting better with age. To quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Happy birthday, Grand Canyon National Park. You look great for a centenarian.