The "oohs", "awwhs", and "ohmygods" come out of every person's mouth, and the dumbfounded, jaw-dropped expression, are unavoidable. The reaction is always the same, but it doesn't matter; it's still one of the best parts of being a TrekAmerica tour leader. The problem is, revealing the Grand Canyon for the first time to a group of blindfolded 20 something's is more challenging than it sounds.
It starts with paper bags and an art project. En route to the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon on my current American road trip, I passed out the bags and instructed everyone to draw a face for his or her dear tent mate to proudly wear. "And draw fast because when I say 'bags on!' you need to put them on." I warned, knowing the drive in to the national park offers many pre-canyon vistas.
By the time we reached the ranger station, I was carrying a van full of brown paper bagged heads and horrible (sorry, guys) marker-drawn faces. I paid the entrance fee, making the park ranger's afternoon just a little bit weirder, and continued on to the first viewpoint, Desert View. (Meanwhile, the group sat listening to music and making idle conversation while staring at the inside of a paper bag.)
The next part of the reveal process can be the most physically and mentally tasking activity of an entire trip. I let them remove the bags to step out of the van, and instructed them to make a single file line with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. I made it clear it was also important not to let go and how crucial following the instructions are to the success of the operation.
It's roughly a five minute walk from the parking lot to the edge of the canyon for a normal person. For nine newly blind people and one tour leader dragging the panicking pack down a gentle slope, it's a 15 minute trip that feels like 50. Apparently, temporary blindness also equals deafness as my simple instructions to "STAY behind the person in front of you" and "hold on, walk slow" were evidently not heard. Behind me, the line was snaking instead of straight and three people at the back had disconnected from the rest of the pack. They walked like some strange Frankenstein monster with hands out-stretched perpendicular to the Canyon.
My first instinct was to laugh, which I did, as I hurried to grab the last three and reattach them to our human train. "Where are you going?!" I asked. "I don't know, I was just looking for the shoulders in front of me!" the brown cartoon face answered.
We started moving forward again with shouts of "OMG what was that?!" "Oww, you stepped on me!" "Where are we going?" "Hurry up!" "You're too fast!" chaotically emerging from the group. I tried to reassure them; "You're doing great! Just a little bit further, we're almost there!" while I was really thinking, C'mon Erin, you're almost there... a little bit further, they're all still alive, you're doing great!
Strangers passed us with entertained smiles before snapping a few photos of our free circus show. That caused more panic and humiliation; "Can people see us? Are they taking pictures??" Again, to reassure them I answered, "No, no of course not, you can't see them and they can't see you." After some more light trauma, we finally reached the end of the paved sidewalk and arrived at the point I wanted them to see first. One by one, I would have to take their hands and lead them towards the unfenced edge, stepping over and between large rocks to reach the final spot.
"No peeking," I ordered as I started to grab each person's hands and guide their feet around the obstacles. Some of the group had "the-floor-is-lava" feet; each step was stuttered like they were scared they would be burnt or eaten (and it was hilarious to watch). Sweat beaded on my upper lip and forehead in the hot Arizona afternoon and exhaustion from being the eyes for 10 people started settling in. At last, I lead the final person to stand shoulder to shoulder next to the eight other people they had been travelling with for the last three weeks to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. Perched in front of the group with my camera ready, I spoke about the astounding qualities of the one and only Grand Canyon as my blinded friends listened and imagined. With my finger on the trigger, I announced,
This is it, the Grand Canyon. Take off your bags!
"Whoah!-OHMYGOD-WOW!-Awww-NoWay!" and other exclamations passed through the group as the bags came off and the jaws dropped, as expected. The reach into their pockets to pull out iPhones and cameras and the photofest starts. Do I get tired or bored of doing this? Never.
Each time I show off the Grand Canyon to another group I remember the first moment I saw it. I can still remember the feeling of immensity I had and that's something I love to create for other people. To give my groups a memory like this is worth those extra gray hairs and wrinkles the reveal can cause...