Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Grand Canyon

Diane and I were slouching against a stone wall overlooking the South Rim, surrounded by a gawking throng of tourists and a mish-mash of languages, covered in a filthy layer of reddish powder of grime, feet aching after a seven hour hike down into the Canyon and back up, a bit sunburned and a bit stupid, when it hit me: The story line to a high-concept can't-miss feel-good movie of the summer.

It seemed to me that in a location like this, the Grand Canyon, could be a Big Chasm (metaphorically speaking). Picture the South Rim: easily accessible via Interstate highway or scenic train ride, upscale hotels, white linen table service, on-time shuttle buses, a medical clinics, an IMAX theatre, many quasi-manicured trails, mule rides, stunning views, open year round, 5 million visitors annually. Picture the North Rim: ten miles away by air but over 200 miles by car through high-desert Indian Country, primitive services, one maintained trail, snowed-in until summer, 1,000 feet higher, and 1/10th the visitors of the South Rim.

Imagine two long-time rivals, each working His rim of the Canyon, each believing that His rim is the one-true side of the Canyon. On the South Rim: An affable slacker who plays mule-train cowboy to suburban wannabes, a man of great talents who does nothing but drift through life leaving a dusty trail of besotted housewives in his wake. I'm thinking Owen Wilson.

On the North Rim: A high-intensity danger-ranger who commands a hard-core back-country rescue squad, where gnarly rock climbing, daring white-water kayaking, and rugged trail running are all in a day's work when saving hapless tourists. I'm thinking Ben Stiller.

Trouble comes to the Canyon in many forms: well-meaning but ill-prepared tourists (Gregg Kinnear & Jennifer Aniston), an ill-meaning and well-prepared politician (Steve Martin), bad weather, dangerous terrain, long-standing rivalries ... and no sooner had I worked out all of the back stories, minor characters, plot points, subplots, climax, and resolutions (I'll show you my notebook), one crystal clear thought came to mind: I have watched way too many Hollywood movies*.

But back over to our weary, dust-coated pause at the South Rim. Among my tourist brethren, my best girl at my side, something else came to mind, too. The Grand Canyon, despite its seeming accessibility, is beyond us mere mortals. Put another way, despite our efforts to study and model and photograph it, in its presence we are awed into silence, inspired into giddy babble, or humbled in reverent prayer. We see one slice of this 250 mile long, 10-mile wide, 1-mile deep hole in the ground and we kid ourselves that we've seen it. The pattern is fairly predicable:

Step one: the gasp or laugh of first recognition.

Step two: the snapshot camera quick-draw, an attempt to capture that moment of first delight forever (or at least for as long as 8 megapixels on a 6x8 field can last).

Step three: the snapshot camera portrait, an attempt to associate oneself (temporal and mortal) with immutable greatness.

Once past this first encounter, now seemingly familiar with Big Chasm, we are determined to possess and conquer it. It is no wonder that worship services are held at sunset each night on the South Rim. It is no mistake the trails are filled with slack-jawed hikers. It is no surprise the gift shops are filled to overflowing. It is no accident that I find myself outlining a summer blockbuster that's guaranteed to gross 100 million at the box office.

None of these are bad things. In fact they're quite charming and even fun. We're just doing what people do. We are bringing the unknowable down to our level, putting a face on it, and giving it a name. And it's all good. Go see it. North Rim or South Rim, The Grand Canyon doesn't care.

*If anyone actually takes this idea and turns it into an actual move, all I want are tickets to the premiere. And maybe story credit. Okay, maybe even co-producer credit with points on the backside. My people will contact your people. We'll talk.

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