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Grand Canyon Resident Reflects On 'Spiritual' Experience Of Quarantining At The Park

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Friday, July 10, 2020 - 11:57am
Updated: Friday, July 10, 2020 - 12:01pm

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Grand Canyon
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
The Grand Canyon.

Throughout the pandemic, we've all experienced scenes of unusually quiet streets or popular spaces. Photos of New York City without the jammed streets and sidewalks. Silent amusement parks and playgrounds. And one especially hard to believe in Arizona, the Grand Canyon unburdened by crowds. Mike Buchheit is the director of the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute and one of the lucky few residents of the park. He recently wrote an essay for Arizona Highways magazine in which he described the bittersweet experience of being in the park nearly alone. And he used Easter Sunday as the prime example. Earlier, I spoke at Buchheit. I started by asking him describe what Easter the canyon is usually like and how different it was in 2020.

MIKE BUCHHEIT: Sure. Well, April is one of the best times to be visiting the park in terms of weather and the length of the available daylight and so forth. There's a lot of visitors that are coming to the park for, for various reasons, but some take advantage of this Easter Sunrise service that's, I think, 85 years running. It's at a point now where it takes place at Mather Point, which, which can accommodate a few hundred people, let's call it comfortably. And it's, the local pastor sort of presides over it. There's a choir. A lot of music. Quite a few visitors who make a point of coming here for that, and it's just something they look for, look forward to every year, including quite a few residents like myself, year-round locals which number about 3,000. And then there's people that just stumble upon it. They might hear the hymns down the Rim and think they might have fallen in and woken up at the bottom of the canyon or just got really lucky to come upon this real celebratory event that takes place at daybreak. So you've got the rising sun over the North Rim, and then there's a sermon or two and some announcements and more music. And it's just really a very enjoyable few hours on a normal year.

GOLDSTEIN: You're living in a place like this where you've had these experiences. You're able to see a lot of people, and yet at the same time get that incredible closeness to nature. You say in the essay that the experience has been generally bittersweet. Can you explain a little bit more about that? It's certainly understandable.

BUCHHEIT: It was a very strange ... Of course, the park is reopened now. We're not anywhere close to our typical visitation levels. But it was, you know, a few months where the park was closed and due to the pandemic, and locals could, could come and go with a few restrictions. A lot of the services, hotels, restaurants and so forth were closed. It's bittersweet indeed. I mean, it's one thing to have pretty much to yourself — I think I referred to it in the article as a 1.2 million-acre gated community. But on the other hand, you know, both in terms of the economy and frankly, just interacting with the public, which if, if you're not tolerable or don't enjoy that, you're probably in the wrong business here working in the park. There was a twang of loneliness, of course, and then also just the wonder of having a park pretty much to yourself. It's a balancing act and one that a lot of us experience through this, through this episode.

Grand Canyon
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Grand Canyon.

GOLDSTEIN: And I want to go to your last paragraph because it makes me think of this sort of thing as well. So, "In the absence of the chaos and clamor of the crowds, it feels like the dawn of time." And then a few sentences later, "I reach back to my altar boy days and whisper an Our Father or two." Is it a religious experience? Would it be a religious experience, even for those who are not necessarily traditionally religious? Because I think about "the dawn of time" and then your "Our Father or two," and that makes me think of, this is as close as we can get to something really unique and special.

BUCHHEIT: Yes, I would say that it was absolutely a spiritual moment. This is a really unusual place sort of to circle back to, to ride out these global events. You know, when you live here, the world kind of comes to you. I always describe Grand Canyon Village life as a little bit Mayberry, and a little bit Manhattan. We have a very small town vibe, I guess, and pace. But yet people come from all over the world and we get to interact with them, and they sort of bring the world to us. You know, I've, I've been living here during the Great Recession, I was here for 9/11, but this one was absolutely different. And on that morning, I was feeling it full force just in this state of uncertainty that everybody's in. But yet you have the canyon that is so solid and timeless. It's really been, for me, grounding to be here. But at the same time, just wondering what's, what's in store for all of us going forward and what are the rest of the people in the world grappling with? And, gee, wouldn't it be great if they could all be here, but socially distant, of course?

GOLDSTEIN: When you look forward, realizing that for now, there is an ability to be closer to nature for a few folks, but also there's the economic impact and then we're trying to figure out the pandemic and, and when it is, at least in some ways, reined in, whether that's a vaccine or something else. Would you want the park to go back to exactly the way it was? Now that there's been time to take a breath, if you had your druthers, would you wanted to have some other kind of balance between people and nature there?

BUCHHEIT: Steve, it's a hard one to tackle. But I guess what I, how I would really answer that question is, this is exactly what people need: Open spaces, not just for health and safety reasons, but just food for peace of mind, for restoring people's souls and spirits and putting life in perspective — I mean, the canyon has that in spades always. But at times like this, I'd say it's, it's the antidote, you know, to, to much of the tumult, fear and confusion. [And] it can and can be a perfect catalyst to help people through that. If I could just have everything that I wanted, it would be that everybody would be here to have that experience and have that inform them as they move forward in their lives.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Mike Buchheit. He is director of the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute. We've been talking about his piece in the July issue of Arizona Highways magazine, "A Quiet Walk In The Park." Mike, thanks so much, and stay well. We appreciate it.

BUCHHEIT: You too, Steve. Thank you for the opportunity. 

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Grand Canyon
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
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